Coach travel in the age of the automobile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A recent view of the overhauled Park Station terminus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Camping Out in Suburban Lusaka

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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

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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

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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…

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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.