Three minutes later arriving in Francistown and I would have a room draped with drenched motorcycle clothing and luggage. Everyone says they have never seen rain like this year. I awoke to a dull, drizzly morning.

“This place, it does not rain much…. But this year..!” exclaimed the jolly lady mopping the terrace outside my room outside Lephalale. She was Zimbabwean, it turned out, when I got her to converse with a guest. “Ah, Zimbabwe! My country! Even in Zimbabwe, they say the rain is there.” The flooded river was lapping in the fields at the back of the farm and guest house. The thatch dripped.

Sadly, rain is coming to dominate my journey, and my thoughts… Watching the clouds, hoping to steer a course between them becomes a preoccupation as I ride these vast flat landscapes. I didn’t come here for this. I came to Africa to get away from this.

Things improved as I rode north again, back across the swollen river where I turned last evening. The rains last night did me a favour, in that the accommodation options near the border were very limited, had I continued. My thatched room was a much better choice. By the time I reached the border point it was extremely hot, and very humid of course. A year ago I crossed from South Africa into Zimbabwe at a place called Beitbridge, a notoriously chaotic crossing point that I am avoiding by this route through part of Botswana. It took at least three hours and cost a fortune. This morning I passed out of South Africa in moments – well, I should really, my bike is South African and thus I have a spurious South African identity. A few moments later I crossed a single track bridge over the rushing, muddy and debris-filled Limpopo River and through Botswana formalities as easily, except for the payment of £11 for some sort of road tax.

The roads in this country are incredibly long. It is a vast tract of Africa with a tiny population and a lot of diamonds and resources. So it is a rich country, and very expensive. I do not want to tarry long. Actually, I instinctively find the people much less open, although it is nice to be back in a country where children and donkey cart drivers wave enthusiastically at a passing motorcyclist! I enjoy that, a tiny acknowledgement of my humanity, even if most of the population takes little notice of me.

Thee’s not much to say about the scenery: big/ expansive/ flat/ bush-covered/ endless and rather tedious just about says it all for the day. The sky filled with a million white puffy clouds and it became pretty hot. In the distance I watched the storms gather and hoped to avoid them. I rode right between two and thought I had got away with it. But approaching Francistown, which is hundreds of miles from anywhere else, the slate blue rain clouds gathered right above the town and I raced on to get there before they opened. Having stayed a night here last year I had investigated the affordable options for accommodation then and was able to ride right back to the small, undistinguished, over-priced place I used before. Thank goodness I knew the way. Within a few moments the skies opened such as I have seldom seen! I would have been drenched!

Some days don’t amount to much. I find myself wondering just what I am doing. Sometimes I ride along asking myself the inevitable question: what is this all about? And I know the only answer is: to get to the other side – and the more interesting bits and the rewards they will bring, the people I will meet, the experiences I will evaluate and perhaps appreciate, the stories I will have to tell (if I can find listeners). It all puts life into another perspective and sometimes I have to pay by boredom and, yes, loneliness. This was a day like that. I found myself envying the German couple I met back as I entered Lesotho. Travelling together, on two bikes but able to share things. They even had intercoms in their helmets, even if only to be able to say, “Jeez, this is boring!” Someone else to understand would have been a relief today… That is one drawback to travelling by motorbike: I am detached from other travellers and the people and lives I pass. I have extreme freedom but long hours on my own. But then will come a brief event that makes it all worthwhile, a moment of physical excitement that is so overwhelming it blocks your throat. They don’t happen often but they make the rest of the tedium pale.

A short day tomorrow, just a hundred miles or so to Bulawayo, perhaps the nicest town on last year’s journey.

Oh well, I think it’s just the scything rain – still continuing over five hours after I rode into Francistown, not a very riveting place at the best of times – that is putting a damper on my spirits.

Dull day; dull traveller today.


Difficult to be dull in Zimbabwe, though. In the few days I spent here a year ago, I appreciated that Zimbabwe is wonderful, warm, welcoming place: the spirit of Africa. It is these places that addict me to the continent. Ghana, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Zambia – all of them have that unreserved acceptance of strangers; curiosity (a virtue I much admire) and openness. The essence of this continent.

So to Zimbabwe, where still people tell me they haven’t experienced rain like this in years; where the newspaper hoardings talk of ‘sink or swim to survive floods’ (Oh, and I have to record another Sunday Paper headline, typical the world over of sunday tabloid nonsense: ‘Month long erection after sex with goblin’!). I arrived dry – just – again. As I approached Bulawayo there was a brief shower as a cloud emptied, but an hour later as I wandered the sunday afternoon streets I had to sit on a step for half an hour in torrential, vertical rain that bounced off the streets. I have really chosen a terrible year for my journey. I could have stayed in Devon for this…

Francistown is not an attractive place: a small town of banks, businesses, supermarkets, petrol stations and somewhat European looking shopping centres.the market stalls – for despite the wealth of this nation, this is still Africa and wealth is not evenly distributed – fill the pavements beside a railway track that must shunt for hundreds of miles across the bush lands, probably servicing the mining operations of Botswana. Here again the shops are often owned by unsmiling, un-integrating Chinese merchants. I had a conversation with a small-time official from Gaborone collecting business data for a directory. He bemoaned the fact that the businesses owned and operated by Chinese people are just the ones that should be available to modestly ambitious Botswana people: selling cheap goods and basic commodities. The Chinese are not much loved or welcomed in Africa, and do little to foster any loyalty or acceptance.

There had been power cuts in Francistown from the overnight storms, so petrol pumps took a time to get going again. Knowing that I was on my way to the Zimbabwe border, I called first at an ATM to get Botswana Pula. Zimbabwe has no currency of its own. Surely a sign of an economy in dire straits, the official currency of this country is the US dollar! I can also deal in Rand, Pula, Pounds and Euros! Amazingly, the Zimbabwean people have developed a fantastic facility in mixing and matching currencies and change. I bought a beer a short time ago priced at ‘one dollar, two rand’! I paid my hotel bill in Pula and got te change in Rand. The simplest street traders here should be entitled to get a degree in economics, the wY they juggle so many currencies. Of course, the Zimbabwe Dollar is dead as the dodo and now just a joke souvenir item, with zillions of dollars last required to purchase an ice cream. My double entry visa to the country was priced at the payment counter, as: ‘ZAR (Rand) 700/ BWP (Botswana Pula) 610/ US Dollars $55/ GBP £35/ Euro €45’.

Last year I entered Zimbabwe from South Africa directly at Beitbridge border, a ghastly experience of bureaucratic hassle and expense that took three hours. Today I was out of Botswana and into Zimbabwe in less than 45 minutes. Sunday was also a good day to travel without commercial traffic. I had to pay for my visa and also £15 for temporary third party insurance but it was all accomplished efficiently and smilingly.

Riding a motorbike invests me with an individuality and personality that I much appreciate, especially as I am now a ‘daddy’ – a white-bearded elder in African estimation. Car drivers never have this distinction. Everyone at borders – and elsewhere – feels they can talk to me and ask what an ‘old’ man is doing riding such an incomprehensibly long way (that is from Botswana to Zimbabwe for most people, not even Durban to Lusaka, let alone Cape Town to Kenya). My smiles help and so, I really believe, does the fact that I always travel with an open-face helmet, so I am not obscured by the anonymity of a threatening bike helmet. People wave and greet and approach whenever I stop in a way that they would never do were I driving a car.

Bulawayo is a pleasant town. I enjoyed it a lot last year. Wide streets, calm traffic, quiet respectful people, blossoming trees and fine ornate Victorian architecture here and there. It’s all a bit, well, very, I suppose, faded and run down: there’s not much money around in this country. But it has a charm that I like, mainly provided by the quiet, good looking people who return a smile but do not trouble me at all.

Except, that is, when I wandered into a bar for a quiet beer and was accosted by two very drunk men, the leader of whom was a bloody white Scotsman, with a dread-locked Zimbabwean mate. Why do drunks assume the right to impose their company? I was happy enough to fall into conversation with anyone: that was partly the reason for the beer, but these two fellows, who bought me a beer I didn’t want, were so drunk they could hardly stand, and certainly not hold a conversation. I had to extricate myself quite forcibly and walked off into the dark quickly, circling the block so I did not have to walk past the window. White men cannot hide in Africa! I wanted to use the restaurant next door and had to explain to the lovely Zimbabwean waitress that I wasn’t being unfriendly to her or her colleagues but that I needed to hide behind the pillar to avoid recognition! I ate my meal with my head down, back to the door. I ordered rump steak – with rice to avoid the ubiquitous chips. When it came I kept looking at it as I ate and trying to recollect what the look of it reminded me of: the knitted dishcloth at the kitchen sink on Erraid, the Scottish island I love above everywhere else in the world! But then, steak and rice at US $6.00, do you expect gourmet dinner? For three months before I left for Africa I didn’t eat meat at all. I’m afraid I am making up for it now. I fantasise about Josie’s fresh organic vegetable stall in Harberton next summer. Vegetables? What are they?

This is a strange hotel: a cross between hostel, business centre and with a real feel of YMCA or similar about it. I can’t make it out. The next room is taken by a small computer business; a hairdresser works across the courtyard; there are offices mixed with long term residents who look like students. But it is very friendly and I am invited to bring my motorbike in through the front doors, passageway and into the inner yard. Where it stands at the foot of a tall swaying palm. The rooms are basic: the fitments battered and old, the decor faded. But it is across the road from the Bulawayo City Hall, bang in the middle of town. And the price is £12.50. It’ll do!

Happy to be in Zimbabwe. Much less the dull boy today.


The Zimbabweans are SO charming! I am completely captivated by a nation – well, certainly this western part of a nation – that reacts so disarmingly to my smiles and greetings. It makes it such fun to be in the country. You see, you should always come and judge for yourself: never trust the media and its stories. These people are terrific.

I have walked with a smile on my face all day, and a smile – in Africa – is almost always infectious. It’s been a good day, easy-going, delightful and interesting too.

Last year, as I was pulling out of Bulawayo, I stopped for petrol at the end of the street here. A van pulled in on the other side of the pump with the livery painted on the side: ‘Fortune’s Gate’. Instantly it rang a bell. I just knew that somewhere in my family folklore Fortune’s Gate, Bulawayo was relevant. It wasn’t until I got home and asked my cousin Pat, family historian for my mother’s side, that I understood the connection. My grandmother’s sister built a house at Fortune’s Gate. Now there is no one left to ask: when your mother goes, you have to resort to other methods of family research. She occasionally talked of her Auntie Puck, who died long before I was born, sometime in the early 40s. Well, it turns out that Auntie Puck, born Hilda Kathleen Eland in Thrapston, Northamptonshire in 1877, married a man called Jimmy Gilchrist and they came to Southern Rhodesia where he became a cattle auctioneer in Bulawayo. In 1931 they built an impressive mansion on a hill in a suburb of the town, an area then called, according to a white resident who has lived there all her life ‘Gilchrist Village’. She also directed me to the ‘Manor’, the house that Puck and Jimmy built.

Well, to cut short a convoluted story of riding about trying to find the owner, it now belongs to the Nesbitt family, white Zimbabweans who, it turns out, own several of southern Africa’s fanciest hotels – including nearby Nesbitt Castle, a local ’boutique hotel’ of bizarre, almost comic colonial baronial castle fantasy built in 1897. They also own the famous Victoria Falls Hotel (but unfortunately didn’t suggest a cut price deal for me in a couple of days!). The house is now the property of the son, Rory, and his wife and three young children. Eventually, after meeting various kindly Nesbitts, he took me to the house and gave me a complete tour of my great aunt’s romantic creation. It is quite a house! Seven bedrooms, with a vast living room with a fireplace like something from Citizen Kane, a dining room high above the most beautiful view across the Zimbabwe forest, large open fires in every room for winter, parquet floors, astonishing stairways, passages and Norman arched doors with medieval overtones, all on different levels and built onto and around vast boulders that form the hill, a little as if inspired by the Great Zimbabwe Ruins. Much of the house is little changed apart from decor and modernising bathrooms and facilities, Rory assured me, although he has an ongoing upgrading that will make it more like the baronial castle down the road. It was odd to walk the corridors, see the bedrooms and living spaces so much loved by my own grandmother’s (whom we always called Gum – (and a sister called ‘Puck’…!)) sister. It made for an interesting event. My goodness, how those colonials lived! What a bizarre life: creating fantasies in Africa. Nesbitt Castle (renamed after they purchased it semi-derelict as a business venture in 1988) is, frankly, hideous; the worst of colonial pride and arrogance: castellated nonsense like an early Disneyland, a Gothic folly in the heart of Matabeleland, filled with game trophies, even to a vast elephant’s head with flapping ears, baronial furnishings, grand pianos, fake old masters, and every artifice that could make Africa seem remote.

It was certainly an insight into a bygone era… Sadly, I could add little knowledge of my family history to my cousin Pat’s research. All I could do was to confirm that Puck’s child, who died aged about ten after surgery for appendicitis was a girl. The name Lindsay made us unsure, but a carved plaque is to this day screwed to an outside door that enters the child’s bedroom and reads ‘Miss Lindsay Gilchrist’.

Two days ago the zip on my quite expensive riding jacket failed at last. In England I would just be forced to buy a new jacket. Who replaces zips these days? But this is Africa! Everything is recycled by necessity, not as an ecological fashion statement. I asked the manager of this dowdy hotel about tailors. She is a white Zimbabwean, whom I remember from last year. Mrs Boesmann is her name, I believe. “Ah, Victor would probably be able to do it. Edmo…!” she called the charming young maintenance and odd-job man. “Can you take this gentleman to Victor?” Victor seemed just like the name I would expect of an African tailor!

So Edmo lead me through the cross-hatched streets of Bulawayo to Victor’s workshop, up stairs down an alley at the back of a building some streets away. The tailor took one look at it and said he could make the repair – for five US dollars! That is £3.00, including the zip! Later, while I was out, Edmo went back to fetch the jacket, repaired very neatly and as good as new. I told Edmo to keep the change from the $10 bill I gave him. It was worth it to me and five dollars is a lot of money for him. His smile, already quick to appear, broadened engagingly.

In the afternoon I spent a fruitless couple of hours trying to do some family research – at the public library; the planning office (don’t ask: a slight misunderstanding between cultures!); the city hall and then an abortive attempt to find the National Archives – just as the heavens opened yet again and I had to run for shelter. By then the office day would have been almost done anyway, and explaining to city bureaucrats what I was after was a frustrating business. Family history doesn’t seem to be high on Zimbabweans’ preoccupations. So I retreated to the hotel for a bit then out for a beer or two in a quieter hotel bar without any soakingly drunken Scotsmen.

This is a big town of wide streets and open spaces. There are some fine old colonial structures, not just the administrative offices of the colonial government but some fine Edwardian edifices to shops and banks. There seems to be a preoccupation with shoe shops in town! That and financial institutions, odd considering the country no longer has a currency. It is rumoured that soon the Japanese Yen and the Chinese Renminbi will be added to the acceptable currencies on the street. A country without a currency does suggest a certain economic desperation, but all commodities seem to be available at the moment. Tourism, however, does not seem to be very buoyant. Pity, with such a very charming population… I have seen very few white skins, apart from a small number of obvious residents, for many have stayed and weathered the difficult political situation. Robert Mugabe, who recently had his 90th birthday, stares down from posters over every business counter and appears on just about every newspaper front page. Every town has its Robert Mugabe Road or Way. Bulawayo’s is just outside this dingy grotel.

Dinner was chicken and chips – and a garnish! – in a cavernous, empty restaurant costing a princely US$4 (£2.40). Life here for me is pretty reasonable – and so warmly congenial. A lovely country indeed. And all we hear of Zimbabwe is of corruption, mad dictatorships and political unrest. Life goes on. It has to. There’s so much fortitude in Africa. Without it life would be impossible.

You have to see for yourself.


‘You have to see for yourself…’ Wow! Zimbabwe is racing right to the top of my favourites! One of the best educated countries in Africa, I meet such cultured, aware, charming, intelligent people everywhere. A wonderful country. We make such sweeping judgements by taking notice of the media. This country, for all its political uncertainties, is as ‘developed’ and mature as any in the world. I am falling in love with yet another African country, yet another African people…

It wasn’t my plan to reach Victoria Falls today. I expected to stop on the road and arrive tomorrow, making it a more comfortable journey than the 400 kilometres I rode today. It was a long journey, but the scenery has improved so much since the tedious bush country of Botswana that the day hummed along quite pleasantly. Here I was riding through mature forest with large handsome trees keeping the roadsides behind wide grassy verges. It was like a very long ride down a parkland avenue much of the way. The road was good, the foliage lush and restful green after all the recent rain. I remained just about dry; only a brief period in which I had to go head down like the wind to outrun a huge slate thundershower and a few minutes of soaking in the late afternoon just a few kilometres out of Victoria Falls.

There is so much empty space in Africa! My first signposts, on leaving Bulawayo, were for Lupane, 175 kilometres away. I reached Lupane and rode straight through before I realised the the crossroads and petrol station were Lupane. Fortunately, I had the good sense to turn round and fill up with petrol, for Gwayi Bridge, another 75 kilometres along and the next place marked on my road map was exactly that: a bridge over a river. In the 250 miles from Bulawayo to Victoria Falls I passed one town at Hwange, a mining centre, and a number of rural villages. And a very large number of trees. And a lot of smiling, waving people.

I hammered along from about ten until four on quiet roads. I met another biker, a huge man from Kazakstan on his ‘world ride’ on a gigantic slob of a Honda complete with a very large attendant pick-up and full size bike trailer. What’s the adventure in that, I wonder? Doubtless one of the newly rich from the new Central Asian states, he is progressing through, he says, 100 countries but seemed to me to be more engaged in self-publicity than looking about him and seeing where he was going. Not my style. He stuck a sticker for his journey, more of his blatant self-aggrandisement on my bike. It will come off tomorrow as I am unlikely to meet him again on his egocentric thrash from the Cape to Cairo, complete with Arizona-registered support vehicle, websites, stickers and publicity.

Things have changed a bit since David Livingstone struggled with his native porters to the ‘smoke that thunders’, which I can actually hear from my bed tonight. This is Tourism with a capital T. But it is perhaps Africa’s biggest natural sight (excluding, for me, the incomparable Sahara, of course). Victoria Falls is here for tourism alone. I arrived in the late afternoon and did nothing more than find a place to sleep – at the Victoria Falls Rest Camp, a large development within hearing distance of the falls, where I have rented a static dome tent, with two comfortable beds on a concrete platform for $25 (£15).

I spent a couple of hours and a couple of beers in conversation with Kelvin, a completely charming your Zimbabwean traveller from Harare. He is becoming a very keen traveller and has been on the road for about eight months around eastern Africa. He makes a living by trading trips to China and picking up business wherever he can. Not suited to employment he is fiercely freelance and ambitious to travel more and more. His parents both died during his early teens of HIV and he was brought up by his grandmother, like so many African women, a fount of wisdom who, when she died was able to leave Kelvin and his two brothers a decent house. His grandmother was from Lesotho and now, after our conversation, I have a feeling he might be heading that way next! What a charming young man, about 27 years old, worldly wise, intelligent, thoughtful and capable, thinking for himself. A delightful conversationalist, about all things including Zimbabwean politics. He credits Robert Mugabe with placing education as a priority and agrees with many that the wresting of ownership of most of the wealth of Zimbabwe from non-native hands was well-intentioned but mismanaged. There should have been a long period of co-operation and gradual sharing of power and wealth. It’s an opinion held by many.

Warthog for supper tonight! Lean and rich. Had to be tried…

So to sleep with the distant roar of the finest falls in the world, the Zambezi River crashing into the gorges in one of the most spectacular natural sights in the world. I saw the Falls from Zambia twelve years ago. That’s the short end of them but Zimbabwe was closed to British passports then. I am so happy to be here now. I love this country already. I am so delighted to find so many Zimbabwean holiday makers mixed here with white skins here in this Rest Camp, a thing impossible in South Africa.

On the road I passed a couple of road signs warning of crossing elephants. It struck me that most European tourists come to Africa to see animals. I couldn’t care less about animals; although, of course, it IS very exciting if an elephant crosses the road in front of me (it only happened once in all my travels), or some zebra, or those wonderfully lithe gazelles of various sorts. It is people I come to meet: people as charming as young Kelvin, or Numsa, whose smile lit up the dingy hotel in Bulawayo; or Leeann of the beautiful eyes who served my breakfast in a Bulawayo cafe and confused me this morning by wearing a copper-coloured wig (so I had an excuse for a second photo after yesterday’s!); or Edmo the hotel odd-jobber, Eric the Nesbitt castle gatekeeper with the widest of smiles, who at 44 looks about 30; the barman who told me about the warthog; the drinker whose small children frolicked in the pool as we chatted about the mines of Hwange; all people who have passed briefly through my life the last day or two, shared a few ideas or opinions, or even just a smiling contact and made an impression that no elephant, giraffe or lion can ever make. Travelling is about people, people, people.

So’s life, come to that…


Victoria Falls! This was one of those days that make the intervening ones of long tedious roads, rainstorms and lonely riding worth ALL the effort! The Falls are truly ‘spectacular’: not a loose superlative, but really, a spectacle.

On my second viewing, after I had got partly dry and a bit warmer by receding to the small park beyond the falls, I met a Zimbabwean man, perhaps in his forties, who was so excited by his first visit to his falls that he was laughing manically and dancing with the thrill of it all as the thick, drenching spray coursed down his face and ran rivers down his long waterproof cape. His delight was infectious and moving, a man from a poor family who could never afford the trip until he went away to work in South Africa and decided he should see for himself, by himself, and take the story back to his friends and family. What a story he will take back, will Marvellous! What a name for a man in such ecstasy! How fun to share it with him for fifteen minutes, both of us soaked and excited by the astonishing spectacle of a wall of water over a mile long plunging 100 metres into the split in the earth before us, and the spray rising hundreds of feet above then falling as the heaviest rain you can imagine.

I was drenched to the skin, my feet squelching in my shoes, my tee shirt plastered to my body, chilled by the damp blasts that issue with force from the narrow canyon, a maelstrom of water swollen by the rainy season, cascading and roaring in foam-tossed cataracts endlessly into the rocky defile a few feet away. The roar fills your head and the water falls relentlessly. It’s no use trying to keep dry, and it’s half the fun to be as wet as if I had swum in the Zambezi itself. I didn’t bother with a prissy plastic rain-cape, on hire at the entrance. I just accepted that when you come to see arguably the world’s biggest falls, certainly it’s most impressive, you are going to get wet. Very, very wet indeed.

Ironically, for much of the time there was little to see! Just walls of spray like fog that rose on a stiff breeze of which I was downwind. It was also a cloudy morning and quite chilly once my clothes were soaked through. I had arrived about ten and it was three before I tore myself away, dripping and slushing in my shoes. Around midday the sun finally broke through and the warmth was very welcome. I stood about in a viewing place rather dryer than most and soaked up a bit of warmth, only to decide (impecunious skinflint that I am), that having paid my $30 entrance I would have another look at the length of the Falls. By now the sun had penetrated some of the mists and the views were wonderful, the noise and all that falling water exhilarating, the whole experience thrilling – but un-photograhable without drenching and ruining the camera. But pictures cannot capture the movement, the wetness, the thunder, the sheer thrill, and the memory is in my head, as is my memory form my first view of the Falls from the Zambia side in 2002, one of the happiest days of that trip from Cape Town to north eastern Kenya. I will remember to my dying day, the experience of briefly walking right inside a complete circular rainbow! It was like a drug-induced hallucination, never to be repeated, I am sure.

After the Pyramids, I suppose Victoria Falls (Mosi-ao-Tunya until appropriated in the name of his queen by David Livingstone with the crushing the presumption of his day) is Africa’s major sight, so it is not surprising that this town is here for tourism alone, but in gentle Zimbabwe the hassles are low key and not difficult to shake off. Such very charming people: articulate, educated, well-informed, respectful, friendly and warm-hearted. An absolute joy to be amongst.

Crocodile curry for supper tonight! Well, I had to, didn’t I? A bit like a cross between big tuna steak and chicken: a sort of coarse, whitish meat. Probably won’t bother again, not that the opportunity arises that often…

My ‘dome tent’ is hung with sodden shorts and socks tonight. The tee shirt dried on my back as I walked back through town – I left the bike for the day, as I try to do now and again – but my shoes will be many days before they dry out. Travelling light doesn’t make these arrangements easy.

What a special country… On this endlessly fascinating continent. I’m coming back to Zimbabwe.

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