A Peek at the Greek (way of life) Part I

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In the end it came down to a toss-up between Greece and Turkey. Turkey was never out of the question but money was one consideration. Flying there would require us to pay a bit more on flights and to acquire visas. I have visited the country on four separate occasions and have a deep affection for the landscape, food and culture despite, or perhaps because of, my Cypriot ancestry. Mirjam on the other hand has never been there. She was scheduled to spend a month there last year but I came along and with it another set of considerations. So in effect this was a chance to put things right in that regard.

The other big pull was that of my good friend Sofian aka El Kheer, the Algerian Anglophile. He teaches English in provincial Turkey somewhere a little north of  the geographic centre of the country. He is really a very good friend of mine and I can tell you honestly, right now, that not being able to see him was the biggest disappointment in making the choice for Greece. We chatted on Skype from our tiny little garden apartment in Nea Kallikratia which was nice but certainly no compensation. My sincere apologies dear friend.

He is really a very good friend of mine and I can tell you honestly, right now, that not being able to see him was the biggest disappointment in making the choice for Greece.

And what of the recent spate of terrorist incidents in Turkey I hear you ask? I’d like to say it didn’t affect my decision-making processes but it would be a lie. Of course such a scenario played on my mind as well, even though I know there is just as great a chance that the two of us could get run over by a bus en route to the Albert Hein store up the road. However, there was another major consideration: Mirjam was pregnant. How on Earth could I ever explain to her parents that I  took her to a country with a recent hike in terrorism-related incidents knowing that? We still hadn’t told them about it at the time of our departure.

And so on this occasion, regrettably, all I can write about is Greece and even then only of the Greece we experienced: a little bit of Central Macedonia and a bit Halkidiki to the SE of Thessaloniki, and of Thessaloniki itself. I’d actually visited the region before and not that long ago, in September-October 2015. There was no particular draw-card as such but the fact that I knew people helped. We were granted leave to stay with Lizzy Scott, a friendly and engaging  expat who rented an apartment in Thessaloniki. She’d moved there some years before to be closer to her son and grandkids. We’d met when she visited the vicinity of the area near to where the family I was volunteering for in northern Greece lived. Dirk and Maria lived in a rustic little village called Pendolofo.

I didn’t get a chance to write about any of this back then because I was pretty frenetic at this stage of my journey. I left Thessaloniki and Greece with only 5 nights or so before I had to be at a language camp in Warsaw, Poland, and I’d resolved not to travel by anything other than trains. I accomplished this objective arriving on the day of the day of the camp orientation on an overnight haul from Bratislava, Slovakia. It will stand out in my memory for being an extraordinarily varied week in my life: a succession of rail platforms; overnight sleeper berths; grey skies; brightly lit city centres; midnight border-crossings replete with grim-faced border officials and menacing German shepherd sniffer dogs; a bustling party hostel in the heart of Budapest; and a smattering of hopeful refugees heading northwards.

It will stand out in my memory for being an extraordinarily varied week in my life: a succession of platforms; overnight sleeper berths; grey skies; brightly lit city centres; midnight border-crossings replete with grim-faced border officials and menacing German shepherd sniffer dogs

And so I arrived back in Thessaloniki on the 9th of March, a Thursday. We were received by a smiling Liz and spent two nights in her apartment before driving back to Pendolofo with Maria and her two young boys, Arionas, 2, and Achilleas, 4. Maria was raised here and in Athens. Dirk is a Dutchman, a little older and very well-travelled. We wouldn’t see him on this trip because he was back in the Netherlands earning an income he couldn’t hope for in Greece. He would go back for several weeks at a time and we arrived bang in the middle of one of these working visits. Maria had intimated that she’s be grateful for some help with the childcare.

Child care is exactly  what we did for the proceeding 10 days with one or two days off in-between. It was tough on Mirjam. I probably shouldn’t have insisted on doing the volunteering at this time but we agreed that we needed to economise especially if we were going to rent a car and place for the second part of our ‘holiday’. As kind and accommodating to our needs as Maria was this leg of the trip was not a holiday. Young kids are hard work! Ha ha. The training ground begins here! I do think there’s an added pressure when you’re looking after someone else’s kids. What authority do you have? Can I exercise ‘consequences’ when they misbehave? etc

The area around Pendolofo is scenically very attractive: at the foot of the Mt Paiko range in Central Macedonia a short distance north of the ancient city of Pella, famous for having produced the legendary warrior king, Alexander. I did the museum and the excavated remnants of the city on my previous visit. On that occasion the last of the cotton harvest was being reaped and I cycled along roads where cotton lint festooned the branches and twigs of the roadside vegetation, giving it a faux-wintry look, as if the late autumn had suddenly ended prematurely.

The area around Pendolofo is scenically very attractive: at the foot of the Mt Paiko range in Central Macedonia a short distance north of the ancient city of Pella, famous for having produced the legendary warrior king, Alexander.

Testament to the durability of the cotton was the fact that the branches of these same trees and shrubs were still liberally spotted by the stuff several months later. We saw it on our drive north along the same roads some 15 months or so after I had last travelled them. The drive takes you from the region of Pella to Kilikis. Maria remarked with a look of resignation on the contrast between the conditions of the roads in the two regions. Pella is relatively well-funded whilst Kilkis is not. That said, beyond the road narrowing, I couldn’t say there was a noticeable difference in the quality of the tarmac. There were occasional holes, especially when passing through the smaller towns, but nothing to compare with the state of affairs in some parts of Africa I’d lived in.

Other than Mt Paiko, perhaps as a consequence of Mt Paiko, there are several monasteries in the vicinity of Pendolofo.

Other than Mt Paiko, perhaps as a consequence of Mt Paiko, there are several monasteries in the vicinity of Pendolofo. One of them, the monastery of St Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain (1), is a mere 20 minutes jog from Pendolofo as I discovered, literally at the end of the road. Perhaps ‘slog’ would be a more appropriate verb here considering the uphill ascent. I made it as far as the imposing gates where I discovered that my attire was unsuitable – trousers and collared shirt pictured for men, full-length skirt or shawl covering arms and legs for women – and returned a few days later with Mirjam in tow. (To clarify, we walked at a SEDATE pace appropriate for a pregnant woman and a man with unusually stiff legs).

St nicodemos

The monastery of St Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain near Pendolofo. Credit discovergreece.com

We entered the premises without encountering anyone but a priest in a black cassock pointed us towards a reception-cafeteria. I should add that the monastery itself is a towering multi-story building that appears to have been built in modern times, which should not be too surprising considering that this part of Greece was only relinquished by the Ottomans in 1902. We were met by a bearded father, probably in his early to mid-forties, who introduced himself as Father Seraphim. ‘Like the angel’ he told us in his halting English. He very kindly offered us tea or coffee and went off to prepare it. He returned a little while later with the beverages and a few Greek pastries.

We were met by a bearded father, probably in his early to mid-forties, who introduced himself as Father Seraphim.

We ate and then gestured for him to return since Mirjam wanted to buy something from amongst the impressive collection of newly printed colour-illustrated books on saints and liturgy, icons, holy crucifix, incense sticks, candles, oils and more besides. We engaged him again in conversation and the more interest we showed the more he divulged about the contents of the books, the life of St Nicodemus, and the various feast days on which their sacred icons would be on public display. Foremost amongst these is the Panagia  – Mary and baby Jesus – framed in gold and silver relief. He insisted we take a diverse selection of postcards and prints of the monastery, the icons and the processional displays. I’ve photographed them all together below.

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A collection of cards from the monastery of St Nicodemus of Mt Athos

I have to say he was a cheerful man with sparkling eyes and not the dour stereotype many expect to find holed up in a monastery on a remote mountainside. There was a touch of the religious fanatic one finds in many of the clergy of whatever faith and a sense of dire anticipation hung tangibly in the air when he asked us whether ‘we believed.’ We reassured him that we did and his sense of relief was endearing. ‘Thank God’ he proclaimed.

… a sense of dire anticipation hung tangibly in the air when he asked us whether ‘we believed.’ We reassured him that we did and his sense of relief was endearing.

After our indoctrination we were given permission to take a look at the main chapel on the ground level (there was one that appeared to be perched on top of the enormous building) and a smaller one skilfully built into the side of a narrow ravine a short distance away from the main monastic building. Although the first chapel possessed the more awe-inspiring articles, the gold-rimmed icons and menalia, it was the more modest of the two that appealed more to me. Built into the slope of the mountain one side even incorporated the volcanic strata revealed through its construction. The only downside was that it possessed the temperature of a walk-in fridge!

The Greeks are still a very religious people by and large. That is to say that the Greek Orthodox faith is deeply embedded in their culture and way of life for better or worse.

The Greeks are still a very religious people by and large. That is to say that the Greek Orthodox faith is deeply embedded in their culture and way of life for better or worse. I have just illuminated a few of the positive attributes – beautiful buildings and a sense of aesthetic in the iconography, carving and painted relief work. There may be acts of almsgiving and the like of which I am unaware of. I don’t really know too much about the charitable activities of the church. If I were to put the question to Dirk the answer would be none. He reserves a scathing criticism for the men in black. ‘They rob the widows of their pensions’ he proclaimed the last time I was there. Maria is also quite outspoken in her condemnation of the church, principally because they don’t pay any taxes to the state.

What Maria says she resents the most is the privileged position that the church takes in any economic consideration.

Maria has been trying for several years to help her parents run a guesthouse in the town of Goumenissa at the foot of the mountains in this part of Kilkis. Goumenissa is only a ten minute drive from Pendolofo and where Achilleas goes to pre-school. She and Dirk have tried hard to promote the potential of the area abroad, investing in heaps of marketing. Dirk acquired a fleet of mountain bikes for the more health-minded visitors interested in outdoor adventure pursuits.

What Maria says she resents the most is the privileged position that the church takes in any economic consideration. The mayor of the region needs votes to stay in power and a good relationship with the Greek Church ensures that he has their considerable backing. He scoffed at her suggestion that Mt Paiko be developed and marketed as a premier cycling destination and insisted that the region’s focus will be on the monasteries and encouraging more pilgrims to visit.

(the mayor) scoffed at her suggestion that Mt Paiko be developed and marketed as a premier cycling destination and insisted that the region’s focus will be on the monasteries and encouraging more pilgrims to visit.

The ability of the Greek Church to get its way on other matters was highlighted by Maria one morning in conversation with me. She had just heard the results of a local government vote on a proposal by the Monastery of St Nicodemus to increase its boundaries. Maria said that they’d alleged that local villagers foraging for wood on Mt Paiko (everyone is entitled to winter quota) were disturbing the peace. They were requesting a 1 km square ‘exclusion zone’ centred on the monastery she reported. The vote had just come in and only two members of the council had opposed the request. It was passed almost unanimously. I seemed a bit of a flimsy reason to me but it was unclear if this was a territorial expansion with land ownership passing to the Church or something more along the lines of a zone of exclusion as I wrote above.

Despite the mayor’s lack of enthusiasm I took full advantage of the geographic benefits of the region. I didn’t have access to one of Dirk’s bikes but I did have a pair of trainers. The views from the altitude of Pendolofo, at a modest 600m or so, are still breath-taking. You look down upon the fertile plains of Central Macedonia stretching south eastwards to Thessaloniki, illuminated best at night against the shore of the Mediterranean. Further to the south the snowy hump of Mt Olympus looms large on a clear day and to the northwest the Belasica range mark the junction between FYROM (Macedonia the country), Bulgaria and Greece. The snowline on this range was quite visible about two-thirds of the way up at this time of year.

The views from the altitude of Pendolofo, at a modest 600m or so, are still breath-taking.

Quite by coincidence the next run I took in the area was in the shadow of another monastery, that of the Saints Raphael, Nicholas and Irene of Lesvos. We were many miles from that particular island but the story of these venerated Saints is an interesting one. I first heard it from Brother Gregory. I’d arrived huffing and puffing at the gates to the monastery after ascending along a brand new stretch of road, another gripe of Maria’s, feeling a little awkward in my running attire. However it seemed of no consequence to Brother Gregory who ushered me in through the guest entrance to the impressively large complex of buildings.

Monastery of St Raphael icon

What appears to be the most popularised iconographic representation of the Saints Raphael, Nicholas and Irene.

Once again I was flattered to be served a mug of hot tea, a plate of pastries and a generous bowl of honey too. Gregory tended to the steady flow of local devotees visiting the monastery on this Sunday morning and chatted to me in-between. Although this monastery was only founded in 1992 the history of the Saints to whom it’s devoted goes back far further. I refer to a web source(2) for further information:

Sts Raphael, Nicholas and Irene suffered martyrdom by the Turks on the island of Lesvos (also called Mytilene) on April 9 1463 AD, after the fall of Constantinople. St Raphael was the Abbot of Karyes near the village of Thermi on the island. St Nicholas was a Deacon at the monastery, and St Irene was the 12-year-old daughter of the major of Thermi. The three saints were at the monastery with the village teacher and St Irene’s father when the Turks raided it.

These saints were unknown for about 500 years after their martyrdoms during the Turkish occupation of Lesvos. In 1959 the three saints appeared to the people on Lesvos in dreams and visions. They guided excavations of their own graves, called people to repentance, and cured many kinds of diseases.

I found Brother Gregory an engaging and thoughtful man. He told me that he’d given up everything to be there and that the story of the saints’ martyrdom and the relatively recent rediscovery of their remains had ‘changed his life.’ We talked for some time and he promised to send me the English version of a book on the three saints upon its publication some time this year. Many miracles have been attributed to these saints and some of these accounts seem to be strain the sinews of rational belief. Read more here. (3)

As it was a day of remembrance for the souls of the departed he allowed me to light a candle in the narthex of a small chapel near the entrance. I was also invited to stay for lunch and though I was sorely tempted I declined saying that someone was waiting for me back home. That much was true but there was also no way I could run the 5 or so kilometres back on a full stomach. Maybe I should have settled for an afternoon stroll and taken the lunch.

Web reference:

(1) http://full-of-grace-and-truth.blogspot.de/2009/07/st-nikodemos-of-holy-mountain.html

(2) http://www.orthodoxchristian.info/pages/sts_rni.htm

(3) http://full-of-grace-and-truth.blogspot.de/2014/04/the-monastery-of-sts-raphael-nicholas.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Across Zimbabwe & Botswana and a Week in Africa’s Biggest ‘Swamp’.

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Thus the curtain has come down on another visit to Africa and I fear it may be the last for some time. I arrived with few expectations from a wintry Europe back at the beginning of March. Things were not easy to begin with in South Africa – no car, no guarantee of work, not many friends – but after a few weeks shuttling around the Highveld looking for a non-existent post-doc position at one of two tertiary institutions I took a time-out and visited my extended family in various parts Kwazulu Natal. I’ve written about that a few months back so no there’s need to revisit it.

Ardmore Guest Farm set against the Drakensberg Mountains

Ardmore Guest Farm set against the Drakensberg Mountains

My salvation (again) came through Workaway, an initiative, or rather a platform, I’ve recommended before as a great way to travel economically. It took me to the Central Drakensberg, an area I’ve never been to, and Ardmore Guest Farm. A month as a volunteer, a month as an employee followed and the company of many interesting people: guests, employees and employers alike. I feel enriched and as a consequence rather sad to have to say goodbye (again), having recently returned for a further 2 weeks. In the long-term what has happened in-between will be of far greater consequence to me, having met my dear Mirjam at Ardmore.

Together we went by bus up to Zimbabwe, first to Bulawayo and hence to the Victoria Falls in all their high-water magnificence; camped several nights in Hwange Main Camp; returned to Bulawayo and walked her wide and bustling streets; continued on to Masvingo and the timeless Great Zimbabwe Ruins (last visited by me some 30 years + before); and finally the capital, Harare. I wrote quite a long post on Bulawayo last year which I hope did it some justice. A bit more on the Falls and the other stops prior to Harare.

The Vic Falls had a smattering of tourists but nothing like it was in the 80s and 90s. At least the streets around the more touristy parts are clean and free of rubbish (unlike the outlying townships). It goes without saying that desperate curio sellers hounded us at every turn. Many wanted to sell us old bearer cheques and bond notes from the ‘burning dollar days’ as a resident of Bulawayo recalled them. Others just wanted to sell a necklace charm – usually of the iconic serpent-like Nyaminyami River God – or maybe an animal wood carving, if only for a few dollars for their next meal or a bus ride home. It was sad to see and, being an empathetic sort, I usually gave in if they were desperate enough. Therefore I have a collection of charms and curios to impart to friends and hosts on my onward travels.

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We became friendly with a curio seller called Everton. I convinced him to take us to Chinotimba Township and the local restaurant I had eaten at the previous year, this time for Mirjam’s benefit as well as my own. She made a good go of a plate of sadza nehove (mealie meal porridge with fish and vegetables) and after the ample meal we agreed to go visit Evan’s family and brother in the neighbouring township. His brother had a T-shirt printing business and supplied a few of the shops in town with his prints. A little too touristy for my liking but he said he did well on the tour groups and had some agreement to supply one of the adventure activity operators as well. Evans told us that life was tough and that he was keen to get himself a passport so that he could try some cross-border trading.

The next day we ventured down to his market stall in the official area designated to them. I was astounded by the sheer amount of carvings and other curios in the general vicinity. I had no idea there was so much, some of it of exceptional quality. I spoke to a stone sculptor called Bainos who was busy chiseling a beautiful abstract carving in black serpentine. They were moderately priced at several hundred dollars but they suggested many hours of patient endeavour. I asked how business was and he replied that it wasn’t all that bad. His pieces were too large for the average tourist to just plonk in their hand luggage or suitcase so he would organise for international freight as well. Or so he claimed.

From Everton we bought a few trinkets and the like and then bid him and a dozen disappointed sellers goodbye. The problem with the local economy was that there just weren’t enough tourists for the amount of stuff these talented artists could produce. Many tourists probably wouldn’t venture too far off the main street fronted by the wealthier franchises and adventure outfits like Wild Horizons and Shearwater. Almost everyone we talked to subsequently asked us if we had eaten at the Boma but we didn’t. Sorry! We did splash out on a white water rafting trip which was fun but rather tame considering the reputation of the great river.

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After 5 or 6 nights in the Falls we took the Intercape coach back towards Bulawayo but jumped off instead at the Hwange Safari Lodge. It is a double-winged hotel of some size rather than a lodge and the extensive grounds in front overlook a water hole and acres of Mopane woodland. However, we wouldn’t be staying on our humble budget and caught a taxi ride instead to Hwange Main Camp within the confines of the National Park. To be honest I found some of the staff a little too keen to leverage our forex from us. We made it quite clear that we were there to camp and would consider the game drive after settling in. Furthermore, the woman who booked us in was loath to take my South African Rand from me even though it was most certainly legal tender.

We trudged to the camping sites several hundred meters away where we met a wizened old National Parks member of staff. It seemed as though he had been there for decades. He was happy to tell us where to set up tent and told us he’d be back later to stoke up the old Rhodesian boiler for hot water. It would also become our de facto camping fire for the sake of convenience. A little later strolled back to the NP offices and looked around to see if we could hitch a ride to one of the nearby water holes, perhaps Nyamandhlovu Pan. There were several land cruisers parked nearby with the names of lodges and private camps emblazoned on the door panels and chassis. We weren’t going to have any luck there I figured. Despite the lack of activity we were quite happy to sit and read in the shade of a large,spreading Acacia tree out front and watch the abundant bird and animal life. Go-Away birds, starlings, babblers, spur fowl and bulbuls competed for access to a stone water bath, although some of the glossy starlings showed more initiative and came to drink straight from the source, a tap connected by a leaky fitting to a hose a few feet from away from us.

After an hour or two we walked back through the very extensive Main Camp in a clockwise direction. It had been a decade since I was last there helping out on a foreign-funded conservation initiative, the Lion Research Project. I’d stayed with an old colleague from Rhodes University days in one of the old Park chalets. Nothing had changed. If anything the bush had encroached even a little further more than before and it wasn’t immediately apparent which were occupied and which weren’t. They were all in need of a lick of paint and a little care and attention. This was in contrast to the newly painted cottages and ablution blocks on the other side of the camp, including the area where we camped out.

Whatever the state of the accommodation the one thing that recommends the site to prospective visitors is the wildlife. Just walking sandy tracks around Main Camp brought us into contact with grazing herds of impala, pockets of zebra and wildebeest, giraffe, any number of different birds and at dusk, a trio of kudu, one bull and two cows. The kudu is my favourite antelope with a magnificent pair of ridged, spiral horns, tawny coat, long neck and attractive facial markings.

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We managed to hitch a ride to a nearby pan on our third and last evening there, courtesy of a young white guide and two black staff members from their private camp within the park. His blonde hair was bleached white by the sun, in contrast to his deeply tanned face and neck. He hadn’t planned to go via the pan but happily diverted there for us. Driving along at a sedate pace he stopped every so often to point out an animal in the vicinity and even passed back a cold beer or two for Mirjam and I, perched high up in the viewing seats behind the driver’s cab. God bless the man! In contrast the pan was a bit of a disappointment – only baboons and a few impala. A middle-aged Bulawayo couple gave us a return ride to camp.

We chatted about this and that but when I mentioned my intention to travel next to Tanzania there was an uneasy silence for a few moments. I wasn’t to know that their son, a professional hunter, had been gored to death by a buffalo there a few years before. They were still in close contact with his wife and young son. The sombre change in conversation was lightened considerably by the sudden appearance of several zebra and giraffe not far from the entrance gate. The photos of these animals are all Mirjam’s iPhone handiwork.

The following day we managed to get one of the park wardens to run us back to the Safari Lodge in his private vehicle for US$10 or $15. While waiting for the Intercape we went out to the front and had a cup of tea. A herd of impala made their way down to the water hole and entertained us for the next 30 minutes or so. The young rams dashed and pursued each other this way and that around the perimeter of the hole time and again. Several of them paired off and sparred in a light-hearted sort of way which suggested to me they were playing rather than preparing to rut with the females.

From Hwange it was back to Bulawayo and a few more nights as guests of the Einhorn’s. On the Sunday we hitched a ride with Pete to town and from there caught a taxi to the local bus terminus to find a coach bound Eastwards to Masvingo.

Masvingo was most memorable not for the nearby and infamous Great Zimbabwe Ruins but for the unassuming little guesthouse where we spent two nights. Not long before sundown the bus dropped us opposite the locally upmarket Chevron Hotel. Prices there started at US$60 per night, somewhat beyond our remit. We asked around at the local taxi rank for alternative options. Someone suggested

Titambire Lodge

Titambire Lodge

a guest house in the opposite direction but fortunately on our side of the main road. We traipsed that way, all the time rather sceptical, considering the suburban flavour of the place, but lo and behold it was there – Titambire Lodge – an unassuming white-walled house with a small red-concrete verandah, painted wire furniture fronting a row of large glass windows and a door. The important thing was that it was far more reasonable at US$10 p/n and clean! We had the use of a little two-plate cooking stove and a bedroom with blankets and clean sheets all to ourselves.

I imagine that it had once been a normal suburban home converted to the purpose of taking guests. In the nearest bathroom to our room was an ancient Monarch boiler above a large enamel bathtub inscribed with a nameplate which read Monarch: Salisbury, Kitwe and Ndola. So it was at least 36 years old (Salisbury is what Harare used to be called). The other bathroom had a shower whose use you had to request so that the geyser could be switched on. The water was freezing otherwise as we discovered to our dismay. A cold front was passing through at the time and standing naked on a cold concrete floor waiting for a non-existent stream of water was not really my thing. And then, even an hour of being switched on, there was only a few minutes of hot water available.

But for the budget price we sucked it up and besides the two male staff on duty were delighted to have us stay at the establishment. One of them, called Douglas, made polite conversation but was never intrusive. We left him some dinner one evening (tuna cooked with tomato and onion and some sweet potato I think) which he declared ‘delicious.’ We may travel cheaply but we do like our evening munch!

Masvingo town itself does not have that much to recommend it although it has always been locally important and a provincial capital. We discovered the local TM, now under the umbrella of the South African supermarket chain, Pick’n’Pay, was fully stocked with everything one could want for an average functioning household.  Mirjam had fallen in love with Marbella sorghum porridge and we found it at last along with selection of local ‘organic’ products. I have to admit that the porridge was actually very good. Most mornings began with a bowl of Marbella mixed with a large spoon of peanut butter, mashed banana, nuts and raisins.

Outside the supermarket the reality of life was evident: numerous vendors selling neat little pyramids of tomatoes and onion, boxes of cigarettes, phone chargers and other basic consumables and electronic goods. I never cease to be amazed by the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the local people, many of them with some sort of impairment. One blind man sat outside another store nearby, his guitar hooked up to a battery-powered amplifier which was in turn being charged by a solar panel. He sang a sad lament with a typically sonorous African voice. Another blind man tap-tapped his way past us, a black acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder, a soiled jacket wrapped around his spare frame. Another man who had been on the bus with us from Bulawayo was selling faux fur jackets spread out on the sidewalk. He tried to get Mirjam’s attention but it definitely was not her sort of thing.

I won’t say much about Great Zimbabwe except that it’s an interesting sort of pace for a day visit and of great importance in the history of the nation. Not only does the country take its name from the place (Dzimbabwe roughly translates to house of stones) but the image of the half-dozen or more carvings of stone birds found here adorn the country’s flag, the conical tower in the main enclosure features on the coat of arms, and there are numerous other associations besides.

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At last we made our way to Harare in a shared vehicle with four other occupants. Distorted gospel music blared all the way to the outskirts of the city where we disembarked at around 4pm. The driver took me aside and implored me to ‘trust no-one’ in the capital and to be careful. I smiled inwardly but appreciated that he would be giving sound advice to a new arrival. For both Mirjam and I it was quite an eye-opener as we transferred by minibus taxi to downtown Harare. The place was shambolic, even by my reckoning. We discovered that people preferred to walk in the road and compete with the traffic rather than be squeezed onto crumbling pavements crammed with vendors and beggars. We were conspicuous by our bags, backpacks and Eurasian skin but no-one really bothered us, so frenetic was the flow of humanity at that late time of day.

We finally made it across to a car park on 4th street that I knew well and deemed to be a good collection point and waited for my friend Drew to arrive. He came as promised and whisked us away to the relative normality of northern suburbia. We would spend the next two weeks or so catching up with friends and immediate family. There is Zimbabwe and then there is Harare in its little bubble. And that’s not to say it’s any fault of the inhabitants, that’s just the way that it is,

Like everywhere else we had been people shook their heads and lamented the sorry state of affairs. The economy was wallowing in uncertain waters (again) and there was a chronic shortage of money. Nothing much had changed since my last visit. Our first evening there we joined my mum’s friend, Aurora, who hosted us for a week, at a quiz evening (we came 3rd). We drank coffee and wine, ate good food and met interesting people. The man across from me, Nick, remarked that he’d been a contemporary of my uncle Paul’s at St George’s College many years before. Another, Pierre, was well acquainted with in-laws of my cousin whilst the lady next to me wanted to know if she could put me in touch with anyone in the mining game including her ex in Tanzania.

I was reminded of the incredibly tight-knit community there and indeed how much I missed it, albeit with a good dose of nostalgia. Life had a façade of normality in northern suburbia but beneath the veneer I sensed the disillusion, anger and perhaps even a hint of resignation. There were friends talking of emigrating when just a few years before such thoughts would never have been entertained. My brother was one of them. He and his family are uprooting to Eastern Australia in December. They’d already ventured across twice and enrolled the kids in their respectable schools, and the perused the property market for suitably spacious properties. On that issue my brother expressed the sentiment of many Zimbo’s, unwillingly moving abroad: “it’s not fair on the kids not to give them the space they are used to.”

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After a few inquiring questions I learnt that my brother’s wife was the real driving force behind the move. I couldn’t blame her with all the prevailing hardship and uncertainty but the prospect of their departure saddened me in an indirect sort of way. Post-independent Zimbabwe had embraced a kind of multiculturalism embodied in multi-racial schools and a certain equality of the races but there were flaws at the outset. For some time the project had been failing and it seemed to be failing ever faster and more dramatically. There is reason for optimism though.

Days after we crossed over at Beit Bridge – a surprisingly pleasant experience on the Zimbabwean side and a somewhat unsurprising-but-still-frustratingly-fraught experience on the RSA side – there was an uprising of sorts amongst the local traders, sick of the extortion and repeated readjustment of the goal-posts. They took an exception to whatever latest tax/license fee was recently imposed and set fire to some infrastructure. Beit Bridge border post is desolate and unkempt as it is so it’s hard to see how it could be any worse.

Not very long after this and a matter of days after Mirjam and I departed the country a little over a month ago, this time via the Plumtree border post, there were widespread and coordinated stay-aways in the country and unrest in the townships. The government was evidently shaken. The inspiration behind the protests was a Christian pastor – Zimbabwe is still a very religious country – Evans Mawarire who mobilised a groundswell of support using social media hashtag #ThisFlag. Check it out and lend your support! The latest news reports that the influential War Veterans Association have withdrawn their support for long-time President Mugabe. Considering the violent and vocal support they have given him in the past this is quite some development.

The journey to Botswana was an interesting experience. We arrived late in the day in Bulawayo on a coach from Harare. En route all male passengers had to disembark at one of a dozen or more police checkpoints for a pad down and perusal of our hand luggage. I asked the cop what they were looking for.

“Guns and drugs” was the reply, but his efforts seemed half-hearted and he didn’t even bother to make us unload the baggage in the side compartments of the coach. That reprieve would later be rescinded at the border post where luggage was compulsorily unloaded and checked by the authorities. On the issue of the police, they were particularly loathed by the general populace in Zim because of their corrupt ways. Vehicles could be stopped at random and fines extorted from the drivers for trifling offences: in our case US$20 for not having a wheel-jack in the car we borrowed from Aurora; in other instances, lacking the correct-coloured reflective tape on the bumper for example. On the one hand it was commendable that vehicle roadworthiness and safety was taken seriously but it was the way in which it was implemented that left motorists fuming.

It was no secret that civil servants hadn’t been properly paid for months. Most government employees just had to suck it up but the police had the means to find an alternative source of income. I do not to imply that every cop in the country is corrupt. There are no doubt still a few good ones out there no-one had anything good to say about them on this particular visit!

Our chicken bus to the Plumtree Border Post

Our chicken bus to the Plumtree Border Post

So onwards to Botswana we went. We boarded yet another African ‘chicken’ bus from the roadside edge of urban Bulawayo. Our taxi driver, Enoch, who ferried us there from the Intercape coach drop-off point, advised us to exchange hard currency for Botswana Pula prior to embarking. We found a youngish guy loitering nearby who fitted the bill. He gave us a rate of 1:10 and assured us that a bus would pass by in the next 30 minutes or so. Whilst we waited I asked the currency dealer the cause of some serious scars on his right arm. His reply was unsettling but not surprising.

“Back in the 2001,” he began “I was going to buy a car from Botswana. What I needed was Pula so exchanged US$ 5000 at the border post with some money changers. But these guys they were crooks and they stabbed me with a knife and ran away with my money.” He shrugged nonchalantly as if this was just a sad fact of life. I remarked that it was somewhat ironic that he was now a currency dealer himself but he saw nothing strange in this and when I think back almost every Zimbabwean has been a currency dealer at one stage or another.

Our bus arrived filled to capacity so we made to stand in the aisle. Passengers in the rear half of the compartment observed us with detached interest for a few minutes before losing interest. Yet even in the discomfort and inconvenience of the moment there was humour to be had. Behind the driver was a neatly printed sign which stated – Patrons over 90 can travel free if accompanied by their parents. There were buckets and blankets and bags to contend with and when we stopped at each of the many road-blocks we had to duck down into the stairwell that connected the passenger deck to the rear side-door since we were evidently contravening the law.

We mysteriously stopped just short of the border and two of the passengers got off. I thought nothing of it at the time. The border post involved the usual checks of passports and baggage and we were all compelled to squelch through a tray of disinfectant at a foot-and-mouth control point before trudging several hundred meters to where the same bus would collect us after traversing the border post. A big neon sign declaring “Botswana at 50” greeted us there. (The country gained independence from Britain in 1966.) A local man co-opted Mirjam and I to join him, grinning, for several photos in front of the glitzy sign whilst his friend snapped away with a shiny digital SLR. That’s what I like about Africa – the cheerfulness amidst the struggle of daily existence!

We dined on two portions of sadza and chicken at a border store nearby and a little while later the bus arrived. We hastily threw the bones and gristle to one of several mangy curs hanging around the edge of the uninspiring establishment and re-embarked. We were back in the aisles despite the loss of a few passengers, or so I thought. A few miles on, night having fallen in the interim, we halted at another road block, this time on Botswana territory. A frenzied scuffle ensued whereupon an unkempt woman slithered past me, another converging from the other direction, both of them ducking into the toilet compartment adjacent to the stairwell. The reason soon became apparent: two police officers came aboard and started checking passport documents.

This took several minutes but they completed their check without accounting for the two in the toilet compartment. As we continued on our way they both emerged warily as people greeted them with smiles and probably a few pointed jokes as well. No one seemed in any way perturbed. A short while later at the next stop we were both able to get seats and I asked my neighbour what had just transpired. She described how those same two passengers, formerly undistinguished, alighted before the border post, illegally crossed without passports, and met us back on the Botswana side a little later.

The scramble to hide in the toilet was simply to evade the authorities who obviously dealt with this sort of thing quite regularly. I admired the fact that there was solidarity amongst the passengers and that no-one had spilt the beans. Life was tough in Zimbabwe and probably almost everyone there was only crossing to buy a few goods in Francistown to sell back home for a small margin of profit. I did meet a young guy from Bulawayo who was returning to study in Gaborone but most looked like working-class traders.

Botswana is a country of almost endless sands and scrubby vegetation, punctuated here and there by more established dry woodland vegetation and occasional salt flats and pans. After a night in Francistown we caught a cross-country bus to Maun, the gateway to the Okavango Delta. The next week was a wonderful experience, even considering the very conservative budget we allowed ourselves. If I am frugal in much of my travel Mirjam is even more so. When we broke our journey somewhere for a few days she would bake bread for the onward journey and almost never indulged in anything I would call comfort food or takeaways. She had an aversion to sugar but happily dined on nuts and fruit and chunks of homemade bread lathered with peanut butter. She was an inexpensive and uncomplaining travel companion.

By night we slept in a tent in the Maun Rest Camp, across the Thamalakane River from the Old Bridge Backpackers. We forsook sleeping mats and lay with sandy ground directly beneath us as we’d one in the Vic Falls and Hwange. Sometimes I tossed and turned in the early hours and I could often feel a dull ache in my hips and shoulders the following day but I slept well enough to feel reasonably well rested. The Old Bridge is a great place to sit and enjoy the numerous kingfishers, egrets, hammerkop, ibis and other water birds that frequent the river at this time of year. The waters had risen only a few weeks before, draining directly from the massive delta north of there, bringing all manner of life to its banks.

Most mornings and evenings we prepared our food at the backpackers on the other side of the river. It could be reached via the ‘Old Bridge’ referred to in the name of the place, about a 15 or 20 minute walk. At the backpackers there was a bar and main reception and it was usually a hive of activity. It also had the best view of the river and Hippo Pool directly downstream of the bridge (we never did see any of the animals though).

It was enough just to sit and enjoy the ambience of the place: the river; the shady sycamore fig above the outside tables and overreaching the pool; the half-dozen or more pied kingfishers plunging regularly into the shallows; and a pair of much larger giant kingfishers chattering noisily as the swooped from tree to tree. We also watched a moderately-sized water monitor (legavaan) wade along the river bank and up onto an artificial stone fountain on the edge of the camp he’d made his home.

The Old Bridge itself was in a state of semi-disrepair. The gaps were spanned by a series of large hardwood tree trunks lashed together and the intervening structure infilled with copious amounts of soil, a crumbling asphalt surface adhering to the top. It had an interesting history as testified by a rusty information signpost on the opposite bank. It alleged that the bridge was built in the first part of the last century to assist migrant labour from further north – Zambia, Angola, the Congo – making their way southwards to the great gold and diamond mines in colonial South Africa. These days young boys sat and fished for barbel on the leeward side of the bridge whilst couples loitered in the evenings with bottles of beer. All the while a fairly regular back and forth movement of pedestrians, ourselves included, benefitted from the bridge crossing.

I am really very of birdlife wherever I go. I am a self-confessed Twitcher. Everywhere we went I was doing my best to inform Mirjam of the local avifauna. “What’s that over there?” I would ask her later, testing her out. By degree she came to know a boubou shrike from a butcher bird, a sacred ibis from a hadeda. I think I probably drove her mad but she didn’t seem to mind too much. It is interesting how a few birds could be said to define our time together, be it in South Africa, Zimbabwe or Botswana. One was the boubou (southern mostly) which was locally common in all the towns, parks and camps we stayed in. Another was the African hoopoe with its characteristic crest and brown, white and black plumage. But probably the most characteristic was the fork-tailed drongo, present wherever we went and conspicuous by its mimicry of other birds, inquisitive nature and conspicuous foraging.

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After a few days at the rest camp we booked ourselves a transfer by boat upstream to the Boro Community Centre to where we boarded a local mokoro boat for a short trip into the delta itself. It was really a lot of fun and good value at 800 Pula per person, far cheaper than most of the other advertised activities. The mokoro is a boat, traditionally made from a long hollowed-out tree trunk (but in our case reinforced by fibreglass), pushed along by a man (or woman) much like a gondolier or punt, with the aid of a long wooden pole.  Since the delta is only a meter or deep on average this is not an impractical way of getting around. I was really quite surprised how fast our driver shunted us along.

That evening we camped on an island and the next day we went for a 3 hour walk in the vicinity. We were in a wilderness area which acts as a sort of buffer zone between the adjacent communal land and the Moremi Game Reserve further in. We were still some way from Moremi but there was plentiful wildlife here nonetheless. We saw several bull elephant, a small group of lechwe antelope, a large herd of wildebeest (over a hundred Mirjam counted), a herd of zebra and a reedbuck, not to mention a variety of birds: geese, ibis, plovers, stilts, saddle-billed storks, sand grouse, bee-eaters and many more beside. On the return journey the following day we even spotted a pelican foraging in the shallows.

I was sad to have to leave the delta without being able to explore further in, but time was pressing. After a week we jumped on yet another bus for the overnight journey to Gaborone. Packed tight for the initial part of the journey the bus became less compacted after a few people disembarked. A stowaway was discovered in the seat in front of us and ejected by the stocky ticket issuer who poured a tirade of abuse upon the unfortunate young man. Mirjam felt quite bad for him but in Africa many people have so little that seeing another person try benefit from cheating or theft elicits very little sympathy.

At daybreak we arrived in Gaborone and a short taxi ride later we arrived at our faithful Intercape coach, this time headed to Johannesburg. Fortunately tickets were readily available and 45 minutes later we were on our way. The border with South Africa is only a matter of kilometres hence so we arrived there shortly. The rest of the journey was not particularly exciting – certainly nothing to compare with what went before.

For Mirjam, this leg of her holiday was virtually over. She flew out two days later to join her parents in Israel. I will join them shortly. However, in the interim, as you may remember, I went back to the Guest Farm in the Drakensberg. It was hard settling back into things initially but by the time I departed yesterday morning I felt an integral part of the team once again. It’s hard uprooting but in this case it couldn’t really be avoided. At the Gaborone Border Post they had only given me a month’s leave to remain. As two of the new volunteers there commented, “You’ll be back. You belong here!”

Hiking in the Central Drakensberg

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I’m presently working as a volunteer at Ardmore Guest Farm in the Champagne Valley area of the Central Drakensberg, KZN, South Africa. I’ve been here a little over 2 weeks but I feel I’ve settled well. I am one of 4 volunteers,  the last of which only arrived today. More of that in another post!

I guess I’ve missed the hustle and bustle of the hospitality trade even though I can tell you it got my blood pressure up at times! Today has also been one of those days but it’s an exception to an otherwise pleasant stay. The landscape is incredibly scenic around here. At almost any time of day (poor weather notwithstanding) one can see a panoramic vista of the mighty ‘Berg from almost anywhere in the valley. Paul and Sue (the owners) have built a dozen or so chalets and bungalows, some mountain-facing, others garden-facing. You pay a premium to face the mountain of course but the prices are not unreasonable for a 3* establishment.

It took me two weeks to finally get a chance to walk along the mighty mountain range, oft talked of amongst those I’d met over the years, but never visited in my personal capacity. I remember my mum once talking up the possibility of a visit but sadly it never happened. Besides, in Zimbabwe we have magnificent mountain vistas and all that goes with it along the Eastern border with Mozambique. In part it’s a matter of home bias because all these places are unique. There is only one Nyanga, Bvumba or Chimanimani in Zimbabwe; likewise the Drakensberg of South Africa stands apart for its own sake. It extends over an impressive area towards the eastern seaboard  – I couldn’t tell you how much exactly – but I know that it encompasses the mountain nation of Lesotho and upland area of Kwazulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape.

So yesterday I had the good fortune to go walking from the Monk’s Cowl visitors centre into the Maloti Drakensberg National Park, actually designated a World Heritage Site. Paul dropped me off mid-morning around 9:30 and assured me that when I was done I wouldn’t struggle to find a lift back. If all else fails give the guest farm a call he added. Probably not an option I was thinking to myself, considering the lack of credit on my phone. However, it seemed a busy place and, not for the first time in my life, I put my faith in providence.

It had been a bit of a rush to get out off the far and as a result I forgot a few crucial elements – a water bottle and hat. Fortunately I had my wallet on me and was able to buy a plastic Powerade with its magic contents. If not for that… The choice of walks would have kept me procrastinating for a good while if it wasn’t for Paul. On his advice I set out on the walk to Blind Man’s Corner, a circular route of 12 kms and estimated walking time of 6 hours, give or take. The galleries record my progress.

The gallery at the beginning of the post shows the stunning view one can encounter within about 45 minutes of hiking. Also shown are the play of light in shadow in one of several of the mountain streams flowing down the mountain slopes and a species of Helichrysum (an everlasting). The next gallery shows the entrance to Monk’s Cowl curio shop and office complex and posing for the obligatory selfie near the turnaround point halfway through. Over my shoulder is the Cathkin Peak, one of the three highest in the range at over 3148m.

The next gallery is almost exclusively of mountain scenery, including the rather unusual one the Zulu people call Intunja, meaning “eye of the needle”. I don’t know why but it reminds me of an octopus head but I guess it’s really pretty subjective what you see! The two showing the gnarled and characteristic Protea trees are from the footpath through Keartland’s Pass which is an alternative route back to the car park and office.

There weren’t too many plants in flower but those that were didn’t disappoint. In the gallery above you can see the multiple yellow-flowering heads of a shrub that seems quite widespread in the Drakensberg here. There is also an old male flower head on a stunted Protea tree clinging to the hillside and a close-up of a pretty purple flowering plant eking out its existence in a crack in the sandstone. There is also a last look back at the Cathkin Peak and the Sterkhorn (2973m) to the right of it.

It is worth quickly noting the geology of the range, granted in a very generalised manner. I spent many year’s as an undergraduate studying geology and later as a tutor so I should know something at least! In short the Drakensberg consists of the upper groups of rock types that collectively constitute the Karoo Supergroup, predominantly sedimentary but with subordinate volcanics, sills and dykes. In fact the final event in Karoo deposition was the outpouring of large volumes of basalts (the Stormberg Group) which have given the mountain range a protective ‘cap’. This happened during the breakup of Gondwana well over 150 million years ago but through time, as the softer country rock was weathered and eroded, the peaks we see today stood out, capped proudly by these long-solidified volcanic strata. I have included a few ‘geo-shots’ in the gallery below.

Towards the end of the walk I have to say I was wilting. I’d forgotten my hat and even though it was supposedly heading into winter the African sun still maintained a certain ferocious intensity. Additionally, I only had a small ice-cream wafer on the way up and I felt my energy levels diminish. The Nandi and Sterkspruit Falls would have to wait for another day. A good reason to return!

 

Coach travel in the age of the automobile

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I’ve certainly seen my share of coaches during my adult life. I can’t remember the first but I seem to recall it being a cross-country excursion with two mates from high school to the holiday town of Kariba in my native Zimbabwe, but it must have been unremarkable because I have no real recollection of it.

My university career got off to a promising start after the folks dangled a return air ticket before my gaping mouth. I can’t quite remember why I was deemed deserving of such a luxury, perhaps as a belated congratulations for my decent A-Level results. My father had promised to take me out for a meal but as was quite often the case had failed to follow through on this.

What I can say though is that a return airfare to Port Elizabeth via Johannesburg didn’t come cheaply back then. It was to be a one-off. Besides the fact that I was literally sh*t-scared of flying at the time, I didn’t exactly impress my mother by using the return fare to ‘pop’ back during term time due to a bout of homesickness. Not being particularly sympathetic to my condition she had fairly promptly put me on a Greyhound bus bound for South Africa the following week. This was my first experience of long-distance bus travel. Whoopee!

Actually, back then the coach pulled in at the Rotunda which lay slightly apart from the Metro terminus. It was an unsalubrious part of town and not somewhere you wanted to linger very long. Subsequently there were extensive improvements made to the main Park Station and all the coach offices, arrivals and departures were relocated there. Even so I recall on the one occasion having to wait several hours between connections and being accosted by a variety of vendors all trying to sell me the same gold chain. It didn’t make any sense! Was I missing something?

I was at Park Station again earlier today and I must say that after further improvements prior to the 2010 Fifa World Cup it is almost as inviting as an airport terminus, but not quite. For one it is open at both ends and there is a constant flow of humanity from one side to the other, a minority embarking on coach journeys or descending to the lower concourse from where the trains depart. Most, however, are simply in transit to the ranks of minibuses which await their clientele at an extensive taxi rank built for the purpose on the one side of the building. Others loiter in the many fast food shops or cafés within the domed expanse of the station.

Surprisingly, there are TV monitors which display local news highlights and weather bulletins. One can also see the occasional policeman or woman ambling along, usually in convivial conversation with a colleague. I don’t mean to be disparaging but South African police-women especially tend to be on the chunkier end of the scale and I wouldn’t have much faith in them being able to apprehend a half-starved thief or junkie making off with someone’s personal belongings. I haven’t been party to anything of the sort but always try to be vigilant.

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A recent view of the overhauled Park Station terminus.

I noticed down the years that the Greyhound coaches I took within South Africa were of a substantially better quality than the ones on the route between Harare and Johannesburg. Yes, the Zimbabweans were being treated as less discerning customers. Whether or not this is true is hard to say. I distinctly recall that during my early bus days we were all given the option of listening to the on-board DVD/VHS movies via earphones which one could purchase onboard. At some point in the last ten-fifteen years the film audio became mass-broadcast over the PA systems. Whether this was because they couldn’t be bothered to supply earphones any longer or if it was a technical failure I couldn’t determine. The use of the PA would probably be deemed as an unacceptable invasion of privacy on a National Express coach in the UK, but here in Africa it’s met only with indifference at best.

I think it is cultural phenomena. African cultures are without doubt louder and more boisterous than their Western counterparts, at least in the public spaces we inhabit (anyone who has lived in England will know the effect a few pints of lager can have on the populace). My point is that Africans seem fairly inured to noise. Or perhaps they are just more tolerant of auditory intrusion? I am often quite surprised at how quiet the inhabitants of a minibus taxi are, even if the driver isn’t blaring his tunes at full blast, which is actually quite often. Certainly my recent experiences of a Zambian coach between the town of Livingstone near the Victoria Falls and the capital Lusaka made me realise that coach travel in Zimbabwe and South Africa is quite sedate by comparison. I think the following audio clip will speak for itself. (And yes, that’s an evangelical pastor onboard).

The last Greyhound coach(es) I took were over this Easter weekend, firstly down to Vryheid to see a cousin and then between Richard’s Bay and Durban. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if these were the same coaches that were operating at the time I was at university in the Eastern Cape. They are beginning to look their age: tarnished plastic mouldings, grubby upholstery and frayed curtains. I wasn’t very impressed but at least they got me to my respective destinations without incident.

The one and only time I experienced a breakdown was on a Greyhound coach en route to Durban when, quite fortuitously, we broke down near the Montrose service station outside Harrismith. It was actually quite hilarious because we instructed to sit tight whilst they assessed the problem on the side of the busy N3 highway. After half an hour it became apparent that we weren’t going anywhere in a hurry and first one passenger then another had made a wild dash across the motorway for the bright lights and promise of hot food and beverages afforded by the service station on the other side.

They had to send a replacement bus run by a third-party operator which arrived many hours hence by which time the allure of Montrose had most certainly worn off. In the interim I’d become acquainted with a few of my fellow passengers, many Durbanites of Asian extraction, at first through the mutual commiseration that comes through collective misfortune, and later through boredom once the usual avenues of conversation had been exhausted. A one Mr Reddy had ushered me aside in a clandestine manner, a knowing smirk on his face. He brandished his phone close to his chest and showed me a grainy pornographic video clip. It really wasn’t very exciting but he seemed quite pleased with himself.

It’s only now, on reflection, that I realise how many anecdotes and recollections I have of coach travel in various locations, which is what inspired me to write this post in the first place. I guess I should round off my recollections of regional coach travel by revisiting the Jo’burg-Zimbabwe route which passes through the notorious Beit Bridge border post. I can’t remember when exactly it became synonymous with long queues, surly border officials, bribery and filth but once upon a time I actually looked on it quite fondly. I remember a place called Pete’s Motel on the Zim side where there was a swimming pool, restaurant and a general good vibe. After dark the folks took my brothers and I down to the bridge over the river Kipling described as the ‘great grey-green, greasy Limpopo’. I felt a sense of anticipation and excitement as a warm breeze buffeted my face.

The romance of the place had certainly worn off by the time I was making my bi-annual sojourn to university south of the border. After an absence of several years I revisited the place last year en route to the city of Bulawayo. It didn’t disappoint. We arrived at dawn after departing Jozi at 2000 hrs the previous evening, joining the ranks of buses waiting to transit the dreaded juncture.

I should point out that I was on the Intercape coach this time around, not much different to Greyhound, except that I’ve never had a ‘breakdown’ experience. Oh, and Intercape is unapologetically a ‘Christian-oriented’ service. They inform you of this during the booking process. Consequently one is assuaged by ‘family friendly’ films, interviews with pastors, and a medley of Christian tunes encompassing rock, gospel and even hip-hop. To be honest I don’t really mind what they present as on-board entertainment so long as it’s not unreasonably loud. They are usually quite considerate. After all Jesus would be of he was on board, wouldn’t he?

Once upon a time these so-called luxury buses (as opposed to the ‘chicken buses’ that ply these same routes laden with bags, poultry and even goats bound at the ankles) got preferential treatment. Not so any more. It’s now on a first come, first serve basis. I am led to believe that the ‘facilitation fees’ became unreasonable and the operators stopped paying them. We had to wait several hours before we could even get to customs and immigration and several more after that. If you are fortunate you might be able to sleep a bit longer but the temperatures rise rapidly after dawn (Beit Bridge is, after all, not much above sea level).

However tolerant one is of the weather, there is no avoiding the noise of passengers moving about and the almost certain intrusion of a blind old beggar, man or woman, inevitably accompanied by a small child bearing a styrofoam cup or bowl for charitable donations. The old beggar will sing a sad lament and clap his or her hands in time as they walk up and down the length of the isle. Although it’s really quite sad it’s hard not to feel pity. In a way I admire the bus driver for permitting this brief intrusion into an otherwise mind-numbing wait. I can’t imagine it being sanctioned by HQ back in Johannesburg, but it reminds me that Africans too have a sense of charity even if the continent often seems so Darwinian in its antics.

I remember seeing a Zimbabwean customs official standing, arms crossed, for at least 45 minutes, before he deigned to inspect our belongings. Being a self-appointed investigative journalist I took it upon myself to photograph various aspects of the border crossing. I got a good one of my fellow passengers queued outside the bus with our bags at the ready waiting for our lethargic border official to spring into action.

An illustration of one of the delights that awaits the hapless traveller at the Beit Bridge border post: queueing outside the bus at dawn with all ones belongings on display.

At least the cockroaches were largely absent this time. I recalled how at one stage they would scuttle amongst the buses over the interlocking paving-blocks seeking shelter beneath bags and boxes. It was testament to the amount of filth and rubbish discarded in the vicinity of the border post. Even once a cursory inspection of the bags had been made we still had to await official authorization before we could proceed. I recall standing on the far side of the customs offices with a fellow passenger, a young guy returning to see his parents near Bulawayo.

I discreetly photographed some of the other passengers seated along the perimeter of the paving. Well, I thought I was being discreet, except that another young-ish fellow had sauntered over to us with a half-smile on his face. He stopped short of me and flourished some sort of identity card which proclaimed him to be an agent of the much-maligned CIO. The smile disappeared simultaneously. His jaw jutting out aggressively he asked me what I thought I was doing.

“No photographs here. Don’t you know this is a security zone? Heh? Are you Al Qaeda? Tell me, are you?”

Perhaps this was a tongue-in-cheek jibe directed at my bearded countenance. I was only slightly alarmed and replied that I was very sorry being an ignorant tourist who just wanted to show everyone back home the lovely country I was passing through. He sniggered at this most obvious of lies and with a final caution he turned his back on us. My friend from the bus was not very impressed. “You have to be careful man, these guys don’t mess around.” I’m not so sure they don’t.

The photograph that almost got me in serious trouble. Passengers bask in the sun waiting for their coaches to clear customs and immigration.

On the other side of the world in Europe coach travel tends to be far less eventful. The English for one do not like travel to be eventful. It is mostly about punctuality and lack of incident. There are no on-board movies, animated evangelicals, hop-on, hop-off beggars or the like. If one feels the need to use a mobile phone, one is asked to be respectfully quiet. One is not prevented from eating but fast food is a definite no-no in direct contrast to the African coaches where a distinct aroma of fried chicken pervades the interior cabin after a lunch break. Seat belts are to be work at all times.

Probably the best coach I’ve been on was in Poland where each seat was provisioned with a console, much like most modern aircraft. There was a selection of movies, TV programs and music to choose from. Over in Turkey coach travel is remarkably efficient between the various far-flung towns and cities. Although the country has a surprisingly well-developed domestic air industry coaches remain the most affordable means of travel. In some cases they come with seatback consoles but the material was inevitably in Turkish. The real bonus is the coffee and soft drinks that are served during the journey by the stewards.

I’ve met many interesting people on coaches, your average Joes and others who would be more difficult to categorise. I didn’t expect to meet an observant Muslim man who was also an avid collector of British first day covers on one of the Turkish routes for instance; nor a young lady of African descent who took quite a shine to me on a trip up from Durban. We later met up for a drink and we even held hands walking through central Johannesburg, a proposition that made me feel wonderfully rebellious. That would have been outright illegal 25 years ago and would still have raised eyebrows a long while after. My peripatetic lifestyle precluded any further development to the relationship.

So in the age of the automobile, rail and burgeoning air travel I hope I can make a case for the humble coach. We occasionally read of an unfortunate accident such as the one that claimed the lives of a dozen students in Spain recently, but considering how many journeys must be made every day, it’s quite admirable that there aren’t many more. Statistically it probably isn’t as safe as air travel but I’ll no doubt rely on them for a few more adventures before my travelling days are done.

Waiting to purchase my ticket at Park Station behind the four wise men…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Summer Workaway Adventures, Part I

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It is hard to believe that I have just come back from a four month Workaway experience on the continent. It seemed like I departed a year ago at least so rich and varied has the experience been for me. After returning from a memorable three months in Africa backpacking from Cape Town to the shores of Lake Tanganyika I didn’t think I’d be able to round off the remainder of the year in Europe in any way as exciting. How wrong I was to be proven.

After returning from a memorable three months in Africa backpacking … I didn’t think I’d be able to round off the remainder of the year in Europe in any way as exciting. How wrong I was to be proven.

I selected a varied number of projects on the site, Workaway.info, based on things I’d knew I’d probably enjoy and a few I wasn’t so sure about but which looked interesting. Workaway is a website which facilitates pairing hosts with volunteers for a number of different projects varying from farm labouring to au pairing to assisting in hotels and hostels.

The two parties enter into a non-binding contract whereby the host provides board and lodging and the volunteer provides whatever service is required of them (as per the host requirements on the website). Central to it is that the agreement between host and workaway is a purely social contract i.e. no money change hands.

Workaway is a website which facilitates pairing hosts with volunteers for a number of different projects varying from farm labouring to au pairing to assisting in hotels and hostels.

I made the decision to avoid flying, or at least to keep it to a minimum. I set off from my uncle’s house in Poole in early August on a cross-channel ferry to Cherbourg. I had set myself a conservative budget of about maybe 1200 pounds, the idea being that I was only going to pay travel costs and entertainment. If I was frugal I should spend even less.

My spirits had been flagging a little, due in some part to the uncertainty of setting out into the unknown, alone. It didn’t help that my arrival in Cherbourg coincided with a spell of rainy weather. The historic harbour – the 2nd largest artificial harbour in the world – was a strange, place-out-of-time experience. Before the buildings of modern Cherbourg hove into view through the mist there was for a while only the Napoleonic harbour walls stretching far out to sea and attendant fortifications, long obsolete. It was quite eerie.

Before the buildings of modern Cherbourg hove into view through the mist there was for a while only the Napoleonic harbour walls stretching far out to sea…

I struggled for the next few hours to find my way to a campsite on the edge of town. When I got there I found myself walking in the wrong direction, hopelessly lost. A chill wind was blowing hard off the sea. My first stroke of good fortune came in the shape of a Frenchman, Roland, grey-haired and lost in thought. I politely approached him and asked for directions. He steered me back to the camping/caravan site and before long I had a spot allocated me and my one-man tent.

He looked a little concerned considering the weather but the next day he picked me up and showed me some highlights of the district. An interesting and thoughtful man he also introduced me to his other half at the local market as well as his youngest son and Thai wife, selling SE Asian cuisine from a mobile caravan.

After two damp nights at the campsite I jumped on a train and headed to Bayeux, arguably the highlight of my trip through Normandy. What else but the Bayeux tapestry can elicit such emotion? An amazing work of historical art. Absolutely fascinating, accompanied by a charming audio commentary. Very much recommended.

What else but the Bayeux tapestry can elicit such emotion? An amazing work of historical art.

From Bayeux I continued to Caen and it’s chic riverside shopping malls and apartments. That said the charm soon wore off as I found myself walking for an absolute age looking for my hostel, or as they call them there, l’auberge de jeunesse.

As with other youth hostels I stayed in whilst in France I found it to be fairly utilitarian: clean and functional but without much charm. All the same I got my head down soon after arriving and was up early and refreshed. As I write I was trying hard to recall the exact route I took from there. I recall that it was a longer train journey this time to either le Man or Tours whereupon I had to change to another train to Poitiers.

Arriving in Poitiers I was met by Gerard, similar in age to Roland and also sporting a clipped moustache, but shorter and wearing a pair of round spectacles. He put me in mind of an old photograph of my great grandfather on my dad’s side of the family. He had a ready smile but his English was non-existent. Thus with some difficulty, initially at least, I was forced to use my schoolboy boy French. It was good experience and a necessary one dare I say.

Arriving in Poitiers I was met by Gerard, similar in age to Roland and also sporting a clipped moustache, but shorter and wearing a pair of round spectacles.

Despite the transient difficulties I had a wonderful time at le Jardin de Verrines, a smallholding on which Gerard grew vegetables and created all manner of articles from his barn-cum-workshop. We made a rocket-stove, a bicycle-powered washing machine and from his garden harvested an abundance of vegetables and fruit.

Everything was done in the spirit of permaculture. No artificial pesticide or fertilisers were used and boy did it taste good. “Tres bon” as I found myself saying time and time again. No superlatives could do justice to the cherry tomatoes! I dare say I could have gorged myself on those alone for the several weeks I was there.

We made a rocket-stove, a bicycle-powered washing machine and from his garden harvested an abundance of vegetables and fruit.

From Verrines I turned back north and caught a train to the historic city of Orleans where Joan of Arc (Jeanne d’Arc) rose to prominence in the early 15th century. There were references to her everywhere, at least one statue, a museum and a house where she had allegedly lived, now a national heritage site. I wasn’t there to see the maid of Orleans, however, but rather as an entry point into the much acclaimed Loire Valley along which many 100’s of kilometres of cycle lanes have been purposely built under a scheme called Loire à Vélo.

I hired a bicycle for several days (I had to extend it slightly) and set out from my hostel in the south of the city in a westerly direction. It was a truly memorable few days cycling in what was still late summer: long, warm days followed by cool, 8 hour nights.

The Loire is dotted with historic villages, towns and old chateaux.

The Loire is dotted with historic villages, towns and old chateaux. The latter are a big attraction and draw in much of the tourism alongside the wine tours; campers, caravaners and cyclists like myself; visitors to the towns and villagers; etc. The best part of this leg of my trip was simply the pleasure of riding alongside the broad river, periodically reading the information boards and all the while taking in the subtle changes in colour, character and landscape.

The best part of this leg of my trip was simply the pleasure of riding alongside the broad river

The birdlife was good and ensured that my binoculars were always close at hand. From time to time I could even see the fat, dark forms of fish lazily holding their position mid-stream. The occasional fisherman sat on the bank or stood waist-deep in the water, a study in patience, oblivious to the modern world and the buzz of its motorways, aeroplanes and passing traffic, me included.

I didn’t go quite as far as Tours but instead turned back towards Orleans at chateau Chenonceau. From Orleans I caught another train southbound again to Toulouse, known popularly as La Ville Rose due to the prevalence of pink-coloured stone used to construct many of its buildings. There I stayed with a friend, Rui, whom I’d been at school with in Zimbabwe. I had lived with him for some months in the the town of Luton in the UK where he worked in the aviation industry.

From Orleans I caught another train southbound again to Toulouse, known popularly as La Ville Rose…

It was no coincidence that he was in Toulouse, the heart of the aviation industry in Europe. As in the UK he worked long hours and I didn’t see that much of him. Consequently I had a good deal of time in the several days I spent with him to explore the city and enjoy the buzz of its many parks, cafes and squares.

Best of all was sitting on the east bank of the Garonne as dusk approached, a plastic glass of wine in hand (purchased from a 24 hr store near he apartment), accompanied by a packet of peanuts and a rolled cigarette. Guilty pleasures.

Best of all was sitting on the east bank of the Garonne as dusk approached, a plastic glass of wine in hand … a packet of peanuts and a rolled cigarette

Sitting there, watching the sun set behind the dome of the chapel of the Hôpital Saint-Joseph de la Grave alongside many other like-minded individuals, many of them students, gave me a sense of bonhomie and good will even though I knew none of them individually.

After a weekend in Toulouse I met my next hosts near St Cyprienne Metro station. Anne and Hector used to live in the city but now resided in a small town about an hour or so to the south. It nestled near the confluence of the Garonne and the Salat.

I spent only a couple of weeks with the family, busy with their varied lives, helping Hector insulate a barn-roof.

I spent only a couple of weeks with the family, busy with their varied lives, helping Hector insulate a barn-roof. The barn itself he had partitioned into an upstairs and downstairs area. The area beneath was living space and the upper floor was to be a large music room replete with stage and lighting.

The job itself was instructional but not particularly exciting. More of interest to me was being in a position to explore the surrounding area. One weekend I took Hector’s town bike, slung a sleeping bag, tent and some provisions on the back, and headed for the Pyrenees just a little further south. I cycled from Montréjeau to Luchon and took in a wealth of sites in-between: old monasteries; orchards; medieval towns and sweeping vistas.

One weekend I took Hector’s town bike … and headed for the Pyrenees just a little further south.

That night I camped up near a village calleed Sost, renowned for it’s cheese, and the next day cycled all the way up to Lac d’Oô, an artificial lake fronting some jagged, snow-capped peaks. There were signs saying beware of avalanches but the meadows and hillslopes were still green and cheerful. It was a magical weekend and will live on in my memory for many years to come.

My Workaway experience may have ended here as plans for the next stopover in Italy fell by the wayside. I had intended to make my way across Italy and the Balkans towards Greece but decided, somewhat spur of the moment, to fly back to Istanbul.

I’d been in Turkey earlier in the year teaching English at a language school near the capital and sharing an apartment with my old friend Sofian. If you have read any of my other travelogue you might recall him from an earlier Turkish chapter, a summer language camp in the provincial town of Merzifon. I had also visited him in his home-country, Algeria.

I would like to say that I was confident in my decision to travel on to Turkey but the moment I crossed into Turkish airspace I felt I had made a wrong one. Menacing grey clouds blanketed the landscape below and on the ground the city was inundated after days of incessant rain. I couldn’t help but feel the weight of it pushing down on me.

I would like to say that I was confident in my decision to travel on to Turkey but the moment I crossed into Turkish airspace I felt I had made a wrong one.

I headed out of the city towards Izmit, really just a satellite of Istanbul, to where I’d taught earlier in the year. I checked into a hotel in the meantime. Much of the novelty had worn off and now what impressed me most was the seemingly endless extent of concrete buildings, factories and apartment blocks for the 70 or so kilometres en route.

To get to the point I was offered a teaching place at a new language centre in a neighbouring town, Sakarya, but without the assurance of a place to stay nor a negotiated salary. I asked for a few days to think about it and returned to Istanbul. It was there that I realised that my journey was only half complete. I’d really wanted to go to Greece at the outset and I was only a stone’s throw away so to speak.

I’d really wanted to go to Greece at the outset and I was only a stone’s throw away so to speak.

I returned to Izmit and declined the offer in person and immediately felt a sense of lightness and relief. At last I felt the urge to meet up with several friends and students I had engaged with earlier in the year and the return trip seemed to have a purpose after all.

As an aside it is worth pointing out that elections were imminent after the failure to form a coalition government after a prior general election earlier in the year. This may have contributed to some of the tension I felt in the air. Additionally, Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian conflict seemed to have intensified, as had the involvement of other powerful nations. The morning news bulletins were laden with infographics of Russian warplanes on bombing sorties although I couldn’t understand any of the attendant commentary.

The morning news bulletins were laden with infographics of Russian warplanes on bombing sorties…

On my way back to Istanbul prior to my outgoing flight out to Athens I took the intercity train for the first time. It didn’t go all the way into the heart of the city and I had to find a way to get across to one of the metro stations for that purpose. I was helped in that respect by a polite, somewhat reserved young man from Ankara University.

We conversed a little and he told me in halting English that he was studying medicine. He was on his way back to Istanbul to visit his parents for the weekend. That was a Thursday evening. On the weekend a terrorist bombing blamed on Islamist radicals in Syria would kill dozens of his co-students who were participating in a peace rally in the capital. It was a small consolation to know that he wasn’t amongst them.

That Friday morning I was greeted by clear skies, a good omen. An indirect flight, I had to catch a connecting plane in Izmir, a popular tourist spot on the Aegean coast. As I flew on to Athens, the Med sparkling beneath, islands dotted here and there, it seemed inconceivable that there was a tide of refugees attempting to cross those same waters to Europe. But more of that in the next chapter. The French leg of my journey was over and despite my Turkish diversion I was back on course for more adventures in Athens and beyond.

The French leg of my journey was over and despite my Turkish diversion I was back on course for more adventures in Athens and beyond.

The Marmaris Straights

You can read more on my French Workaway experience on my sister blog which include a few funny anectdotes at the end.

Using the Experience of Travel to Contextualise My Life

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I’ve lived and worked almost half-a-dozen different countries in the last 10 years and probably travelled to a further three or four at least – Zimbabwe (home); South Africa (studies and work); Namibia, Botswana and Zambia (travel); the UK (work); Turkey (work and travel); Spain (travel); and France (work and travel). Of course it’s futile to try to go everywhere, to see everything, but I’ve felt a great desire to see and understand the way human societies operate and interact with each other.

Travel compels us to confront the world and challenges our perceptions of it

Travel compels us to confront the world and challenges our perceptions of it. Are other people just like me? No, but many of them seem similar in appearance, habit, likes, hates, tastes, desires etc. Do people live similar lives in other places? Surprisingly so actually, after taking into account differences in climate, topography, local economy etc. My impression of that swathe of humanity I’ve encountered in my travels is that, by and large, we act mostly on hard-wired impulses within the limits of law and society, the cultural aspects of societies providing context.

My impression of that swathe of humanity I’ve encountered in my travels is that, by and large, we act mostly on hard-wired impulses…

I can say this as a person coming from an emotionally and socially insular background witnessing first-hand the market places, shops, stalls, malls, squares, streets, pubs and restaurants where the majority of humanity gather on a daily basis for at least a portion of their daily routine. I’ve seen very few people obeying a strict, religiously codified way of life, except perhaps a section of Muslim society during the month of Ramadan and the Benedictine monks I co-existed with for a week at Belmont Abbey at Hereford in the UK.

The truth of it is that I marvel at how the world has come to be the way it is: the spread of mechanised agriculture; modern cities with their concrete and metal infrastructure; the pervasiveness of the internet; parking lots and MacDonald’s outlets; tin cans; plastic bags; highways; cars; suits and ties… the list goes on and on. It is paradoxical to think that amongst all this complexity there seems to be an underlying desire for some sort of accord or common purpose.

It is paradoxical to think that amongst all this complexity there seems to be an underlying desire for some sort of accord or common purpose.

I always marvel that most people seem to have an intuitive knowledge of such things, perhaps almost an expectation, that the world may look different from place to place, but that the people and things people aspire to will be similar. It’s taken a while for me to catch on. I grew up in post-colonial Zimbabwe in an English-speaking environment.

Most Europeans claimed some degree of British ancestry, myself included, although mixed marriages were common. My father’s ancestors were Cypriot for instance. Besides other minority European groups such as the Greeks, Portuguese, Italians and Afrikaans-speakers, there were Asians of Indian/Pakistani descent and a large proportion of bilingual Africans. I went to school with Shona and Ndebele kids from an early age. We didn’t think anything of it.

That’s not to say that there weren’t racial issues in society but at that age we were largely ignorant of the ethnically motivated violence perpetrated after independence in the south of the country and the racism that remained in some sectors of white society. How sad it is that generational issues, buried for a period of time can later resurface so viciously. I’ve just finished reading Heidi Holland’s Dinner with Mugabe which goes some way to explaining the roots of my home country’s present divisions and woes.

I’ve just finished reading Heidi Holland’s Dinner with Mugabe which goes some way to explaining the roots of my home country’s present divisions and woes.

HH did some excellent research in compiling her book, mostly through first-hand interviews. It’s interspersed with analysis – her own, of those interviewed and insights gleaned from professional people with training in psychology. In the final analysis she suggests that a better way of dealing with Mugabe, in terms of diplomacy, would be for the West to treat him with a bit more respect. It is hard for many of us to think in those terms but it has to be remembered that he is the head of state, however undemocratic that position may be, and that he was the subject of some injustices under the previous white administrations.

The thing with ‘Mad Bob’ is that he’s not actually that mad, although there are some strong arguments to be made in favour of self-delusional patterns of thought. What seems to underpin what must surely be his final years in office, is a very strong desire to be remembered as the leader who stood up to British imperialism without backing down. He says as much in the final chapter. He wants this to be his legacy.

What seems to underpin what must surely be (Mugabe’s) final years in office, is a very strong desire to be remembered as the leader who stood up to British imperialism without backing down

That won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has followed Zimbabwean political discourse in the last 20 years but HH felt, as do I, that the West has taken the wrong approach in dealing with the man. He wants so desperately to be loved by the British after all. Flatter him and acknowledge him and use this as leverage for implementing dialogue. No dialogue, no progress.

Just like the Robert Mugabe she portrays as a rather complex character, moulded in large part by his childhood experiences, I’ve asked myself many times over the years how it was I came to hold my particular view of the world when I was 10-13-15-18 years of age. What were the predominant forces? Who were the main actors, main influencers? I’ve no doubt that most were within my society rather than without.

I can, for instance, recall my father being for the most part an affable man but outspoken. He was a lawyer so that probably goes with the territory. Nonetheless he held some prejudicial views which reflected in part those of the society he grew up in and in part views held by his mum (my grandfather died when I was very young. Too young to remember his character). One of these prejudicial views involved looking down on those who were different either in opinion or character. I didn’t realise it then but much of what he said was about projecting an image of authority and certainty whereas beneath he was a rather insecure man.

(my father) held some prejudicial views which reflected in part those of the society he grew up in and in part views held by his mum

South of the border apartheid South Africa was in existence until my mid-teens. I remember as a youngster traveling down to the South African coastal city of Durban with my family on our annual summer vacation. En route we’d drive through some unusual-sounding towns like Messina, Louis Trichardt and Pietersburg. Once we stopped off at a place called Warmbaths which was actually a spot with natural hotsprings, popular with local Europeans. I was probably only 8 or 9 years old and when the ticket person at the gate started talking to me in a strange, guttural tongue that neither me nor my brother understood, the two of us bolted back to our mother embarrassed.

Of course the language we’d confronted was Afrikaans. Back then I used to make my brothers laugh impersonating the news-readers on SABC which aired in both English and Afrikaans in those days, the late 80s. I didn’t think much about the English-Afrikaans division over the years except that van der Merwe jokes were popular in the community. Van was a dim-witted Afrikaans dude who was always doing something dumb and his antics elicited many laughs much in the same way as the English tell jokes about the idiot Irishman. I didn’t think much about it all the same.

It was only much later when I attended Rhodes University in the Eastern Cape of South Africa for 2 years that I had to revisit the question of my white African identity. A relatively small town it was overlooked by a garish brick-and-concrete monument (the mont) to the 1820 Settlers (British). Many of their descendents still lived in the area. The vast majority of the student body were native English speakers and Afrikaans was only heard amongst the working class ‘coloured’ ladies in the kitchens and supermarket tills in town. I remember Afrikaners aka Dutchmen/rocks/rock-spiders/slopes being the butt of a lot of jokes amongst my (mostly) white English-speaking South African housemates.

I remember Afrikaners aka Dutchmen/rocks/rock-spiders/slopes being the butt of a lot of jokes amongst my (mostly) white English-speaking South African housemates.

Once, when one of them heard Afrikaans being spoken on campus by a couple of female students he told them to ‘shut up’ in no uncertain terms which completely astounded me at the time. Ironically, it turned out he was from Klerksdorp, a predominately Afrikaans-speaking town just outside metropolitan Jo’burg. In retrospect it’s not that surprising. I imagine Rob growing up in an atmosphere of tribal rivalry which obviously left its mark.

I dropped out of Rhodes after two years for personal reasons and certainly nothing to do with any of the anecdotes I mention here. It was only several years later when I returned to South Africa to finish my Honours degree at another university, Tuks, in the largely Afrikaans capital city of Pretoria did I learn that this white-on-white discrimination cut both ways. It certainly was not pervasive but it was subtly present on several occasions.

My impression of many Afrikaners, both then and now, is that they are culturally and linguistically distinct and what that to be appreciated in those terms. I think what many people looking at the country as outsiders fail to understand is the uneasy alliance between the English and Afrikaans speaking people under the legislative apartheid of the Afrikaans-led National Party during the last century.

My impression of many Afrikaners, both then and now, is that they are culturally and linguistically distinct and what that to be appreciated in those terms

I’ve talked to many Afrikaners who will tell you, straight to your face, how they’re the real victims of history, how they were first compelled to leave Europe for reasons of religious disagreement, later falling foul of the British and even now misunderstood by the world at large. “We just want to be left alone,” is one sentiment I heard from a well-spoken, late 30-something Afrikaans man smoking a pipe during my stay in Cape Town earlier this year.

Not only did it make me want to understand the roots of European colonialism on the sub-continent better but it got me thinking more about the nature of colonisation and the fact that no nation is every guaranteed influence over other nations in perpetuity. The world expands and shifts as so do alliances, cultures and languages.

The world expands and shifts as so do alliances, cultures and languages.

My point is that alliances between former opponents are occupiers are a necessity in the game of nation-building. What happened in South Africa cannot be dismissed out of hand as a blighted exercise in colonial opportunism. There were tangible economic benefits even if the racial discrimination was awful. Knowing this and being more in tune with civil liberties, human rights and notions of equal opportunity for all, is it not still pertinent to remember the value of forging difficult alliances in order that our different societies and cultures can get on with the business of doing business?

Now here I am sitting in France, another nation with a rich and colourful history and I realise that, despite doing four years of French language instruction at high school, I still know very little about the people themselves let alone the subtleties of the language which evade me now rather as they did then. What I can say is that all the French people I’ve had the good fortune to work and live alongside thus far have been very friendly and approachable.

I’ve seen first hand a long and proud history as manifest in the architecture of medieval towns and villages, and within the centres of bigger cities too. Numerous churches and cathedrals span centuries of civilisation. The people speak a different language, have their own cuisine, culture and so forth. Many speak no English at all. Yet they appear to live as others in the West do and enjoy the fruits of economic prosperity. It strikes me that we could just as easily be living in a world where French was the principal language rather than English.

It strikes me that we could just as easily be living in a world where French was the principal language rather than English

Going back to my previous analogy, I suppose that in the same manner Afrikaans and English will persist in Southern Africa side by side even if English is the more international of the two. I’ve come to the conclusion that language and culture are so intertwined that it is probably very difficult to reject one without the loss of the other. Perhaps we need look no further than the British Isles to understand the value of alliances amongst near-neighbours.

Perhaps we need look no further than the British Isles to understand the value of alliances amongst near-neighbours

It seems to me that the Irish (Republic), the Scots and the Welsh have taken to the English language quite widely yet retained their own native dialects (I don’t know percentages off-hand). They remain culturally distinct and enjoy good trade and labour relations with their more powerful neighbour. In the case of the Scots and perhaps the Welsh too, they have won back chunks of sovereignty from the Union that may well culminate in full autonomy in a relatively short space of time without compromising the aforementioned benefits.

As for me, my heart is not British but I speak their tongue and I admire their achievements, much of their culture, and their long-established form of democracy which at least ensures a periodic change in leadership. I hold a British passport because Mugabe left me and countless others a stark ‘either/or’ scenario in forbidding dual nationality. Having a Zimbabwean passport in this day and age is pretty limiting i.t.o. travel and work opportunities. Like many other young Zimbabweans of my generation we are sad and angry at having our dreams of a ‘normal’ life in that country dashed because of things that had nothing to do with us, prior to our births.

Like many other young Zimbabweans of my generation we are sad and angry at having our dreams of a ‘normal’ life in that country dashed because of things that had nothing to do with us

Some of us blame our parents and their generation for either naiveté or having kept too many skeletons in the closet. We are also angry with Mugabe, the man who once promised unity and reconciliation, before he became the intolerant dictator that he is today. Better that he had been a Marxist from day one rather than get our hopes up for a land of equal opportunity. Who is going to be brave enough to stand up and challenge a status quo that gives us little cause to celebrate. Is it time for another form of nationalism, not based on race, but on our right to live with equal rights in the land of our upbringing?

Shiwa Ng’andu and Some RnR at Kapishya Hot Springs

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I did get a half-decent night’s sleep at Bayama’s Lodge but not without getting up sometime after midnight for a clandestine ‘bucket bath’ from a large barrel of water situated near the dining area. It was pretty chilly by that hour of the night but the way I saw it the cold was temporary but the relief from the layers of grime and sweat, especially around the groin and armpits, would be immeasurable. I know there might be a few hardened travellers out there having a chuckle but honestly it made all the difference when I slipped back into my sleeping bag.

I did get a half-decent night’s sleep at Bayama’s Lodge but not without getting up sometime after midnight for a clandestine ‘bucket bath’

Well, speaking truthfully it hadn’t been as straight forward as that. Needing to warm up a bit after washing I trod softly towards where the night-watchman was quietly snoring next to a brazier of glowing embers. I obviously hadn’t trodden softly enough because he awoke with a start. However, he seemed glad of the company and we talked for quite some time about various things. He was a humble man with one good eye and the other misty and obviously blind.

He told me that he used to be good friends with an Anglican clergyman before the man had emigrated back to Britain. His mind stretched back to pre-independence days (before 1964), and I thought of all the changes he had seen in Zambia during his lifetime. He regretted having no other means of supporting himself or his wife because it was not a sociable job and he had to sleep most of the daylight hours. He said prospects were better for his children. I remember brewing a cup of instant coffee in a small pot on the embers and little while later saying goodnight.

His mind stretched back to pre-independence days (before 1964), and I thought of all the changes he had seen in Zambia during his lifetime.

The following morning the night-watchman was gone and after packing my tent I headed back to the main road. Andreas had advised an early start the evening before. I strolled past the service station where the vendors were already establishing themselves – women with buckets of fried chicken, packets of boiled cassava root, dried fish, packet biscuits, soft drinks and so forth. More than one taxi driver tried to tempt me into a ride but I wasn’t budgeting for those sort of prices.

IMG_20150604_090135474Close to the place where my two companions of the day before had deposited me I found a crowd of onlookers surrounding a large haulage vehicle on its side. Was anyone injured I asked someone passing by.

He smiled and explained that everyone was fine and that it actually happened quite often. It was not apparent how considering the flatness of the road and the surrounds. Perhaps he had swerved to avoid something or someone and his load shifted position and flipped the cab? A policeman appeared and shooed people away from the front of the vehicle and proceeded to place a few leafy branches as a kind of perimeter marker.

A policeman appeared and shooed people away from the front of the vehicle and proceeded to place a few leafy branches as a kind of perimeter marker.

I continued past the upturned truck and crossed to the other side of the road. There was a row of shops here housing a number of enterprises: a hair salon, a grocers and general store amongst them. I bought a few fresh provisions and then scouted around for a lift. I was told that this was the best spot for lifts heading north on the Tanzam Highway. I needed to get some 80 km up the road to a T-junction and the road to Shiwa Ng’andu.

I approached the driver of a silver saloon and inquired about a lift. It wouldn’t be a problem. He named his price, 20 ZKM, which seemed quite reasonable and far cheaper than the taxi option. First up, however, he needed to go into town to get some fresh meat supplies. He had come all the way from Chinsali, some 300 km by road, for provisions. He told me that it was still cheaper to drive all that distance to buy these commodities in Mpika rather than Chinsali where the traders put on a hefty mark-up. Possibly he was intending to resell some of these goods himself.

He had come all the way from Chinsali, some 300 km by road, for provisions

So a short while later we drove the short distance into town to the butchery he had in mind. It was still not yet open but as we waited the number of prospective customers grew in number so that when the doors did swing open for service there was a surge of bodies into the shop. Fortunately we were at the front. I hung back as my driver friend stocked up on a variety of beef cuts and other bits and pieces. I was paying more attention to the other clientele, the businessmen and housewives all vying for the attention of the shopkeepers.

IMG_20150604_093911555On the walk across to the vehicle I noticed a vendor selling a variety of DVDs. The selection of titles ranged from popular Hollywood action flicks to Nigeria’s Nollywood toting films like ‘Adolphus the Village Hunter’ and ‘Who is the King?’ I couldn’t read many of the titles because of the way they were filed on the display stand but I could see that ‘Nigeria vs Ghana’ also featured on several of them. On the bottom row were a selection of Asian (Chinese?) films with titles like ‘Destined Heart’ and various combinations of the words ‘eternity’, ‘life’ and ‘love.’

The selection of titles ranged from popular Hollywood action flicks to Nigeria’s Nollywood toting films like ‘Adolphus the Village Hunter’ and ‘Who is the King?’

We made our way back to the main road and before long there were two other people in the backseat as we progressed north. The driver had a sense of urgency that was lacking the day before, not that I’d minded, but now the kilometres dropped away and it wasn’t long before we were at the turnoff. My luck held out as a few minutes later a rickety old land cruiser pulled up near to where I’d decamped beneath the main road sign. The driver leaned out his near side window and asked me if I was after a lift.

It was only 12 km to my destination but the driver was going all the way through to the Kasama Rd. I would need to follow that route but first I wanted to see two particular places on the way. I was told lifts were erratic but my faith in fate and good fortune had not failed me yet. Therefore, a short while later, after offering the driver 10 or 15 ZKM, he deposited me at the entrance to the famous Shiwa Ng’andu estate. I say famous because in recent years it had seen a revival in its fortunes.

I was told lifts were erratic but my faith in fate and good fortune had not failed me yet.

The estate dated back to when an Englishman, Sir Stewart Gore Brown, had established a presence in the area and built a virtual self-administered enclave miles from the nearest railway and European settlement. He’d been involved with the Anglo-Belgian Boundary commission which had established the border between Northern Rhodesia and the Belgian Congo in the early part of the century. He had scoured the land between Ndola and Lake Tanganyika for somewhere suitable and had settled on this land near Lake Ishiba Ng’andu which in the Bemba language means lake of the royal crocodile.

(Sir Stewart Gore-Browne) had settled on this land near Lake Ishiba Ng’andu which in the Bemba language means lake of the royal crocodile.

It was pleasant countryside – open woodland with clumps of water-loving trees and palms near the water’s edge. It wasn’t difficult to understand why Gore-Brown had chosen this spot to settle. I had read an acclaimed book on the history of Shiwa Ng’andu and the eccentric aristocratic who lorded over it by the author Christina Lamb (The Africa House: The True Story of an English Gentleman and His African Dream, HarperCollins, 2005). In truth I had no intention of visiting the place when I set off from Lusaka but when Mike du Plessis in Mpika had reminded me that it was well worth a visit I recalled the book and quickly factored it into my plans.

It was pleasant countryside – open woodland with clumps of water-loving trees and palms near the water’s edge.

IMG_20150604_120457169_HDRWell I won’t say too much more about Sir Stuart except to say that his dream of building a European style manor estate in the heart of the African bush was bold, ambitious and grandiose. Was it foolhardy, a little too egotistic? No doubt his legacy will divide opinion. It was certainly strange to see slate-roofed, red-brick houses with whitewashed fronts built purposefully for the local labour and staff, African kids playing nearby and chickens pecking around the bare-swept courtyards. According to Wikipedia: The estate had its own schools, hospitals, playing fields, shops, and post office. Workers lived in brick-built cottages and the estate was ruled as a benevolent autocracy [Link to article]

It seems the impression that Gore-Brown left with black Zambians was predominantly positive. It is said he embraced a racially inclusive political mindset. In any event he was granted a state funeral – the only white man to have ever had the honour – and his descendants have maintained ownership of the farm and adjacent tracts of land. My companions on the road the day before had remarked that there was no reason to grant the area of Shiwa Ng’andu its own territorial status, something almost akin to a province, except as a nod to the importance of the estate. They thought it was a bit ridiculous.

In any event he was granted a state funeral – the only white man to have ever had the honour – and his descendants have maintained ownership of the farm and adjacent tracts of land.

Back to the present I found myself wandering between various outbuildings looking for a reception or farm office which I did find half a kilometre further up the road. I’d noticed a sign near the approach to Manor House which said something about Shiwa House visiting hours being between 9 and 11 am and by appointment only. It had already gone 11 so I was obviously out of luck. A visit was also levied at US $40 which was not in my budget.

IMG_20150604_145923944_HDRBack at the farm office a busy black lady was tabling expenses with a pile of bills and invoices on the table in front of her. She helpfully dialled the mobile number of Mr Charles Harvey who presided over the farm. Apparently he was busy but she told me to keep an eye out for him. I went outside and looked around again. I noted that various farm implements and old machines lay idly on the edge of the gravel road and beneath some Jacaranda trees to one side. This included an old steam tractor and what appeared to be several steel boilers.

I noted that various farm implements and old machines lay idly on the edge of the gravel road and beneath some Jacaranda trees to one side.

I recall going over to a farm trailer, sitting down and taking off my shoes to give my blisters some relief. I noticed an elderly white couple nearby, examine a pig pen and then go across to a yard with several large farm vehicles. If they saw me they ignored me. Various black people, staff and labourers presumable, walked in either direction, but only the children seemed to take any particular interest in me.

Eventually a middle-aged white man appeared from somewhere. I approached him as unassumingly as possible and introduced myself and asked if he was Mr Harvey. He was. He asked whether I wanted to take a look at Shiwa House. I replied that I did if it was all the same to him. He told me to go right ahead. I was a little taken aback but he reassured me that it was fine. Without any further banter he excused himself and I was left to my own devices once more.

(He) asked whether I wanted to take a look at Shiwa House. I replied that I did if it was all the same to him. He told me to go right ahead.

I walked back towards the manor, stopping to admire the stately gatehouse from the roadside. It was dominated by a square-sided, brick clock-tower perhaps 10 to 12 metres high. The clock showed the wrong time and probably hadn’t functioned for years. Like the other brick structures on the estate it had a steeply inclined slate-tiled roof at two levels. To the right of the clock-tower the adjoining building was whitewashed which contrasted with the olive-green window-frames. The window panes were knocked out of the end windows. It looked a bit forlorn.

The clock showed the wrong time and probably hadn’t functioned for years.

IMG_20150604_144417110_HDROn closer inspection I discovered that the rooms were largely empty, bar a few low benches, the white paint peeling from the ceilings and walls. Definitely not in use I concluded. A sign above one of the doors declared that it had once been the Estate Office. There was also a neatly painted list of game under the title ‘Shiwa Game Animals.’ There were twenty-one species listed, mostly antelope.

I was unfamiliar with a few of the names like Sitantunga, Oribi and Puku. I had read somewhere that Mr Harvey had stocked the estate with some game and taken anti-poaching measures. Moments later, walking out from beneath the gatehouse I heard something bark to my right and looking up saw a small buck dashing through the undergrowth, a fluffy white tail poking up from its rump.

I continued down a pedestrian avenue until I reached another gate with a crude hand-painted sign which informed me that this was the entrance to Shiwa Manor House. I had come this far earlier from the other direction and decided against proceeding without permission. This time around it was granted. For the most part the approach to Shiwa House is obscured by the flanking trees but it was suddenly there, not a 100 metres ahead. The garden lawn was lush and green. I could see and here sprinklers at work a short way off.

I continued down a pedestrian avenue until I reached another gate with a crude hand-painted sign which informed me that this was the entrance to Shiwa Manor House.

The garden itself contained an abundance of exotic plants from red-flowering Poinsettias to spiny sisal, Jacaranda and Cyprus. This was not exactly surprising. Wherever European colonists have settled in Africa they’ve brought with them exotic plants, many collected from far-flung corners of the former empire. It occurred to me growing up in Harare that many Europeans, probably most, had never sought to take the many faces of the African landscape at face value.

There was such a staggering abundance of native flora that it was hard to understand why a Cyprus or Jacaranda was somehow preferable to a spreading Albizia or Brachystegia. No doubt it had something to do with the psyche of the settler and the desire to manipulate the landscape into something different, discernible from the communal or tribal lands which inevitably surrounded them, and perhaps remind them of home.

Wherever European colonists have settled in Africa they’ve brought with them exotic plants, many collected from far-flung corners of the former empire.

Recalling the Shiwa Estate I also remember avenues of bland cedrella trees, and woodlots of exotic gums and conifers. If the coniferous plantation I had seen the day before was the initiative of a local Zambian one could hardly blame him because the precedent was set by the Europeans.

I suppose I’m being a bit of an idealist. After all there are many innocuous garden plants that have travelled far and wide, the world over, without causing any harm. And where we would we be without the humble potato, tomato, citrus and maize plants that today are incorporated into the diets of many Africans? They were all imports to the African continent and elsewhere. It is a case of aesthetics to some degree, especially when it comes to landscaping. The one angle not I have not mentioned is that of ecology. Not all imports are beneficial to the habitat into which they’ve been introduced.

Anyway, I’ll leave it at that and get back to the present – my first impressions of Shiwa House. The entrance was flanked by two metal sculptures, one of a rhino and the other an elephant. This sort of design, welded iron plates and bars creating a composition, had become very popular in Southern Africa over the last decade or two. The lion was brilliantly portrayed with jaws open, displaying a row of rusty fangs. The rhino was stout and the various welded plates combined to convey a sense of proportion and strength.

The lion was brilliantly portrayed with jaws open, displaying a row of rusty fangs. The rhino was stout and the various welded plates combined to convey a sense of proportion and strength.

IMG_20150604_124256032_HDRThe house itself was very stately as I recalled from pictures I had seen in the book by Christina Lamb. It wasn’t as imposing as some of the English manors I’d seen such as the Luton Hoo Manor house, now a hotel, on an estate in Hertfordshire, where I had worked as a waiter for a year and a half. All he same it was impressive in size and design. The pictures speak for themselves. From an upper balcony a dog yapped furiously and unrelentingly. I tried to call to it and saw that it was only a small terrier.

From another direction a larger, tawny, short-haired dog galloped towards me. My heart missed a beat but I stood my ground. It too barked at me but by the way it backed off I knew I had the upper hand. I walked towards it with a soothing voice (or what I hoped was suitably soothing) and it grudgingly settled down. A smaller terrier appeared and was quite friendly from the outset.

IMG_20150604_124715179The dogs followed me as I made a cursory inspection of the property. The front door appeared locked but a side-door was ajar and when I opened it I realised that I was in the family chapel. There was a wooden tablet mounted on the opposite wall, topped by a coat of arms, presumably that of Gore-Browne, and inscribed in gold letters the various ancestors of Sir Stuart. At the top of the list, written in capitals, was – Sir Thomas Gore Browne, KCMG, … Regts Governor of St Helena, New Zealand, Tasmania, & Bermuda B. 1807, D. 1887.

Beneath his name was that of his wife Harriet, a reference to her parentage, and beneath their names those of their five children. The last of these, Ethel, was apparently married to Hugh Fortescue Locke King, Grandson of Peter, 7th Lord King, B. 1848, D. 1926. He Founded Shiwa. This was a bit confusing. I thought Gore-Brown had founded Shiwa? I remember reading that Sir Stewart Gore Browne had been very attached to Dame Ethel Locke King, Sir Hugh’s wife.

The chapel had a simple brick altar, the cement floor polished red and the walls inset with narrow, arched windows on two levels, letting ample light into the interior. The seating was not fixed in place – several wooden benches and chairs facing the altar. Stood in each of two alcoves on either side of the rear end of the chapel was a stylised wooden angel. The interesting thing about them was that their features were African not European.

The chapel was had a simple brick altar, the cement floor polished red and the walls inset with narrow, arched windows on two levels, letting ample light into the interior.

I had read somewhere that Sir Stewart Gore-Browne had earned the nickname chipembere or rhinoceros because of his fierce temper. I noticed another two miniature statues of the beast prominently displayed on either side of the front door which was inscribed with the date 1932 and the letters L and S on either side of the date, which I assume stood for Lorna and Stewart. Lorna had been his wife and 22 years his junior. I don’t think it had been a happy marriage and they eventually separated.

I had read somewhere that Sir Stewart Gore-Browne had earned the nickname chipembere or rhinoceros because of his fierce temper.

The front door appeared locked and no-one answered my knock. I thought about entering the house through another door which stood slightly ajar but thought better of it. Mr Harvey hadn’t said that the house was off-limits I felt uneasy venturing into another person’s house without their express consent. It would have been a different matter if it was just an abandoned relic but Harvey and his wife lived there.

I explored the garden a bit further and came across a large flame tree or Spathodea, a native of East-Central Africa. Can you recall Elspeth Huxley’s The Flame Trees of Thika? This particular specimen was very big, it’s trunk fissured and covered in parts with earthen termite passageways. About 8 or 9 feet up was a copper plate tarnished blue with oxidation, commemorating Coronation Day, 2ND June 1953. That was over 60 years ago which explained why it was so high up on the trunk.

About 8 or 9 feet up was a copper plate tarnished blue with oxidation, commemorating Coronation Day, 2ND June 1953. That was over 60 years ago which explained why it was so high up on the trunk.

Thereafter I decided it was an opportune time to take a walk, in the midday heat, down to Lake Ishiba Ng’andu after which Gore-Browne had named the estate. The crocodiles were still present or so I was told, so I wouldn’t be taking a dip, as attractive as that seemed at the time. It was a moderate walk down to the lake, hampered slightly by the heat and my sore feet. I took in the horses and young calves grazing off to one side before crossing the road, skirting the airstrip and heading though the adjacent woodlot of exotic conifers. I saw a male bushbuck on the way down.

The crocodiles were still present I was told so I would not be taking a dip, as attractive as that seemed at the time.

After a while the conifers gave way to natural woodland and a short while later I emerged on the shore of the lake which was still some way off. There was a flock of sheep grazing near the water and a shepherd boy waved from where he was sitting on an anthill. On the shoreline itself was a viewing platform. I ambled over and slowly ascended the rickety old frame. I had to be careful because some of the decking was missing but it afforded an excellent view over the lake.

IMG_20150604_135152527

I took out my compact binoculars and examined the shoreline on either side. If there were any crocodiles they were hidden from view. There was only one boat I could see out on the water, two fishermen paddling it slowly towards the shore. A short distance from me was a large clump of papyrus reeds and I got the impression that it was more of a shallow depression than a lake. I looked determinedly for any sign of birds or other life around the lake but could only make out the occasional heron. It was probably because of the heat that it was so quiet at this time of day.

On the walk back I saw another buck, a larger one with a handsome dark brown coat and distinctive white markings on the legs, torso and face. It was browsing through the short undergrowth on the edge of the coniferous woodland. He saw me simultaneously and with his long legs he dashed deeper into the woodland and was very quickly out of sight. I later looked at images of antelope on the internet which confirmed my suspicions – it was a male sitatunga, an amphibious antelope fairly widespread throughout central Africa. This was near the southern extent of its natural range.

On the walk back I saw another buck, a larger one with a dark brown coat and distinctive white markings on the legs, torso and face.

Back on the estate I confirmed with the lady in the state office the direction to Kapishya Hotsprings. Initially I was determined to walk there but it was 20 odd kilometres away and my feet were not in great shape as I have repeated several times. Sorry! I had a number for the hotel at the hot springs which I called. The man who answered it told me that transfers from Shiwa cost US $20. To be honest that wasn’t exorbitant, but being a determined budget traveller I still sought ways to minimise my expenses. He would make arrangements and confirm back with me. Meantime I decided to set off towards Kapishya.

Besides a truck crammed with chattering farm workers, some of whom waved and shouted greetings in my direction, not a single other vehicle appeared in either direction. I calculated I’d walked about 5 kms before a beige land cruiser came roaring down the gravel road from the other direction. The driver pulled up opposite me. He was a large European guy with a tanned face.

I calculated I’d walked about 5 kms before a beige land cruiser came roaring down the gravel road from the other direction.

“Are you the guy from Shiwa who wanted a transfer?” he asked. I replied that it was most likely me. He stared at me a few moments longer and then told me to sling my bag in the back and hop in.

“It’s $20, you know that don’t you?” he stated without any small talk.

“Considering that I didn’t know if you were coming and that I’ve already walked 5 km I think you should give me a discount,” I replied more boldly than I probably should have.

He stared at me another few seconds and then shrugged.

“Ok, we can make it $15 then.”

We drove a minute or two in silence and then he introduced himself as Tony. His accent was definitely antipodean but I was bad at placing accents from Down Under. He must’ve read my mind.

“I’m a Kiwi. I’ve live in Mozambique these days.” I felt the tension of the last few minuets lift. I can’t remember where he said he now stayed exactly but the Mozambique coastline is renowned for sunshine, sandy beaches and good food. He explained that the owners of the resort, Mark and Mel, had flown out to the UK to visit a sick relative at short notice. He had answered the SOS they sent out and had driven northwards via the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania and then southwards to Kapishya through northern Zambia. It had been one hell of a journey he old me. “Never again.”

Still, if you were going to do a trip over treacherous and potholed roads land cruiser was just the vehicle you wanted. They were used throughout the safari business because of their reliability, durability and power. Only the good ol’ British land rover had a similar reputation for operating in the less accessible parts of the continent.

Still, if you were going to do a trip over treacherous and potholed roads land cruiser was just the vehicle you wanted.

After a couple of kilometres Tony turned to me and asked if I wouldn’t mind doing a bit of a diversion to look for some hartebeest he thought were in the vicinity. I didn’t mind in the least. We diverted off the road at a tangent along rough track through the open woodland that flanked the hills here. We soon came to a game fence and followed it still going westwards. He told me to keep an eye out for wildlife. Despite having the task of driving he was the one to spot a kudu antelope hidden in a thicket of trees on my side of the vehicle. I remarked on his sharp vision and he replied that he had spent many years in the bush. He enjoyed hunting.

The real catch was a group of at least five of the hartebeest that we had been looking for. There was a cow and calf and several other adults, probably also females. They didn’t seem unduly disturbed. Tony explained that Mark ran anti-poaching patrols and as a result the wildlife here was well protected.

The real catch was a group of at least five of the hartebeest that we had been looking for. There was a cow and calf and several other adults, probably also females.

He reached under his seat and brought out a pair of powerful binoculars with nice big apertures to let in plenty of light. I only had my much smaller 10×25 birding binoculars. He handed his to me and, looking through them, I was surprised to find that there wasn’t a great deal of difference between the two. The image of the buck through his pair was slightly brighter but the magnification was not much different. I was suddenly very pleased with my pair which I had brought online at a discount. It occurred to me that I was becoming a bit of a guru in the budget and bargain travel department!

IMG_20150606_103352968We left the antelope in the serenity of the bush and got back onto the main road. We gathered pace and before long crossed the river that flows past Kapishya resort, village huts dotted on either side, and a few minutes later pulled up at the campsite. Tony deposited me near the entrance, telling me where I could find him and said we could sort things out later. I was the only one there so I had my pick of the place. I chose a level spot half-way to the river to pitch my little tent where the grass was a bit thicker. I was travelling without a sleeping mat after all.

We gathered pace and before long crossed the river that flows past Kapishya resort, village huts dotted on either side, and a few minutes later pulled up at the campsite.

That evening I went down to the river. It was flowing strongly but it didn’t look very deep. I could see rocks here and there and the presence of others indicated where the water frequently rippled and flowed over irregular objects beneath. I’d been warned not to swim. Mark had apparently shot a very large crocodile a short way upstream quite recently. I didn’t agree with shooting the animals even if they could predate on humans. This was their habitat after all.

IMG_20150604_171859151_HDRThe river banks were flanked by short, spreading palms with large, broad fronds reaching out over the surface. It was beautiful and peaceful. Hard to reconcile with ferocious, potential man-eating reptiles. That’s Africa in a nutshell: described with words like beauty, serenity and majesty in one breath and their antonyms ugly, chaotic and brutal in the next. Granted that these perceptions are coloured largely by man’s activities. It is enough to say that the natural world can seem very cruel and unfair at times but uplifting and untainted at times like this.

The river banks were flanked by short, spreading palms with large, broad fronds reaching out over the surface

From there I took a walk up through the rich, green, riverine vegetation to the hot springs proper. I found Tony already immersed in the shallows. The pool was 20 or 30 meters across and crystal clear. For the most part it was underlain by fine, white sand but there were also a few large, smooth rocks as well, surrounded on the one side by vegetation and on the other enclosed by a straw fence of sorts. The edge was lined by rocks and stones and it appeared that there was a weir constructed to create the shallow pool.

Tony was soaping himself at the point where water spilled over the edge of the barrier into a stream that flowed down to the river below the campsite. The owner’s black labrador was lying nearby. He followed Tony everywhere. The big man invited me in and we chatted for a while whilst the evening closed in on us. The waters were deliciously warm, a little below blood temperature I’d guess.

The waters were deliciously warm, a little below blood temperature I’d guess.

After ten minutes or so I had to expose my torso and sit on one of the rocks. It was just too hot for me. Tony didn’t seem to be suffering the same effects. I noticed how, near my feet, the sand seemed to vibrate and pulse with energy. It was if there was some sort of device beneath pumping air through in bursts. This was the source of the geothermal heat which created the hot springs in the first place.

I noticed how, near my feet, the sand seemed to vibrate and pulse with energy.

That evening I busied myself cooking a simple dish on my portable gas and meth stoves. I also washed some underwear and socks in one of the campsite basins and hung the items to dry from the guy ropes to the tent. I was hungry and also tired. It wasn’t long before I bedded down for the night.

The following day, a Friday, I woke early to a familiar sound – the melodious duet of the white-browed robin chat (formerly known as Heuglin’s robin), without doubt one of the most distinctive and melodic bird song of my childhood growing up in Harare. My cousin Dominic expressed a loathing for the avian alarm clock which would wake him up consistently at the crack of dawn he complained. Here at Kapishya I revelled in the symphony of bird call. The riverine thicket between the campsite and the hot springs was alive with their song.

The following day, a Friday, I woke early to a familiar sound – the melodious duet of the white-browed robin chat

I grabbed my binoculars and camera phone and strolled down to the water’s edge. The view was subtly different to that of the day before: a pall of pale mist now hung over the river. Not the billowing mists of the Kundalila Falls but rather delicate, white, diaphanous wisps and puffs moving gently upwards from the surface waters.

I made my way along the river’s edge towards the hot springs on one of several footpaths through the density of shrubs and trees, carefully trying not to disturb the birds in an attempt to identify some of them. It was difficult as they flicked and flitted through the undergrowth. Without a doubt there were warblers and flycatchers amongst them.

As I got closer to the resort proper I heard a bark from somewhere up in one of the cluster of Eucalyptus trees planted here. My first guess was that it was a monkey of some sort but was amazed to see that it as actually a bird, and a pretty fast-moving one at that. A flash of colour and a glimpse was enough to know that it was a turaco. It looked as though there were several of them bounding around through the trees. I had to be patient though and it took a while before I got a good enough view for a positive ID.

A flash of colour and a glimpse was enough to know that it was a turaco.

Its most distinctive feature was a corn-yellow facial ‘mask’ and thick beak beneath a bright red crest. This was Ross’s turaco, an illustration of which I had memorised from a volume of Birds of West and Central Africa, a book I had inherited from an uncle of mine and which I adored as a child. The only difference was that in that book the bird was known as Lady Ross’s turaco. Sometime during the intervening years she had lost her title. Ah well, no less exotic nor distinctive for it.

This was Ross’s turaco, an illustration of which I had memorised from a volume of Birds of West and Central Africa…

IMG_20150605_063809858_HDRI wandered past several comfortable-looking chalets, an outdoor area with a swimming pool and deck chairs before emerging near the river a bit further upstream. It was a bit wider here as it snaked in a broad bend past Kapishya. The mist hung over the water as it did by the campsite, attractively highlighted in parts by the sun as it emerged over the landscape.

I went back for some breakfast and noticed that another couple of campers had arrived in a truck. They had a mobile solar panel on the roof – it looked as though they were in for some serious overland travel. I don’t remember exactly how I spent much of the day except that it went far too quickly between enjoying some sunshine by the swimming pool, taking a few lengthy soaks in the hot springs and watching the birds. Despite the arrival of new campers there was only one other family staying at the resort.

I don’t remember exactly how I spent much of the day except that it went far too quickly…

I took the opportunity to rearrange my backpack and came to the conclusion that I was carrying too many garments, therefore I decided to get rid of two pairs of shorts and several shirts, most of which were cheap items I’d picked up in Turkey earlier in the year. I’d become acquainted with the barman, a young Zimbabwean guy, and gave him the first pick of the ‘rejects.’

I was asking for a token amount -10 or 15 ZMK (about $2). Being a typical Zimbabwean he insisted on bargaining me down further. It didn’t take long before I had one of the cooks and several other members of the establishment scuttling over to get in on the flash sale. He upshot was that I had enough for a couple of beers later on. It transpired that later on would involve more than just a few beers.

Being a typical Zimbabwean he insisted on bargaining me down further.

After taking a walk up the gravel road to one of the roadside stores to resupply on eggs, tomatoes and a few other necessities (some of which I purchased with one of the pairs of shorts) I went on an extended stroll before dusk. As I crossed behind the resort I encountered a herdsman driving several dozen head of cattle back to a kraal behind the resort buildings. It seemed Mark was doing a spot of farming like his brother Charles at the Shiwa N’gandu Estate.

That evening, as I hinted, I made my way over to the reception bar for a quiet beer. The European family were there, finishing their evening meal. I nodded a greeting to the parents. They moved off back to their chalet a little while later. I was thinking about doing the same after a couple of refreshing beers when Tony strolled in. He had been in Mpika on some shopping chores which explained his earlier absence. He sat down nearby and offered me a drink from a bottle he plonked on the counter.

They moved off back to their chalet a little while later. I was thinking about doing the same when Tony strolled in.

“Tanzanian import,” he elaborated. “I noticed them all drinking it up there so I got curious. It’s not too bad actually. A bit like gin I suppose.” He gestured for the young barman to bring us some glasses with ice. I scrutinised the label a bit closer. It had a graphic of a pair of black arms flexed above a head in profile and vested torso – some sort of muscle man apparently – beneath two inscriptions, THE PRODUCT OF TANZANIA and THE SPIRIT OF THE NATION.

CWnKO1hWcAACLTbAcross the centre of the label in large, bold type was the name of the liquor, Konyagi. There was a graphic of some forked flames depicted at the bottom of the label above the words PORTABLE SPIRIT. Didn’t they mean potable? Still, nice to know I had an alternative source of fuel for my portable meth burner. Perhaps the most important information was the bit about it being 35% Alc. Vol.

Across the centre of the label in large, bold type was the name of the liquor, Konyagi.

I have little doubt the evening had a predefined trajectory from the moment those first measures of the clear spirit were decanted. I’ve discovered a few similar accounts online of other people’s experiences with the beverage on their travels. One of these comes from a student on the blog Quench, Cardiff’s monthly student magazine. She writes:

Konyagi: It’s not vodka, it’s not gin, it’s not water and it’s barely legal outside of East Africa. As soon as that distinctive taste hits your lips, all aboard! You’re in for the long run; the Konyagi train has just departed … One minute you’re casually basking in the dry heat, having an ever so pleasant conversation with an intriguing comrade to be. Then the Konyagi takes hold … Dance moves follow, chairs are soon dispersed across the Savannah as every muscle in your body delights in this new liquid companionship. MI5 has their own unique style of truth serum, and this folks, is the key to the majority of East Africa’s police interrogations.

Link to article

I have to admit that alcohol, in moderation, is a splendid thing. It deconstructs and dissolves social inhibitions and, as the young blogger suggested, injected a serum of honesty into our discourse. I felt a tremendous feeling of bonhomie with the grizzled New Zealander who was far from the man he appeared at first glance.

I have to admit that alcohol, in moderation, is a splendid thing.

Amongst the facts I gleaned were that he had once been married once to a Japanese lady, with whom he had two girls; that he had made ‘a fortune’ from running several successful restaurants back home; that his one daughter was a budding ballerina working as an understudy at a prestigious dance school in New York; that he was in love with Africa; and that he fancied getting remarried and settling down on the coast, somewhere in Mozambique.

By the time the bottle had been equitably distributed between the two of us my head was buzzing. Tony said a hearty goodnight and staggered off to bed. I on the other hand staggered in the opposite direction and straight into the hot springs where I wallowed blissfully in the semi-darkness stripped down to my underwear for an hour or so. The leaves rustled gently in the branches above, stars twinkled through the gaps in-between and all was well with the universe… until the following morning that is.

By the time the bottle had been equitably distributed between the two of us my head was buzzing. Tony said a hearty goodnight and staggered off to bed.

My parched palette and tongue were the first reminder of the previous night’s antics but after a bowl of porridge and a final dip in the hot spring I perked up considerably. Despite whatever hit my body had taken the previous evening upon absorbing ‘The Spirit of the Nation’, on the balance of things I felt pretty well rested. I took my time packing up and it was only just after 11.00 that I settled my bill and said cheers to the bargaining barman – there was no sign of the Kiwi – that I was finally on my way again.

I suspected I was in for a bit of a hike. A signboard on the approach to Kapishya informed me that it was the length of a standard marathon to the Kasama Rd, 42 km. With a spring in my step and all the goodwill in the world I set off.

With a spring in my step and all the goodwill in the world I set off.