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

Thursday, July 7, 2016

A slow interlude in Sabie: May-June 2016

Ruins of Great Zimbabwe, June 21, 2016

It’s 8 pm under a nearly-full moon here in the deserted campground of the Great Zimbabwe ruins.  This is a World Heritage site, the most spectacular old stone ruins in sub-Saharan Africa, and there were fewer than twenty visitors today.  Tourism in Zimbabwe is truly dying.  It’s a good place to reflect on the transient glory of worldly power and fame (both 600 years ago and today in Zimbabwe!) and to catch up on my blog after a few weeks away.

Nice rock strata at Bridal Veil Falls, near Sabie
My previous blog post ended with Terri and I driving Stanley back into South Africa after two wonderful weeks in Mozambique.  It was May 27th and we were hoping to make it all the way from Chidenguele to the Blyde River Canyon in one long day of driving.  We tanked up with diesel on the South African side of the border and went into a supermarket to stock up on food.  As is frequently the case in South African supermarkets, shoppers have to leave any large bags they are carrying at the security desk on the way in.  I left my camera bag and found Terri perusing the fruit and veggie selection.  We got so engrossed in selecting avocados that when we left the store, laden with groceries, I completely forgot that I had entered with my camera bag.  We loaded the fridge and the larder and drove off, first west on the N4 and then turning north near Nelspruit to head into the hills.  We made good time and we were congratulating ourselves on having saved a day of travel by taking the route we did, rather than retracing our path through Limpopo and Kruger parks.
Blyde River Canyon morning light
The road climbed higher and higher, passing through pine plantations that cloaked the hills in alien rows of imported greenery.  As we got to the top of a long climb, we looked down into the deep valley of the Sabie River and I decided that it warranted a picture.  I pulled over, looked into the back seat and saw empty space where my camera should have been.  A wave of panic swept over me:  what had happened to my beloved camera gear?  After a few seconds, I remembered that I had not picked it up from the supermarket security guard 160 kilometres back down the road.  I was completely stricken with the thought that the camera, the lenses, the filters and everything else in the bag was gone for good.  We looked up the telephone number of the Lebombo Supermarket on our phones and I called.  The manager answered the phone and said that the camera bag was still there and that he would put it in his office for safe-keeping until I came back for it.

Pretty waterfall
I was relieved, but also furious at myself for making such a stupid mistake.  I had stopped on the right side of the road (since that was the side with the viewpoint) and as I pulled Stanley around in a U-turn, my distraction and my anger at myself made me forget for a moment that I was in a country where people drive on the left.  The road was empty as I turned, so there was no visual cue of traffic to remind me, and I started to head back down the road on the right side of the road.  Almost immediately two cars appeared around a bend, headed straight towards me, and my instinct didn’t tell me that I was on the wrong side of the road, or at least not right away.  Rather than immediately moving left to avoid them, I pulled onto the right shoulder to let them past, wondering why they were driving on the wrong side of the road.  Then it struck me that it was me who was on the wrong side!  I had already stomped on the brakes, and luckily I hadn’t gotten going very fast yet.  The first car swung out to avoid me, but the second car put on the brakes and gently skidded into Stanley.  By the time the collision happened, Stanley was more or less stationary, and the other car wasn’t going too fast.  It was still fast enough to cause real damage to the vehicles, but not so fast that anyone got hurt.  It was a minor miracle, but it was also completely terrifying, as Terri and I realized how disastrous the accident could have been.  We were both in a state of mild shock for the two hours it took for the police and tow trucks to come.  The other vehicle, a fairly new Toyota Hi-Lux, had a very badly crumpled front right fender and was undriveable.  Stanley, on the other hand, got off pretty lightly:  the front right corner got a bit dented, making it hard to open the driver’s door, but otherwise it was fully driveable.  Even the headlights and indicators worked.  The bodywork looked pretty ugly, though, so we definitely wanted to get it fixed.  Terri took the wheel once we had the OK to leave the accident scene, and we crawled downhill into the nearest town, Sabie, and found a small campground for the night, the Sabie River campground.  It was a sombre night around the braai that night, as we came to terms with the accident and what a few seconds of distraction and emotional upset could have resulted in.

Sunset shadows at Blyde River Canyon

As the other driver said to us, “Look, it was an accident.  Nobody got hurt, we both have insurance, it could have been much worse.”  This was true, but we now faced the reality of a serious delay to our travel plans as we waited for our car insurance to go through the process of repairing the car.  It turned out to be exactly two weeks of waiting, first for the insurance company to approve the claim, and then for the repairs to get done.  Saturday, May 28th we called Santam, our insurer, and they found a Santam-approved garage in the small town of Sabie.  We dropped by and found them working on a Saturday (even though they were officially closed on Saturdays, they frequently caught up on any backlogs on Saturday morning).  They took a preliminary look at the car and told us to come back on Monday morning for an official assessment. 

Terri riding her bike around Marlothi Park
We then backtracked 160 kilometres to the Mozambican border to pick up my camera; miraculously it was still there, safe and sound.  We had decided to take advantage of the trip to see the southwest corner of Kruger National Park; we had skipped it the first time around, and hence hadn’t seen many of the white rhinos for which Kruger is one of the biggest remaining refuges.  We drove from the border back to a strange little suburban development called Marloth Park, where (mostly retired) South Africans buy a lot, build a house and live in the middle of a well-stocked game reserve right against the southern border of Kruger National Park.  There is a well-run little campground, Marlothi Safari Park, in the middle of this subdivision, and we spent the night there as all of Kruger’s campgrounds (other than Punda Maria) were fully booked that Saturday night.  Marlothi proved to be a great place to stay, as we could ride our folding bicycles around to go birdwatching on the banks of the Crocodile River, right on the boundary of Kruger.  Bushbucks came through the campsite at night, and impala and kudu strolled through the yards of the houses in the nearby subdivision.  We had a long chat with our neighbours, a retired couple from near Johannesburg who told us that they had moved out from the city to a rural area in the Magaliesberg after a home invasion by armed men who held a gun to their young grandson’s head to convince them to hand over everything of value.  It is remarkable how many South Africans have truly harrowing stories of brushes with violence. 

Lindy showed Terri how to tie a doekie around her head in Sabie

The next morning we set off for Kruger, and had a day's wonderful driving through the park, as related at the end of my previous Kruger blog post.  We drove out the Numbi Gate, thinking sombre thoughts about the war on rhinos and about our own near-brush with mortality, and headed back to Sabie, where this time we took up residence in the huge, well-run Merry Pebbles Resort campground.

We were there for four days, waiting for Santam to send an assessor to look at the car.  As we waited we went hiking in the hills, rode our bikes around town, went on afternoon runs and tried to take advantage of the enforced delay to take care of pending business.  We bought an electric oven/stove to supplement our cooking options and bought a fancy new mattress to give us a better night’s sleep.  We read a lot and spent a lot of time on the phone with Santam and with the garage, trying to speed the process along.  Finally on Thursday, after the assessor’s visit, we packed up Stanley and drove north to Blyde River Canyon, an hour’s drive away in an impossibly scenic location. 

Terri at Blyde River Canyon
Blyde River Canyon
We spent three enjoyable days camped at Blyde River Canyon Resort, hiking around the resort and drinking in the huge views.  The plateau of the Highveld tumbles down into the Lowveld along a long escarpment, and the Blyde River cuts a deep gash through the escarpment here.  It was an idyllic spot, full of birds and waterfalls and butterflies, and we were much happier to spend days in these surroundings rather than in the industrial surroundings of Sabie and its sawmills.  The scenery was definitely the prettiest we had seen yet in South Africa and, had it been warmer, we would have taken advantage of the waterfalls and swimming holes to have a dip.  As it was, it was cold at night, cold enough that were glad to have an electric heating fan to keep Stanley’s insides warm. 

Folding bikes make a great way to get to the sunset lookout

Bourke's Luck Potholes
Neat scenery at Bourke's Luck Potholes
On Monday, June 6th we drove back to Sabie, stopping to see the sights along the way such as Bourke’s Luck Potholes (very pretty), Berlin Falls (OK), God’s Window (over-rated) and Mac Mac Falls (quite pretty). We checked into indoor digs (the very pleasant Sabie Self-Catering Apartments, run by the friendly and efficient Annelise), unloaded much of our gear from Stanley and dropped Stanley off on Tuesday morning at the garage.  We spent the next five days in an agony of impatience, phoning the garage, dropping by, hoping that we could leave the next day.  It was a bit like Groundhog Day.
The team that got Stanley back on the road in Sabie
Finally, though, after some stern words by Terri to the garage owner, we were promised that the repairs would be done by Saturday at noon, and they were as good as their word.  At precisely noon I picked Stanley up, paid our deductible (about US$ 230) and drove off.  We loaded all of our gear back into Stanley and headed north, trying to outrun a cold front that was bringing wind, storms and general nastiness to the Highveld.
Terri with friendly French overlanders at Merry Pebbles
After a night in the industrial town of Polokwane, we drove north, right to the three-way corner of South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe, where the small Mapungubwe National Park is located.  We spent a couple of nights camped there, enjoying the rocky landscape, birds and game.
Crested barbet, Mapungubwe
Mapungubwe is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for historical reasons; the first big empire in Southern Africa, a forerunner of Great Zimbabwe, was centred on Mapungubwe.  We tried to visit the ruins, but they were only accessible through a fairly expensive tour.  We stopped by the museum, but the power was out and we would not have been able to see anything inside the museum, so we gave it up and went for a game drive instead, spotting the first elands of our trip.  The campground was tiny (only 10 sites) but idyllic, and we spent the next day visiting a bird hide (quite rich in water birds) and doing another game drive, during the course of which we saw a kori bustard, the largest flying bird in the world, stalking along the ground in search of snakes to eat.  We really enjoyed Mapungubwe and were somewhat sad to leave it behind the next morning, but we were keen to move onto our next country……Zimbabwe!
Spoonbills flying in Mapungubwe
An hour and a half of driving and we were at the chaos of the Beitbridge border crossing, ready to enter the unknown.

Kori bustard, Mapungubwe
As we won’t be back to South Africa for a few months, it seems like a good time for a few thoughts on the country.  We only saw a tiny corner in the northwest of the country for a few weeks, but it was enough exposure to form a first impression.  We talked to a lot of South Africans, both whites (the majority of tourists that we ran into in Kruger) and non-whites (the majority of the population, but not the majority of people that we ended up talking to) and they all had strong opinions on the state of the country.  Few of them were positive; there was a lot of “the country is going to hell in a handbasket” sentiment, and while this sort of idea always tends to be a bit exaggerated, from the point of view of the white Afrikaner you can certainly understand this.  Almost everyone we talked to had a horror story or two to share about violence:  people being held up at gunpoint, sometimes in their own homes, being carjacked, of relatives being murdered.  South Africa has a horrific problem with violent crime, dwarfed only by the free-fire zones of Central and South American cities. 
Big views at Blyde River Canyon
Berlin Falls
This fear of violence leads to white suburbs being collections of tiny fortresses, with houses surrounded by razor wire-topped fences, protected by CCTV cameras, security guards, armed-response units, guard dogs and guns.  Ironically, the people most at risk of violent crime are the people living in poor shantytowns like those in the Cape Flats, the most violent urban area in Africa.  Until South Africa gets a grip on violent crime, it will continue to be a country gripped by fear.
Lovely waterfalls and pool on the Lourie Trail, Blyde River Canyon

Lots of people of all races lamented government corruption and perceived ineptitude.  The upcoming municipal elections in August are viewed as a chance for people to vote against the ANC and to give them a much-needed kick in the pants.  Any political party that has dominated a country for 22 years gets complacent and attracts self-interested individuals, and the ANC is no exception.  As I write this, riots are gripping Pretoria over the ANC’s choice of mayoral candidate, as various factions in the ANC battle it out on the streets, with shops owned by Zimbabwean, Rwandan, Zambian, Ugandan and other African businessmen the first target for mob violence and looting. Sergeant, the security guard at a caravan park we stayed at, gave us an interesting insight into public opinion one night around the campfire.  He is a black South African in a fairly low-paying job who has no time for the ANC.  He supports the Democratic Alliance (DA), the traditionally white liberal opposition party that is attracting a great deal of support these days.

Along the Lourie Trail
He had nothing but scorn for the corruption in the ANC, and for the many splinter groups that have split off from the ANC.  He said he could never vote for anyone who had been part of the ANC.  If the ANC is losing the vote of young black South Africans, it could be in trouble.  Recent opinion polls show the DA actually leading the ANC in many of the big cities; the DA already runs Cape Town, but Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban, East London and other metropolises seem to be in play after decades of being gimmes for the ANC.  It will be interesting to see how the election plays out, and whether the ANC peacefully surrenders power if it loses in these places.  The corruption scandals engulfing Jacob Zuma, particularly the surreal stories of the Gupta family’s extraordinary influence over the president, make the ANC very vulnerable electorally.  What many South Africans fear is that Zuma is another Robert Mugabe in the making, willing to go to any lengths to maintain his hold on power no matter what the cost to the country is.
Fiery Acraea butterfly
With violence a daily menace, politics a mess and the economy doing poorly, and with many whites wondering what future their children will have in the country, many of the South African whites we talked to were keen to emigrate, or for their children to do so.  New Zealand seems to be a popular destination; as soon as Terri revealed herself to be a Kiwi, people would tell us that they wanted to move there, were in the process of moving there, or had relatives who had already gone there.  Black and Coloured South Africans told us that even with programs in place to empower non-white South Africans, with unemployment high and education very much below-par for many non-whites, they saw little prospects of their childrens’ lot in life being any better than their own.
Aloe flowers at Mac Mac Falls
I was surprised to hear some black South Africans lamenting the end of the apartheid era, not because they had any love lost for the racist laws of the time, but because at the time it was much easier to get jobs.  Unemployment is high in South Africa, especially now with the downturn in the mining sector and the drought that has plagued all of southern Africa this past year.  We saw a lot of fairly down-and-out people on the streets, particularly panhandling in supermarket parking lots and at busy intersections.  A surprising number of them were whites, particularly in Sabie, where the closing of big timber mills has thrown a lot of people out of work.  On our last day in Sabie, as we restocked Stanley’s refrigerator, at least five white people approached us in the parking lot looking for handouts. 
Tree roots

South Africa still has a lot going for it.  It has a well-developed economy with industry, service sector companies, agriculture and mining that would be the envy of any other country in sub-Saharan Africa.  Its roads, schools, banks, newspapers and sprawling suburbs could be taken from Australia, New Zealand or Canada.  Its companies dominate the commercial sectors of neighbouring countries.  The average South African is materially better off than the average Zimbabwean, Zambian, Tanzanian or Nigerian.  The problem is that the averaging process obscures the yawning gap between the mostly-white haves and the mostly black have-nots.  The inequality, the violence and the sense of a diminished future that so many people in the country feel all bode poorly for the future.  South Africa is a country whose future could go in so many different ways.  If they emulate Botswana, turning mineral wealth into a broad-based middle class society, it could be a shining light for the rest of the continent.  If they emulate Zimbabwe (as many South Africans fear), it could be disastrous.  I will stay tuned to see which way it goes.
Happy campers at Blyde River Canyon
Blyde River sundowners