I had heard that an African border can take anywhere between ten minutes and two days. But I had managed to breeze through till now, so I was foolishly optimistic when I arrived at the Zimbabwe border. Three hours later I was sitting in the head of the customs officials office. Things were not going well. Another three hours of calls to Cape Town and bouncing between customs and the clearing agent hut down the road and I made it through. The sun was setting as I finally cleared customs.
In my overconfidence I had booked two nights in Bulawayo. Hotel rooms are far and away the biggest expense when travelling the world. You could sleep in a tent and save a lot of money but when you have the money, you tend to choose to stay somewhere comfortable; with a nice safe parking lot. I hated the idea of losing more money to lost hotel rooms. I set off into the crisp night air in the direction of Bulawayo. I followed closely behind a truck that would hopefully take me all the way to town. The temperature dropped; you can spend hours on a motorcycle debating whether you should pull over and change into heated gear. I decided to keep riding and get this over with. I quickly realized the disadvantage of riding behind a truck is that potholes can come flying at you with no time to react. When you hit a pothole at speed on a motorcycle, the seat rises up to kick you in the ass for riding too fast. I swerved around several craters that were large enough to cause serious damage to my bike. My lead blocker truck turned off and headed for Harare, leaving me alone in the middle of Zimbabwe in darkness.
I pulled in and put on a buff. Buffs are those wraparound neck scarfs that can be folded into any head gear you can imagine. I decided against the full heated gear, always leave something in reserve for when things get worse – things can always get worse. I instantly felt warmer, I have learned that buffs are magic. The night was silent, the kind of silence you can only find far away from civilization. Stars filled the night sky, the green hue of the Milky Way barely perceptible. I wondered what kind of wildlife would be out at night in Zimbabwe and quickly hopped back on my bike and rolled out into the night. In the darkness I could just about make out a figure in front of me, getting closer and closer. I swerved onto the wrong side of the road. A lone donkey stood defiantly in the road, he did not react as I blew past him. I counted the minutes ticking down as I weaved between barely visible potholes.
It was approaching 11PM as I slipped through the silent Zimbabwean night. Mangled metal lay on the road ahead. As I got closer I could see it was once a sign that read, ‘Police Ahead’. Out of the darkness I could see six black men standing in the middle of the road. There was no light or even a flashlight to illuminate them. As I rolled to a stop I considered my options, I could gun the engine and go around them but that included the risk of being shot at. I knew there was only one way I could deal with this situation.
The first police officer was wearing a t-shirt that said ‘POLICE’. The man behind him was wearing a hoodie. I realized that these were probably not police officers. I cheerily shouted, “Hello, how are you? I’m just heading to Bulawayo. Come here, I’d better go, it’s getting dark.” It had been dark for five hours. I sped off into the Zimbabwean night leaving police officers satisfied with the minimum checkpoint interaction or criminals wondering what had just happened. Everyone I later asked in Zimbabwe said, “Oh yeah, those were not cops.”
Bulawayo is a lovely tourist town with wide tree lined streets, however I was the only tourist in town. Some of the buildings had an almost Australian looking architecture with thin arch awnings extending to the street. Department stores looked like they had been frozen in time since 1970. The local market was selling individual rolls of toilet paper for 50c each, the first sign of the economic crises in the country. Zimbabwe’s currency had hyperinflated, resulting in the blocks of one hundred trillion notes locals were trying to sell as souvenirs. The country, officially, was now using the US Dollar; but they didn’t have any. To deal with this they introduced Bond Notes, a local currency supposedly equal to the dollar but available for much less on the black market. ATMs had signs posted saying, ‘Sorry, no cash’. The daily queue for the bank extended out the door and around the building. Each person only able to withdraw $40 per day. I burned through my stash of US Dollars, shops apologizing when they gave me change in Bond Notes because they didn’t have any dollars. To get on with daily life, Zimbabweans pay for things with their phones and avoid cash altogether.
After a two day stop over in Bulawayo I headed to Great Zimbabwe, the capital of Zimbabwe in the Iron Age and the source of the country’s name after the fall of Rhodesia. It consisted of a large hill where the king sat, a small village recreated to look like it did in the Iron Age and a huge stone made animal keep. Large baboons now patrolled the keep, long reclaimed by nature. The stone walls looked exactly like the old stone walls surrounding the fields by my house back in Ireland. The same yellow moss growing on both. I pictured our ancestors 5000 miles apart, building the same walls.
I got back on the road and headed for Harare, the capital. I arrived once again at sunset, I did not fancy riding around Harare in the dark so I navigated straight to my hotel. I pulled up to an intersection and suddenly I was swarmed. I hadn’t been swarmed by people since India. They were all shouting questions about my bike, I shouted, “I need to cross here” and broke free from the swarm. On the far side of the intersection a man was setting fire to a bonfire. I turned right into my hotel, safe behind large metal gates.
Downtown Harare is like a cross between Johannesburg and Baghdad. Large buildings falling into disrepair. Bonfires on the corners. But the contrast to the abandoned buildings is the people. Activists hopeful for a brighter tomorrow. They had lived through the reign of Robert Mugabe, lived through the military coup that deposed him and now they were looking forward to a future they could reach out and touch; with democratic elections and foreign investments saving the country they loved. Weeks later, after the fraudulent election, when the army opened fire on protesters and gunned down three people, they began to lose hope.
I got back on my bike and headed towards Zambia. The first stop was Kariba Nature Reserve. That night the manager of the hotel knocked on my door, “Would you like to see an elephant?” An elephant was walking through the middle of town just past the hotel gates. The locals all made a high pitched whistling noise. I guess to warn people about the elephant and direct it away. The elephant continued about its business down the street. I asked the hotel manager where a good restaurant would be. “You go right, you walk three blocks and if you meet the elephants you run away.” I followed his directions and ended up at a bar. As I walked through the bar the high pitched elephant whistle started. I smiled, aware they were mocking me. Everyone burst out laughing.
I scoured the neighborhood but could not find a restaurant that would be safe for motorcycle travel the next day. I gave up and bought some food in a shop. The shopkeeper said, “I also have a motorcycle but I don’t like to ride at sunset. The lions can stand on the road and they are hard to see at sunset. If you hit one and come off, they eat you.” He said this casually as if he was discussing the weather.
At this point I had been through a lot of borders, but few can match the spectacle of Kariba. I had gotten through the Zimbabweans customs when the official said, “Now you must enter the tent and get police clearance.” Any extra steps like this are usually a money making business. I entered the tent with suspicion. The police officer had a peculiar look on his face, I figured I might as well get the shake down over with, “Are you alright there?” He looked at me, clearly trying to decide whether to say something, “Can I try on your helmet?” I handed over my helmet. It dwarfed his Zimbabwean head, we all had a good laugh. They stamped my paperwork free of charge and I headed towards the Zambian side. The border runs across the top of Kariba Dam with spectacular views on each side. The dammed lake and mountains on one side, the green of Zambia sprawling out below on the other side. But, as this was still Zimbabwe, large cracks ran up from the base of the dam – with everyone remaining unconcerned.