It’s a mighty long way from Cape Town to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, (1828 kms/1136 miles) and I have to say the expedition did not start smoothly. I had an airline ticket for 10 August, to fly from Joburg to Bulawayo, to join the rest of my family for a week’s holiday. Five days prior to departure we had to organize Plan B, because Air Zimbabwe went on strike. No planes.
No pilots. Oddly enough, the Air Zim pilots went on strike after receiving no pay for months. No flights.
And Helen – organiser of our Family Trek – only found out about the Air Zim strike by happenchance, during a telephone conversation with relatives in Bulawayo. Luckily. Or else I would never have made it.
So I flew to Joburg one day early, spent a restless night in Tony’s Chartwell cottage . He is dog-sitting two enormous Great Danes and they spend the nights indoors; it’s way too cold outside at 4˚C, so they pile onto the couch in the small living room and scratch at the front door when they need to go out – which seemed to be often. The older dog, a gaunt black & white dog of mournful demeanour, came equipped with its own teddy bear, which it carries round in its mouth, looking doleful. It is a tragic-comic sight, believe me.
Jules, my 11 year old grandson arrived with his katundu (which consisted mainly of electronic games, and Artemis Fowle DVD talking-books) and we drove off in the trusty Pajero at 3.30 a m.
For once the teeming Joburg roads were quiet, and we whisked along the floodlit highways, under the new overhead Gautrain viaduct, under the new ultra-violet gantries installed to scan vehicle plates for the forthcoming iniquitous road toll of 60 cents/km (boy, am I glad I don’t live in Joburg!). We had a rendezvous target at a Shell Ultra City, and there we found Helen & John (who’d driven up from Durban and spent the night with Laura in Pretoria) and my sister Jennifer and Eugene, who’d driven up from Bloemfontein. The clan was gathered. Northward, ho! We were keen to hit the South African/Zim border as early as possible, because of the frequent delays and long queues. Just as well we reached it at 11 o’clock – more of this later.
We bypassed cities and towns; cursed at speeding taxis, got stuck behind freight trucks; paid our toll fees; admired the sunrise at an Ultra City, gratefully drinking our hot coffee and noshing our padkos which Tony had cooked at some ungodly hour back in Chartwell.
Musina – the last South African town before the SA/Zim border – has turned into a very African town, no longer the neat and tidy regimented town of years past: pavements crammed with pedestrians, roadside stalls selling fruit, bits and pieces. Black Taxis everywhere. Hand-painted store front signs and advertising on walls. On the outskirts of town noted two large businesses advertising tombstones, with displays of their merchandise planted in the dusty grass. Limpopo province, bordering Zim, is remote, rural, dusty and plagued with problems of under-development, plus AIDS.
Our convoy assembled on the SA side of the famous Beit Bridge, spanning the Limpopo River, and prepared to exit SA. We strode confidently to the Immigration building – this was going to be a breeze – it’s always quick on the SA side, said Helen & John, seasoned negotiators of the SA/Zim border system; the delays and queues are on the Zim side of the bridge.
We squeezed into a small, hot, airless building (closed windows & aircon not working) and queued. But not for long. An official bustled up, chased us back outside again, told us to join the queue around the corner of the building, enter the green tent/tunnel and wait our turn. We went around the corner, joined a l-o-n-g queue that ran the length of the building and terminated at a long, green canvas tunnel, vaguely reminiscent of the tunnels in which sensitive vegetables can be grown. We stood. We waited. We chatted. We admired the troupe of baboons bounding around on the roofs of the official buildings. The sky was blue. The red flame tree flowers were dramatic. The sun shone. We fidgeted. We got hot and thirsty. Suddenly, a flood of people burst out of the green tunnel exit, just like champagne out of a bottle. They were marshalled by a short woman wearing a smart outfit, brandishing fistfuls of passports. She sheep-dogged them around the corner.
Aha! we thought – now it’s our turn. We inched towards the entrance of the tunnel. We entered the tunnel. It contained four computer terminals on a row of tables, one sleepy clerk who gazed indifferently at us and languidly waved a hand to show we should move along, and exit the tent – which we did, and belted round the corner of thebuilding, back up the steps, and sardined ourselves back into the hot stuffy room in which we had started half an hour ago. Pure Keystone Cops. And this was the South African side of the border !! Sigh.
Finally we drove across Beit Bridge, high above the ‘great, grey, green, greasy Limpopo’ (Kipling. The Elephant’s Child – Just So Stories) and into Zimbabwe. My first time back in 30 years. But there was no time to ruminate on the great moment. We dashed into more official buildings, queued, paid US $55-00 each for an entry visa (ouch!), while the men filled out sheaves of paperwork and went from building to building to prove we had not stolen our vehicles, were not smuggling guns, etc. And to pay more US dollars – what for I’m not sure, but
yet another of the Zim Government’s numerous taxes, tolls and fines. Tony sourly remarked that he had spotted rows of pigeonholes behind the counter, jammed with literally thousands of the yellow forms he had just been obliged to fill in. Clearly filing is not a priority in government departments on the border.
At last we climbed back into our cars, went through yet more gates and booms, produced more paperwork and drove into dusty, bleak Beit Bridge. The area around the Bridge has always been rocky, dusty, barren with little vegetation. Although the town has expanded in recent years there are no tarred street, trees, no gardens, not a speck of green; the ubiquitious taxis everywhere, haphazardly driven cars in need of panel-beating; many pedestrians and stray donkeys wandering around on, or near, the road. I saw more donkeys during that first afternoon than I have seen in 33 years in SA.
When the fuel crisis was acute, and before Zim ‘dollarized’ (i.e.
abandoned the hyper-inflated Zim dollar and converted to US$/Rand currency and restored sanity, not to mention fuel supplies) donkey cart transport was all that Zimbabweans could afford and at one point there was an informal, well defined donkey cart road running parallel to the tarred road between Bulawayo
and the Victoria Falls.
Another feature of the 3 hour drive to Bulawayo were the huge flocks of unattended goats wandering over the roads into the veldt, razoring every blade of vegetation to a stub. A few sagging wire fences remain alongside the thin strip of tarmac, but others have disappeared entirely, giving the goats and cattle free access to the main road. Oddly enough we saw no bones from road-kill, but we did see many skeletons of rusting cars, just off the road, tilting skywards at crazy angles, minus tyres, glass, chrome – just the bare metal carcasses baking in the sun.
At long intervals we’d pass groups of people sitting just off the road, under the scrawny goat-ravaged trees, sitting on sheets of plastic, surrounded by an assortment of jerry cans. Whether they were selling liquor or water, or waiting for a lift, wasn’t clear, but I wondered where they’d come from because the surrounding bush was empty for miles around. Yet there they were.
We drove through small towns (crowded and busy), past melancholy ruined crumbling buildings that had once been homes, or small hotels, decaying in the veldt. August is a bad time to visit Zimbabwe: one of the driest winter months, when fires burn off the grass leaving black ashy swathes of veldt.
At last we entered the outskirts of Bulawayo, and fell into John’s cousin’s house with gratitude. After a 14 hour journey that first cup tea was nothing short of heaven!
(Watch this space : to