Phew........ where do I start??
It's been a roller coaster journey, nothing to do with going up and down hills, and here I am in Masvingo, Zimbabwe.
From Chicamba Lake, I had an idea that it would be too far to reach the Great Zimbabwe Monument in one day, with a border crossing to take in as well. But Mutare, just inside Zimbabwe, would be too early to stop, only about forty miles, and then there was nothing else shown on my map until Masvingo, bringing the mileage to two hundred and forty. Quite a long way on my little bike after a border crossing. So I didn't know how things would work out.
Especially after the insurance man on the Zimbabwe side of the border was nowhere to be seen when I was ready to pay him some money. (USD6 for road access and carbon tax - motorcycle rate).
Eventually he appeared, to face quite a queue, and I was away at last onto the Zimbabwean roads, but later than I had hoped.
Without a doubt there are changes as you cross into each new African country, but changes so subtle they can't be described (by me anyway), you have to experience them. So it was with Zimbabwe.
There are the obvious things, the money is US dollars - it seems strange now travelling around with a pocketful of portraits of US presidents. And police checks are more frequent than in any country so far. Of the ten between the border and here, I was stopped at only one, for the usual chat about where from and where to. But these things become a habit so I found myself stopping at two or three more of them anyway - for the usual chat about where from and where to.........
The vegetation and nature of the farming changes. Here in Zimbabwe it's warm again after the cold of southern Malawi and Mozambique, although the elevation is slightly higher.
And the range of plants and trees along the roadsides is amazing now. I don't know the names of them but there seems to be so many more different species, particularly of trees. Every possible shape and colour.
Cattle farming is much more in evidence. Completely unfenced, cattle wandering the roads at will.
And the little roadside villages of circular mud-brick huts with thatch roofs continue from Mozambique, with people waving cheerfully.
Two hundred-odd miles of empty countryside (except the tiny villages) lay between Mutare and Masvingo with good empty tarmac.
The people in the villages looked well-dressed and well fed, as most of our journey so far. But there was no transport. Particularly noticeable was the lack of bicycles - but the road being fairly flat and in excellent condition for cycling. Maybe a dozen maximum seen in the two hundred miles. Also, a complete lack of advertising for mobile phones, and no masts outside one or two of the largest villages. So there certainly seems to be less prosperity here than in previous countries.
The shapes and colours of the amazingly wide range of flora was the most visible change from Mozambique and Malawi. It's not difficult to see the attractions of this land that made the British, rightly or wrongly, determined to get their hands on it a couple of hundred years ago. Truly a Garden of Eden.
A man-made landmark at about halfway is the Birchenough Bridge stretching across the Save River. A massive high lattice-steel arch supporting two narrow lanes of tarmac below.
Followed by nothing, for about fifty miles. No other traffic, no villages, no people, no cultivation, no animals, no turnings, just the continuing lush and verdant vegetation. And a continuous and substantial double fence along the left of the road. There's nothing marked on my map, so a mystery. But I have learnt over the years that land ownership by foreign entities is controversial here.
It was a bit eerie that stretch, a huge land so lush but with no other human presence. Not since the Sahara, I think, has there been such a long stretch of African road competely devoid of human life or habitation.
Afterwards the little villages returned for another fifty miles. And with less than an hour of daylight left, came Masvingo, rather suddenly (like the dusk). The epitomy of a British colonial town, even two railway crossings (like being back in Whyteleafe) and a station.
That road was interesting for another couple of odd reasons.
There were regular little picnic places, concrete table and seats, except for the fenced-off stretch. Like being back in Europe. I stopped at one for a break, a little way after the end of the long mysterious fence, and remembered I'm supposed to take photos now and again.
There's hardly any litter to be seen here. Each of these picnic places had an unvandalised bin, and in Masvingo I even saw, a couple of times, passers-by pick up an empty crisp packet or somesuch similar and drop it in one of the many bins.
An attempt to capture some of the late winter colours here.
While taking these photos I became aware of lots of cracking and snapping noises, going on constantly. I assumed people had noticed I'd stopped and were approaching. But no, there was no one around, nor any animals. It took a bit of observation but eventually I saw the source of the sounds. The trees here grow a strange object on their branches. When one is ready to fall off, there's a loud cracking noise, followed by another when it hits the ground. So more photos, for what they're worth.
The noisy tree fruit, or whatever it is. I'll try to find out but haven't yet. It's made of something like brittle wood. Maybe it's a seed pod.
And some vague pictures of them up in the trees. The ones above before they curl up.
And for the other feature of this road, readers of a certain age and from a certain profession may sometimes wonder, "Do long-distance open-wire telephone lines still exist anywhere in the world?"
Well, they probably do in many places, and this is one of them. All along the two hundred and forty miles from the border to Masvingo. (And all the way onwards to Great Zimbabwe). And in excellent well-looked-after condition. All the wires properly tensioned, all insulators intact and vertical. Amazing! (Well, for some of us)
Ten pairs on this route, but as many as forty pairs on other stretches. (The high-traffic areas!)
In the other direction were the mountains above Masvingo, and........
"..... glistening in the late afternoon sun, like lengths of finely woven gossamer silk"
(Depending how your screen resolves the pattern in the wires!)
After more than two hundred miles of this, I started to wonder, "Will I find internet in Zimbabwe?"
Well, there is, one single place in Masvingo so far. I'm intrigued to know if these telephone lines are still actually in use. If not, then they must have been very well erected to still be in such good apparent condition.
If that isn't boring enough, there's more. - (WHAT will he be taking photos of next??)
Shortly after leaving Chimoio in Mozambique a new noise from the bike suddenly commenced. Always a worry.
Specially as it was a rattlely sort of noise like something metallic about to fall off, remembering the recent loss of various bolts. A quick examination, and precision kicking of various parts, revealed nothing. Everything was safe and secure. But something was causing it!
I did a few laps of the bike, looking it up and down. Then that thing sprung to mind, well hidden and invisible unless you get up close and know where to look.
The chain roller...........
Yes, the rubber roller had departed. Leaving only the journal bearing for the chain to hit against, and I knew already that that was close to collapse.
Satisfied that it was the cause I continued. But it's one of those nagging noises, intermittent depending on the roughness of the road and position of the throttle, and worrying even when you're fairly certain of what it is.
After the Zimbabwe border, some way along the road to Masvingo, the noise appeared to reduce. I couldn't really explain that in my mind but had an idea. So when I stopped at the picnic place I remembered to check, and found that the poor old bearing had indeed also departed, leaving only the bolt, which is further away from the chain, so contacts it less.
I removed the whole lot In Masvingo and now all the noise has gone. Hope it'll be OK. I've read of other owners removing it all together and not reporting problems. But just in case, in a shop way back in Kigoma (Tanzania) I think it was, I found stacks of car and lorry suspension-bushes of all sizes. I bought two that may fit on the bolt, without the bearing, perhaps continuing to offer the chain some guidance. They're made of quite hard plastic so may be OK without the bearing for a while.
This is Africa, so we'll see, if I decide to fit them.
Finally, the roller-coaster bit is trying to fit things in (like keeping this site up to date) with the electricity supply. There are major improvements being done (I'm told) at the power stations in this part of the country, so electricity is only on, roughly, during the hours of darkness. Since I've been here there's been none between about 7am and 9 or 10pm. Hope things get better!
From The Great Zimbabwe Monument.
I suppose that's an appropriate collective noun for so many photos.
So I'll try to keep the words short. Not always successful on this blog.
"The postings needn't be long, but it takes a long while to make them short."
These photos were taken over two days, the first dull, dark and cloudy, the second bright and sunny.
It's a fairly fascinating place. Built as a royal capital city between the 12th and 15th centuries, at the height of its powers in the 13th and 14th centuries it was the largest settlement in southern Africa. The site extends to 720 hectares.
The centre of the city is the Hill Complex, built atop a 300ft granite hill.
Down in the valley is the Great Enclosure, the largest of the remaining city buildings and ruins which are spread out across the rest of the site.
The Hill Complex from the outside wall of the Great Enclosure
And from the opposite (east) side of the hill.
A section of the walls, beneath a few tons, or more, of 'balancing boulders'.
The narrow 'stairway' ascending the 300ft up to the Hill Complex.
And the view back down.
The Recess Enclosure inside the Hill Complex. Beyond is the Great Enclosure.
More stairs inside the Hill Complex.
Like much of East Africa this area is littered with volcanic boulders, ejected from the volcanoes of millions of years ago. They are categorised into two main types: "balancing boulders" and "whale boulders" depending on their appearance and demeanour.
Both types are scattered around Great Zimbabwe, including up in the Hill Complex.
Balancing boulder No.1, hanging above the Hill Complex.
Balancing boulder No.2
The main entrance to the enclosed part of the Hill Complex is at bottom right. You walk in and arrive right underneath this monster.......
........just here. Can't really see the overhang at this angle though.
Balancing boulder No.3. There's definitely nothing holding this one in place on its little sloping shelf, not a single Rawlbolt.
A few more.
The builders of Great Zimbabwe weren't bothered by a few balancing boulders, they just built their walls around and over them. The same with whale boulders, even up here on the hill-top.
This whale has a dry-stone wall on its back..........
and is even balancing a ball on its blow-hole.
A few million years ago many volcanoes hereabouts were in full spate. And wouldn't you know it? - all the pink and grey turret-shaped boulders fell to earth in the same spot, instantly building a Walt Disney magic castle, just like in the cartoons!
(Left in the far distance, the Great Enclosure is in the foreground)
A small part of the outside wall of the Great Enclosure. With all the grass here growing in red earth, it's to be expected I suppose that it turns red in the late winter.
The entire Great Enclosure wall.
Main entrance to the Great Enclosure.
Through the main Entrance.
Looking out through another entrance.
'The Parallel Corridor'.
The Great Enclosure is believed to have been a royal palace. This narrow and tall passageway inside the main wall leads about halfway round the enclosure to the Conical Tower and the back of what was once the throne area. Believed to have been used by waiters serving meals and the beer that was brewed here.
Conical Tower. Resembling a granary, but purpose unknown. It's height is presumed to represent the royal family's wealth. It's the tallest structure here.
Believed to be the main ceremonial area in front of the Conical Tower.
A good place for a moon shot, next to the Conical Tower.
From inside the enclosure.
And outside the main wall.
Another whale near the museum. There's even a water spout from his blow-hole. It just happens to be in the shape of a spindly tree.
Accommodation here is either camping or huts. Somehow or other my bike made a beeline for one of these.
It's not difficult to see why Bulawayo became the favorite home town of many, if not most, of the British colonialists during Zimbabwe's time as Southern Rhodesia. It certainly is a very pleasant place.
Having the layout of a typical mid-west US town, wide streets and pavements in a simple grid formation, low rise buildings, parking for all the cars that might need it, a spacious City Hall, and room for everyone with public parks dotted all around (even a 50-metre swimming pool). It's easy to spend quite a while here. And there's plenty to see further afield as well.
I left Great Zimbabwe after about four days, spent another day in Masvingo, and headed here along very pleasant empty roads through more lush Zimbabwean countryside in glorious weather. Then turned south to spend some time in the Matobo National Park.
It's not a particularly notable park by African standards but is supposed to be the most visited park in the country. That's probably because it's close to Bulawayo where a good proportion of Zimbabwe's population lives. And the scenery does have some interesting features, namely more 'balancing boulders' and 'whaleback boulders' which seem to be a significant part of the volcanic landscape in these parts. And kept me there for three days.
So some photos:
On the way out of Bulawayo to Matobo NP is this sign. The first I'd seen in Africa, I think, bearing a traditional regional name.
These teetering tons of old stones are all over the place, and I've decided that having a crash helmet to hand when out and about in this countryside is quite an advantage, safety-wise.
Cecil Rhodes, who gave his name to what was then 'Rhodesia', is buried in this park and this is one of his favourite viewpoints.
He called it 'The View of the World'.
To me, along with other similar scenes in other places in the world, it certainly looks like this was one of planet Earth's busiest boiler houses and engine rooms during its fiery formation.
Rhodes built a railway line here so that "the people of Bulawayo may enjoy the Matopos from Saturday to Monday."
This is the station and what remains of that line.
The station sign just about says "The Matopos," the name of this part of the park.
Clearly Rhodes' "Saturday to Monday" stipulation didn't provide enough passenger journeys to make the line a going concern as it closed in 1948 after only forty five years in service.
Here's a photo of a photo hanging in the Bulayawo Railway Museum, of the station in 1935. (Reflection of a window in the glass).
Also in the park is a shrine to The Memorable Order of Tin Hats, or MOTHS, which I had vaguely heard of once, so it was interesting to read about it on a plaque at the site.
The MOTHS shrine. MOTHS was founded in 1927 to help ex-servicemen from World War One, this shrine consecrated in 1947.
Back in Bulawayo, this is the Cape To Cairo Pub on the main crossroads opposite City Hall.
If it's only 4,650 miles from Cairo to Cape Town via Bulawayo, why is it taking me so long to get there?
Because it's a wonderful continent, that's why!
And also because, I came in from Cairo on the Cape Town road (from Masvingo and Mozambique), not the Cairo road. And the road that I'll be leaving on for Cape Town is the one behind the camera (to the Kalahari and Okavango Delta) not the Cape Town road. (I did say that maps of Africa are a movable feast, and so are the routes).
So, Bulawayo was once firmly on the 'Cairo to Cape Town Route', which may raise the question as to why, very sadly, it isn't nowadays. Coincidentally, I read a piece in a Zimbabwean newspaper last week that leads me to the following ramble.
This is my second visit to Zimbabwe, the first was in 2001 when I spent a little time in book shops and newspaper offices in Harare, gleaning information on the real situation here. (You may remember that the British press was reporting at that time that Harare newspaper offices were being raided by police and army and set alight on a daily, or maybe weekly, basis. Well, I remember the tea in the office being very good).
Beforehand I had read, buried deeply in tiny corners of a British newspaper or two, snippets that raised my curiosity about what was actually happening in the country during the early 2000s and the hand that 'western' interests had in those events. And it was an interesting education on my 2001 visit to Harare to say the least. I'll just say that if your opinion on what has been going on in Zimbabwe over the last ten years has been informed by reading and watching the British news media, then you may hold the precise opinions that western interests in Zimbabwe want you to have, which is the opposite of the opinions that I hold and is why I am here again, enjoying the country. (Yes, terrible things did happen here, and similar events continue today in Sudan for instance. But misrepresentation of Africa in western media is endemic).
I'll finish this bit by paraphrasing what was in that newspaper last week. It was written by a visiting British journalist. (Yes, a British journalist being published in a Zimbabwe newspaper, an impossibility according to the mainstream media back home). She was here during the World Cup to report on the masses of travellers that would be passing through the country on their way to South Africa, and to find out what they thought about Zimbabwe.
Well, she found none. Which is what she thought might happen. She writes: ..... why has everyone diverted through Tanzania and Mozambique? Or through Zambia and Botswana? Why has no one come through Zimbabwe? The streets are safe, the people cheerful, polite and welcoming, the weather wonderful, shelves full, souvenirs plentiful, hotels smart with plenty of rooms, opportunities for sightseeing endless.......etc etc. You get the idea.
And her answer is simple - because of the way the country has been heavily misrepresented in the western media for so long.
So, if you're planning your East Africa journey don't spend time plotting a route to avoid this country, just go through it. You won't be disappointed. And as you can see from the picture above, there's plenty of room, sunshine, and bars for everyone. And, moreover, what little traffic there is drives on the left, as traffic ought to - what more could you want?
I had lunch in the Cape To Cairo. The inside looks as though it was built in the pioneer days, although it says 1931 above the door. Around the walls are photos of early settler times, including an impressive picture of the Harare - Bulawayo passenger and mail coach. Arriving outside the Post Office, it's a typical wild-west type stage coach pulled by a team of eight huge horses. The whole thing looked longer than any freight truck I've seen on the roads so far. Now that must have been real adventure travelling!
And there was good South African jazz playing in the bar - Abdullah Ibrahim.
For the jewel in the crown of these parts, there's the Hillside Road Dams in the south of Bulawayo. A neat little community park next to the main dam, with smart bistro restaurant (with internet when the power's on) and 'tuck shop', all developed out of a derelict river-side area over a period of three or four years by the voluntary efforts of the Hillside Road community. (Hillside Road being the main N - S thoroughfare on the eastern side of Bulawayo).
Probably, only residents of a certain other Hillside Road will be interested in any of this.......
The Hillside Dam.
Dam wall at the far end.
(The real name is Hillside Dams - I made up the 'Hillside Road Dams' - just for effect)
One of Rhodes' top priorities in Southern Rhodesia (even encouraged in his will) was irrigation. Consequently this part of the country at least, including Matobo National Park, is dotted with dammed-up rivers all over the place, built a hundred years or so ago so that water could easily be extracted from all those rivers. The result today, as well as this little community park, is a chronic lack of water in Bulawayo, with insufficient financial resource to relieve it.
So a little correction to a previous paragraph, there's not quite enough water here for everyone.
There's another jewel in the crown if you're of the railway persuasion - the Bulawayo Railway Museum.
This is a huge area of old railway engines, paraphanalia and memorabilia spread out across numerous tracks in an old sidings, some under cover. It takes a long time to see it all as you have to walk up and down all the rolling stock to get across the tracks, unless you're able to climb over or clamber under the couplings between all the engines and carriages.
A lot of it is claimed to be in working order, other stock is clearly derelict and a little sad looking.
I think there's at least one reader interested in this wonderful stuff, so some more photos:
A little one to start with, 'Rhodesia No.1'.
This is the biggest steam locomotive I've ever seen. Fourteen axles. It's a Beyer-Garratt, made in England according to the curator, but I've never seen one before, nor in any model shop.
The other side of it. It's like two separate locos, articulated, and sharing a common boiler and fire in the middle. Water tank at one end, coal bunker at the other. This one claimed to be in working condition.
A poster of emotive times past.
Inside Cecil Rhodes' personal carriage. This is particularly well preserved. Also well preserved in a separate display is a complete set of furnishings, china and silverware used in trains during a royal visit to Rhodesia in the 1950s.
Another Beyer-Garratt, not in working condition but mostly complete by the looks of it.
And another - who'll start the bidding?? - not complete, the water tank removed I think.
More stuff in the out-doors junk yard.
And a couple more preserved in-doors but with window box growing in the sunshine.
This was quite an amazing place, and probably sees many a day with absolutely no visitors, although it comes highly recommended as a place to see. There's quite a collection of telecoms stuff, old valve-operated line testers and a few old mechanical facsimile machines, the ones with the large rotating drum that take about half an hour to send a small picture. Don't know why Rhodesia Railways would have wanted all those. And quite a large room stuffed full with old railway books - it was opened specially for me so probably hardly ever sees the light of day.
Now, will try to find some motorbikes to photograph.
No, not leaving Bulawayo just yet, but have completed some exhaustive research on where on earth to go next.
Bulawayo is at a crossroads on the route to Namibia and the African west coast, there being at least three different ways ahead. All three traverse pretty remote and empty country, require at least some planning and provisioning, and are all equally highly recommended by guide books and other travellers.
The possibilities are:
- North west to the Victoria Falls, the Caprivi Strip, and round the north of the Okavango Delta to Windhoek.
- West to Nata, Maun on the south of the Okavango Delta, across a corner of the Kalahari and thence to Windhoek, or
- South west to Gabaronne (Botswana), and across, more or less, the Kalahari to Windhoek.
One of my considerations is the distance. I've travelled 16,000 miles now since Whyteleafe (how, I don't know - must be all that zigzagging - arriving here from Cairo on the Cape Town road for instance). And I don't want to suddenly find myself not wanting to go much further before Cape Town is in the bag. The shortest route onwards is the western one, so I've been studying that on the internet to check there are no distances of space-travel proportions without food, water or petrol. And it all looks OK.
The south west route is too long and requires almost a complete diagonal crossing of the Kalahari that I didn't even bother to check up on.
For the north west option, I've visited Victoria Falls before, and more than one other traveller has now told me that the Caprivi Strip is "just boring."
So all being well the next bit should be via Francistown (Botswana), Nata, Maun, Ghanzi, Gobabis (Namibia) and Windhoek.
And the thing that really called out to me from my maps, was that this route goes through that well-known bit of Namibia called 'Khomas'. So I couldn't miss out on that!
A couple of days ago I visited the Khami ruins to the west of the city. It's a smaller version of Great Zimbabwe, reaching its peak of influence about a hundred years later.
('Zimbabwe', by the way, literally means 'stone houses')
And some other bits from Zimbabwe.
In Masvingo someone was giving me directions to a hotel.
"There are only two robots in town, so it's easy. Turn left at the first, then right at the second, and it's a couple of kilometres on from there."
Luckily I had overheard someone a day or so before talking about 'robots' and realised he was talking about traffic lights. In Zimbabwe they're 'robots'.
And the cash limit from ATMs has disappeared, the limit previously being eighty pounds or less in Mozambique and Malawi.
Here, the first 'quick menu' that pops up on the ATM screen is for:
That's US dollars. From the sublime to the ridiculous.........
If you dare to enter "$200", the counting machine inside goes "click-click" and out pop two one-hundred dollar bills, that you can't spend anywhere.
Certainly not for fifty cents worth of bananas on the street.
And "cents" are an interesting concept here. There are none.
The only coins in circulation are South African Rands. So if you're due fifty US cents in change, you get about four or five rands, depending on what exchange rate the shopkeeper is sticking to. Anything between five rands to ten rands per US dollar is the norm, also decided by what particular coins the shopkeeper may have at that time. Or, you get sweets to the value of the change if no coins are to hand......
As in Malawi, most of the traffic here sticks to the speed limits. And in Bulawayo, radar speed traps are not uncommon. Someone was telling me that on a straight stretch of road (no attempt is made to hide the tripod-mounted device) the range is as much as a kilometre. I thought it a little strange at first that of the three or so I've seen in town, no one (including me) was ever stopped and receiving a ticket. (Then I realised, the traffic goes quite slowly).
"Ah!" said my informant. "That happened to me once. I was waved down and decided I'd ask to see the calibration certificate. They never have it, you see. But before I could say anything the policeman told me their shift had finished, and could I give them a lift back to their station? I seemed to be going in the right direction they said!"
"Once they were in my car they said they were in a hurry, could I go faster? I was already almost over the speed limit!"
That explained something that had puzzled me for a while. At just about every roadside police check in Africa, and all the radar speed checks, there's never a police car in attendance. Even on the most remote bits of road.
"How on earth do they return back to their base?" I thought.
Now I know.
Sorry, will try again to find some motorbikes to photograph........
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