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A few thoughts on Zimbabwe…

Zimbabwe is a country that is hurting and is hurt by its circumstances. It is a country full of contradictions and full of ingenuity borne out of necessity and desperation. It is a country of survival. It is a country that reminds one of historic Russia during the revolution in the early 20th Century. The cost of life was traded for an ideal that didn’t work and was undermined by human nature. I am told that: “Socialism (African Socialism) is at the heart of this “thing” that Zimbabwe is trying to create” but, like communism and other –isms that failed to deliver on their theoretical benefits, it is undermined by greed, vanity and egotism.

In my opinion it is about an African managed system, controlled, owned and benefiting Africans, free of Western or European influence or control. This concept is flawed when the fundamentals of a system are not in place to sustain such a take-over or intended implementation.

And so the land is redistributed and nothing is produced, and industry is regulated and the manufacturing and retail sectors slow down to snails pace. Then finally Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” becomes visible and market dynamics shift and slide and you have what is termed: “the Parallel market”. This is Zimbabwe, a market within or below or out of sight of the regulated environment that is the truth and the reality that is lived by the people on the ground. The people who are most affected by willy-nilly attempts to remain in power and to control what is inevitably not a beast that can be controlled but a beast that should be managed with shrewd and forward-thinking decision-makers.

Armed with some Dutch courage and now a fairly healthy set of legs I left Francistown on Thursday, 12 July 2007 and headed off into uncertainty and adventure.

Day 13 – Francistown to Plumtree (Zimbabwe)

Before reaching Francistown I had lost a small Allen key screw and bracket that kept the tension spring in place on my pedal! This had led to about 100km of frustration, so I spent the rest of the day searching for an equivalent in Francistown. To no avail, of course, and I was haplessly left with a nut and bolt solution. Nuts and bolts are great when they work but this just wasn’t working and I resigned myself to severe irritation until I could get a replacement screw at my next rest stop!

What a lovely day – warm – 24 degrees Celsius, very little wind and a new adventure. Off I went after a few photos with the Metcourt Lodge management and staff. Soon I encountered some problems with the bike again. The gear changes weren’t as smooth and I was struggling to change down.

A quick makeshift roadside bike repair shop was set up and I went to work realigning my gears. After about 45 minutes, I finally realised that the gear cable had loosened through use and all I had to do was tighten it and it should have been fine! “My baby, she works just fine, OK!” This is an example of riding a bike in.

At a town called Tshesebe about 60kms out of Francistown, I took some photos of the border police who have their barracks in this town. They were impressed that I cycled from Johannesburg and wanted to be a part of the journey. First picture I said “OK, cheese.” They all smiled and I was about to go when their sergeant arrived and said, “An officer never smiles in a picture.” I thought fair enough, “Another one gentlemen, this time without the cheese!”

The border between Francistown and Bulawayo is a place called “Ramokgwebane” on the Botswana side and “Plumtree” on the Zimbabwe side. It is about 100km from Francistown and it has the busiest and smallest petrol station in the world. With all the fuel shortages in Zimbabwe, there are queues to fill up over the border and this Engen is the only petrol station near enough to the border! Bakkies, Trucks, Taxis and 4x4’s are filled with Jerry cans and containers to load up fuel. Now this would be the kind of petrol station to invest in… hmmm (note to self!)

If you do not get to this border post before 12 noon, you will be faced with a queue that can hold you up for at least 3 hours. I was lucky and only waited in the queue for about 1 and a half hours but it could’ve been longer. A border policeman who had seen me on the road after Gaborone called me over and led me to the front of the queue!

Between the Botswana border post and the Zimbabwe border post is a stretch of “No Man’s Land” that spans about 2 kms and being on a bike I noticed that the “Welcome to Zimbabwe” sign, which was ominously placed behind a web of barbed wire was spelt incorrectly! Zimbabwe was spelt Zimbambwe! Highly amused I proceeded to what is a very complicated border system.

If you have a car and enter Zimbabwe, you need a ‘TIP’, a Temporary Import Permit. They don’t tell you this but you must declare all the valuables you are carrying as well. This is mainly for the police stops who will try to free you of any currency you have. You then need to pay a carbon tax for the engine size of your vehicle. If you are carrying fuel, they will charge you a fuel levy. In my situation I had a bike and there was no protocol for a bike so they waved me through. But as I was about to go through, some smart Alec decided to check my bags and he noted: iPod, cellphone, camera, dictaphone and satellite phone. This was way too suspicipous and I was sent back to the customs office to declare my intentions as I looked too geared up to be just a tourist. By the way, if you’re a journalist in Zimbabwe you have to get a permit to travel there (for any reason!).

Four hours later, and using a slow internet connection, it took 15 minutes for the front page of this website to open, I managed to convince the powers that be that I am not a journalist and am trying to raise money for charity! I paid a few Zim Dollars, 300,000 to be exact, and off I went. By now it was dark and I had run out of batteries on my bike lights.

This was to be my most terrifying, courageous, fateful 10km ride ever. In the dark and with no moonlight to speak of, I rode to Plumtree. It could be defined as crawling as I used the sound of my tires on the road, or not on the road, to guide me in the right direction. When a car approached and illuminated the road I spun that thing like there was no tomorrow trying to get as much distance as possible in the light.

At one stage a cow was grazing on the side of the road which I almost road into - I fell off the bike and was lucky to be riding at only 5 - 10 km/hr!

Eventually I made it to a lodge called “Omadu” just short of Plumtree and was overjoyed to find lights. Only to have my joy ripped out of my belly when they told me that I had to pay 300 Botwana Pula (about 390 South African Rand) or 100 US dollars! I couldn’t afford this nor was I carrying that amount of Pula or US Dollars. I begged, cajoled, bribed, wangled and finally argued the case for price cuts. The owner agreed that he was losing business and cut all his prices by half.

When I got into my room, I could see why. It was dirty and the amenities were totally substandard. This room shouldn’t have been worth 150 South African Rand! It wouldn’t have featured on the Star grading system! Can you offer a negative Star? But, I shouldn’t complain - I had a roof over my head, a few blankets and the chance to eat eggs and toast in the morning.

Day 14 – Plumtree to Bulawayo

A forgettable night over and with the prospect of entering one of the two major cities in Zimbabwe ahead of me, I set out for Bulawayo. 10km out of Plumtree and 98km from Bulawayo I reached my 1,000km mark and celebrated… by myself.

Headwinds are a thing you are going to hear a lot about. They are unpleasant, they are difficult to cycle in because they are not consistent and for every 20 / 30 km/hr headwind you experience you are cycling 10 - 15 km/hr harder!

6 hours later, I crawled into Bulawayo, happy to be in the comfort of the Bulawayo City Lodge (not to be confused with the City Lodge group of hotels). This was solid accommodation with lovely large rooms and basic facilities and a charitable owner and host, Deepak Panditji, who was doing his best to promote an NGO and faith system called The Art of Life.

That evening, I ate like a King in another man’s castle. My friend Mike Jansen’s parents live in Bulawayo, and Peter Jansen and his wife opened up their home and served me a beef curry and rice that I ravenously consumed like an industrial hoover (3 helpings and 2 desserts!).

Day 15 –  Bulawayo to Camp stop before Lupane

What was meant to be a rest day was dropped for a day on the road and perhaps an extra day at Vic Falls? I left thinking that this was a wise move and my legs had enough to carry me another 440km. What I have learnt is that what you see on a map and what you do on a bicycle are two different experiences. The distances are measured to a certain point in a town or city or the outskirts, usually the outskirts.

What an awesome day! Father sun was fighting with some brattish crosswinds but it was an amiable tussle and eventually father sun won out and the little curds disappeared with their cousin clouds. I ambled along at a pedestrian pace and pushed through some light hills to find a lovely stretch of straight road lined on either side with trees. I was to find out that this tree lined road was actually the Mbembesi forest area.

Just after the 100km mark I met two extraordinary individuals, Ross and Christine Hopkins, who had been cycling for 6 months and were on their last 3 weeks to Pretoria from where they would catch a plane back to Melbourne, Australia, and perhaps to their old jobs as teachers at a posh private girl’s high school. Having chatted for about 10 minutes we decided to camp together for the night.

Their sense of adventure and keenness to explore was fascinating and I could see how they were married at such a young age. They were only 28 and 27 and had already been married for 5 years! But hand and glove they were and I witnessed great teamwork as they prepared their campsite. I watched as they had developed a sense of ease around this activity and quietly and professionally they went about their work.

Their site can be found on www.biking4bikes.com.au . They have cycled all the way from Addis Ababa and travelled down through Ethiopia into Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Botswana, South Africa, Namibia, back into Zambia and south down to South Africa again – this time through Zimbabwe! “Wow” was all I could say, and I felt a lot better that my chances of success were higher than I originally thought. It is however obvious that travelling alone has its downfalls as I was to discover. In addition to this, their gear was so well arranged that I could only look on in envy as they made themselves at home with cowbells and the forests of Mbembesi.

“To Christine and Ross, I hope you fare well and safely and enjoy the rest of your journey, thank you for the company and for teaching me the way of the bike tourist.” From Thabang San

Day 16 –  Camp stop before Lupane to Halfway House

It was another great day but a long stretch that was hot and heavy work as I started to get fatigued.

I met Father Joseph Anthony ‘spinning’ along about 20km from Halfway House. He was a monk of the Franciscan order and rode to and from Mass on his very tattered old “Genuine” Raleigh knock-off called… Raleibike! He brought new meaning to spinning as he hopped and bopped on the lightest gear and broke sweat in the afternoon heat!

After an initial dismissal of my mission, we hit agreement and started to share our drives and ambitions. To explain, his rather rude dismissal was a suggestion that raising money was easy and he could teach me how, but I should give up right now and turn around as I was wasting my life doing a foolish thing.

This suggestion was upsetting as I was struggling and didn’t need to be told how foolish I was! I brazenly suggested that he was the type of person who didn’t listen to anyone else but himself and that maybe there were other ways to do things, which immediately caused him to sit back and listen.

We got on well after that and he offered to help me out of his very poor mission called the Fatima Mission. I flatly refused and responded that it was actually us who should be trying to help him. He is a particularly eccentric priest and claimed to not only cure HIV/AIDS but prevent it through his treatment methods. As someone who feels particularly strongly about this issue it was a struggle to keep my mouth shut. However, how do you complain when a 60 plus old man is trying to help a poor rural community on the back of his faith (and in his words “good, strong bowel movement!”).

Halfway House was a very interesting place but isn’t anything much except that it’s almost exactly halfway between Bulawayo and Victoria Falls. But I got quite a bit of resistance from the management when it came to negotiating a stay price. Actually they had three different prices: Rands, US Dollars and Zim Dollars. In Zim Dollars it was half the stay price of Rands, and the Rand rate was almost half of the price in US Dollars!

I managed to find someone who could help me out, bought some South African Rands and paid for the night. This was to be a fateful night as I met Langton, Vasco and friends who had such divergent views of the Zimbabwean crisis I felt privileged to be able to witness this grassroots disagreement.

Day 17 – Halfway House to Hwange

The next morning I awoke early and, hoping to kick off the day before the mid-afternoon heat, I was packed and ready to go when I met ‘the Belgians and Abel’! They are a great bunch of guys; a father and his two sons on their annual holiday with their Zimbabwean friend Abel. We chatted for a while and by the time I left it was well into the morning.

I was just past Gwayi River when I met up with them again. They gave me some oranges and went on their way to Namibia via the Caprivi Strip (sounded like an awesome trip). I hope they make contact with us as they offered some help from Belgium.

Soon after that my rear wheel started to get flat and I realised I was the victim of a slow puncture. This would be an interesting tube change as the tubes I had packed had the smaller American valve and I was using the usual car valve tubes. So I worked out where the offending puncture was, repaired it and was back on the road again.

By this time the heat of the day had risen substantially and I was to suffer from exposure as I trudged through this section of the journey. The Australian couple, Ross and Christine, had warned me that it would be hilly. I do think it was worse for them than it was for me. But I struggled, and already two-toned at the mid-thigh I certainly went a shade or two darker in the harsh sun!

I was fortunate as my new friend at Halfway House (namely Langton Masunda) offered to pay for my accommodation at The Baobab Hotel in Hwange. It is a recommended place to stay if Hwange is one of your stops, and it surpassed the rather dismal accommodation I had received till now. It also beat the campsite I was going to set up just beyond the town.

Day 18 – Hwange to Vic Falls

I left Hwange with anticipation of great things in Vic Falls, and so it was. 30 km into the trip I met with severe fatigue - my legs would not spin one more time and I panicked. After I calmed down I decided to take a nap in a field and was awoken about 2 hours later by the gnawing of a donkey near my head.

Refreshed and full of grass barbs, I attacked the last 80km with bravado but little strength and 3 hours later was only 40 km on. I thought that if one nap worked another would be just as promising and I lay my head down in a grassy knowl under a tree. This time my alarm clock was the ewe collecting her flock, or so I thought. It turned out the goat herder was interested in what I looked like and moved closer to me, which in turn led the flock ever closer.

Well, this wolf in cycling shorts was now ready to take on the next 40km. It was slow going and so hot that I was completely drained by the end of it. It’s amazing how small statements people make can have such a profound effect on one’s psyche. Abel, with the Belgians, had said the last 30km into Vic Falls was all downhill but there were a couple of hills that suggested Abel had never cycled to Vic Falls before.

Nonetheless, I reached Vic Falls and after storing my bike set out to explore the streets.  I was soon surrounded by street marketers making a buck trying to sell this or change that,  and I walked straight into the oldest trick in the book. In my over eagerness to conclude the deal and without thinking about the consequences I was mugged!

I was taken around a corner to change 20 US Dollars of a 100 US Dollar note and was then cornered by three, then four, then five, young men all screaming and shouting like they were having a fight. Before I knew it (while raging at each other and threatening to kill each other) they had left me with a fake 100 Dollar note! When I called after them they then threatened to do me bodily harm and I beat a hasty retreat. Thus, parted from my only means of funding, I was forced to rue the wisdom of my decision-making and people assessment skills.

However, it wasn’t for naught as I met Brad Pohl who had seen me on the road and offered to introduce me to a friend who would be interested in helping us out! So I went to sleep knowing I was poorer materially but wealthier both emotionally and spiritually.


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