I once again chose the Intercape coach for my onward journey. It seemed well run and punctual. Next to me was a young black man who introduced himself as Andrew. He was a Shona from Masvingo who had gone to school in Harare and later the University there, around the same time as me. I recall him saying he'd studied tourist and/or environmental management. Later he had completed an MBA. He was well qualified anyway. He was en route to Ganda Lodge at Hwange Game Park, run by the Forestry Commission, and which he managed. We had an interesting conversation for the next hour or two. From him I learnt exactly how corrupt the system had become in Zim when he told me about his business operations in Bulawayo.
He ran three commuter minibus taxis. From his daily takings he had to deduct the cost of employing the drivers, fuel and maintenance as well as another unbugeted cost - that of doing business. What this amounted to was paying 5 or 10 USD every time his minibuses were stopped by the police at one or other of the many checkpoints around town. This was not negotiable. Apparently, one of them
was on record as saying that 'someone had to help pay their wages' i.e. someone other than the state. As a result he was struggling to profit and had decided instead to sell one of the minibuses, park another and use the third to transport fish from the town of Binga (on the Zambezi River) to Bulawayo.
Funnily enough Lily, who I had lodged with a few days before, told me that she had previously been in the fish-selling business as well, except that she'd sourced her fish from a dam somewhere towards Beit Bridge. She'd also considered purchasing from Binga initially but found it more profitable to deal with the fishing cooperative operating at the dam. Andrew on the other hand dealt exclusively with the Zambian fishermen who came across to Zimbabwe to sell their catch. "I can buy from them for 50c whereas I have to pay a Zimbabwean $1.50 per fish." As a result he could get his fish to the supermarkets in Bulawayo at a very competitive price.
The other reason his taxi business had apparently failed was that the city council also wanted a cut of the action. All taxi operators were obliged
to register which he had no problem with but they were also being coerced into joining what sounded like a co-operative run by these same councillors. The profits had to be remitted to them before a dividend was paid out to the members. He and some other drivers had taken them to court and had the judge had ruled in their favour. In retribution the traffic wardens had come down on hard on him and the others. He suddenly found himself with a slew of fines for petty misdemeanours and offences that he was adamant had been falsely concocted. "The first thing people will ask you when trying to do business in Zim these days is 'what is in it for me?'" Andrew explained. Such is the cost of doing business in Zimbabwe these days.
I asked him about his family. Surprisingly it turned out that he had a white partner with whom he had fathered a child. Mixed marriages were not unheard of in Zimbabwe but with all the racial propaganda coming from the politicians over the last decade and ingrained prejudices it could not have been easy for them. When I remarked on this issue he laughed.
He explained that his parents had been a bit 'disappointed' that things had not been conducted in the traditional manner but that it had been harder for her. Did they intend to marry? It would be nice he replied, but seemed undecided.
On our approach to Hwange we turned off the main road to Vic Falls and drove a few kilometres towards the game park entrance, our first drop-off point. We hadn't gone far before we saw 6 or 7 giraffe including a baby (only about 6 feet tall rather than 15!). This was followed by a large herd of buffalo on either side of the road. Andrew became quite excited explaining that he had a large group of guests coming the following day. We passed the turn-off to his lodge. He would get off at the drop off and come back this way with his driver. It would be unwise to walk anywhere in this area after dark. He assured me that where one saw buffalo lion would be in close attendance.
After dropping Andrew and a few others we continued on to Hwange colliery and hence to the Falls themselves. After disembarking at the Kingdom Hotel
I walked the half-a-kilometer or so to Shoestring's backpackers. The way there was poorly lit but I was helped by a friendly taxi driver who pointed the way. In the distance I could hear the roar of the water cascading over the edge of the Falls. I had stayed here once before. As the name suggests it does not cater to those with expensive tastes. If anything it was even more basic than when I had last been there. The music was blaring at a quite ridiculous level as I made my way round the back to pitch my little tent for the first time. Thereafter I took a little walk to find some 'graze'.
The USD prices at the nearby restaurants were more than the price of my accommodation so I scouted around for a cheaper option. My answer came in a young black man who wanted to know if I would buy some old Zimbabwean bearer cheques from him - the ones which reflected the ridiculous level of hyperinflation 6 or 7 years before: denominated in millions, billions and trillions. I explained that I had lived through all that nonsence and had the notes already, but did
he want to show me somewhere cheap to eat in the township and if so I would buy him a meal? He readily took me up on the offer and we proceeded towards Chinotimba, the local township, on foot.
The first stop was a beerhall which he optimistically hoped would also have food. It didn't. He explained that it would be easier to get a lift further in to where he could guarantee a meal. We found ourselves a taxi headed that way. There was already one customer in the passenger seat. He argued loudly with the young driver regarding the fare but was eventually deposited at the roadside. I think it cost us a dollar a head to where we were going. The restaurant my new found friend took me to was round the side of a small shopping centre. The chef was dressed in an apron and whites which was reassuring and we could chose from a selection of chicken, beef or fish. I avoided the beef after the Bulawayo experience and went with the chicken. It goes without saying that it was accompanied by sadza and relish. It was a good meal and a bargain at
US$ 1.50 a head. I asked my companion his ambitions.
"To get a passport", he replied, "but I am still saving for it." It would cost him US$ 60 and a wait of a few weeks. Once he had it he could go across to Botswana or South Africa with the millions of other Zimbabweans trying to make their livings there.
The taxi ride to the backpackers was without my friend who lived in Chinotimba. The driver looked all of 15 years old and he drove with scant regard for the highway code, taking corners at high speed and cutting across into the other lane to dodge potholes. Two of the other passengers were deposited at some nearby shops and for the princely sum of US$ 2 I was dropped back at Shoestrings, relieved to still be alive. The music was still blaring whilst I took a shower and went to type up the day's activities. Before I could get going an old chap who had been watching me erect my tent came across and gestured that the music was too loud and that he couldn't sleep. I nodded sympathetically but he was obviously keen to chat instead.
He introduced himself as Antonio, an Italian who had been living in France for the better part of his life with his French wife. He had a shock of white hair, bushy white eyebrows and merry greyish-blue eyes. He reminded me a little of my late grandfather. Like my grandpa Raph he was also a bit hard of hearing, even when the music did eventually cease. Nevertheless he was an enthusiastic conversationalist. From what I gathered he was an ardent traveler. He seemed to have made it his life's mission to travel to as many countries as he could before he died. I have no idea why he traveled without his wife but I didn't really get the opportunity to ask him. He refered to me as a 'young man' which I always appreciate. Eventually I announced that I must sleep (no lie) and I hunkered down for a reasonable doss, albeit a little colder than anticipated.
The next day I packed up, had breakfast, said cheers to Antonio and was on my way by mid-morning. I disappointed numerous taxi drivers by refusing their offers of a 'cheap' ride to the Victoria Falls. "Only $10 my friend!" they
would call out. I politely declined and casually walked the 20 minutes or so to the Zimbabwe side of the Falls. At this stage of the game my efforts in Bulawayo bore dividends. By acquiring a plastic ID disc to replace the aluminium one that I had surrendered back in 2002 (dual citizenship law) I saved myself US$23! If you were a tourist coming from Zambia you had to pay for the privilege of crossing into Zimbabwe for the day (US$30) as well as a further US$30 to view the Falls. Locals paid only US$7.
May is when the river is at its peak flow and the Vic Falls were thundering. Copious amounts of water were passing over the edge and the power of it as it impacted the swirling waters of the gorge 70 or 80 metres below was awe-inspiring. As a result a huge plume of spray wafted upwards and outwards, buffeted by the wind, such that a gust would suddenly bring a hail of droplets towards the viewing points, drenching the unwary onlooker. Rain coats were well advised. I had been there on several occasions but each consecutive occasion is no less impressive. It's no surprise
that the place is reknowned for honeymooners, weddings and romantic getaways. I spotted a number of couples taking in the spectacle together. Not I, solo, unencumbered traveler that I was. I walked the path in both directions on the Zimbawean side (incidentally about two thirds of the entire length) before officially departing the country and walking across the bridge to Zambia.
Half way across I was accosted by the inevitable copper-bracelet salesman. I had collected half-a-dozen or so from previous visits but my persistent friend, Antonio 'Tomato', badgered me for an age before relenting. My resolve would not prove so resilient on the Zambian side where I capitulated to another seller later in the day and bought a further two of a design I didn't have. I parted with US$50 for the obligatory visa, grateful that it didn't include the $5 'on top' as per the Beit Bridge fee. From there I took a taxi across to Livingstone and Jollyboys backpackers. It was chalk and cheese when compared to Shoestrings on the Vic Falls side: spacious, quiet, tidy and well maintained. The evening passed without incident. I was a little bit antisocial but I took the time
to catch up on emails and suchlike. When I looked up I noticed just about everyone else doing the same either via laptop or smartphone. The digital, online age that so divides opinion. No comment!
The following day after a quick breakfast I headed across to the bus terminus by the old South-Western Hotel. I had booked a ticket to Lusaka with one of the intercity bus companies the day before. It went by the name Shalom (peace). Well if ever there was a misnomer it was here. The journey begun with an hour or so of an evangelical preacher (recorded for your listening pleasure) who implored our repentance and salvation. To my relief the young chap in front of me volunteered to bare witness to Jesus and repent. He was asked to repeat his 'confession' after our preacher, word for word. At least it drew the heat from the rest of us. Thereafter we had an eclectic mix of RnB, soul and the occasional rock number blared from the speakers above each of our seats. Sleep was well nigh impossible but at least the landscape was new to me. livingstone-bus-preacher
I knew I was in Africa when I saw the cluttered roadside market stalls en route and at each stop along our way, selling fruit and vegetables mainly but also dried fish and other snacks. I watched in horrified fascination as a young kid goat was placed alongside the other luggage next to the bus, both its front and back legs bound with twine. It bleated occasionally but to no avail. The luggage hatch then went up, obscuring my view. When it was closed the kid was gone as was the luggage. I can't be sure but it seems likely that it went into the storage compartment with the rest of the bags! The poor beast. Several hours later we arrived at Lusaka intercity bus terminus. Before we had even parked touts were calling out to me. "Muzungu, Muzungu!" they shouted to try and draw my attention. 'Muzungu' means white man as does murungu in Zimbabwe and mulungu in South Africa. There may be other variants of the word I have not yet encountered.
I declined most of the offers and settled on a quieter man, a taxi driver, who assured me he could get me to my hostel for 35 kwacha (about US$5). It was a bit more than I was hoping to pay but it was dusk and I didn't want to be searching in vain after dark for my accommodation. It turned out to be a short hop across to a place not much more than a kilometre away. Thus I arrived for the first of 6 nights in Lusaka.
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