The most dangerous phase of our trip – are the scaremongers right?
Have the SAS already evacuated Zimbabwe?
Blantyre, Malawi to Harare, Zimbabwe
First objective was to find a bus that still ran to Harare. Shire buses had
stopped their services altogether, Translux and Vaal Africa were only
running services to Jo’berg that did not stop in Harare, even though their
route was via Harare. The only option left was the Munorurama service that
Doogles’ staff complained broke down and was always delayed. We’ll take our
chances, but it is scary that so many companies avoid Harare.
Doogles also recommended ‘It’s a Small World Backpackers‘, telling us to book a room as many of the hostels in Harare have closed down over the past year.
Not wanting to book our bus tickets without having some idea of the current
situation in Zimbabwe, we emailed our former tour leader for advice and
consulted the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office website. Their advice
was that independent travellers should not visit Zimbabwe, but organised
groups could proceed with caution. Travellers should avoid waving (an open
palm is seen as support for the opposition party called the MDC), avoid
rallies and protests, not be seen in possession of an independent newspaper,
not visit villages or farms and not discuss politics.
In addition to this were warnings of problems that could be encountered at
the border; if your profession was a police officer, soldier or civil
servant, entry could be refused.
After reading this, the prospect of travelling to Zimbabwe scared me. Fear
of the unknown and uncertainty about the real political situation were
powerful motives for choosing an alternative route through Zambia. I almost
wished I was back on the overland truck.
It turned out that it was indeed a small world when we reunited in the
Blantyre PTC supermarket with Natasha and Jason. Not only had they
succumbed to buying five Malawi chairs but they also wanted to travel to Harare.
We decided to team up as there was safety in numbers. Jason had heard
rumours from travellers at Doogles of border officials demanding US $130
from British citizens to enter Zimbabwe. I did not believe the stories as
none of these travellers had come through Zimbabwe. I am always sceptical
of travellers who ‘know someone who had a terrible experience in so and so’.
I checked on Lonely Planet Thorntree and no posts reported this.
Our former tour leader responded to our request, saying that the truck had
arrived safely in Zimbabwe although she cautioned us about staying in
Harare. To quote her words, “there is nothing there”. She also reported
that Roberta and Beth had been chased in Harare city centre, hardly
surprising when I visualise Roberta’s hot pants masquerading as shorts.
I scanned the front pages of the Malawi national newspapers that yielded
more unhappy news from Zimbabwe. A dispute had arisen between Malawians who
had worked for white farmers but were now destitute, and the Zimbabwe
Government. Many Malawians had lived in Zimbabwe for more than 22 years,
losing their Malawian citizenship and also failing to be recognised as
Zimbabwe citizens. Catch-22 situation as the Zimbabwe Government were going
to kick them out but they had nowhere to go.
The day of our departure dawned – a ten and a half hour bus journey
transiting across Mozambique to Harare for MK 1200. Other travellers were
still telling us of breakdowns in Mozambique and long border searches. Any
advances on the journey taking more than 24 hours?
So this time there was no organised group or truck to shield us from
anything unpleasant that might occur. We were completely on our own. The
bus was meant to leave at 7:00am, arriving in Harare at 5:30pm, crossing
four border controls in the process. At 6:20am, we arrived at the bus
station to claim three seats (one was for our backpacks).
Natasha and Jason had their set of Malawi chairs hoisted onto the roof and
strapped under a tarpaulin. A young boy demanded MK 200 for this service;
Jason had wrongly assumed that he worked for the bus company. Jason’s
retort was, “Do you take Visa as I have no kwacha left?” This silenced the
The bus left at 8:00am (an hour late), to trundle a mere three miles down
the road to another depot. The locals decided that this was a toilet stop,
taking advantage of the bus being refueled. By 9:15am, we had managed a
paltry 58km to arrive at a checkpoint. Everyone was ordered off the bus
while the soldiers searched all the bags, including those on the roof.
Deluding myself that this was the last hiccup and it would be full steam
ahead to the Malawi border, I could not believe it when we came to a halt
one kilometre further up the road. Parked by two meat stalls, the driver
and conductor had a leisurely breakfast of fried cuts of meat followed by a
dessert of sugarcane. To pass the time, I watched fascinated as a local
purchased half a cow that was thrown into the back of a minibus. The
driver’s meal took an hour so I was beginning to wonder if we’d make it to
the border by the end of the day! There was method in all this madness as a
Lilongwe bus pulled in alongside, emptying its passengers onto our bus.
Full to capacity, we arrived at the Malawi border and queued for an hour to
exit. As usual, no one explained the procedure, or where to go, so if you
don’t want to look like a headless chicken it’s a case of sticking to the
other passengers like glue. A common trait in Africa is that locals presume
that you know what you are doing. Unless you ask very specific questions,
no one will be forthcoming with the information you want.
We joined another long queue at the Mozambique border of Zobue. Street
children scampered around, hassling us for pens and kwacha while we waited
for our visas to be stamped.
Back on the bus for the next stage of our magical mystery tour, the driver
suddenly injected some speed into the proceedings as we careened across the
Mozambique Tete corridor. The undulating barren landscape was stark and
impressive, but it was a shock to the system to see that Mozambique appeared
poorer than Malawi. Parched villages of circular mud or wood huts (no brick
buildings existed), devoid of any signs of life, crops or cattle, no stalls
or shops selling produce.
Tete straddles the wide Zambezi River that we crossed before hurtling to the
Mozambique border with Zimbabwe. Stamped out with the minimum of fuss, we
dashed on foot behind the locals to the Zimbabwe border to fill out more
paperwork. We joined a crush of people clamouring for forms. The confusing
customs form stipulated that all goods that were not worn or carried on your
person must be declared and their value stated in the currency that they
were purchased with. We thought what the hell is all this about? Would
they confiscate anything we didn’t declare or would they confiscate it if we
did declare it? Tom noted down his gameboy and camera, I declared my
binoculars with great foreboding.
We were directed to remove our backpacks from the bus to join yet another
queue for a customs search. I have no idea what they were searching for –
watching them poke around inside every bag did nothing for my fragile
nerves. I grew more and more apprehensive as I neared the front. Requested
to open my backpack, the customs official immediately seized our carefully
stashed wood carving, saying that it looked suspiciously like a rifle. It’s
the strangest looking rifle I’ve ever seen, but I didn’t argue with him.
Tearing off the meticulous wrapping to prove it was an ebony carving finally
satisfied him. Wiping the nervous sweat from my brow, I contemplated that
at least he hadn’t thought my stone hippos were grenades.
Belongings intact, we had made it into Zimbabwe as daylight was fading. We
were both worried about where we would be dropped off in Harare, especially
in the dark. Bus travel in Africa is disconcerting in the pitch black.
Locals were warning us against Mbare bus station saying it was unsafe and
dangerous. After Tom questioned the lady across the aisle, she put our
minds at rest, saying that the bus would drop us off at the Holiday Inn. I held
Tom’s hand tight as we raced into the night, performing outrageous
overtaking manoeuvres into the unknown.
Reaching the Holiday Inn at 9:00pm, taxis were waiting to whisk us away. The
taxi driver seemed far more nervous than us, directing us not to put our
backpacks on the ground for even a minute, to hurry up and to lock all the
doors. A man with a grotesque montage of stuffed ferets approached, so I
was only too glad to hop into the taxi and escape. Our taxi driver didn’t
take long to launch into a story of how tourists were attacked after
disembarking from that very bus and plonking their bags down on the ground.
He drove us straight into the fortified hostel compound of ‘It’s A Small
World’. This turned out to be a heavenly place with white wine on tap to
calm frazzled nerves. I heaved a huge sigh of relief knowing we had arrived
unscathed and the rumours had proved unfounded.