Zimbabwe, a pleasant surprise.
I spent my Saturday night in the border town of Musina, in South Africa, a few kilometres south of the Limpopo River. In the evening I went onto the main street to find some dinner and found the town had a certain menace after dark. Busses from the border dropped all sorts of people on the streets, looking wary after a long journey. Out side a take away place a mad old man sat next to the door, shaking a beer tin for coins. I took my meal back to the inn, and went to bed early.
The border at Beitbridge is infamous as purgatory on Earth. I believe now that my decision to cross at the bridge was a form of temporary madness. I thought; How hard could it be? Turns out, very hard. Once you leave the South African side you’re presented with a litter strewn dust bowl. Trucks and busses stack up like a great big scrap heap. Crowds of exhausted travellers and migrants stand about as the Security Service searches their belongings. Some children shouted at me from behind a shattered fence; “Hey. I’ve got drugs. Come buy drugs!”
I started the long process of getting my car into Zimbabwe, all the while being harassed by fixers and agents promising all sorts things, and telling me where to go, and how to cut the line. After being bounced from counter to counter, two and a half hours later I finally had all my papers in order. I then waited in the unending line for customs inspection. An official looked through my car asking what was in each bag. “Clothes” I replied. And he stamped my pass and let me go. I could have had anything. Here the fixers began to ask for money, because they believed they had helped me. “Please, just $100” I couldn’t believe it. “How dare they” I thought and left. Immediately after leaving the border post I was stopped by the police. The first thought in my mind was that this was a crooked cop and friend to the fixers, and they had phoned ahead to let him know about the cheapskate in the little blue car. But he just wanted to see my drivers license and the Temporary Import Permit, and then he let me loose into Zimbabwe.
There’s not an awful lot between Beitbridge and Bulawayo. In the south sparse bush stretches out on both sides of the road as far as you can see. Dreary to look at. It reminded me of my journey from Johannesburg to Musina. More of the same. But soon the landscape became distinct. Dense forrest replaced the bush, and granite-topped hills appeared on the horizon. I was closing in On Bulawayo.
I didn’t know what to expect from Zimbabwe. It’s often used as an example of the worst case scenario when discussing politics, economics, or racism. The economy was wrecked by the land and agricultural reforms carried out by Muagbe’s ZanuPF. But arriving in Bulawayo, all thoughts of the terrible dictatorship vanished. I set up camp at Burke’s Paradise, a generous country house on the outskirts of the city. The gardens were green and gracious, even in the middle of winter. I spent the afternoon relaxing and meeting the other guests.
The owner, Adam, was terribly kind to me. He recommended some good things to do around Bulawayo, and the next day I went out to have a look at the Matopos National Park, the location of Cecil John Rhodes’ grave.
The park is very well maintained, and expensive ($30) but I was surprised to find that Rhode’s grave was open to the public, and there is even a little shop that has the story of his life up on the walls. I thought that Mugabe’s Zimbabwe would have done away with anything celebrating such an elite colonialist.
The Park is other-worldly and walking near Cecil Rhode’s feels a little like walking on another planet. Atop an enormous granite hill stands a collection of boulders. Amongst them, simply laid into the floor is a slab, reading “Here lie the remains of Cecil John Rhodes”
I found it difficult to imagine that under the rock was a skeleton, and that it was that of one of the most powerful men in history.
Later I had lunch in Bulawayo. To my surprise there are Food Lovers Markets in Zimbabwe. I stopped at a little cafe called Brook’s and had the best sandwich of my life, and a peanut butter iced coffee that was fantastic. So it’s not all doom and gloom in Zimbabwe. How different life really is to the bleak picture painted in the news, or what you might think crossing Beitbridge.