Big Brother’s African Brother #47: Bulawayo, Zimbabwe to Pretoria, South Africa

Bulawayo, Zimbabwe to Pretoria, South Africa

Billed as “excellent” in Lonely Planet, the Pretoria Tourism Information Centre scores a big fat zero out of ten – they had never even heard of Kruger National Park.
September 2002

(US $1 = R10.3)
Our transport into South Africa from Bulawayo was a double decker Translux
coach. We had paid Z$6250 each for the creme de la creme in coach travel,
so it seemed bizarre that they do not reserve seat numbers. As always in
Africa, nothing is ever logical. Tom had devised a cunning strategy to
ensure that we sat together. I dashed towards the coach door managing a
respectable sixth place from the front. Everyone else had bundled forward,
squabbling for position in the queue. Meanwhile, Tom negotiated another
scrum to stow our packs safely in the luggage trailer.

More alarming was that the majority of people were armed with enormous furry
blankets and enough food and drink to enable them to survive a lengthy siege
if stranded on board. I glanced at our insubstantial supplies of Italian
salad, bananas and popcorn. Did they know something we didn’t?

The bus driver asked for tickets, passport and after viewing all my stamps,
my yellow fever certificate. This was the first time in Africa that anyone
had demanded to see it. We also completed a blank manifest with contact
details of next of kin. It is a sad fact that the roads in South Africa are
amongst the most dangerous in the world. Over 10,000 deaths a year are due
to careless driving. This is a horrific statistic considering that the vast
majority of South Africans do not own a car.

We endured Men In Tights and an awful third rate action movie set in
Vietnam with the worst musical accompaniment known to man. Warbling pan
pipes peppered with the sound of machine guns. We reached the Zimbabwe
border at 9:00pm. It was a far cry from when we had entered Zimbabwe as the
officials barely gave us a second glance. However, the South African border
was a different story. First we waded through an antiseptic foot bath to
banish foot and mouth. Next, ultra efficient Immigration granted us three month
visas without even having to fill in a form.

The last hurdle was customs
where we were confronted by a monstrous queue of people that stretched for
over 500 metres. It was at this point that I realised why we had bought the
most expensive bus tickets. Our driver had no intention of joining them,
announcing that “You have nothing to declare so follow me.” We bypassed the
poor people that had been queueing for hours, presenting ourselves to the
Department of Agriculture for a bag search. Understandably, the people in
the queue were hostile, yelling and punching the air in protest to our queue

We were home and dry as the coach stopped at a petrol station, a few
kilometres from the border. It was 10:30pm, so I was looking forward to
reclining my chair and getting some shut eye when the driver informed us
that we would be swapping coaches in the early hours at Pietersburg.
Needless to say, I wasn’t impressed by this unscheduled stop.

At 1:30am, we stood shivering in a parking lot alongside two coaches. We
waited 45 minutes in the freezing cold to swap with passengers heading to
Bulawayo. What madness was this? Extracting our luggage, we twiddled our
thumbs while the other coach did the same. It took them an eternity to
unload the bags; in the end one of the drivers intervened, rescuing a woman
that had vanished into the luggage trailer fifteen minutes previously. I
was beginning to wonder if there was a secret door in the back of the
trailer to a parallel universe.

Even at this early hour, it was all for one and one for all in the mad
scramble to secure seats on the other coach. Now I thought I would lie
back, relax and sleep all the way to Pretoria. I hadn’t banked on the
2:30am meal break at a sleazy, greasy looking 24 hour restaurant/take-away
establishment. Who could possibly want to eat at this time in the morning?

We arrived in Pretoria at 5:15am, choosing to stay at Hatfield Backpackers
that has a fearsome reputation for bucking the trend, defying Lonely Planet
and consequently being sued by them. Suffice to say this hostel has been
omitted by Lonely Planet for the past three years. The owner of the
backpackers has an ongoing feud with one of the authors that works on the
South African publications. He has publicly criticised Lonely Planet guides
on his travel website, his argument being that Lonely Planet no longer
offers unbiased, objective information on accommodation and restaurants.

We must admit that we have been fans of Lonely Planet guides for years and have
found them to be an invaluable resource, but the Southern Africa guide is a
real disappointment. It is the first Lonely Planet guide that we have found
to be subjective rather than objective. Lonely Planet resorted to court
action when he set up a website with the URL Lonely
Planet insisted that he was profiting from using their name as his website
had a link to his site that sold tours.

I’m not going to comment either way, but judge for yourself by checking out
his travel advice website where he ardently
voices his views.

Our cramped double at Hatfield Backpackers with shared facilities reminded
me of a room we’d once had in Mission Beach, Australia. Stark grey walls
gave the impression of sleeping in a prison cell. The corrugated iron door
did nothing for the ambience either.

Wandering around nearby Hatfield Plaza, I was overwhelmed at just how first
world South Africa is. Superb empty roads, endless eating options, intact
public infrastructure, actual pavements and water that was safe to drink
from the tap. The only sad thing was that we spotted our first McDonald’s of
the trip – there’s no halting globalisation.

We decided to make a special trip into Pretoria City Centre to obtain
information on South Africa’s many attractions from the Pretoria Tourism Information Centre. Described as “excellent” in Lonely Planet, we were
disappointed by the haphazard, pitiful office that greeted us. Leaflets
were like gold dust and the staff were useless. I had expected realms of
glossy brochures, maps and staff falling over themselves to help us.

Our first question was about Kruger National Park. We just wanted some
general facts but the girl we quizzed stared at us as if we were from
another planet speaking goggledegook and repeated slowly, “Kruger?” Yes,
Kruger. One of South Africa’s main tourist drawcards. “I don’t know,” was all
we managed to get out of her. We thought we would try an easier question,
“Are there any book shops in Pretoria where we could buy a South African
road map?” Again, the reply was, “I don’t know.” Our last gambit was,
“Where do we catch the bus back to Hatfield Plaza?”

“You want a taxi?” she responded, stumped. No, we’ll find our own way back.
Thanks for being completely, utterly useless!

The open road beckoned – it was time to explore South Africa in our Tempest
hire car (US $14 per day including unlimited kilometres). Prissy Priscilla
at Tempest, drafted three letters of authority to take the car across the border to Swaziland, Lesotho and Namibia. So far South Africans strike me
as brisk, officious and huffy.

Neville carried out a vehicle inspection to note down any scratches and
dents. He was a typical South African, his skin wrinkled and prune-like
from far too many unprotected hours in the sun and an attitude that would
put Victor Meldrew to shame, whinging and complaining. Petrol prices were
going through the roof, tolls on the road were prohibitive, the Government
was pathetic and all tourists were inherently stupid!

I’m not complaining as we ended up with a Toyota Corolla instead of a Toyota
Tazz. This meant we had just enough room to squeeze two backpacks, trolley
case, tent, provisions, kitchen utensils, two sleeping mats and a camping
stove into the boot. It was not an option to use the back seats as car
theft has reached epidemic proportions.

So we said goodbye to sunny Pretoria for our first game drive in Kruger
National Park.