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!”

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?

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.

The GNP, Then and Now (And the Futility of it All)

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The following extract is from my childhood memoirs (unpublished except for chapter one, posted here) with reference to a particular place where I spent much of my adolescence. What photos are included are scanned prints taken by myself. Following this are some photos (mobile phone camera) and an account of my most recent visit to the GNP only a week or so ago on a return visit to Zimbabwe.

It was relatively early on in my high school career that I had met Mr. Rob Burrett properly, when my mother and I were walking in the green belt near our property one afternoon. Until this point in time it had been a neglected strip of seven or so hectares which was impenetrable in parts due to the proliferation of vegetation. The local gardeners and maids fished in the old farm dam up top, but the catch was usually small, as were the fish. However, a local initiative had recently commenced to spruce the place up, transforming it into a recreational area whilst trying to return it to a semblance of what it may have been like prior to the effects of urbanisation. Rob had been a master of sorts at Highlands Junior School, but I hadn’t known him then. Later on he had come to teach Geography at St. Georges.

He was a charismatic teacher with a sharp mind and an ability to bring out the best in his students, although he had a fierce temper when the marks were not what he expected them to be (they seldom were). I attribute Mr. Burrett’s teaching in large part to my later attaining an ‘A’ at A-Level Geography. It was a voluminous syllabus which he never quite managed to cover entirely, but nevertheless in sufficient detail to get me the grade. I stress emphatically that there were no favours on his part done to me. If anything he was harsher, and I very seldom got over fifty percent for any of the assignments he set us.

I never managed to figure out exactly how Rob, as I came to know him outside of school, had come to be involved with the Greystone Nature Preserve. He was more than happy to explain to me the aims and objectives of the GNP Association, which were to try and eradicate the invasive and exotic plants and re-establish the native flora and fauna. It resonated strongly with my own environmental inclinations and before long I was spending as much of my free time as I could hacking paths through the thickets of Lantana camara and prickly bramble. Best of all I was given permission to use fire to incinerate impenetrable clumps of shrubs and weeds. Perhaps I wasn’t given permission per se but I had observed a series of controlled burns around the dam and had managed to convince my parents that this other burning was equally within the mandate of the GNPA.

Perhaps none of the primal elements can invoke as much awe and wonder as fire. Retrospectively I have to admit to being something of a pyromaniac, but fire was an important part of the ecosystem there, something not always appreciated. A few weeks after a blaze, from the scorched earth would arise a multitude of shoots from perennial plants and shrubs whose roots and tubers housed the water and starch they needed to survive until the rains arrived late in the year. By incinerating the old plant and grass matter above ground, fire would provide a stimulus to the living plant below to send up shoots, and perhaps even germinate their seeds.

The analogy of a phoenix rising from the ashes could not be more appropriate. I remember Robbie Taylor being severely berated for having started a fire in the field or vlei nearest their house in an adjacent neighbourhood. “He’s such an unruly child” my aunt Nick had said at the time, “Lyn is very worried about him.” (Lyn was his mother). She must have been aware of my activities in this arena and maybe she spoke to my mum or others about me – I don’t know. But even if other people had voiced disapproval it wouldn’t have stopped me. After all, I was sanctioned by the GNPA who had an extensive lease on the area. It didn’t extend as far as Robbie’s house so Robbie was labelled a pyromaniac and further actions forbidden.

Busy, slasher in hand, pummeling a thicket of silverleaf in the lower reaches of the GNP.

Busy, slasher in hand, pummeling a thicket of silverleaf in the lower reaches of the GNP.

Squatting after my exertions and demonstrating how sticky were the multitude of seeds produced by the silverleaf plants.

Squatting after my exertions and demonstrating how sticky were the multitude of seeds produced by the silverleaf plants.

The other thing I was permitted to do was to spray herbicide on the undesirable plants; the noxious weeds perceived to threaten the natural order. This was initially restricted to Lantana camara, attractive when flowering but possessing acrid-smelling leaves as well as thorns that had a tendency to form thickets. It was poisonous to cattle where it had spread to grazing pasture in the countryside.

In time we came to use herbicide, Rob and I, on a selection of exotics. The flowering cherries whose blossom was so admired in suburban gardens, for instance, was a proliferating nuisance in the GNP where the birds would spread the seeds far and wide. The coppiced growth that arose after felling them proved to be very susceptible to the effects of Roundup, the herbicide of choice. Other plants were more resilient like a leguminous pasture shrub called silver leaf, introduced for cattle fodder was a problematic invasive and could survive the Roundup treatment.

The GNP became my own personal project, a garden where I was the gardener and the evolution of the space within of my determination. Perhaps it was an outlet for my frustrated soul yet I never thought that at the time; I simply loved being there. Like most habitats in the country that had not yet been overwhelmed by man’s activities, this area had a wealth of diversity, most noticeable in spring just prior to the rains and during the early part of the rainy season, before everything became swamped by the more vigorous plants like silver leaf and morning glory.

My favourite time was the weeks after fire had swept across the grassland; seeing the emergence of the red-winged pods of the shrubby ground Combretum and the delicate flowering stalks of the Gladiolus species particularly prominent amidst the various other herbs and shrubs. A local botanist, Mark Hyde, had remarked on the enormous diversity of the grassland flora and urged the Association to protect it. He lamented that the grassland habitats around the city had come under increasing pressure due to agriculture and land clearance.

I was never really lonely, except perhaps on a deeper level, but generally liked to be left alone and avoided contact with people walking there. In the evenings the older, middle-aged inhabitants of the neighbourhood would come out walking with their dogs. They were generally predictable in their routine so I could avoid them when necessary.

Other visitors included the inevitable young lovers, fingers interlocked, sitting together for long periods on the benches and sometimes wandering into the undergrowth for secret trysts. They were mainly black teenagers but white teens were present too, although they seemed to spend more time at the dam, especially with a few bottles of liquor on a Friday evening.

The dark profile of the 'praying tree', a little sinister-looking here perhaps but venerated by the individual I refer to.

The dark profile of the ‘praying tree’, a little sinister-looking here perhaps, but a sacred place to the individual I refer to.

Another regular was the Shona man who came regularly to pray beneath a particularly large musasa tree that grew not far from our house. He prayed loudly and imploringly, perhaps to God or perhaps to an ancestor and although I couldn’t understand much of what he said he imagined that he was praying for what most people prayed for: assistance in the rigours of daily life, good health and prosperity.

I can also recall the old medicine man or N’anga who would occasionally arrive to dig up the bulbs of plants, or collect aromatic leaves from particular trees and shrubs. He was old and stooped with matted hair and a lined and weathered face. He carried with him a plain, hessian sack in which he would collect the various articles. Once he even raided a hive of African honeybees with nothing more than a smoking roll of newspaper, extracting combs of rich, succulent natural honey as the angry bees swarmed about him. He remained undeterred.

I started the process of trying to ‘move on’ from the GNP when it became clear that I would be expected to go to university directly after finishing my A-Level studies. The thought of leaving home and my piece of Africa made me sad. I always felt I could identify with the Zimbabwean bush but I also felt an intense solitude at times when in the GNP akin to the one that Terry Waite experienced (see this extract). The closest I can come to rationalising it is to say that I knew there were some deep-seated problems in my life rooted in relationship dynamics (things that would come to light in the next couple of years actually).

I have written about the general facts and dates of my tertiary education in my biographical notes (unpublished). There was a 2 year stint at Rhodes University in SA which was quite excruciatingly difficult at times – socially and emotionally-speaking that is. In that time my mother decided, finally, to act on her suspicions regarding my father’s fidelity. She discovered that he was indeed being unfaithful (no surprise in retrospect) and after some negotiations divorced him. I was informed of much of this remotely so that, after dropping out after 2 years at RU, it was pretty much a fait accompli.

I did manage to vent a little of my considerable vault of anger at my father but he was in a state of self-denial which made it difficult to understand how much guilt he really felt. My mother sent me off to a psychologist, ironically enough, although it did help to have someone impartial to talk to. My one regret was that this particular bloke, John, obviously had his own issues, as we all do I suppose. I sometimes think he helped, at other times I’m not so sure.

Anyway, I digress – back to the GNP. It was at this juncture that I made the decision to get involved once again in the GNPA (A for Association), the body that ran the GNP. It consisted of a committee which met on a monthly basis to discuss things which needed to be done: the wages for permanent and casual labour; outreach programs; fencing issues; maintaining working relationships with various other members of the community and so on and so forth. I think I stood as a member without portfolio for one season and as VC for another. It was comprised entirely of Europeans sadly, but in theory anyone was eligible for nomination. I have no idea of the real demographics of the neighbourhood (except that it was mixed) and why no other ethnicities came forward for nomination.

As the youngest member of the committee I found some of the monthly agenda wearisome. There were a few personalities who always had to have their say and sometimes they laboured whatever point they sought to make. Another lady, Sarah, probably a good 8 or 9 years my senior, said how refreshing it was to have some other young blood to relieve the tedium of the ‘old farts’! To be fair there was also James, the son of our family GP, also in his late 20s or early 30s. He was also someone who liked to get to the point in a determined fashion. What I tried to do in my time on the committee was to inject some of the passion I had felt as a teenager. I wanted recognition and I more than anything I wanted to see my dream realised of turning it into something akin to modern-day Eden.

The scale map of the GNP which I drew up with the help of some early surveyor plans.

The scale map of the GNP which I drew up with the help of some early surveyor plans.

I energetically sketched drawings of bridges and pathways, mist-spray schemes to feed arboreal orchids, lists of trees to be planted and so forth. I constructed an enormous scale map of the entire area on a number of A4 sheets taped together, noting every prominent tree and all the various paths and habitats. When I presented my ideas to the committee it was met with a mixed response. One old chap thought it was a great idea but he was at the end of his tenure and about to go off and retire to another part of the country.

Roger, probably the most influential member on the committee, it’s founding father so to speak, gave a lukewarm response. The idea of an Education Centre had been mooted some years before but nothing had ever been done. I was keen to realise this goal but without Roger’s backing it never got off the ground. His was basically a hand’s-off approach. Essentially he just wanted the place to remain undisturbed so that he could walk his dog/s with his two boys. I respected that but it hurt nonetheless.

And so it was that my own enthusiasm slowly diminished until I realised that it was all a bit of pie-dream really. The country was going downhill rapidly as the government seized private commercial farms as part of its badly-executed land redistribution programme. Besides the exodus of people and skills from within there was a huge devaluation in the Zim dollar and a corresponding squeeze on people’s income. Everywhere in and around Harare the native inhabitants seized their hoes and picks and fell upon the land in a desperate attempt to cultivate crops to subsidise their meagre wages and diets. In the main this was maize, the staple, but I also saw squash, tomatoes and a local variety of spinach called rape planted as well.

As a result a number of other initiatives which sought to emulate the GNP ‘experiment’ – it was unique to the best of my knowledge in that it was leased from the municipality for the purposes of conservation – came to a grinding halt. The local councils actually did try for a time to crack down on the illegal cultivation, but the perpetrators were just too many and too desperate. If it weren’t for the perimeter fence around the grassland surrounding the dam and at the opposite end on Warwick Rd (where our house was built) I have little doubt that the GNP would itself have become victim to the illegal cultivation phenomenon. It was something of a miracle that it never did (even to this day).

What I managed to do was to divert some of my energies to other projects like planting an aloe and succulent rockery garden on our property and building the bridge shown in the previous gallery with help of the resident labourer, John. There were moments of satisfaction and I did love my rockery garden, but when I look back I can’t help but consider the toll all of it was taking on my mental health. I was estranged from my father, my mother had just died from cancer (November 2001) and I was soldiering on with a degree in geology for which I felt increasingly at odds with. I had only started it because I felt bad about what had happened to Wolf and because I was made to feel as though any other sort of job connected to ‘the land’ was beneath me and the family’s aspirations. It wasn’t as though I had much support for my bachelors degree anyway.

But continue I did, back to South Africa and the University of Pretoria this time. This was undoubtedly the most profound year of my life. The studies were incidental. Day and night I felt the heartache of separation from my father, family and the home I had once known. This was life interrupted. I found myself redirected on a course which I’m still travelling to this day. Sometimes I flounder and come close to giving up on this reality. Today is one of those days but I’ll feel better tomorrow.

My father too passed away in early 2006. It was meant to be, of that I have little doubt, but it has not made it any easier. Perhaps I focus too much on the man’s death and not enough on his life; as I do for my dear mother. Both of them were vital individuals, despite their flaws. Life shone from their eyes when I recall those same people, the parents of my childhood and adolescence. When I started this article I had it in mind to highlight the futility of my life in Africa but I feel that it is somehow a perversion of a complex truth and one that I have yet to fully grasp.

Over the years I have returned to the house in Greystone Park episodically and the GNP as well. Every time I go back it seems to be wilder than before and the weeds that we formerly sought to suppress, grow taller and taller still! How futile it was to try and create something pure and exact in this mad hybrid-nation that is modern-day Zimbabwe. I can see all sorts of metaphors in the tumultuous riot of native and exotic pants which choke the wetland areas:- poplar, syringa and Ipomoea competing alongside bush-willows and waxberries. It’s unclear who has the upper hand. It seems impossible for either side to win out completely and eliminate the other. Perhaps, if left alone long enough, an equilibrium will be reached.

This time around I walked slowly around the dam marvelling at how the trees and shrubs had encroached upon the grassland there. It was thick and green in parts but also quite moist, in contrast to the dam itself which was largely empty.

The main dam. now almost dry. A lone fisherman cast his line into the shallows. Whilst I watched he pulled out one average-sized fish.

The main dam. now almost dry. A lone fisherman cast his line into the shallows. Whilst I watched he pulled out one average-sized fish.

This dam bore many memories: fishing it periodically as a youngster, meeting new friends like big Ralph Heron, bird watching (literally and figuratively speaking), even drinking beer and braaing (barbecuing) on its banks. I greeted and introduced myself to a man and his young son, Tafadzwa, a common Shona name. He told me how the dam, now unseasonably low, had been plundered of its fish by unscrupulous netting, although I still noticed a lone fisherman casting several lines in from the bank. Whilst I watched he caught what appeared to be a bream of average size which surprised me. What usually came out of there was rather smaller. One season, however, there had been a huge harvest of catfish (locally known as maramba) and word had it people had been wading in and depositing them in sacks.

I continued around the dam and reached the other side of the wall where I could see someone sitting on a bench overlooking the dam. To my right was the spillway and behind me to the left a house that someone had started to build many years before but which remained unfinished. The wetland area below the wall was the usual riot of green.

As I walked below the main wall alongside the flanking property with its unfinished mansion I encountered an enormous stone wall, something to rival one of the perimeter walls at Great Zimbabwe. It was ridiculously large. Was it meant to convey power and superiority? Was it simply meant to prevent outsiders from looking in? Security perhaps? I didn’t know and the empty house stood in contradiction to all these possibilities.

A little further down I heard voices and peering through the vegetation flanking the stream I spied a pair of teenagers chatting on one of the stone benches the GNPA had built years earlier. He was black, she white. In itself this meant nothing except perhaps a reinforcement of the previous metaphor. At least this relationship appeared to be friendly. Whether it was anything more I couldn’t tell.

At the bottom end of the GNP I came upon my old property. I stopped a few minutes to take in the trees and the garden I had once known so well.

Intro

The thing that struck me was that, with the exception of the few plants that I had transplanted and which had survived, most of what grew here now had grown here before my intervention and would still be growing here well after it had ceased altogether. All the same I am glad that in some small way I did manage to leave a mark – not in what I sought to destroy but rather in what I created. In transplanting a few saplings in the right conditions I have endowed a legacy of sorts to the GNP. Perhaps they will survive this present period of turmoil and uncertainty and live to see the next era? God-willing an era of peace and prosperity.