31 May, 1999 (2,931
The long civil war, a recent famine, and a
closed economy has left Beira in shabby form. Formerly a seaside resort
town, the superb hotels and sweeping boulevards of grand houses have
been reduced to weed strewn shells with black-eyed windows. It waits
for new money and new life.
Zimbabwe had escaped my depredations
so I headed south in a long sweeping curve. First stop, Bulawayo. Formerly
called Rhodesia, Zimbabwe achieved “independence” only recently in 1980.
It was a bitter struggle and unlike most African colonies had involved
two phases. Initially Rhodesia had resisted the concept of equal voting.
The ruling whites had seen the devastation in neighboring Congo and East
Africa. Arguing that they were the best guardians of power, the government
led by Ian Smith made a Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1964
to escape the pressure from Britain to accede to popular rule. In response
a general embargo was declared and Rhodesia became an international pariah.
Their critical pipeline for materials and supplies was through the south,
but after a few years of support the South African government of John
Vorster cynically struck a deal with Britain – close the noose on Rhodesia
and they’d turn a blind eye to the apartheid regime.
In 1974, essentially starved to submission,
the government agreed to share power. It took six years but finally free
and fair elections were held in 1980 bringing Robert Mugabe to power.
And that was the last time there were free and fair elections in Rhodesia – now
Zimbabwe. After his ascent to power, Mugabe ignored the fine rhetoric
of his campaign and began to rape his country in the time-honored tradition
of all the Big Men of Africa. At independence the country boasted one
of the finest infrastructures and economies in the continent – today
the infrastructure is crumbling and the economy is on its knees. As with
Kenya, it takes some time to bring a country to death’s door, but with
continued committed corruption a true leader can get the job done. Do
I sound cynical? Sorry that just slipped out. Certainly the white rule
was wrong; some form of power sharing needed to be worked out. But the
majority of Zimbabweans I spoke with during my trip would return to the
old days willingly. We all think the old days are better, and I suppose
that devastation is one stage on the long road of progress. I get tired
sometimes thinking about the pain inflicted on the rank and file. They
deserve a real leader. They deserve Nelson Mandela – one of the truly
great men of the continent.
Highlights of Zimbabwe
Bulawayo sported the long broad boulevards and huge public parks endemic
to classic colonial design. It still works well! Ordered grids, lines of
palm trees and sweeping green lawns. Safe and neat – old habits die-hard.
A regional capital, Bulawayo is the second largest city in Zimbabwe and
has some first rate restaurants. There’s not much else to do except watch
movies that are 18 months old – but it was a fine place to kill the weekend.
I fell asleep on Stanley’s back seat (the name of the Land Rover) listening
to a plumy English announcer on the radio and my first good jazz in months.
“Great Zimbabwe, the greatest medieval
city in Sub-Saharan Africa, provides evidence that ancient Africa reached
a level of civilization not suspected by earlier scholars. As a religious
and temporal capital, this city of 10,000 to 20,000 people dominated
a realm which stretched across eastern Zimbabwe and into Botswana, Mozambique
and South Africa. The name Zimbabwe is believed to be derived from the
Shona language: dzimba dza mabwe (great stone houses).” (Lonley Planet)
I’d seen the pictures of The Great
Enclosure but I was not prepared for the massive Hill Complex. Dozens
of rooms almost perfectly preserved and displaying cunning technique
and organized social order. The king lived in the Hill Complex together
with metal working craftsman, attendants, and priests. One nifty feature
was the “loudspeaker cave”, a conical cave that pointed directly to the
Great Enclosure where the Queen lived and the Ridge Enclosures which
housed the other wives. “Hey there, ahhh, wife #43 please report to the
Hill Complex, STAT!” I digress. My enthusiastic guide crammed the two-hour
tour into five hours as we rambled about discussing history, politics,
We inspected the massive Great Enclosure
and I had to chuckle a few times. Lonely Plant describes one section
thusly, “The greatest source of speculation is the 10m-high Conical Tower,
a solid and apparently ceremonial structure which probably has phallic
significance…” My guide described it more simply, “Here is a way that
the king showed his people that he was their source of food, it is a
giant model of a Shona grain silo.” I had to ask, “Any, ahhh, phallic
“Phallic? Errr, like ahhh…” (points down)
“No it’s a grain silo. The king had over 50 wives. Everyone knew this. What is
this phallic thing about anyway?”
Ahh Freud, you plague our consciousness still.
The second area was the door lintel
of the main entrance. The guide explained, “The first European explorer
to view this examined the wood and decided it must be cedar. Since cedar
only grows in the far north he decided that the city was controlled by
the Queen of Sheba. He didn’t want to admit that the Shona could build
such a city. But it wasn’t cedar, it was African Sandalwood and there
was a grove of such trees a few dozen kilometers away. So you see, such
a shame. Only now do most historians give us credit for the city.” Odd
how progress works. The Shona had built a city that rivaled those of
Europe or Egypt or the Aztecs, but the food ran out, the land was over-farmed,
and a series of migrations finally left it empty. But for better rains?!
Who knows what could have been there in the middle of Africa?
North then to Harare, the nation’s
capitol. Modern and sleek, it was hard to believe that the core of the
economy was rotten. But for better government… Mozambique visas are only
issued at consulates so I was forced to stick around for a few days.
Some mall shopping and more great restaurants. I did perform surgery
on Stanley with my Swiss Army knife and a broken stick! Evidently the
gas line right under the driver’s seat had cracked and petrol was spilling
out. A chance spark and we would have gone up like a bomb! So there I
was in the parking lot of a pizza place with my only nice white shirt
on – lying under the truck with gas running down my arm trying to jam
a whittled stick into the feed line. The patch held long enough to get
the truck to Land Rover, and they replaced the feed hose for free. Nice!
Thurs. 5/27 - Up at 7. Email. English
Breakfast. Hit the road. Easy driving through Mutare. Fast food lunch
at BP. Misgivings about Mozambique.
Mozambique was giving me a bad feeling. Only recently emerged from
civil war and with a reputation for aggressive roadblocks and chaotic neglect
- I wasn't sure if I wanted to pop in for a few days. Tim & Amy were
due in Malawi shortly and if I was detained or worse... they'd arrive to
a non-existent welcoming party. Ahh well. What the heck.
The border crossing went much better
than expected. I’d obtained a visa in Harare in the maddeningly slow
line at the consulate, so Immigration was a snap. Customs required the
usual paperwork in triplicate – but only a few dollars “registration
fee” instead of the more extortionate $20 “road tax” of Tanzania. I couldn’t
escape the state insurance fee, but even so it was only $15 – much better
than Zambia’s $45 hit. Back in the crowded parking lot swarming with
peddlers, yelling money changers, battered taxis, sarong clad women with
gigantic bundles on their heads, filthy kids demanding change, and bored
soldiers with the ubiquitous machine gun – I was hailed by a South African
guy. Seeing my license plates he asked where I was heading, “Beira”.
Well if I was willing to wait we could convoy – no problem.
Jurg van Dyk and his friend Hennie
were driving an overloaded Land Rover to Beira for a pastors conference.
They’d stuffed so much extra food and supplies to leave with the local
folk that the truck swayed on it’s suspension only inches from the ground.
We made good time on a superb sealed road with a surprising lack of roadblocks
or belligerent police and Beira arrived quite quickly. Waving goodbye
to the guys I headed into downtown Beira in good spirits. A complete
lack of street signs and a diabolical street layout left me driving in
circles to the amusement of the locals. I was searching for the Praca,
the main square in town which supposedly boasted a bevy of cafes and
shops. After half a dozen circuits I popped into the square.
The Praca - the downtown square of Beira
A ruined hotel n Beira - the country is rebuilding after
a long civil war
The Macut rusts on the beach only 50m from the Beira lighthouse
The Macut rusting in solitude on the beach
The long civil war, a recent famine,
and a closed economy has left Beira in shabby form. Formerly a seaside
resort town, the superb hotels and sweeping boulevards of grand houses
have been reduced to weed strewn shells with black-eyed windows. It waits
for new money and new life. The Praca huddled around a few palm trees
and a dysfunctional fountain. Café Capri was still open and I settled
into a cheap white plastic chair for a coffee. One thing for sure, all
else can go to pieces but the coffee is still superb – rich, strong,
Portuguese coffee! I hadn’t realised how complete the language barrier
is in Mozambique till the menu arrived – Portuguese. Desperately I scanned
the items but they didn’t look even close to French or English… never
mind Swahili. Fortunately the waiter understood “ham and cheese sandwich” via
sign language before I had to resort to making pig and cheese noises.
Biques is a hotel/campsite on the beach. For a few dollars I was able
to rent a tin shell trailer with slat beds and foam mattresses which saved
having to pitch the tent in the sand. Cricket was on the tube and within
a short time my table had accumulated the few backpackers in the restaurant/bar.
Mozambique is well off the beaten track and the few travelers around felt
a common bond of deprivation. Sean argued against the Shona origins of
the Great Zimbabwe monument, his girlfriend smiled tolerantly, and Steve
the journalist shot mock glances of despair at me while he tuned in the
game. Our easy companionship was broken like a tidal wave.
“I’M RAY RICHARDSON – 6’2”, 245LBS,
FROM NEW ORLEANS!!” (slightly slurred). Ray was a rolling, beer bellied,
fleshy, middle aged sailor – stranded in town with the rest of his crew
while their ship of US relief grain was being off loaded. “I’M HERE DOING &%#
SLICK WILLIE’S WORK AND THEM *&&#$# FELLERS ARE SELLING THE *&%*##
RELIEF GRAIN THAT SUPPOSED TO BE FREE RIGHT OFF THE *&^*%* DOCK.” Ray
didn’t speak any lower than a bellow. “WHAT’RE YOU ALL DRINKING? I’VE
GOT NOTHIN' TO SPEND MY *&^$*& MONEY ON EXCEPT ^%$*&% BOOZE.”
“Uh, I’ll take a bottled water.”
“WHAT THE *&^$$ SON. HEY THERE WAITER FELLER, A ROUND FOR MY *&^$*&^
Ray adopted us against our protestations
and plopped down to start a monologue on the pitiful state of the town.
The bar was changing before our eyes. Evidently I’d selected the hotel
most popular with the expats and sailors, which in turn drew the hustlers,
prostitutes, and weasels. Ray Richardson rolled over to the pool table
and, squinting ferociously at the cue ball, barreled into a game. Sean
had switched to another formless argument which Ray was attempting to
understand through his alcoholic mist. A few expatriates anchored tables
with bottles of beer and the standard cynical conversation. Lined
against the beach side wall, a line of well dressed prostitutes eyed
us all, ripping epithets or lewd invitations.
Without warning a man detached from
the bar, strode across and punched one in the head. She dropped like
a sack of bones in front of our table. We were wide-eyed. She was a black
prostitute, very drunk, and had been heckling the bar – this guy took
it personally. He wound up and kicked her, spat a curse, and sauntered
back to the bar. Numbed in alcohol, the woman struggled up and was bundled
out by the owner. The expats talked on. An ancient Portugese gentleman
edged out the door with a beautiful teenaged girl. Steve and I looked
at each other, dislocated in the moment – this environment was as foreign
than the country.
Big Ray Richardson roared away from
the table belching curses at a newcomer – evidently a pimp that had stiffed
him. He bellowed and threw a huge haymaker – the pimp ducked the punch
easily which plowed into the stone wall. Ray hollered, the pimp dodged
out the back door, and Ray was corralled by his captain back into the
bar still cursing. He wandered over to our table and plopped down, shook
his head slowly and looked up with weepy basset eyes, “Doggone, I wish
I were home.”
Woke up early the next morning to
look at the shipwrecks on the beach with the gang. Two coffees. Sean
and girlfriend begged off so Steve and I drove a few kilometers north
to the lighthouse. On the beach directly below lies one of the most spectacular
shipwrecks I’ve seen. The cargo ship “Macut” towers massively above the
water, it’s cargo hold eviscerated, the engine room leaking guts from
the leprous rust.
Back to the Capri – coffee. Internet
on a chugging modem – 80bps, a movie at Novocine, Oceana for lunch – coffee,
and back to Biques for the evening – more coffee. Not particularly wanting
to swim through the sewer like the previous evening, I left the bar and
walked down to the beach. Acres of low tide sand dazzled, the full moon
blasted through scudding clouds like a strobe, and waves lapped gently
from the inky sea.
Wanting to savor the magic of the
night, I dragged a mattress onto the beach and zipped into my light sleeping
bag to avoid the mozzies. Too many strong coffees kept me wide awake,
weird clouds swept the starry sky. Finally at 2am I dropped off, only
to be awoken by a rutting dog determined to mate with my sleeping bag.
If you’ve never been awakened from a sound sleep by a large nasty looking
dog trying to hump you – well, it’s a bit surreal. I yelled, swung wildly,
finally got up, threw sand, kicked, and at last he left me alone, panting,
holding my sleeping bag in my hands feeling bewildered. Each hotel has
a night guard who stays by the campsite to protect against thieves and
killers. I’d dragged my mattress within view of the night guard before
going to sleep – now he was gone, probably sleeping somewhere. 3am alone
on a beach in Beira, I shrugged and slept again. Dawn burst across the
ocean at 5am. So much for sleep.
out of Town
Sat. 5/29 - Scrubbed up, said goodbye to Steve, and hit the road north.
Long day of driving on a pretty good road. Canned beans and tuna for lunch.
Talked my way out of a speeding ticket in Goya. Impressive span of Zambezi
bridge. Easy Malawi border crossing. Blatant shakedown on the way to Blantyre – talked
my way through even though I hadn’t bought state insurance at the border
(enough is enough). Another 1000km+ solo drive. Found Doogles, a nice backpacker
hostel. Dinner, tent, hard sleep.
Sun. 5/30 – Slept in, breakfast,
e-mail. Long lazy day watching cricket. Cute puppies on the couch. Finished "100
Years of Solitude". Canadian retired couple give me flag sticker
Mon. 5/31 – Up early and out. No
roadblocks. Reached airport early. Lunch.
Tim and Amy Mechem exited Customs
into the airport lobby in the bright sun and heat of Malawi. A long haired,
bearded guy with shorts and sandals, who could use a shower, beamed a
welcoming smile. They exchanged glances. “Hi! It’s me, Jeff. Great to
see you! Welcome to Africa.”
It’s great to have travel companions
again. Tim, Amy and I will cover the last leg of the trip together – all
the way back down to Cape Town. Most of it will cover area that
I traveled on my way up, but seeing my friends get wide-eyed and excited
is it’s own reward. I’m looking forward to it!
A big hello from Malawi - “the warm
heart of Africa.”