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

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

Ardmore Guest Farm set against the Drakensberg Mountains

Ardmore Guest Farm set against the Drakensberg Mountains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Titambire Lodge

Titambire Lodge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our chicken bus to the Plumtree Border Post

Our chicken bus to the Plumtree Border Post

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hiking in the Central Drakensberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Coach travel in the age of the automobile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A recent view of the overhauled Park Station terminus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Using the Experience of Travel to Contextualise My Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

South Africa, April 2014: Hout Bay and Surrounds

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Back in Hout Bay the guys were getting ready for night of revelry at Sean’s bar, Forex. I don’t know what inspired it, perhaps a suggestion from Martin or another Dutch intern, but it was King’s Day and that would be the theme that night. Still, that wasn’t happening till later in the evening and we had a few hours yet. The day passed one way or another until the four of us, Sean, JP, myself and Legend, headed out for a walk up to Chapman’s Peak. As I think I mentioned the Chapman’s Peak road was visible from Sean’s patio.

Hout Bay as seen from Chapman's Peak Drive

Hout Bay as seen from Chapman’s Peak Drive

It ascended in a series of gradual inclines and bends from sea level at Hout Bay itself to a few hundred feet a.s.l. at a point opposite the mouth of the bay where there was a prominent viewpoint. Thereafter it descended in a similarly windy fashion towards Noordhoek and its long stretch of idyllic beach. Chapman’s Peak Drive, known affectionately as Chappies, had a gained a certain notoriety in years previous because of occasional rockfalls. One of these had been fatal when an unfortunate motorist had been killed driving the route. As a result it had been closed and engineering safety features installed such as catch nets in the gullies and below steeper flanking slopes, reinforcement of the roadside cuttings and such like.

Chapman’s Peak Drive winds it way between Noordhoek and Hout Bay on the Atlantic Coast on the south-western tip of South Africa. Chapman’s Peak Drive is one of the most spectacular marine drives in the world. The 9km route, with its 114 curves, skirts the rocky coastline of Chapman’s Peak (593m), which is the southerly extension of Constantiaberg and is a great hike for the energetically inclined (source: http://www.chapmanspeakdrive.co.za)

JP on the ascent of Chappies

JP on the ascent of Chappies

We parked at the start of a trail about 2/3 of the way up the drive to the viewpoint, basically as far as we were permitted to go on a free day-pass ticket. The three of us and the dog then ascended the trail towards the true summit of the range some 540 meters a.s.l. It was rewarding in every sense of the word: the exercise; an unexpected sighting of a number of Cape Sugarbirds in courtship plumage which I had read about years before in one of

Panorama, Chappies Peak

Panorama, Chappies Peak

the field guides and had been longing to see; the verdant fynbos vegetation which boasted an enormous biodiversity; good company; and of course some commanding views. It must have taken us a good hour, perhaps a little more, to reach the peak. The photographs speak for themselves. We got back just as the last of the light was fading and by the time we were back at the house it was dark.

Myself, Sean, JP and his faithful dog Legend at the summit, about an hour's walk from where we parked.

Myself, Sean, JP and his faithful dog Legend at the summit, about an hour’s walk from where we parked.

After showering and refreshing we drove the hire car back to Observatory and the Forex Bar. Sean was wearing a pair of orange overalls but the rest of us were casually dressed. As we disembarked near the bar a taxi pulled up with a crew of young Hollanders. One of them exclaimed (in Dutch) ‘Oh, there are others!’ when she saw Sean in his overalls. Sean flashed a smile and said ‘Hello’ in a not particularly Dutch-sounding accent. Also with us was Carsten, a tall German lad in his mid-20s, probably about 6’4″ and generally of a friendly disposition. JP told me he came from money and he was basically free to travel the world. He himself told me that Cape Town was the best place in the world so far as he was concerned. He had recently taken a chopper pilot’s license and was hoping to find work ferrying contractors to oil rigs and that sort of thing.

Orange was definitely the colour that evening but I didn’t really get to engage any of the Dutch contingent in meaningful conversation, besides they were all in their late teens to early-20s I’m guessing. They seemed to be having fun anyway. Have you heard of beer-pong by any chance? I hadn’t either, but I saw it being played that evening. It involves ping-pong balls, pint glasses, beers and people getting drunk!

Other notable characters I met that evening: Brett, an engineering graduate who seemed quite taken with me and who decided that he would work tirelessly to get me hooked up with a nice ‘chick’. I like to think I could do this alone but I played along for a while until I could escape unobtrusively. He meant well enough and after crossing paths a few times I learnt that he had, in a previous life, been rather a depressive loner, and was out to make amends. I really hope that wasn’t how I came across? Surely not that evening?!! Sean later described him as ‘a walking jester.’

There was the attractive but rather mysterious Emily, whose professional title included the words ‘psychology’ and ‘pathology’ but in what order I forget. I asked if she made a habit of analysing people she fell into conversation with, at which she just laughed. Interestingly she said that she had applied to go to Zimbabwe to conduct some research or project work. I did my best to sound upbeat about the place – it was my home for the better part of 30 years after all. It’s easy to get nostalgic about the place but the reality is more complicated. All the same visitors usually come away with a good impression of the people and the natural endowments. Few of these aid workers ever stay beyond a year or two, four or five at most.

Towards the end of the evening I was introduced to a young, black South African girl, by accident really. A mutual acquaintance decided to conduct some match-making and had told both of us separately that the other party was keen to chat. Her name was Rachel and she seemed like a lot of fun actually. She demonstrated her ‘special dance’ which involved flexing her knees whilst swinging her arms in front of them. I’m pretty sure she never patented it but it was amusing. She said that she lived just round the corner and that this was ‘her bar.’ In the UK they would refer to it as one’s ‘local.’ Apparently she worked ‘damn hard’ in recruitment. She was well spoken and had what I would I would best describe as a middle-class English-speaker’s South African accent. I didn’t ask her her ethnic background i.e. whether Zulu/Xhosa/Sotho/other. Anyway, it was good to see that the bar wasn’t exclusively white locals and foreigners. Unfortunately at that juncture JP found me and informed me that our taxi had arrived and it was time to go. I felt a disappointed to have to say goodbye so soon after meeting but such is the life of the fleeting traveller.

She demonstrated her ‘special dance’ which involved flexing her knees whilst swinging her arms in front of them. I’m pretty sure she never patented it but it was amusing.

On our way out the bar something happened. I say ‘something’ because I am struggling to define it precisely. One second I was walking out the door, the next there was a black man being pinned to a wall by several men, JP included, whilst Martin the Dutchman, kicked and punched the man in question with considerable anger and aggression. Someone said ‘thief’, another said ‘wallet’. I put two and two together. I also realised that my presence would simply aggravate an already tense situation so I slipped out the door before the bouncer shut it behind me.

Outside I found Tom, a young Law graduate, I had been introduced to earlier. ‘What the hell was that all about?’ I asked him. ‘Bloody mob justice!’ I was angry and I didn’t know why. Tom smiled empathetically. ‘I know what you are saying. I find myself in the same predicament. I know that we should really leave this to the police to resolve. All the same I don’t trust that justice will be met. I am in two minds about it.’ It was good thing that JP was there to resolve the situation. He had confiscated several stolen wallets and phones from the man, but because he had apparently dropped Martin’s wallet before they apprehended him they couldn’t pin that crime on him. Ultimately they had had to let him go. I assume Sean took charge of the confiscated items. I didn’t think to ask. The sad thing was that he was a black Zimbabwean just like Ishmael who had served us at the cafe in Fransschoek.

Whilst some like Ishmael had found legitimate employment others like this man had turned instead to crime. How may other poor Zimbabweans were out there doing the same thing, stealing for a living, I can’t say, but no doubt there were. I had heard accusations in years previous of Zimbabweans in that country being criminals; I just hoped we are not all tarred with the same brush.

Our time in Cape Town was drawing to a close. The following day everyone was in a state of torpor (read ‘hungover’). JP and I negotiated the Hout Bay market with Martin and his American girlfriend, Julia, who hailed from from Dallas, Texas. I suspect I had been there once before, many years ago, on my first and only family holiday to Cape Town. It was predominantly catering to the white middle-class: curios, book-stores and a variety of local food stalls. JP opted for a pizza brunch whilst I settled for a dish from the kitchen of a Cape Malay woman called Cass Abrahams.

She had a couple of books she had authored on display as well. She boasted me that her most popular recipe book was the most requested cook book in Exclusive Books, a popular chain of book-stores there in South Africa, and consequently the most frequently stolen item as well. I don’t know if this actually the case but it was a good story. The plate of chicken Tagine I bought from her was delicately spiced she told me (‘loaded with saffron’) and I have to say I wasn’t disappointed.

…I settled for a dish from the kitchen of a Cape Malay woman called Cass Abrahams. She had a couple of books she had authored on display as well. She boasted me that her most popular recipe book was the most requested cook book in Exclusive Books, a popular chain of book-stores there in South Africa, and consequently the most frequently stolen item as well.

The day drifted by lazily thereafter until I decided I couldn’t see it go to waste any further and jumped on a racing bike in Sean’s garage and headed for Chappies. Initially a bit of a slog my legs soon remembered what they were supposed to be doing and it wasn’t long before I was up over the viewpoint and sailing downhill towards Noordhoek beach. That evening granted me one of the most memorable sunsets in my memory and snapshots of a group of surfers and body-boarders enjoying a fabulous break; a small Asian wedding party replete with horses (a Jewish lady attempted to warn off the bride saying ‘there are dogs on the beach, they will ruin your dress!’ Amusing but unnecessary.); and adults and children enjoying the general ambience of the autumn evening there in distant Cape Town.

Atlantic Sunset

Atlantic Sunset

There was a return to Fransschoek with Sean for a wine tasting in the company of his business partner, Ollie, and various friends of his, most of whom I had met over the previous few days. It was pleasant but pricey (we ate at a Gourmet restaurant this time; no Ishmael but service unimpressive). Alas our time was up and that evening we flew back to Joburg in readiness for my flight back to the UK the following day.