7 September 2015 by Justine
Cycling in Zimbabwe – January 2015
There we were, entering the most avoided country according to the people we had met before. We noticed a difference the minute we got into Zimbabwe. For the first time, we could have a conversation involving politics and art based on international news or facts. Such a change for a border post officer when you think that the one in Zambia assumed that if we were born the same year, JP and I were automatically brother and sister (…) (see “Zambian Transit” post). I wasn’t able to reply all of the officer’s comments’ (“Canada has the most expensive tourist visa! 75$US ! I wonder what your country has done different compared to the others! Hahaha!), but the idea of entering an educated country and being able to easily communicate with the people and to have deeper conversation subjects than the weather and the sadza pleased me. So I smiled at the officer, gave him three bran new 50$US bills and walked away with our passports, now decorated with eight African entry stamps.
We kept our eyes open. Only few kilometers after entering Zimbabwe, we took a left on a 115km dirt road in the backcountry, along the Mozambican border. We didn’t know at the time, but later understood that rebels were hiding in that area not too long ago, related to a political conflict* that had been going on since the 70’s. When we saw our first warning sign for mines (you read right), we got a hint. In that section, camping in the bush didn’t seem too tempting so we mostly stayed in villages.
On our first night in Zimbabwe, we asked to stay in a beautiful school yard. It was during the Holidays so we knew we wouldn’t bother anyone. In his farming clothes, the principal welcomed us and offered us a classroom, which we politely refused. The sky was clear, there was a perfect grassy spot under a mango tree… There was no way we would sleep indoors. “No problem”, says the school principal, though he insisted on giving us a little class room located at the total opposite end of the school yard: “You choose where you want”. So we set-up our camp and cooked dinner (that night, it was meal #2: spaghetti with tomato paste, fresh tomato, onion and sardines sauce – strangely, made in Italy pasta and tomato paste would be sold all along our trip). Kids were hanging out at the water pump, twenty meter away from our tent, laughing and discreetly (NOT) watching us, even when the dark came. We then found ourselves in our sleeping bags at seven o’clock. Yes, that’s right. Seven o’clock (or maybe 6:45PM). Just like in treeplanting, I found that my body was more and more into ten-to-eleven-hour sleep nights, the only way I could wake-up at 5:30 the next morning without an alarm and feeling fueled up. But at nine, we were just about to fall asleep (or maybe already sleeping) when we heard the kids make more and more noise. As self-centered tourists, we were convinced that they were trying to get our attention. JP ran outside with his big beard and voice: “what are you doing, guys?!” He scared most of the kids away, except for one courageous who came to the tent:
Kid with a tiny voice: “Good evening”
JP, irritated: “Go home”
Kid: “Aren’t you coming to the Church?”
JP, pretending: “… Tomorrow”
Kid, excited: “Tonight, there is a celebration. We will sing, dance and pray all night”
JP, ashamed: “Oh, we thought you were hanging around because we were there”
JP, with a friendlier voice: “Where is the celebration?”
JP, confused: “…”
Kid: “From ten past twelve to four in the morning”
JP: “Uh… Well, it’s nine o’clock now…”
Kid: “Maybe sooner. It’s a concession”
JP, wondering what a concession looks like: “You don’t go to Church for that?”
Kid: “There is no Church here. So we do it here, at the school”
JP, starting to get it: “So if we want to sleep tonight, we should move the tent?”
Kid, disappointed: “Oh, you want to sleep?”
JP, more confused: “… Yes”
Kid: “Then maybe you should move your tent…” But then, hoping that we set camp (and cycled through his village) precisely because of that concession: “Or come dance and pray all night with us”
JP: “Yeah… Maybe another time. Good night”
We took a chance. We didn’t move the tent. How loud could they be?! … It would all depend on the size, number and quality of their musical instruments. Conclusion: even with earplugs, we couldn’t sleep. But we laughed instead of whining, and they finally left. Their “ten past twelve to four o’clock” turned out to be a “nine to ten past twelve” concession. Fine with us! That night, we got lucky (but we wouldn’t the following week, but that’s another story).
The next day, we got to an interesting obstacle: a large river, a half standing bridge and no boat. Local people had warned us about a broken bridge since we got on that lovely dirt road (no sarcasm to that, and no, that “no sarcasm” isn’t sarcastic), explaining that that area was disconnected from the rest of the country for the past two years, waiting for the government (or most likely international help) to build another bridge. With our bicycles, we hoped it wouldn’t be a problem. We got to the Zimbabwean “Pont d’Avignon” and considered our options. No need to think it through, ten guys came to offer their help – for a small compensation. Within an hour, we were on the other side, happy, and dealing with our new friends. Turned out they could still help us. One of the guy was carrying a garbage bag full of herbs, and was willing to share… Fine with us!
We reached the tarred road on the third day – back to civilization. Now, we were starting our ascent in the highlands of the Nyanga Mountains. On our way, the village of Troutbeck. A European-like piece of paradise, a shelter for the high society of Zimbabwe, a retreat from the African heat and craziness. Situated at 2100 meter above sea level (remember that we hit the 100m altitude few days ago), Troutbeck has fresh climate, European infrastructures and, you’ve guessed it, trout fishing. Once visited by the wealthy Zimbabwean land owners who got scared away by the 2000’s Land Reform, the Troutbeck Inn didn’t seem to be in our budget although the main butler seemed very nice so we walked down to the local bar, and drank few beers before pitching our tent in the dark. At the bar, a huge Zimbabwean guy did not agree with our plan and forced us to cycle back to the Inn and sleep in his rented cabin with his family… Can’t really argue with a guy like that, can we! I then understood how big of a hazard it is to drunk-cycle: my 45kg bicycle seemed sooooo much heavier! I couldn’t even rear my handle bar – who’s supporting two lateral panniers and one front platform. “Wait for me, guys!!!” – it clearly wasn’t JP’s first drunk-cycling experience, but it was mine. What can I say… I still have so much to learn.
We got to his cabin, it was ten o’clock at night, all laughing like collegians, out of breath, when three real collegians (his kids) got out of the house and wanted to know all about our very modern gear. (The tent) “Wwwoooowwww!!!” (The chairs) “Wwwoooowowowowo!!!” (The stove) “wwhhooohhoooo!” (The mattresses and sleeping bags) “Whhohohoho!!” (The heavy bikes) “Can I try?!” “Sure!” … BAM! (The kid falls on the grass) “Wwwooooowwwww!!!!” They took us inside where a feast was waiting on the table. That was our very first typical Zimbabwean meal as we had been cooking for yourselves, and our first time eating meat since a long time. We couldn’t refuse such a gift (and would have eaten plain sadza if not eating meat) so we ate like cyclists do, and were as thankful as we could without being too annoying.
Two days later, we cycled down to Mutare, after climbing up the Christmas pass (a name that made me nostalgic of not having a white Christmas this year… A year of summer… So overrated). Our way down was magical. One of those moment in cycling that you tell yourself two thing. One: this is why I’m sweating like a pig in those billions of stupid passes and hills – to go down like this, for endless minutes, in gorgeous landscapes, with the wind drying up your eyes and freezing your cheeks. Two: “I really hope my wheels and brakes are well fixed!”
In Mutare, we knocked at Ann Bruces’s door. She’s a seventy year old cheerful white lady, born and raised in Zimbabwe, running a backpackers with her dogs and cats. Entering her house was like entering my Italian aunt Lili’s house. Books, paintings, sofas, colorful pillows and posters, pets sleeping and running everywhere, people passing by at any hours of the day… A welcoming organized chaos. She was going to play an important role: we needed information about our route in Mozambique, and she seemed to know a lot – about everything. Hear her tell the story with her old British-ish accent: “Espungabero border? And then Zinave National Park? I only know one friend who got there, and I remember (Ann always has crazy stories for every hour of the day and on every subjects)… She… Got lost. She got lost in Zinave. They eventually found back their way, don’t get me wrong! But it was quite hectic. A real adventure! Is that what you’re looking for?! Anyways. That was nearly forty years ago… It might still be the same… It’s Mozambique after all. Those poor people… You know Mozambique is the only place where I swim in the ocean! I love Mozambique… When I go see my grand children in South Africa, I never swim! Too cold! Who want’s tea?” She then referred us to the people of the Farmhouse, a backpackers in Chimanimani, where we were next heading. But while in Mutare, I started noticing something bizarre on my left leg. I had worn sandals for the first time while cycling and obviously had a huge sunburn. I also had badly scratched mosquito bites on my ankle and foot, and also had hit my leg with my huge metallic pedal – nothing serious. None of those wounds seemed to heal properly. I remember getting bit – again – by a mosquito and literally observing pus coming out of the tiny hole. Then, hitting my foot on something, seeing pus filling up the wound immediately. “What the…” Considering that the shower that I had at Ann’s was my first real shower in ten days (I stupidly refused a shower in Troubeck), I thought my body was simply trying to complain about my hygiene choices. Anyways, we were too busy trying to organize our next moves to think of something else. It was extremely hard to get any kind of info about Zinave like… “Will there be lions and elephants? (my first concern) Can we easily find food and water? (my second concern) Can we cycle through? (JP’s main concern)” Nothing. Only one way to know: let’s go. But first, Chimanimani. Whit a name like this… Better be worth it.
I got a part of my weird pus situation (that just sounds horrible) answered that night on the road. I had fever. I felt so much at home at Ann’s that I had released my guards and while my immune system was snoozing, some weird viruses got all excited. “All I need is a good night of sleep”. That night, we slept under a Baobab tree in front of a happy family’s hut. They were first wondering why we wanted to sleep by their hut and suggested us to knock on the biggest house’s door (…), but we insisted and finally, they were super thrilled to have us for the night. They were so thrilled that they proceeded with some chanting and storytelling – they had the courtesy of warning us of some “weird voices in the evening”: “don’t worry! We are telling stories to the kids, and after, we will pray”. We cooked dinner (that night, it was meal #1: ten-egg omelet with tomato, onion, curry and bread), eventually withdrawn ourselves in our palace, ready for bed (it was already 7:45PM) and took the precaution of pushing earplugs as deep as we could in our ear holes (…). They were still signing at half past three. In the night – or in the morning, depending how you see it. Few hours later, when we were packing up and making breakfast (that morning, it was meal #3: banana oatmeal), and they were fetching water, like nothing happened. “They are worst then the Nepali! (We figured out four years before that the people of Nepal slept about three hours a day to be able to talk to us through the tent at night, and then to wake us up before sunrise)”. There was a huge spider sleeping on my pannier (creatures are visibly attracted by my bags more than JP’s, probably because I’m the food keeper). And once again, I tried to push it away without having it run into my stuff… And managed.
NOTE: my weird pus situation didn’t get solve here, but I will get back on it in my next chapter about Mozambique, where it gets nasty. You’ll see…
We cycled and cycled, hoping that sweating would drown our illness – JP also started feeling it. Out of energy, we took a tea and nap break (the best ones) two kilometers from the village of Chimanimani. “Can’t… Reach… Let’s… Nap”. A pleasant surprise was waiting for us… As we were laying under a eucalyptus tree, two happy cyclists arrived. I jumped on my feet and timidly welcomed our new friends with big signs so that they would have to stop: “JUST ON TIME FOR TTTEEEEEAAAAA!!!!!!!!” Jed and Cameron, from the town of the Cape, were on their way to Harare on a three week cycling trip. They stopped with a big smile, happy to meet cyclists – but surely wondering WHY we would stop for a break 2km from the village where we all planned to stay for the night… “Bah… Too tired” answered JP, still semi-sleeping on the ground. We drank tea, we ate cookies, we laughed and got back on the saddle for a 2km of uphill – that’s why we stopped for a nap.
We got to the Farmhouse where apparently the owners would be able to tell us more about the stretch after Espungabero border – but no one was there, and no one would come. So we pitched the tent, and relaxed with the dozens of angry geese (same as Angry Birds). We cooked lunch (it was meal #5: ramen noodles, soya pieces, curry and peanut butter) and sweat our viruses out under our tent still we both had a bit of fever. We had a great time with the boys and left them, knowing that we would most likely contact them in Cape Town once we get there in April for a beer (or to crash at their apartment for seven days and eat all their food – we love you Jed!!!).
Next day: Bridal Veil Falls in Chimanimani. Beautiful. We rode our bikes with no luggage and felt S-T-R-O-N-G, ready for any kind of African bush (fools). We then left for Chipinge through the Rusitu Valley and the memory of greater years, the years when Zimbabwe was Africa’s pantry.
Because I care about everyone’s general knowledge (and because we felt a bit unknowledgeable by arriving there without knowing ourselves), here’s a little hint of Zimbabwe’s history (you’re welcome). At some point in the History, Eastern and Southern Africa entirely got colonized by the Europeans. In fact, so did the entire continent – except for Liberia and Ethiopia, which is debatable. The British arrived in Zimbabwe in the 19th century and took over the country in the early 20th. The country once called Rhodesia suffered from two wars: a bush war in the 70’s and a civil war in the 80’s, just after its independence. In 2000, White land owners, farmers and their workers found themselves expropriated by the government according to the new Land Reform*. The situation in Zimbabwe got worse and worse, to the point of relying on humanitarian aids to feed its own people, of exiting the Commonwealth, and of switching to the American dollar after watching its own money inflate more than 100,000%.
Cycling through the Rusitu Valley was magical. Everywhere, green rolling hills, fruit trees and plantation. The road was quiet, peaceful – we only saw one or two cars that day. The dark orange earth seems so fertile… How many big farm European-like houses we saw on the road? We could see old signs for local pubs and guesthouses, and pretty but empty Victorian buildings, slowly eaten by the jungle. Either those farmers got expropriated by the government because of the Land Reform or in order to expand the protected area of the Chimanimani National Park (as I could after read online**), visiting that part of the county came with a strange feeling.
We eventually got back on the tarred road, and after being stopped at a main junction by bored policeman and insisting macadamia nut sellers (I bought as many little bags of those delicious nuts as my bag could hold), we took a left and cycled in direction of Chipinge, our last Zimbabwean city. Before hitting the Mozambican border the next day, we crossed the magical primary rainforest of Selinda. That night, we listened to the music of the jungle, surrounded by monkeys and birds, over a campfire and under the stars. No better way to finish this beautiful journey in Zimbabwe, and to get the strength we’ll need in the next days… The Real African Bush was waiting for us.
Next stop : In the Land of Fire
*To know more about the life in Zimbabwe in those years, read Douglas Rogers’ life story in “The Last Resort”.
** When Parks Encroach Upon People: Expanding National Parks in the Rusitu Valley, Zimbabwe. CSQ Issue 20.1. Spring 1996. Voices From the Commons. By Hughes and David M. Available online on : http://www.culturalsurvival.org/ourpublications/csq/article/when-parks-encroach-upon-people-expanding-national-parks-rusitu-valley-z