DAY 32. FRIDAY MARCH 21st 2014. KARIBA, ZIMBABWE.
“I am riding home before it gets any darker,” I told the security guard at the gate of a fairly smart hotel where I got an early supper. “I don’t want to run into any elephants in the dark!” I was only half joking.
“Oh, don’t worry, they have gone this side,” he replied reassuringly, pointing down a sandy track. Sure enough, a hundred yards away four very real elephants were sauntering away down the track, grazing unconcerned!
This is a heavily wooded and scrub-covered area of low rolling hills with the lake never far off. It is an area of hills and inlets, beaches and islands, water and tall grasses. Narrow, deteriorating roads and sandy tracks dive off into the bush and connect habitations, guest houses, moorings and rocky beaches.
I have written before that I come to Africa for the people, not the animals. But it IS exciting to see wild animals so close, especially when it is so incidental as this. This afternoon, as I rode from the dam and border I was pretty astonished to see what I took to be elephant turds on the road. This is a well populated area. When I eventually found a place to sleep, I asked the receptionist, “Are there really elephants about? I have been seeing what I think are elephant turds on the road!”
“Oh, yes, many! Why, look, there is one over there!” Three hundred yards off I could indeed see the flapping ears of a full sized pachyderm. Later I rode to the local village and rode past no less than eight elephants, including three young, some of them just a few yards from my dirt road. They are everywhere. Right in the village streets are mounds of elephant shit! Now, that is how I like to see my animals! Twelve elephants just going about their business by my road. It does make me a bit edgy about riding in the dark though…
Kariba is the world’s largest man-made lake by volume. The redistribution of the immense weight caused more than twenty earthquakes of more than five on the Richter scale as it filled, a process that took four and a half years for the might Zambezi to accomplish. It is 140 miles by 20 miles roughly. Before it was filled, all the existing vegetation was burned and the rich soil produced on the lake bed has apparently caused a lively ecosystem and many fish. Many thousands of animals were relocated in ‘Operation Noah’ and hundreds of thousands of people had to be moved also, a contentious operation that is still argued over and sometimes described as the worst humanitarian resettlement in Africa. The lake started to fill in 1958 and was full by 1963. The dam was officially opened by the Queen Mother in 1960, I think, and is 1900 feet long and 420 high. Pretty impressive… Maybe the most remarkable thing to me is its thinness. At the top it is only 13 metres thick and the bottom only 24 yet it is 420 feet high. I suppose it is its deep curve that provides the strength to hold back the vast weight of the water behind it. Both Zambia and Zimbabwe have power stations on their respective sides, Zambia’s supplying the thirsty copper belt mines.
The Kariba Dam here defines the two country’s border posts. I actually drove over the top of the dam wall to transit between the two nations: another memorable crossing: at Victoria Falls the border is formed by the 1905 bridge over the deep gorge; between Botswana and Zambia in 2002 I crossed on the rickety Kazangula pontoon ferry over the Zambezi; and a couple of weeks go I rode over that old narrow bridge over the Limpopo.
Crossing African borders is so tedious! All the arcane processes, that I suspect are also largely meaningless, take forever. What do they achieve? Who knows… I move from one window to another, engaged in pointless bureaucracy, forms that will wither and brown, ledgers that no one will read, papers that I will have to carry – and probably throw away in the next country. Maybe it is just a justification for taking the money? Temporary Import Permit; Carbon tax; Road Fund; Insurance – each one a form and a fee. And I sweat buckets as it all happens, moving here, filling a form there, visiting some bloke in a hut here, getting another ink stamp there. For here around Lake Kariba it is HOT, HOT, HOT and very sweatily humid. It must have been 40 degrees at the dam. But at last it is all over, the passport pulled out for the last time, the final receipt, the last stamp on the last scrap of paper and the barrier is opened and I can ride with relief into another country on my ‘Jujubike’.
The dam was built in a narrow defile between green mountains, so the landscape hereabouts is hilly and the inlets and bays many. I decided to stay nearby to see the region despite the heat and humidity, both high even for me. It was worth it for the elephants alone. I began to ride every small road I saw looking for a likely place to stay and enjoying views of the huge blue lake, such a sight for sore eyes in the middle of dry Africa. I tried lots of places, for this is a holiday area, although silent now. There are no tourists in Zimbabwe it seems. One resort could grudgingly supply me with a room for £100, another hotel for £45; I bargained one guest house down from £33 to £25 – and eventually found a place for twelve quid! Haha!! Twelve quid with elephants outside the gate. What’s more, it is a veritable house with three beds, kitchen, bathroom and I am the only guest in an acre or so of shady trees. Run down and my usual basic level – but elephants outside, probably grazing a couple of hundred yards off as I write!
Last night’s experiment should be remembered. I decided to treat myself, spent double my budget and ended up with the poorest value room of the trip. I spent the night battling with ants on the bed and cockroaches in the bathroom in a shabby room without even curtains and a fan that operated half-heartedly, a bathroom light I had to get fixed – all for a view of the lake. Stick to your last, Bean. You know how to find value! I have stayed in hundreds upon hundreds of cheap hotels around the globe. Treating myself doesn’t work. And once my eyes are shut the view is irrelevant. The best treats are the occasional incidental cheap ‘grotel’ that just has something special – like elephants in the scrub outside the gate, which hopefully they shut at night. If there are elephants, easily visible by their bulk, I suppose there are other wild animals out there.
It’s been a fun day: less than 40 miles to ride, a memorable border, interesting landscapes a lot of Zambian and Zimbabwean smiles and wild animals just going about their business amongst the taxis and walking villagers. But, my, it’s been HOT. Even I collapsed and dozed after a cold water shower when I found my room. This is the hottest I have been in southern Africa.
Fair excuse for opening another beer!
The stars are bright tonight, Orion on his back from down here. There don’t seem to be mosquitoes but there a many very irritating tiny flies hovering around the screen of my iPad, brightest thing around, and biting at my ankles. But these aren’t malarial and the itch goes quite soon. And it is such a lovely night under the African stars… I’ll stay just a bit longer with my beer.
DAY 33. SATURDAY MARCH 22nd 2014. CHINHOYI, ZIMBABWE.
The people of this central and eastern part of Zimbabwe come, I believe, from somewhat different stock to the west side of the country. So far, I am finding them a bit less spontaneously and instinctively friendly than their western comrades and the warm Zambians. They are slower to greet and smile and a little less ready to chat with a stranger. I will reserve judgement until I have been here longer: it may be just a regional characteristic.
The first sixty miles or so of today’s journey was the loveliest since I left Lesotho three weeks ago. I rode through the Africa of dreams and storybooks. Tall waving grasses, taller than me, lined the roadside as I rode through beautiful mountains covered in luscious green foliage with flat-topped trees silhouetted against the great arch of blue sky and dotted clouds, lining the tops of the gently green kopjies (hills). The road, of pale grey chippings, wove away into the distance rising and falling over and between the hills, largely empty and dotted with occasional elephant dung, the only evidence that the bush around me was full of large animals, hidden and secretive amongst the tall undergrowth. They could have been within yards for all I could see, despite the fact that I never exceeded 30 miles and hour and rode searching the countryside. The only wildlife I saw was a two and a half inch tortoise that I stopped and lifted to the side of the road for safety, a small group of ugly baboons and a few enormous raptors. But I know that the forest there supports many elephants and buffalo and the shoreline of the lake is filled with hippos and crocodiles. The whole range of smaller animals must be there too. Roadside signs warned me of the danger of leaving my vehicle (!) or approaching wild animals too closely. It was such a magical ride: the crystal light of a sunny African morning blazing into the rich greens of this most lovely of seasons.
Eventually it came to an end at a major road that runs from Lusaka to Harare, the two capitals. But this road was quieter than the roads north of Lusaka: maybe on saturday there is some reduction or perhaps the heavy industry is just not here. Lumbering wagons with trailers toiled up the hills, for the hilly landscape continued all day, so much more energising than the flat bush of Zambia. I stopped for cash and petrol at the small town of Karoi and was surrounded by young men at the petrol pump. It is the red bike that attracts them. “We like it! But we can’t afford it…” said one young man ruefully. The inequalities are so evident on this forgotten continent.
Old run-down tobacco farms began to line the route, their tall brick drying sheds looking unloved and ill-maintained. I wonder how British American Tobacco, whose rusting signs I saw here and there, fared in the sweeping agricultural reforms of recent years. One can only hope badly. Now there’s a company that will stick at nothing to addict the people of Africa – and the ‘developing’ world as the more educated world moves away from their nasty products; a company of very suspect morality and ethics (with a number of British MPs’ money and influence abetting their questionable aims…). I certainly see no large scale farming operations as I ride by, just rusting tin roofs of the drying sheds and a few fields of large-leafed tobacco cultivation.
I have stopped at Chinhoyi, a small town through which the road runs; one of those towns at which I can only wonder why it is here? It’s a very unprepossessing sort of place, two facing rows of somewhat decrepit shops and supermarkets, a potholed road and just a few side streets. It was a convenient place to stop rather than enter Harare in the afternoon, and four miles back up the road I want to visit the Chinhoyi Caves, a sight I was recommended to visit by a Zimbabwean back in Victoria Falls.
There’s not much choice of accommodation here, just a few over-priced motels and the scruffy place I found down one of the short side streets, converted from a domestic bungalow as are many of these so-called ‘lodges’. I think I have the former living room: it has so many doors leading out of it, a room of chipped furniture and a cool painted cement floor. It will do. Pity there’s a mosque down the road, the first I have heard in southern Africa, with its gloomy wailing and moaning. What a way to praise god! Even as a non-believer, I do think praise should be a thing of joy and something uplifting, not a tuneless amplified drone! I hope they don’t call for daybreak prayer… An earplug night, maybe.
Ridiculously, I purchased another toy this afternoon. At a roadside lay-by I spotted a whole line of about forty toy tractors, cleverly made from sheet tin, scrap tyre rubber and wire and wood. The maker, Ranwell, has been making them for eighteen years, with a band of younger workers, there at the roadside, bending and shaping and painting these toys with which I sometimes see children playing, a long steering wire in hands as they push them through the grit and gravel. Taking off the wheels and cab, and the steering rod, I managed to get it into my luggage. Later I found a box and went to a Chinhoyi supermarket for paper and tape. A trip to the post office in Harare, I guess. The problems of travelling light.
DAY 34. SUNDAY MARCH 23rd 2014. HARARE, ZIMBABWE.
What a shame it is that this country lost the political plot so resoundingly. What a fine country it could be…
Harare, the capital city, is probably the most likeable capital I have visited in Africa. It is well laid out, with wide avenues and lots of green spaces; it has pavements – rare in Africa, and indeed the ‘developing world’ (I wish I could find a better, less insulting term than that, but you have to take it as read); it is relatively well ordered and quiet (relative, you understand!) and people are polite and do not hassle a white tourist at all. There are some fine old colonial buildings but also some pretty impressive modern buildings, shopping centres and offices. I assume the loans are from China, following Mugabe’s ‘Look East’ policies when the West stopped playing. Well, China wouldn’t care about civil liberties or justice, would they? Only money.
But it all has a veneer of neglect and hard times. Many of the traffic lights seem to be out of order and there is not a single street light lit, making walking pretty difficult after dark. The parks need maintenance, as do the streets and pavements. Overall, though, I find it pleasant as African cities go. People are certainly not as innately friendly as those of the west of the country and not a patch on the Zambians, although Harare is much more the image of a real city than the commercial sprawl of Lusaka, a village by comparison.
Maintenance is a problem everywhere. And I am not sure that it is a matter of a derelict economy: often I think it is the problem of Africa. It is the nature of almost all Africans to live in the moment: in the present. Few think of tomorrow. Admittedly, few rue yesterday either, a great positive aspect. History and the future don’t mean a lot I suppose, if you are struggling to make ends meet NOW. Of course, that is one of the major things that changed with the land debacle here. The white farmers had it in their bones to plan ahead and anticipate bad years; the local people who took over the farms ate the crops the first year, the seeds the next year and starved thereafter. The house in which I stayed last night, like houses all over Africa, was chipped and frayed; things broken never fixed. It is so much easier – and cheaper – to fix things when they break, but it does not happen. Cheaper to apply a quick coat of fresh paint annually than let it deteriorate to grease and chipped plaster; better to fix the gutter before the drainage undermines the house; better to buy new tyres before you are stranded in the bush with the bald ones; better to fix the cracked tiles before the whole floor rots away beneath. It is all a problem of planning ahead and management. Usually it is classified as someone else’s responsibility and it will cost money anyway. I have seen many once excellent government bungalows in Ghana left to dereliction because the tenant does no maintenance and prefers to live in squalor for years than spend their own money on a government house, and management is either corrupt or disinterested. Almost every hotel in which I have stayed on this trip would have benefitted from a coat of paint, attention to bathroom tiles, a bit of lubricant on the curtain track to save the fabric, care and attention to fittings before they had broken and had to be bodged back together. All simple measures but all requiring forethought and discipline.
The railway heritage of this country is impressive. Part of Rhodes’ great dream of a railway from the Cape to Cairo, this country has, or had, a good infrastructure. Trains still run – with no investment – and I am amused every time I ride over a level crossing to see the rusting signs: ‘Flashing lights not working’. They have been defunct so long that even the warning signs are now rusting and half-legible! Same in the hotels and lodges: often one electric socket per room, often not working, or if it is, a festoon of plug adapters, cables knotted and insulated with ageing Sellotape, bare wires poked into sockets, round pin plugs forced into square holes, and frequent scorch marks on walls and melted plastic testifying to the strain and explaining the damage. What’s more, this is 240 volt electricity…
The Chinhoyi Caves were a disappointment. I have, of course visited many of the finest show caves of the world and my appreciation of any caves, however spectacular, will always fall short of my experience at Sagada in the Philippines twenty years ago when a young local boy took me underground for hours by the light of a gas lantern and a box of matches and my pocket torch! Wow, did I see some wonders there on my private tour with a young man whose father (elsewhere that day!) was an official guide and who had played all his boyhood in and around the cave system. Some of the Chinese caves are bigger than the great Gothic cathedrals of France; Eastern Europe boasts extraordinary formations; France has some wonders – Chinhoyi has a couple of rather dank sink holes, collapsed caves in the limestone, the bigger one some hundred or so feet deep with an ultramarine pool that is 315 feet deep. There’s another series of caves lit by electric light that you can explore – or could if anyone had maintained the electric bulbs… As it was is was dirty, dank and pretty unpleasant, even if it does claim to be a wonder of Zimbabwe. Stump Cross Caverns in Yorkshire beat Chinhoyi!
My ride to the capital was only seventy miles or so. Sunday is a good day to arrive – I arrived in Lusaka last sunday – for traffic is much lighter. I rode about for some miles, up and down what tomorrow will be busy city streets but today were peaceful and empty. At last I spotted the Hotel Elizabeth and my unerring instinct told me it was the place! I am pretty adept by now at this skill. I can tell at a glance what level of faded decrepitude a hotel has reached (about 40 years, I estimate), and with it the prices (£18 with shower!).
I pulled up and asked a friendly security man where I would find the front entrance.
“Hotel Queen Elizabeth!” he exclaimed.
“Ah,” said I, “my queen!”
“No!” He shook his head. “Our Queen!” Probably the Queen Mother, in fact. She was very popular in Southern Rhodesia.
Hotel Elizabeth is on the corner of Robert Mugabe Road and Julius Nyerere Road, which tells you that I am at the every heart of this fairly small city. Tomorrow I can walk everywhere from here, as I did this afternoon, wandering the city centre. Parliament, a low, unimpressive colonial building is only a few blocks away, the GPO in the next block. It is a bit noisy, with a minibus taxi stand across the avenue with the conductors incessantly shouting their destinations, the drivers tooting their horns and the general hubbub of city centre African activity. It’s just so odd how dark it is with no street lights lit.
If I am to stay in an African capital city, I may as well be right in the heart of it.