I come from a mixture of good British colonial stock and an Afrikaner strain that goes right back to the beginning of European influence in Southern Africa. My mother, a native of what these days is known as Guateng, and during her youth, Transvaal, is a Du Plessis, a member of the Huguenot Protestant group that fled France after the Counter-Reformation in the late 17th century. This puts my mother’s earliest ancestors at the Cape before 1700, which in my opinion, and in the opinion of most, makes her about as African as it is possible to be.
My father, on the other hand, arrived in Africa as a child of a British Army family, with perambulations behind them that included India and Egypt. He was born in Malta, so was really very much a product of the early 20th century, a time that saw British service personnel deployed all over the world. His formative years were spent in South Africa, followed later by a Colonial Service posting to Kenya.
I was born in Kenya in 1962, but followed the family south in 1968 as majority government saw the indigenization of many civil and public service jobs. Mum felt a strong pull back to South Africa, although I think Dad would rather never have left Kenya.
That notwithstanding, we settled in the small border town of Umtali in the recently declared rebel republic of Rhodesia. Dad began work carving a series of large tea estates out of the virgin forests and woodlands of the Honde Valley, perhaps one of the last great pioneering adventures available in the country.
The Honde Valley was – I say was because most of its unique ecology has been ruined in the years since – a beautiful region of high rainfall and a mixture of woodland and riverine forest ecology. My earliest recollections are of wandering freely among the great gallery forests that edged the Pungwe River, and in and around the forested and wooded hills that surrounded it. Down below, the labour gangs were busy clearing, and in due course the bulldozers came, and soon the valley was laid out with neat beds of green tea while nearby factories churned out product.
This is in the nature of human advancement, but I remember my father being caught in the paradox of having the opportunity to be part of one of the last great and beautiful highland wilderness regions of southern Africa, and at the same time tearing it all to pieces in pursuit of social development.
School in Umtali, and within the Rhodesian education system, does not linger in my memory as a wonderful time. The nation was increasingly at war as black nationalism began incrementally to push against white elitism, and naturally the growing militarisation tended to constrain social attitudes and narrow down the general tolerance of white society. The War in the Honde Valley in particular was a grim and bloody business, and fewer and fewer were the days I spent up there.
By Independence my attitudes were changing. School was behind me, and further education not something I willingly pondered. After a brief and unhappy spell at the Harare Polytech, I left the country for the UK.
From there it was travel in small doses, but lots of what the 1980s in London was famous for…however we will not go there.
In early 1989 I returned to Zimbabwe, by then entering its second decade of independence. I quickly re-established old ties with the bush and the mountains. The Chimanimani, that had been more or less out-of-bounds during the war, became my favourite landscape, and there I spent many happy months and years in what was still a wide and free expanse of wilderness.
By the early 1990s I was guiding professionally in the Chimanimani. My knowledge of the lore, ecology and birdlife slowly began to develop. I was particularly captivated by the Haroni River Valley, a deeply scarred and forested gorge running the length of the range on the west side. Very difficult to access, and very difficult to navigate through, I believe this was, and perhaps still is, one of the last remnant wilderness areas of its kind.
The Zimbabwe Situation, by now a well established political fact, cut across just about everything that was good in Zimbabwe in those days. Violence, militantisim and lawlessness swept the country. Tourists left and the economy collapsed. But perhaps most devastating for me, the Chimanimani was overrun by an epidemic of gold panners. To me, in many way, this was the end. A few trips into the mountains to watch tens of thousands of people tearing up the fragile streambank ecology from one end of the mountain to the other was more than I could bear. Current politics was permissive, whites were largely persona-non-grata, and there was nothing that could be done. It seemed like another symptom of Africa, and so it was.
Thus began a long dislocation that sees me now living happily in the northwestern United States, with new associations forged with East Africa and the mountains ranges of Kilimanjaro and the Rwenzoris, and a new series of projects.
I have had a long and very varied association with Africa. I have travelled very widely, been involved very deeply, and studied the continent in great detail. This, no doubt, will continue. I am sure my travels will evolve more towards heritage and history travel, and as I write I hope to contribute something substantial to the ever growing body of knowledge of this great, perplexing but always compelling continent.