DAY 46. FRIDAY JANUARY 23rd 2015. MUTARE, ZIMBABWE.
Should anyone ever ask me for the greatest holiday destination, I shall insist on Zimbabwe. It is unsurpassed. I have enjoyed lovely scenery, fascinating conversation and open smiles, waves and welcome everywhere I have been today. A very notable day – once again in Zimbabwe.
Education levels here are as high as any I have experienced anywhere in the world – Western or African. It is astonishing: a country with a bankrupt economy, a ruined infrastructure and derisory politics, but the most intelligent, knowledgable, well-informed, articulate, charming and cultured population. I do believe that without these admirable qualities the country would have fallen into unrest and mayhem many years ago, particularly when inflation rates rose to some bizarre levels in the millions-of-times some eight or ten years ago, when the Zimbabwe dollar made its final, cataclysmic collapse. At that time, Tapeza tells me, there was a lot of hunger and deaths – amongst all classes. The shops were utterly empty and most of the nation suffered. But desperation never gave way to violence or civil unrest. People developed ways of managing that in any less educated and, even I must admit, less religious land, would have been unlikely. Zimbabweans’ stoicism, adaptability and creativity got them through. It appears that cooperation got them through as well. “Well, you know, if you survive war or famine, it must be because God has a better purpose for you!” says Tapeza with a cheery smile. “We are innovative people. And we always have hope. In time, we will be leaders again in Africa, once the present difficulties are over.”
Tapeza, like all my conversationalists today, is so well informed. His knowledge of American and British politics is mind-boggling. He knows all the names and parties, the ins and outs of policies, the fine details of Congress and the House of Commons, the power struggles of Obama and the Republicans, the date of the next general election in my own country, the machinations of party politics and the state of Greece’s economy. He gets his information from watching the BBC, Sky News and CNN and research on the internet. He has more political knowledge than most people I know in England, where we have a constant feed of this information and opinion. Tapeza is a young fellow in his twenties, tall and slender, with a bright smile and lovely English accent with a slight Zimbabwean lilt. He works as a part time duty manager here in my guest house, intelligent enough to be a student of politics but employed as a general servant in an undistinguished hotel. Probably with some other informal work as well, as most people here seem to have. It’s a rather fine feature (to me, with my faintly anarchic tendency and a very self-reliant, unemployable streak) that the vast majority of Zimbabweans, of whom 85% or 90% are officially ‘unemployed’ have created their own entirely informal economy. This means, of course, that only 10% to 15% pay taxes. But everyone makes the best of a bad situation with admirable fortitude and enterprise. I do respect this nation. Any other would be indulging in blame and aggression.
It is difficult to equate these people who smile and wave so gaily as I ride with the hideous rampage of violence perpetrated not so long ago, sanctioned by the government, against white farmers and land owners. A time of brutal vengeance against imagined wrongs that spread in a wave of robbery, murder and worse. Many of those involved were the lesser educated lower ranks of the military, branded as freedom fighters since their battles for independence (remember Ian Smith and UDI that began all this mess) by a government in the process of losing control. That mob frenzy changed the world’s view of the country. Power and a sense of right given to the uneducated and rural poor, indemnity implied from above. I find it difficult to comprehend how the gentle people whom I meet allowed it to happen. But maybe that is the essence of the problem here: the removal of power from the electorate. Amongst the people I meet as I pass through, it is sure that I am waving at murderers and rapists. An odd thought in what I see as a cultured, gentle country…
Could all this erupt once again? Yes, I guess it could. The balance is delicate and people always look for scapegoats when things get tough. Fortunately, the educated here act as a brake.
Wherever I have been today, I have found conversation. Outside the Post Office I bumped into an elderly white Zimbabwean. Full white bearded and rather diffident, he said in an obviously English accent, “I don’t think I know you..?” with a doubtful expression. There are few white faces around so he probably does recognise most.
“No, I am just a tourist, riding through.”
Hugh is an Anglican minister here in Mutare. He was an engineer and even, at one time, worked for the government. He smiled quietly as I gushed (as I tend to do!) about Zimbabwe and its people. “Yes,” he said with a sad frown, “it’s a pity Robert has made such a mess of things… Well, thank you for cheering my day! Bless you!” And he climbed into his car and drove away with a light wave.
I rode away through town, noting once again how these people cope cooperatively with the lack of traffic lights. It seems indicative to me of their attitude to life. Anywhere else in Africa – and much of the world – the defunct lights would be a cause of chaos and irritation, hooting and accidents. Here, drivers approach the busy junction and think to themselves, ‘OK, I want to go across; he wants to come left and he wants to go right. So we all drive quietly around each other, one after the other, and we will all get where we want…’ It works admirably.
The Bvumba Hills rise pretty much out of Mutare and create the border with Mozambique to the east. The empty, winding roads lead up into cool forests and fine vistas of immensely tall, graceful eucalyptus rising above a semi-tropical trees and vegetation. Distant mountains fade away into Mozambique behind steep rocky outcrops. In the valleys the greenness is vibrant. Even up here there are schools and institutions everywhere, some of them private, some governmental.
Education and creativity go hand in hand. Much of the enterprise that makes ends meet is in handicrafts, at which Zimbabweans are gifted. Although there are few tourists here, I know that many of the handicrafts I see in other parts of Africa originate here in Zimbabwe. Up here in the hills women display embroidered tablecloths and aprons at the roadside and stone sculptors set out their pieces, despite the scarcity of vehicles. There are one or two classy hotels up there, which must occasionally bring trade, but I imagine that sales are few. But hope and optimism are the national qualities and people appear to like to be busy. Zimbabweans hold hard-working ethics for which many of the continent’s employers respect them – and many of the continent’s lazier citizens resent them, especially in South Africa. (The UKIP syndrome again).
Last March I stopped for coffee at Tony’s Coffee House high amongst the lovely forest. Here at least I could get real local coffee, so unlike the ersatz chicory and dextrose insult called ‘Ricoffy’, so popular in South Africa and cheaper hotels. I met Tony last year, a gay, white Zimbabwean with rather camp taste, all gold brocade and wind chimes, but his coffee is bitter and his gardens magnificent beneath a stand of the tallest eucalyptus, well over 150 feet high. He wasn’t home today and I avoided his cakes this time. Last year his immensely rich gateau (US$12 a slice – making the most of the informal economy) almost killed me, unused as I get on these journeys to rich food.
In the afternoon I rode back down the mountains, back over the potholed town roads and through the democratic non-traffic lights to the hotel bar I enjoyed yesterday at the foot of the other mountain pass. Storias, the elderly bar keeper was delighted to see me again, his crinkled face lighting up in welcome beneath his white-tinged receding hair, and many warm handshakes as if we were old friends. “Lion beer, yes? I’ll bring it!” Lion beer is a Zimbabwean beer, better than the South African imports in my opinion, made with barley malt, hops, water and maize. In the USA recently I have taken to enjoying beer made from rye.
A few moments later this very dignified gentleman brought my beer on a silver tray. Still working, aged 71, he has eight children and still supports them – the burden of any wage-earner in this devastated economy. Bulky matrons were arriving as we spoke, greeting one another and talking together, depositing vast bags and admiring babies strapped to backs. Storias has a lovely old way of speaking English in a certain sing-song Zimbabwean patois. “They are one-y hundred weemen. From the church. Church group-ey.”
“Oh,” says I with a chuckle, “not so many alcohol sales for you then!”
“Yes, softee drink!” Then, with an exclamation mark expression and gesturing with a weaving hand: “But if you go-ey other side..! Haha..!”
An old pro knows his customers.
Mike, the other barman – for, as I said before, there are many part-time employees in this country, often duplicating shifts – brought my second beer.
“I see from the newspaper hoardings that Grace is ill?” I queried. ‘Grace seriously ill, says Mugabe’ shouted the sales banners in the town. There are several dailies here, some of them touting the party line and Mugabe is usually sycophantic headline news in some way.
“Yes, she is ill… They say she is in China for an operation.”
“Maybe it’s just politics?”
“Maybe just they say it to encourage sympathy?”
Mike laughed loudly. “OK, Mr Bean!” and ran off. I was getting too close to embarrassing him and talking too loosely.
The unusually named Ocean, a laughing, round-faced, middle aged teacher, fell into conversation outside the fast food place where I ate tonight as he waited for his lift home from his head-teacher. Like many, he lives in a rural area a few miles out, where life is cheaper and he can farm a few fields to help raise his family. For some time he worked for an NGO and rode a small motorcycle they provided. “Oh, how I enjoyed that!”
I’d like to know how that violence happened amongst such peaceable people, but I sense it is a touchy subject, not to be approached with my slight acquaintance with so many educated Zimbabweans. But I am surprised at the candour with which many people will talk to me about politics, mainly to stress their irrelevance in the everyday lives of Zimbabwe, where people are too busy making ends meet, and keep that extraordinary optimism that things will change for the better when events take charge. As they must soon with a president of ninety plus and perhaps with an ailing wife, even if she has just gained a record couple-of-month PhD! What will actually happen, with an opposition in disarray, and a powerful military institution, and the violence of recent history easily whipped up by unscrupulous political and military leaders is anybody’s guess, but I know I shall take much more interest in what happens to all my new friends in this country.
DAY 47. SATURDAY JANUARY 24rd 2015. CHIMANIMANI, ZIMBABWE.
Tonight finds me just a little lower down Zimbabwe on the eastern side, in what must have been, in colonial, Empire days, a ‘Hill Station’, a place of cool forests and an elevation high enough for me to be chilly riding. Chimanimani is a rambling, rural hill town in the edge of a small national park that borders on Mozambique behind a range of precipitous-sided grey mountains.
Around me are more white people than I have seen for a long time. I avoid ‘backpackers’ places as a rule for I don’t come to Africa to be amongst my own folk. But here I have hit upon a pleasant guest house inundated by an overland truck full of British and English-speaking tourists. It’s not my way of travel! I wouldn’t last an afternoon on a truck with 17 white people being driven through Africa. But each to their own… They eat their own food and sleep in their own tents in pre-arranged sites, drink, eat, walk and talk together and listen to their own music and see everything together. I could do that in Paignton! Oh well, as I say, each to their own. They seem a reasonably cheerful bunch, although Jacqui, owner if this lodge, tells me that she sees them pass through in all sorts of social groupings. Some work, some don’t. For an evening it’s been a little diverting to be in a bar with thirty white people. They leave at the crack of dawn and I will probably spend the day chatting with the Zimbabwean staff. Jacqui and her husband are white Zimbabweans, as are some of the other drinkers in tonight’s saturday evening bar. She is an illustrator, which has made for an interesting conversation. She also once considered renting the house built by my great aunt at Fortune’s Gate in Bulawayo but felt strange sensations of sadness that she ascribed to some tragedy. When I told her that my great aunt’s only ten year old daughter died from appendicitis there, she seemed to think it proved her feelings.
“Can you imagine! This OLD man! He should step aside,” exclaimed the guest house manager stabbing at her daily newspaper this morning. People are surprisingly candid about politics in Zimbabwe. “It is China! China is supporting him. They want to keep him in power. They put pressure on the government! Yes, they say he is ill. And the wife, she is in China. They say she is hospitalised there.”
The thought of China meddling in the daily politics of Africa is frightening. That country, with its own record of human rights abuse, lack of democracy, new commercial greed and ecological disregard is hardly the development partner of choice but Mugabe, with the withdrawal of western support and imposition of sanctions, turned eastwards for cash. They make dangerous bedfellows.
There’s an opinion that says that Mugabe will have to die in office for if not he would be immediately indicted for human rights abuse…
In the afternoon I was riding along a red gravel road above the Chimanimani valley and stopped to take a photo of the lovely landscape of small fields below, multiple shades of green and the grey mountains behind. A small trail bike, ridden by Garikhyi (‘we must live peacefully’), a chubby policeman from nearby Chipinge, stopped. He was on his way from a rural village to Chimanimani checking on his small side-business. He owns three pool tables in different towns and must empty the money and check on his investments. We talked, there on the dusty track for more than an hour. His political stance was one new to me. He is a strong supporter of the president and gave me the whole party line: Mugabe, the saviour of his people. Parts of his argument were convincing, but much was the rhetoric of the party machine.
“Look here,” he said, waving his hand over the expansive valley below. “All this land, as far as the diamond mines over there, and the mountains there, this was all owned by one white man, Roy Bennett. Look now. It is supporting all these families. You see? There, and there and there, fields growing crops. Some of them have animals to plough, others use the hoe. These people, they have children, grandchildren. They must have land to look after themselves. When the president made his land reforms, it gave back land to the people. Our president, he had made agreements that in ten years the land should be returned to the people. He promised. But twenty years went by and the white people didn’t move away. People, they were patient. We are peaceful people. But after twenty years, the veterans, they became impatient and took action. Now this land is feeding many!”
“Yes, but you have a ruined economy and no exports, and this was the richest agricultural country in Africa!”
“When your white men came to Africa, do you think they became rich immediately? No! it took many years before we had these exports and riches you talk of. We will build it all again! You’ll see!”
“Our president, he has been strong! He has sacked all the corruption in the government. Even his Vice President! The opposition is not necessary. We don’t know, but he will win the next election, if God allows, even if he will be 93 years! He is strong! When he stands to make a speech the people standing round him get more tired. We need politicians with experience. Mugabe, he knows what to say and what not to say. How he campaigned in the last election. The opposition, they had no chance. We LIKE him!”
Not the story I usually hear, but Garikhyi certainly believes it.
Riding back to town I met Mike, on another small motorbike, loaded with a large box of groceries and a huge clear bag stuffed with a big synthetic blanket. Another charming young man with faultless, articulate English. He told me a sad story.
Mike works on a farm below this guest house in the valley. It exports flowers and peas to Europe and vegetables for the local market. Mike married on December 22nd. On January 8th his rented wooden house burned to the ground. He managed to salvage a few pots and pans from the kitchen only. All their clothes, their papers, their wedding gifts and even $580 in cash went up in flames.
The point of retelling this story is that Mike was smiling from ear to ear, so pleased to be chatting with me. There appeared to be not the slightest bitterness at what fate had dealt him. Zimbabweans adapt as no others. And they are always positive… “A generous person has given me this blanket. He knew it is difficult for us! My landlord, the farm owner, has given us a small place to stay.” He showed me a picture, on the ubiquitous phone, of his wedding day, his rather buxom bride in a lot of light blue satin and he in a shiny grey suit with dark collars. All burned… Still smiling.
Most of them put this fortitude down to their Christian beliefs. “If we survive the difficult times,” said Tapeza in Mutare, “it is because God has a better use for us!” It does seem to get them through some pretty tough times that would defeat most of us.
Before leaving the Utopia Country Lodge this morning I had to take a number of photos, and be photographed myself with several of the warm, friendly staff. The happy, well-padded cook, a cheerful thirty-something woman, is called Memory.
Odd to be sleeping beneath a duvet tonight. It is cool up here.
DAY 48. SUNDAY JANUARY 25th 2015. CHIMANIMANI, ZIMBABWE
Another day in Heaven (that’s actually the name of this lodge as well as an expression of enthusiasm). Still nothing occurs to break the magic.
The green mountains ring this village, once a much-loved tourist destination, when the country had tourists. High above the town, on the loftiest rounded green peak, stand three communication masts, the visual pollution of modern mountainscapes. The high hummock is called, for some reason, known I suppose to some old English colonials, the Pork Pie. It’s a stiff walk up a broken rocky track. A walk of about six or seven miles round trip. The tropical sun beat down as I walked through silent, fresh scenery, higher and higher.
I can’t stop the ageing process but I can challenge it to a damned good fight! But by the time I reached the village again after perhaps four hours I did decide that I really didn’t relish another five mile walk to the waterfalls down the valley. Instead, I repaired to a village bar with a grandly named beer garden, a scrubby patch in the shade of some trees where I sat to read for a short while. In Zimbabwe you can’t be alone for long. Soon a drunkenly weaving young fellow came and sat down followed by a very charming, sober, friend. The drunk was no trouble, very genial and peaceful and his friend another very articulate fellow – with nine O levels and 5 A levels who works as a maintenance carpenter at the local hotel to make ends meet. There is so little work here, formal work, that is, for everyone makes ends meet by their enterprise in the ‘informal’ sector. I admire these people SO much. In any other land this mess would be the making of unrest and trouble, self-interest and greed. Here everyone just gets on with life as best they can, helping each other and ignoring the collapsed system while hoping for good things that they all resolutely believe are coming.
The two fellows were drinking from a plastic bottle of ‘Shimbuku’, a commercially made brew similar to Ghanaian pito, slightly sour and soupy, brewed from sorghum malt and maize. It’s a little sweeter here in Zimbabwe but not at all undrinkable – at least to someone with as much experience of the odd tastes of the world! It’s also known as ‘shaky-shaky’. About 4% alcohol.
It is astonishing, the distances Africans walk. They do not walk for pleasure or exercise or to look at the views but to get places, to see their families, for their livelihoods, to tend their animals, get to their farms, fetch water, go to market or just because they live in remote places. On a mountain track such as I walked, and on the roads I ride it is normal to meet walkers miles from anywhere, going to invisible locations, carrying loads – and all in the hot sun. Today people from far outposts were walking home from church, dressed in sunday best with miles of red dusty trail ahead of them.
The guest lodge is quiet again, the big truck having removed all the seventeen white faces back on their conveyor belt to the next location. They ply well tested routes, passing through every few weeks, cooking their own food and travelling in their own small bubble. The truck will make a ten week pass from Kenya to the South African border of Namibia. It’s not allowed into South Africa so it must send its passengers on to Cape Town by bus as it turns and heads back on another similar route to Kenya. Tonight the house is peaceful – and a little chilly thanks to the altitude – and I have it to myself.
Chimanimani National Park lies down the valley and takes in some of the impressive grey mountains on the eastern horizon. It is a well managed park with many quite serious hiking trails – not the sort of walks for me to undertake on my own. Even walking up the local mountain I remain conscious that I am alone in some pretty lonely rough scenery, not the place to twist an ankle. No, I must leave some things for my next visit! For I am sure that the untold delights of the Zimbabwean nation will bring me here again. It is a very special country.
DAY 49. MONDAY JANUARY 26th 2015. GREAT ZIMBABWE, ZIMBABWE
Tomorrow I might order my supper an hour earlier! I am staving! And service here at the fancy hotel at Great Zimbabwe is slow. I was, though, just reflecting on the pleasures that my (very relative) affluence brings to my travelling these days. To think I used to eat for a day on a few cents. Mind you, the only efficient diet ever invented is to eat what you need, not what you want and I seemed to manage on those appallingly frugal diets on my early travels. I did, it is true, return from my first major journey something of a shadow at nine stone rather than my customary (in those days) eleven. Now I am probably just below twelve and so far one, going on two, belt holes reduced since leaving Harberton. It’s a combination of extreme heat which saps my appetite and irregularity of meals, for they aren’t always easy to find. Yesterday I walked up that mountain on a good breakfast but completed the day with a bowl of soup. Right now, in my later-life extravagance, I am sitting in the grounds of the Great Zimbabwe Hotel, awaiting my food. Of course, I am staying next door in a lovely £20 two-bedroomed thatched bungalow right in the archaeological site. A room in this hotel is over £100. My ‘extravagant’ meal will be a tenner. Maybe I enjoy it MORE because of those memories of the crap I ate in the old days and the foul grotels in which I lodged.
The ride down from Chimanimani to Chipinge is one of the loveliest I have taken since Lesotho. I didn’t exceed 40mph for the first three hours of my ride. The road twisted and wound down through forests of high eucalyptus and thick vegetation and on through fertile scenery with small neat farms clambering the hillsides. Mountain ranges faded into the blue distance. The later part, though, became a struggle. It became extremely hot and the last miles were boring bush country after I left a fine area of high granite domes and huge heaps of balanced rocks that soared in every direction, sometimes a van-sized rock balanced on a couple of bungalow-sized rocks, balanced on a block-of-flats sized rock. An extraordinary landscape that brightened my ride for fifty miles. But the heat really was difficult today. My journey was some 220 miles or so, from 10.00 until 4.00 – a long day.
A side trip into Chipinge diverted me for a few miles, into a neat small town, just a few streets stretching a few hundred yards. I stopped at Dod’s Bakery (‘Take a bite, enjoy the Taste’) for a pie. “What’s in your pies?” I asked the pretty server.
“Meat! They are steak pies!” she laughed.
“What, ALL of them?” I asked, looking at the full hot cabinet with about 100 pies. “No vegetable? No chicken?!”
“Haha! We like our meat!”
So a meat pie it was. A sign above the counter read: ‘The sight and smell of newly baked bread has a romantic appeal that transcends all other culinary achievement’. Amen to that – and didn’t I say that these are the most erudite people I have met?
‘Deformed bread 50 cents’ read another sign.
I sat contentedly on a low wooden bench with some other customers, every one of whom politely greeted me, and ate my steak pie – and a rather stodgy rock bun, brightly yellow coloured from, I assume, the maize flour used in its baking. People came and went, every one of them politely giving me ‘Good morning. How are you?’ with a smile.
It is just wonderful being in Zimbabwe! I am sorry if I keep gushing on about its delights – well, actually, I am not at all sorry, this country deserves superlatives and praise. It is unique. Not one person has been impolite, impatient, or dismissive. Not one. Chipinge, just a normal rural town was quiet, calm and everyone polite to each other, cleanly dressed and respectful. There is a sense that ‘together we will prevail’. I have had so many conversations in which the gist has been that with cooperation and not losing hope the country will overcome its problems. “If we were in West Africa or East Africa, we would have resorted to bloodshed and civil war by now,” said a very attractive tourist officer today. “One thing about this old man, he is obsessive about education!”
I really do believe that Zimbabwe will overcome its problems by itself unless the outside world (China for instance) meddles. “The Chinese, they don’t believe in charity of any sort. And we need charitable help to develop again. We need partners who are philanthropic to get us back where we should be,” said the tourism adviser, trim in black with gold necklaces against deep brown skin and pretty round glasses that made her look the intellectual she probably is. Zimbabwe will be an African leader again in due course. Maybe, in the fullness of time, history will judge that Mugabe was misguided about the methods he used, but right in his ambitions.
Zimbabwe, I think, will sort its own problems out.
My meal arrived eventually, when the barman went to find it for me. By then I was desperate. Oddly, the soup would have been enough. The heat really does reduce appetite. I sat outside the hotel bar in the warm night and became aware of the deep silence around me. The stars were bright, the air soft and warm and the night silent. Now I am back in my spacious bungalow in the Great Zimbabwe site. It is SO quiet I can almost hear my heartbeat. There’s not a sound, not an insect call, no wind, no sound but my own breath. Silence this deep is almost disturbing: in modern life we so seldom have a chance to experience this. There are almost no other visitors here, no vehicles moving within earshot, no planes, no dogs – well, no-nothing audible whatsoever!
There are, however, a lot of flying insects attracted by the light. I just had to rescue quite the biggest flying stick insect I have seen from my living room – about six inches long with folding round shaped wings. Now I have retired to my bed (naked on the sheets, it is so delightfully warm) and turned out the light, leaving the light on next door to attract the wildlife.
It is unbelievably quiet! The pulse in my head the noisiest thing.
It was after four when I finally arrived at Great Zimbabwe, one of Africa’s very few archaeological site with physical remains in stone. Throughout history Africa has built with impermanent materials – mud, stick, straw. Little evidence of earlier civilisations remain. Great Zimbabwe is the exception and here are the remains of a civilisation from eight hundred years ago. I visited this famous site a couple of years ago, but its the sort of place you can revisit and appreciate. I knew that I could get a rondavel for £10 or a chalet for £20. In the end, it had to be the chalet as a party has booked all the rondavels for tomorrow. As soon as I saw the chalet – two bedrooms, a living room with big armchairs and a view across the parkland, a kitchen, bathroom, shower room and lavatory – I knew I will stay for two nights! The hard hike yesterday and my long ride have taken their toll and I could not do justice to this place in an hour or two.
I am positively garrulous in this country. People love to talk here. I chatted happily with the pretty (sorry to keep using the word – but they ARE pretty and their smiles make the attraction all the greater) lodging manager here. I asked her name (and got a lovely smiling portrait of course).
Her name is ‘Special’!
She is too.
So are they all. Lovely Zimbabwe.
DAY 50. TUESDAY JANUARY 27th 2015. GREAT ZIMBABWE, ZIMBABWE
Last night I slept in the quietest place I can ever recollect. I woke once or twice in the night and one time I had to click my fingers just to remind myself I hadn’t completely lost my hearing! The odd things one does in the wee small hours… But really, it was silent, totally, utterly silent. There was no wind to move the trees, no wildlife around, no noisy neighbours (no neighbours, for Great Zimbabwe is empty), nothing to make sound except my own pulse. And warm too. Just pleasantly, sheet-only warm until dawn when I pulled the blanket across.
Great Zimbabwe… One of the sights of Africa. And one of its mysteries. Peoples without written language preserve their mysteries for ever. Just what did it all mean? These vast breastworks and curving walls of small granite stones, piled as high as thirty feet, finely made and much preserved these seven or eight hundred years. What were they for? A kingdom; that much is known, but what purpose all the walls, enclosures and courts served is unknown. The ruins spread over a limited area, based around one of the granite domes with the oddly sculpted and balanced rocks of the region. Narrow sinuous stairways of loose rocks scramble between these giant rounded boulders and finely wrought walls balance upon the slopes of granite forming many small terraces and enclosures. Away to the south a few hundred yards, stands the impressive Grand Enclosure, walls about twenty five to thirty feet high forming a roughly circular enclosure with many other, lower, curling walls set within. The tall tower, gently curving inwards reminiscent of a granary – but infilled with a million small rocks, is thought – perhaps – to be a symbolic expression of the wealth of the ancient Great Zimbabwe culture. For fifty yards or so a tall wall follows the outer perimeter wall, with a passageway as narrow as a couple of feet at the bottom, the intricate walls towering ominously on either side. This is dry stone walling on a very big scale.
There are many other raised curving walls of small rocks and sunken passageways between curling walls but very few artefacts have been found. It is known that the kingdom traded quite widely, probably down the rivers to the coast, which brought up Arab artefacts and a few later Portuguese ones. The most famous finds from the site are a number of carved birds on pedestals, one of which has been adopted as the symbol of modern Zimbabwe, which of course, after independence in 1980, took the name of this ancient kingdom.
But what did it all mean? All this grand effort must have had significance and purpose, but it is lost on the modern world, a mystery of Africa.
It has been a HOT day. Five hours sauntering amongst the broken stones and well maintained site was exhausting. Rain is threatening and with it comes the humidity. This evening, riding through the dusty track to the nearby smart hotel, I felt I could smell rain at last. It usually rains in the night hours – fortunately for me. I rather hope it rains tonight to release the stifling heat before tomorrow’s ride to Harare.
Walking has been made more uncomfortable by another sting. I think on each visit to Zimbabwe I have been stung by wild bees or wasps. It’s largely the reason I keep well covered and zipped when I am riding. Last year I rode through that swarm of wild bees and had to stop hastily to brush at least fifty stunned bees off my jacket. The year before a sting on my elbow swelled my arm dramatically. If one sting has the effect that these seem to have on me, fifty could be lethal. After my walk up the Pork Pie mountain three days ago, I was minding my own business in the guest house garden, airing my rather worn feet, when a bee or wasp landed on my sock and, unprovoked, stung the top of my foot, which proceeded to go lividly pink, swell up puffily and itch like crazy. Two days later I am still waiting for it to abate.
There’s a large lake just to the north, artificially dammed few miles away amongst an extraordinary landscape of bare granite domes haphazardly littered with large rocks. A forbidding, blasted landscape, the lake makes a pleasant rest for the eye. The entire area is dotted with these strange bald domes and balanced rocks. It seems to stretch right across the central region of the country, for I have seen them hundreds of miles away towards Bulawayo. They are, I believe, volcanic in origin, but how did those huge boulders, the size of a house sometimes, come to be balanced there on top of them?
Everyone greets and talks. I do love the easy way of these charming people. Today I have chatted with many of the park staff, the lodge staff and various villagers coming and going through the archaeological site. Every one of them has fine English and is well informed, happy to talk and very polite. It’s a charming nation indeed. I am never hassled to purchase souvenirs; no one has begged; no one has been rude. Children wave excitedly and everyone along the road gives me a cheery wave. The only people who grunted a begrudging response were half a dozen white tourists from South Africa!
And this morning I was entertained by a large troop of monkeys in front of my rooms, leaping through trees and plucking ripe fruits. Accustomed to campers and tourists, they are quite brave and very attractive.
It is 20.18 and I am pretty much ready to go to bed! Me, the night owl. I’ll be in bed within an hour. What’s more, I seldom wake before 07.30.
I need to get home and take off my shoe. My puffy foot is throbbing.
DAY 51. WEDNESDAY JANUARY 28th 2015. HARARE, ZIMBABWE
From the quietest place to sleep to probably the noisiest of this trip. I am back at the run-down Elizabeth Hotel in Harare, right downtown amongst the chaos and bedlam of an African capital. My room, with its three double windows, overlooks a scene of constant movement and hurrying people. Loud music pounds; people shout their wares and the destinations of a hundred and one minibuses back to the suburbs. Traffic hoots and roars angrily. There is a general background hum that is deafening too. The row is quite indescribable and my only hope for even light sleep lies in earplugs.
Last night, in my silent thatched bungalow at Great Zimbabwe was ghastly! It developed into a very hot, humid night and the mosquitoes dive-bombed and whined about my ears all night long. Pulling the sheet over my head, with just my nose exposed meant extreme heat as I sweated into the sheets. It was a disturbed night indeed and led to a slow start – and on into a trying ride with violent heavy showers and thunderstorms. This on a single carriageway highway that brings all the big trucks from South Africa to Harare. Passing those long trucks was dangerous. As if in the full stream of a fire hose, for seconds I could see nothing whatsoever and had to trust to luck that there was no pothole or bump as I swam past the thundering vehicles. Not much fun…
I had my first brief run in with the irritating police somewhere approaching Harare. Generally so far they have been polite and waved me by, occasionally stopping me because they want to look at my bike. This time I got a corrupt little coterie under the command of a sour-faced very small officer. They pulled me over to check my indicators and stop light, looking for faults and a bribe. As it happened my left indicator wouldn’t flash. In fact, I didn’t realise that without the engine running there wasn’t the power to light the headlight and flash the indicators. I invented a story about the relay beneath the seat having taken in water. (Not that I have any idea if there is a relay!) “Have you any idea what it is like back there?” I exclaimed. “It’s like being under water and your big vehicles don’t have any efficient spray guards either. They are very dangerous.” I had to pull out my licence (I always bring out the English one, not the international one, as the British one confuses). There was muttering of it being an infringement of the law not to have a flashing indicator but I stood my ground without losing my cool. Eventually, they waved me away. I didn’t give them the politeness of a goodbye – and as I accelerated away my indicators flashed merrily anyway…
My motorbike stands in the passageway beside the hotel, as it did ten months ago. At least I was saved the stress of finding a place to stay for I knew that this hotel, noisy as it is, was affordable and right at the heart of the city. From here I can walk everywhere easily. I found my way back here quite simply since Harare is actually quite a small city, especially for an African capital. Maputo sprawled out for miles, as does Lusaka, not to mention the behemoth of Johannesburg. Quickly I spotted the hotel at the junction of Julius Nyrere and Robert Mugabe Streets and pulled up in the bedlam of the street outside. Immediately, the duty manager recognised me and bounded across the busy pavement between pirate disc sellers, underpants saleswomen, fruit sellers, a tomato stall and various itinerant mobile phone accessory sellers to greet me and shake me warmly by the hand. “Mr Bean! You are back! Welcome. How was your journey? You are coming from..?”
Shortly afterwards I was back in the room I used some months ago, spreading wet waterproofs across the chairs and checking my bags for leaks – fortunately few.
Queen, another sort of duty manager, recognised me as well a little later. Tourists are few here these days and I and my red bike make an impression. It’s fun to return like this. In Zimbabwe one feels amongst friends. Genuine, heartfelt welcomes abound. It feels real.
I took a lengthy rest. It was a hard journey, of only a couple of hundred miles but it felt longer and my disturbed night caught up with me. At last I decided to be a bit less feeble and put back my shoes, filled my pockets as usual and prepared to go out. At this point the heavens opened and I ended up standing in the hotel door watching people race for shelter, desperately packing their sales pitches and running beneath the covered awnings common in these usually sun-scorched streets. Quickly the road turned to a muddy pond and the water level rose across the pavement as people pressed between the inner and outer pavement sellers through the remaining walkway.
“So the drains are blocked!” I joked with Queen, standing beside me, an elegant young woman, of Malawian birth, with braided hair and a smart red and white dress.
“Huh! They’ve been blocked for years..!”
“Well, it’s like the street lights. I remember none of them work either. Or the robots (traffic lights).”
“No, they will come on at six o’clock! You’ll see. It’s politics. They were campaigning! So suddenly we have street lights and they are putting new sculptures along the road. You see the rhino there, and there are elephants along the street. Haha! At the same time, he is sacking everyone round him in government. Huh!” For Mugabe seems to be sacking most of his ministers right now, ostensibly for corruption – which may well be the case – but one can’t help wondering how much it is to clear away any opposition to him and his plans to elevate his newly PhD’d wife as his successor?
As I write, gigantic and impressive crashes of thunder are exploding overhead. It will clear the very hot humidity but I hope it doesn’t last too many days. I still have a long way to go and hate the wet weather – and thunderstorms terrify me on my bike in Africa. They are elemental and frighteningly beyond my control. Oh well, each day as it comes…