25: Africa Wins Again Today
This wasn’t in the brochure…
“Yeah! Way to go! That’s the girl, Prima Donna!” Raylene and I cheered, more in relief than encouragement as she finally turned over without the routine stalling.
“Shaddup!” hissed Jason while unsuccessfully trying to look unabashed under the puzzled stare of the policeman. “They’ll do another check if they think she can’t run”.
“Yeesh,” Jason’s said, but the exasperated expression seemed to say, “Women!” Thus admonished, we tried to look serious and thoughtful as we pulled away, our fingers crossed and silently still cheering the old bucket along. We were just leaving another checkpoint that we’d managed to get through, yet again, without paying a “fine.”
I smiled at the memory which came back to me while reading an email from a friend volunteering in Tanzania. In it she’d written about a saying she’d heard while there, a simple four word sentence that explained so much. It read, “Africa wins again today.”
I knew all too well what these four words meant. In my six weeks in Africa, the country had the house odds most of the time, especially concerning anything with a motor. While there, I had “Africa wins” experiences with a car, a van, a boat AND a plane.
First there was battered Prima Donna, so named because of this temperamental station wagon’s, well, temperament. I met Prima Donna through Jason, the Aussie with whom Raylene and I hitched a ride from Harare to Victoria Falls. Our two-day roadtrip was an adventure not just because of the four police checks, not just because Jason was driving in the country without a driver’s license or a visa and transporting who-knows-how-much cash, but because Prima Donna was just this side of a junkyard special with her smashed headlight, a window that wouldn’t roll up, no backseat and her uncanny ability to stall at three out of four police checks.
Then there was the day trip to Botswana. My primary reason for making the 60-mile trip from Victoria Falls was to stock up on some good ol’ US greenbacks. Credit cards were a no-no in Zimbabwe because the dollar amount was converted at the official rate of 56:1, quite a difference from the “unofficial” rate of 250:1 (see Ria’s previous installment for more on “unofficial” exchanges).
What to do, but throw your hands up? The guys fix the boat, as Africa celebrates another victory.
But Botswana also offers the largest elephant reserve in the world, with river safaris to see these magnificent animals. The plan was a quick bank stop then spend three or so hours on the Okavanga Delta watching the elephants swim by and the hippos poking their snouts up in curiosity. But we weren’t on the river 20 minutes when the engine gave out. Our guide wasn’t a bit perturbed. While he tinkered with the engine, we floated downstream. As five minutes stretched into 35, I became impatient while the other passengers were oblivious to our situation. Our flat-bottomed boat had become entangled in the snake-and-crocodile-infested marsh grasses, not spitting distance from some water buffalo with bar fight looks in their dull black eyes… and there wasn’t another boat in sight… oh, and our radio wasn’t working…
There were only two others on this trip with me, a New York couple who did the best Audrey Hepburn and Frank Sinatra-brat-pack-era imitations I’d ever seen. Here I was braids, bandana, faded shorts and hiking boots, and there they were in large black sunglasses, white scarf headwrap, crisp pedal pushers with matching blouse, crisp skinny-leg version of Dockers and matching jackets, looking like they were ready to go to the nearest martini bar. They looked about them as if being stuck on a marsh in Botswana was as mundane as a subway delay.
Just a few weeks earlier I’d been stuck, twice, during the safari in Kenya. The first time we got bogged down in the muck we joked that it was the “optional activity of the day”. The second time, we got pretty nervous ’cause it was near sundown and that’s when the meat eaters go to market. Both times, our guide was very stern in his warning not to leave the immediate area of the van, and especially not go behind any rises to relieve ourselves. We assumed he had a gun with him since he said we all had to get out of the van… something we’d been told earlier we were not allowed to do. But nope, no gun and in one case, no other vans for 30 minutes to tow us out of our predicament.
So now, stuck out on the delta, in a boat any croc could just stroll onto, with no boats in sight and no radio was making me antsy. While Audrey and Frank gazed lazily about, I asked the driver his plan. There was no plan. After about 45 minutes on the water another boat came by, and after the pilot and I frantically waved our tee shirts they glided up, radioed our safari company and sent another boat for us.
Well, when the day finally came to leave Victoria Falls and so far I’d managed not to be stranded roadside, drowned or eaten, I figured South Africa would be easy, easy, easy. The key was getting there.
I chose to fly to South Africa, again for convenience’s sake and because my back was aching from a little white water mishap. It was a simply little one-and-a-half-hour ride on Air Zimbabwe, about $100 US one-way (and you had to pay in US dollars). First the plane was delayed an hour due to “technical” issues. Then we were informed that we were making a detour to Harare, instead of going directly to Johannesburg, because we needed BRAKES.
According to the pilot I questioned, our brakes had worn thin, but replacement brakes weren’t available in J-burg (read too expensive), so we had to return to Harare for them – “TO MAKE SURE WE LANDED SAFELY IN J-BURG.” Uh, huh. So we’re flying in an unsafe plane to Harare to make sure we were safe later. I guess maybe somewhere in there is some logic…
The great open road has less dangers than a terminal full of drunks.
The layover was to be an hour and a half while the brakes were replaced. We were made to stay in an isolated lounge with nothing to eat but tasteless meat and veggie pasties. There was plenty of alcohol, but I was on a self-imposed six-week wagon ride and couldn’t imbibe. But getting pissed-off passengers pissed was not a good idea. As time dragged into the third hour, an airline representative finally said he “didn’t know” when we’d be leaving. No shit. We’d been watching our plane sit idly on the runway, not one person coming near it the entire time.
At hour four, our beleaguered scapegoat finally admitted we’d landed an hour before a shift change and since the job would take longer than an hour no one wanted to stay, so they simply let it sit for the next shift. Of course it still didn’t explain why it was still unattended 4 hours later…
At least in the Masai Mara, on the Delta or on the road, there was an adventure, with just a hint of danger, in being stranded in the wild. But this, trapped in a room with 60 drunken, hungry, pissed-off passengers, this was no adventure. But at that moment I think it was more threatening, at least to that poor airline employee, than any of the other dangers of Africa.
Africa definitely had won again today.
Prima Donna also made a handy viewing platform.
More on Vic Falls, Prima Donna & Police Checkpoints
I don’t usually hitch rides while traveling, but it’s a major pain in the butt to get from Harare to Vic Falls these days. I was lucky enough to meet Jason through a notice I posted. Jason was an old pro at the Harare-to-Vic Falls route, traveling it several times a year on his buying trips for African carvings and knickknacks. I figured between his knowledge of the terrain and his Aussie practicality, I’d be in safe hands. That was until I met Prima Donna. Jason had owned her for a few years and her hard life on the Zimbabwe roads showed like the pucker around an old smoker’s lips. But despite herself, she had a certain rusty charm and did somehow always manage to cough back to life again and again.
Zimbabwean police are known to create checkpoints supposedly to catch gun runners, but also to add a bit to their retirement funds. The dance goes as follows. Usually they find some kind of violation with the vehicle and then the owner asks if there’s any way the matter can be settled on the spot, to which the policeman replies that a small “fine” should settle the matter. With all of Prima Donna’s handicaps, we were a Prima Target, but somehow, we managed to slip by, Jason eventually thinking it was because he had two females with him. Since polygamy is allowed in Zimbabwe, maybe they thought we were expensive enough.
Each time we were stopped, the policeman’s conversation was basically the same. He’d question the smashed headlight, then request Jason’s license, question him as to where he was headed and peer in the window at Raylene and me. Jason, of course, knew the drill and had his rap at the ready. The light was smashed en route, he’d lost his license the night before. But, curiously, at each stop the story became more extravagant until it was a saga of misfortune including street punk brick-welding hooligans who luckily, only smashed the headlight, and knife-carrying hotel room-robbing thugs. Jason had a theory that the more elaborate the story, the more confused the cops became and would send us off just to be rid of us.
During the final checkpoint narrative, Jason kept looking in at us with this wise ass “see what I’m putting over on them” look. We could barely suppress laughing out loud at his ridiculous story. Once we’d passed that final check point with Prima Donna finally not stalling, Jason’s self-satisfied smirk grew to a lip-splitting grin. In all his years of driving the route it was the first time he didn’t have to pay a fine, and at one stop, a policeman even helped push start the car!