Journey through Zimbabwe, Part 7*

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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 started as temporary quarters for railway workers ended up as the grandly Edwardian Victoria Falls Hotel with its hushed five star luxury, its private path to the falls, and its zebra skin drapes and kudu heads and sepia photos of locally famous white men.

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. And 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 it was time, now, to move on: time to explore Botswana.

© Richard Senior 2015

*Part originally posted as ‘Smoke that Thunders’ on 11 September 2014

Journey through Zimbabwe, Part 4

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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 as good as that anymore, 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 [Harare] 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.

An old Wolseley growled past as I looked around 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 that 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.

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© Richard Senior 2015

Journey through Zimbabwe, Part 3

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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 a ruined 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.

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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.

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© Richard Senior 2015

Journey through Zimbabwe, Part 2

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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.

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 still a few colonial buildings, unloved and uncared for yet clinging on: the Art Deco Old Shell Building, the splendidly Edwardian Fereday & Sons on 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 evoking 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.

© Richard Senior 2015

Journey through Zimbabwe, Part 1

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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.

Passport control 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. Much 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 fragile, there is little freedom and barely any work. Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF has reportedly murdered, tortured, beaten and flattened the villages of people it believed to support the opposition. The economy was once one of the strongest in the region: 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 the 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.

© Richard Senior 2015

Serengeti Snapshots

Early morning in the Serengeti, squeezing six to a pop-top Land Cruiser.

Jambo Frederick.”

“Karibou.”

A herd of wildebeest crosses the road, five or six deep, stretching for ever. Hundreds of wildebeest, a thousand perhaps. The hooves collectively thunder; a cacophony of oinking grunts. A few get confused and run the wrong way, young males stop to pick fights and hit on the females; but they are all sucked back into the relentless flow.

Thompson’s and Grant’s gazelles, impalas, giraffes and dozens of zebra graze at the side of the track. A dung beetle rolls a dropping the size of a baseball uphill.  A young wildebeest bounds into a herd and tries to take over, but the dominant male sees him off.

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A stream choc-a-block with cooling hippos and, a little apart from them, a solitary croc. They respect each other, like nuclear states, because each could destroy the other. A lioness pokes her head out the bush, peers around, and strolls along the edge of a stream to a shadier spot, followed at a jog by ten unruly month-old cubs the size of little ginger cats. A second lioness acts as rearguard.

Back to the same spot in the afternoon, the trees by then thick with vultures. A lioness appears with blood on her face and paws. The cubs jogs after her in ones and twos and they all clamber down to the stream to drink and wash the blood from their fur, then leap over the water and move on, leaving the carcass to the vultures.

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Poa kicheze,” Frederick says.

What’s that?”

“It means ‘cool’; ‘very cool’.”

“Porky cheesy?”

“Poa kicheze.”

“Pork a chaise, eh?”

A herd of elephants wants to graze where the lions have gone, and elephants think nothing of lions. They spread out and advance in a row, like soldiers clearing a jungle. One lioness hurries the cubs away while the other stays back and glares at the elephants; but the elephants press on with slow determination. The lioness has to save face, so she waits till the elephants are inches away, then leaves with studied nonchalance.

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Sawa-sawa?” says Frederick, “Okay?”

Yes, sour-sour”.

But the jeep will not start. The elephants are looking at us now. One of the bulls flaps his ears and looks angry. Elephants are bad-tempered things. And an elephant will toss over a jeep as casually as you would flick a bug from your arm. Frederick calls out to another driver and asks him to shunt the jeep from behind to get it going. It works.

“Asante sana, Frederick”.

“Karibou”.

Thank you very much. You’re welcome.

(c) Richard Senior 2014

Zanzibar Night Market

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When the sun goes down, trestle tables go up in Forodhani Gardens in the middle of Stone Town. They are filled with lobsters, gleaming white squid, fat octopus tentacles, kingfish, marlin and tuna. Dozens of vendors light charcoal grills and wheel in juice presses like old-fashioned mangles. The crowds swarm in and jostle each other and the vendors shout and orders are placed and fish is thrown onto the grill. The juice man works at pit stop speed, forcing sugar cane through the press, folding it, forcing it through again, then again, and again, until it has given up all of its juice. Then he mixes in lime and ginger.

Squid is deceptively hard to get right. So many restaurants cook it too long, or not long enough. But the grill man knew better than that. He sliced it up with a few quick strokes and tipped it onto a paper plate with a handful of salad and a good squirt of chilli and tomalley sauce. He owed me some change but talked me into settling for a coconut bread. I ate the squid and the bread as I looked round the rest of the stalls, then replaced them with kingfish and green pepper skewers.

(c) Richard Senior 2014

Okavango Alarm Clock

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It sounds as if a team of early workmen is taking hammer drills to solid stone when the hippos start to grunt their good mornings and hope you slept wells. The frogs burp and trill in overwhelming numbers; the cicadas chirrup a counterpoint. An elephant grumbles somewhere beyond the trees. The red-eyed dove introduces itself, as it does every day. “I am…a red-eyed dove,” it sings in its Andean flute voice. “Go away! Go away!” shriek the grumpy grey louries, known to all as go-away birds. The emerald-spotted wood dove quietly sobs, “My mother dead! My father dead! Everybody dead! Dead! Dead! Dead!” “Go away!” snap the louries. “Drink lager! Drink lager! Drink lager!” chant the hard-partying Cape turtle doves, for whom it is always six o’ clock somewhere. “Good Lord deliver us,” mutters the disapproving fiery-necked nightjar.

(c) Richard Senior 2014

“It is the Journey that Matters in the End…” as Hemingway DIDN’T Say

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It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters, in the end,” wrote Ursula K Le Guin in her novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, although the internet tends to credit it to Hemingway.

The idea is baffling to regular fortnight a year vacationers, for whom journeys mean getting up early, battling across town, standing in line, getting half undressed, being scanned and frisked, having bits of their hand luggage confiscated, being bullied by cabin staff, sitting for hours between an old lady who thinks out loud and a fat man who snores very loudly, and watching the drinks trolley creep up the aisle to the row before theirs, then shoot back up the other end of the plane and behind the curtain for the rest of the flight, then bowing to pressure from the crowd to stand up the second the plane has come to a stop, even though they know that the doors will not open for ages; then standing in line again and again and again until they have stamps in their passports, cases in their hands and taxis to take them to hotels.

If this is what matters, might as well stay at home.

But on a longer trip, when you are dotting about from place to place, by train, by bus, by car by bike, what you see as you travel between the big sights will lodge in your mind as firmly as the sights themselves. You can get as much from the journey as you can from the end.

When I think of Cambodia, I think of the bus ride to Phnom Penh from Siem Reap, through rural villages of wooden houses balanced on stilts, of hayricks, pitchforks and ox carts, of broods of chicks jogging after hens. In the bank of memories from Vietnam are the journeys on overnight trains, waking and looking out of the window at villagers kneeling in conical hats to harvest the rice in the half-light of the early morning. I remember long road trips in South America through epic landscapes of mountains and plains which stretched for ever, and the occasional Andean herdsman tending llamas an hour from the smallest town.

In New Zealand it was the journeys I enjoyed the most. There is not much to Picton and little more to Nelson but the Inter City bus took a glorious route between them, through the Marlborough wine region where the vines had turned and flooded the fields with an ocean of yellow on either side of the single track road, where the mountains were stacked three deep: green then grey then blue. The Tranz Alpine Express train threaded its way from coast to coast, from the ruins of Christchurch to the thrift stores of Greymouth with me gazing up at endless mountains, and into the depths of a gorge at a fast-flowing river, and out across the expanse of a pine forest with splashes of yellow and brown among the deep dark green.

I rarely plan a trip in detail, sometimes hardly at all. But I always know where I am going to end up. I need that to give it some kind of structure, and to focus on when things go wrong and half of me wants to jack it all in and go home. There is always an end, and it is always a destination; but there is always a whole lot more to the trip. There are all the intermediate ends, the UNESCO sites, the bucket list staples, the Must Sees, the Wonders of the World and – more mundanely – the towns where the ferries dock, the cities where the buses stop; the stations at the ends of the lines. And there are the landscapes and townships and villages I pass through as I travel between them.

It is good to have an end to journey towards; but, yes, it is the journey that matters in the end.

(c) Richard Senior 2014

On the Shores of Lake Malawi

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There was a truckload of sacks clumsily piled next to the passport control office. One had split open, exposing its contents: a silvery mass of fish. The whole border post, inside and out, reeked like prahok, the sewagey fermented fish paste they dare you to eat in Cambodia. At the edge of the village just over the border was a sign which read, “Healthy People. Clean villages. Stop Open Defecation”. Just beyond that, a middle-aged man threw open the door of his hut and strolled down to the road, glancing at us without interest. He was completely naked.

Women worked in a network of paddy fields, bending to harvest the rice with babies strapped to their backs. They laid the rice at the side of the road to dry, and draped their washing over bushes or spread it out on the grass. A man wobbled along on a squeaky, creaky pushbike with a big sack sagging along the crossbar and over the seat so that he had to lean forward onto the handlebars. Harry Highpants, the money changer, struggled onto the bus, puffing and sweating. He was flashily dressed on the cheap with braces which looked as if they had been tightened with a winch. His suit pockets bulged with kwacha notes.

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We stopped for a night on the shore of the lake which dominates Malawi and I strolled along the narrow beach between banana palms and papaya trees, past dugout canoes made from fat logs hollowed out and shaped at each end. Villagers swarmed around me, wanting to know my name, where I was from, how long I was there, and where I had been before. One called himself Mr Sweet Talker, another said he was David Beckham; they all had something to sell.

I am Mr Cheap as Chips,” said the first of the vendors in the row of craft stalls which flanked the road to the campsite. A handwritten sign confirmed it.

Richard,” said the next vendor who overheard when I said my name to Mr Cheap as Chips. “Come look my stall”.

Richard!” the other vendors chorused, and advanced on me with bracelets and carvings. “Just two dollars, Richard”… “good quality”… “see, big five”…“how much you give me Richard?”

Err. Maybe I’ll come back later.

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We worked our way down the shore of the Calendar Lake, 365 miles by 52, paralleling Tanzania way over, out of sight, on the opposite bank, until it faded into Mozambique, and stopped at a campsite around halfway down. There was a long, wide beach bookended with mountains and, behind it, an open-sided bar, some hammocks, a pool table and exuberant bougainvillea.

Village fishermen dragged dugout canoes up onto the beach and hung their nets to dry. As the sun dimmed, the lake turned electric blue, and pinks and purples bled into the sky, and the villagers lit fires along the beach and grilled the fish they had caught that day in their dugout canoes and the smell wafted up towards me. Chambo: a tilapia unique to Lake Malawi.

(c) Richard Senior 2014