From the Splendid Kundalila Falls and on to Mpika

Standard

It was now early June, well into the sub-tropical ‘winter’ at that latitude. In reality this translated to cool nights and mild days in the range 20 -22 degrees C, with few clouds in the broad blue sky. In other words, almost perfect weather for backpacking!

I hadn’t been at the roadside at Mkushi long before a local man approached me with the offer of assistance. I told him that I was wanting a lift heading northwards toward Serenje, about 100 km away to the NE. He very helpfully flagged a passing minibus and without further ado I was crammed into one of the rear seats, my backpack placed up front with some other passenger luggage. The only inconvenience was having to occasionally disembark when someone further away from the sliding door wanted to get out. I can’t remember what I paid exactly but it wasn’t more than 20 ZMK.

He very helpfully flagged a passing minibus and without further ado I was crammed into one of the rear seats

Quite unexpectedly a woman’s voice with an American accent piped up behind me. The lady in question, who I struggled to turn and talk with face to face, introduced herself as Megan. She politely enquired if I was an NGO worker or a tourist. She in turn informed me that she was in the Peace Corps. I had heard of these guys, even met a few of them back in Zimbabwe years prior (they were no longer welcome by the present regime), but was unclear as to what it was they did exactly. I would meet quite a few more later on and get a clearer picture.

Quite unexpectedly a woman’s voice with an American accent piped up behind me.

Conversation was difficult in the circumstances so we didn’t get a chance to exchange much information beyond the fact that she was working in a nearby village on a social project focusing on women and that she loved it. She had the option of staying a further year and she told me she would take it. She was off to Serenje to get some provisions I seem to recall and before we knew it we were there. Megan hopped off without so much as a backward glance and was soon lost in the throng of bystanders, hawkers and roadside merchants.

Someone advised me to remain on board a while longer as we diverted off the highway towards the main trading area. I hopped off and once again, a helpful local person introduced me to a long-haulage driver and his companion. Yes, they would be prepared to take me further up the Great North Road to where I next needed to disembark.

The driver was a Tanzanian man of few words but that was okay with me considering that the road was only a dual lane highway and that it was his job to transport several hundred tons or more of copper to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. I would rather his concentration be on the road ahead than with me. I also got the impression that he had limited English. Someone previously told me that many Tanzanians are only conversant with foreigners in Swahili, a tongue spoken fairly extensively in east-central Africa.

…it was his job to transport several hundred tons or more of copper to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania

IMG_20150602_113342786His companion was a young and rather earnest Zambian who spoke basic but perfectly understandable English. He was the one who told me about their valuable cargo and the long hours involved in hauling it to the distant port. He expressed an interest in keeping in touch, as many Zambians I met would, and I imagine that I gave him either my local number or an email address.

It wasn’t long before the driver pulled up by the small roadside town of Kanona and told me that the locals here could point me in the direction of the waterfalls I wanted to see. I thanked them with a small contribution and wandered over to a nearby store.

By this time it was quite warm and the few inhabitants of the small town that I could see were relaxing in the shade provided by the buildings. A young shop-keeper pointed up the road and informed me that it was the next turnoff that I wanted. Fortunately it was within sight of the town and 15 minutes later I was at the junction, reassured by a metal signpost reading ‘Kundalila Falls’ with an arrow pointing down a dusty dirt road headed southwards.

By this time it was quite warm and the few inhabitants of the small town that I could see were relaxing in the shade provided by the buildings.

The only other distinguishing feature of the junction was a house, evidently a new build, a hundred yards or so away on the right side of the road leading to the falls. It had a broad veranda fronted by stylised, red iron railings and supported by four fluted, unpainted concrete columns in the doric style. In bold capitals, written in relief on the gable above, was the name TONGA LALA. On either side was a crude concentric pattern also in relief and the cement behind the letters was roughly stippled. The two sides of the roof inclined at a very shallow angle from the apex and appeared to be of some corrugated material.

In bold capitals, written in relief on the gable above, was the name TONGA LALA.

“Hello!” someone greeted me heartily from the verandah. He waved me over and introduced himself as the owner and architect of the said building. He was an army man from what I could gather and he had some idea that the place could become a guesthouse for wayfarers like myself. It occurred to me then and later that being someone of rank in the Zambian Army obviously brought with it some advantages. I had already met a well-respected, rugby-coaching officer in Lusaka and I would meet a few other military men involved in other ventures before my trip was done.

We chatted for some minutes while I sipped at the water-bottle he kindly allowed me to refill from his well. I told him that I intended to get to the waterfall that day and with any luck be back at the roadside by mid-afternoon. He looked a bit incredulous. “It is very far, do you know?” Obviously I didn’t. Yes I could walk but he was very doubtful whether I could get back that evening; besides which he told me that I would be able to camp out there. It would no be a problem.

I told him that I intended to get to the waterfall that day and with any luck be back at the roadside by mid-afternoon.

At that moment a beige land-cruiser honked its horn from the side of the dirt road leading past the house. The owner and the driver exchanged greetings and then had a brief conversation. “It is your lucky day” said the house-owner. “If you want a lift he can drop you off near the place you want to go”.

Without need of a second invitation I dashed across to the waiting vehicle which I noticed belonged to the Ministry of Health. Attached to the roof were several loud-speaker horns. The driver waved me to a seat at the back amongst an assortment of boxes and supplies. There were two or three other people besides the driver and I realised how fortunate I was because there really wasn’t any further room available.

… I dashed across to the waiting vehicle which I noticed belonged to the Ministry of Health. Attached to the roof were several loud-speaker horns.

We set off down the road, crossed the main railway line, and continued for some minutes until we came to the first of several villages en route. As we passed each the driver slowed the vehicle, took the loud-speaker microphone in his free hand, and bellowed something in the local language. I didn’t really stick around long enough in any one place to get a feel for the local dialects except to say that there are a number of them.

An intelligent young receptionist at the Wanderers Lodge in Lusaka had given me a fairly detailed overview of the ethnic makeup of the country and the linguistic regions. She was from Serenje and ethnically a Lala. I wish I could recall everything she told me but I can’t. Most Europeans I spoke to simply boiled the local languages down to Nyanja and Bemba but there were evidently many other groups such as the Lozi and the Lunda with their own dialects – more than 70 according to Wikipedia.

Anyway, on this occasion the proclamation of the ministry official via the amplified speakers was to inform the local people that there would soon be some sort of clinic held in the area to coincide with a global event – the Day of the Child? I imagine that UNICEF or the WHO were involved somewhere behind the scenes. It was interesting to see the villagers going about their daily routines suddenly stop and prick up their ears. What they made of the announcements I couldn’t fathom.

It was interesting to see the villagers going about their daily routines suddenly stop and prick up their ears.

There is a tendency for so-called educated Westerners to poke fun at Africa and other parts of the developing world for being ‘trapped’ by superstition and religion and not embracing modern developments. It is a fact that the line between undeveloped and developed is not a linear one and the criteria for becoming developed are not always clear. From what I saw in Zambia there were indications that they are making progress in the path of modernizing whatever values, positive or negative, you might attach to that process.

When it comes to religion, Zambians were no less in thrall to the successive waves of missionaries that have crossed its well-watered lands, from the time of David Livingstone to more recently, than any other European-colonised nation south of the Sahara through which I have travelled. If you followed my progress from Livingstone to Lusaka you would have seen the picture of the monolithic cathedral erected by the British in the 1950s, reference to a proselytising pastor and a photograph of a mosque.

When it comes to religion, Zambians were no less in thrall to the successive waves of missionaries … than any other European-colonised nation south of the Sahara through which I have travelled.

Of course the complete picture is not just one of Africans bowed at the foot of an altar or caught in the rapture of a preacher but also of Europeans and Asians expressing their own religiosity. I have written about this previously in the context of Zimbabwe and in an earlier post about the white farmers of Mkushi.

Of course the complete picture is not just one of Africans bowed at the foot of an altar or caught in the rapture of a preacher but also of Europeans and Asians expressing their own religiosity.

IMG_20150603_111206609On this occasion I noticed the relative modesty of these villages, the unassuming general stores or grocers, surrounded by assortment of traditional grass-roofed huts and occasional brick structures. Life was a lot slower here than in the cities, the people closer to the land of their forebears. It did not surprise me either to see evidence of religious affiliation although I did not expect to see quite so many signs proclaiming the presence of a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall in this village or that. There were many between there and my journey to the northern extremity of the country.

The ministry official deposited me at a junction in the road after some 20 minutes or so with the instruction to continue on for a short distance after which I would see the entrance to the waterfalls. And so it proved. It seemed as though there was no one there on arrival at the carpark/campsite but whilst I delved in my pack a man approached on an old steel-framed bicycle, coming to sudden halt a few yards from me. He greeted me, introduced himself as the warden, and invited me to his office.

It was hard to tell precisely but I guessed that he was in his 50s or 60s. He had calculating eyes but a somewhat inscrutable expression. He peered at me for some moments before rustling around beneath his desk for a ticket book. I was advised that it would cost me the equivalent of 30 USD for the pleasure of the visit and another 30 USD for the use of the campsite. I was not carrying much in the way of cash but I had changed enough previously to pay for the visitation fee but not the campsite. I sought to negotiate and he fixed me with another of his inscrutable stares.

was advised that it would cost me the equivalent of 30 USD for the pleasure of the visit and another 30 USD for the use of the campsite.

I cast an eye over the ticket book and saw that he had, on average, only several foreign visitors a week. I decided to play another card, the tourist who is happy to make an alternative plan. I announced that I would find somewhere else to sleep. It wasn’t a problem. My stated intention caused a deep furrow to appear on his brow. “How much do you have?” he responded in turn.

“Only $10” I repied.

“Let us make it $15” he said with a level gaze and then broke into a broad grin, “because you and me we are friends.” I reluctantly agreed to the revised price. It seemed as though the bargaining had raised his estimation of me and with a bit more vigour he showed me around the campsite.

It seemed as though the bargaining had raised his estimation of me and with a bit more vigour he showed me around the campsite.

There wasn’t much in the way of facilities. One toilet was blocked and smelly but the other seemed functional. There was no hot water nor showers which didn’t bother me particularly. At least there was an abundant supply of fresh water from the river nearby. General waste was disposed of in a pit dug for the purpose. He lamented the village children who would come and dig around inside it. We hoisted a few cans and bits of paper strewn around the edges back into the cavity.

Of course what I really wanted to do was get on and see the falls whilst it was still light. It was still early afternoon and I had several hours of light remaining. I realised that taking my backpack along would be an unnecessary burden since I was to return later and so I asked the warden if I could leave it somewhere safe. He agreed to letting me leave it in his office. In the process of looking for something or other he opened the door to an adjacent storeroom. I peered inside to see it strewn with empty beer bottles.

In the process of looking for something or other he opened the door to an adjacent storeroom. I peered inside to see it strewn with empty beer bottles.

He escorted me along a path that skirted the summit of the waterfall a few dozen yards hence. He pointed out a barrier of green, painted metal and told me that under no circumstances was I to go further than that point. I could hear the waterfall thundering just out of view.

“There was a very terrible accident” the warden informed me. “There was a girl from Denmark. She slipped over there,” he said pointing towards the barrier. “All the way down,” he said with another gesture. “She died.”

“There was a girl from Denmark. She slipped over there,” he said pointing towards the barrier. “All the way down”…

With that tragic story in mind we parted ways. He had some business to attend to. I assured him I would be back by 4 o’clock or so. It seemed he wanted to see me before he disappeared for the day. Of course I had to take a closer peak at the spot where the Danish girl had allegedly fallen from.

IMG_20150602_133143994_HDRA short way from the barriers the layers of steeply inclined rock fell away into the void beyond but the head of he falls could be seen a short way off. For a while the falls were hidden from view as I descended further, but after 5 or 10 minutes they appeared again between the trees and a short while later I was at the base.

It really was a fantastic sight: the waterfall cascading first into a pool just out of sight, the billowing mist caught by the afternoon sun streaming down from my left. It continued to flow down in a series of cascades and rapids. I have recorded a video clip on my phone which speaks for itself. Best of all I had the place to myself. There was no-one else there. The vegetation was lush and green, some of the riverine trees towering straight up many metres up to where the gorge widened and their crowns unimpeded.

It really was a fantastic sight: the waterfall cascading first into a pool just out of sight, the billowing mist caught by the afternoon sun streaming down from my left.

I remember feeling like a little boy with his first sight of a natural wonder – seeing the ocean for the first time or a great river. A nervous energy coursed through my veins as I scampered over the rocks, following the river downstream, ducking under old branches and dead trunks. At one point I had to climb over some slippery surfaces and it wasn’t till I looked up again that I realised that the waterfall was out of sight. Here the water ebbed into quieter pools, their depths hidden in the shadows, and the atmosphere was more sombre.

I remember feeling like a little boy with his first sight of a natural wonder – seeing the ocean for the first time or a great river.

I clambered down yet further until something caught my eye – an old bag, much the shape and size of my daypack. It had obviously been there a while. It was old and rotted. I couldn’t find anything alluding to its former owner whoever he or she may have been, except a brand label which read Bjorn Borg, which sounded Scandinavian to me. Images of distant fjords came to mind and a country name – Denmark.

As morbid as this may seem there is no means of connecting this article with the deceased tourist. And even if it could be what would it achieve? It did give me pause for thought though and I wondered for a few solemn moments who this young girl had been, her life snatched away from her so cruelly in the prime of her life. It reminded me too that in my efforts to commune with nature, to see her in all her wild beauty, I needed to tread gently and modestly. I was prepared to take risks but I wasn’t a thrill seeker.

It reminded me too that in my efforts to commune with nature, to see her in all her wild beauty, I needed to tread gently and modestly.

A little while later I had reason to reflect on this as I scrambled up a rock face to get a better view of the pool beneath the waterfall. It was a sparsely-vegetated side of the gorge and if I slipped down I could sprain an ankle or worse. I reconsidered my predicament, weighing up the secret thrill of swimming in the pool versus the inherent risk of getting there and decided not to on this occasion.

Besides, there was so much to absorb and enjoy that I had no need to take undue risk. A flock of hornbills alighted in some trees nearby and made quite a cacophony. Above the mists billowing upwards a couple of black crows floated with apparent ease, masters of the breeze. Growing amongst the rocks on the edges of the ravine were various wild flowers, Gladiolii and others I knew but couldn’t put a name to.

Above the mists billowing upwards a couple of black crows floated with apparent ease, masters of the breeze.

By the time I clambered out the gorge back to where I had parted company from the warden a few hours before it was a little after 4 pm. Suddenly he appeared along the path looking furious. “Where were you?” he bellowed at me. “I have been waiting!”

I apologised and asked him what the urgency was. It was then that the sweet, fruity odour of sorghum beer wafted over towards me and I knew that the man was inebriated. With a little more placating he led me back to the campsite by which time he was back in good spirits going on about our enduring friendship and such nonsense.

It was then that the sweet, fruity odour of sorghum beer wafted over towards me and I knew that the man was inebriated.

I waved him goodnight (and muttered good riddance) before finding a spot beneath a large spreading tree to pitch my tent. The evening was drawing in so I decided to head back to the river, a bar of soap and towel in hand. The river above the falls is perhaps one of the most unspoilt and picturesque that I have had the good fortune to set eyes on.

The river above the falls is perhaps one of the most unspoilt and picturesque that I have had the good fortune to set eyes on.

IMG_20150602_165419453_HDRPart of the charm was no doubt the character of the rock – sheets of it highly folded, vertically inclined and poking out sporadically, the river waters dividing and recombining in turn. Beneath the smooth surface algae and fantastic, swirling water grass clung to the sub-structure. Red-blossomed aloes sprung from rocky alcoves on either side, alongside spiny Euphorbia plants and clumps of wispy grass. Many of the trees were draped in long wisps of green, spidery lichen, colloquially referred to as ‘old man’s beard.’

Beneath the smooth surface algae and fantastic, swirling water grass clung to the sub-structure.

IMG_20150602_171146895_HDRThe river either emanated from or flowed through a large wetland area a few hundred meters above the falls. A large clump of palm trees hugged the edge of the wetland a short distance away from where I was bathing. These wetlands are a fairly common feature of the Zambian landscape and on several occasions a most welcome source of fresh water. I am not so familiar with them in the context of the Zimbabwean landscape which is dominated by granite.

That night I cooked a pot of pasta and sauce on a fire made beneath a small, circular thatched structure, using a handful of the roofing straw as kindling, as per the instruction of the honourable warden. I had queried his method but he assured me that he didn’t mind re-thatching it periodically. A near full-moon appeared over the escarpment to the east and I felt at peace with the world. A few sounds reached me on the night air from a neighbouring village, besides which I was completely alone (bot not lonely).

A near full-moon appeared over the escarpment to the east and I felt at peace with the world.

The packed the following morning and was ready to move out before the warden had even arrived. I ambled out the gates to the campsite and started heading back up the road. This time around there was no assurance of a lift. By my reckoning I had at least 10 km to walk (actually 14 km on Google Earth) to get back to the main road. I had a one full dedicated water-bottle and several other smaller plastic bottles with either soft drink or water in them as well.

After a hundred yards or so the sprightly warden appeared on his bicycle. He seemed equally as incredulous as the army man the day before that I would dare attempt to walk unaided back to the main road. “Let me take you on my bicycle. We can negotiate a price,” he urged me. Besides the fact that the bike would struggle to accommodate my person let alone my fully-laden pack I liked the idea of the challenge. I declined his kind offer.

By my reckoning I had at least 10 km to walk (actually 14 km on Google Earth) to get back to the main road.

He walked with me for several hundred meters, past a group of excited, chattering children and a large vehicle that appeared to be loading up on soil (or perhaps off-loading, I couldn’t tell). As was his nature he stopped abruptly and told me that he would go no further, shook my hand, and left me to continue alone.

At first it was fairly easy-going but as first one hour and then another slid by I felt my thirst increase incrementally and I drained the bottles with alarming rapidity. My shirt was completely drenched in perspiration along the part covered by the straps and including my entire back. I rested every so often but tried to keep it to a minimum and focused my eyes on the road ahead. Not one vehicle passed in either direction.

At first it was fairly easy-going but as first one hour and then another slid by I felt my thirst increase incrementally and I drained the bottles with alarming rapidity.

Suddenly out of nowhere a group of school children appeared from one of the villages, both boys and girls. The boys all wore pale blue open-collared shirts with black trousers and shoes. A few of them were throwing a soft miniature rugby ball between them. I gestured to one of them to throw it to me. He obliged and very soon I was the subject of a new game.

Suddenly out of nowhere a group of school children appeared from one of the villages

IMG_20150603_120655873I tried to be as cool and unpredictable as possible pretending to throw it one way but tossing it the other. They loved it, scrambling this way wanting to be the first to gather and return the ball to me. The girls were less sure of my antics, smiling shyly and dodging the ball if it came their way.

Eventually they peeled off to the left side of the road and I was walking alone again. Not long after I saw a truck cross the open space between the trees in the far distance and I knew I was almost at my destination. By the time I got back to Tonga Lala I was, for lack of a better expression, well and truly pooped. I flopped down next to a tree for a few minutes, drank the last of my water and munched on some biscuits.

By the time I got back to Tonga Lala I was, for lack of a better expression, well and truly pooped.

I also took off my Salomon walking shoes and let my feet breath for a few minutes, observing the white puckered skin on the balls of my feet where blisters had formed and ruptured. Taking a bare-foot run on the farm in Mkushi hadn’t helped matters. I would have to keep an eye on these particular parts of my anatomy, especially considering how crucial they were to my continued expeditionary success.

Back at the roadside town of Kanona I found a welcome store from which I bought a cold-drink and some further snacks. It was already past midday and the next challenge was to hitch a ride up the main highway, the T2 or Great North Road, to the town of Mpika. I’d initially hoped to stop off at the Mutinondo Wilderness Area on the Muchinga Escarpment between Kundalila and Mpika but it was a bit off the beaten track and the prices, although hardly exorbitant, were beyond my modest budget. Another reason to go back in the future!

I’d initially hoped to stop off at the Mutinondo Wilderness Area on the Muchinga Escarpment … but it was a bit off the beaten track and the prices … beyond my modest budget. 

I recall having to stand by the roadside for quite some time before I had any joy getting out of Kanona. Most of the traffic on that stretch of the highway had no reason to stop at the little settlement and I soon gave up on standing to close to the roadside as a series of massive lorries roared past, dust and diesel fumes in their wake. Several of these were driven by Chinese men. Apparently Chinese firms had some big construction contracts in the north of the country.

Whilst awaiting a chance lift I tried to make myself as comfortable as possible perched on top my backpack, my floppy hat pulled down low and shading me from the glaring midday sun. Eventually, as seemed the tradition, a local man took pity on me and somehow flagged a passing car with two young gents inside. They seemed quite amenable to having a passenger.  As it happened they were heading to Mpika as well. As the crow flew it was about 160 km up the road.

Whilst awaiting a chance lift I tried to make myself as comfortable as possible perched on top my backpack, my floppy hat pulled down low and shading me from the glaring midday sun.

The driver and his companion were comfortably conversant in English. They had both been living in Lusaka but were heading north to investigate a business opportunity, something to do with a farm, north of Mpika.

The guy in the passenger seat I was surprised to learn was a computer scientist who had been working for one or other of the banks as an IT contractor. He was pleased to hear that I had been living in the UK and informed me that it was his dream to get work there one day, to be as he proclaimed ‘at the cutting edge.’ How serious he was about this dream I can’t say for sure. I asked him if he was on LinkedIn and he said he wasn’t. I suggested that if he wanted to get in contact with the right sort of companies that he sign up. It hasn’t landed me any jobs but I’m informed that it has done so for many others.

(he) informed me that it was his dream to get work there (the UK) one day, to be as he proclaimed ‘at the cutting edge.’

We talked about various things on our way north, the driver proceeding at a modest speed. I was informed that the tyres were not in great shape and were struggling to keep pressure whatever that meant. It sounded a bit ominous and it didn’t help to see one or two car wrecks by the roadside, one of them very recent and attended by a small crowd of onlookers.

It is quite normal to stop in such instances in Africa which we did. Apparently the accident had happened the day before. The truck, a land cruiser by the looks of it, was in the process of being righted and was due to be towed off that afternoon.

We continued on towards Mpika as the conversation turned to politics and the state of the nation’s leadership. The previous president, Mr Sata, who’d passed only some seven months prior and apparently well liked, was succeeeded by an unknown entity, Mr Edgar Lungu. One of my companions derided him as a pliable man who had a penchant for the bottle. They both laughed heartily at this statement.

We continued on towards Mpika as the conversation turned to politics and the state of the nation’s leadership.

They lamented the passing of the late president who they claimed to have been a capable and strong statesman but added, with a touch of pride, that we were in fact entering the home area of the late, great leader. I have double checked this fact and confirm that Michael Chilufya Sata was born and raised in Mpika, Northern Province, Zambia.

They lamented the passing of the late president who they claimed to have been a capable and strong statesman

There was a large hill on the approach to the town which he had somehow laid claim to. I can’t remember it’s precise significance. What I do remember off to the left (north-west) of the road was the natural woodland suddenly opening up to reveal acre upon acre of reforested land. The trees of choice were conifers, to my mind completely inappropriate for that area. I wondered whose amazing idea that had been. Was there a public consultation, a well-scrutinised EIA? I have no idea but I imagined it as a so-called ‘green desert’ in years to come. The local flora and fauna would not thrive in such a place.

IMG_20150603_172615846We entered Mpika in the early evening and stopped by a roadside hotel that my companions recommended to me. A quick perusal of the place left me unconvinced. I was lucky enough to have a bit of data on my phone and was able to do a quick accommodation search on the internet.

We entered Mpika in the early evening and stopped by a roadside hotel that my companions recommended to me.

There was one prospective place on the edge of town in the direction from which we had come and another, Bayamas, which looked promising but which was a little dear for my budget. I talked briefly over the phone to the owner, a European national of some sort, before deciding I would camp at the first place mentioned. I messaged Mr Bayama out of politeness. He messaged back asking me to reconsider. I hadn’t said I wanted to camp and campers could stay for free!

By now I was hobbling along, the outside of my right foot especially painful. I was getting some quizzical looks from some of the locals as I went in search of a cash machine, of which I was assured there were several. As luck would have it the first was inside a bank which was closed, the second was out of cash and no-one seemed to know where the third was. I found it eventually, having limped up and down that main stretch of road several times by now.

By now I was hobbling along, the outside of my right foot especially painful.

Meanwhile my companions were struggling to remove one  of the wheels from the car which was bald and chronically low on pressure. It was a miracle we had even got into Mpika considering the condition of those tyres. They had promised to look after my pack and I had promised to return with the petrol money we had agreed upon earlier.

I left them in a state of repair and walked back up the road to the main junction, near to where I would allegedly find Bayamas. It wasn’t quite as easy as that and I initially started walking in the wrong direction. What to do in such circumstances? Ask the locals, obviously.

I flagged a couple of youths who were ambling by at that moment and asked the question of them. With a certain swagger and confidence they took me by the arm and marched me the short distance back up the road to the junction, across to the other side, and a further 100 yards on we were there. I thanked them for sparing the time and told them I would be fine. Nevertheless they insisted on following me inside.

With a certain swagger and confidence they took me by the arm and marched me the short distance back up the road to the junction, across to the other side, and a further 100 yards on we were there.

IMG_20150604_083918830I found a similarly young male employee who explained that Mr Bayama wasn’t available at that moment but would I like to follow him to the campsite? I tried to ignore the restless trio of youths still waiting by the door to the dining complex as I followed the steward to a grassy patch of land beyond the back of the guesthouses. They were not deterred.

As I scouted out the land I saw the most vocal of them saying something to the young employee. He in turn turned to me with a nervous smile and informed me that they wished to be ‘rewarded’ for their helpfulness in showing me to the guesthouse. Well I couldn’t keep my anger bottled any longer. I looked him straight in the eye and told him what I thought.

“I come to your country as a stranger and this is how you treat me. If you came to mine I would be happy to show you where you wanted to go and wouldn’t expect to be paid for it either!”

The youth looked at me long and hard, his eyes narrowing and I thought, oh no, this is not going to end well for me, is it? Fortunately the old night watchman had appeared. Perhaps that tilted the balance of things back in my favour. Breaking the tension as suddenly as it had developed, the youth threw his head back and laughed in the same moment reaching out to slap my hand.

Breaking the tension as suddenly as it had developed, the youth threw his head back and laughed in the same moment reaching out to slap my hand.

“Don’t worry my man, I don’t want anything from you,” and with the same confident swagger, grinning all the while, they departed the premises. I was still concerned that they might come back so I asked the night watchman to keep an eye out for them. He assured me he would.

This was the same night watchman I mentioned in an earlier post: the one who spoke solemnly about the state of the country’s forests and the dysfunctional ministry who was supposed take custody of this natural resource and to responsibly manage it. But that conversation would happen much later in the evening.

I wanted nothing more than to get a good plate of grub and a good night’s rest. It was at that moment that the esteemed owner of the establishment, a large German gentleman introduced to me as Andreas, hove into view. He had an rounded, bald head, an unremarkable but hospitable face and a large frame. He stood a few inches taller than me and more than a few pounds to the good. He waved me over to the bar and promised to come chat once he had attended to some other business. I obliged and with some eagerness ordered a nice cold Mosi beer from the barman.

I wanted nothing more than to get a good plate of grub and a good night’s rest.

It went down very easily, perhaps too easily. I was simultaneously aware of how tired and sore my body was after my exploits earlier in the day. I was probably quite dehydrated and beer was probably not the ideal liquid to imbibe at that time. A few other patrons of the establishment wandered in – mostly black, but not exclusively so.

A white South African gent introduced himself from across the counter. I was surprised to learn that he had been just about everywhere else in south-central-east Africa except for Zimbabwe. He bought me a beer and then wandered off. He was a regular patron I learnt from Andreas. His forays to the bar were good business for him. In the meantime I ordered a plate of Nshima (a thick maize meal porridge) and chicken from the kitchen.

In the meantime I ordered a plate of Nshima (a thick maize meal porridge) and chicken from the kitchen.

Andreas returned a little while later and sat down next to me. He politely inquired as to my business and I explained that I was a free-spirited backpacker. What was he doing here I asked him in turn. He drew a breath and told me that he had come out some good 15 or 20 years earlier with the German development aid agency, DED. He was a carpenter by trade and he had been involved training up apprentices in the local community alongside other tradesman contracted for the same purpose. That sounds useful I remarked.

“Maybe for a short period of time,” he replied somewhat surprisingly. “I mean what’s the point turning out dozens of carpenters and other artisans when the local community only requires a finite number of them.” I nodded in agreement but not really sure either way.

“Anyway, after some time with the DED I decided that we achieved out purpose and were no longer of any real benefit. We had ceased to be useful. Meantime I had really come to like Zambia: the people, the climate, the lifestyle. Sure it’s not Europe but that’s what I like about it,” he continued passionately.

“To start a business in Europe requires all sorts of bureaucracy. Here in Africa you can just get on and do it. Everything you see here I have built,” he continued, gesturing across the wide interior. And if I want to add something on tomorrow I know the people to talk to and I can start as soon as I want to.”

“Zambia has been through some hard times. These young men you see here,” looking across to where several of them were chatting at the other end of the bar, “they are the orphaned generation. Most of them lost their parents to the AIDS epidemic. They grew up without fathers, perhaps only grandfathers. They were told that they were a generation without opportunity but in reality they have all the opportunity now because there was so little economic activity before they became adults. They are the future and this is where I want to be.”

“Zambia has been through some hard times. These young men you see here … they are the orphaned generation. Most of them lost their parents to the AIDS epidemic …”

I couldn’t find any point of his to contend. In fact I was quite taken by his optimism. Why had he called the place Bayamas I enquired of him. He smiled and explained that it translated loosely as ‘uncle’s place.’ He had garnered the name uncle – Yama – somewhere along the line and realised that it was worth his while to try make it stick instead of being known as a generic muzungu. I laughed at this obtuse but somewhat understandable logic.

He had garnered the name uncle – Yama – somewhere along the line and realised that it was worth his while to try make it stick instead of being known as a generic muzungu.

Eventually my food appeared. One of the waiters started setting a nearby table but Andreas gestured for him to bring the cutlery and dining mat to the bar. I could sit and eat and chat to him simultaneously. I didn’t mind. On a nearby television an episode of the popular BBC car show, Top Gear, was playing. He followed my gaze and smiled knowingly.

“One of my favourite shows,” he elaborated. “I love this black humour of you English.” I wondered if that was how the outside world viewed the British – a nation of dark sarcasm. How amusing, especially coming from a German, a nation whose reputation for clarity and precision did not suggest a predisposition to this so-called ‘black humour.’

Around that time the affable German’s wife sidled up to the bar, a smiling Zambian woman in her 40s I would hazard to guess, much the same age as Andreas. They looked like a couple at ease in each other’s company. She talked with him briefly in a low confidential voice and then moved off. He turned to me and informed me that he must be off and that I was welcome to stay as long as I wanted. I thanked him but wanted nothing more than to ‘hit the sack.’ And that’s exactly what I did a short while later.

Mkushi and the New Farmers

Standard

I arrived in Mkushi on a Thursday evening an hour or so after dark. Fortunately for me the driver was acquainted with the Forest Inn en route to Mkushi town. I was deposited at the roadside and compelled to cross the road in the direction of a dim light emanating from behind a metal gate.

I was deposited at the roadside and compelled to cross the road in the direction of a dim light emanating from behind a metal gate.

For a second I wondered if it was the same place that Tim had in mind but upon entering I found a guard who confirmed that it was. Furthermore a restaurant and bar were on hand with a number of white and black customers. Not busy but it looked tidy enough. I made my way to the bar and promptly gulped down the ice-cold Mosi Lager placed before me by the compliant waiter.

I was soon joined by two young white South African gents who’d been out on one of the farms vaccinating several hundred head of cattle. They introduced themselves as Tim (a different one) and Casper. It was Casper’s cousin who headed up the business. Casper informed me that he was making a very tidy sum for his efforts.

I was soon joined by two young white South African gents who’d been out on one of the farms vaccinating several hundred head of cattle.

I didn’t ask the boys what they were getting paid but they seemed to be enjoying life, both being in their mid to late twenties. Tim looked as though he was fresh out of 6th form, such was his fresh-faced appearance. They lived down in Lusaka but drove all round the country.

My contact, also Tim informed me that he and his wife were at a bible study and would only be able to collect me afterwards which gave me a good hour or so. Tim and Casper gave me an overview of what they did and what they thought of Zambia (positive) in their relatively short time there (6 months). I followed my first Mosi (local lager, not bad) with a second.

The boys were drinking vodka-mixes, the last one of which they concocted into a ‘vodka slammer’

The boys were drinking vodka-mixes, the last one of which they concocted into a ‘vodka slammer’. This involved adding to the tot of vodka two fingers of soda, placing the palm of one’s hand over the tumbler and shaking it vigorously. The effervescing mix was then consumed on one go through a small vent where the thumb met the glass. Just as I was compelled to follow suit Tim the farmer walked into the bar behind me, thus saving me the trouble. On the way out he chuckled and asked me if I was being led astray! I protested but I was guilty as charged!

On the way out he chuckled and asked me if I was being led astray!

Tim and his wife Hanneker were farming on the edge of a farming block and Tim claimed there were no other commercial farmers between him and the DRC border about 10 kilometres away. Due to the unusual shape of the country the DRC makes a large incursion into Zambia between the Luapula River and the watershed boundary just north of the various Copperbelt towns.

I’d met Tim on an Ethiopian Airways flight into Lusaka end route to Harare the year before. We had only chatted briefly but he kindly extended the offer for me to stay if I ever I passed through. That day had come! They were pleasant Christian people who kindly shared their house and home.

I had until the Tuesday when their son Francoise was returning from Stellenbosch University. Also staying on the farm was another Zimbawean man, Johnny, new to the community and in the process of setting up shop nearby. His wife Moira and daughter Mia were staying with some other friends in the district whilst their house was being built.

Also staying on the farm was another Zimbawean man, Johnny, new to the community and in the process of setting up shop nearby.

I was very impressed by what the commercial farmers field done in Mkushi. Many of them have resettled from Zimbabwe but Hanneke informed me there was an older, wealthier contingent who had settled years ago from Tanzania, many of them Greeks! It seemed one of the big men in the area was a chap called Peter Michaels – an anglicised Greek name if ever there was one.

I got a cursory look at some expansive hectares of wheat under irrigation, game farms, and maize fields ready for harvest as we drove to church on Sunday morning. It was all very neat and tidy and reminiscent of what many of the Zimbabwean farming districts looked like in the 80s and 90s before that fool Mugabe set about on his program of nationalising the land. Tim explained that they were all on 99 year leases and they paid an annual rent on the land. They had indefinite leave to remain on some sort of investment permit.

I got a cursory look at some expansive hectares of wheat under irrigation, game farms, and maize fields ready for harvest …

I walked extensively on Tim’s farm taking in his relatively new fields (only 3 years in), the workers levelling the last of the termite mounds, a small acreage of tobacco, a larger area of winter wheat being irrigated by his new centre pivot, and an area of citrus trees. The only regrettable aspect of this sort of farming was the fact that all the land now under irrigation had been clear-felled of every last tree. Huge piles of hardwood trunks lay stacked up neatly in the one corner nearest to his tobacco barns.

Huge piles of hardwood trunks lay stacked up neatly in the one corner nearest to his tobacco barns.

Tim was not oblivious to the waste of fine trees. It was a great shame he told me: the price of growing food for the hundry masses. I understood the dilemma but so long as tracts of surrounding woodland were preserved and the land maximised I suppose it was a justifiable compromise.

The one area near Tim’s farm that sticks in my mind for its beauty was a few kilometres away to the north. Tim took Johnny and I there on the Friday evening, the day after I arrived. The area in question was part of a line of outcropping ridges of vertically-foliated rock running roughly in a northerly direction towards a prominent waterfall 7 or so kms away, demarkated even on my country-scale tourist map of the country.

The view over the adjacent woodlands and distant farms was superb but the rocks and vegetation thereon was equally interesting. The surrounding Miombo was broken through by the outcrops and clinging to the rocks and the gaps between them was an abundance of Euphorbias: a thorny, candelabra-shaped, cactus-like plant. There were also clumps of small purplish-blue aloes and other shrubs and climbers.

The surrounding Miombo was broken through by the outcrops and clinging to the rocks and the gaps between them was an abundance of Euphorbias: a thorny, candelabra-shaped, cactus-like plant.

The rocks were obviously very deformed but it was still possible to identify the precursors as conglomerates i.e. sandstone embedded with rounded pebbles. Tim was particularly excited to show me what he called his ‘river of quartz.’ Indeed, numerous flakes of the opaque, white mineral littered the ground. We followed the ‘river’ between the rocks to where it emenated: a large quartzitic outcrop which appeared to have been deliberately excavated.

IMG_20150530_163010413Further observation of the surrounding outcrop revealed some interesting nodules which looked very much like ore – hematite perhaps? I knew that the Copperbelt was not far to the west and suspected that these rocks may have been in continuity with that stratigraphy. It would also explain why Tim had seen Chinese men digging prospecting trenches in the vicinity.

Further observation of the surrounding outcrop revealed some interesting nodules which looked very much like ore – hematite perhaps?

It was very much business as usual for Tim and Hanneke and when I missed the chance to go to the local airshow the next day because I was out taking a run it was ‘tough takkie’ as the Zimbabwean saying goes.

Therefore I was compelled to entertain myself for the rest of the day. Taking a barefoot run on a farm is all good and well if you are 10 years old; now I’m 36. By the time I’d done 5 or 6 kms out and back I was hobbling and my right foot had a nasty gouge where I had wacked a root. The roads were for the most part sandy but I had underestimated the roots! All the same I wasn’t going to let the day go to waste so I set out again around midday with binoculars and Tim’s GPS to hand.

Taking a barefoot run on a farm is all good and well if you are 10 years old; now I’m 36.

I digressed from my original plan after missing a crucial turning and by the time I realised I had walked a mile or so in the wrong direction. Therefore I decided to take a ‘shortcut’ through the miombo using the GPS. Bad idea: 6-foot grass (and grass-seeds), spider’s webs, and mid-afternoon temperatures in the upper 20s. Eventually I came to a footpath crossing my direction of travel. I backtracked to where I’d been an hour and a half before and doggedly determined decided to carry on despite an aching outer-right foot etc. Pain is for quitters!

I decided to take a ‘shortcut’ … Bad idea: 6-foot grass (and grass-seeds), spider’s webs, and mid-afternoon temperatures in the upper 20s.

It can be a bit lonely out there in the bush but if you open your eyes and ears it will reward you. Earlier I had run with the farm dogs – Poeter, a huge Boerbul; George, a perky Jack Russell; and a happy-go-lucky labroador whose name I forget. I loved their company but it was impossible to see any wildlife when they were with me.

Now it was quiet enough that I could get in close to the birdlife and see what was there. Many of them I had seen and knew (sort of) from years past. I just needed to brush up using the old field guide that Hanneke had given to me. Others were first sightings – Livingstone’s loerie (turaco), yellow-breasted and Mashona hyliota, and red-billed helmet-shrikes among that number.

Now it was quiet enough that I could get in close to the birdlife and see what was there.

Two things threaten this environment and both derive from human activities. The first is uncontrolled tree-felling. The second is uncontrolled hunting of the wildlife therein. I am not going to apportion blame to either but solutions have to be sought for the long-term survival and viability of this magnificently diverse ecological habitat. I have heard it said that all the game larger than the smallest antelope has been hunted and eaten outside of Zambia’s game parks. Tim said he had never seen any sort of duiker or other buck whilst he had been there.

I have heard it said that all the game larger than the smallest antelope has been hunted and eaten outside of Zambia’s game parks.

I also noticed many medium to large trees in the woodlands had been felled, seemingly at random. I asked Tim about this and his answer left me gobsmacked. People were felling them for the caterpillars (fushima) that lived in the upper branches. I knew that dried Mopane caterpillars, colloquially called Mopane worms, were utilised as an important source of protein in many parts of Zimbabwe, but I had never heard of trees being felled just for the purpose of harvesting them. What about the following season? What then? It was an example of short-term gain which is so characteristic of humans the world-over.

Without going into a discussion on the hows and whys I do believe that poverty is probably the main driver of such activities. After all, it couldn’t be the easiest way to make a living selling the dried, disemboweled bodies of these unfortunate creatures by the roadside?

I spoke to a wise old man, a night-watchman at a roadside lodge in Mpika, a couple of days later. His name was Simon. We spoke at some length on these issues and others and he told me how worried he was for the forests of Zambia.

“We will be seeing deserts in the future” he said to me as he sat looking sadly into the brazier of coals that was keeping him warm through the winter evening.

Look, the situation is not as bad as all that at this moment. The Miombo is still extensive enough that it can regenerate given time. Even the wildlife would probably return with the right measures in place. Anecdotally speaking, I hear the situation is far worse in Malawi which has a far higher density of people than Zambia.

I hear the situation is far worse in Malawi which has a far higher density of people than Zambia.

There are people and organisations doing good work to try to find solutions and they need to be supported. I would encourage you to visit these places, to talk to the people and ask them about their aspirations. Much of what they say will probably surprise you.

On a more positive note I have a nice little gallery of plant and flower photographs taken with my nifty little Motorola mobile phone of the bush around the farm. I managed to ID a few of them from a nice little handbook on plants of the Miombo, also loaned to me by Hanneke. A few were familiar from the Zimbabwean bush but others were new.

I have a nice little gallery of plant and flower photographs taken with my nifty little Motorola mobile phone of the bush around the farm.

The Miombo here was of the ‘wetter’ type highlighted in the book and characterised by more epiphytes (orchids and similar plants growing on the branches and trunks of trees) and a slightly different floral assemblage. For the most part the trees were not unduly large – not as large as some I had seen in the very well-watered DRC off the NW – but there were some tall, straight specimens at the base of the outcrops which were 30 m or taller I’m guessing.

In the evenings we ate early and slept early. It is the farming way of life I think. All the same there was a bit of time to converse beforehand and chatting to Johnny I was surprised to learn that he was quite well acquainted with my family. My father had represented him regarding some legal matter sometime between 2003 when he started to fall ill (cancer) and when he passed away three years later. A few years before my cousin Michael had interviewed him and a number of other farmers for a postgraduate project he was engaged in researching for. I promised Johnny I would ask him for a copy.

My father had represented him regarding some legal matter sometime between 2003 when he started to fall ill (cancer) and when he passed away three years later.

I also asked him why he hadn’t come out to Mkushi earlier, after losing his farm to the land nationalisation and resettlement program over a decade before. He said to me that he gave it three years to see if things might change, then another three and another three again, before realising that it was a lost cause.

I worked out that he must have been in his early 50s. I admired him for giving the farming lark another go with all the attendant risks. Others had packed their bags and headed to Australia and the UK whilst others remained in Zimbabwean towns doing other things, as Johnny had done for the last decade.

I admired him for giving the farming lark another go with all the attendant risks.

I didn’t really get to speak to Tim that much but he was a pretty upbeat sort who seemed to treat his staff reasonably and enjoy his chosen vocation. I spoke more with Hanneke when I accompanied her to Mkushi town on the Monday. She’d suggested I talk to her immigration officer, Victor, about getting around the place (I was considering the train) and any other troubleshooting I might require.

I spoke more with Hanneke when I accompanied her to Mkushi town on the Monday.

En route Hanneke, who came across as quite a tough cookie as a first impression, spoke more openly of life there. It wasn’t as easy as all that she said and she missed being so far away from her kids (two at university in SA and one at school there). She told me that in the early days of their Zambian adventure things had been so tough they hadn’t even had any food to put on the table some days. They were only managing a farm then and as result had no collateral land against which to borrow. Slowly but surely they had pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and now they had their own farm and food on the table for which I was a grateful recipient for several days!

Slowly but surely they had pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and now they had their own farm…

I had to chuckle when we arrived at Victor’s office because Hanneke’s countenance changed completely. It wasn’t that she’d been unkind or severe but her businesslike attitude was put aside and she was suddenly all smiles and rather charming. You see, Victor was a rather important man around those parts for he had the power to renew work and residence permits. He responded well to the smiles and complements in his tidy little office with the picture of the new president, Mr Edgar Lungu, hanging on the facing wall.

Victor was a rather important man around those parts for he had the power to renew work and residence permits.

He was young, probably not much older than me, of average height and slim with dark skin set off against ever so white teeth, suggesting to me that he’d spent much of his youth outdoors. Whilst Hanneke sat across his desk and I sat pretending to study my map he set about calling various people in the chain of command. There was a slight snag in one of the renewals but never mind, he would sort it out he assured Hanneke, who heaped praises on the little man for his efforts.

Whilst Hanneke sat across his desk and I sat pretending to study my map he set about calling various people in the chain of command.

By this stage I’d decided that I wouldn’t take the train up to Tanzania after all but rather bus/hitch lifts up to Lake Tanganyika via a slightly different route. It would allow me to take in some sights and places that I would have bypassed on the train. Victor gave me a few suggestions and helpfully made a phone call to a contact to ask him the best way to approach Kapishya hotsprings – advice I later disgarded, but appreciated nonetheless.

On the Sunday morning I accompanied Tim and Hanneke, Johnny, Moira and Mia to church. It was about an hour’s drive away and I remarked to Moira that it was a more like a pilgrimage! She laughed and Tim also remarked that it was probably the longest trip I’d ever taken to go to church, right? It probably was.

On the Sunday morning I accompanied Tim and Hanneke, Johnny, Moira and Mia to church.

It was a tidy little place although the congregation was a little diminished after the previous day’s airshow. It was reminiscent of many of the Protestant-Christian services I’ve attended over the years in various places. There was an emphasis on song (good) with a few competent musicians leading the worship and a key speaker who just happened to be an American pastor who was out visiting another American friend who ministered in the area. The latter was also an avid hunter which struck me as a bit strange for a missionary sort but there it was.

Here was a community who needed something to rally around and for this collection of farmers and their families it was their church. The importance of their Christian faith came home to me on that same drive to Mkushi with Hanneke that I just mentioned. She told me that she wouldn’t have been able to get through the upheaval of the last 15 years if she hadn’t had her faith.

Here was a community who needed something to rally around and for this collection of farmers and their families it was their church.

“I just gave it all to the Lord,” she said. “It was too much for me to cope with.”

Many of those who had gone off to Australia and elsewhere were the ones who still bore such bitterness and enmity she went on to say. They still bore such a grudge towards Mugabe, towards black people. “They need to deal with it,” she said.

It was a fair point although I know how hard it is to forgive when we feel badly wronged.

The other thing about the European community in Zambia is how heterogeneous it is. Hanneke is of Afrikaans extract as her name might suggest, as were many members of the Mkushi community. I heard mention of Danie’s and Stefan’s and similar, and smatterings of Afrikaans I heard quite frequently. English is the language of the land though and the average black Zambian speaks it quite well, even in areas well away from the towns.

The other thing about the European community in Zambia is how heterogeneous it is.

Yet the English-speaking whites were also a varied bunch: some Zimbabwean, others American, others ex-Tanzanian and a few Brits to round it out. Of the latter I met a very personable family, the Woods, who were doing some sort of missionary work. John invited me to braai/BBQ with them later in the day. Fortunately for me they had established themselves on a corner of Tim’s farm so it was easy to get there and back.

Yet the English-speaking whites were also a varied bunch: some Zimbabwean, others American, others ex-Tanzanian and a few Brits to round it out.

John and Judith lived 6 months of the year in Wales and 6 months in Zambia. They had three boys, all well-spoken and bright, and they resided in a basic but comfortable cottage amongst the trees. We were joined by an Afrikaans couple, Karel and Hannelee, and their three children. It was a great afternoon spent chatting, playing badminton and eating some lovely, tender fillets that John had acquired from afar.

John was a typically jovial, robust Englishman, who laughed a lot and made frequent ripostes about braaing better than an Afrikaaner, in an attempt to goad Karel no doubt. Judith was a locum doctor when back in the UK but assisted John in day-to-day life and with family responsibilities in Zambia. I was impressed with how much John had travelled within Africa and some of the stories he had to tell will make good reading one day when he has the time to reminisce.

John was a typically jovial, robust Englishman, who laughed alot and made frequent ripostes about braaing better than an Afrikaaner.

The following morning I packed my things and readied myself for the next stage of the journey. Hanneke had taken me to visit the du Plessis family the day before. The three of them, father, wife and son were still living in temporary, tented accommodation. They had invested all their money in buying a farm (they could expect to get a title-deed but would still lease from the Zambian government). However, the seller had disappeared with the money and they were without the deed and in a state of limbo.

Hanneke was evidently sympathetic although there was little she or Tim could do. Not for the first time she emphasized that farming was no walk in the park.

Their son, Mike, had an adventurous spirit and had attempted to explore some of the lesser known rivers, waterfalls and valleys in the northern part of the country. He was happy to share a few stories with me including a failed attempt to reach Wonder Gorge by kayak from upstream and some others which had actually gone more or less to plan. He advised me against going to Lake Bengweulu saying it was overcrowded and over-rated.

Their son, Mike, had an adventurous spirit and had attempted to explore some of the lesser known rivers, waterfalls and valleys in the northern part of the country.

“You’ll want to see some of the waterfalls like Kundalila and Kapishya Hotsprings is a must. Then you can also see Shiwa Ngandu.”

He pointed to the Kasama Rd on my map, telling me this was my best bet in getting to Lake Tanganyika. He also put the Lake near the top of the list which gave me some reassurance that I was making the correct decision. There were a few small details which I would have to address myself but since I was hitch-hiking much would be left to fate.

I recall Hanneke telling me that she could never travel on her own. Was I sure I knew what I was doing? I just shrugged and smiled. Tim had kindly fixed a broken tent pole as best he could with epoxy and black tape. I was as ready as could be expected. They took me down to the main Mkuski town and dropped me by the roadside. Getting a taxi ride from here would be the easy part. A few minutes later I was on board a crowded minibus and heading up the Great North Rd to Serenje.

Tim had kindly fixed a broken tent pole as best he could with epoxy and black tape. I was as ready as could be expected.

 

Camping Out in Suburban Lusaka

Standard

Lusaka is not a beautiful city by any definition I would venture to say, but it would be an injustice to say it is lacking in character. I soon discovered that Zambians are, by and large, quite friendly and helpful by nature. I spent the first 3 nights in a hostel called Kalulu. It was a busy place in the evenings since it had a bar, a pool table and DSTV (digital network channels broadcast from South Africa). I didn’t mind this particularly because the patrons seemed to behave themselves and those of us in the dormitories were left to our own devices.

I soon discovered that Zambians are, by and large, quite friendly and helpful by nature.

The first night I shared my dorm with a German student, Ursula, who had come out to research indigenous foodstuffs, something which I’ve always been curious about. I mean, what did Africans eat before maize came along? Indeed, what do they eat when the maize doesn’t come along (so well) i.e during droughts and economic upheavals? (both of which are fairly common in sub-Saharan Africa). She needed to get an early night before catching a bus to Livingstone and the Falls early the next day so we didn’t get to chat for too long.

The other occupants of the 3 bunk dormitory were a couple of guys from Canada who belonged to the organisation Engineers Without Borders. They were all very young, not yet out of university. They would spend 3 months in Zambia, each stationed in a different part of the country. What a fantastic idea! The two guys, Dawson and Mohammed, were both very friendly. A third, Caroline, was sleeping in another dorm. They were also off to – you guessed it – Livingstone! I was happy to hear that most of them were checking into Jollyboys, where I assured them all that they were sure to have a jolly good time (yes it’s another pun!).

The other occupants of the 3 bunk dormitory were a couple of guys from Canada who belonged to the organisation Engineers Without Borders. They were all very young, not yet out of university

The following day I took a walk to the nearby Levy Mall. I thought it ironic that the first mall I visited in Lusaka bore the name of one of the wealthiest (and most loathed) property-owners in Harare, the late Sam Levy, whose legacy is a shopping centre which bears his name. I gathered that his son now ran the show there but I still wondered if there was a family connection to this ‘straight-out-of-RSA’ shopping mall in suburban Lusaka?

It had a good assortment of shops: many South African clothing and food franchises; a few international ones e.g. Bata shoes; and a minority of local brands. The busiest was undoubtedly the supermarket (Pick and Pay). It didn’t lack for much and I had to resist buying more than was strictly necessary for my immediate needs.

I thought it ironic that the first mall I visited in Lusaka bore the name of one of the wealthiest (and most loathed) property-owners in Harare

I decided to take a walk in the afternoon in the direction of the show grounds where I fell in sync with a local middle-aged Zambian man wearing an English rugby jersey. He was on his way to watch two games (one half of each apparently) in the vicinity. Firstly he was going to the Red Arrows Sports Club and he invited me to accompany him.

On arrival he was greeted heartily by most of the patrons. I learned then that he was actually quite a well-known figure in Zambian rugby circles, coaching both an army team (he was a sergeant in the ZNA) and simultaneously involved in youth development of the sport. I was quite taken aback. Rugby is traditionally seen as a white man’s sport. Not so in this neck of the woods.

I decided to take a walk in the afternoon in the direction of the show grounds where I fell in sync with a local middle-aged Zambian man wearing an English rugby jersey

Both teams that took the field were composed entirely of black players although there was a young white chap scouting for talent from the balcony beside us, for his team in Livingstone apparently. How coincidental I thought; I had seen a poster in that town advertising for players for their inaugural rugby team. By half-time the Red Arrows had run in several tries and looked to be dominating the game. Taking into account the hour we had waited for the game to begin and the fact that my sergeant-friend had disappeared to monitor the game from the sidelines in some official capacity, I decided to call it a day at the pitch.

From the club I walked across the edge of the show grounds to the Polo Club of which I had heard so much from my friend Mandy back in Jo’burg. Actually, she wasn’t particularly enamoured of the Polo Club, complaining that it seemed to be the only place where the local whites hung out. She had spent several years in Lusaka but never took to the place. It was evident that the ground had seen action that very afternoon. A number of jodpur-wearing, horsey types were strolling around or sitting on deck chairs enjoying a beverage whilst the horses were being led off by local groomsmen. It was getting late though so I didn’t stick around to make conversation.

A number of jodpur-wearing, horsey types were strolling around or sitting on deck chairs enjoying a beverage whilst the horses were being led off by local groomsmen

That evening at Kalulu there were three new arrivals to take the place of the previous evening’s occupants. Two of them were Dutch nurses coming from Malawi where they had been active at a clinic for three months, ministering to the needs of local Malawians. I gathered that it was some sort of Christian-oriented organisation. The girls were themselves avowed Christians.

The other new arrival was another Canadian, this time of Sri-Lankan extract. Her name was Mary, newly graduated from university. She had come via a rather impressive overland route encompassing such nations as Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda and Kenya. Like me she was travelling alone but was doing voluntary work en route. She had also just come from Malawi which she had really enjoyed. A very friendly, warm character doing some inspirational stuff.

That evening at Kalulu there were three new arrivals to take the place of the previous evening’s occupants

The following morning it was back to Levy to find a SIM for Mary. She was leaving later that morning for Mazabuka, south of Lusaka where she had volunteered for a project working with blind people. She would receive free food and lodgings in return for her assistance. Joining us too was one of the Dutch girls who needed to draw some cash. She failed to find an ATM that was either online or able to dispense cash, a problem would come to encounter quite often myself. I lent her 100 KW to pay her bill. She assured me she would pay me back later in the day. She did.

On the way back just short of Kalulu we passed a man who was hobbling along looking in great discomfort, clutching his left side. Beneath his hand he had a wad of toilet paper and another bit protruded from one of his nostrils. I asked him what was the matter.

“I am suffering from gases,” he explained. “It happens to me from time to time. I came to get help from some friends but they are not here. They usually help me with money for the hospital.”

On the way back just short of Kalulu we passed a man who was hobbling along looking in great discomfort, clutching his left side

When I pressed him on the details he was a bit ambiguous. I wasn’t sure if it was his stomach or something else. He called the condition something that sounded like ‘separitis’ although I could find nothing to match that term online. One of the nurses suggested that it might be his liver and to ask him if he had been drinking. He assured me he hadn’t. He wanted 30 or 40 KW to get home.

I told him to go and wait down by the road and I would come back and assist him. At this point I genuinely believed the man was suffering. Either that or he was a damn good actor. When I returned I volunteered to go to the hospital with him to which he readily agreed.

Two taxi rides later we were at Lusaka Market, a place alive with the activity of dozens of hawkers and vendors, taxi drivers and pedestrians, along with some smelly cesspools of water by the roadside. My afflicted comrade, name given as Edmund, hobbled along asking to stop every now and again. He advised me not to come here alone as I would be easy pickings for thieves, especially considering I was the only white man in sight. Eventually we found a taxi that would take us to the hospital. And where exactly would that be I asked him? In Kafue, he replied.

He advised me not to come here alone as I would be easy pickings for thieves, especially considering I was the only white man in sight

As we sat in the vehicle for 5 or 10 minutes as the driver waited for further customers, it occurred to me that I was being an idiot. Kafue was probably an hour away. I told Edmund that I wasn’t comfortable with the idea and once again he readily agreed to an alternative. We walked/hobbled back to the Cairo road where I drew 150 KW for his treatment. I gave him a further 40 for the taxi to Kafue. He assured me that he would let me know how he was doing.

He didn’t have a phone at that time but he told me to write him an email and he would reply. I did and eventually heard from him several months later. He was in danger of eviction he told me. Could I send some money his way urgently? Sorry mate, no can do. Glad to hear you’re alive though…

The rest of the day was spent washing, socialising and catching up a bit online. Later in the day after Mary’s departure we made our way back to Levy’s Mall for the sake of the other Dutch girl, bought some mince and other items for dinner, enjoyed a coffee at an indoor food market, and then returned. One of the girls was very reserved, the other more talkative.

They told me about their experiences in Malawi which chimed with those of other travelers I have talked to i.e. Malawians are extremely poor yet at the same time extremely friendly people. The rest of their time in Africa would be on a package safari from Livingstone through to Chobe and the Okavango in Botswana and hence to Namibia and then South Africa, terminating in Cape Town.

They told me about their experiences in Malawi which chimed with those of other travelers I have talked to i.e. Malawians are extremely poor yet at the same time extremely friendly people

The following morning they left early, around 0530, to walk to the intercity bus station, where I had arrived a few days before. They said a quick goodbye and then they were gone. I decided that it would be a good day to move out as well, not out of Lusaka per se but to another campsite. The cooking facilities at Kalulu were sub-par and I was a bit miffed at having my camping cutlery being used by everyone passing though, and my spoon was missing.

Before I left I had a chat with a Congolese woman who had flown up from Jo’burg to register one of her siblings at the local university. She told me she was sick and tired of living in Jo’burg and only persisted in the hope of getting the said sibling into Wits University. He or she was on a waiting list indefinitely.

Before I left I had a chat with a Congolese woman who had flown up from Jo’burg to register one of her siblings at the local university

I asked her about her situation in Jo’burg in the wake of the recent xenophobia which had gripped many of the cities and townships across the land. She lived in Hillbrow, a rather notorious part of the city, but unafflicted by the recent trouble. The real problem she said were all the Zimbabweans next door.

The real problem she said were all the Zimbabweans next door

“They play their music all night and very loud as well. I always have to go round to tell them to turn it off,” she told me candidly. Furthermore she said they could not be trusted. “So many of them are thieves,” she insisted shaking her head vigorously. It is sad to hear these sort of reports of my countrymen, many of whom are recognised for their hard-working nature and honesty, but I suppose by virtue of so many of them being in the country, a good number of whom have not found employment it was inevitable that some would turn to crime.

“So many of them are thieves,” she insisted shaking her head vigorously

Thus it was that later that morning I moved across to The Wanderers, a property operated by Lusaka Backpackers. It was a clean, well-run place but with the major drawback of being so near to Addis Ababa Rd, which had tons of traffic night and day. We even heard a rather nasty sounding accident that evening, a regular occurrence apparently.

There were only a handful of occupants: a young English couple who had come out to start a safari lodge on the Kafue River and were waiting for final permission to start building; a South African couple who were traveling the region by 4×4; and a couple of other male individuals. Nothing particularly exciting occurred during my several nights there but it was as good as any in terms of location. I was able to walk without too much difficulty into the city.

There wasn’t too much in the way of buildings or industry to take in but my first perusal was of the neighbourhood where most of the embassies were established (plush). From there I strolled across to the sector housing the various ministries (agriculture, finance etc), many of which still stood in what appeared to be pre-independence ‘classroom-like’ structures. After that I took in the pleasant High Court buildings and the two new multi-storey constructions that would house the Ministry of Home Affairs, under the supervision of a Chinese contractor.

There wasn’t too much in the way of buildings or industry to take in but my first perusal was of the neighbourhood where most of the embassies were established (plush)

Next door was a cemetery which hosted the graves/mausoleums of three of Zambia’s late presidents. Interestingly, the only completed mausoleum was that of the late President Mwanawasa. That of his predecessor, the late Frederick Chiluba, was still under construction, even though I was pretty sure he had died some years before. It was only later that someone shed some light on that anomaly.

You see he had been under investigation for corruption after being voted out of office and quite likely his fall from grace tarnished his legacy. Apparently he had only latterly been acquitted or at least forgiven his transgressions. President Sata, who had died quite recently, lay entombed in a grave lined by black granite. I assumed the mausoleum would come later.

Next door was a cemetery which hosted the graves/mausoleums of three of Zambia’s late presidents

Also worth a look-in is the large Anglican Cathedral a stone’s throw away from the previous places mentioned. Built sometime in the mid to late 50s it of a particular style which I won’t venture to categorise: post-modern gothic/renaissance? I have no idea except that the ceiling was a good 50 feet above the floor. I managed to get close enough to one of the windows to get a decent shot of the interior (see the relevant photo). I walked back to the intercity to find out some information on buses headed north and in typical fashion by the time I got back to the backpackers my feet were aching, blisters forming on the balls of my feet.

The only other place of interest worth mentioning is a little, historic cemetery near to The Wanderers, heading west on Lagos Rd, about a ten minute walk away. Some of the graves there go back to the 1920s. The largest sections are dedicated to Christian-European graves, but there are also sections for Jews, Hindis, Muslims and a few black individuals as well. In the Christian section were a disproportionate number of Polish graves. I later learnt that over 4000 were repatriated here during the Nazi-occupation of their homeland during WW2.

My guide, who appeared quite spontaneously, was a middle-aged black man. He quickly made me aware of the fact that he was deaf and proceeded to write down odd bits of information on the inside of his forearm. Some of it I could have deduced myself but other bits of info were not so obvious – for instance a grave containing the ashes of two people and the body of a third; and that the grave of a particular black man, an officer of some rank, had died in an air crash.

My guide, who appeared quite spontaneously, was a middle-aged black man … he was deaf and proceeded to write down odd bits of information on the inside of his forearm

There was also a pretty little church which had been restored to its former glory by the Aylmar May Cemetery Project (that person apparently being a district medical officer in early Lusaka). There was a sad story behind it of a young Irish woman who had died of appendicitis shortly after coming out to Zambia at a tender age – 25 I seem to remember. Her husband, an officer in the British Army, had built it in her honour.

I was encouraged to sign the guest-book which I did. I noticed on the opposite page, quite coincidentally, an entry from the previous week made by a well-known Zimbabwean businessman who had business interests in Zambia. I can’t say I knew him very well but the few times I met him I got a fairly good impression of the sort of man he was. Not someone I was likely to see eye to eye with.

There was also a pretty little church which had been restored to its former glory by the Aylmar May Cemetery Project

The next day that I called time on the capital city, as I should probably have done a few days before. I caught a rather expensive taxi across to the intercity only to discover that my 1500 coach had already departed and it wasn’t even 1430! Unheard of in Africa. I suspect my ticket had been sold off to another customer. When I had bought it two days before the agent had seemed skeptical regarding the early-booking, although one of the ticket touts had assured me it wouldn’t be a problem. As it turned out it was a problem.

I caught a rather expensive taxi across to the intercity only to discover that my 1500 coach had already departed and it wasn’t even 1430

“Could I come back the next day?” another of their touts suggested. At this point my anger probably made itself evident because he scampered off and after about 20 minutes returned to say that he had secured me a place on a sister bus. It cost me another 20 KW for the luggage/facilitation but I was grateful nonetheless. Therefore, only 30 minutes or so after my former scheduled departure, I was en route to my next stop, Mkushi.

The Thundering Falls and a Layover in Livingstone

Standard

I once again chose the Intercape coach for my onward journey. It seemed well run and punctual. Next to me was a young black man who introduced himself as Andrew. He was a Shona from Masvingo who had gone to school in Harare and later the University there, around the same time as me. I recall him saying he’d studied tourism and/or environmental management. Later he had completed an MBA. He was well qualified anyway.

He was ewn route to Ganda Lodge at Hwange Game Park, run by the Forestry Commission, and which he managed. We had an interesting conversation for the next hour or two. From him I learnt exactly how corrupt the system had become in Zim when he told me about his business operations in Bulawayo.

Next to me was a young black man who introduced himself as Andrew. He was a Shona from Masvingo who had gone to school in Harare and later the University there.

He ran three commuter minibus taxis. From his daily takings he had to deduct the cost of employing the drivers, fuel and maintenance as well as another unbugeted cost – that of doing business. What this amounted to was paying 5 or 10 USD every time his minibuses were stopped by the police at one or other of the many checkpoints around town. This was not negotiable.

From his daily takings he had to deduct the cost of employing the drivers, fuel and maintenance as well as another unbugeted cost … paying 5 or 10 USD every time his minibuses were stopped by the police.

Apparently, one of them was on record as saying that ‘someone had to help pay their wages’ i.e. someone other than the state. As a result he was struggling to profit and had decided instead to sell one of the minibuses, park another and use the third to transport fish from the town of Binga (on the upper end of Lake Kariba) to Bulawayo.

Funnily enough Lily, who I had lodged with a few days before, told me that she had previously been in the fish-selling business as well, except that she’d sourced her fish from a dam somewhere towards Beit Bridge. She’d also considered purchasing from Binga initially but found it more profitable to deal with the fishing cooperative operating at the dam. Andrew on the other hand dealt exclusively with the Zambian fishermen who came across to Zimbabwe to sell their catch. “I can buy from them for 50c whereas I have to pay a Zimbabwean $1.50 per fish.” As a result he could get his fish to the supermarkets in Bulawayo at a very competitive price.

Andrew on the other hand dealt exclusively with the Zambian fishermen who came across to Zimbabwe to sell their catch.

The other reason his taxi business had apparently failed was that the city council also wanted a cut of the action. All taxi operators were obliged to register which he had no problem with but they were also being coerced into joining what sounded like a co-operative run by these same councillors. The profits had to be remitted to them before a dividend was paid out to the members.

He and some other drivers had taken them to court and had the judge had ruled in their favour. In retribution the traffic wardens had come down on hard on him and the others. He suddenly found himself with a slew of fines for petty misdemeanours and offences that he was adamant had been falsely concocted. “The first thing people will ask you when trying to do business in Zim these days is ‘what’s in it for me?'” Andrew explained. Such is the cost of doing business in Zimbabwe these days.

“The first thing people will ask you when trying to do business in Zim these days is ‘what’s in it for me?'” Andrew explained. Such is the cost of doing business in Zimbabwe these days.

I asked him about his family. Surprisingly it turned out that he had a white partner with whom he had fathered a child. Mixed marriages were not unheard of in Zimbabwe but with all the racial propaganda coming from the politicians over the last decade and ingrained prejudices it could not have been easy for them. When I remarked on this issue he laughed. He explained that his parents had been a bit ‘disappointed’ that things had not been conducted in the traditional manner but that it had been harder for her. Did they intend to marry? It would be nice he replied, but seemed undecided.

On our approach to Hwange we turned off the main road to Vic Falls and drove a few kilometres towards the game park entrance, our first drop-off point. We hadn’t gone far before we saw 6 or 7 giraffe including a baby (only about 6 feet tall rather than 15!). This was followed by a large herd of buffalo on either side of the road. Andrew became quite excited explaining that he had a large group of guests coming the following day. We passed the turn-off to his lodge. He would get off at the drop off and come back this way with his driver. It would be unwise to walk anywhere in this area after dark. He assured me that where one saw buffalo lion would be in close attendance.

It would be unwise to walk anywhere in this area after dark. He assured me that where one saw buffalo lion would be in close attendance.

After dropping Andrew and a few others we continued on to Hwange colliery and hence to the Falls themselves. After disembarking at the Kingdom Hotel I walked the half-a-kilometer or so to Shoestring’s Backpackers. The way there was poorly lit but I was helped by a friendly taxi driver who pointed the way. In the distance I could hear the roar of the water cascading over the edge of the Falls. I had stayed here once before. As the name suggests it does not cater to those with expensive tastes. If anything it was even more basic than when I had last been there. The music was blaring at a quite ridiculous level as I made my way round the back to pitch my little tent for the first time. Thereafter I took a little walk to find some ‘graze’.

The USD prices at the nearby restaurants were more than the price of my accommodation so I scouted around for a cheaper option.

The USD prices at the nearby restaurants were more than the price of my accommodation so I scouted around for a cheaper option. My answer came in a young black man who wanted to know if I would buy some old Zimbabwean bearer cheques from him – the ones which reflected the ridiculous level of hyperinflation 6 or 7 years before: denominated in millions, billions and trillions. I explained that I had lived through all that nonsence and had the notes already, but did he want to show me somewhere cheap to eat in the township and if so I would buy him a meal? He readily took me up on the offer and we proceeded towards Chinotimba, the local township, on foot.

The first stop was a beerhall which he optimistically hoped would also have food. It didn’t. He explained that it would be easier to get a lift further in to where he could guarantee a meal. We found ourselves a taxi headed that way. There was already one customer in the passenger seat. He argued loudly with the young driver regarding the fare but was eventually deposited at the roadside. I think it cost us a dollar a head to where we were going.

The chef was dressed in an apron and whites which was reassuring and we could chose from a selection of chicken, beef or fish.

The restaurant my new found friend took me to was round the side of a small shopping centre. The chef was dressed in an apron and whites which was reassuring and we could chose from a selection of chicken, beef or fish. I avoided the beef after the Bulawayo experience and went with the chicken. It goes without saying that it was accompanied by sadza and relish. It was a good meal and a bargain at US$ 1.50 a head. I asked my companion his ambitions.

“To get a passport”, he replied, “but I am still saving for it.” It would cost him US$ 60 and a wait of a few weeks. Once he had it he could go across to Botswana or South Africa with the millions of other Zimbabweans trying to make their livings there.

The taxi ride to the backpackers was without my friend who lived in Chinotimba. The driver looked all of 15 years old and he drove with scant regard for the highway code, taking corners at high speed and cutting across into the other lane to dodge potholes. Two of the other passengers were deposited at some nearby shops and for the princely sum of US$2 I was dropped back at Shoestrings, relieved to still be alive.

for the princely sum of US$2 I was dropped back at Shoestrings, relieved to still be alive.

The music was still blaring whilst I took a shower and went to type up the day’s activities. Before I could get going an old chap who had been watching me erect my tent came across and gestured that the music was too loud and that he couldn’t sleep. I nodded sympathetically but he was obviously keen to chat instead.

He introduced himself as Antonio, an Italian who had been living in France for the better part of his life with his French wife. He had a shock of white hair, bushy white eyebrows and merry greyish-blue eyes. He reminded me a little of my late grandfather. Like my grandpa Raph he was also a bit hard of hearing, even when the music did eventually cease. Nevertheless he was an enthusiastic conversationalist.

From what I gathered he was an ardent traveler. He seemed to have made it his life’s mission to travel to as many countries as he could before he died. I have no idea why he traveled without his wife but I didn’t really get the opportunity to ask him. He refered to me as a ‘young man’ which I always appreciate. Eventually I announced that I must sleep (no lie) and I hunkered down for a reasonable doss, albeit a little colder than anticipated.

He seemed to have made it his life’s mission to travel to as many countries as he could before he died.

The next day I packed up, had breakfast, said cheers to Antonio and was on my way by mid-morning. I disappointed numerous taxi drivers by refusing their offers of a ‘cheap’ ride to the Victoria Falls. “Only $10 my friend!” they would call out. I politely declined and casually walked the 20 minutes or so to the Zimbabwe side of the Falls.

At this stage of the game my efforts in Bulawayo bore dividends. By acquiring a plastic ID disc to replace the aluminium one that I had surrendered back in 2002 (dual citizenship law) I saved myself US$23! If you were a tourist coming from Zambia you had to pay for the privilege of crossing into Zimbabwe for the day (US$30) as well as a further US$30 to view the Falls. Locals paid only US$7.

May is when the river is at its peak flow and the Vic Falls were thundering. Copious amounts of water were passing over the edge and the power of it as it impacted the swirling waters of the gorge 70 or 80 metres below was awe-inspiring. As a result a huge plume of spray wafted upwards and outwards, buffeted by the wind, such that a gust would suddenly bring a hail of droplets towards the viewing points, drenching the unwary onlooker. Rain coats were well advised. I had been there on several occasions but each consecutive occasion is no less impressive.

May is when the river is at its peak flow and the Vic Falls were thundering.

It’s no surprise that the place is reknowned for honeymooners, weddings and romantic getaways. I spotted a number of couples taking in the spectacle together. Not I, solo, unencumbered traveler that I was. I walked the path in both directions on the Zimbawean side (incidentally about two thirds of the entire length) before officially departing the country and walking across the bridge to Zambia.

Half way across I was accosted by the inevitable copper-bracelet salesman. I had collected half-a-dozen or so from previous visits but my persistent friend, Antonio ‘Tomato’, badgered me for an age before relenting. My resolve would not prove so resilient on the Zambian side where I capitulated to another seller later in the day and bought a further two of a design I didn’t have.

I parted with US$50 for the obligatory visa, grateful that it didn’t include the $5 ‘on top’ as per the Beit Bridge fee. From there I took a taxi across to Livingstone and Jollyboys backpackers. It was chalk and cheese when compared to Shoestrings on the Vic Falls side: spacious, quiet, tidy and well maintained. The evening passed without incident. I was a little bit antisocial but I took the time to catch up on emails and suchlike. When I looked up I noticed just about everyone else doing the same either via laptop or smartphone. The digital, online age that so divides opinion. No comment!

The following day after a quick breakfast I headed across to the bus terminus by the old South-Western Hotel. I had booked a ticket to Lusaka with one of the intercity bus companies the day before. It went by the name Shalom (peace). Well if ever there was a misnomer it was here. The journey begun with an hour or so of an evangelical preacher (recorded for your listening pleasure) who implored our repentance and salvation.

To my relief the young chap in front of me volunteered to bare witness to Jesus and repent. He was asked to repeat his ‘confession’ after our preacher, word for word. At least it drew the heat from the rest of us. Thereafter we had an eclectic mix of RnB, soul and the occasional rock number blared from the speakers above each of our seats. Sleep was well nigh impossible but at least the landscape was new to me.

Link to Soundcloud: Evangalist on coach to Livingstone

I knew I was in Africa when I saw the cluttered roadside market stalls en route and at each stop along our way, selling fruit and vegetables mainly but also dried fish and other snacks. I watched in horrified fascination as a young kid goat was placed alongside the other luggage next to the bus, both its front and back legs bound with twine. It bleated occasionally but to no avail. The luggage hatch then went up, obscuring my view. When it was closed the kid was gone as was the luggage. I can’t be sure but it seems likely that it went into the storage compartment with the rest of the bags!

Before we had even parked touts were calling out to me. “Muzungu, Muzungu!” they shouted to try and draw my attention.

Several hours later we arrived at Lusaka intercity bus terminus. Before we had even parked touts were calling out to me. “Muzungu, Muzungu!” they shouted to try and draw my attention. ‘Muzungu’ means white man as does murungu in Zimbabwe and mulungu in South Africa. There may be other variants of the word I have not yet encountered.

I declined most of the offers and settled on a quieter man, a taxi driver, who assured me he could get me to my hostel for 35 kwacha (about US$5). It was a bit more than I was hoping to pay but it was dusk and I didn’t want to be searching in vain after dark for my accommodation. It turned out to be a short hop across to a place not much more than a kilometre away. Thus I arrived for the first of 6 nights in Lusaka.

Onwards to Bulawayo

Standard

From Beit Bridge my coach proceeded without further hindrance to Bulawayo, a city I do not know particularly well but a convenient way point en route to the Vic Falls. We arrived at about 1330 hours, 5.5 hrs behind schedule. Remarkably, Mrs Rajah was waiting for me at the Intercape city office where we were deposited. Being the only European on the bus would not have made it difficult to pick me out.

She introduced herself as Lily and immediately apologised that she would’t be able to give me a lift to her house where I would be staying because her car was off the road.

She introduced herself as Lily and immediately apologised that she would’t be able to give me a lift to her house where I would be staying because her car was off the road. ‘A little Morris Minor’ she said with a smile, purchased from an elderly doctor. Not a problem I replied, but was there somewhere I could grab a bite? I was famished.

With Lily and her companion, Mafios, a local man called who shared a corner of her shop, we walked a few hundred yards to where a nondescript side-alley mechanics workshop stood. Sensing my confusion Lily explained that it doubled as a ‘cheap’ restaurant. Attached to the mechanic’s workshop was an office-cum-kitchenette where the smell of fried meat and stew wafted outward. Evidently that’s all that was on the menu, with the addition of a good dollop of sadza, the staple starch of Southern Africa, made from cooked mealie-meal flour and water.

Attached to the mechanic’s workshop was an office-cum-kitchenette where the smell of fried meat and stew wafted outward.

It transpired that the deep-fried ‘steaks’ were incredibly tough. One was induced to swallow chunks of meat rather than cramping one’s jaw muscles through tedious mastication of the rubber-tyre-like cuts of meat. In the end Lily gave up with a sigh and asked for a doggy-bag. She had a pair of hungry hounds waiting at the house apparently.

One was induced to swallow chunks of meat rather than cramping one’s jaw muscles through tedious mastication of the rubber-tyre-like cuts of meat.

From there it was back to her shop, a tidy little business tucked away in the courtyard annex to a much larger building which housed an Air Zimbabwe office advertising travel posters decades old. Lily was selling an assortment of items: ethnically patterned shirts and dresses she had sewn herself; balls of wool from a defunct textile outfit; trinkets and other miscellaneous bits and pieces. Mafios had been trained at Swiss Jewelers, also defunct, and now worked for himself. He had a modest collection of jewelry.

I asked him to size me for a ring and after several misfits, one worryingly tight on the ring finger, we succeeded. The silver band would cost me US $70, a gold ring a fair bit more. I declined the offer but assured him that he was first in line for when I proposed to the ‘lucky’ lady. Never mind that I don’t have any intention of marrying anyone anytime soon. Business was slow but whilst there he did get one customer who expressed some interest in something or other.

Lily was selling an assortment of items: ethnically patterned shirts and dresses she had sewn herself; balls of wool from a defunct textile outfit; trinkets and other miscellaneous bits and pieces.

Before closing the shop around 4 pm Lily’s mechanic appeared, a sprightly looking geriatric coloured man (the term ‘coloured’ is not considered racist in Zimbabwe and denotes someone of mixed African-European ethnicity). He went on to explain at some length the considerable wear-and-tear on various bearings, couplings and seals and how very lucky she was that the gear-box hadn’t seized, considering that the oil was everywhere beneath the chassis other than the gearbox itself! Yes, he could fix it he assured her even though the parts were like hen’s teeth.

After he left she looked across to where I was sitting with her eyebrows raised. Could she trust him she asked? He sounded sincere to me. Lily told me that he had approached her some time before admiring the old Morris and confiding that although he was retired he still enjoyed tinkering with the old engines as a past-time.

The long and the short of it was that we had to find another means of getting back to her place in Hillside, a few kilometres away. We walked a few blocks down a road named after our esteemed president, Mr Robert Mugabe, where we engaged the services of what Lily called a ‘private’. As the name suggests it was a private individual using his car as an unlicensed taxi, something which seemed to be commonplace around town.

We engaged the services of what Lily called a ‘private’… (an) individual using his car as an unlicensed taxi, something which seemed to be commonplace around town.

Lily’s house was an unassuming little place in suburban Bulawayo. She lived there with 3 of her 5 children and four grandchildren. She was herself of mixed-race (coloured) ethnicity. I asked about her name and she explained that her husband had been an Indian man from whom she was divorced. He now lived in Canada. Her son Eugene was the last born and still at Christian Brother’s College, a Catholic high school there in town.

She was proud to have sent all her kids to private schools although it was obvious that she didn’t have much in the way of disposable income. The house had been built by a Scotsman in the 1950s and was of a fairly characteristic suburban Rhodesian design. It was a double-storey affair. The two daughters lived upstairs. Neither of them had married successfully but the children seemed happy enough.

She was proud to have sent all her kids to private schools although it was obvious that she didn’t have much in the way of disposable income.

Lily herself was a thoughtful and philosophical lady who bore the marks of a hard life without acrimony. She seemed to have a steady faith rooted in the Catholic Church and we talked at some length on the state of the country, the tragedies that had befallen it and the eternal optimism that one has to entertain in order to survive in a country such as this.

I had seen it in other women in Zimbabwe whose partners had left them one reason or another to fend for themselves – a slight melancholy that attends the passing of happier times but nonetheless an acceptance of the situation which, in contrast, men seldom seem able to attain.

With her daughter Margaret I attended Mass on the Sunday morning. It was a typically joyful affair as they were celebrating both a large number of baptisms and the Feast of the Ascension – what Catholics would refer to as a High Mass. I was obliged to attend Mass almost every Sunday as a teen with my brothers and parents in Harare. It had been a mixed congregation where local Shona-language songs were sung loudly to the beating of drums and the clapping of hands.

I attended Mass on the Sunday morning … they were celebrating both a large number of baptisms and the Feast of the Ascension – what Catholics would refer to as a High Mass.

Looking around on this occasion I noticed only one other European in the congregation but the format and proceedings were as familiar to me as the reaquaintance of an old friend. The incense especially brought back memories of past Masses where my brothers and I had served at the altar of our local parish. Three swishes of the incense-bearing chasuble and then a bow, repeated to each section of the congregation. It all came back to me as I watched the young acolite follow the same protocol. The church was packed to the gills and no-one departed until the service finally concluded some 3 hours later.

The following day I made contact with Pete and Claire Einhorn, in-laws of my newly wed brother, Ivan. Well to be precise, Pete was the brother of his wife’s father. I had met him and his wife at the wedding in Cape Town and they had extended an invitation for me to stay with them if I was to pass through the town. Now I was taking them up on the offer.

When Pete picked me up from Lily’s he told me I was a fool for not making contact on arrival. I told him that I didn’t have a contact number but in truth I didn’t want to just assume I could stay, especially since I had only just met them. To their credit the offer was sincere. Pete cast a skeptical eye across Lily’s backyard. “Was it OK there?” he asked. “Was it clean?” I assured him it was. Reading between the lines I could see that he disapproved. Fraternising with persons of a lower social standing was obviously not what Pete though of as ‘good form’ but I think it’s a hang-up many of his generation suffer from.

There’s not too much more to say about my stay in the town other than that I walked a considerable distance around town and suburban Bulawayo.  The town is known for its wide, spacious avenues, built in the days when a span of oxen might need to manoeuvre and do an about turn. It has a good mixture of architectural styles but very little that seems to have been built in the last two or three decades since independence.

The town is known for its wide, spacious avenues, built in the days when a span of oxen might need to manoeuvre and do an about turn.

Many people still seemed to view Harare as suspiciously large and foreboding. The ruling party is based there and for 7 years after the Lancaster House agreement which paved the way to majority rule, Ndebele separatists entertained aspirations for a separate state in which Bulawayo would be the capital.

Instead, Harare bares that mantle and it was the view of several people I fell into conversation with that it was still the intention of the politicians there to starve the city of business and growth. “It’s a dying city” I heard it said on more than one occasion. It’s hard to say whether or not this is the case. It is far quieter than the capital that’s for sure but the streets were still busy with pavement traders and pedestrians, the supermarkets seemingly busy and most of the shops stocked with goods of sorts.

It is far quieter than the capital … but the streets were still busy with pavement traders and pedestrians, the supermarkets seemingly busy and most of the shops stocked with goods of sorts.

I was most impressed with the national gallery, a beautiful double-story building which probably dated back to the 1920s if not earlier. In fact the building itself was the art piece rather than the works on display which were mostly disappointing. The one gallery dedicated to the abstract contributions of the late Mr Marshall Baron, prior resident of the city, was worthwhile but the other galleries on the upper floor hosted childish works which I didn’t think deserved so much space. Only the lower gallery had anything that I would call engaging to the casual observer.

There were quite a few old colonial buildings dotted around the place with their characteristic balconies and wrought-iron railings beneath stylized gables. There were more modern constructions like the City Council offices built some time in the mid-70s according to the commemorative inscription near the entrance. That was the most recent I could determine. Across town near the quaint buildings constituting the railway station was a sizable coal-fired power station.

While I watched, groups of young African men laboured in the autumnal sunshine, shoveling anthracite coal from the backs of lorries into great mounds. The Hwange coalfields to the northwest were renowned for the excellent quality of the coal mined there. The building itself looked not unlike a number of old decommissioned brick power stations I had seen in the UK. Battersea springs to mind. A line of palm trees partitioned the road running adjacent to it, a bit incongruous next to the energy plant. A number of concrete cooling towers finished off the picture.

While I watched, groups of young African men laboured in the autumnal sunshine, shoveling anthracite coal from the backs of lorries into great mounds.

I found it interesting to see the pavement vendors selling wares very similar in nature to those I had seen in Turkey: multiple varieties of phone and tablet covers and cases; any number of cables and chargers and other accessories; pirated DVDs etc. I can only imagine that one can extrapolate across the intervening gap and find the same things being sold continent-wide. It was common knowledge that China was now the continent’s main trading partner when it came to material goods. Most of the department stores and smaller general dealers were crammed with Chinese products.

Most of the department stores and smaller general dealers were crammed with Chinese products.

As for the ubiquitous fruit and vegetable vendors it was interesting to see the prevalence of imported South African apples on display besides the neat little pyramids of tomatoes and piles of onions. Two brands of cigarette, Everest Menthol and Madison Red, still seemed to be the most popular. They had been on the shelves for as long as I could remember. On the way back across town on my penultimate day I passed the old city gardens, still maintained reasonably well it seemed, though Pete said they were a shadow of what they once were.

Pete is a partner in a distribution business, dealing with the south of the country. He used to work in the hospitality and tourism business which he confessed he missed. I noted this disposition in his general  demeanour and insistence that I wanted for nothing during my stay. Claire was a dynamic lady too. Together, she and Pete had opened up a coffee shop and restaurant some years before. It goes by the name of Deja Vu and is situated right across from their house in the suburbs.

Claire was a dynamic lady too. Together, she and Pete had opened up a coffee shop and restaurant some years before.

Pete boasted that it was probably the most popular place around town during weekdays and I wouldn’t second guess him. It’s all run out of a domestic-sized kitchen but the food was excellent. At lunchtime the place was packed out. Claire was obvious the ‘big boss’ but had another lady, Lydia, to help run the place and a couple of young white waitresses – all very friendly.

When she wasn’t at the restaurant Claire was down at her stables where she kept a motley collection of animals, recovered from abusive owners.

When she wasn’t at the restaurant Claire was down at her stables where she kept a motley collection of animals, recovered from abusive owners. She and Pete also had an assortment of hounds back at the house, all strays and rescues. They all adored Claire and at the sound of her engine as she drove the gate they’d all go berserk.

It seemed as though many had been brought back from the  brink of death and their allegiance and loyalty were absolute. If I got too near Claire the one female would raise its hackles and growl menacingly. She would walk them out on the golf course which flanked her stables in the evening. During the day she was also very active in clearing the scrub and weeds between the fairways. All in all a very busy lady!

I felt the duration of my stay was just about right. Without any other business to attend to other than getting my foreign ID card issued (which would allow me to pay local rates when I got to the Falls) I didn’t have anyone else to catch up with. An old teacher I had wanted to see had disappointingly gone to South Africa and the few other people I might have known were mostly acquaintances. Even there in Bulawayo I bumped into one or two of them and chatted with others who knew one member or other of my family. In that sense Zimbabwe will always be the country in which my roots are anchored, even if the connection is tenuous now.

In that sense Zimbabwe will always be the country in which my roots are anchored, even if the connection is tenuous now.

Beit Bridge: Nothing Ever Changes…

Standard
Waiting to purchase my ticket behind the four wise men...

Waiting to purchase my ticket behind the four wise men, actually members of the popular apostolic or Zionist Christian sect. They put much emphasis on Old Testament Biblical scriptures.

The question still begs asking: why would anyone in their right mind actually want to take a coach or bus through Beit Bridge? I asked myself that question several times during the interminable wait.

We’d made reasonable time, departing Park Station, Jo’burg at 1800 hrs, arriving at BB border post around 0200. My coach ticket reassuringly stated that we would arrive in Bulawayo at 0800 later that morning, only 6 hours away…plenty of time I imagined. In fact what would I do if we arrived early I worried? Would there be somewhere inconspicuous to sit and wait whilst I waited for my lift?

We negotiated the South African side without too much trouble, although we had to pass through an immigration counter housed in a temporary structure outside of the main offices. This had been the case for many years although it didn’t make us seem any less like second-class citizens. Standing in a snaking line outside this porta-office the black Zimbabwean man in front of me remarked “they treat us like children…but without us they would have no labour.”

He was referring to the widely acknowledged state of affairs whereby countless Zimbabweans were employed in almost every sector of the South African economy, most visibly in the restaurants, pubs and gardens of Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban, Cape Town and surrounds.

Nonetheless, we were through the SA side before too long and not more than 20 minutes later were trudging into the customs and immigration offices on the Zimbabwean side of BB. The bridge itself spans the Limpopo River, invisible in the dark at that time of the night. It had been a good four years or so since I had last negotiated ‘the Bridge’. Despite a small saving over air travel of about R600 I was curious to see what life was like for the citizens of my home nation as they negotiated the notoriously cumbersome border control point.

At immigration I was obliged to buy a visa (single-entry) for 55 USD since I now traveled on a British Passport. The official I dealt with treated me with ill-concealed disdain. I have no idea why considering I could be a first time visitor come to spend some much sought-after hard currency. I stood around for about 20 minutes whilst another official, a younger lady, disappeared with my 70 USD, presumably looking for change. From there it was over to the customs and excise side.

No matter how many times I’ve negotiated that border post I still find myself uncertain as to whether or not I should declare one or other of my electronic devices or other valuables. I asked one of the drivers who advised me not to declare the valuables but only the goods. Well that was helpful. I assumed that by ‘goods’ he meant those items intended for resale. I decided against a declaration since all I had of value was my mobile phone and the tablet I’m compiling this on.

After I emerged from immigration I was surprised and pleased to see that the Intercape bus was backing up against the customs control point where we would presumably be searched, a formality everyone went through. I stood around whilst the driver struggled to align the bus. Eventually a compromise was reached – not straight but with enough of a gap for other traffic to pass by if necessary. And when I refer to ‘other traffic’ I allude to the several hundred metres of buses and trucks backed up behind the control point.

The penny only dropped after I tried to board the bus to recover my hand luggage, only to discover a collection of passengers who looked completely unfamiliar, not to mention annoyed that I was trying to board the bus as they were attempting to disembark! In an inspired moment I thought to ask a passenger the destination of the bus to which he answered, Harare.

Trudging back a good hundred yards or so to the correct Intercape bus, which bore an uncannily similar number plate tothe Harare-bound one, it dawned on me that it would be a long evening. Almost all the other passengers were back on board and getting some more sleep. It wasn’t even 3 a.m. I put my earphones in and listened to an hour or more of music until fitful sleep overtook me.

We edged forward bit by bit and by the time dawn broke we were close. A short while later we disembarked, told to take our luggage from the trailer and to form a semi-orderly queue on the grimy tarmac which was embedded with myriad bottle tops and other miscellaneous organic and inorganic items.

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

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

For a while I stood there in the cool of the early morning until it occurred to me that I was the only one wearing only a T-shirt. I dug into my cabin bag and extracted a wind-cheater and then strolled to the back of the queue, trying my best to remain surreptitious. My photo of the moment speaks for itself – a desultory queue of passengers standing beside their bags, resigned to wait for however long it might take.

An hour elapsed and still no sign of our officials. After perhaps another 45 minutes two customs officials, a man and a woman, sauntered down the line of bags, poking one or two at random but looking largely disinterested. They were done in two minutes. After the protracted wait that’s all the time it took.

A typical trailer laden high with goods for resale in the Zimbabwe.

A typical trailer laden high with goods for resale in the Zimbabwe. I took this photo once we had crossed into Zimbabwe.

Alas, we weren’t permitted to get back on the bus until it had been searched. We were instructed to wait further ahead on the other side of the control point. Probably another two hours elapsed at this juncture, the sun steadily arcing upwards in tandem with the temperature.

I chatted to my neighbour on the bus, a young Ndebele lad working as a security guard in a mall near Johannesburg airport. It didn’t sound like a great job: periodic armed robberies punctuating the general monotony of the job. However, with his wages he’d managed to buy a car of which he seemed proud, though he didn’t yet have a license. “Have the police caught you yet?” I asked him, to which he replied that they had but a R50 back-hander had been enough to quash any charges.

After a while I got my phone out to take another picture of the listless passengers sitting on the perimeter kerbs. A few people standing nearby observed me intently and one man about ten yards from me sauntered across.

“What are you doing my friend? You cannot take pictures here. This is a sensitive area.”

He flicked some sort of security ID from his pocket which suggested that he was a plain clothes CIO agent, one of the countless members of the government security apparatus playing the role of Big Brother.

“I’m just a tourist,” I insisted.

“But can you tell me what you are doing? Are you Al Quaeda?”

At this I just smiled amiably and he chuckled in turn before turning serious.

“No pictures!” he reiterated once more before sauntering back to his mates. Phew, that was a bit close for comfort. At least he didn’t ask me to erase the photograph. They’d been known to destroy whole spools of film if they deemed the photographer had committed some violation or other. However, I was in for a pleasant surprise once I reached Bulawayo where I would discover that the independent press enjoyed more freedom of speech than I could remember for many years.

Passengers bask in the sun waiting for their transport to clear customs and immigration.

Passengers bask in the sun waiting for their transport to clear customs and immigration.

Eventually, around 10 am, 8 hours after our arrival at the border post, we were finally authorised to proceed. Our last inspection officer had stood by the side of the bus with his arms crossed facing away from us for the better part of those last couple of hours by which I deduced that we had not paid the relevant facilitation ‘fee’ but more on that in my next chapter.

To conclude, I am sure there are other border posts out there to rival or indeed surpass Beit Bridge in terms of tedium, bureaucracy and inefficiency but I certainly hope to avoid experiencing them in my lifetime! Beit Bridge is quite enough.

The Many Faces of South Africa

Standard

Quite a lot’s been said about South Africa and the state of crime, poverty and inequality over the years. I don’t intend to make a critique of this issue in this blog post since there are many wonderful things to celebrate and highlight in South Africa but it would be unfair of me not to at touch on the current state of affairs before I go on with my little tour.

A selection of popular Afircan dishes including a popular lumpy Zimbabwean millet beer, Chibuku.

A selection of popular African dishes including a popular lumpy Zimbabwean millet beer, Chibuku. Cape Town CBD.

Certainly the Rand has weakened considerably over the last decade against the dollar and sterling. When I arrived a month ago the mid-market rate was about 17.5 to the pound. Today it’s 18.5.

That obviously works in my favour as a sterling account holder. So when a beer at a local bar costs me R25 I score; when a meal costs R40, I score; when an Uber taxi costs as little as R25, I score. It’s also revealing that most of the Zimbabwean contingent I talked to at my brother’s wedding repeatedly remarked on how ‘cheap’ everything was.

The problem for working class South Africa is touched upon in an article I found on the site News24 from August last year (referenced at end of post) and is presumably still reasonably accurate. It alleges that South Africa is …

“… a country without an adequate social security net and where at least half of the national workforce earns less than R3 100 a month. Perhaps as many as a third of men and women in work earn less than R2 000 a month.

Yet most trade unions and human rights groups estimate that a bare living wage in 2014 would be between R4 000 and R5 000 a month.”

Even considering the relative affordability of food and services for me I find it hard to imagine surviving on less than 150 quid, and perhaps even as little as 100 for many. Considering that RSA is one of the continent’s more affluent nations it’s saying a lot. It is worth scrolling down to the comments section where some other facts and figures give further food for thought.

#Utopian Indignant, claims:

Actually not. Just like government, Terry Bell uses the incorrect exchange conversion rate to compare wages with overseas. The correct rate is the Purchase Parity Conversion Rate – youa re using the speculative moneymarket rate, which is only for buying and selling money on international markets. Terry and government arrive at incorrect costs calculations on contracts and wage negotiations because of this technical error. Using the correct rate, our pay compares reasonably per skill level with overseas, but our Public Sector is significantly overpaid.

Another quotes official stats to support his claim that the black population has grown by 47% in the last 20 years whilst the white population has only seen a net increase of less than 5%.

Whatever the situation, I’ve seen a fair deal of poverty on my trip out here. It’s hard to say whether or not there are more beggars and homeless individuals than previously. Although the sight of destitute whites still shocks some I think it’s important to look beyond colour and rather at communities.

I’m aware that sectors of the scattered Afrikaans communities look out for their aged members who have fallen through the safety net. Black African communities tend to have stronger familial relationships than their European counterparts. Are they strong enough to weather the hard times notwithstanding the question of the foreign workforce and the forces of xenophobia which seem to simmer in the background?

I don’t have the answers, but like my friend Carol I agree that anyone who chooses to bury their head in the sand and ignore these issues does it to their potential detriment. Where is the charity of society when all I hear are cynical assertions that vagrants and beggars have probably ‘brought it upon themselves’, ‘are most likely criminals’ or that they make ‘obscene amounts of money begging at traffic lights.’

I don’t believe it frankly. Most of the people I’ve given a few Rand coins to or, on occasion, bought a loaf of bread or packet of crisps for, have been pretty desperate people. If this isn’t manifest in their appearance or demeanour it’s in their eyes. I’ve no doubt some of them will spend this money on alcohol or some other substance but at least a quarter of people who’ve approached me have asked for food and been grateful for it.

He plays a badly tuned red guitar but his voice was true and heartfelt.

He plays a badly tuned red guitar but his voice was true and heartfelt. Near Parliament Gardens, Cape Town.

It doesn’t cost me anything substantial because of the nature of the exchange rate. The scriptural homily about giving in proportion to one’s means actually leaves me slightly uncomfortable in times like these. Am I giving generously enough?

At times it seems better to give nothing rather than give inadequately but one has to put one’s pride aside in such situations. There will always be beggars who will push their luck. I do try make a point of giving more generously to those who seek to help themselves. I have a soft spot for buskers and street artists.

There is much to admire in those who go out on the streets in all-weather with an old guitar, hand-drum or accordion to earn their living. Perhaps all that they have is their voice. Some of the sweetest, most heartfelt songs I’ve been privy to were played or sung from a street corner or pavement.

Busking can be a lonely and frustrating business at times. This young man's trumpet was in a poor state of repair. My heart went out to him.

Busking can be a lonely and frustrating business at times. This young man’s trumpet was in a poor state of repair. Cape Town.

I chanced upon a young man in the middle of Cape Town on the edge of a market square, dressed in a glittering red and gold costume as if he had stepped out of a carnival procession that had moved off without him.

I stood back and watched as he tried with growing frustration to get his trumpet in tune. It was nothing more than a collection of parts held together by an assortment of folded, paper wedges, cigarette filter ends and goodness knows what. It looked as though most of the keys had been brazed onto the body at one point or another; many of the joins were broken. It was pretty hopeless.

I went across out of curiosity and he explained how he had been given the instrument a few years before. It really needed professional attention but of course he couldn’t afford it. I gave him R20 and took his name and phone number with the intention of making some enquiries on his behalf. I’m ashamed to say that I lost the slip with his details on it. I really should have done better.

Immortalising the nameless black citizen who emerges every day from township to work the city streets as traders, taxi-drivers and labourers.

immortalizing the nameless black citizen who emerges every day from the township to work the city streets as a traders, taxi-driver or labourer.

I’ve walked many of these city streets as a curious spectator, both of people and architecture. After spending many years ensconced in my own little world I’ve done my best to travel and make amends.

We live on a populated planet after all and cities are where we congregate and create things of beauty as well as the mundane and functional. Ever since visiting Algiers, indeed Algeria, I’ve had a particular interest in the legacy of European urban architecture in African towns and cities.

Urban Cape Town has some great architecture against the ever-present backdrop of ‘the mountain’. I caught a commuter taxi from my backpacker residence in Observatory (Obs) to town one morning and was surprised to see a number of Europeans commuting for work or studies.

Working and middle-class individuals, black and white, use the Metro Rail service every day to commute from the suburbs to the city, Cape Town.

Working and middle-class individuals, black and white, use the Metro Rail service every day to commute from the suburbs to the city, Cape Town.

The city is probably more cosmopolitan than even Jozi (Jo’burg) far to the north. When I moved further out to Muizenburg I discovered that the Metro trains, the main urban rail provider, moved people of all hues to and from the city. Both means of transport were wonderfully cheap – between R6 and R12 per trip depending on the distance.

What concerned me on the Metro commute wasn’t so much the graffiti which adorned the carriages both within and without as the number of black and white advertisements pasted on the inside of the compartments. Many advertised ‘affordable’ abortions alongside a mobile number but no information as to the provider of the service.

Others were less controversial and even a little amusing: penis enlarging and hip-widening creams and treatments, dubious ‘doctors’ who could revive fortunes, eleviate debts and cast love charms. It reminded me that superstitions lurked barely beneath the surface of this erstwhile modern city. It was the same elsewhere in Durban, Jozi and Pretoria.

It’s tempting to call it African superstition but I can’t be sure who the practitioners and clients of these myriad treatments and charms really are. South Africa does, after all, play host to dozens of foreign nationals from all corners of the continent. The fraudsters and confidence tricksters aside it was the advertisement of illegal abortions which saddened me most. How could these people advertise their services with impunity?

Women in townships are all too often the subject of abuse. Those who worked at the hostel and who I spoke to either avoided the township altogether or told me it was unsafe to move around after dark. I took a township tour with Henry, a deadlocked, affable Malawian who had lived in that particular one, Masi, for several years. It wasn’t the first time I had been in a township but they are never dull places. Unfortunately those photos are still on an SD card so they are not included here.

A few days earlier I decided to take a tour of Robben Island with one of my fellow hostel travelers, a young Norwegian man called Pal (the a having a little circular character above it, not available on my mini-keyboard). Never mind that it is a highly subscribed tour which departs several times a day from Cape Town harbour, it was still worthwhile.

I went on a tour to Robben Island with a friend from my hostel. We were fortunate enough to have a former inmate explain to us exactly what they had to endure in the apartheid-era prison. Amazingly enough he bore no grudges drawing his inspiration from fellow inmate Nelson Mandela in his policy of reconciliation.

I went on a tour to Robben Island with a friend from my hostel. We were fortunate enough to have a former inmate explain to us exactly what they had to endure in the apartheid-era prison. Amazingly enough he bore no grudges drawing his inspiration from fellow inmate Nelson Mandela in his policy of reconciliation.

On the trip out we were lucky enough to see a Southern Right Whale surface a hundred yards astern of the small vessel we were on. I thought it a large seal until it surfaced properly with barnacles encrusting the exposed part of its head. As we arrived at Robben Island harbour a streak of white beneath the surface betrayed the path of a penguin, the one and only one I remember seeing on that trip.

After disembarking we hopped on one of several buses taking tourists around the small island. We weren’t allowed to disembark until we got to the old prison buildings, where we were given a tour by a former inmate, Ntabo Mbatha. He was a humble man who had made the island, his former prison, his home. He looked not unlike the current president, Jacob Zuma. His voice was rich and sonorous, a confident orator.

What amazed me, as it evidently did an English travel blogger for the Daily Mail several years before (see reference below) was his lack of acrimony. Like Mandela before him he embraced the idea of reconciliation. He really was to be admired. I have uploaded half of the footage I took of his presentation below:

Back at the V&A Waterfront the crowds had swelled. The V&A is a real hive of activity – tourist central. A guide from a city walking tour alleged that the shopping mall and restaurants were the second-most visited ‘attraction’ on the continent ahead of Table Mountain which made him sad. I guess it has to be taken in context.

The Waterfont area has a bit of everything – musicians, good food, boat trips, museums, art galleries and pubs. One just hopes the wealth filters into the local economy. I’m told rents are exorbitant and heard from a reliable source that only 3 in 10 restaurants survive their first year in the city.

I enjoyed my time in Cape Town. I certainly met a broad spectrum of people both local and foreign; white, black and mixed-race; gay and straight. I’ve come way with some priceless anecdotes and good memories. My journeys to the other metropolitan areas mentioned have been shorter affairs but worth mentioning too.

For the first time in my life I visited central Durban where I perused the natural history museum (excellently curated) and the city Art Gallery above (not quite as good but also worth a visit). Nearby stands the City Hall, an impressive neoclassical structure with a variety of statues and impressive memorial to the Great War in close attendance.

The memorials appeared well maintained but, like all South Africa towns, the informal sector flourished on the margins. A few white vagrants were sleeping rough near one of the statues, a former governor of Natal, while young people perched at the bases chatting amicably to one another.

I walked to the Victoria Embankment which flanks the harbour. The wharfs here harboured an amassed wealth of yachts and catamarans under the auspices of the Royal Natal Yacht Club. I continued on to the end of the harbour pier beyond the boats and restaurant-cafe (closed till further notice). Right at the end was a chunky fisherman of a mixed-race ethnicity. A little further back were a group of Indian fishermen with deck chairs and a cooler box.

I asked the former how the fishing was. He shrugged and cast a critical eye across to his Indian compatriots. “If it wasn’t for them taking out every single fish they hook there might be some decent fish. Man, you have to throw back the undersized fish and let them grow. They take everything just to make bloody fish cakes and sh*t.”

The view across Durban harbour from a pier with the city skyline as a backdrop.

The view across Durban harbour from a pier with the city skyline as a backdrop.

The real problem it seemed lay in the fact that fishing permits were not being actively enforced as neither were bait catchers. As with Cape Town the most sort-after bait were the sand prawns caught during low tide when they could be sucked out of their holes with simple hand pumps. My new acquaintance was adamant that they too were being over-harvested.

From there I walked back across town and hence to the Point area. My curiosity saw me enter one of the new ‘China Malls’ which I had previously seen on the outskirts of Pretoria. I am anecdotally informed that Chinese business has been flourishing in South Africa in recent years.

To be fair most of the shops therein were not Chinese but on the second from last floor above there was a large department store, the China star, selling all and sundry. However, the very top floor of the building spoke of different era. A derelict Art Deco styled room recalled a time when white Durbanites probably came here to socialise and be entertained. I would love to know more about the history of the place.

From Durban I headed back up to the Highveld – Jozi and Pretoria. Based in the former I took the new intra/inter-city Gautrain to the latter last week. It is a modern fast-rail service, essentially a modern mass-transit system significantly faster than the Metro Rail. It runs between Jozi and Pretoria at regular intervals, more frequently during rush hour, and provides a useful alternative to the busy, congested inter-city freeway (motorway).

I have long been fascinated by the Afrikaans language and it’s people. I did a year in Pretoria to round off my bachelors degree in 2003. It was a difficult time for me personally but I long regretted not pushing up against whatever social and self-perceived barriers might have presented themselves at the time and tried to see more of the city.

I guess it’s a case of ‘better late than never’. Please take a look at the accompanying gallery and attendant captions to get an idea of the rich history of the former capital of the Transvaal Republic, the Union of South Africa, the apartheid-era Republic of South Africa and indeed the present capital of the nation.

Referenced articles:

http://www.fin24.com/Economy/Labour/InsideLabour/Inside-Labour-Decent-wage-decent-policies-20140829

http://travelblog.dailymail.co.uk/2010/06/the-people-of-south-africa-could-teach-the-england-players-a-thing-or-two-about-humility.html