Blantyre, Malawi to Francistown, Botswana
“Tact in audacity consists in knowing how far we may go too far.”
– Jean Cocteau
I am now comfortably settled at Ziggy’s house, near a diamond mine deep in the Botswanan bush. Ziggy was my accomplice at Oxford as we swam naked across the river, dinner jackets in plastic bags, in an attempt to evade security and break into a college ball. So I am looking forward to plenty of high antics and no cycling for a while.
Back in Malawi I descended for the final time into the Great Rift Valley, 40km of swooping downhill to the hot, mosquito-infested lowlands. For the first time ever I surprise and disappoint myself by being too squeamish to take advantage of an extremely cheap and dinner-party-conversation-enhancing foodstuff: boiled mice on sticks. What a wimp. My increasingly dishevelled appearance has led to me being occasionally greeted as ‘madam’. So I had a shave and now the confusion seems to have passed.
The infrequently frequented southern Malawi/Mozambique border post was in a sorry state: once smart, efficient buildings are now falling down and abandoned. The cliched, scruffy, unpleasant looking ‘officer’ invented a fictitious ‘fee’ that Arno and I must pay. Smiling politely, we refused to pay. Scowling, he ordered us to pay. Smiling politely, we refused to pay. A game that could have continued for quite some time… We won eventually as he angrily stamped our passports and gestured us to leave.
The road was just a single lane of soft warm sand meandering through small villages of reed huts, ladies pounding maize, sturdy baobab trees and immaculately swept earth in mosaics of rainbow sweeps. Each village pump is a colourful and noisy blossom of skirts and plastic containers and shrieks of hilarity and gossip. Cycling through these scenes I thought of Ryszard Kapuscinski realising that this was “a world I do not know and perhaps will never understand”.
After the mad crowds of Malawi, Mozambique was relatively empty. It was very easy to find remote campsites, yet the ugly lurking threat of undiscovered landmines was always in my mind. The evenings were full of stewing humidity and the torturous chorus of mosquitos (almost as painful as a Primary School Christmas concert recorder recital). A small town’s barber shop offered the unusual option of ‘Bin Laden style’ haircuts.
Back in the bush an entire village descends on the local pond for a huge orgy of fishing. In the carnival atmosphere scores of women wade through the shallow waters, slamming conical baskets into the mud then rummaging a hand around inside to grab anything slimy and wriggly trapped within. It was a happy, chaotic carnage! The men, as usual, were doing very little – the odd lazy lunge with large, manly looking harpoons being their sole contribution to the annual communal fish harvest.
South of the Zambezi River the featureless road through miles of thick bush is very dull. We see how far we dare cycle with our eyes shut. We debate ‘the perfect pizza’ and I award Arno one point and a ring of my bell for each topping Arno selects that I approve of. We cross onto a new fold of the map which always boosts my spirits – only two folds to Cape Town now!
For so long I have looked forward to arriving in Southern Africa. The hard stuff is behind me now (promises George Best). But then in no-man’s land my bike breaks – a bent frame and gears, a buckled wheel and snapped spokes so I have to walk into Zimbabwe. I don’t mind though – striding alone up a mountain pass through lush forest glowing in the golden late afternoon sun, listening to very loud Verdi on my headphones. Just over that hill lies Zimbabwe – the beginning of the end of the beginning.
Zimbabwe is a country with food in the supermarkets, infrastructure, good roads and an aura of efficiency. She is a rare African success story. The sun shines, people in cars smile and wave, the land is beautiful, prices are fixed no matter what your skin colour, the opportunities for tourism are vast. It’s as good as a TV show. But that’s not how you picture Zimbabwe right now, is it? On the outside Zimbabwe still looks shiny and healthy. But I fear that it is not for long. The terrible slide into complete anarchy, racism, corruption, starvation and collapse seems to be horribly inevitable.
I have not been in the country long but already I feel very sad. The white farmers I met agreed that land distribution amongst the people is necessary, but that being thrown illegally from your rightful family home to make way for one of the president’s cronies is not exactly redistributing ‘amongst the people’. This racist, criminal campaign of Mugabe’s is causing a vicious famine because food is no longer being produced locally. International food aid is being abused as only people who support the government are receiving food. Swathes of game animals are being shot for quick profit by the machine guns of the Army. We rode through a beautiful farm whose school (most farms take very good care of their workers and families) had the motto “no substitute for hard work”. The War Veterans who have illegally taken over the estate should take note of that. For once I am able to explain the reason for a nation’s woes: Mrs. Mugabe allegedly holds the record for the most money spent during a visit to Harrods.
Zimbabwe has many koppies – huge round boulders jumbled on top of each other in improbable, eye-catching formations. As the first stars pierce the ebbing evening light we climb a koppie, the warmth of the day radiating from the rocks like the memory of a fresh dream as we look at magical, ancient Bushman rock paintings.
Camping one evening in the bush we are seen by the farmer who owns the land. Rather than launching into the Afrikaans version of “ooh, aar, git orf my land!” he went home and returned with sausages and milk for us! It was a great night: a large fire, meat but no vegetables, sleeping in my clothes, not brushing my teeth and eating sweets in bed! Mothers across the globe will be tutting their disapproval.
Having Arno for company has lent this stage a rather more intellectual air than I am used to – firing our catapults at cows arses, maturely sharing our food (“no – YOU cut, I want to choose this time…”) and pondering how girls manage to smell so clean and lovely. Two small drainage pipes passing beneath the road provided a fine setting for a cramped crawling race and much subterranean giggling.
My ‘anniversary’ of being on the road for a whole year is approaching fast. It is a vital opportunity for me to generate some good publicity for Hope and Homes for Children. If you are able to suggest any media that may be interested in my journey (newspapers, websites, magazines etc.) the charity and I would both be extremely grateful! In the meantime watch this space for my thoughts after a year on the road.