Mosi-oa-Tunya and Beyond

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Africa » Zimbabwe » Bulawayo
August 21st 2009
Published: November 1st 2009
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The bus journey from Windhoek to Livingstone was one of the smoothest, most sanitised, most organised journeys we had taken in Africa, and we hated it. Carrying 90 per cent tourists, running to an actual schedule, making toilet breaks that weren’t just pit stops by the side of a field, it was a highly efficient affair. Gap year backpackers chatted and flirted and swapped travel stories as our double-decker coach roared through tiny villages. I wrote in my notebook, ‘Good God get me of this f**king bus.’ The girl in front of me was one of those great people who fully recline their seat for the entire (24 hour) journey, occasionally readjusting it in order to catch me by surprise with a sudden recline, smashing my knees further. ‘We’re in Central Africa!’ the girl next to her kept saying, when we had crossed into Zambia, ‘We’re in Central Africa!’ I smirked. I think this journey was bringing out the worst in me. The couple opposite us had a shiny gold bag that kept falling out of the luggage compartment above them and plummeting to the ground with a thud, generally clouting the guy on the head on the way down. It happened about three times and was perhaps the most entertaining thing about the whole killer journey. When we arrived in Livingstone, we shouldered our packs and ran away down a backstreet. Having deduced that almost everyone on the bus was staying at the same backpacker hostel, we chose a small motel that was new and appeared in none of the guidebooks. Really, it was nothing personal to our fellow passengers. The problem with the intercape mainliner was, we had been independent travelers for so long, and in some seriously untravelled territory, yet in the blink of an eye we were catapulted onto the tourist trail, herded into immigration offices like sheep and riding on transport with as much local flavour as a KFC bargain bucket. It had been a bit of a shock.
Everyone comes to Livingstone to see Mosi-oa-Tunya, (Victoria Falls), the incredible cascades of the Zambezi as they plummet into a long gorge, partly in Zambia, partly in Zimbabwe. The Zambian side at Livingstone actually has a smaller section of the falls, but the instability of Zimbabwe means Livingstone now gets almost all of the Mosi-tourist-traffic. Since our next destination was Zimbabwe, we would be lucky enough to see both.
Livingstone was a surprise. I had expected a hardcore tourist town, along the lines of Agra, Jaipur, Marrakesh for hassle, but in fact the place was calm and pleasant. There was a bakery near our motel that sent out great wafts of delicious bread all day, and the locals complemented the local Shoprite supermarket by setting up vegetable stalls opposite, their produce much fresher and more tempting than anything it had to offer. At a bush bar we met a fascinating Zambian called Paul, who had traveled to many African countries and had met Mugabe in the days before he was so infamous. For evening’s entertainment, we took in a Bollywood movie at the refurbished 1930’s cinema, ‘The Capitol Theatre’, and talked with its owner about all the work he had done on this classic, old-fashioned place. In the interval, ushers in sparkling crisp uniforms sold pots of ice creams from trays around their necks. A surreal evening, in ‘Central Africa!’ no less.
As for the falls, rounding that first corner and catching a view of them, your heart swings like a pendulum. On the Zambian side, visitors can stand close to where the water plummets over the edge of the gorge, then follow a path along a rock promontory opposite the falls for sweeping views. It was August and the flow was not at its fullest, yet we were still soaked by sudden gusts of rising wet mist, leading to lots of camera juggling and to many of us looking like drowned rats, if happy ones. Bright rainbows jumped out of the frothing water and cut across the gorge to brilliant effect. Baboons strolled around, oblivious to the tourists (less oblivious to the goodies they left behind in bins…) We stayed for hours, and when the path took us as far as we could go, we looked out towards the Zimbabwean side, intrigued. The news had been full all year of the depressing politics of the place, the recent cholera epidemic, and the state of the economy there, and we did not really know what to expect. Research and Seth’s own conclusion was that we did not have to worry much about our own safety; it was the Zimbabweans who were, as ever, having a hard time. It did not look to be a risky place to travel through, just a difficult one, and very likely a sad one. We could expect infrastructure to be a mess. Train travel looked to be out of the question. We planned to make the town of Victoria Falls (named after its chief attraction) our ‘V’, then head south and east, to Bulawayo, Great Zimbabwe and a ‘W’ Seth had chosen, West Nicholson. I did feel apprehensive. Travel had gotten very comfortable since we left the Congos and Angola behind, and I wasn’t really hungering for troubles, difficulty, a land punished by a cruel leader, travel with a great big question mark hanging over it… Yet the tourist bus from Windhoek to Livingstone had been a nightmare, and I knew we would leave the swell of fellow travelers behind the moment we stepped into Zimbabwe. For Seth it would be a pilgrimage, returning to the country where he lived and taught ten years earlier for the first time. Most importantly, travel is not supposed to be easy. It’s nice when it is, but for depth, value and dimension, you need to marry rough with smooth.
It was a hot bright day when walked between Zambia and Zimbabwe. It has to qualify as one of the world’s best border crossings, as you stroll across Victoria Falls bridge and see below you the churning water of ‘the Boiling Pot’ and, out to the side, the falls of the Eastern Cataract. (I swear I read somewhere that hippos sometimes get swept over the edge of the falls, and their bodies surface in the twisting waters of the Boiling Pot. I can’t quite nail the image of a hippo falling over Victoria Falls in my mind…too bizarre…)
The immediately striking thing about entering Zimbabwe was that everyone wanted to trade - we were carrying with us our blanket (aka. Der Schnoofler), the one that had kept us warm on Namibian nights, and several hawkers selling souvenirs expressed a keen interest in it, offering to exchange their necklaces and statues for it. ‘Anything to trade?’ became a key phrase we heard again and again. I think we could have even paid for taxis by giving of the contents of our rucksacks. When we had checked in at a camping complex, we unpacked our bags and looked for things that we might reasonably trade with people. It all made absolute sense in a country where the economy had completely crashed and burned, where (worn out, ancient) American dollars had become the official currency, where life savings had disappeared overnight. The problem was, the people who wanted to trade with us were selling souvenirs we didn’t want, and couldn't carry. Our clothes, too, were in fairly miserable repair.
This, Victoria Falls, was our ‘V’. Seth walked beside me remembering things with a rare air of nostalgia. It’s normally me you can count on to get all warm and whimsical about things gone by, but in Vic Falls, Seth was positively glazed over with recollection.
‘I…I can’t believe that Wimpy has closed down,’ he said, ‘I sat in that window and wrote letters home.’ We now got our second dose of Mosi-oa-Tunya (phrased like that, it sounds like a disease…)
While on the Zambian side, a corner of the falls had been accessible, what you have on the Zimbabwean side is a kilometer long walk along the cliff opposite the main falls. There was a very soggy viewpoint in the rock face opposite the Devil’s Cataract, where every visitor is treated to the most awesome view imaginable and at the same time totally drenched, destroying any hopes of looking glamorous in any of the millions of portraits taken there on a daily basis. With great gusts of wet spume sweeping in, this must be the graveyard of many a Nikon camera.
We left Victoria Falls the next day and made the serious error of getting up at the shockingly late hour of 8am. Our cab driver shook his head knowingly as we arrived at the bus stand and found it, of course, empty. Every bus to Bulawayo was long gone. ‘You can try to hitch?’ he suggested, ‘Or flag down a combi bus?’
‘Is hitching safe?’ I asked.
‘Yes, it’s safe.’
I really didn’t want to. Thankfully a combi pulled up within half an hour of our roadside wait. The driver was a little drunk but a good guy, and 29, like us. He had a shark-like extra layer of teeth and a protruding lower lip. His T-shirt advertised a pizza house. For much of the journey he tried to convince us to buy him a return flight to the UK. Meanwhile I made friends with the road police officer beside me, who was very interested in my Paul Theroux book and who announced that he would support Leeds United from now on. Our driver complained about the road. I couldn’t understand it because it was a smooth, tarmac dream. Huge ground hornbills skulked by the road. Seth and I were excited, having never seen them close up. The driver dismissed our excitement.
‘These birds - too big to fly!’ he said, with exasperation, and did a full armed impression of them, which thankfully did not send us veering off the road and into the trees. It was great to be on the road again. The scenery wasn’t up to much, but the people were interesting. Food hawkers came to the windows selling bananas, oranges, boiled eggs, leeks, tomatoes, cabbages, carrots and biscuits. A journey that should have taken five hours took eight but it didn’t matter. It was dark when we arrived in Bulawayo, and we had an uncomfortable moment when our taxi ran out of petrol at some traffic lights. The apologetic driver ran down the road to fill an emergency jerry can while Seth and I sat in the car at the side of the road, me trying to erase the foreign office warnings about carjacking at traffic lights from my mind. Funny how three minutes can feel like eternity.
Bulawayo was strangely charming. I had expected to see boarded up shops and much misery on the streets, but people were getting on with life and even the souvenir vendors had set up stalls beside the park, despite the lack of visitors. People we talked to about the current situation spoke about their country affectionately and sadly, knowing it was riddled through with problems and carrying with them a well-toned air of hanging-in-there. Most people had lost a lot of money when the currency had collapsed - and in the weeks before its collapse, inflation was so insane that you needed to take a wheely bag with you to the bank to make a withdrawal. There was concern about poaching in the national parks, too. One thing that was very clear was that Zimbabwe was feeling the loss of its tourism and that made us especially glad to be there - which is why the money problem was all the more frustrating. In Vic Falls, it had been impossible to withdraw any cash at an ATM, or at the bank. We were advised that to do so, we would need to return to Zambia, do it there, and then come back again! We had hoped that in a big city like Bulawayo, the situation would be easier, but when we toured the banks and foreign exchange offices, there were no ATMs that would give us money, nobody who would change our traveller's cheques and nobody who would give us an advance on our credit card. Likewise, paying for anything on credit card was out of the question. It was all about how much cash we had and how much longer it would last us. The ruins of Great Zimbabwe were crossed off our itinerary. Likewise, attempting to travel all the way east to the Mozambique border with limited funds was a bad idea. We would have to head south to South Africa more or less immediately, picking up our ‘W’ on the way.
We went to a little restaurant and ordered beef and spinach with sadza. Sadza is sticky cooked maize, bright white and quite tastey. We ate with our fingers, looking out onto the street, feeling pissed off because both of us were glad to be in Zimbabwe and didn’t want to leave. We had barely even arrived. Seth had arranged earlier for us to go on a trip to the Matobo National Park the next day. Only 35km from Bulawayo, it was home to incredible rock formations and ancient rock paintings. He had camped there during a storm when he was 19. My ears had pricked up at the mention of rock paintings, and Seth’s nostalgia was calling him to return to the place. By taking a tour, we would be putting some much needed dollars into Zimbabwe’s tourist industry. Now, we thought we probably couldn’t even afford to do that. We counted our dollars. It was a really close call. We could either play it safe, cancel the tour, and head towards the border with South Africa or even Mozambique (risky), or… we could go to Matobo, make a real day of it, then spend the last of our money on tickets south to the South African border. It had to be the latter. We didn’t make the choice to travel to Zimbabwe at this time only to race out of it
It was a brilliant day. Our guide was intelligent, informed and good fun, and was determined that we should have a great experience. We were his first tourists since March. It was just the three of us, in a big minibus that we accidentally got stuck in a ditch in the middle of a nature reserve. The guys pushed while I desperately tried to remember how to drive, stepping down hard on the accelerator and showering them both in dust. Thankfully, the wild animals waited until we were back on the road before surfacing, and we saw rhino and zebra. At lunch, rainbow colored lizards tried to steal our eggs and sandwiches. The huge smooth rocks that the national park is famous for are very striking. The whole place looks like someone took a sledgehammer to a mountain range, and some of the formations are traditionally regarded as sacred. We found the place where Seth had camped in the storm, opposite a lake where a family of hippos were eyeing us cautiously. The shrieks of baboons echoed from a gorge as we headed to the woods, to look at the rock art. One of the paintings we looked at showed hunters chasing wildebeest. It was a very sophisticated image, capturing not only a sense of movement but the likenesses of the animals perfectly, with stylish simplicity. This was the work of San Bushmen, as at Tsodilo Hills in Botswana. The oldest paintings at Matobo are dated at 13000 years.
That night we sat in a pleasingly gloomy bar called ‘Cape to Cairo.’ When we tell people we’re traveling from one end of Africa to another, most expect that this is what we mean - the Eastern route from South Africa to Egypt or vice versa. There are not many people who take the Western route, not yet anyway. We always look online and hunt in bookshops for accounts by people doing a similar route to ours. I wonder if, one day, it will be just as popular. The Eastern route crosses about 8 or 9 countries. The Western one varies on how much you choose to include, but ours totaled at 23... you could probably get away with 18. Given the lack of political stability in so many African countries, there’s far more potential on the western route for countries to turn sour and block your way. Perhaps for this reason it can never be as popular with overland travelers.
As we left Bulawayo, I noticed that while most graffiti had been removed or crossed through, some anti-government statements - perhaps too fresh to be erased - remained. It was exhilarating to see. A very different form of rock art. People are resourceful. They will find a way to be heard.
The minibus was heading to Johannesburg, South Africa, but our fellow passengers did not mind stopping briefly in the Zimbabwean town of West Nicholson, while the two strange foreigners jumped off for alphabetical reasons. It was a tiny place. It had a bottle shop, a grocery store and a stretch of railway line. Some men on a donkey cart trundled by, the very life of the place. I ran into the shop for a trinket while Seth snapped photos and the patient bus passengers stretched their legs. The only suitable product I could find was a small paper packet of tea, produce of Zimbabwe. We were back on the road in five minutes. When the border formalities were done, there was still a long day ahead of us. We hadn’t even had a chance to acknowledge that this was our seventh wedding anniversary. Before we could celebrate in style, we would need to travel a further 350km, getting our first glimpses of South Africa along the way. We would reach Pretoria in a police car, and find our only accommodation option on so romantic an evening was a big shared dorm… but in our blissful ignorance, for now, we bid goodbye to Zimbabwe and settled in for the ride.


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