Journey through Zimbabwe*

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The Zambezi sparkles in the sun as it drives a broad wedge between Zambia and Zimbabwe on its way from Angola, past Namibia, past Botswana, and on until it topples over Victoria Falls and continues through Mozambique and spills out into the Indian Ocean.

A troop of baboons was free running the border post, vaulting up onto the back of a trailer and running along, dropping off, scooting across the yard, up the side of the building, grasping a window ledge, springing up, leaping and grabbing for the roof, sliding down the satellite dish, back into the car park, over the fence in a couple of bounds, then stopping to rest and eat a pilfered sandwich.

The border post is well into Zimbabwe, but one desk is officially Zambia and I officially left at some notional point as I walked the few metres across the floor to buy a Zimbabwe visa. Most of the world pays US$30, but Brits pay 50 because of Cecil Rhodes, and Canadians 75 – I am told – because their PM was recently rude about Uncle Bob.

Unity, Freedom, Work is Zimbabwe’s motto, but the unity is enforced, there is little freedom and barely any work. Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF regime has reportedly murdered, tortured, beaten and flattened the villages of anyone it believed to support the opposition. The economy was once one of the strongest in the region, but now it is one of the weakest in the world. Unemployment has hovered around 90% for years. The regime blames sanctions. Others blame the regime.

But Zimbabwe was – for different reasons – a pariah state before Mugabe and ZANU-PF, before it was Zimbabwe; and its unhappy modern history dates at least to the 1880’s, to the scramble for Africa and Cecil Rhodes’ dream of the British Empire stretching from the Cape to Cairo.

For miles and miles after the border, there was nothing but waist-high yellow grass flecked with red, except for a few generations of car wreck: a Humber from the forties, a Chevrolet from the sixties and others too screwed up and stripped of parts to be recognised.

We stopped for diesel at a flyblown filling station with big chunks of its canopy missing. Ragged men sat listlessly on the grass around it. A Rottweiler stood up and glared from a crumpled pick-up truck. The Lion’s Den Butchery around the back had dust-encrusted grilles on the door and hardly looked inviting; but inside there was a chiller cabinet filled with biltong and more of it drying on racks on the walls and I bought a few dollars’ worth and pigged it all as we headed south to the capital.

Harare

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The suburbs of Harare look like Surbiton after a disaster. Large bungalows left to rot, gardens overgrown, swimming pools drained, empty double garages with the doors swinging open. The bowling green, tennis club and golf course are much as you would find in the Daily Mail heartlands of Britain, except that the bunkers are filled with the parched red soil of Southern Africa. It is where the white elite used to live when Harare was Salisbury, Zimbabwe was Rhodesia and they alone had the vote. Some left in the early Eighties, after the hopeless battle against majority rule had finally been lost. More were forced off their farms and out of their homes in the violent land grabs at the start of the new Millennium.

The city centre is grubby; the pavements are crumbling and cratered. Vendors lay newspapers out on the ground and weight them down with old car valves. The architecture seems stuck in a timewarp around the early eighties. But there are a still a few colonial buildings, unloved and uncared for yet clinging on: the Art Deco Old Shell Building, the splendidly Edwardian Fereday & Sons on what is now Robert Mugabe Road. The government owns the best buildings, though, and you photograph them at your peril. The journalist, Peter Godwin, wrote of a motorist pulled over and threatened at gunpoint for laughing. “You don’t laugh near the president’s residence,” said the angry soldier. “It’s against the law”.

The ordinary people hurry past – without laughing – in tired pick-ups and tiny hatchbacks towing clouds of smoke, while S class Mercs stand in a line outside. There is wealth in Zimbabwe for a favoured few; and, if you look down Julius Nyerere Avenue, along the line of jacaranda trees, as the sun sets and reflects in the windows of corporate towers, and children saunter home in uniforms which evoke an old English school, and a businesswoman strides in patent heels towards the Ernst & Young building, you will struggle to connect it with the ruined country you have seen so often on the news.

We snarled up in rush hour traffic as we headed south out of the city. If the traffic lights worked, no one took any notice, any more than they did of the bewildered policeman blowing his whistle until he was out of breath. The cars rushed to do battle at a crossroads, inching and honking to bully their way through. A pick-up bumped up onto the pavement, churned up gardens and squeezed down an alley and back onto the road further down. An ambulance, hopelessly boxed in, wailed in exasperation.

Masvingo

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Masvingo is a small, dusty town of functional buildings with scabrous paint and signs mottled with rust.

It never amounted to more than a supply town for cattle ranchers, but it was the Plymouth, Massachusetts of the self-governing colony of Southern Rhodesia, later the unrecognised breakaway state of Rhodesia. Cecil Rhodes’ Pioneer Column set up camp there in 1890 and built the first colonial town. They called it Fort Victoria. The old watch tower and government buildings survive, hidden amongst the low-rise concrete from the back half of the twentieth century.

But, while Rhodesia’s history might have begun in 1890, Zimbabwe’s goes back centuries further. The state took its name from an ancient city to the south of Masvingo, known as Great Zimbabwe, a corruption of dzimba-dza-mabwe: great houses of stone. The oldest part was built around the time of the Battle of Hastings: the newest 400 years later, about the same time as Machu Picchu.

It is a fascinating site, sprawling over 1,800 acres – twice the size of Central Park – with smoothly curving dry-stone walls, speckled with lichen, rising up to 35 feet, and maze-like passages, and trapezoid doorways, and steps wending up between boulders balanced atop one another and emerging in the earliest part of the city – built ten centuries ago – at the crest of a hill overlooking the expansive valley.

It cannot be long before someone influential declares it the Must See sight du jour, and floods it with gushing, purple prose and insists you must see it at sunrise.

Bulawayo

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From Masvingo, we drove 150 miles west to Matabeleland and stopped in Bulawayo.

Like a ghost sign on a gable end, old Rhodesia is still plainly visible in the shabby-gentile second city. The Palace Hotel, where Henry Morton Stanley reportedly stayed in the 1890’s, is still open for business. “Scarcely suitable for gentlemen,” he is supposed to have said, “let alone ladies”. It is not that good any more, though. The joke in Rhodesia’s last stubborn years was that, when international flights came in, the pilots announced, “We are now arriving in Salisbury where the local time is 1950”. But that seems like the distant future at the stately Bulawayo Club, with its verandas and courtyards, dark wood and heavy furniture, its chandeliers and hunting trophies, and its 120-year history of giving the right sort of chap a refuge from the wife, the children and hoi polloi: a place for brandy, cigars and snobbery.

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The surrounding streets are lined with parades of Edwardian shops with wrought iron walkways, and signs in Sixties typefaces swinging above the doors: “Le Style Fashions,” “Justin Smith (Pvt) Ltd, the Rexall Chemist”. The paint has faded, the ironwork rusted, the wood is beginning to rot, and the statue of Rhodes which used to stand in the middle of town was toppled long ago; but to outward appearance, little else has changed in the 35 years since Rhodesia was wound up and Zimbabwe came into being.

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An old Wolseley growled past me as I looked round the city centre: a rare classic in Britain, to be polished and taken to shows, but an everyday runabout in Zim. It must have been built sometime around 1960, when the British prime minister spoke in Cape Town of “a wind of change blowing through this continent,” and signalled the end of the African empire, which entrenched Rhodesia’s white elite, whose prime minister declared he would “never in a thousand years” agree to majority rule, which in turn led to 15 years of civil war and finally to modern Zimbabwe.

Matobo Hills

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We set off at first light in an old, open Land Rover.

Hard men in military fatigues paced the edge of the national park with AK47s. Ian stopped and spoke to them in sinNdebele and they slung their assault rifles over their shoulders and jumped on the running board and hitched a ride down the road. I assumed they were soldiers but Ian said they were rangers, protecting the park’s rhinos from poachers. It is a huge problem in a country with 90% unemployment and a black market which is willing to pay US $60,000 for a kilo of rhino horn. But it is a problem wherever there are wild rhino. South Africa lost the equivalent of one every eight hours in 2014. Some predict that they will be extinct in the wild in 20 years.

We stopped and jumped out and Ian led us deeper into the park on foot. The sun had taken the chill off the morning by then and the light was beginning to dazzle. The insects hummed and the Cape turtle doves incessantly voiced drink lager, drink lager, drink lager. We weaved around termite mounds taller than us and the gaping holes of old aardvark burrows, and Ian slowed us down and got us to crouch in single file, and we crept to within a few metres of a family of white rhino. The rhino sensed us and some looked up, but they decided that we were no threat to them.

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There is something ethereal about the country around the Matobo Hills. The dusty lanes overhung with trees. The bleached yellow grass, the vivid blue cloudless sky. The famous balancing boulders, the curvaceous granite hills. Water lilies floating on a reflective river. A profound sense of stillness. We drove deep into the communal lands, where joyful children ran out with fruit for sale. “You can leave what you like in the Land Rover,” Ian said confidently, “It’ll be safe enough here”.

We clambered to the top of a hill where the winds of millennia past had scooped out a cave, and the Bushmen of 11,000 BCE had painted stories on its walls of giraffes and lions and hunting and cooking and setting up camp, which it is easy to make sense of still. What is harder, though, is to comprehend as you look at these paintings – which are not fenced off, or behind glass, or supervised by guides – were already there at the end of the Ice Age, when the mammoths and sabre-toothed cats died out, when the Bronze and Iron Ages came and went, and Stonehenge was built in England, and the pyramids in Egypt, and a series of great empires waxed and waned, and the modern world slowly emerged and evolved, through wars and inventions and social change, into what it is today.

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At the township bar, where we stopped in the late afternoon, the beer-happy customers gyrated to dancehall which shook the walls, and Ian chatted to a wobbling man in sinNdebele, while we nodded and shook hands and said hello and sipped at the porridgy traditional beer served out of gallon drums. I had worried that people in Zim would be hostile, but found nothing but friendliness throughout the country. It is always a mistake to assume that governments speak for their people, any more than mine does for me.

We trooped up the hill which they call World’s View and looked out across illimitable hills and over the park to the horizon with no sign at all that there might be a town within a thousand miles. A century old slab of brass is bolted to the rock and tersely engraved with the words: HERE LIE THE REMAINS OF CECIL JOHN RHODES.

The light began to fail and the sun slipped out of the sky and a band of orange spread up from the horizon and gradually faded out.

 “The peacefulness of it all,” Rhodes remarked, while sitting on this spot, “The chaotic grandeur of it. It creates a feeling of awe and brings home to one how very small we are”.

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Hwange National Park

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The vultures crowded like excited spectators into the baobab tree. The boldest hopped down and inched towards the buffalo. But a lioness saw them and mock-charged to force them back. She took her turn, then, to tear a piece from the carcass while the male, full for now, reclined in the sun. Another lioness kept watch on the vultures.

Is the buffalo dead?” asked Nahid.

Nah,” said Lisa, “just resting”.

We had turned north from Bulawayo and driven the 200 miles or so to Hwange National Park. It used to be called Wankie Game Reserve, until they found out why visitors were sniggering, and it is best known for its elephants. There are something like 40,000 there, in a park the size of Belgium. A small herd bathed in the river, while two young males wrestled on the bank, trunks entwined, tusks locked, stirring up clouds of dust as they struggled for grip.

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Always, on safari, the drivers stop and chat sotto voce about the game they saw further down the track. The word “shumba,” – chiShona for lion – had sent us hurrying to see the lions tackling the buffalo carcass.  So I thought nothing of it when the other jeep stopped, but I was puzzled why the passengers sat grinning in silence. Something was off. Then they bombarded us with elephant shit and drove away laughing.

That evening, after a few drinks – and after cleaning off the elephant shit – we set off in the jeep again with torches. Bush babies leaped between branches, and an elephant padded stealthily across the road.  We called in at a smart safari lodge, got more drinks and sat at the waterhole watching zebra and gazelle.

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Then, in the morning, we continued north.

Victoria Falls

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Dr Livingstone thought that Victoria Falls sounded better than the local name, Mosi–oa-Tunya, which means “the smoke that thunders”. It did to him. The government is threatening to change the name back, which has got people worked up in support and against, but is hardly among the more urgent things which need to done in Zimbabwe. As with Myanmar, Ho Chi Minh City, and Uluru, the old name will stick whatever the government says.

The word “awesome” has become as devalued now as the old Zimbabwe dollar; but, when you first see the falls and it pops into your head, it belongs there. A mile of water, hurtling out of control, tumbles over the edge and disintegrates into abstracts: thick gouache white swirling over slime green, tumbling, tumbling, tumbling a hundred metres into the gorge below, hissing and rumbling, roaring and thundering like some massive industrial process; the spray rebounds, a gathering storm, higher – way higher – than the top of the falls, until a perfect rainbow chops it in two and it comes down again as an unseasonal shower and soaks the path and the sightseers who stand there and gawp.

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Victoria Falls is a tourist town, but it was never anything else. Almost as soon as Livingstone had reported back, the curious came to see the falls and curio traders came to sell the curious curios. A village grew up and then a town. The railway came west from Bulawayo, and Cecil Rhodes commissioned a bridge across the Zambezi into modern-day Zambia. What began as temporary quarters for railway workers ended up as the grandly Edwardian Victoria Falls Hotel with its hushed five star luxury and zebra skin drapes and kudu heads and sepia photos of locally famous white men.

Pushy hawkers follow tourists down the street, waving wooden animals and bundles of worthless billion dollar notes. Agents compete to take them on day trips across the border, or send them bungee jumping, zip-lining and white-water rafting. The shops sell curios and postcards, souvenir t-shirts and safari suits with as many pockets as anyone could want. The locals shop at markets out of town. There is pizza and car hire, tapas and bureaux de change; there is French fine dining and Chinese takeaway. Then there is Boma.

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A whole goat, on the bone, was splayed across a vertical frame in a fire pit and slowly cooked for hours so that the meat smoked while it grilled and the fat rendered down and fuelled the fire and the aroma filled the room. Marinated warthog steaks, eland meatballs and boerewors sausages were grilled to order in front of you. There were mounds of the polenta-like sadza, which I had read about in Doris Lessing, and found was the same thing as ugali in Kenya; and salads and soups and dried mopane worms – actually caterpillars – which you pick at and crunch like a bag of crisps.

I would miss Zimbabwe, but I was back now at the Zambezi River and it was time to move on: time to explore Botswana.

© Richard Senior 2015

*Posted as a seven part series between January and May 2015

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