August 6, 2013

Into the wild

It's a tough life in the arid region of Matabeleland where Heath Streak runs his ranch, but it can also be idyllic and happy

"Heath's not here," explains Nadine Streak when we arrive at the Streak residence in the Turk Mine area 60km north of Bulawayo. "They caught a poacher this morning, so he's had to go down to sort that out." Poaching, we are told, has been a problem for a while on the ranch.

From up here, though, the surrounding wilderness looks pristine and peaceful. Set atop a small hill strewn with stone kopjes, the Streak residence offers a clear view over several miles of scrubby savannah. Nadine, Heath's wife, offers hot tea to take the chill off the morning and fresh homemade biscuits as we wait in an open-air thatched lapa adjacent to the farmhouse for Streak to get back.

The very edge of the sandy Kalahari laps through Matabeleland, and the landscape is imposingly arid. The winters here are bone dry: it's the sort of desiccation that not only sucks the moisture out of one's mouth and eyes but also turns hair to straw and makes almost constant rehydration necessary. And yet, many people live out here.

Almost all of the surrounding land was turned over to small-scale black cattle herders under the controversial land-reform programme, but there was no sense of animosity as two white men and an Indian cruised past their homes in an SUV: just curiosity, and friendliness that's shown by hands raised in greeting by each group we pass.

The Streaks have lost most of their land in the last decade or so, with 70% of the ranch the family and their forebears had lived on since 1899 having been seized for resettlement. Despite that, they still call 12,000 acres of the bushveld their own. They keep 600 head of cattle here, and also run a safari company, called Enthokozweni, in an area home to eland, zebra, wildebeest, giraffe, a variety of small game, and the odd leopard.

Heath Streak pulls up to the house a short while later, his burly frame atop a dusty motorcycle of indeterminate make. The poacher, we are told as Streak settles down to a breakfast of steaming porridge, has divulged the location of some 60 snares, as well as giving details of other men involved in the operation. The police have been called, but Streak is somewhat sympathetic to the plight of a man forced to eke out an illegal living in this harsh landscape.

But it does mean more work for him. As it was in his playing days, so it is now with Streak. An allrounder who shone with bat, ball and in the field for Zimbabwe, Streak now juggles his commitments on the ranch and safari company with a television cricket commentary role and the demands of his newly launched sports consultancy and development initiative. He is yet to nail down a location for his initiative, but it's said that one of the focuses of the programme will be to promote cricket in some of Bulawayo's poorer communities.

Along with some cricketing friends, he's also working on a smartphone coaching app. "If your kid asks, 'How do I play a drive?' you can just go on there and it'll show you visuals, from front, overhead and side," he explains. "Where your feet should be and stuff like that.

"I told Unadkat: 'Before you've finished your career, this boy right here is going to bowl you out'"
Streak about his son Harry

"We've checked, and there's nothing quite like it. Some of the coaching apps out there are very elite level and very expensive. We're looking at something that you'll be able to download for the equivalent of, maybe, two dollars. We don't want to price ourselves out. It'll have everything from training techniques to nutrition to injury prevention. And then possibly an upgraded version that's aimed more at coaches and might cost ten bucks but will have a lot more information."

One thing Streak probably won't be doing anytime soon is coaching the national team's bowlers in any official capacity. Zimbabwe Cricket's financial woes have meant they are unable to offer him regular coaching work, even in a consultancy role, and the subject clearly weighs heavily on his mind.

Those worries seem a long way off when a recently retired Ray Price walks over to say hello with his wife and children in tow. In the midst of a well-earned break, Price is travelling with Scotland allrounder Dewald Nel, himself enjoying his first mid-season vacation in 11 years, and they've stopped off on their way to a beach holiday in Bellito, Durban. They're staying in one of the five gorgeous chalets, set among the large granite kopjes beneath the Streak house, that host tourists and other guests.

The most recent visitors were the Indian cricket team, who spent a day at the ranch in between their matches in Bulawayo. "I told [Jayadev] Unadkat: 'Before you've finished your career, this boy right here is going to bowl you out,'" says Streak with a grin, pointing at his son Harry. The boy is a certainly a chip off the old block, steaming in off his long run as he plays backyard cricket with Nel, Price's sons and a friend from school. Suresh Raina made a gift of an India shirt and a pair of sunglasses on his visit, and Harry has barely removed either for the last three days, sleeping in the shirt. Cricket, it appears, is in the blood.

It's an idyllic, happy scene - a vision of what has been and what is to come - but one that we must leave if we are to complete the 450km journey back to Harare before nightfall. As we drive back out along the bumpy dirt road towards the main highway, we catch a glimpse of a duiker watching us intensely from beneath the shade of a thorny acacia. A small, deer-like animal, it is a bundle of nervous energy, all twitching wet nose, wide worried eyes and oscillating ears. In arid Matabeleland, life, both human and animal, finds a way to survive.

Liam Brickhill is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town