DAY 35. THURSDAY 28TH FEBRUARY 2013. RANDBURG. SOUTH AFRICA
Today was a good day. I met many charming people and had a most interesting day.
We began with a family breakfast around the garden table with Okkie and Antoinette, their son Jacque and daughter Tiana and her husband. It’s a thursday ritual and was for me a warm, congenial meal. Later I set out with an idea to visit the Apartheid Museum and half an idea to explore something of Soweto township. During the day I rode a remarkable 150 kilometres and never left the south east quarter of this huge conurbation. Mind you, I was lost a lot of the time.
Soweto was named thus as it was formed during the segregation era as a black township: SOuth WEStern TOwnship. Many thousands of black people were cleared from white residential districts and banished to the swelling township, which then had scarce infrastructure. Soweto is the result of a completely inhuman period that I find it still difficult to get my head around. As with Nazism in Germany, to which I see many similarities in the apartheid concept, HOW could apparently normal human beings, all of whom went to church with a certain fanaticism (enough said), ever become involved in and subscribe to such poisonous beliefs?
Soweto, unsurprisingly, became the hotbed of African resistance to the ills of apartheid and the segregation of the races during this awful inhuman period. It now houses a million people, almost all of them black. It feels like Africa! I rode about quite a bit of Soweto and eventually found myself in the main Freedom Square amidst a busy, colourful and noisy commercial area. It was around here that many of the beginnings of resistance movements formed and the fight for human dignity started. It is a place that now celebrates all the history of the white against black struggles and the eventual victory of the African National Congress against oppression under its charismatic leaders.
A young man, Suwi, soon picked me up and guided me about the square and its hinterland. He was well informed and a useful guide. Standing inside the conical brick monument that contains the Constitution of the new South Africa carved in stone, I interrupted his flow. “Yes, I know this is the constitution but I am more interested in your opinion of how it’s working…”
He was a little surprised but then went round the constitution dismissing the parts that are still just wishful thinking, however laudable their ambitions. From his estimate it is not really working above about half power. Many of the ambitions of equality and availability of work, housing, education and financial fairness will remain distant goals for a long time.
We walked across the square and entered the dirt streets between small, meagre block houses that make up most of this huge urban area and he introduced me to Colin, a young black volunteer with an admirable youth project in a well kept compound. Here they educate and feed children, provide computer skills and a library (much like the Biddenham Library in Navrongo, Ghana, that I set up with a lot of help over a number of years). The project is also an outlet for the major African campaign of ‘One Computer, One Child’, an initiative that aims to supply basic computer access to all children in Africa. This is a distribution place, charging station and checking place for the small green and grey plastic computers. I was intrigued by Colin’s description of the education that goes on here and how children then go home and teach what they have learned to their parents. Children also get some simple food here, sandwiches in the morning and a meal in the afternoon.
The alleyways were generally clean and relatively litter free. Despite the fact that there is only one latrine between about every 70 people in Soweto, I noticed sewerage trucks plying the dirt roads. Water is also limited. But things are so much better than they used to be: the squatter camps still exist here and there but a semblance of town planning can be seen and the houses, although basic, are just about adequate. It all felt much like life in Ghana, even to the smiles of welcome I received as I walked – in this once most notorious of townships. But then, I smile at everyone anyway and I do believe that what you give out is reflected.
Nelson Mandela lived in a small tin-roofed brick house at 8115 Vilakazi Street in the Orlando West area of Soweto, moving in in 1946 with his first wife, Evelyn. It is now open as a museum (Mike’s project). Mandela himself said of his home: ‘It was the opposite of grand, but it was my first true home of my own and I was mightily proud’. Mandela and Evelyn divorced in 1957 and in 1958 his second wife, Winnie, moved in. After Mandela was arrested in 1962 he spent no more time here and Winnie was hounded by the police and security forces relentlessly all the time she stayed here. On Mandela’s release in 1990 he returned to 8115 Vilakazi Street for 11 hectic days.
My guide was a very charming elderly black lady called Madonna. She lived in the area for most of her life and was a member of ANC meetings and remembers much of the history of the local struggles. When I told her how Ghana partied when Mandela was released and how the government declared a public holiday the NEXT day, she told me, with a nostalgic smile, of the riotous scenes that Vilkazi Street – and all South Africa – witnessed in 1990.
Archbishop Tutu lives a few doors down the street despite the tourist activity in this particular street with buses arriving all the time with people on Soweto tours. I was glad I could explore for myself with my own wheels. I rode here and there and was universally greeted with smiles.
Finding the Apartheid Museum was not easy. It took me half an hour and many kilometres to find it. It was, however, worth it.
The museum is a terrific design, full of hard surfaces, cage-like structures, high walls and bars. All hard edges, it packs an architectural punch that enhances the fine images, in harsh black and white from the era of apartheid. They portray very movingly and graphically the cruelty and evilness of the movement that divided communities so strictly and with such evil force. It really did begin to remind me of Nazism and the holocaust museums I have visited. That same fanaticism, fear and cruelty; the same inhumanity. Yet it was devised by, voted for, upheld forcibly by and supported by apparently normal white people who, in all other things were rational, supposedly compassionate beings. HOW did it ever happen? How did it happen AFTER the evils of the Nazi regime had been defeated? HOW do people get caught up by such beliefs? Ethnic cleansing… The ‘thought police’… Even to police and officials spying through windows to try to catch black/ coloured /Asian and white ‘in flagrante’, a punishable crime. The signs throughout the museum: ‘Whites Only’, ‘Blacks Only’ for every situation, make a remarkable statement. With your entry ticket you are arbitrarily classified as ‘White’ or ‘Non-white’ and must enter by different steel barrier turnstiles.
Sadly, I had spent so much time lost and riding about Soweto and south western Johannesburg that I was not half way round the exhibits after an hour and a half when all the lights went out and we were escorted from the museum by torchlight – a somewhat Draconian way to signify that the museum had closed for the day, I thought.
The ride back was easier as I now knew the way, well, the long way, back to Okkie’s. The traffic was thick by now but I find it quite exhilarating to ride a motorbike in African city traffic. You have to be very aware of every other vehicle but a bike can really make headway. So long as you treat traffic regulations the way the locals do, you can be quite safe and have a lot of two-wheeled fun!
It has been a delight to meet Okkie again after all this time. I cannot remember how we met or why we became friends but even all these years later I can see how we might have found common interests and similar ways sufficiently to form an acquaintance. Then he admits to being much more prejudiced but now he and his family are enlightened and open-minded. Both he and Antoinette admit to liking routines and find my casual and unstructured approach to life a bit difficult to understand but that’s fine. Just as well we don’t all see life like I do! We have enjoyed warm, congenial conversations indeed.
And they are destined to see more of me! I talked to my colleague Bob in Boston this evening, using my iPad to Skype him. I have agreed to interrupt my trip to fly to Boston on the 11th of March and return on the 20th. My motorbike will stay at Okkie’s house for those days while I fly to freezing northern America to visit Wisconsin, discuss the project and work with Bob on a proposal for another museum show in Charleston. How odd it will be to find myself in America, without even going home in the meantime. I have decided to fly from Jo’burg direct to Boston and back and continue with the last part of my African journey, returning home as planned in early April. It makes no sense to quit next week to fly to England and lose the rest of my journey completely.
DAY 36. FRIDAY MARCH 1st 2013. LYDENBURG, SOUTH AFRICA
Some days just don’t work. This was one. A too long ride, boring scenery, awful traffic, bad driving, chill and pot holes that could kill a motorcyclist. It meant concentration and tiredness and didn’t add up to a very interesting day. Some days just go that way when you travel. Sun would have made it more acceptable…
It’s still an amazement to me how small the world has become, even in my lifetime, let alone the last century. Today I sat at a kitchen table in Johannesburg and booked tickets to fly to North America – and then paid for them using a bank account based in Manchester! We take it all so much for granted now. On my first journey, the one that wandered about in Central and South America for eight months, I was virtually out of touch, beyond help except in emergency and travelling entirely on my wits. There was no internet, no Google for information, no credit card that was useable, no Facebook for people to be in constant trivial contact, no mobile phones – no iPads to write diaries and blogs. Yesterday, over the ether, not a hard wire, I spoke to Bob in Boston; today I researched, chose a flight, booked my seats (exit rows all the way); paid for it and received instant acknowledgement. What’s more, I was then able to send an instant message to Boston with my plans set out. It IS remarkable.
I am to fly away from this trip for eight days and return to complete it later. In that week I shall fly to Boston, then to Wisconsin, somewhere north of Chicago, back to Boston and then back to Africa. Bob wants me to art direct the filming of scenes for a 360 degree theatre in a museum in Kenosha, Wi. The filming will take place in June or July and the theme (again!) is the American Civil War. This is not, unfortunately, a scenery build job, just a smaller art directing job. I shall, however, enjoy it a lot. I have worked with Bob on the last two big American jobs and we work very happily together and share, pretty much, a vision of what we want to see. While I am in USA we will also work on a proposal for a smaller (Civil bloody War) project that we might get in Carolina. So it seems as if a good deal of my summer will be taken up in trips across the Atlantic once again. That suits me!
So, it was noon before I left Randburg, following Okkie’s car across the centre of the vast Johannesburg conurbation to pick up the road east. Okkie had business in an area on the east side so was able to guide me through the first ten miles of the city. Then I spun out of its centrifuge and was hurtling along a highway towards Maputo, the capital city of Mozambique. Traffic was heavy and ill-disciplined and roadworks were everywhere with lanes diminishing in speeding ‘black taxis’, trucks and badly driven BMWs and very large, brutish SUVs – with a liberal sprinkling of old bakkies that pumped out black fumes and had beds, animals and dozing Africans in the back and crawled up the slightest incline.
My petrol was getting low as I left the city behind so I turned off into the ugly country roads that are hereabouts filled with colliery traffic – extended wagons with dirty trailers – and hundreds of minibus taxis that stop at will and are always in a hurry since they must make many journeys in a day to recoup the money their drivers pay to the owners. This, combined with deteriorated roads did not make for happy driving. It is friday and – sort of – the end of the month. That’s the time, you may remember from the end of last month, that banks have lengthy queues and shops are filled to bursting with shoppers. Weekend traffic added to the mix, and I was heading into a popular holiday area for the residents of Jo’ urg and Pretoria, South Africa’s most populous region. Caravans, jet skis, campers, boats and trailers.
Disliking the traffic on the old roads, I headed back to the highway, but now I could see not just rain clouds but what looked like storm heads gathering right in front of me. As the rain just began to spit down I turned off to head north to avoid the wetting. It worked, but took me further out of my way (such as I HAVE a way). It was also getting quite chilly. Snarled up in town traffic as the factories, businesses and mines disgorged their huge numbers of poorly paid workers to get into the millions of careering minibuses, I decided I could stand it no more and turned directly north, failing to find signposts much of the time. At least, I knew, to the north was more open country and a visibly lighter sky. But here there were roadworks to contend with… In South Africa, when they repair or rebuild stretches of road, they just make them one way for long stretches and put a traffic control at each end. The waiting time can be anything up to 40 minutes, although it’s usually about 10 to 15. I caught one at the back of a very long, slow-moving line but at the next one, being on a bike, I just bypassed all the waiting vehicles and took front place. At least this way I avoid all the grit and dust thrown up by the vehicles in front.
I’d looked at my map and decided that a small town called Stoffberg would be as far as I could stand to go. So I thundered on, weaving between killer potholes through not very interesting scenery of grassland and trees. At last, pretty tired and pretty fed up, I reached Stoffberg, to find the mark on the map about the same size as the completely dead village. There was certainly no accommodation option. In fact, I couldn’t find any people. It seemed utterly shut up, a dull grey place in the middle of nowhere. My only choice now was to battle another 55 bloody miles into cloud-wreathed mountains. The road became somewhat better, but still pock marked with some deadly holes.
By the time I reached Lydenburg (new name: Mashishing) it was after six, later than I usually choose to ride. Fortunately, I found a place to stay quite quickly. Mind you, I would probably have taken the first place I could find by then anyway. I was really chilled and very weary. I have a sort of motel room in a chalet development cum campsite. It’s more than I like to spend, at £25 B&B so I will just have to make the most of the second B. It is warm, anyway and has a restaurant on site. That’s the other thing… Not only do I now jet about the world without so little trouble, my travelling has certainly changed from those impecunious early journeys, carried out on £35 a week! Even in 1973 that was a slim budget. It certainly didn’t pay for motels and restaurants. It paid for doss houses and a plate of beans and rice with an egg on top once a day! Oh well, I’ve done that and don’t feel the need to prove I can still do it – which I can, if I really have to. Difference is, I don’t have to any more.
It’s cool and intermittently raining now. I just hope the weather improves tomorrow. My vague plan is to head north towards the bottom of Zimbabwe and Botswana. I will have to be back in the Johannesburg traffic in nine days.
DAY 37. SATURDAY MARCH 2nd 2013. TZANEEN, SOUTH AFRICA
Shame I never liked rugby, ever since I was made to play it at school. I’m eating my supper tonight in a (TOTALLY white, of course) bar with loud rugby commentary from cupboard-sized speakers and images on multiple screens. It’s a local derby – there are two black players in the 30 on the field. They won’t show soccer in this bar, apparently. It is soccer that unites this continent, the black continent, at least… Of course, many Afrikaners look like rugby players too – even the women. They are a big, out of proportion race, so unlike the much better scaled Africans, such a more beautiful race. When you stop in some of the smaller ‘dorps’ you do wonder if the gene pool is getting a bit thin too. You know that look, the low brow, the scowl, the dead gaze and the unhelpful attitude. But I shouldn’t judge too harshly I suppose, that was just a young couple in a shop this afternoon who looked as if there was rather a lot of intermarriage in their back story! Whites here are very overweight, not surprising when you look at the diet of huge quantities of meat and potato and liberal quantities of rather bad chemical beer. The women (and the men) are so ugly when compared with the black majority. Inappropriately dressed too. Huh! I sound old and censorious!
It’s so odd the way I react to this country. I guess I have spoken to twenty black people today and no more than a handful of whites. I go out of my way to engage with black people. For instance, I interrupted my meal and drink and have just had a twenty minute conversation with Clement, the waiter. I am in a dark corner away from the rugby where his boss can’t see us. He is philosophical about the division between colours here. It’s just part of life for him. He lives in a township forty kilometres from this bar, sometimes sleeping here in the bar. Tonight, he says he feels like going home. I hope he makes it. He’s a single parent with one child to bring up and educate. A charming fellow seldom even seen by most of the customers…
Oh dear, there I go again.
This was a mixed day. The morning was drizzly and chilly and my mood accompanied the weather, becoming dull and introspective. I was in fine scenery but I was cold and not much appreciating it. I wound up over a 2150 metre pass (that’s almost 7500 feet), chilly and cloudy. Later the sun reappeared and my mood lifted as the scenery became increasingly impressive.
I am now heading up into the north eastern region of this vast country, towards the borders with Zimbabwe and Botswana and Mozambique. Blyde River Canyon is considered the third largest in the world – after the Grand Canyon and Fish River Canyon in Namibia (which I had entirely to myself eleven years ago). But those canyons are rocky and red and brown. Blyde River is a huge green slash through the red rock mountains, a cascading river far, far below, so insignificant to have caused this giant rift. Like orange-coloured ants, I could make out a group of white-water canoeists way below me as I stood on the lip of the green canyon. Saturday was not a particularly good choice of day to look at waterfalls and canyon viewpoints as they were busy with bus groups and tourists, Africans noisy and cheerful, talkative and jocular, Afrikaans ones reserved and separate. This is an important tourism area, a day’s drive from the Johannesburg/ Pretoria region and on the way to the vast Kruger National Park, one of Africa’s major sights.
I paused for a while for a beer at a ‘bush kitchen’ by a river amongst oddly shaped weathered rocks. It was an amusing idea, a restaurant of rough tables, logs for seats and a shelter of sticks and poles. The cooking was a large braai pit made from tractor wheels beside a fissured rock face. But the fare was typical Afrikaans: large barbecued steaks with ‘pap’ and fried onions so I stuck with a calm beer for a rest from the road. By this time the sun was breaking through here and there but the day was notable for the layers of blue, grey and white clouds that filled the enormous African sky.
The ‘Museum of Man’ hardly lived up to its grand title. It was a rock shelter with a few barely discernible San rock paintings and a medley of tatty shop dummies (some of which had even fallen over!) and home-made displays that had not been updated or tidied for years. It was a sad place but I only called as I had stopped for much-needed petrol a quarter of a mile down the road at a single pump outside a shack. The pump was behind a link fence with the nozzle poked through and hung on a wire bracket when not in use. Petrol is always served in South Africa, black labour is so cheap.
Leaving the fine canyon scenery, I rode on to the north west. I had picked Tzaneen from the map as a medium sized town that was likely to have various accommodation options. And so, after seventy-odd miles it turned out. Since I was last here, tourism has developed a lot. Now, approaching towns and about town, are brown signs directing to accommodation or sights. Often they include a phone number and this was a reason for me buying a cheap phone. I called this place from outside and others from the roadside, saving a lot of riding and time. I chose this place for its pleasant gardens.
I was in bed by 9.20! Some days I just get so tired from the fresh air and the physical effort of riding a couple of hundred miles watching for potholes and crazy minibus drivers. It’s 11.00 now and I have dozed off for a couple of long periods. I can’t continue…
Now I am completing these paragraphs over breakfast – of cornflakes, yoghurt and milk left in the room. There is a story – probably apocryphal – that when cornflakes were tested on rats they preferred to eat the cardboard box. I rather sympathise with the rats.
The sound of churches is all around me. Africa really does like its religion; the Africans were converted rigorously by those meddling missionaries from their own beliefs, which were generally monotheistic, a fact the churches conveniently used – and Afrikaners brought their own puritanical beliefs from Europe.
This hotel is a series of (white owned and used) chalets and bungalows set in pleasant gardens full of mature trees and clipped lawns. I had a decent large room with bathroom and a small kitchen area. It’s got a steel grille-enclosed porch or stoep where I am eating my cardboard and yoghurt, although Clement last night told me that crime is very low in Tzaneen. I have yet to sleep in a room in South Africa without steel bars over the windows. Troubled South Africa.
DAY 38. SUNDAY MARCH 3rd 2013. BUBI RIVER. ZIMBABWE
Even for an old traveller like me, it’s quite a thrill to be in a new country. A thrill, but apprehensive too. I have ridden along for a couple of days wondering whether a trip through the bottom corner of Zimbabwe was going to be a hassle or an enjoyable experience. In the end, you just have to come to see for yourself…
It’s been a day that gained significance by the romance of lines on maps – somewhere I crossed the Tropic of Capricorn today. I crossed the Limpopo River, surely one of Africa’s most romantic names; and I crossed the border to Zimbabwe. Not a bad geographical and lexical score!
With the sounds of religious singing and bells fading behind me, I got back on the road, riding northwards to the top of South Africa. I hadn’t planned to be in Zimbabwe today: I thought I would wait until tomorrow when I could change money in readiness, for I imagined a lot of bureaucratic hassles involved in entering and travelling in this country, which I know only from media reputation. However, I found myself already at the last town in South Africa at one o’clock so I thought, ‘go for it, see what happens’! I am, after all, a world traveller…
The Tzaneen area was rather fine, an area of fertile soils and rich agriculture. It produces most of South Africa’s tomatoes and also mangoes, citrus and bananas. There are also tea estates, making for a well-tended, rich scenery. So pleasant to look at that I missed the speed limit sign.
South African police seem to spend a lot of time sitting at the roadside with radar cameras. I have seen many, but have always been either within the limit or taken heed of discreet signals from approaching drivers, who give warnings that must frustrate many potential prosecutions and money-gathering possibilities. I was enjoying the scenery and afterwards realised I had been warned by a bakkie coming the other way. I was pulled over, very politely, and asked for my licence. “Eighty eight kilometres,” the young policeman said. “Sixty kilometre limit!”
But the foreign licence is great, as is the ‘Mr Bean!’ Sometimes I swear at Rowan Atkinson’s choice of name for his ridiculous character, but it frequently helps me too. The senior officer, politeness itself, said I could go, with a warning. I told him I was enjoying the countryside so much that I had missed the signpost and, anyway, at least they could claim to have caught Mr Bean in their speed trap! You know, smiles and laughter help me in every transaction in Africa.
I continued northwards, somewhat chilled by a cloudy ride. The middle part of my ride was not very interesting, just rolling bush country beneath a grey sky. At last I hit the main toll highway, the Great North Road, the N1. Usually I don’t like the highways but here I had no choice and up here the road was quite quiet. I was at the extreme of South Africa and the toll only a couple of pounds.
At Musina, South Africa’s northernmost town, I drew out another 2000 Rand from an ATM – about £143. I knew I would have expenses at the forthcoming border. Huh!
I have crossed a number of African borders now. I think Zimbabwe is about the 18th African country I have travelled in. I expect chaos (the little border at Bulumbu, the 13th traveller coming out of Swaziland that day was an exception!). I found chaos…
It took a mere two hours to get out of South Africa and into Zimbabwe, probably not a bad time. But, oh, it was difficult to keep patience. The paperwork! The paperwork and forms that will just pile up somewhere and never be read again. Forms and chits, money and stamps. I also got caught off guard by touts who probably DID get me through quicker for the £10 ‘fee’, or whatever you like to call bribes that I paid up. It certainly was not as bad getting into Zimbabwe as getting out of South Africa, where I had to join the ‘queue’ for non- South African passport holders. More people pushed into the queue than originally formed it. In the end, I took charge! Sometimes being a bossy white man can be put to everyone’s advantage. I went to the front of the queue and put out my arms in an authoritative manner and said, “THAT is the queue there! Join it or we will all be here all day! NOW MOVE!” It worked! People who had been in the ‘line’ in front of me then tried to usher me into the queue in front of them. “No!” I said, “I shall wait my turn. I am after that man there!” And I waited, looking stern and unmoving, policing the line, as the next ten or so people had their passports stamped, then entered the queue in my place, to the amusement of the waiting people. Oh, the Englishman abroad! Mind you, there were quite a few grateful Zimbabwean folk who got through the formalities a bit quicker with me.
Then it was over the Limpopo bridge and into Zimbabwe. Oh dear, if getting out of South Africa was bad…
Immediately, I was in the hands of a group of touts. I decided, unusually, to go along with it. They asked 200 Rand for their services to grease palms. I just laughed and said they could have 100 (£7) if they guaranteed to get me through in ten minutes. Well, in the end it was an hour, but they did actually get me through the arcane bureaucracy a little more efficiently than I could have done it myself. It was now hot and I was getting bothered but did not show it to any officials, although I did get some money back from my touts for breaking their contract! Officially, I had to pay £40 for the visa and £27 for some a temporary import duty for the bike, plus about £14 less officially to various ‘officers’ and touts. One of the most expensive borders I have crossed. I decided to reserve judgement on Zimbabweans until later. I should not judge the nation by the tricksters and corrupt officials at the border.
At last I was on my way. The countryside is now proper Africa, as I expect it to be. It changed around the Tropic. This is bush land with baobabs and thorn trees. The road has been not bad for the first fifty miles to Bubi. Traffic has been light and reasonably disciplined. I hope that is a good omen.
The ‘Lion and Elephant Motel and Guest House’ is one of the few places to stay along this road. Despite my map showing a dot that suggests a town at Bubi, apparently this is just about it: a guest house, scattered village houses and a petrol station. But the guest house complies with a more romantic view of Africa and could well become the best place I stay on this journey. I am so happy that these days I don’t have to doss down in some slum. I can actually afford to spend a bit more and stay in a delightful thatched bungalow beside a dry river bed with baboons barking and scampering on the red sand. It’s very peaceful and there is a nice bar and eating place beneath a thatched roof. The whole place is amongst mature trees and clipped lawns. It seems to be white Zimbabwean owned, so someone has retained their business in this crippled economy. My room costs me $40 (£25). “We have very little crime here; not like South Africa, even though the country’s been demolished,” says the owner. “And you’ll find people very friendly.”
Things are being restored, it seems. Everyone tells me that stability and business is coming back. But the economy is so shot to pieces by Zimbabwean politics of the past decade that the money used in Zimbabwe is now the US dollar! The hotel owner laughed when I said I would be in USA next week. “They wouldn’t recognise our bank notes, especially the one dollar!” I decided I must take some to the US with me. A picture of Robert Mugabe gazes down from above the hotel reception, as it did above all the immigration desks. This used to be one of Africa’s most robust economies. Interesting to be here.
For supper I ordered an eland steak because I never ate one before. It’s a large antelope, one of those graceful African animals. I have to admit, however, that I doubt if I could really identify it from a Findus horseburger. I have been following the wonderful indignation of the British consumer finally finding out some of the shenanigans of the processed food industry and the corrupt practices thereof. I did note a small newspaper hoarding yesterday in South Africa that suggested that – shock! – kangaroo meat had been found in ‘biltong’ the tough, dried meat that is sold there as snacks. When I travel thus, I have no particular judgement about what I eat. I have no doubt that some of the donkeys, of which I have seen many this afternoon (and a few dead and bloated by the roadside) gets into the food chain round here…
I often wonder what it is that makes me take these journeys. Maybe just a challenge to my fears. I got quite nervous about coming to Zimbabwe, having been influenced by all the adverse press. I get nervous, too, about my mechanical ineptitude. Why the hell do I ride a motorbike when I have no idea how it works? I think I have a quite reliable machine and I just hope it keeps going. I listen to it all the time anxiously. But I also know from experience that when ‘what if’ happens, I usually end up with the most memorable stories. I am getting accustomed to this machine. I don’t like it much: the weight is badly distributed and the seat is awful, with a badly designed dip into which I slide all day long. It is not a machine I would buy under most circumstances and I still ride along wondering whether to sell it again soon – or keep it for another brief trip in South Africa first. I know I would not take this machine on a trip like the last one, through all the east African countries. I don’t ‘bond’ with it very well – but then I have been spoiled by my long acquaintance with my old friend and partner, my African Elephant.
A fine, clear starry African night outside. Orion upside down as usual. The underside of a lovely vaulted thatched roof over my bed. Fancy being in Zimbabwe! It feels so much more ‘African’ somehow. Now I can relax, replete and calm, the border struggle seems worthwhile.
DAY 39. MONDAY MARCH 4th 2013. GREAT ZIMBABWE. ZIMBABWE
Sub-saharan Africa has very few tangible clues to ancient civilisations. Great Zimbabwe is probably the most famous, the massive stone walled structures of a people from the 12th to 15th centuries. In the 13th and 14th century this was the largest settlement in southern Africa. After independence in 1980 the ruins gave Rhodesia its new name, Zimbabwe.
Ruins can disappoint, but I must say that Great Zimbabwe does not disappoint. Partly, I suppose, for its remote quality, its lack of development and the fact that a young Australian budget traveller called Alex and I had the entire place apparently to ourselves for the afternoon. There seem to be no tourists in Zimbabwe at all. Bad press lasts a long time.
Last night’s hotel was charming, calm and peaceful in a lovely setting. I took a leisurely breakfast in the pole and thatch restaurant, falling into conversation with a group of five black and one white South Africans in Zimbabwe for a meeting with their organisation, a Christian bunch that teach farming strictly according to the Bible (which was written a millennium and three quarters ago…). A nice group, I spent half an hour with them walking across the dry river in front of the hotel. For the black fellows it was their first expedition outside South Africa so they were excitable and voluble about every new thing.
Finally I was on my way about 9.15 for the 220km journey north into Zimbabwe. The air was cool and a little damp. There had been a rain shower in the night and there was a light misting of droplets still in the air, but the day remained just about dry and some sunny spells made everything look better and cheered me up.
“Drive safely – and stick to the speed limits,” said the hotel owner as I left. I am glad she reminded me as Zimbabwe is notorious for its tedious police barriers. I passed eight on my journey. The majority waved me by politely. Only one officer tried to spin me a line that I had made a dangerous manoeuvre by turning in front of another vehicle when I went back for petrol. I remained smiling and talked my way out of that one. I certainly had not done anything dangerous anyway and I was not playing the bribery game with him. The rest were all kindly and wanted to know about my bike and how fast it would go, where I was from and where was my wife. “Oh, you know the ladies, they like more comfort than a motorbike!” is always my answer. It makes them laugh, and a laughing policeman, I have found, never gives me trouble. At the two radar traps I was pottering along innocently thanks to the hotel owner. Mind you, I seldom ride at much more than 55-60mph for comfort and to enjoy the journey.
The scenery reminded me so much of the upper part of Ghana after the rains, only much more thinly inhabited. Here there are baobabs, the upside-down-tree of Africa – one had a hollow large enough that I parked the bike in it for a photograph – and the usual mix of thorn trees, bush and roaming cattle. Later, large granite ‘domes’ began to appear in the bush, large protrusions of bald-faced rock that rise suddenly from the flat bush with rounded sloping sides towering several hundred feet above the bush.
Just short of the regional town of Masvingo I turned east for the fifteen miles to Great Zimbabwe, itself partly set on and around one of these granite domes. Arriving at the site I paid my entry and tried to get accommodation on site, in one of the pleasant rondavels that have views of the historic site. But a large school party had taken every place. I tried the smart hotel nearby but at US$125 per night I told the receptionist I would need at least five or six nights for that price! In a local village I found a slightly down at heel chalet that needs a a coat of paint and some new bed linen, a lavatory seat and a good deal of attention. But at $20, next to one of Africa’s prime archaeological sites I cannot complain.
Great Zimbabwe is dry stone walling on a massive scale. Some of the walls are up to and above 30 feet high in the Great Enclosure. That is a circular structure with concentric walls and a lot of unexplained massive rock walls with distinctive curved features and small doorways through the six foot thick walls. Virtually all the information about the significance of Great Zimbabwe seems to be speculation. Parts may have been a royal place, the queen’s palace, of ritual importance, the homes of the elite of the society and so forth. In Africa no one kept written records before the white men came so all the theories are based on archaeological finds and research.
Up on the rock hill near the Great Enclosure is the hill complex, an extraordinary collection of intricate walls balanced on the curved granite rocks, with narrow stairs running in fissures and walls contoured to the odd formations. It is a remarkable place of organic shapes and wonderful stonework. And there are no tourists. I did appreciate the Zimbabwean regard for health and safety – none whatsoever – on all the tricky rocky surfaces and sheer drops. I also appreciated the lack of ‘do not..’ signs, any form of interpretation and any form of landscaping for visitors. You just take Great Zimbabwe the way it is: a half-fallen down rock ruin on an impressive scale.
The most important of the artefacts recovered from the ruins are eight fine soapstone bird carvings on tall pillars. One of these has become the icon of Zimbabwe and appears on the flag, money (if the country had any – it now uses the US dollar) and the national arms.
I clambered over the broken rocks for a couple of hours. It was worth the ride to Zimbabwe for this. Then I rode back via the expensive hotel where I had a beer and checked the menu, for I would need to eat tonight. The beer was 30% overpriced at 24 Rand (you can use Rand in many places at a bad exchange) and the restaurant would cost about $20-25 for a meal.
I walked to the local village and asked someone where there was food. Unfortunately Caleb was drunk. Pity I picked him as I then heard the same stories over and over as I ate a simple meal of maize meal, vegetable and sausages with my fingers from an enamel plate, sitting on a step in a noisy yard behind some shops. But maybe anyone I asked would have been drunk: alcohol is such a huge problem in rural Africa. Better to be inebriated perhaps than face ones poverty, which is, of course, exacerbated by the problem. A number of men were drinking what I found to be a local sorghum beer called ‘shaky-shaky’ from litre-sized cardboard cartons at 50 cents a box. Caleb was an educated middle aged man: an agricultural adviser but completely pissed on a monday evening at 6.30. My meal, quite adequate but without the tablecloth or waiters of the Great Zimbabwe Hotel, cost $2! I gave the pretty, shy, tubby lady three dollars and made her day. A white tourist had eaten and enjoyed her food. I escaped from Caleb by walking away with loud thanks and a decisive step. Thankfully, he didn’t follow.
After a second day I can begin to form some impressions of the people around me. People with whom I have had dealings are very charming, extremely friendly and very welcoming. These are ordinary Zimbabwean people, probably far from the bizarre political wranglings that form the opinions of the outside world to this country. There is an attractive slight reserve about people in general; they need to be approached with a smile and they will respond. Here it is usually me who waves first, unlike some African countries. I have favourable opinions so far. As for the politics… well, that’s another matter…