Thursday, August 25, 2016

Malawi: Stanley following in the Footsteps of Livingstone

Livingstone, Zambia, August 25th

Once again I have tarried a month since leaving a country before writing the blog post; I should do better, but I always say that and then always end up late the next time.  Now that we’re resting up and working a bit on Terri’s educational project here in Livingstone, the Olive Tree Learning Centre, I am trying to catch up on my delayed writing projects.

On the way uphill on the Skyline Trail, Mt. Mulanje

My previous post, about our Zimbabwe travels, ended with us leaving Zimbabwe on Monday, July 4th and being shaken down by the customs officials in a combined Zimbabwean-Zambian operation.  It took hours and was very unpleasant (and fairly costly, with $40 in bribes, $27 in fees to touts, $73 in customs fees/carbon tax/third party insurance/road tolls and $160 for two double-entry visas).  We finally drove into Zambia late in the afternoon and scrounged around in the dismal little town of Chirundu for food, phone credit and beer before driving 8 km along a rough dirt track to the campsite at the Gwabi River Camp.  I’m sure that most of the time this is a wonderful place to stay, right on the Kafue River, with nice sunsets, good birds and some peace and quiet.  Unfortunately, it was a four-day weekend in Zambia and half of the white population of Lusaka had descended on Gwabi to party.  The campsite was full to overflowing with huge groups of drunk whites racing around in powerboats, shouting and playing music at full blast on their massive sound systems.  It was a terrible shock to the system after the perfect peace of Mana Pools.  We slept poorly as 1980s pop duelled with Bollywood film scores in the night air.

The next morning saw us have a quiet morning while the campground emptied of yobbos in various states of hangover.  Once everyone had left, it was a pretty place and I went for a long run and did some yoga before we packed up Stanley and drove to Lusaka.  Aside from some construction near Chirundu, the road was in good shape, fairly empty of traffic and running through some pretty hills.  We climbed back up from the Zambezi at 500 metres above sea level to the plateau at 1300 metres that makes up much of the country, passing through pretty savannah and scrub forest and the occasional town.  We entered the sprawl of Lusaka and were pleasantly surprised at the wealthy suburbs and newly-built malls that line the southern approaches to the city. We were staying at the house of my friend and former fellow LAS teacher Nathalie; she is now teaching in Lusaka, and we had to meet one of her relatives to pick up the house keys as Nathalie was already away on summer holidays.  We picked up the keys at a very fancy shopping mall from Fran, her cousin’s girlfriend, and had a good discussion over Italian gelato about life in Zambia as one of the small white community.  Unlike in Zimbabwe, the Zambian government has not been evicting white farmers from their land, and has in fact been recruiting Zimbabwean and South African farmers to come establish new commercial farms in the country.  The mall was full of white faces, most of them long-time (or life-long) Zambian residents, and it felt not unlike South Africa or Zimbabwe.  We did some grocery shopping and then headed back into the city centre to Nathalie’s place, where she lives in a pleasant compound with other teachers from her school.  Her neighbour Vicky, whom we had met in Livingstone back in March, was home and we had dinner with her that evening.

We spent three days in Lusaka, running errands, using Nathalie’s wi-fi and getting some repairs done to Stanley:  replacing the battery clamp that had broken on the Mana Pools road, changing oil and air filters, getting our cruise control fixed and trying (unsuccessfully) to get our reverse lights working again.  We also tried unsuccessfully to buy a COMESA yellow card insurance policy (good for all the COMESA countries, from Zambia to the Sudan) so that we didn’t have to buy new third-party car insurance at every border we crossed.  We were told that it is impossible to get a yellow card these days unless your car is registered in one of the COMESA countries; I don’t know if this is true, but we gave up trying.  We also got some decals printed and put onto Stanley’s back hatches and along the roofline, trying to personalize the car.  The decals didn’t get installed until 8 pm on the night before we left town, but they were worth waiting for, as they really changed Stanley’s look.

On Saturday, July 9th we bid farewell to the creature comforts of Lusaka and drove a long day down the Great East Road all the way to the major eastern town of Chipata.  The pavement was exceptionally smooth, except for a short section of horrible gravel road right after I put Terri into the driver’s seat; it really was a coincidence!  As we neared Chipata, the countryside became more densely settled, with lots of cotton and tobacco being grown, and trucks piled high with bags of cotton.  We arrived at sundown and had difficulty finding Dean’s Hill Lodge, as our GPS sent us to a vacant lot about 200 metres from the right place.  When we got there, we found a cheerful, pleasant place to stay run by Andrea, the young French-Italian who has managed the place ever since the tragic murder of Dean, the previous owner.  There were lots of interesting people to talk to:  a South African couple just back from camping in Malawi in their 1974 Land Rover; Andrea himself; Luca, a young Italian cycle tourist; Mike, a young coffee enthusiast from Chicago; a couple of older Italians who had just built a new pizza oven for the kitchen; and a group of young American missionaries who were living and working near Livingstone but were scouting out possibilities for working in Chipata.

We set off the next morning fairly early and got to the Malawi border sooner than expected.  It was a mercifully easy and quick process to get stamped out of Zambia and into Malawi, although the US$ 75 visa fee that Malawi started charging recently was a rude surprise, as the visas were free a couple of years ago when our Lonely Planet was written.  In less than an hour we were driving down the road into Malawi, my 128th country, with our Temporary Import Permit and our third-party insurance policy in hand.  Malawi is noticeably more densely populated than Zambia, with lots of slow going through villages and towns.  It’s also noticeably poorer than southern Zambia, with almost no vehicular traffic (except for vehicles driven by white NGO workers, of which there were quite a few).  Everyone seemed to be on bicycles, although we soon realized that most of the bicycles were used as taxis, with taxi license plates and padded seats on top of the luggage carriers.  It was good to see bicycles used so extensively, even if it is more because of lack of means to buy cars than because of a love of cycling. 

We drove along a well-paved road into the outskirts of Lilongwe, where we stopped to buy groceries before continuing south towards Mt. Mulanje, our first major destination in the country.  It was a very pretty drive, across a plain lit up starkly by the late afternoon light with a backdrop of high, isolated mountain massifs.  We didn’t have enough daylight left to get there in one day, so we looked up a place to stay on our GPS and ended up at the Dedza Pottery Village, a big community project set up by an American woman that employs over 100 people at a small lodge and restaurant, a big pottery workshop and gift store and a tour guiding outfit.  There are San hunter-gatherer rock art sites in the hills behind Dedza, but we were too late to see them that afternoon, and we had heard that they weren’t as impressive as what we had just seen in Zimbabwe, so we elected to give them a miss the next morning despite their UNESCO World Heritage designation.

Mulanje is an absolute riot of colourful flowers
It was a pleasant place to spend the night, although we awoke in the morning to cold drizzle.  Over breakfast we chatted with the only other guests, a British couple (Anna and Joe) who had been living in Malawi for several months while Anna did a stint working as a doctor in a hospital in Blantyre.  They gave us good tips about Mulanje as we shivered in the cold morning drizzle.  We bought a couple of new wine goblets and whisky shot glasses (if something made of pottery can be called a glass) to replace ones that we had broken over the previous few weeks, and then headed off down the road towards Mulanje.  Again the views across the plateau were stunning, and we caught our first glimpses of Lake Malawi far below.  The road ran right along the Mozambique border, and we could see the difference between the sparsely populated Mozambican side and the wall-to-wall cultivation on the Malawian side.  We stopped in Blantyre for groceries and upon returning to the car, we found that one of Stanley’s windshield wipers had stopped turning.  I tried to tighten the nut attaching the wiper arm but was put off by the sound that it made, so I gave up and we drove in search of a garage.  A service station attendant solved the problem for us in about 30 seconds with a wrench (I had been too gentle with my attempts earlier) and we paid him 1000 Malawian kwacha, about US$ 1.40, perhaps the best repair bargain of the trip.  
Mulanje massif overview
It was just as well that we got the wipers fixed, as it started raining hard as we approached Mulanje and we drove the last 10 km along a dirt track in dense fog and rain, barely able to see, before camping at the foot of the mountain near the forestry office.  It was a cold, wet night and we were glad that Stanley is as rainproof as he is.  Unfortunately the waterproofness didn’t extend to the back door, as it doesn’t seal very tightly and allowed rain to run down the inside of the door, soaking some groceries and most of Terri’s clothing.

Our guide for Mt. Mulanje, Aubrey

We woke up on Tuesday, July 12th to no rain and clearing skies.  By the time we staggered out of bed, a would-be guide was waiting outside for us.  In fact, the night before another prospective guide had run along with Stanley for the last 2 km of the drive, offering his services, but he was nowhere to be seen this time around.  We cooked up breakfast, then decided to hire the young man, Aubrey, for the princely sum of 9000 Malawian kwacha a day (about US$ 13 a day).  After waiting for Terri’s clothes to dry, we locked up Stanley, engaged another young man to keep an eye on Stanley in our absence and set off uphill, ready for 3 days and 2 nights on the mountain.  The path led first through a huge clearcut at the base of the hill.  Commercial timber was being sawn by hand from big pine trees, while the offcuts were being carried downhill on the heads of hundreds of women, destined for cooking fires in the village.  It looked like desperately hard work, harder than hiking uphill in stout hiking boots with backpacks on our backs.  Above the clearcut the path headed fairly steeply upwards along the flank of a river valley, looking across at some impressive rock faces on the other bank.  We sweated uphill for 900 vertical metres along the Skyline Trail, most of the way under a disused cablecar that had been used to transport logs down from the Chambe Basin.
Mulanje's forest walking down the hill as firewood.

Once we reached the top of the climb, the landscape changed utterly.  The Chambe Basin had once been full of pine plantations, established at the cost of stands of native Mulanje cedars, but these plantations have been clearcut over the past few years, allegedly so that the cedars can be re-established.  Wandering through a clearcut along old logging roads and firebreaks was less scenic than I had anticipated, but luckily the high rock ramparts and sheer cliffs of Chambe Peak loomed on one side, while the rugged peaks of the centre of the massif dominated the skyline on the other side, so we had something prettier to look at.  Cape robin-chats, clouds of queleas, ravens and several species of sunbirds flew around the basin, while there was a wealth of pretty wildflowers to beautify the desolation of the clearcut.  By 3 o’clock, four hours after setting off, we were settling into the wonderfully situated Chambe Hut, watching the afternoon light play on the cliffs of Chambe Peak.  We were the only guests in the hut that evening, and the hut-keeper stoked up a roaring fire for us to cook up our steaks and potatoes.  We retired early, ready for a big summit day the following day.

Chambe Peak in the afternoon light

July 13th started early, with a 5:30 wakeup call and a 6:30 departure after a quick cereal breakfast.  We marched through more clearcuts in the cool of the morning, finally entering small stands of native hardwood as we toiled uphill to Chitepo Hut, which we reached by 9:00.  We paused for an hour for some instant noodles and tea while Terri dried some of her clothes, before heading for the summit of Sapitwa Peak at 10:00.  In retrospect this was a silly idea; as the highest point of land between South Africa’s Drakensberg and the mountains of northern Tanzania (It tops out at 3001 metres above sea level), Sapitwa collects clouds every afternoon, and this day was no exception.  Although skies were clear at 9 when we arrived at the hut, we departed under rapidly lowering clouds an hour later, and were inside their moist embrace by 11.  The climb was steep, and involved a fair bit of rockhopping, so the moist rocks made climbing treacherous.  Much of the path leads inclined slabs of rock that require a fair bit of grip to stay on, so at times we were reduced to climbing on hands and knees.  As we got closer to the summit, the weather really socked in and mist turned to actual rain.  
The soggy retreat from our summit bid
Eventually, at 12:50, we decided that the summit, only 100 vertical metres but apparently still 40 minutes away, wasn’t worth going to as visibility was nil.  We were also acutely aware of how miserable a descent in the dark would be, as we had met a party that had come down in the dark the day before, and so we wanted to be down before sunset. 

Morning clouds rolling in over the massif
The descent was a bit hair-raising, with long sections of scooting downhill on our backsides rather than risking falling from a standing position on slippery wet rocks.  Terri was unhappy with our situation, and was very relieved when we popped out at Chitembo Hut by 3:45.  We cooked up a pot of lentil curry over the fire and retired to bed early, legs tired from the long descent and mentally fatigued from having to think carefully about every step of the way.

Morning view from Chitepo Hut
We slept in until the late hour of 6:30 after a night of heavy rain; we were both very glad that we hadn’t been out on the mountain in that kind of downpour.  We had a leisurely breakfast of cereal and toast before donning our packs and heading back towards Chambe Hut at 8:30 under clearing skies (although fresh clouds were already wreathing Sapitwa behind us).  The descent was slow at first until we reached a four-way trail junction after an hour and a half.  From here it was finally possible to walk quickly and fluidly, and it was a very enjoyable walk across moorland until we reached the Chapaluka River and its pretty pools, waterfalls and rapids.  Finally, around noon, we got to the pretty swimming hole known as Old Men’s Falls, where I had a cold but welcome dip and leap off the cliffs; Terri elected to stay warm.  We were fairly close to our starting point, and a couple of parties of tourists arrived while we were there on short day trips up to the falls.  We strolled back to Stanley, paid off Aubrey (not without some attempts on his part to wheedle extra money out of us) and started driving towards the Zomba Plateau. 

Mulanje massif with waterfalls above and tea plantations below
The scenery, now that we were driving in sunshine, was very pretty.  A series of tea plantations encircle the base of the Mulanje Massif, carpeting the land in lush green bushes, while up above high waterfalls cascade down the steep rock faces below the peaks.  The land (as everywhere in Malawi) is densely settled, and the roads were busy with bicycles transporting firewood or paying passengers, along with hundreds of women carrying huge loads of firewood on their heads.  We both commented on the fact that few women seemed to own bicycles; men transported loads of wood on their bicycles, while women were left to lug almost equally huge quantities of firewood on their heads.  It didn’t seem fair.  We stopped off in Mulanje Town to eat a hard-earned and delicious pizza at Mulanje Pepper, the restaurant that seems to be the centrepiece of expat life in Mulanje, before heading north towards Zomba.  Overall I was very pleased with our hiking on Mt. Mulanje, even if the summit try was several hours of soggy misery.  I love overnight hiking trips, and spending so much time in a vehicle on this overland trip makes liberation from internal combustion engines all the more welcome.  The scenery is pretty, the views down across the lowlands are endless and the huts are excellent (and amazing value, at MK 1000 (US$ 1.40) per person per night!). 

More Mulanje flowers

It took much longer to get to Zomba than we had anticipated, and while it was nice to see Mulanje and other isolated mountains in the late afternoon light while driving, it was fully dark as we got to Zomba Town.  This made finding our campsite up high on the Zomba Plateau challenging, especially as our GPS was hallucinating and had no clue what the road layout actually was.  Our destination, the Ku Chawe Trout Farm, was unsignposted and looked abandoned, but was actually in operation as a campsite, even if the trout had all died.  It was a wonderful place to camp under the trees, and we chatted with the only other guests, a party of British sixth-form students on a humanitarian service trip under the auspices of an outfit called Inspire Worldwide.  Terri was intrigued by Inspire and we exchanged contact details with the trip leaders, hoping perhaps to get a British school to come out and do a trip to Olive Tree Learning Centre, the school that Terri has been nurturing for the past decade in Livingstone, Zambia.  Between our late arrival, our tiredness and chatting, it was 10:30 before we got to bed, glad to snuggle into our down sleeping bags in the damp chill of the air up at 1500 metres.

Somehow, despite getting up at 7 am, we didn’t get moving until nearly noon the next day, putting paid to our idea to go hiking around the forests of the Zomba Plateau.  Instead we ate pancakes, cleaned and packed and showered and suddenly looked at our watches in alarm before setting off for Cape Maclear.  We stopped off in Zomba town for perhaps the most dismal supermarket shopping of the entire trip at a Shoprite U-Save that was utterly bereft of anything that didn’t come in a packet or a can.  We tanked up on diesel, took out another couple of instalments of MK 40,000 from the ATM (only about US$ 57, the maximum that the ATMs can dispense at one time, given that the biggest denomination bill is only 1000 kwacha) and headed off north.  It was frustratingly slow going through the endless succession of densely-populated villages that make up rural Malawi.  Eventually we turned off the main highway towards the southern end of Lake Malawi.  The villages in this area show much more Muslim influence, with mosques and Islamic charities replacing churches and Christian NGOs.  This is apparently a legacy of the slave trade that played such a big role in the 19th century during the time that David Livingstone was undertaking his epic voyages. 

The Rift Valley floor, at 500 metres above sea level, was noticeably warmer than our surroundings for most of the past week.  The driving was flat and fairly quick until we reached the Cape Maclear turnoff, where a few kilometres of rough dirt suddenly gave rise to perfect new asphalt halfway to Cape Maclear (right at the boundary marker for Lake Malawi National Park; perhaps the UNESCO World Heritage money has been spent on the road?).  We watched sunset as we drove, and drove into town in the gloaming.  We had heard good things about a backpackers called the Funky Cichlid, so we parked Stanley in their parking lot and settled in for the night.  We ate freshly-caught cichlid fish for dinner and then retired to Stanley for a restful night’s sleep. 

Stanley camped at the old Golden Sands Hotel in Cape Maclear
This didn’t work out quite as planned.  It was Friday night, and the backpackers of Cape Maclear arrived en masse at the Funky Cichlid to party.  The music levels got louder and louder and festivities raged on until 2 am.  We slept very, very poorly, and decided that we had needed to find new digs the next morning.  We pulled out our folding bikes and went exploring, finally settling on the abandoned Golden Sands resort up the beach inside the Lake Malawi National Park, where we negotiated a deal for camping and park admission for three nights for MK 35,000.  It was an idyllic spot, away from the main village, and we settled in for three days of rest and recreation. 

Cape Maclear sunset
Lake Malawi is famous for its profusion of fish species, particularly colourful cichlids, and we went snorkelling that afternoon around the corner from our campsite.  The water level in the lake was low, as we could see from marks on the boulders lining the shore; the El Nino-fuelled drought has hit Malawi particularly hard.  The snorkelling was lovely, comparable in terms of colour and variety to a reef in the tropical ocean, although distinctly chillier.  We had a spectacular sunset over the waters of the lake and ate a ridiculously tasty beef stew that Terri had concocted.

The next day found us renting a sea kayak at the Cape Maclear Eco Lodge to explore the offshore island that lurked invitingly just off the mainland.  We paddled out to the nearest point, hauled the kayak out and had another excellent snorkel around the rocks through a rainbow of fish before exploring further along the coastline.  It felt really good to be under our own power and away from the bustle of the village, out in quite a pretty landscape, with azure lake waters and an island full of small baobab trees.  Pied kingfishers, fish eagles and hamerkops circled in the air, and we enjoyed the illusion of being out in the middle of nowhere.  We returned to shore, ate some delicious French fries whipped up by a roadside vendor calling himself McDonalds and returned to the Golden Sands for another beautiful sunset and some fried fillets of freshly caught chambo fish that we bought from a local fisherman.

Chambo fish being filleted on the beach
On our third day we got up earlier than usual and cycled back to the Eco Lodge to go diving.  It was just the two of us and the dive instructor, Addie, an interesting young American aspiring marine biologist.  The dive was pleasant, with lots of cichlids, but we weren’t lucky enough to spot any of the large kalambo catfish that lurk in the depths.  We all got cold, so we surfaced after 40 minutes with lots of air left and all had a brisk shivering session to warm up.  It was only my second dive (out of a total of about 280) that I’ve ever done in fresh water, and while it was fun, it was cold enough that we didn’t feel the need to do a second dive.  We had a delicious lunch back at the Eco Lodge while talking to Addie’s family who had just arrived for a visit from the US.  I found her brother interesting; he is a “budding” entrepreneur in selling grow-your-own hydroponic systems to potheads in the newly decriminalized cannabis states such as Colorado.  That afternoon I went for a long, slightly meandering run up into the hills behind the lake before supper and a bit of blog post writing that didn’t get very far before I had to turn in, tired.

Graves of early missionaries at Cape Maclear
On our way out of Cape Maclear the next day (July 19th), we stopped in briefly to visit the graves of two early Scottish missionaries who had followed hard on the heels of David Livingstone in establishing Livingstonia Mission at Cape Maclear in 1875.  One had died in 1877 and the other in 1880, both in the late rainy season, both of malaria.  The mission was soon relocated up the lake twice, ending up eventually in the current town of Livingstonia, much further north and perched 500 metres above the lake in a much less malarial area.  I saw a sign from PSI, a big international NGO for which two friends of mine have worked over the years, stating that they were supplying antimalarial mosquito nets to the area today, so I hope that it’s less malarial today than it was in the past.

PSI at work at Cape Maclear
We mused on the lives of these early missionaries as we drove north along an excellent road, distracted by our GPS trying to send us down non-existent roads and by Stanley’s engine losing power occasionally for a few seconds at a time.  Our destination for the day was Senga Bay, only 200 km down the road, where we were camped by noon in the genteel surroundings of the Steps Campground, attached to the poshest hotel in town.  It was a wonderfully relaxing place to spend the afternoon reading, cooking, swimming, running and playing guitar before another lovely sunset and a delicious dinner of baked pasta.  I finally finished up the Zimbabwe blog post sitting outside in the perfect evening temperatures under the stars.  Senga was just an overnight stop for us, but I could easily have spent a few more relaxing days there, although I imagine (given its proximity to Lilongwe) that it fills up on weekends and school holidays.

From Senga we put in a 300 km day to get to Nkhata Bay, our most northerly stop on the lakeshore.  It took longer than expected as the previous day’s power cuts in Stanley’s engine continued with greater frequency.  We finally diagnosed an electrical fault and discovered that the battery had come loose from its new clamp and that the clamp was in contact with one of the battery terminals when we went over bumps, setting up a short circuit.  An assortment of gas station attendants helped us repair the problem in a small roadside town, where we also met a distinctly dodgy South African guy living there whom everyone seemed to distrust and dislike. 

We rolled into Nkhata Bay in the mid-afternoon.  This place is a major stop on the overlander circuit and its lodges are pretty expensive by Malawi standards.  As well, for campers such as ourselves the hilly topography of the lakeshore makes it difficult to park a vehicle somewhere both scenic and flat.  We looked at a few places before settling on Butterfly Space, the cheapest and friendliest accommodation in town.  We camped at the top of the sprawling complex, under shady trees, and spent the next three nights there.  Butterfly Space is an interesting concept, with many of the guests volunteering on various community projects around Nkhata Bay. Daniel, an Irish guy helping to run the place, was great to talk to, full of information and stories about local goings-on.  Daniel told me that when he told a friend of his, a former Africa correspondent for the Guardian, that he was coming to Malawi, the friend told him that “there are more white elephants than grey elephants in Malawi”, alluding to Malawi’s status as a darling of the NGO and foreign ODA community and the lack of major results in improving people’s lives despite the billions spent over the past few decades.

Bicycle taxi man in Mzuzu
Nkhata Bay is pretty, and we had fun for a couple of days, swimming and running and paddling around in canoes and kayaks and even a stand-up paddleboard.  Because the lakeshore is hilly and heavily indented, it somehow feels a bit like a corner of the Mediterranean dropped into Central Africa.  There is a bit of an edge of locals trying out various scams on foreigners, and the town itself is rather unprepossessing, but I liked Butterfly Space and the various travellers I met there, including a Spanish couple cycling from South Africa to Rwanda, Daniel and a couple of Belgian mathematicians-turned-vagabonds.  The sunsets were pretty, while the moonrises over the lake (it was full moon when we arrived) were stunning.  For reasons that I can’t quite make out now, I didn’t take a single photograph during our stay at Nkhata Bay.

Malawi taxi service

I made up for that lack of photographic effort at our next and final stop in Malawi, the Nyika Plateau.  We drove up to the plateau on Saturday, July 23rd, through the up-and-coming town of Mzuzu and its well-stocked Shoprite supermarket.  While there we talked to a bicycle taxi man about his business model.  While he owns his own bicycle, he is in a distinct minority; he only moonlights on weekends to supplement his regular job and has enough money to buy his own bike.  Most bicycle taxi drivers don’t have the US$ 100 or so needed to buy their own bike and instead rent one for MK 1000 (US$ 1.40) a day from a wealthy businessmen who owns an entire fleet of bicycles.  Rides are priced depending on distance, with MK 150 (about US$ 0.20) a good average price.  Drivers can usually earn MK 2000 a day (about US$ 3), but if they are renting, that gets cut in half to MK 1000.  Not a horrible wage in a country like Malawi, but not enough to ever save up much money. 

Bushbuck, Nyika Plateau

From Mzuzu the road up to the Nyika Plateau rapidly deteriorated from excellent asphalt to heavily corrugated and potholed dirt, and it was a long, slow slog up to the park gate and then on to the campsite at Chelinda.  The road climbs steadily from Mzuzu, eventually reaching an altitude of 2300 metres above sea level.  The last 15 km or so the scenery opens up to a huge rolling grassland plateau that stretches out to the horizon.  We got to the campsite just in time for a lovely sunset and settled in for three nights’ stay. 
Nyika plateau zebras

I loved the Nyika Plateau.  The scenery is quite unlike anywhere else I have been in Africa, sort of “Serengeti meets Mongolia”, with lots of open grassland full of interesting herbivore species.  There are lots of roan antelope, one of the prettiest species around with their bold facial markings, along with plenty of zebra, common reedbuck and even a few eland.  We took a lot of photos of roan and eland, and peered into the patches of bush in the hope of seeing one of the local leopards.  We went for a long bicycle ride on our folding bikes one day, and a long walk the next day along a slightly ill-chosen path around a pine plantation that is said to harbour leopards, but which offers next to nothing in terms of birds or scenery.  My favourite spot, though, was the campsite.  On the first night we had the whole place to ourselves, while on the next two nights we shared with three other groups.  The sunsets over the plateau were magical, as were the morning views of zebra and bushbuck wandering right past our camper.  It was distinctly chilly as soon as the sun went down, but the campsite attendant busied himself keeping our campfires going and heating water for hot showers.  Sitting at our campfire staring up at the stars, or watching eland passing in the late afternoon golden light, I felt as though I was in some sort of hunter-gatherer idyll.
Roan antelope 
Eland, Nyika Plateau

Sadly all good things must come to an end, so on Tuesday, July 26th we bid a sad farewell to the wonderful atmosphere of Nyika and retraced our steps to the park headquarters, stopping in a vain attempt to spot the bar-tailed trogon in a patch of forest just over the Zambian side of the border; we did spot Livingstone’s turaco and several species of sunbird.  It was when we turned off towards the Zambian border that the track really began to deteriorate.  We could barely find the right track to get to the border, and at times I felt we were driving along a footpath, but eventually we got to the Malawian immigration post where a startled part-time employee had to phone Mzuzu for instructions on how to stamp us out of the country.  It was one of the most informal border crossings I have ever done, a feeling augmented by the fact that there is no Zambian border post; we just drove into the country with a vague instruction from the Malawian official in Mzuzu to do our immigration and customs formalities in Isoka, 200 km away.
Roan antelope, Nyika Plateau

We had been in Malawi for 16 days and covered 1850 km.  I rather liked Malawi, although I found the high population density and obvious rural poverty a bit sad, especially given the number of white expats driving around in fancy NGO Land Cruisers.  The landscape is lovely, with the Rift Valley escarpment and the isolated massifs of the south a real highlight.  Lake Malawi is very pretty, with the feeling of the ocean about it, and I enjoyed snorkelling and swimming and diving there.  From the point of view of outdoor activities, Malawi was perhaps our most active destination so far, with cycling, running, hiking and various watersports in the mix.  The flip side of its poverty is that it is by far the least expensive country in the region in terms of food and accommodation, which may explain part of its appeal to backpackers.  Although I enjoyed our time there, I don’t think I would go out of my way to visit the country again, especially given its awkward positioning for overland travel now that accessing it through Mozambique is problematic.  However it should certainly feature on any backpacker's or overlander's travels through southern Africa.
Common reedbuck, Nyika Plateau

My next post will be about our adventures in the wonderful north of Zambia, and with any luck (or tenacity on my part), it will be posted within a week.  Stay tuned, and I hope you enjoyed reading this!

Terri and I at Old Man's Falls on Mt. Mulanje

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Zimbabwe: Wonderful Adventures in a Failing State

Cape Maclear, Malawi, July 18

Once again I find myself a bit behind on my blog posting, but maybe a delay of a couple of weeks helps give me added perspective on a place.  Or maybe I’m just a bit disorganized.  Whatever the case, it’s been two weeks since we left Zimbabwe, and it’s high time that I tried to set down on paper (or the screen?) some of my impressions of that beautiful, slightly tragic country.

Terri and Thabbeth, twin towers of humanitarian work

Our introduction to Zimbabwe on Tuesday, June 14th was not the most positive.  The Beitbridge border crossing from South Africa, the only crossing point between the two countries, is a zoo, with thousands of Zimbabweans (and a tiny handful of South Africans and other nationals) thronging the immigrations and customs queues.  It took over an hour of lining up to get our exit stamps from South Africa, with the lines twice being shut down arbitrarily and everyone rushing en masse to a new place to line up again.  Almost everyone in our line was Zimbabwean, many of them either cross-border traders or people working in South Africa, and they knew the ropes intimately:  where the next queue would open up (across the parking lot in a small container converted to an immigration shed), how to slide past others discreetly to get closer to the front of the queue, how the queue would suddenly divide into three indistinguishable files and which one to join.  The South African immigration officials were off-handedly rude to the Zimbabweans, shouting at them and ignoring them in equal measure.  When we finally got through to the Zimbabwean side, we had would-be fixers pestering us, and a tiny queue of perhaps nine people waiting for their TIP (Temporary Import Permit) to bring a vehicle into Zimbabwe took almost an hour and a half.  It was an expensive border to cross, with my visa as a Canadian costing US$ 75, and the car costing $64 for road tolls, third-party insurance and the cost of the permit itself.  It was almost two o’clock by the time we got rolling up the road to Bulawayo, three hours after we had first parked on the South African side, and we were keen to get to Bulawayo before dark.

Thabbeth and her Sethule Trust team

The road ran through a desolate hot, dusty Lowveld that looked almost uninhabited and uninhabitable.  As we drove along on smooth tarmac, we slowly and imperceptibly started to climb.  We ran into our first few Zimbabwean traffic police checkpoints and made it through without paying any fines, despite the fearsome reputation that these cops have for finding faults and issuing fines.  The cops were polite, welcoming and completely professional, and having shown our fire extinguishers, breakdown warning triangles, high-visibility vests and the TIP a few times, we were always waved through.  As we approached Bulawayo, at around 1400 metres above sea level, the countryside began to look a bit more prosperous and lived-in.  The sun set not long before we got to the southern edge of Zimbabwe’s second city, and we crawled in in the dark, Terri navigating us in expertly to our destination despite the best efforts of our car GPS to claim ignorance of Bulawayo street names.

A Civilized Interlude in Bulawayo

A preschool helped by my former school LAS
Our destination was the home of a former colleague of mine from Leysin American School.  Thabbeth is a black Zimbabwean nurse who married an English doctor, Michael.  They lived and worked for nearly twenty years in Bulawayo before the deteriorating economic and political situation drove them to emigrate to Switzerland a decade ago.  Terri also knew Thabbeth from Leysin, as they both run charitable projects in Africa and had compared notes a few times.  Thabbeth’s outfit, Sethule Trust, works with orphans and vulnerable children in and around Bulawayo, trying to improve their educational prospects.  Terri had long been curious to see Thabbeth’s projects in action, and since we knew that Thabbeth was going to be in Zimbabwe during the LAS school holidays, we had planned for several months to coincide with her in Bulawayo.  When we finally found her house in the southern suburbs, it proved to be a palatial building in a huge tract of land, surrounded by several outbuildings and cottages, one of which was reserved for us.  We had a joyful reunion with Thabbeth, ate and then collapsed into bed, tired from a long day of driving. 
We spent the next three days in and around Bulawayo.

Recess time!
On Wednesday, we accompanied Thabbeth and various staff members of Sethule on visits to a couple of rural elementary schools at which they were considering starting projects to help develop computer skills.  The first school was in pretty bad shape, with its classroom buildings starting to crumble as termites ate their way through the wood of the roof structure, but its headmistress seemed to be a well-organized woman who runs a tight ship.  The classrooms we visited seemed to be teaching quite advanced topics, and the students seemed fairly motivated to learn.  There were quite a lot of students who looked absolutely destitute, and I asked the headmistress what they and their parents were doing out in the middle of semi-arid nowhere; what economic basis was there for living out there?  The answer was that until 2002, a huge commercial farm had been in operation here, run by a white Zimbabwean farmer who had employed hundreds of local black farmhands.

Me helping instill good handwashing hygiene among the kids
Then the farm was nationalized and taken over by the government, and the new owners, politically connected ZANU-PF supporters, had not tried to run the farm commercially, resulting in all the workers losing their jobs and being thrown into complete poverty.  This was something to contemplate as we went to another school, this one near a still-functioning commercial farm.  The students seemed far better dressed here, while the school buildings were much newer and better maintained, apparently thanks to donations from local big farmers.  A couple of my former LAS colleagues who had accompanied an LAS student trip to Zimbabwe a couple of years earlier were sponsoring three children at this school and we said hello to them, while looking at some of the (quite good) poetry that they had produced. 

Me at one of Sethule's preschools
We had a tour around downtown Bulawayo in the afternoon, visiting the city art gallery where a series of young resident artists were producing both typical folk-influenced art and more contemporary works.  We had lunch at a trendy café, and then looked at some more art before going to a concert.  It was the opening concert of the Bulawayo International Music Festival, and featured a mix of high school orchestras and choirs, a gospel group and two energetic African dance troupes.  The music was good, but what was more striking was just the normality of it all—young musicians, both black and white, playing music and singing as would happen anywhere in the world, far removed from the poisonous politics of President Mugabe and the imminent economic meltdown.  It seemed a hopeful, positive sign.

Callisto, Beke, the pastor and I posing beside Stanley in the Matopos
The next day we accompanied Thabbeth out to another pre-school, the Hope Sethule pre-school, located right on the edge of the Bulawayo suburbs.  LAS students had been there a few months before on a service trip, working on playground equipment and painting.  It was good to see the results of this fund-raising and effort.  Thabbeth’s Sethule trip for LAS students and Terri’s Zambian trip for Kumon students are so similar in so many ways that it was a bit eerie.  Thabbeth had a couple of young Zimbabwean university graduates working for her, teaching at the pre-school; they were looking for higher-paying jobs more related to their studies, but with the dire economic situation in the country, they were glad to pick up any job at all.  The pre-school kids were having fun playing outdoors, eating their nshima (corn meal mush; these tiny children could pack away huge amounts of the stuff!) and singing songs in English.  I found the names of the students great:  Proffesor (spelled that way), Dogood and Precious were not atypical.  One little boy, the most recent addition to the class, took a shine to me and sat on my knee during the singing before telling me a long story in Ndbele that apparently involved him being attacked by a huge cow.  It was the first time he had really interacted with anyone since arriving in the class, and it was strangely touching, especially given the terrified reaction that most children have to meeting me!

Terri at the wheel of Stanley in the Matopo Hills
That afternoon Terri and I unfolded our Giant Expressway bikes and rode the 10 km into downtown Bulawayo.  It was an easy ride, and the downtown core was actually pleasant to cycle in, free of the insane traffic, noise and menace of many African cities.  We bought Zimbabwean SIM cards and got a new, longer seat post for my bike from Mike’s Bikes, run by a Zimbabwean lookalike and sound-alike of Farzan, the legendary bike mechanic of Petrie’s Cycles in Thunder Bay, an imposing figure in my youthful cycling experiences.

Wonderful giraffe painting at Nswatugi Cave
Matopo Hills Loveliness

On Friday the 17th we went into town to buy a few supplies, and then in the afternoon we drove out of Bulawayo towards the Matopo Hills, the pretty area southwest of town that is a popular weekend retreat for Bulawayans as well as being a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its prehistoric San rock paintings.  Thabbeth’s family comes from this area, and she and her husband had built a weekend home there years ago.  We stayed there for the next couple of nights, enjoying the isolated country atmosphere, going running through the impressive landscape of granite outcrops and dry bush and visiting another Sethule Trust project, a pre-school based at the local Presbyterian church which Thabbeth’s family had been instrumental in building.  We also visited the nearby garden in which fresh vegetables were grown to feed to the students in the various Sethule schools in the area.
A year's worth of maize for Beke's family
We visited the family home of Beke, one of Thabbeth’s employees, a gifted mechanic who had fixed all the small, niggling things that had been going wrong with Stanley while we were staying in Bulawayo.  The most important thing that he fixed was the solar panels, which had stopped charging a couple of weeks earlier.  He located the problem (a loose connection on the roof) and fixed it.  He also found some blown fuses in our wiring and got our gas stove working again.  His family house was really a family compound, a neat enclosure full of several round houses (rondavels).  His wife had produced a bumper crop of corn despite the drought that is plaguing Southern Africa, and he had used his income from working for Thabbeth to buy a good solar charging system for the house that allowed them to be completely off the electrical grid.

Terri and I with Beke and his family in the Matopos
The Matopos are full of similar compounds, swept spotlessly clean and built solidly,  evidence of a rural prosperity and pride in the Ndebele heritage that seems to typify the Bulawayo area.

San painting of a kudu at Nswatugi cave
It was a magical couple of days, especially on Sunday morning as we drove to the isolated Nswatugi Cave to see the San paintings there.  We drove through a gnarled and timeless-feeling landscape along a track that steadily deteriorated until we abandoned Stanley at the foot of a steep rocky slope and walked the final few hundred metres.
My not-nearly-so-wonderful sketches of the Nswatugi art
The cave was impressively situated in a big rock outcrop patrolled by fat rock hyraxes who fled on our approach.  There was nobody at the cave, not even a caretaker, and we had the site to ourselves for an hour as we photographed and sketched the paintings, created in red ochre sometime between 20,000 and 2000 years ago, presumably by San hunter gatherers.  The animals were wonderfully lifelike and alive, painted with exquisite accuracy, particularly the kudu and the giraffes.  This was in such stark contrast to the strangely elongated stick figures used to depict humans that scholars have long debated what the meaning is.  One of the most popular hypotheses is that the human figures represent a state of dance-induced trance.  We loved the hour spent in the cave:  the views out over the Matopos, the isolation, the beautiful bush.  Only as we were leaving did another pair of tourists appear, a pair of young Canadian women who had hiked for two hours from park headquarters to arrive there.

A year's worth of maize for Beke's family

Prehistoric Rocks:  Khami and Great Zimbabwe

We drove out of the Matopos, into the leafy southern suburbs of Bulawayo and right out again, headed for another World Heritage site, the ruins of Khami.  We arrived on the second try, having been led into the middle of nowhere by our temperamental GPS system on the first attempt.  Khami is a wonderful site, evocative of bygone glory and almost completely deserted.  We paid our entrance fee and wandered around for a couple of hours, past tall stone-enclosed platforms that top some of the hills.  The masonry of the walls is wonderful, very accurate and decorative.  Khami was the capital of one of the successor kingdoms to Great Zimbabwe, and it reached its zenith in the 1500s and 1600s.  One of the stone platforms features a stone cross on its upper surface, presumably a reminder of a long-vanished Portuguese influence on the area.  I liked the historic atmosphere so much that I was ecstatic to find that we could camp at the site.  We set up Stanley in a picnic area under a canopy of tall trees and watched the sunset from atop one of the stone platforms, drinking wine while I played guitar.  Then, as we cooked up steaks on a charcoal grill, the full moon rose over the ruins, making for a truly unforgettable evening.  That day, with its varied and various historical and artistic overtones, was one of my favourites of the trip.  Africa is not often visited for its historic ruins, but Zimbabwe has a lot of impressive history to see.  I wrote a couple of haiku about the day:
Intricate stonework at Khami

                                Prehistoric art
                                Giraffes and kudu canter
                                In ochre outlines

                                Stones glow russet tones
                                History’s glowing embers
                                Khami afternoon

In both Nswatugi and Khami, I was amazed at the utter lack of tourists at two of the top sights for tourists to see in the entire country.  Foreign tourism into Zimbabwe is almost entirely extinct, which is a pity given how much the country has to offer visitors.

Another idyllic campsite at Khami
We slept well under the trees, and the next morning we woke up to a rich chorus of birdsong.  We spotted bearded woodpeckers, a gabar goshawk and lots of noisy Egyptian geese.  After a breakfast of soft-boiled eggs, we packed up and were driving east by 9:15.  After a stopoff in Bulawayo to buy groceries and return some books to Thabbeth’s house, we set off towards our next stop, Great Zimbabwe.  It was a long drive east, and we arrived just as dusk was falling.  There was little traffic on the road, and the towns we passed through seemed somehow scruffier and less prosperous than Bulawayo.
Sunset tunes at Khami
Cross platform at Khami:  Portuguese work?

We set ourselves up in the site campsite, plugged in our fan heater and our electric oven and kept ourselves warm on the inside with some delicious lasagne that Terri whipped up in the oven, and warm on the outside with the fan heater going all night to counteract the distinct chill in the air.
Great Zimbabwe
We spent the next day at Great Zimbabwe, starting off the day with some freshly baked scones that Terri whipped up using our (almost) new oven.  Great Zimbabwe was the capital of a powerful Shona kingdom from the 11th to the 15th century, between the time of the Mapungubwe kingdom and the Khami kingdom.  The ruins are similar to those of Khami in terms of their stonework, but they are much, much larger in scale.  We walked up to the Hill Enclosure, 80 metres above the campground, and spent a happy hour exploring the intricate passageways and staircases linking together the various enclosures.
Terri and the Great Enclosure at Great Zimbabwe
After a brief visit to the museum, we walked around the Great Enclosure, a truly impressive feat of stonemasonry consisting of a towering outer wall and dozens of smaller family enclosures inside it.  The colours of the stone, the overarching trees and the surrounding stony landscape were wonderful, completely redolent of long-lost history.  It was easy to spend the day there, and it made a pleasant setting for a long afternoon jog.  Once again, the utter lack of foreign tourists was striking; we saw only one other group, a family of 4.  That evening it was much warmer than the day before and we sat out eating leftover lasagne under the just-past-full moon before retiring into our cozy sleeping quarters and comfortable bed where I composed a haiku on that day’s exploration:

History’s shadows
On Great Zimbabwe’s stonework:
So fades all glory.

Stanley on the road to Chimanimani
Chimanimani:  Montane Beauty

The meaning of the warmer air of the previous evening became clear in the morning when we woke up to rain!  Sort of ironic, given that Zimbabwe is in the grip of an El Nino-powered drought.  Terri went back to bed briefly to wait out the rain.  We left around 9 and drove into nearby Masvingo to do some grocery shopping.  Masvingo seemed poorer and grittier than Bulawayo, and the Pick’n’Pay parking lot boasted several beggars who accosted us in turn.  We eventually drove off and dropped, slowly and imperceptibly, to a mere 480 metres above sea level where we crossed the Save River on a giant suspension bridge.  From there we climbed steadily up, up and up through pine plantations that reminded me of the Sabie area, before dropping down again to the town of Chimanimani, built around a big sawmill.
Sums it up; I love the ad below
I spent much of the drive reading stories from the Zimbabwe Daily News aloud to Terri about the apocalyptic bad news enveloping every aspect of life in Zimbabwe.

We stopped in Chimanimani town to buy our park permits (we had been told erroneously that this had to be done at the park headquarters in town; in fact you can pay just as easily at the small ranger station at the foot of the mountain) before setting off on the final 15 km to the mountain’s base camp.  It was a spectacular drive along a slightly hair-raising track, and we pulled into the campsite not long before dark.  It was the night before Terri’s birthday and (since we were supposed to be hiking the next day), I prepared a special birthday celebration that night with bubbly wine, smoked salmon pate and even a (slightly burnt) chocolate cake cooked over the gas stove with the aid of an “outback oven”.  It all went well, with a beautiful sunset thrown in, until the heavens opened and it started raining on me as I barbecued some steaks.  We didn’t let the rain dampen our enthusiasm, though, and it was a pleasant evening in the campsite.
Terri's birthday celebration in Chimanimani National Park

Thursday was a bit of a washout, as it rained repeatedly, putting paid to our plans to go hiking.  We sat around reading, playing guitar and drinking tea, hoping for a window of clear weather, but it never showed up.  We went out for a brief walk in the afternoon but managed to get rained on and lost, so we turned back to eat pasta carbonara instead.

Zimbabwe's flag flies at Chimanimani Base Camp
The next day, Friday June 24th, dawned dry and clear, so we got up, packed up and set off uphill into the Chimanimani National Park, a place that had been on my travelling radar since my sisters both hiked here two decades ago.  We planned to stay overnight in one of the many caves that dot the landscape, so we didn’t even bring a tent, although we did bring lots of food, sleeping bags and mattresses.  It was a steep and sweaty direct ascent up Bailey’s Folly trail, starting at 1200 metres’ elevation in camp and ending atop a small plateau at about 1800 metres.  We wandered along the plateau, past beautiful eroded white boulders made of some sort of quartzite, to the hut that is perched above the interior basin at the foot of the highest peaks.  We stopped there to eat some peanuts and cookies before descending to the basin in search of our cave, the Red Wall cave.

Funky rocks, Chimanimani
We wandered along, following a rough sketch map and some verbal directions, and never found the cave despite a good hour of searching.  We did see the squalid tin hut inhabited by relays of armed park rangers protecting the park from the depredations of hordes of illegal gold miners from the Mozambican side of the border (the park straddles the international boundary), and lots of pretty grassland and rocks, but there was no sign of a cave we could sleep in, so we retreated back to the hut.  We rolled out our sleeping mats in one of the four rooms of the hut and settled down to reheat some leftover lentil stew that filled our hungry bellies nicely.  As we sat watching the late afternoon light turn the peaks redder and redder, two more hikers appeared.  Daniel and Callie, a pair of American rock climbers, had been hanging out in the hut for a week, going out every day to go bouldering.  We had a long and interesting conversation with them about their travels; Callie in particular had some good stories from working in Antarctica, climbing in Alaska and cycling in Central Asia. 
Afternoon light in Chimanimani National Park

Wonderful Chimanimani flower:  possibly a Leucospermum species?
Terri hiking in Chimanimani
The next morning we said our goodbyes to Callie and Daniel and headed back down the mountain, this time on a longer route along the main river that drains the park.  We stopped for a swim at lovely Digby Falls, an oasis of great beauty amidst the wild rocky slopes.  We continued downstream for a couple of hours, hoping that our pseudo-map would be more useful than it had been the day before.  The scenery was fabulous:  alternating river rapids and placid pools, with towering rock faces above and scattered forest and wildflowers.  Eventually we turned away from the river and up a small tributary valley, full of flowers and birds and fed by some waterfalls high up above us.  Our final trudge out to the base camp along the Banana Grove trail was a comedy of navigational errors compounded by a lack of trail maintenance and signs; we walked through grass thickets taller than us, hoping that we were following the correct barely perceptible indentation in the vegetation.  Terri was quite annoyed by the time we got down at the lack of useful trail markers.  A good shower and a tasty steak dinner soothed her choler, however, and we had a pleasant evening in base camp.
Terri descending out of the Chimanimani range

As we packed up to leave the next day, Daniel and Callie appeared; Daniel’s vehicle was parked there and they were going to drive into town to buy more groceries to take up the mountain again.  We had a good chat with them before we drove off, heading north towards Nyangani national park.  The scenery was wonderful, an autumnal sea of gold and copper reminiscent of fall colours in Switzerland.

Mutarazi Falls
Adventures in Nyangani

We passed through Mutare, Zimbabwe’s third city, where we bought groceries and left Stanley parked on some dodgy streets watched over by three even dodgier-looking youth.  We bought a new speaker cable to link my iPod to Stanley’s speakers, and set off north listening to podcasts.  Following our GPS and directions from a local shop, we turned off the main road in search of Muturazi Falls, the highest waterfalls in the country.  It was an execrable 4WD track that slowly deteriorated until it became essentially undriveable.  We turned around and headed back towards the main road, giving up on the falls, until we passed a sign and a turnoff for the falls.  We decided to give it another try and ended up at the parking lot for the falls just at sunset.  We didn’t want to pay the steep US$10 admission for just a few minutes of visibility, so we turned around towards Far and Wide, a lodge we had passed a few kilometres earlier.  They were closed, but we got some drinking water from them and found a place to camp for free beside the Honde Valley Viewpoint.  It proved to be a perfect spot to camp, right on the edge of a huge escarpment, and we slept well after a splendid meal of Asian-style pork, veggies and rice.

A view into the Honde Valley from Mutarazi Falls
We woke up the next morning to tremendous views over the escarpment down into the lowlands of the Honde Valley.  We walked to Muturazi Falls, a couple of kilometres further along the escarpment, and had great views; sadly the falls face directly south, so they are never in direct sunlight, at least not in the winter months.  Despite their height and isolation, the two falls (there are actually two of them, a few hundred metres apart) are difficult to capture photographically since they are always in shadow.  The setting is magnificent, and the fact that (once again) we were the only tourists around added to the feeling of being at the ends of the earth.  We admired the falls, the dense primary forest and the birds before heading back to the car; sadly, the ticket seller, who had been absent on our arrival, had gotten to work while we were at the falls, and collared us for US$10 each on our return trip.  Terri quizzed him and he said that he hadn’t been paid his salary for 3 months, a common story among all government employees in the country this year.

When we got back to Stanley, we decided that we might as well use the admission ticket to see more of Nyangani Park.  We crawled back down the awful track to the main highway, then turned off again soon into another section of the national park.  Again we were the only tourists in the entire campground, and had the place to ourselves.  We had electric power and ran our fan heater, but sadly the power went out that evening, the coldest night of our trip.  We awoke to frost on the ground and -1.5 degrees on our thermometer.

Terri and Xavier at Domboshawa

Luckily for us, it warmed up quickly, and we set off on our bicycles to the Chawomera fort ruins.  It was a rough track, so rough that the previous day we had tried to drive it in Stanley and had quickly turned back.  The ruins were farther away than we had been told, and we had almost given up hope when we finally saw a sign pointing to an unobtrusive hilltop beside the road.  The fort ruins were pretty tiny, but there was a small enclosure wall and some “pit structures” just below the fort that apparently had something to do with slavery.  It was an isolated, atmospheric spot and we enjoyed the excuse to go for a bike ride before breakfast in some pretty scenery.  On the horizon we could see the flat-topped bulk of Mt. Nyanga, the highest peak in the country, but apparently the park was enforcing a rule that would-be climbers need to take a guide (at $5 an hour) to attempt the easy walk to the summit, so we weren’t interested.  We returned to camp, ate a late breakfast and then drove towards Harare. 

Another Civilized Interlude in Harare

Domboshawa rhinoceros painting
It wasn’t far from Nyangani to the capital, but it took us a long time because finally our luck with Zimbabwean traffic police completely ran out.  From about 100 km out of Harare, we were stopped at least 10 times by police who were aggressive, rude and determined to find something to fine us for.  We paid $20 because our light illuminating the license plate wasn’t working (this was during the day!) and another $10 for our reverse lights not working.  Another police roadblock caught us a second time for the reverse lights, but fortunately you can’t be fined twice on the same day for the same offense so we waved our receipt from the first fine and got away.  We also had a patently bogus Mozambique-style “speeding” shakedown with a traffic cop waving a radar gun reading 81 km/h at us.  Since we had just left a construction zone, we weren’t going any faster than about 40 km/h, so we stood our ground and eventually the cops gave up.  We knew that the police were under pressure to collect enough fines to enable their salaries to be paid that month, so they were out in force all over the roads.

Bruce and his wonderful papier mache heads
We eventually made it into town and traversed Harare’s confusing maze of streets to the eastern suburb where my friend Bruce lives in great style in a big house on a huge piece of land.  We were let in by the gardener, did some much-needed laundry and awaited Bruce’s arrival from a work trip to Bulawayo.  We sat up chatting over wine until late, then turned in.

Bruce, Xavier and me in Harare
Our three days in Harare were a wonderful respite from life on the road.  We slept late, did yoga in the garden, admired the guineafowl that ran comically around the grounds, went out to dinner and drinks with Bruce at various local nightspots, attempted to get Stanley’s faults fixed (we got the license plate light fixed, but the reverse lights required a switch that was not to be found anywhere in Harare).  We had another run-in with traffic cops for a bogus rolling-stop violation that we eventually argued and wheedled our way out of.  We admired Bruce’s wonderfully distinctive paintings and masks, and went out to see more contemporary Zimbabwean art and more folk-inspired tourist art.  We bonded with Xavier, the indomitable Chihuahua who rules Bruce’s house, and took him out to the impressive San rock art site of Domboshawa, which was similar in skill to the Nswatugi paintings, but with different animals (notably white rhinos).  We also rode our bikes to the Zimbabwe Parks authority and managed to negotiate a booking for two nights of camping in Mana Pools National Park; the initial quote was a crazy US$115 a night just for camping fees, but eventually the capable ladies running the booking office found us a stand-by site for US$44, still steep but a lot more affordable.
Wonderful Domboshawa lizard

Mana Pools:  A Zimbabwean Eden

It was hard to tear ourselves away from the creature comforts of life at Bruce’s, but on Saturday, July 2nd we got up early and drove away at 7 am, hoping to escape the snares of the traffic police.  Amazingly, we had no encounters with police all day; perhaps having made their ticket quotas for June at the end of the month, they were lying low at the beginning of July.  Or maybe they had been told to take it easy after no less a figure than the Speaker of Parliament complained publicly about the depredations of the traffic police on ordinary Zimbabwean drivers.  At any rate, we drove easily and quickly on nearly-deserted early morning roads towards the Zambian border.  At Morangora village we stopped and did paperwork for our park stay, then turned off onto the worst road of the trip so far, a dirt track so completely corrugated that it’s impossible to drive on it without rattling everything loose on your car and on your body.  When we stopped at the park gate to sign in, we found that one front indicator had rattled loose and was hanging on by its wire, while an entire front fender panel had shaken loose and out of position.  Worse, our battery had shaken itself loose and one of its leads had come off, so that when we went to restart the engine, there was no electrical power at all.  Luckily that was easy to fix, but it was a reminder of how hard these horrible washboard tracks can be to vehicle longevity.

Modern Zimbabwean art portraying elephant poaching

Luckily Mana Pools was worth the pain of getting there.  Our campsite was right on the Zambezi River, staring out across the river at Zambia.   The sunsets and sunrises over the river were exquisitely beautiful, and the campsite was quiet, dark and full of the noises of nearby animals.  Mana Pools is famous for allowing tourists to walk around alone among the animals (although last year they introduced an extra US$15 a day “walking permit”; this doesn’t seem to be enforced at all, so if we were ever to go back, I wouldn’t buy the “walking permit”  and would take my chances with the rangers.  Terri and I spent the next day, our last full day in Zimbabwe, walking around the park, checking out the impalas, warthogs, hippos, crocodiles and abundant birdlife.  We heard lions without meeting any (fortunately), but saw no sign of cheetahs and leopards.  We saw a few elephants and kept a prudent distance from them.  The highlights for me were the pools themselves, isolated oxbow lakes that are absolutely bursting with hippos and crocodiles.  It was a memorable, slightly nerve-wracking day that ended, once again, with a fiery sunset over the Zambezi.

Gnarled old tree trunk at Mana Pools
On Monday July 4th we drove back out over the horrible bone-jarring track to the main road and turned right towards the border.  Zimbabwe had a final sting in its tail for us as the Zimbabwean and Zambian customs officials contrived to shake us down for an extra US$ 40 in bribes since we didn’t have a police clearance letter from South Africa stating that the car wasn’t stolen.  It was an unpleasant way to leave the country, but somehow appropriate, given the state of the country.

Final Thoughts on Zimbabwe

I really enjoyed Zimbabwe.  I found the people that I met and conversed with to be well-informed, well-educated and amazingly stoic in their outlook despite living in a train wreck of a political and economic system.  Zimbabwe is always full of reminders of how the country once was, a thriving agricultural and industrial powerhouse that has slowly been ground down by Robert Mugabe’s autocratic 36-year rule.  While we were there, the cash shortages that have plagued the country for months became really acute, with lineups of over 100 people snaking along the block outside every ATM we saw, as people queue to withdraw the pitifully small amount they are permitted every week.  The country’s dollarization in 2008 helped end the incredible hyperinflation that destroyed the Zimbabwe dollar, but it has had the effect of pegging Zimbabwean prices to a far higher price than any of its neighbouring countries and competitors, particularly South Africa.  Zimbabwe’s industries and farms just can’t compete on price with South Africa, Botswana or anywhere else.  The country’s industries are mostly idle; Bulawayo’s factory belt is a ghost town, and all the workers in the Matopo Hills who used to work in those factories are back home, unemployed and trying to eke out a subsistence living on their farms.  The once-booming commercial farm sector is almost extinct thanks to populist but disastrous land-redistribution schemes that gave the land to rich ZANU-PF politicians who were uninterested in farming.  The country’s balance of payments is abysmal, with imports more than double exports this year.  The economy is crumbling, and a US embassy political official I spoke to thought that the economy would completely grind to a halt by October.

Fish eagle at Mana Pools

Essentially everyone is waiting for President Mugabe to die; at 92, he hasn’t got too many years left.  The problem is that nobody knows who will succeed him.  Will it be one of his two vice-presidents, or will it be his young and ruthlessly ambitious second wife Grace?  Zimbabweans have managed to survive this long by staying out of overt opposition to Mugabe, but there are signs that this year will be different.  An online anti-Mugabe rant by a pastor, Evan Mawarire, went viral on social media and spawned the #thisflag movement that is pushing for Mugabe’s removal from office.  Not long after we passed through Beitbridge, a government attempt suddenly to stop most imports across that border led to a serious riot in which cross-border traders went berserk and threatened to kill the chief customs officer.

Burnished copper tones on the hippo-filled Zambezi at Mana Pools
Two days after we left Zimbabwe, a stay-at-home protest across the country led some to predict the imminent demise of the Mugabe government.  It hasn’t happened yet, and it may not happen, but Zimbabwe certainly feels like a country on the brink of a meltdown.  Stay tuned to see how it all turns out.  In the meantime, by all means visit the country; the long-suffering people of Zimbabwe need all the support they can get!  It must be said, though, that Zimbabwe's use of the US dollar makes it significantly more expensive than neighbouring countries, so don't spend too, too long here unless your wallet needs to be lightened!

Next post I will describe the Zambia/Malawi leg of the trip, which is still going on as I write.  With luck I will be able to bring the blog completely up to date!

Sunset over the Zambezi at Mana Pools