Roadtripping From Our Southern Shores to The Mighty Zambezi
On a fine Friday afternoon we were all packed and really excited to set off on our 5 day road trip from the southern tip of South Africa to the most northern border of Zimbabwe where our journey would end on the banks of the mighty Zambezi.
Our first stop would be Matjiesfontein. We arrived at the Lord Milner Hotel shortly before sunset and settled ourselves with a sundowner in the atmospheric bar, nicely cozy with a roaring fire in the grate. We were entertained by the honkey tonk tunes of the resident pianist, who has entertained guests for eons. Soon enough a group of musicians on their way to Prince Albert joined the fun and serenaded us with beautiful Irish folk songs. We enjoyed a lovely meal with other patrons in the dining room and returned to the bar for a nightcap before settling down for the night in the Honey Badger.
We’d hardly stripped when there was an insistent knock at the door, Security. Under no circumstances were we to sleep in their parking lot. No matter how persuasive Butch tried to be reasoning every which way he would have none of it and went off to speak to management. He returned with the duty manager in tow. We had two choices 1. We could stay in the hotel at no charge as guests of the hotel or 2. We had to move along. So we took our ball and moved. Just 500m back. We slept like babies and set off early next morning.
Keeping in mind that the Honey Badger is a huge 4x4 diesel truck we made good progress and if I can recall our average speed on the N1 was in the region of 90kmph which was good. I knitted, we listened to our Audible audio books and often dipped into our snack box and hydrated regularly. Our diesel consumption was excellent and compared favourably with the Land Cruiser. Regular stops to stretch and meet up with our traveling companions Chris and Marie made the journey very pleasant.
Our second night was spent camping just off the N1 south of Kimberley. If things could continue in this vein I’ll never complain about dodgy lodgings again. Camping was the way to go. After supporting the Springboks in the pub we had an early supper and read before dropping off to sleep in our divine bed. Witnessing an African sunrise is always pleasurable as we headed ever north to Beit Bridge. We could slip off our warm jackets, scarves and beanies as the sun flooded in and warmed us early in the day.
Driving through Kimberley's downtown is always disturbing as it's really gone seedy and the roads confusing, we even mistrust the GPS and often find ourselves making wrong turns.
Our third evening was spent at Klein Kariba, just north of Bela Bela. A very clean well run camp and we can recommend this spot to travelers. Monkeys, squirrels, some antelope and warthogs roamed freely giving us our first taste of "the bush". Avenues of large trees and shrubs grow abundantly in this very fertile climate.
The next day was a short trip to Tshpise, just south of the border. It was here that we witnessed our first ever CRIME SCENE, my beloved thought the ambulance, police vehicles, pathologists panel van were signs of a convention. But, he'd not seen the crime scene tape! We soon settled down and enjoyed the peace and quiet of this popular campground. I couldn't resist the shop always finding something I "need"!
We were eager to cross over into Zimbabwe as early as possible before the fully laden busses, trucks and mini taxis arrived. After a painless interlude at Customs and Immigrations we headed off very pleased we'd used the Zimbabwe Tourism's official who made the process so much easier. He could, in the local language, explain to the Motor vehicle licensing official that our vehicle was a motorised caravan and not a commercial delivery truck. We'd have endless discussions about this very thing at every toll gate, and there are many believe me!
We stopped to celebrate and enjoy lunch under the huge wild fig trees on the banks of the river at the Lion and Elephant. We enjoyed a surprisingly good hamburger at this once popular watering hole. I had a few words with the manager and his wife, they have been there since 1974, taking over from the owner who’d relocated, which enabled me to form a mental timeline. The décor, furnishings and architecture date back to the 60’s. Clocks stopped here ages ago, cement corridors are still brushed to a high gloss and the pungent smell of red floor polish lingers in the air.
The A18 “shortcut” we took to Gweru was a bit of a nightmare. Potholed, bumpy, dangerous and at times hardly a single track we had to grind our way forward swerving, zigzagging and bumping along. The only redeeming feature was that there were hardly any other vehicles on the road. Goats and cattle did roam freely but we were going at such a slow rate that we gave them plenty of time to cross over at their leisure. We arrived in Gweru tired, bone-weary and disgruntled.
I was dropping stitches so abandoned my knitting nor was I able to concentrate on our audiobook which gave me plenty of time to contemplate the state of affairs around me. The landscape was desolate, isolated, dotted with traditional grass and mud huts or the skeletons of brick and mortar homes. Settlements were scattered, small and desperately poor. Subsistence farming was the only form of agriculture with small herds of cattle, goats and brays of donkeys. All, free roaming. Here and there we noticed small children carrying plastic containers of water on their heads, their clothing threadbare and filthy. Regardless of their circumstances though they were friendly, laughing with an easy carefree banter between themselves. The dust, oppresive heat, leafless trees, bare earth and poverty gripped me as a black cloud of helplessness settled on me.
I found the situation depressing. There was a feeling of helpless, sluggish despondency all around, which is understandable under the circumstances. Almost every tree had an election poster stapled to it and election booths were gaily advertised. The election was long past and by all accounts nothing has changed nor will it. In fact the chances are good that the lot of Zimbabweans situation will only worsen. It is apocalyptic. One thing's for sure, should armageddon befall the West, Africa, especially countries like Zimbabwe will probably weather the storm far better than our pampered, educated, prosperous counterparts. Here life has already hit rock bottom and folk are just taking it like punch drunk boxers. Their subsistance farms will probably pull them through for a while. How their few cattle and goats will survive in the overgrazed pastures nature will have to see to when the rains come later.
Jacaranda trees in full bloom formed a canopy of mauve blossoms in Gweru where we spent a delightful evening with friends Trevor and Essie who spoilt us with a scrumptious braai and offered us a hot shower. Next day we did our last minute shopping at the local Pick ‘n Pay, a beautiful store with a wide variety of fresh vegetables and fruit and of course all the wonderful products we take for granted every day. We waved our hosts goodbye leaving them with a list of goodies to bring along when they joined us at Mana Pools. At Midlands Butchery we placed our order for biltong, droewors and steak. Their rump bones (the butcher’s choice) were delicious as a starter and I wonder who can supply us locally?
On a few occasions we stopped to buy fruit and vegetables from roadside sellers. The oranges were delicious and took me back to my childhood. Tough, thin skinned Navel oranges with a brutal squirt of oil as you bit into the skin to make a start to the peeling. I had to smile as the corners of my mouth burnt from the oils. The trees bearing these oranges must've been planted five decades ago. Potatoes and Sweet potatoes were huge old fashioned varieties too. They took a good scrubbing to rid them of the red earth clinging to them and then at least an hour and a half under red hot coals cooked them! They were organic all right.
Because we were spending four weeks at Mana Pools and would overstay our welcome in Zimbabwe, travelers only permitted to stay for 30 days, we had to have our passports checked and stamped at the nearest border post, which was Chirundu. We decided to camp on the banks of the Zambezi for 2 nights before heading into Mana Pools. Just as well. Zimbabwe had run out of fuel. Most small, rural fuel stations had no stock and were uncertain about replenishment. Queues stretching for kilometers of huge trucks patiently waiting for fuel or to make the border crossing into Zambia awaited us in Chirundu. News on the street was that the Zimbabwe Government had commissioned all the fuel and reserves for their election campaign. To restock they needed money, which they didn’t have. We took this news with a shrug and went off to our campsite where we’d contemplate our navels or go tiger fishing, whichever came first. Jecha Point Fishing Lodge was where we’d spend a night or two getting all our ducks in a row before entering Mana Pools for a full calendar month.
We had to have a day off after all the driving. Imagine elephant, hippos and antelope on the lawn. We went to bed with a hippo munching loudly and woke up to a huge bull elephant tugging at the acacia tree near our window. We were in the bush. The mighty Zambezi was sluggishly flowing east while early morning Tiger fishing boats were revving their small engines to take guests on fishing charters. The smell of two stroke fuel was pungent while we brewed our morning cuppa to enjoy in bed with the windows wide open. Our holiday was settling on us and we could feel nervous tensions leaving as our shoulders loosened and other cricks subsided.
Butch and I spent the day photographing, calling and identifying birds while getting accustomed to being in the wilds again. We could let our hair down. News regarding fuel wasn’t good and delivery date and time was uncertain.
Our mission was to get to the Customs official who would give us an extension on our stay. Confidently we marched into the customs building, up the stairs and asked for help from the chief executive officer. That took a while. He wasn’t particularly interested in our story and summoned his assistant executive officer who explained, very eloquently, that we could not have an extension right there and then. We were to return a month later, a day or two before our 30 days expired. That’s when we’d be issued with the extension. That certainly was a bitter pill to swallow as it was not the advice we were given at Beit Bridge. But suck it up we did.
We went Tiger fishing. Up and down the river we plowed in an attempt to get the big one on a hook. Sadly, the fish were shy and not interested in our lures and fresh bait. The cool breeze coming off the water as a spectacular sunset coloured the sky and water a rich rainbow of pinks and golds as we put-putted our way back to our campsite was welcoming. We were still acclimatising as the mercury rose.
Next day we’d join the queue and wait for the diesel to arrive. This was Africa after all and we do enjoy an adventure. While we waited for the diesel we decided to have lunch. We’d join other diners, mostly truckers, who were also waiting to fill up. I found lunch at a Take Away joint. On the menu were two choices, a rich tomato based fish stew or fried chicken. We opted for the chicken served with polenta (putupap). The portion was generous, the chicken fried to perfection and very reasonably priced. We washed our meal down with ice cold cokes and finished our meal off with a Cadbury’s Lunch Bar. With groaning tummies and full diesel tanks we made our way to Mana Pools. Upwards and onwards.