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The First Few Weeks

There are good days and bad days on the bike. Today had been a good day. Many of the tar roads through Africa, when crossing vast open areas and plateaus, make use of the shortest distance between two points, and are dead straight - which after a short while can become interminably boring. Initially the ride from Harare had been like this, but once on the Eastern Highlands side of Zimbabwe I had decided to take a longer, off the beaten path route via Chimanimani, close to the Mocambican border. This was the sort of road that made me think, I dearly hope that Jeremy Clarkson and his minions don't ever learn about this place. A dead-quiet road, other than the usual road-crossing wildlife, that tends to include, but is not limited to, donkeys, goats and their kids, dogs, humans and their children, pigs, snakes, chickens, horses, walking beetles, cows and their calves, donkeys and butterflies. A road that hugs the hillsides in a long series of switchbacks that helps reinvigorate the tired rider. The previous day I had been at Great Zimbabwe, the historical stone 'city' akin to Machu Pichu, that definitely exceeded my expectations, and is claimed to prove that sub-Saharan Africa had progressed far beyond the simplest form of hunter gatherers, prior to the European arrival, that is so often cited in any discussion on the subject with a 'traditionalist'. The direct influence from Middle Eastern traders could well be argued, but I'll simply keep clear of the topic for fear of upsetting more sensitive readers. Suffice to say, the site is of such note that the entire country was named after it in 1980, at the time of independence, when Southern Rhodesia didn't roll off the tongue so well any more.

The day had been happily augmented by several dips into a couple of lovely waterfalls at Chimanimani, claimed to be the highest waterfalls in Africa, which turned out to mean, if you add all the drops together. A claim I'd definitely heard at least once before and expected to hear several times more. Added to this joy was the fact that I'd negotiated a discounted entry fee, from the standard $25, to a more reasonable $6, since I was only popping in and out for an hour. This was a problem I'd come across a few times already in Zimbabwe - the quite exorbitant entrance fees to many of its parks and attractions, based on the idea that you'll be staying for the entire day, braaing, swimming etc, and then be staying the night too. For the fly-by-night, whistle-stop-tour, 27 countries in 10 days sort of traveller who just wants to nip in and see something on their way past, there doesn't seem to be any dispensation, and all these fees are set and controlled centrally by the Government. I'd sadly missed the opportunity a few days before of seeing the burial site of Cecil Rhodes, in a beautiful National Park close to Bulawayo. On arrival at the Park I was informed that I couldn't be allowed in, on the fact that I was on a motorcycle, and there were potentially dangerous animals within the Park. After a little negotiation, and a quick call to the boss, it was decided that, since I'd come all the way from Scotland, especially to see the gravestone of my National Hero, and that the park was closing in ten minutes, and the sun was close to setting, ensuring my visit would be extremely brief, I would be allowed to fulfil this lifetime ambition, for the insignificant fee of, as always, $25. I think they were genuinely surprised when I explained that this wasn't great value for money for my 20 minutes and that I`d just ride back to Bulawayo, unfulfilled, and maybe look at pictures on the internet one day instead. They called my bluff, and didn't just let me in for free anyway, and away I went with my tail between my legs (had I not explained to them already that I was Scottish?)

The day finished in Mutare where at Anne Burke's Backpackers I was informed that there were no rooms left and I`d have to camp in the small garden. I was planning on pitching my tent anyway and this just helped to make them feel sorry for me. It turned out, when I spoke to fellow travellers in the morning, that the rooms were roasting, and filled with mosquitoes, forcing that horrible choice between being eaten alive or sweating out half your body weight. I`d been on the road for two weeks at this point, having left Mtunzini in northern Kwa-Zulu Natal on the 9th March. My route had taken me via Vryheid to see my dentist and friends Hanco and Lida, and from there into Swaziland to see Marc, Sergio and Paula and Toby, good friends at Sundowners backpackers where I spent a happy month working in May last year, whilst resolving a visa issue. It was a magnificent ride up to Pigg's Peak and down to Barberton, half technical off-road and half nerve-tingling switch-backs, then to White River in Mpumulanga, almost on the boundary of Kruger Park, where I met up with one of my English language and culture students, Eudiet (pr. You-deet). She was kind enough to borrow her father's 4-litre veritable tank of a Landcruiser and we spent the next two days spotting everything you could hope for throughout the southern half of Kruger, including some high-speed military people carriers, brought in to try and reduce the horrific rise in horn and ivory poaching, although in this case we suspected that they might've just clocked off rather than be chasing down suspects. From there I went to Blyde River Canyon and caught up with Riesa, who'd been working on the Australian set of I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here. Blyde River Canyon has a series of geological attractions along its length, from towering granite columns to a heavy concentration of riverside potholes, and is without doubt a pretty stunning area. My day was made all the sweeter for finding a loophole in their 'carpark' fees, which saved me over 200 rand. Small victories! I was fairly rushed for time as I was trying to get to an exquisite sounding campsite hidden away on the other side of the canyon on the banks of the Blyde river, below Marianskop. After an arduous 30km of tough off-roading I found that the entrance gate, supposed to be manned until 5pm, had already been abandoned at 4. Fortunately some insider knowledge meant that I knew a spanner would assist me in removing the gate from its hinges, and half an hour later I was the sole camper at this exclusive site. My expectations were high, but the campsite was dilapidated, no running water, no rubbish bags in the bins, baboon-strewn litter everywhere, no working showers or toilets, knee high grass everywhere. But still, the setting was great and it was all mine and before long I had a roaring fire with plenty of wood, and I'd had a brief swim and wash in the river, not entirely sure if there were crocs in the vicinity or not (apparently not).

Next stop was up to Louis Trichard to see a cycling friend, Casper, from the TransAfrika, where I was especially well looked after by Casper and Sarah, at their beautiful family home. What was to be a single night stay turned into two after discovering that my smart phone had a burned out charging port, and a helpful Indian at a little tucked away repair shop managed to track down a replacement part. It's surprising how quickly you can become heavily dependent on these sorts of technology - I realised that as well as my main means of communication via WhatsApp and email, it's also my main means of research (internet) and navigation (Osmand Maps for Africa loaded onboard so I don't require data packages), not to mention an emergency call device. Louis Trichard was also an opportunity to stock up on anti-malarial prophylaxis (doxycycline) and do an oil change on the bike. Coincidentally, Sarah informed me that her grandfather was the first man to motorbike through Africa, travelling from South Africa to England on an old Royal Enfield (I saw the 1933 photograph to prove it), which seemed to me a most auspicious start to my travels.

I was then just an hour from the Zimbabwe border-crossing at Beit Bridge (where we'd started the TransAfrika back in September), and although I'd been warned of what a nightmare crossing it is, I persisted on a Saturday nevertheless. Five hours later I finally made it through into Zimbabwe proper! Because of this long delay I would have to ride at night for a few hours if I was to make it to Bulawayo, and since there was nothing to stop and see inbetween, I pushed on, although Sarah's warning about the number of motorcyclists killed by riding into cows at night was never far from my thoughts! Now, there are a lot of random police and customs and military check-points everywhere throughout Zimbabwe (come to think of it, it's been the same through Zambia and Malawi so far also). Pretty much before and after every town. Amazingly, apart from one overly officious policewoman demanding paperwork from me on my first night, I was by and large left alone. The few times I have been stopped has been purely to break the tedium and boredom of the Officer's day, and so I don't begrudge them a little conversation and banter on those occasions. In fact recently when riding in Malawi from the old capital, Zomba, to Monkey Bay on the southern edge of Lake Malawi, a young police officer rushed to greet me at the police stop boom-gate to shake my hand enthusiastically, ask me where I was going, warmly welcome me to the local area and wished me a very safe and very enjoyable onward journey, all the while with a beaming smile on his face. This kept me smiling for the next half an hour and conceding that a similar experience was fairly unlikely for a foreign visitor to British soil. Bulawayo is a fairly small, but very pleasant, wide avenued city full of colonial era architecture and streets you could turn an ox-cart in. It was from Bulawayo that I headed for Great Zimbabwe.

I'd been warned not to expect too much from Harare, and even the hostel receptionist who was born and raised there couldn't think of anything distinguishing that I ought to see whilst passing through - no architecture or fountain or sculpture that every trigger happy tourist need have a photo of.

The day I left Harare was a fine example of a bad day on the bike. I'd been experiencing starting and firing problems with the bike since in Zimbabwe, similar to an experience I'd had before and so I put it down to dirty fuel causing problems in the carbureta. As these had been getting progressively worse, despite my every effort to undo the blockage without necessitating the complete removal and stripping of the carb, I was headed to Honda Harare to seek some assistance, or alternative (from an actual qualified mechanic) prognosis. Whilst en-route I could feel that my rear tyre was rapidly deflating. It's a funny thing, the connection between the rider and the bike - you spend so much time in such an intimate relationship with this machine, that an almost 6th sense-like bond starts to form, where the slightest out-of-norm behaviour in the bike is immediately picked up. OK, sure, noticing you've got a flat rear tyre isn't a fine example of this phenomenon, but there are others to come! The flat was my first on this trip and more than a little exasperating given the lengths and expenses I had been to to reduce such a likelihood. I had a brand new German imported rear tyre, recommended by a long history of overlanding gurus, with the potential to easily do over 30,000 km, on top of a new tube filled with the best tube sealant known to British military Landrover drivers. Clearly this was the work the metal-litter strewn Harare roads, or perhaps a vengeful cuckolded husband in the middle of the night. (only joking parents and GF!) So, on I crept, slowly, trying to ensure the integrity of my tyre, tube and rim, only to discover at Honda that the tube was screwed and spilling out green sealant, and the tyre wasn't looking too happy about everything either. Any concerns about the carb were long forgotten by this point, and the more important issue of ensuring that my $200 tyre with barely a mm lost on its rubber could still be used. Some of the metal wiring around the lip of the tyre had become exposed and damaged, but a quick repair was carried out and a new tube put in place as the bike was put back together. Together we decided that I should begin gingerly, and gradually build the speed on the highway and if all was well after, say, 100 km's, then all should remain well. 100 km's later and all was, indeed, well. I had a long two days ahead of me to get to Vic Falls in the far northwest of the country, in time to meet Eudiet for some watersports. On the Zambezi.

Close to 200 km's later all abruptly stopped being well. I had just overtaken two of the ever-present haulage and oil-carrying trucks on this main road to Bulawayo when my rear tyre blew out at 100 km/h. This was a first for me. The rear of the bike immediately started moving around to the right-hand side as it essentially locked-up, and I was pretty sure my goose was cooked, if not in an end-of-this-mortal-coil way, at least in a, you're gonna-be-pretty-fuc*ed-up-before-this-ends kind of way. Through more luck than judgment and use of the front brake I managed to keep the bike upright, and heading towards the left-side hard-shoulder, with the knowledge that I was rapidly decelerating to 50 km/h with two trucks only metres behind me. The final battle was to ensure the direction I was being carried in didn`t have me dropping off the small, but still serious drop off the left side of the hard-shoulder. When all was said and done, and the adrenaline had worn off a little, I examined the damage and long skid-mark marking my path. From the wrecked look of the rear tyre it was time for another new one, and obviously the tube too, but otherwise relatively unscathed. Perhaps calling it a bad day is the wrong way to look at it. A couple of medium-sized towns lay equidistant infront and behind me, and after assessing my options, I stuck out my thumb. Hoping for a truck or buckie I could maneuver the bike into the back of, I wasn't too optimistic of the first kind samaritan who pulled over in a small saloon: little did I know what a guardian angel he would turn out to be. Given was a local young Zimbabwean who ran a small borehole drilling company, and he'd assumed that I'd fallen foul of poor petrol management, something he later joked was more of a local driver issue, as opposed to the more careful-planned foreign adventurer. Again luck was on my side as Given was heading up the road to drop off some cash to a client and was heading all the way back to Harare. On his suggestion I left the bike plus all my luggage (I'll go into more detail about that in a little while) at a conveniently close radar mast, that also boasted a 24hr security guard, who for a few dollars was more than happy to vouchsafe my wordly possessions. Under the assumption that I was heading nowhere without a new 17" rear tyre, and both local towns turning up empty in that regard, we headed all the way back to Harare. Given was a naturally optimistic guy, convinced that despite the already late afternoon hour, I would be continuing my journey again that same day. Throughout the journey to Harare he was texting and phoning, and stopping briefly to buy more cell-phone credit, his friends and colleagues ahead of us who might ensure that we arrive at a shop before 5pm that definitely stocked the correct sized tyre. To cut a long story short, by dusk, several hundred dollars lighter, I was on my way back to the bike with a more than adequate new Michellin tyre, still in the company of Given. Naturally, I had reimbursed all of his fuel and cell-phone expenses, but I could never have covered his time and truly generous nature, which he had gladly given up for me. In the many hours of driving through Zimbabwe together I had also discovered in him a sharp intellect and a huge source of information on modern day life and politics in the country my press had painted a very different picture of. His breadth of knowledge extended to bringing up the recent Scottish independence general-election. Having picked up one of his colleagues on our return journey, the three of us got about replacing the tyre and tube and an hour later, much to my surprise, Given’s prediction was seen out. My little, mini-electric compressor had struggled to get the tyre sitting entirely on the rim bead and so we travelled in convoy to the next town where a man-sized compressor was able to put things right.

By eleven I’d even managed to get another 150 km under my belt and having filled up on a $4 chicken and chips special set about finding a place to camp. The one campsite in this town was either closed or everyone including security was fast asleep so I started looking for a house with a front garden and with lights on, whom I might be able to approach regarding erecting my tent in their garden. I know full well that some of you with a filthy mind will have sniggered at that sentence. Having failed in that attempt I started cruising the non-residential areas of town for any patch of grass tucked away behind trees or bushes, and happily stumbled upon the gardens of a municipal building, with no apparent security presence. Well past midnight by this point, and after 20 minutes of having my head down, on the verge of sleep, the bright beam of car headlights, various other torches, and numerous people talking excitedly reawakened me. They disappeared, and returned ten minutes later only this time it turned out noticing my tent as well as just my motorcycle. I was commanded to come out and talk to them, and I made every attempt to be friendly and jovial and explain that I had been terribly delayed during the day, the campsite was closed, needed to get my head down for a few hours, and would be off at first light. I believe they had thought the motorcycle was an abandoned joyride and they mentioned something about having informed the police. However, with all the charm I could muster at that point I did get away with leaving all my details within a sign-in book and once again I had my head down. Twenty minutes later, on the verge of sleep once more, bright headlights and loud voices reawakened me. Again, commanded to come out, this time by a significantly more authoritarian voice, I discovered that with no thefts, muggings, beatings, rapes or any other crimes of note that lively Saturday night, the police force had actually decided to turn up and investigate my outrageous crime. The long and the short of it was that I wouldn’t be left in peace as I would apparently cause fear in the shaky-knee’d local population that I was robber or bandit of some description. The original book-sign-in-group had also returned to enjoy the spectacle (well, it’s gotta be more interesting than the local ZTV, eh? Does `Bob make Christmas speeches and that sort of thing for his people?) No amount of reasoning worked and so the entire group of 13 or so stood around and watched as I packed away my mattress, sleeping bag, pillow, silk-liner, flysheet, ground sheet, pegs and pole over the next 15 minutes, I hoped in some discomfort but this is probably optimistic. From there we went in convoy to the police station, where I’d been told I would be able to reverse the previous process and finally, after 3am, get some sleep. My words from the previous night were my undoing in the morning, as the constabulary indeed came to rouse me at first light (well, 6am), and off I headed into a very good day! That’s the way these things work I suppose.

Posted by igotlostagain 12:48 Archived in Zimbabwe

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