Zimbabwe 2014: The Great North Road
by Pauline Alexander, photos by Rory Alexander
It’s so interesting to ponder just what things signify ‘home’ – an incandescent sabi star, a group of kudu staring you down through a veil of thicket, recognising that impala are indeed different from springbok or Mr Chameleon pointing us North.
Dawn overlooking the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo rivers makes your heart leap. The Shashe’s sands are markedly pink and the Limpopo is indeed green and greasy and set about with fever trees. Tales of gold from across the river on the mount of Mapungubwe turn our thoughts to our own majestic place of stones and wonder at their place in that early trade with the East.
Plus ca change, plus la meme at Beitbridge, but not even an encounter with state ‘crime’ can stop our hearts from lifting as we gaze out at the landscape of dwalas and trees, the bare swept earth around the huts and the anticipation and activity of the many bus stops. The one big difference is that it is now, indubitably, the Great North Road. Not ‘great’ in the sense of wide and worthy, but ‘great’ in the visibly increased tide of trucks, many with excess loads and destined for the mines to the North. We begin to understand why the road is breaking up in a way that other roads like those near Birchenough Bridge are not.
It’s been an exceptional rainy season. The grass is tall and the tomatoes sold along the road are richly red and in abundance. There seem much fewer cattle in the Midlands, and it takes imagination to re-construct the shape of the fairways at Harare South. A sign of the times is tobacco baling and twine on offer at one of the many spaza stalls near the ‘new’ tobacco floors, and then we are in the 5 o’clock traffic, checking out the price of pork at Colcom and amazed at the variety of unfamiliar cars and SUVs.
The sun is setting over Royal Harare as we drive in to Alex Park. The car somehow finds its way down Albany Rd and then it is, as always, time for tea at the Tansers, followed by sundowners when the Osterbergs drive in. Next morning, I walk with my old friend Della, and we pop in on Crystal; they both buy tomatoes and rape from the Bradford’s old gardener next door, everything in 1$ denominations. Lunchtime at the Cawoods brings the usual store of stories from Pete, but now also fishing tips (for example,drop a cattle block, and go back the next day) and of a new Kariba weed, the Australian freshwater crayfish, that it is threatening the kapenta industry.
A 6am rise and back on to the great North Road; it is still raining (and the Swedes aren’t convinced when we say this is unseasonal) and that makes the truck traffic even more hair-raising than south of Harare. Another sign of the times is JG SMSing ahead to the worm dealers outside Banket, and the padkos stop is now at Twin Rivers near Karoi.
It feels so good to turn off on to the Kariba road, leaving Police blocks behind, and to look out on the familiar landscape as the rain clears. The grass is indeed as high as an elephant’s eye and the only game we see are two, almost tame, zebras at the turnoff to one of the townships. A new process is offloading all the katundu at the slipway and on to the motor boats but I need a walk and take the Swedes and Diana along the banks to the Kalai. It was wonderfully familiar to be back on the boat, and to have the Matusadona about to come up on the skyline.
And so the pattern goes – Ellie Point, Gubu, Shenga and Gordon’s Bay. ‘Well done Ben’ for wonderful meals, WDDaniel for fishing and debates; WDTawanda for biltong and snacks. A new experience is setting off at dawn with Daniel at the helm and my pleasure at observing Rory revel in the window of 30 minutes or so of perfect light. We enjoy the fervour in Taras’s voice after our swim; ‘I’ve always wanted to say that I have swum in the mighty Zambezi!’ We don’t enjoy the scourge of blister beetles, a relatively common nuisance factor nowadays we hear.
Back in Harare, the men play a four ball and I walk back to Alex Park along the fence line remembering games with Libby when we had that year of Tuesday ladies’ golf and the many family four balls. There seem to be more impala on the course and the Botanical Gardens look in good shape; I find my eyes fill with tears as I pass under the msasas and notice the pods atop the mnondos.
Wednesday is farmers’ market around the corner in Alex Park and the chance to catch up with lots of people; we bump in to David Wheeler, Ali Manolios and Rita Leyenaar and admire Dido’s cut flowers. Cousin Ann comments that all that the [Victorian] tea in the garden lacks is a string quartet, served as it is at tables with white damask cloths and fresh flowers! Diana is delighted to find cashew nuts and cheese galore as well as other delights. Lynney takes us to Billy’s meats in Mt Pleasant and to the TM that replaces Spar and that now has Pick n Pay brands – I can only find seven Heinz tins of fruit for a friend in Cape Town, the rest are South African brands.
Doone Estate is even better, and bigger than it was, and a salad lunch delicious, if pricey. Sad to see that Chapungu Kraal is no longer but access to the sculptors is across from Doone and Bruce and I, and the Swedes, are humbled by so many striking pieces. I’m educated that they carve not in soapstone (breaks too easily) but iron stone (?), a lovely olive-green colour and the black too.
The road to Nyanga is good and if you flew in to Harare and drove to Troutbeck, it would be as if nothing has changed other than the lack of crops and cattle. Halfway House yields delicious little naartjies and Ann gets to buy tomatoes. The acacia abysinnia at Geoff Cox give way to those startling vistas of dome-shaped hills, black and then grey-blue to the far horizon. We stop for Taras to take photographs and promise ourselves to return for the spring colours of the dwarf msasas on the approach Pine Tree Inn.
In the Nyakupinga valley, there is a wonderful new walk on the lower slopes of Baldie (now infested with pines after several fires and not ‘bald’). Tim is a wonderful guide to the various stone ruins (always around a Broom (cabbage?) tree) and a discovery for me is the first fern, or indigenous fern, that looks much like the spirogyra of school biology. Ann recognises Johannes Ort and we marvel anew at the ancient tree ferns or chasenga.
Pungwe View is almost impassable but the vistas are worth the bone-shaking ruts. We remember our many swims down to the weir at the Pungwe and days spent above the Falls (that gaboon viper not far from where baby Karin had napped). We walk behind Bilston to the upper waterfall (mica and moss) but it is very slippery and we are saddened by trees being cut down with little regard to the environment. We also drive along the road to the ‘midden of France’ region and walk along the forestry roads; the several gold and russet leafed trees give it a look of northern autumns. Baboons in the tree add a frisson for the Swedes, as do stories of leopard sightings, and occasional small herds of cattle herded by women remind you of farm workers left to their own devices.
We join the Tansers for the opening of the Don Granger Reading Room by Inez herself at Rhodes Nyanga.The Rhodes Museum has been extended by a committee headed up by a Petherum daughter (her father brought in the first trout by train from the Cape), and the hotel looks in good shape as does the national park with impressive Zimbabweans at the helms. I wished for more visitors to reward their efforts, as we did at Matopos and Hwange too.
We then peel off along the Mutare Road and have the Pungwe water pipe visual a couple of times. As we turn south, the rain leaves us and the views along this road less travelled are stunning; the Chimanimani range runs like an extended Table Mt on our left. We almost miss the infamous diamond fields on our right – a smallish shade cloth fenced-off area and no locals tout their wares along the way.
Birchenough bridge is a spectacular sight with the Save is in full spate. I notice that the Baobabs are part ring-barked and then we see the characteristic mats set out for sale. There is almost one school per 10 kms in that Nyika province and it brings to mind the school report card of the Bilston worker’s daughter where in perfect script days absent, subject marks and comments are recorded.
We tease Bruce for his Matabele pride when the huge mine dump at Zvishivanhe reminds him that it is the biggest asbestos mine in the world! Bulawayo is a surprise. Bruce misses the cut across to the Matopos road via Moffat Ave replaced by new side roads and in fact the suburbs seem better kept than Harare. We laugh at the poster of the local Eye Clinic that also offers male circumcision.
Apart from a small herd of cows that disconcert us, everything in the Matopos is just the same, just pitiably empty (mid week but also school holidays). We take our tea out on to the verandah of Fish Eagle lodge and drink in the air as we look out at that river of rocks, listen to the baboons and spot a juvenile black eagle in a nearby tree. The walk down to Maleme dam is past a new lodge (Rhino) and the lodge across the dam wall we saw being built in 2001 is up and running.
We leave at crack of dawn through early morning mists to be at the game park gate at 6 and get our first taste of why we definitely needed our Terios! I am amazed at the two wonderfully-sited stone platforms. We see three rhino close to the road and startle a male warthog and his family of four crossing the road. There are kudu with young in the bush and several sightings of giraffe with one memorable group in a mopane patch juxtaposed with a herd of zebras.
World’s View is amazing, again, and we ponder on the history and wonder where the remains of Mzilikazi lie. Bruce and Rory walk back from the rock paintings (spoiled in the 1930s by an enthusiast trying to ‘preserve’ them) over the rocks, and Rory stays on to catch the sunset. I read with my back against the warmth of a huge granite boulder and feel the privilege of being in this incredible, unspoilt, landscape.
30th April and we’re heading to Hwange via Hillside shops for fresh fruit and veg and Stanbic for pula, both pleasant experiences and the latter including the familiar wide streets, York House and the imposing High Court. Bruce’s toes curl as the teak forests of the Gwaai river come in to view; we can’t see the devastation of forests that people had talked of, and we do see one sign to a Chinese logging camp. We notice very few school signs.
Miombo (mixed woodland) is 25 mins from the Hwange gate. Our fellow guests are being driven by Eurocar’s Simon from whom we learn that people in the Hwange-Vic falls tourist area feel that things are on the up. We learn too that the Police, who are polite to us as visitors, are little better than ‘thieves’ to the locals; if they can find nothing wrong, they might just use their baton to damage your windscreen and with no receipts for the fine, you can pay four of five times over before you get to Bulawayo and have to fit the bill to repair the glass.
Game is not as plentiful as we remember it. We make a mental note of Ngweshla Dam and picnic site (and Kennedy I) which is where we see a great beast of a lion panting after taking down a kudu’ We do see elephant, zebra, giraffe, kudu, impala (prettier and bigger than springbok we notice), black-backed jackals, spotted hyena, water buck and a steenbok. We also see the Senegal cougal, red-billed teal, a bataleur, saddle-billed storks, ground hornbills, vultures (30 white backs circling) and we learn about the iron woods (black hard wood), how to identify wild basil and that the devil thorn leaves make a respectable soap.
Main camp, like all the other camps, is spotless and curiously appointed – egg cups but missing light bulbs and drawers with suspect bottoms. The shop had fresh white bread and the menu boasted Russian sausages; you could buy JC le Roux to wash it all down. No fuel though, but there was at Dete. No maps either, so it was good that Rory could take a pic with his phone, and arriving at Nyamdhlovu Platform was always something of a hit and miss route. A delight was hearing the daddy buffalo call his herd (and zebra) to order.
The drive to Sinamatella was long, and in parts, very bone-crunching; at the various pans and dams, we met up with two sets of fellow travellers, Zimbabweans like us but out of Canada and an intrepid dutch couple. We delight in a plover’s nest and egg at our tea site, we lunch at Shumba hide with hippo, open-bill storks, spoonbill and a grey heron catching a fish, and we decide that Mandavu Dam is a camp site for our next trip – it’s log book spoke of 28 lion a couple of days before.
Sinamatella’s view over the plains was as good as we remember it but the game drives were slow on shocking roads and although we saw a herd of 70 buffalo from the top and were amongst about 40 elephant, there were not the herds of game we had promised Rory. Sundowners brought owl spotting and good conversation with the Zim-Canadians.
Opening the windows of the chalets was to experience a plague of stink bugs (remarked on in the Hwange newsletter when we got back to CT) and a first was copious hot water and nothing in the cold tap as the camp was awaiting diesel for the pumps. The drive to Hwange for fuel was interesting. There was the unexpected Vermont-like feel of about a quarter of the trees in gold colours against the black rocks of the kopjes – and then you were suddenly, undisputedly, in coal territory with black dust and huge trucks, the distinctive colliery smell and fires on the dumps.
Robin’s camp was more of the same – not much game, horrendous roads, grass above the roof rack, and us the only people in the camp other than two groups in the camp site. The Swiss couple confirm that Big Tom is Little Tom on their GPS(the sign is broken and on the ground so it was anyone’s guess as to which arrow was what) . Detema dam on the road to Robin’s camp was by contrast well kept and we meet a young family and learn that fuel does come through the pipeline (and there is a (sensible) Govt tax on road oil tankers) but also that they are home-schooling as private school fees are now prohibitive.
We leave our marula tree, the owl in the branches outside our lodge, and set off early to get to Panamatenga for an 8am border crossing. At the gate we finally see two sable, and bid farewell to the pair of hornbills that seem to have been our constant companions for the last couple of days. The road to Vic Falls passes what looks like a major hunting camp with air strip and all, and we turn left on a pretty drive with malala palms to remind us that next time we must visit the Falls.
Entering Botswana feels a bit like the contrast between east and west Berlin in 1970. The roads are good, signposts too, and there is a sea of millet for as far as the eye can see. Rory’s comment is about what can be achieved with effective government and we have to agree, but I am glad of the sight of not one, but several, elephant grazing along the road near Nata as a reminder of the restorative power of our many sunrises and sunsets in the African bush.
Our last night away is a classic, but of a very different nature. The trip down Botswana takes longer than we estimate and so we decide to go out at Zeerust rather than Mafekeng so as to get to Cape Town to see the little boys and get to the polling station (2014 elections) before 8pm. As it was unscheduled, I hadn’t really thought about the area and in the dark, odd references to Groot Marico made me realise that we are in Herman Charles Bosman territory. Well, our innkeeper could have been Oom Schalk himself (and it took him longer to fill out the register than it had to go through the border, both sides!) and the pub next door was straight out of Andrew’s tale in his memoir, Fly fishing for sharks, about the sevens’ rugby tournament and the ‘itchy feet disco’ of Messina.