2013 – Southern Africa Journal – 8

DAY 40. TUESDAY MARCH 4TH 2013. BULAWAYO. ZIMBABWE

The day started early – for me – with Vonni (I have no idea how it is spelled, that is my phonetic translation), the round young woman who seems to be in charge of the scruffy Nemanwa Chalets tapping on my door at 7.00am with a tray of rooibos tea, the local, much loved bush tea, literally red bush tea. It is caffeine-free and has a slightly smoky flavour like a light Lapsang. I was the only guest, not surprising since there is not even a signboard on the road to advertise the place and it is obscurely hidden four kilometres from the famous ruins. Odd, the African lack of commercial initiative. Often I see this: investment that is not followed through by maintenance or sales.

Well, it got me going into the dull cloudy day. I am very disappointed by the weather on this trip north. It is consistently cloudy and on the edge of rain. “It is threatening rain,” as Wechiga would say. Fortunately, it seems to stay a threat but a couple of times today I had to stop to warm up from the chill air as I moved.

It was quite a boring ride, two hundred miles of fairly undistinguished bush country, green and gently rolling and all of it, I was surprised to find, at an altitude of over 1000 metres.

*

When you travel a lot (and I was counting today on my boring ride: I reckon Zimbabwe is the 90th country I have visited, not allowing for the ones that split into more countries after I travelled through, like Ukraine, Belarus, Serbia, Montenegro and others that must bring me near to the 100), well, when you travel a lot you develop an instinct for places. I think I can say that Bulawayo is the nicest town I have found in Africa! It is calm, well ordered, laid back, feels completely safe and is full of pleasant, polite citizens. It really is delightful. It has retained many of its fine colonial buildings and a lot of its quirky Edwardian architecture. It has a cultured, quiet feel. I have met with kindness and great civility everywhere. It even has an art gallery with a collection of interesting contemporary paintings and sculptures. It boasts wide streets and a lot of shady trees, few high-rise buildings and pavements on which you can walk. People are well dressed and quietly mannered. It’s great!

I had no idea what to expect. If anything, I supposed it would be just another rather run down African town of teeming supermarkets and cheap shops – South Africa boasts a lot of those (with posh white streets kept well separate). Riding into the town, it looked like any other place. I found the tourist information office and asked for suggestions of places to stay. It was only late lunchtime. The charming tourist lady suggested I try The Berkeley, a cheap sort of hostel cum hotel a couple of blocks away, right in the downtown area. Here I have a somewhat basic room (the washbasin is lolling drunkenly and the shower tiles have fallen off) which will be quite adequate, and at $20 (£12.50) will do just fine. I brought my motorbike in through the double front doors into an internal yard, where it sits beneath a tall palm that grows out of the top of the well of the hotel. For once, I was able to stop riding and wander the streets in the now warm sunshine. Not a soul troubled me but everyone returned a smile. There are no particular sights to see but I enjoyed just watching people. A most attractive town. My hostel is just off the main Robert Mugabe Way. Every town seems to have one of those, named after the megalomaniacal dictator. I get the impression that in his late years he has mellowed just a bit and some sense is being restored but I spoke with one white South African who told me that his cousin, after a three year battle, had lost his farmlands just last month. I see a smattering of white faces about town, probably white Zimbabweans as there seem to be almost no tourists.

But one must surmise that a country that has abandoned its own currency in favour of other people’s must be in dire fiscal straights. Prices are quoted in US dollars (the petrol pumps are even printed with the dollar denomination so this must be long standing) and I can pay in dollars or South African Rand. The dollar bills are old and almost faceless with use. As someone said yesterday, I am sure they send the old ones to Zimbabwe. But what’s so funny is that you pay in dollars but receive Rand coins in change. The Americans obviously don’t supply coins. I have kept back a couple of almost illegible dollar bills to take with me to America next week!

As the afternoon lengthened I needed a beer so I entered the Cape to Cairo Bar. ‘Cape Town 1150, Cairo 3500 miles’ says the text on the facias of the old colonial corner building. It was dark and incredibly noisy inside, all the curtains drawn over dusty windows and the ceiling, walls and floor dark wood. Music pumped out such that I had to shout my request for a Zambezi beer across the bar and TV screens showed British soccer as usual. One beer was enough for a bit of local colour. For my meal I found a less busy but even louder bar a few blocks away. The pork chop was scorched but with chips and a little salad was only $5 or £3. An ice cream across the road was $1.50 (or $1 plus four Rand and fifty cents!). A litre carton of juice, that in South Africa costs me 17 Rand (£1.25) is here 45 Rand. People all had a smile for me as I tried to get my head round dollars and Rand together in payment.

Zimbabwe, which I feared would be difficult and about which I was apprehensive, has turned out to be a delight. It just goes to prove you should make your own opinions and not imbibe those of others, or worse still, the media. Since I won’t now get to Zambia, one of the friendliest nations in Africa, at least I have made a new discovery.

*

Only, the police checks do get a bit tedious. Mostly, I get waved through but sometimes I have to stop, take off helmet and ear plugs and justify myself with licence, Temporary Import Permits and answers to questions of my destination and provenance. I keep strictly to the limits although I find I m cruising along at no more than 55mph on a day like this anyway. There are many cow and donkey hazards, the latter often just standing in the road unconcerned as I weave around them. A benefit of the steady speed is that I am often getting 65mpg (almost 25k/l) consumption from my motorbike. Petrol in Zimbabwe is £1.00 a litre, slightly more than South Africa at about 90p.

In the art gallery I met Nompilo, a disabled woman with little use of her arms or waist. She paints, writes and handles money with her feet. It was remarkable to watch her adaptation as she added columns of figures in a ledger and wrote her address for me. I was intrigued to see that she was left-footed. I wondered if she would have been left-handed. She laughed and didn’t know. I also chatted with Stanley Sibanda, a charming young painter in his studio. While not forward, Zimbabweans enjoy talking and chat with a liberated equality. I have had at least five conversations of which the gist was how Zimbabweans find South Africa deeply divided, unhappy and prejudiced. Interesting to hear my opinions corroborated by Africans themselves. Such a relief to be back in Africa.

*

As I rode today I entered the Province of Matabeleland, another resonant romantic African landmark.

DAY 41. WEDNESDAY MARCH 6th 2013. BULAWAYO. ZIMBABWE

How could I ever have felt APPREHENSIVE about visiting Zimbabwe?

Media, of course, is the answer. I have heard nothing but negative news from Zimbabwe for the past decade. No one told me what lovely people the Zimbabweans are. They only told me of the fighting, unrest and the extremes of an unhinged president. No one told me that even the drunks are harmless! No one told me that the majority of people are quiet, respectful, gentle, polite, charming and even good looking. No good news ever comes out of this amazing, fascinating continent. We all, in the West, harbour such negative views of Africa. Yet, in reality, Africa has retained so much that we have lost in our race for material wealth. Africa has so much humanity, so much warmth, so much that is positive. I have fallen in love with Zimbabwe – in much the same way I did with her neighbour, Zambia. These must be two of the finest countries in the world. I will be back.

This evening I had one of those ‘I’m here!’ moments, sitting in a quite noisy beer bar with a plate of (very tough – ‘roadrunner chicken’, the young barman described it with a smile) chicken and rice with beetroot, coleslaw and butternut. People around me were cheerful and a bit inebriated but I felt entirely at ease and totally safe amongst them. Two very charming young boys were having a beer to celebrate some modest educational achievement. They came from ‘the ghetto’, said the shorter one, with such an attractive face and a jaunty baseball cap. “We are very poor, but we are celebrating!” People in the bar were making a lot of noise but were happy to greet me or just to accept that I was amongst them, sharing the bar. It was a lovely, warm-hearted experience as I downed a couple of pints and ate the local food.

It’s been that way all day: polite and friendly. People are reserved but always respond so warmly to my approaches. Zimbabwe is a discovery and goes right up there amongst my most favourite people. I have been slightly cheated out of a trip to Zambia by the need to interrupt my travels to go to America. Otherwise, I know I would spend the next three weeks in Zim and Zam.

*

Bulawayo (locally pronounced without sounding the ‘u’) has been so pleasant that I decided to stay another night and relax here. I rode out 15 miles to the Matapos national park, where there are many odd balanced rock formations, a cave and the grave of Cecil John Rhodes (founder of Rhodesia). But at the entry gate I found that motorbikes are not allowed as it is also a game park. Ironically, I don’t care to see the game and had come to see the rocks but to get to them I would have to brave rhino and wildebeest. So, after a chat with the two rather bored young women at the gate who, such are the myths of the golden pavements, really aspired to cleaning or care work in England instead of their employment by the national parks and accommodation a couple of kilometres walk into the park. They could telephone someone to drive me round, they said. But at $50, plus an entry fee of $25, it was a lot to look at balanced rocks, so I demurred and rode back to Bulawayo. I took one of the other roads out of town and called at the game orphanage instead.

The animal orphanage is privately run – by white Zimbabweans, I think, and receives many animals that have been orphaned or injured by poachers, accident or natural causes. They aim to re-release as many animals as possible back into the wild. But it seems that lions never readapt after captivity so they have rather large number of lions. Apparently, one of the workers – an Englishwoman – was telling me, primates adapt very quickly, even the baby monkey, Terence, will have forgotten all the petting of the young volunteers and visitors within six months of his return to the bush, There were leopards, antelope, crocodiles, snakes and lions as well as some fine birds. The atmosphere was inevitably rather zoo-like, but the ideals fine.

A hot day, and I enjoy the town so much that I decided to relieve myself of the strain of finding accommodation tonight and to stay in the odd hostel with its friendly staff. I did ask for my room to be sprayed, however, as the mosquitoes gave me a poor night. There’s no malaria in Bulawayo, it is, I expect, too high at over 1000 metres. My room is basic but cheap and the location could not be better as I am only a block from the City Hall in central Bulawayo. Last night I had to use the fan to keep the mosquitoes away, then I had to use a blanket to combat the cool of the fan.

I always ride protected by clothing but sometimes when I am on open roads with little traffic I make a concession and leave off my leather gloves. This morning a wild bee blew right up my cuff and stung me on my elbow. The last one, the one on which I stood in Swaziland, itched like crazy for a whole week. My elbow is now swelling and beginning to itch!

Today I have noticed quite a number of white faces, obviously residents – white Zimbabweans. A woman who works at the hostel was talking today quite openly about the problems that were caused by Mugabe’s mad scheme to divest the white farmers – who were trained and experienced and feeding the nation – of their lands and hand them to unskilled, untrained African workers. As she said, the first year was fine as the seeds were already planted, but trouble set in when the cattle were killed for food and bore holes and infrastructure went unmaintained. Farms devolved to chaos and bad production, the economy died (and Zimbabwe was held as an example of rich African economies) and the world took its revenge. Things became very difficult for poor Zimbabwe. “The president will never admit he was wrong…” she surmised. This week the president, Robert Mugabe, infamous for his despotic rule, celebrated his 89th birthday. “Things are getting a lot better now, thank goodness,” she concluded. “We are stable again for now. And we have elections coming up.”

So, lovely Zimbabwe. A new discovery for me. I hope I will return here and to Zambia. Maybe that will be the destination before I sell the bike again? Of course, one thing that makes travelling here such fun is that everyone speaks such fine English. In fact, here I have heard almost no tribal language at all. And the people are SO good looking; the best looking African nation I have seen. People have generally small dark stature, almost European noses and many of the women have long hair. The men, also handsome, have open, friendly faces and a lot of the younger ones sport rather fine braided hair styles and beards. Everyone is neatly dressed in Western clothes that appear to be new, not ‘broni wawo’ (white man dead second hand clothes). This is a smart nation of charming, respectful, polite people. I am very impressed indeed and very happy I came. Ignore the bad press: come and see for myself… How, indeed, could I have felt apprehension?

DAY 42. THURSDAY MARCH 7th 2013. FRANCISTOWN. BOTSWANA

So to Botswana, one of Africa’s wealthiest countries – thanks to diamonds and a tiny population of only about 2 million spread over a country the size of France. But of course much of it – 70% I believe I read, is desert. It is one of the most sparsely inhabited countries in the world. It has probably the fourth gross national income in Africa and a pretty good standard of living – all this since independence in1966 when it was one of Africa’s poorest countries. Those diamonds helped a lot. Botswana has a very high HIV infection, second only to Swaziland, but it also has a very high access to free retroviral drugs from the government. The government is, and has been since independence, very democratic and literacy levels in adults are 83%, extremely high for sub-saharan Africa.

And, boy, is it HOT! As I rode from Bulawayo, only 120 miles to the east, the temperature soared. By early afternoon it must have been in the high 30s, certainly 35 or 36. It’s just about okay when I am riding, the wind-chill factor keeps me comfortable, but stop at a traffic light (‘robot’) and I swelter in my black jacket and helmet. So much so that I decided to stop at Francistown, a rather boring modern town that could be anywhere in Europe, except that when you leave the main streets there are African market stalls – and of course everyone is black skinned around me.

My other reason for stopping early for the day is my arm. The wild bee sting from yesterday has swollen my arm to at least 50% its normal size round my elbow. It’s now all puffy and stiff and riding another fifty miles just did not appeal in the extreme heat. I have invested in calamine lotion but that didn’t stop the swelling so this afternoon I have bought an antihistamine cream as well. It itches like hell.

This is supposed to be a no holds barred travel diary so I may as well say… I eat and drink everything put in front of me, most of it with, if not pleasure, just acceptance that it’s all that’s available. I drink well water if necessary; I eat tough roasted dog if I am called upon; no doubt I will try mopane worms (dried caterpillars that are a favourite snack hereabouts) if the opportunity occurs. I have a stomach of steel – stainless steel. A great attribute in Africa, well, a great attribute for a traveller. But on these journeys, the problem I have is with my outer layer. Not just bee stings – and this is the second of those – and sunburn, but bloody fungal infections! You try sitting for hours every day in the tropics, on a plastic seat, and NOT get fungal infections! Oh, the itchy bum syndrome! I have been battling it for about two weeks. It’s been an uncomfortable feature of all my long bike journeys in Africa! In the end I am grateful to that bee because the pharmacist sold me calamine cream and it’s worked on the itchy bum better than the bee sting. That and liberally dousing my riding trousers and clothes with anti-fungal powders…

Enough of that – but it IS all part of the journey, I am afraid.

*

Bulawayo was quite delightful. I am missing it tonight. I am missing Zimbabwe. It has shot high up in my shortlist of friendliest countries of the world, alongside, of course, Ghana, and Zimbabwe’s neighbour Zambia. Botswana, on all of eight hours assessment, is friendly to a degree but on a much more take it or leave it level. Most people respond with a smile but it’s not automatic and warmly welcoming as the Zimbabwean smile, and certainly not as equal as the smiles I remember from lovely Zambia eleven years ago. In the first eight hours I feel much more a white man here than I did in Zimbabwe.

Reluctantly, I rode away this morning after breakfast amongst the very pretty waitresses of the Mulandi Cafe. Zimbabweans are VERY good looking people, women and many men too. Open, honest faces; very attractive people, probably the most pretty and handsome in my African experience.

I rode out of town towards Figtree and Plumtree, past Balmoral Road, Luton Road, Donnington, Cavendish Road, Dundee Avenue and a hundred other very British-sounding names. The colonial legacy is very prominent in Bulawayo. The scenery, once out of town, was just endless rolling bush country, green and low stretching from horizon to horizon. I had probably better get used to it as I think it will last pretty much all the way south now. My journey from Bulawayo to Johannesburg is about 1000 kilometres – 600 miles – and it will all be very flat. I potter along at 50 to 55 miles an hour, just about fast enough to get places but slow enough to daydream and avoid the donkeys.

It was 60 miles to the Botswana border. There’s hardly any traffic on these roads, perhaps a vehicle every three or four minutes. By the time I reached the XXXXXX border it was pretty warm, but nothing to what was coming…

After the chaos of Beitbridge border the other day, I was apprehensive about the crossing but I reckoned I had seen little enough traffic that it might be quite easy. It was so quick and easy I was in Botswana in less than half an hour. Leaving Zimbabwe took all of ten minutes and getting into the new country not a lot longer, even though I had to change money. At least Botswana uses its own currency, the pula, meaning ‘rain’ in Setswana, the local language. Interestingly, I am writing in an upstairs balcony bar in a quite expensive hotel (I ate down the road for 60 pence first!) and I can hear no English being spoken although it is the official national language. In Zimbabwe I heard almost no local, tribal languages except amongst a few market and street traders and I heard lovely African/ English accents. I notice that the Batswana are much noisier than the more gentle Zimbabweans.

‘Mr Bean’, the comic one, is often quite helpful down here. I take it in good part and it eases my way through bureaucracy. At police checks they love it; at the border they loved it. So I milk it to help me through. The policemen on road block duties are basically very bored and stop me for someone to speak to. The fellows who flagged me down ten miles outside Francistown told me they had a duty of one month stuck out there with a khaki tent in the 36 degree heat with little traffic to stop and few dramas of traffic infringements to brighten their days, beyond some vastly overloaded bakkies.

Francistown, named, I believe after a British diamond prospector, is an odd place when you have been travelling in Africa. It is suddenly like being in southern Europe – all shopping malls and supermarkets. Since it was still only early afternoon I searched out a tourist office to find my accommodation tonight. It may feel like Europe and it costs like Europe too. I had expected this. When I passed briefly through Botswana in 2002, just travelling fifty miles across the north western corner, I couldn’t even afford to stay there and had to continue for a very long day into Zambia. Here I have to pay £35 for a room, no breakfast. It is, admittedly, a large room with air-con, a bathroom and kitchen, but it’s not fancy at all. It’s probably the cheapest room in town.

Tomorrow I have a long ride south. It will probably be very hot. I hope my arm stops itching and reduces in size quickly! I have enjoyed sitting here in this balcony bar with a pleasant breeze, surrounded by drinkers who don’t trouble me (but I’d rather be in Zimbabwe where people by now would have talked to me). The arm is itching. Time for medication. Time for rest after a scorching day.

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