African shoestrings – Zimbabwe Day One Hundred Harare

Our last session of paddling was a mere 6 kilometres to our final destination, Nyamepi Camp in Mana Pools National Park. All in all we had paddled a total of 58 kilometres and by the time we had finished we all felt strong and confident enough to have gone on for another three days. When we were asked later on what had been the best thing we had seen and done whilst travelling this always comes to mind. It had been one of the greatest experiences of our lives!

We were back in Harare at around 10 pm and settled into our very ordinary (especially at the price of US$65 per person) room in the annex of the Bronte Hotel. This was meant to be our treat but the room was tired and old and really was no more comfortable than an average priced motel found in anywhere in the western world. What was nice about the Bronte was the hotel lobby and gardens and we made sure that we fully enjoyed having our breakfast, a drink in the afternoon and a coffee after dinner in the tropical colonial style gardens. Dinner was actually the best event of the day (we had spent a good few hours at the Tanzania embassy obtaining our visas). The Italian Restaurant Fat Mama’s in the Russell Hotel was obviously the local white and ex-pats hangout and I could see why. Great food, great atmosphere and great prices!

 

The next few days were taken up with transport and what I call the bus rides from hell! What follows next is reality but not necessarily typical of public transport in this part of the world. Of all the people we met during our travels we were the only ones who seemed to cop the experiences that I’m about to describe. It just seemed to happen to us!

Bus ride from hell number one started with a pick up at our hotel, early the next morning, by the bus company Ute to take us the Mbare bus station across town. On his way (in fact out of his way) the driver went via Possum lodge and picked up two other unsuspecting white passengers.

The bus station was chaotic and frightening. People came from everywhere grabbing at our bags and us. Someone grabbed one of our bags and with me still hanging onto it, led us onto the bus and then asked for our passports. What then confused us was another guy sitting further down the bus also asking for our passports and at the same time shouting “Watch your bags, watch your passports, watch everything!”

This guy was obviously in charge and we held onto the passports until we reached him. The other guy mysteriously disappeared and there was no doubt in my mind that had we relinquished our passports to him that would have been the last we would have seen of them.

Once we found our seats we could see the chaos and crap outside the bus. I say crap because the diesel fumes were noxious and those working in the area had paper filters fitted over their mouths and noses.

The seats we had were one row from the back and directly behind the other white couple who seemed to have handled the situation a with lot more cool than we had. Our bags were on the seat behind and we had three seats all to ourselves. This wasn’t going to be so bad we thought as eventually the bus got going. But that was as good as it got! Fifteen minutes later it stopped at the bus depot to pick up double the amount of passengers and probably triple the amount of luggage. There is a rule in Africa; don’t allow your bags to sit on the roof of any vehicle ’cause there’s a big chance you won’t see them again. Even the locals hang onto their bags. This time despite our protests we knew we had no choice; there was hardly enough room for all the passengers let alone the bags.

I got out of the bus and stood and watched as they loaded the bags on to roof. The only other white guy, Andy stood next to me. Andy was a Zimbabwean and his girl friend Jenny was from South Africa.

“So what happens now” I asked

“I dunno” he said

“You’re the local”

“Yeah but I’ve never traveled on one of these before”

The bus driver, conductor and other helpers finished covering the bags with a huge tarp and tying it all down and we were beckoned back onto the bus.

Oh well I thought not much we can do now as we got back onto the bus.

We had now lost our spare seat to a small quiet man who spent most of the time dozing. His head flopped about as if connected to his body by a rubber neck and often ended up on my shoulder. We westerners are funny like that we cringe at someone encroaching on our space. I had to keep shrugging him off and I swear that if I had some rope I would have tied his head to the back of the seat.

The bus actually set off at 8.15 surprisingly only one and half hours late. It didn’t take long for part of the tarp to come away and start flapping against the side of the bus and on our first refreshment stop it was retied well enough to last around fifteen minutes before it started flapping again.

After that stop we acquired a rather sinister looking uniformed man who checked a few passports and then disappeared and then reappeared half an hour later to collect a Z$70 ‘border fee’ from everyone. It was the last of our Z$ and I had the feeling that we were being ‘had’ especially when no receipt was forthcoming even when asked for. This fee was apparently to ease the pain going through the Mozambique border post.

At the Nyamapanda border our passports were collected by this bloke and he made a sort of half hearted inspection of our bags before giving our passports and presumably money to the Mozambique officials. We had to wait around for about an hour whilst all this ‘officialdom’ was dealt with.
This was the pits.
The Zimbabwe side was not too bad but the Mozambique post was an old dilapidated shack with a couple of holes in the ground masquerading as public toilets a few metres away. They stunk! The stench was almost visible from 10 metres away.

The whole area was full of persistent moneychangers, curio sellers, drink sellers and sellers of anything else they could rip you off with. It was the first of only two times that we were glad to get back onto the bus.

Footnote:

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Dug out canoes at the Okavango Delta In Botswana

Happier times -Dug out canoes at the Okavango Delta In Botswana

 

 

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African shoestrings – Zimbabwe Day Ninety-Nine Zambezi River

Later that morning with us bringing up the rear as usual we were paddling alongside an island to avoid a pod of hippos.
Suddenly a flurry of activity brings four hippos scurrying out of the bush and into the water just metres in front of Peter and Greg. They disappeared into deep water and four pairs of eyes popped up about twenty metres from us and watched as we tentatively crept past getting as close as we could to the bank.

After such an exhausting morning (we had covered 20 kilometres as well) we were thankful for a stop for lunch and a couple of hours siesta followed by a swim in the shallows later in the afternoon under the watchful gaze of a few hippos.

Still by the time we had got to our overnight stop at a deserted beach we were all pretty much exhausted and aching. The excellent food and some elephants strolling down to the water’s edge for a drink a mere 150 metres away soon resuscitated us.
We were now in Mana Pools National Park and the hunting camps and other signs of humanity gave way to thorny bushveld and groves of Acacia and other trees. It was a full moon and as it rose it lit our campsite with a soft glow and turned a nearby perfectly formed thorny Acacia tree into a silhouette.

The distant roar of a lion, the call of hyena and the munching of the hippos nearby seemed to be with us all during the evening and overnight. Despite our soreness, exhaustion and apprehension this was as good as it gets!

Peter and Greg allayed our fears somewhat about hippos. Apparently like most wild animals they only attack only when they feel threatened. The stories of canoes being turned over are greatly exaggerated and usually caused by accident. In deep water a hippo may be right underneath the canoe and its occupants totally unaware, so if it decides to pop up and you’re in the way, bad luck!

These guys seem to know their stuff. Peter was from the Shona, the most populous people in Zimbabwe and Greg was a young white guy from a farming family. When talking amongst themselves they spoke Shona. It seems that even though English is the official language Shona is more commonly spoken. They also told us of our biggest danger. “We (meaning Peter and I) will stand guard overnight to watch for Zambians paddling across from the other side. They ‘ave been known to raid a campsite and steal belongings from the tents and canoes whilst everyone slept.” Greg said.

Great I thought, we have to watch out for crocs and hippos by day and thieving Zambians by night.

Our final full day at 24 kilometres was a lot shorter and allowed us to leisurely enjoy the sun rising over the Zambezi.
This was our best day!
The river was mostly a series of tranquil channels and the wildlife was everywhere. Lots of hippos to be seen but none that were close enough to trouble us; a herd of elephants on the Zambian side; more elephants near our lunch spot; waterbuck, buffalo and impala also darted in around the national park edge, whilst little bee eaters probed small openings they had created as entrances to their nests inside the cliff face of the riverbank. But the piece ‘d’ resistance was yet to come. Swimming in a shallow channel we dried off and under Peters leadership we approached, by foot through the water, a large pod of hippos. We got within four metres of them as they watched us whilst closely bobbing up and down, ears flapping and noses snorting. They were watching us as warily as we were they. I snapped away around ten shots only to realise that I had the camera still set for a much dimmer light. By the time I reset, the hippos were almost completely submerged and moving away. Curses!

Ten metres beyond them an elephant descended the bank and paddled across the deeper channel up ahead to join his mates strutting on a small island. Later that afternoon we stopped our paddling and drifted as we watched more elephants frolic in the water just in front of us. Peter was pretty keen on ensuring that we didn’t get too close but some other canoeists were foolishly a lot closer and came very close to having their canoes turned into firewood.

Five kilometres on and it was time to set up camp for the last night on another sand island. First we had to navigate our way through a narrow channel with, you’ve guessed it, another pod of hippos in the way. No drama. Peter and Greg slapped their paddles against their canoes and off they went to safer waters.

On dry land we were all busting and Sue managed to grab the spade before anyone else and headed off to an inconspicuous place. She was had been so absorbed with finding a hidden spot that it wasn’t until relief had come that she realised that there was a hippo lying on the bank asleep a mere five metres away. Any alien who had no prior knowledge of humanity would have gone away thinking what strange toilet rituals we have once he saw this mad women running towards us waving a spade with one hand and holding up her shorts with other!

Footnote:

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Elephants in the Zambezi River walking across the river in Zimbabwe

Elephants in the Zambezi River walking across the river in Zimbabwe