DAY 56. MONDAY FEBRUARY 2nd 2015. BULAWAYO, ZIMBABWE
My feet were throbbing by the time I found my way to ‘The Lounge’ bar yard this afternoon, a reasonably calm, tidy yard attached to a tarty mirrored bar room, where I proceeded to get a bit drunk on three bottles of beer, having forgotten to have lunch of any sort. After breakfast at a nearby cafe I pushed my bike out of the hostel yard and rode twenty-some kilometres out of town to look for the Khami ruins, a sort of successor to the Great Zimbabwe ruins, populated from about 1450 to 1644. These stone walled ruins are typical of Zimbabwe – in fact, the name Madzimbahwe, a description of all these ruined cities that gave their name to the modern republic, roughly translates as ‘houses of stone’. (I hadn’t seen it until I just typed it, but ‘Mad Zimbabwe’ might also describe the present circumstances!).
It was something of a hike, clambering about the ruins – in the hottest conditions I have experienced in these past several weeks, with thunderstorms on the horizons pushing up the humidity to Turkish bath levels. And I never ride without my big, rather hot boots so I had to walk in them too. After lunch, which I didn’t have, I returned to town and walked – not in my boots – a considerable distance on the scorched pavements to the railway museum. My feet were like hot putty…
It wasn’t easy to find Khami. It is lost somewhere out in the bush like something from an Indiana Jones film. A long way out of town on a main road, then onto reducing tarred tracks and finally onto dusty trails into the bush. But it was interesting when I finally found it, an area of hillocks encased in, or formed by intricate dry stone walling of millions of granite bricks. Again, no one really knows what it was all about, but it seems to have been the capital of a culture that mainly lived in clay structures, leaving only the major ritual and royal edifices as evidence. There’s not a lot of physical evidence to give clues and much of the research depends on oral tradition and the stories of Portuguese and Arab traders of later years. Incredibly, in 1928, the city allowed a hideous dam to be built, flooding some archaeological sites and leaving one delicate stone terrace partially submerged! For years this was Bulawayo’s main water supply, now so polluted by a sewerage farm and industry that the water in the river is pea green.
Khami ruins, a major archaeological site, had six visitors on saturday, one yesterday and me today. The cheerful guards had to have photos taken sitting on my BMW, happy for the diversion of a visitor.
As the clouds gathered – in fact, in never rained – I headed back, having another run-in with the ridiculous Zimbabwean traffic police. They seek for any excuse to exert a little pathetic power. This time they asked to see my T.I.P. – temporary import permit – for my bike. Of course, it was in my bag in Bulawayo. It was just an excuse to hassle me in the hope I would offer a bribe. I stood my ground, despite the officer’s declaration that it was an infringement of Zimbabwean law not to carry it at all times. I have had these ludicrous documents in every African country. No one ever looks at them after they are issued. In the end, seeing no bribe forthcoming without a lot more effort – I agreed to accompany them to town twenty kilometres away – they waved me away. I didn’t wave a goodbye.
The white Zimbabwean who manages this hostel agreed with my instincts that things have changed in Bulawayo in the past year. I feel this faint aggressive attitude here this year. She puts it down to increasing poverty and corruption at the lower levels. It seems that people here are getting poorer while city officials are appropriating money from development. No one can do anything about it at grass roots level and no one above acts on behalf of the populous. After all, they all have their fingers in the till too. I do feel sorry for the Zimbabwean in the street. No recourse to any retribution as there is no one in authority who is blameless themselves… Politics stink here. All the way to the top.
Returning the bike to the hotel yard, I took to my feet again and walked the twenty or so blocks to the railway museum. Railways played a big part in the development of Rhodesia/ Zimbabwe. They opened up the African interior and made the transport of goods, people and agricultural products efficient. Cecil Rhodes it was who had the dream of a railway from Cape Town to Cairo, never actually achieved – but a good deal, of it was. You can, to this day, travel from South Africa to Dar es Salaam by rail.
The railway museum is rather quaint. Needing millions of dollars’ of investment to make it into anything other than a well meant and rather charming oddity, it has an appeal of sorts. The exhibits are rusting and decaying but even I am somewhat captivated by the romance of steam, even with weeds growing through the fire boxes. There’s a nice old dining car and Rhodes’ own carriage, bought for £2300 from an American builder over a century ago. There are engines that have driven well over a million miles across the African veldt and some disintegrating bits and pieces of a certain rusting charm.
Decaying amongst it all is Gordon, an elderly white Zimbabwean with that dedication that only railway enthusiasts seem to have, shared perhaps with stamp collectors – and Gordon collects stamps too. In fact, so happy is he to see visitors to the rusty wrecks of his museum, he gives each visitor a First Day Cover of some Rhodesian/ Zimbabwean event. It is as if your visit is a personal favour to this eccentric enthusiast.
Gordon is about seventy, short, bent over badly and somewhat overweight. A delightful, bumbling fellow in dungarees and carrying a perpetual tea mug, he inhabits an office of Dickensian gloom and squalor, dusty ledgers, old files, piles of paper and a dusty old computer terminal that probably still has a black and green screen. Heaps of paper and dog-eared books wobble as he moves across the slightly shaky floor of the old station building brought here from some obscure branch line in the early 1970s when the museum was formed – and last invested in… A ticket is one dollar! For this you get a free First Day Cover as well as entry to the rusty exhibits. “You can climb on any of the engines, but if you fall off, it’s your fault!” Now that’s the sort of Health and Safety I like.
Gordon is third generation Zimbabwean, well, actually, I suppose he is strictly first generation ‘Zimbabwean’ and third generation Rhodesian. “My grandfather came out to South Africa and moved north. He was a railwayman. My father came from Scotland, he was with the RAF and he came out and liked the life and said he wasn’t going back. He joined the railways too. Then I joined the railways in the 1970s. I went on retirement four years ago and they asked me if I would run the museum. I was very lucky. I left my job on June 30th and began here next day!” His whole life, one imagines, is controlled by Rhodesian railway history and stamp collecting. “Oh, come this way, take a walk with me, I have to go to the archives…” Stepping over the old bits of track, he unlocked the door of a long windowless railway hut and turned on a weak lightbulb. The archive consisted of piles of very dusty tomes, broken shelves and more heaps of papers, yellowed and curling: on the floor in tottering heaps, on bent shelves and scattered across desks. At a desk thick with dust he found the volume he wanted, tucked it under his arm and we walked back to his Victorian office. By now he had offered me a ride back to the city in his taxi, which he called from an incongruously contemporary mobile phone.
He gave me a great idea, though, one I wish I had heard about before. There is a nightly sleeper from Bulawayo to Victoria Falls! What a grand trip that would be. It arrives next morning at eleven and returns next night. The fare is an astonishing $12! There are still several passenger trains running in Zimbabwe, like three a week to Harare. Next time I come to Zimbabwe I shall take a sleeper through the African night to Victoria Falls!
I learned today that before Mugabe’s Land Reform craziness, one per cent of the population – descendants of foreign white men who commandeered the land 150 years ago – owned over seventy per cent of the land in this country. Now, whatever you say about the methods used in the violent reclaiming process, that cannot be just and right in such a well educated country in the twentieth century, can it? It’s a vexed subject indeed. Any redress that land owners had through the courts has now been removed by the government. The white men brought expertise and investment and made the country rich but the morality is a difficult one to argue…
Robert Mugabe has just been elected as chair of the African Union. Reading the newspapers, I find that 70% of the budgets of African Union countries comes in the form of donations and subsidies (all of which involve huge and costly obligations…) by western nations: the EU, USA, IMF, China and others with vested interests in keeping Africa poor. This, on a continent extraordinarily rich in just about all the minerals and resources we, in the ‘developed’ world most value. AND, what’s more on a continent that in parts at least is exceptionally fertile. So why the ‘under-development’? Zimbabwe made education compulsory at independence and has shown a disdain and disrespectful independence to western demands. When I read figures like this – one percent of landowners owning so much and the largesse of rich nations being handed down, always with expensive strings attached, I do find myself having a sneaking sympathy with the ideals, if not the methods, of the ageing tyrant and despot. Keeping Africa poor is a necessity if the rest of us are to enjoy the lifestyles we do… Africa’s history is one of rape and pillage by outsiders. It made Britain incredibly wealthy, and our status as a world power, even though we are now a tiny, insignificant island off the shores of Europe, is due to our invasions and economic wealth in past centuries.
Something UKIP enthusiasts and other anti-immigrationist, should remember is that we became influential and wealthy at the expense of all the nations they now seem to so resent, as we slide back down the slippery economic pole (relatively)… But no more of that!
The more I travel Africa, the more I acknowledge the iniquities of history here. Yes, we left behind elements of infrastructure and brought traditional cultures into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but maybe it’s time we recognised that might wasn’t necessarily right back in colonial days. I can’t condone Mugabe but I do begin to understand a little of his ambition for this rich, educated and cultured country of Zimbabwe.
I also know that my understanding of world politics is scant. But my feeling of what’s right and ethical is deep set…
Numsa, the duty manager at the old varnished front desk, greets me and chats as I come and go. She was delighted and surprised with a copy of her smiling photo from last year. A cheery woman, she has a constant smile, despite what, to me, would be a stiflingly tedious time sitting behind the desk with very little to do. I’ve enjoyed returning to places on this trip through Zimbabwe. People here are so warm-hearted that they seem to take my return as a personal compliment. Maybe it is…
This is a special country. Where else would I be able to sit in a bar and read my book without any interruption, yet be able to look up and meet eyes and be paid with friendly smiles? Walking back through the very dark avenues it struck me that I will have to remember that I can’t do that so carelessly in South Africa in a couple of days. Here I am quite safe from robbery or assault. In South Africa I have to be always aware of my surroundings. Yes, Zimbabwe is a fine place.
DAY 57. TUESDAY FEBRUARY 3rd 2015. MUSINA, SOUTH AFRICA
Last year I reached Musina and wrote that I didn’t mean to be here tonight. History repeats… There is really nowhere much to stop on those long roads the south of Zimbabwe. It was only a bit before 3.00 that I reached the border, so here I am again in the dull roadside town of Musina, first stop over the border back in unhappy South Africa.
In all my African travels I have seldom been so phenomenally HOT!!! Wow! It is 8.00 in the evening now. I am still sweating and exhausted. I’d thought, as I rode, to continue another 100kms. When I dribbled into Musina, in a lather, melting, I decided to avoid the stress of finding somewhere to sleep – for I stayed in the Limpopo River Lodge (‘budget and luxury accommodation’) last year. The prices are much lower than Zimbabwe’s. Here I have a ‘budget’ room that is a ‘real’ en-suite hotel room, with air-con (that I usually hate, but will accept tonight) for £17.50. It was the note I made last year that persuaded me: ‘great showers!’. My, did I need one…
The day’s ride was only 225 miles, but it felt like 1000. I rode through many miles of low bush country, and only a couple of widespread towns. Here and there rose those strange granite domes that are a feature of Zimbabwean landscapes, and I dodged cows and goats, even on this main highway. Traffic was slight – but the sun beat down mercilessly, mile after mile, after mile, after…
It was pleasant in Bulawayo. The altitude of 4500 feet tempers the heat just enough, although, reading back through yesterday’s entry, It was pretty damned sweaty there too! When I left, at ten, it was pleasantly warm – for me, who loves the heat. An hour or two down the road it became hideously hot.
By 2.00 I was approaching the border town of Beitbridge, an unattractive place, and one that doesn’t encourage me to stay. Soon I was at the border post. Going out of Zimbabwe is quite efficient and quick – unless some idiot the other side of Zimbabwe gave you a three day ‘Temporary Import Permit’ for your South African motorbike! I ask you! I told him I was a tourist, in fact, I was gushing about getting into his country and how I was going to enjoy it. So why did he give me papers that said I was in transit to Beitbridge in three days, well, two and a half by the time I entered Zimbabwe that day? Over-staying a Temporary Import Permit has a fine of $500 attached! (Very happy I talked my way out of the police check yesterday. THAT would have been troublesome…).
Well, I talked my way out of it with the Customs supervisor but it tried my patience, keeping a mild face (for anger achieves nothing in Africa) in the intense heat and ludicrous bureaucracy of African immigration posts. Thank goodness, my bike is South African, so I just walked boldly to the ‘Returning Residents’ counter this side and no one looked at my bike tax and registration papers – that are out of date since last week!
So, a trying day indeed. I am about to take a second shower. (‘Great showers’). Tomorrow will be a long ride to get anywhere interesting. This far northern part of South Africa is a land of vast veldt and boring toll highways. There’s no choice for the first 150 miles at least.
‘High crime area. Don’t stop’, shouted the signs by the highway as I entered this strange, disturbed country. In Zimbabwe last night I was aware that I was walking the dark streets with my iPad in a carrier bag and my camera blatantly over my shoulder, money in my pocket, with very slight risk of any unpleasantness. Now I am back in South Africa…
Upon arrival, I showered and went back down to the receptionist in the front lobby and to move my bike to the car park round the back of this hotel. By then I had seen myself in the bathroom mirror. “Thank you for letting me in!” I joked with the attractive young receptionist. “I have just realised that I looked completely wild when I stopped here! Now, where can I find a place for a quiet drink, preferably with a garden..?”
She sent me through the car park, where my washing was now draped over the bars and mirrors of my bike lowering the tone somewhat, to the hotel bar that I never discovered last year, when I remember having to drive out for a take away pizza, a food I abhor. So for three hours or so I sat in the garden bar and restaurant of the hotel, largely surrounded by this strangest of races, the Afrikaans. After three weeks in Africa Proper they seem even stranger… Overweight, leather-skinned and out of proportion with accents that grate. A man at the table next to me ate for an hour and appeared to me to eat three meals. He had a pendulous belly the size of a hundredweight of potatoes in a sack – and that’s probably not far off the weight of it either…
It makes me ponder my musings of last night. Just when do invaders become indigenous people? These people, by quirks of history, are now South Africans. They have no other homeland. In most societies, the invaders slowly assimilate into the local groups – look at our own history of Saxons, Normans, Vikings, Celts, all the European races and so on. We are all a melange of genes. The white race here have seldom mixed with the indigenous people; mixed marriages are still rarities indeed (despite the fact that black women are so very, very much more attractive!) thanks to prejudice and religious myopia. They have grown up to see themselves as the master race in their country and, yes, they have battled and worked and invested for its prosperity. But does three hundred years of forcible occupation – and conscious segregation – ENTITLE them to such a disproportionate share of the wealth, land and privileges? I don’t pretend to have any answers: just posing the question. Mugabe has one opinion – everyone around me, all the white-skinned ones, that is, have another. I find myself with sympathies on both sides – the perennial conundrum for a liberal! A fascinating moral dilemma.
Zimbabwe is a delight. I do hope I shall find excuses to return; and I shall watch with so much more interest its political development. I leave behind people whom, were they not 4000 miles away, would become friends – people like Mike, met for only perhaps twenty minutes but who’s already emailed twice. Mike, you will recollect, was still smiling after losing all his possessions in the house fire so soon after his marriage. Wherever I went, as must be obvious from these pages, people welcomed me and wanted to talk. That is a fine human quality, the exchange of ideas with strangers. And it’s probably what keeps me travelling: finding out about other people’s lives. Zimbabweans are open and generous and love to share knowledge and ideas and hear opinions. I have frequently said that the two qualities I value most are compassion and curiosity. Zimbabweans have both, in spades. Lovely people. Lovely country.
DAY 58 WEDNESDAY FEBRUARY 4th 2015. GRASKOP, SOUTH AFRICA
A few places in South africa are becoming quite familiar. I have stayed in Graskop a few times. It’s a pleasant little mountain town, on the scale of a village, at an altitude that makes for fresh evenings and cool sleep. It is 8.00pm and I am in bed – well, on it to be precise, and all is quiet – and very dark…
When I left South africa three or more weeks ago, the state electricity company was warning that it had money for only three more weeks’ production of electricity. Maybe it wasn’t just political rhetoric? For Graskop is blacked out totally since I wandered out before dusk. I’ve just eaten my supper by candlelight up the road and sauntered back in a bright full moon, with an electrical storm busy, away to what I think is probably the south, but I always without direction here in the southern hemisphere, where the sun is in the north and there is no North Star by which to steer. I’m rather glad I downloaded an ‘App’ for the iPad, called ‘Flashlight’! It’s the only way to see round tonight’s chalet bungalow – apart from the small LED torch I carry.
There’s only one viable road south from Musina and the Zimbabwe border, the main N1 highway that stretches the length of South Africa. Unavoidable, I slogged down the first stretch, paid my £2.00 toll fee and rode south. About fifty miles down, the road passes through a refreshing mountain pass, for the morning was, once again, stifling. But up ahead I could see the clouds thickening to heavy rain. It was my luck that I turned off just before the rain and just before the next toll gate, and rambled south-eastwards through a lot of rolling bush country and then into hills. Around Tzaneen, a largish provincial town set amongst fertile lands and fruit orchards, the rain threatened again so I stopped, avoided a sharp shower and then continued, passing beyond the rain into a glorious afternoon ride. The sun shone; the landscape rolled into lovely green hills and then, by some trick of the local landscape, a great wall of red and brown rock suddenly reared in front of me. It was remarkable: one minute it wasn’t there; the next it seemed to be towering ahead of me, a great escarpment of fissured sandstone. In a few minutes my road began to climb the face of the mountain, made a sharp turn, delved through a short tunnel and scraped its way through a small, dramatic pass and out onto the highland above. Then there were deep valleys, a red, muddy river rushing through canyons of rock, miles of orderly conifer plantations and vistas of red rocky heights. A magnificent ride. To the east is Blyde River Canyon, reputed to be the world’s third largest canyon, and fine scenery stretches away towards the vast Kruger National Park and the Mozambican border.
As usual with air-conditioning, I had a bad night’s sleep – too cold and too noisy. But I didn’t dare open the window. I remember with some shame my last stay in that hotel in Musina when I bad-temperdly woke the staff in the middle of the night to sort out my ‘broken’ air-conditioning and spray my sweaty room to rid me of the blanket of mosquitoes that had settled on my steamy skin when I opened the window. The poor watchman walked into the room and picked up the air-con remote that I had utterly overlooked, pressed the ‘on’ button with an inaudible sigh at my stupidity, sprayed the room and stumbled back downstairs. I had been in real Africa for some weeks then, in Zambia and Zimbabwe, and just assumed that the apparatus was broken – not that I was inept… I was deeply embarrassed.
So I don’t mind going to bed at 8.45 tonight! Two long rides and two days of extreme weather have taken their toll.
This is a very small town, almost completely given over to tourism, at the centre of an attractive mountain area with quite a few sights. The compact nature of the place is pleasant, accommodation plentiful and souvenirs and tea shops ubiquitous. I repaired to the ‘biker pub’ on the main street, thinking to eat there, but found it dull and gloomy, with eight or nine heavily overweight and inappropriately dressed Afrikaans drinkers round the bar, smoking as only this nation can. Really, when you have bellies and bums that size I’m not sure if it’s better to wear the shirt inside or outside your shorts? One way it cantilevers down like a shroud and flaps in the wind, the other it looks like a huge wobbly balloon balancing on the belt. That’s the men AND the women… The food on offer was beef, beef, beef, or beef and the barman, in the absence of electricity was ‘entertaining’ us with music from the half-inch speaker on his mobile phone. When I heard them laugh at one ugly white drinker’s ‘joke’: “Huh! African Union? Arseholes United, you mean!” I thought to myself, ‘You can do better than this…’
I ate a good Portuguese meal by candlelight on a terrace down the street. I was the only one wearing a jersey. Sometimes I get alarmed at my inability to stand even a modest evening chill!
Good to read your exploits, Jonathan! I must check your route out on the map. All the best. Christopher