(Second time writing this, 4 days after I originally started – Technical Issues Galore!)
Holy Hills! Well into Zimbabwe now after crossing the border from Zambia with only 1 hour to spare before they closed for the night and my visa ran out. Not like it would have been a bad thing – I love Zambia and certainly want to visit again, and that is precisely why I moved forward to get out of the country for later on in life.
Within 30 minutes of pedaling on my first day, I had a strange premonition that my dates were out of order in my head – causing a stop at the nearest gas station to verify that yes, indeed, my passport was not to run out in 3 days like I had been thinking all along, but the next day! So much for relaxing and working my body into the labours of bicycle touring – I had to haul ass!
While I was prepared and aware of the physical pains that would come from the Dave C approach of “Sit on your butt and just figure it out when you are on your bike” often even though I was well aware of the elevation changes that were upcoming I certainly wasn’t ready for the mental curve ball that came right at me in high speed causing a few very tough days.
2 years ago to the day that I left I remember going through the same feeling, although in a different mindset as I shook the hand of my father “David! I hope you let go of whatever it driving you angry!” and set off across Canada, and nearly 1 year from the time I said goodbye to my friends and loved ones in St. John’s Newfoundland here I was again in Lusaka Zambia exchanging hugs, having a tough time swallowing, and hearing/saying those all too familiar words – see you soon. Likely the fact that it was also coming up to an extended long weekend (easter) where it’s assumed that anyone with Family is to get together in some way shape or form making me realize that throughout this journey called life I have met some wonderful people but continuously have to say goodbye for some reason or another. I certainly wasn’t ready to leave Zambia this time around – all well too comfortable in the life of a growing city of Zambia with good people making me feel real comfortable – more so than I’ve felt in years and then –rip– gone.
Pedaling off I tried to keep my spirits up, heading towards the grocery store to pick up some food for the next few days knowing the sparcity of what lay ahead. I didn’t make it 30 seconds in the shop before running into someone I knew. On the road shortly there after more people driving out of town with their loved ones or families off to the hot spots such as Siuvanga, or Kariba on the Zimbabwe side of the lake all stopping to cheer me on, offer lifts (no!), and say their goodbyes if I hadn’t had a chance to let them know my abrupt departure.
Getting the legs to get into the mode of turning 360 degrees over and over again was fairly simple, I love my bicycle and how I fit it, no major pains for long distances (providing one does move around at least once in a while!), sleek and maneuvreable even though it is 75kg loaded down. Still, the physical load of this slowed me to a snails pace and knowing the road very well I was backtracking on heading south allowed my mind to focus on the technicals rather than gawking with my eyes. I still did that though. Only making it 60km on the first day I stopped right beside an old truck weigh station where I saw someone waving at me – that’s cue to ask them to pitch a tent right? Well it worked- while I setup camp and ate dry foods preparing for the morning coffee boiling session my phone (yes – I finally was able to unlock my Iphone after who knows how many years) kept on ringing from friends wanting to make sure I was ok on the first day, but likely more curious to know how far I made it!
Even though you can grind away on a bicycle all day, sweating and grunting up hills in the grand scheme of things you really don’t move _that_ fast – Proven by the fact that a friend found out where I was and came by to visit me in the early evening wanting to see what the actual setup looked like in person as opposed to the stories and pictures I had relayed over beers in the past. Sleep was OK – earplugs always save the day especially where semi trucks stop frequently to idle, rev the engines, honk, and do whatever else they do in there.
Up and early it was for the last legally allowed day in Zambia – 80 some odd kilometres with many ups and downs heading on one side of the Zambezi River Escarpment. I had once driven this raod so knew what to expect in terms of the hills which helped greatly for mental preparation, but still it was difficult with a headwind already started at 8am which continued for half the day, while I slowly cycled past small villages with many people calling out to me (I could even respond back to them in their native tongue, which was kind of cool!), often passing groups of people waving wooden signs with numbers like ’160′ or ’180′ on them, with 2 empty jugs on the road. These people are the informal economy of Africa – buying and selling Diesel siphoned ouf of the semi trailers to give the truck drivers a bit of spare cash at the expense of their employer. Speaking to a group of them I was told out of a container which was nearly 40 litres they would make $10 or so from the initial $30 investment, enough to keep them going and in some cases build a house, send their kids to college for a better life. It happens more often than you would think here, often when you cycle past stacks of fruit on the side of the road, or the many men who stand in the middle of the street while you wait for the stop lights to turn green hawking DVDs, Dog Leashes, Pairs of Pants, Sunglasses, Cockroach Poison – it’s doing quite well for them.
It was good friday and I stopped in a few of the villages to say hello in Bimba making some of the children laugh with some of the funny words I knew, sucking back cheap imitation Coca Cola (Havana Cola – No caffeine, nothing like the real taste, 30 cents, but still gross!) going up and down the hills with out major burning in my lungs – Thank goodness I’ve quit smoking – Feels good to be riding without that always burning thoughts into my brain to stop and smoke and pollute my body further.
By 4 I was approaching the border town (?) and weaved away into the combo Zambia/Zimbabwe “1 stop” border crossing, laughing at the hundreds of trucks that wanted to cross before the 18h00 closing time, and further at the fact there were dozens of baboons jumping from truck to truck trying to find scraps of food. In the counter clockwise fashion the border process was fairly straight forward – get the passport stamped from Zambia, head over to Zimbabwe Immigration, where the 2 officers in the booths both have Solitaire full screen on their terminals – fill out form, return, explain what you are doing, often confusing the officer why you were unable to put a destination address often resulting in some raised voices and stern talk on their end until they realize you are on a bicycle as opposed to a motorcycle before they laugh, explain why you were in Zambia so long, laugh at their remark to that, move to next counter – pay $75 (Canadians only!), realize you gave the guard $85 but it is to be never seen again, move back to Immigration and get stamp. Finally – start heading counter clockwise over to Customs where a crowd of officers try to shake you down for whatever they can for road tax. Stand strong and tell them that theres no need to provide a receipt for the bicycle, the contents, and certainly not paying the road tax – Bicycles are eco friendly before making them laugh and getting another stamp. Leave, and proceed to gate down a steep hill weaving past pissed off truck drivers and other people waiting in line before being stopped by a man with an AK47 who points back at the building and says “INTERPOL!”. Sheepishly make your way back up the hill and reenter the building- this time instead of the counterclockwise treatment, you get to take a lovely walk down dark corridors for some time before sitting down with 2 officers who want to know more about “those little details that you wrote about being convicted of a crime in the past”. I explained it all to them in short order careful not to let them take it and run with it (You, the reader can wait for this long, but good and well worth the wait story) before having them ask you to come around and fix their computers for them. Finally make your way out after the 2 Interpol Stamps and enter Zimbabwe.
Immediately, upon crossing I was swarmed by locals – “Don’t go ahead! Don’t do it, this is dangerous! You must stop now!” – They had told me I was now in a National Park known for its wildlife, Elephants, oh yes – and Lions! (In the Jungle, the wild Jungle, the Lion does NOT sleep tonight! In fact this is when they are on the roads coming up to peoples houses in this town village of Chirundu hungry!). I headed over to the gas station purchasing a celebratory Coca COla (50 cents in USD) where I now realized that I better be buying 2 of these things from now on as I wouldn’t be getting any change back! Zimbabwe uses the Botswanan Pula, US Dollar, South African Rand, and in some cases the Zambian Kwacha for its currency – things are completely out of wack – 10 rand is equivalent to 1 USD here, although it really is only worth 7 rand in actual money changers/forex markets. This country has seen some incredible changes over the past few years nearly slipping into full on anarchy in 2007 and 2008.
I decided my best bet would be the police station, where immediately they agreed to allow me to pitch a tent before telling me that it was likely better to just come inside for the night, pointing at some lion scat on the pavement – That was nice, a power outlet was able to get some charging going as my phone/mp3 player has been draining the battery faster than usual – perhaps related to the SIM Hardware Unlocker I had in it? I had a great sleep and even lay the claim to fame to opening up a window and peeing out of it in the middle of the night as I didn’t want to blow the Police officers minds with my multi coloured body already reacting to wearing gloves, sunglasses, my pants and shirts in the sun.
82km is what it takes to get out of the park, however at the 30km mark a big surprise is waiting for you – approximately 2 dozen hairpin turns as you climb 800 or so meteres up to the top of the Zimbabwean side of the Zambwzi Escarpment – you need to get off the road before it gets dark from the wildlife, and I had lots of time I figured when I arrived at the bottom of the hill at noon. Muscles screaming, body aching I made it up almost all the way finding a lodge with a family milling about who was nice enough to provide lunch for me and some healthy conversation, a police station and a military base where reserves were running around with big logs on their shoulders all chanting in unison. The police officers were great – young, perhaps 23 or so all genuinely interested in what I was doing, with many questions asked similar to the what local people ask as well. There was even a man who had to be brought in the station in handcuffs after a “domestic issue” to which he hung outside with the officers smoking and laughing, with his new nickname “Mike Tyson” labelled by one of the officers – I’m not actually sure where he went afterwords – but it certainly didn’t seem like he was having that bad of a time with the cuffs on. After 60km that day I was done and sleeping by 6pm, only to be woken up throughout the night by lions roars peppered with nightmares. I was riding by 6:45am the next morning finishing off the last 20km of the park reaching the game fence and heading into Zimbabwe itself curious to see what the locals dresssed like, lived in, how the stores were made up and such.
The road I was traveling was the artery for most of African trucking industries all the way from Durban, a popular port in South Africa into well into the Democratic Republic of Congo, so in between whizzing semi trucks, shoulders that had caved away were road signs that often had bullet holes in them, faded colours, or hilarious pictures of cars that once were – I had to laugh when I saw the one of a Station Wagon 120 km/h – since when do they go that fast, and since when were those even in fashion – 1980? Wait, that’s when the government changed!
I had a good chance to stop and talk with locals while I tore apart my MSR Dragonfly stove – apparently letting it sit for 3 months with bad gas in one of the tanks isn’t what you should be doing and I spent time removing caked deposits out of the jets, lubricating the orings, and changing the fuel filters, good as new on that one – although I was still feeling rushed knowing there were other issues that were happening – the chain has been clacking a bit on the bicycle, the phone was still dropping battery quickly, the cache battery I have hooked up to the Dyno Hub wasn’t charging – argh – too many things at once, I’m surely not the multitasker I once was, when at one time I was known for actually getting work done on 3 computer monitors making onlookers dizzy and disoriented at the fast pace – my brain just starts to hurt when I load myself up now a days.
I figured 80km was a good stop to the day in the town of Karoi, and went for a hat trick at the Police Station, where a dozen or so people milled about the entrance, and many police officers uniformed and in plain clothes went in and out of the area to come and talk to me, music blaring in the background – chaos in its finest form, something someone needs to see to understand. I proceeded to ask the person at the front desk if I would be able to pitch a tent for the night – returning with my passport when requested and being told to sit down. While I sat down more officers came by, asked about Canada – were shocked to hear that cigarettes were a staggering $12 in some places (I’ve seen them as low as .40 cents a pack here in Zimbabwe), and a 6 pack of beer running $10 or more (.75 for a pint, 1.30 for 750ml), flashing around big wads of faded $5, $10, and $20 bills, calling them by Lincolns and the other people that were on the bill. Obviously flashing it around this station of children were running a muck all over the place – worse the Officer in Charge wasn’t to be in for another 30 minutes and I stil had to sit down with my passport not in my possession. It was 4′o’clock and I had better things to do with my time than sit and wanted to get out of there knowing I’d have better luck in parks or talking to people.
45 minutes later someone looking remotely official came in (meaning he was 20 years older than these kids running the show, and wore a dress shirt) who called me over and asked for my story, became irate when I said I didn’t have my passport wanting to know how I came into Zimbabwe, until I pointed to the desk clerk stating that he had it. He wrote down my information again (2nd piece of paper!) and then told me he would give me ‘feedback’ and that I needed to sit down on the bench.
In the meantime, a few things happened – a man was brought inside in cuffs, sat down beside me and started babbling to himself incoherently. “He’s Mad!” one of the young officers exclaimed – great… Next, a young girl and her mother appeared, and from what I could understand of the local language “Shona” that she was 11 years old and had been raped. The officers certainly didn’t make the girl feel welcome or safe in this situation, forcing her to stand in front of them and turn around a few times while they clucked and cawed saying “11!” over and over again. Finally, 2 well dressed men appeared at the front gate with a boy wearing no shoes, ripped clothing, who must have been no more than 5 years old. Upon entering the station the boy came up to me – smiled and shook my hand saying something in the language before turning around. I figured out he was out wandering 15km away from the station in the middle of nowhere, said he had no family, didn’t know where he lived, and all of that. The two men left, and the boy stood there in the station in awe at the furniture, the people, the officers staring at him, and then turned around and went to the front yard to explore the grass and flowers. 2 minutes later he had made it through the front gate and wasn’t seen again – already forgotten by the officers.
2 hours later – with the sun nearly set (Daylight is now less than 12 hours and rapidly dropping as we enter into Winter in the Southern Hemisphere) another man appeared in plain clothes, along with my well dressed officer from 1.5 hours back beckoning me to come to the counter by the name of Nathan. A third piece of paper came out, with this new man writing my particulars down, why I was in Zimbabwe, why I wanted to stay at the station (cutting me off when I mentioned it was a safe place stating that ‘All Cities in Zimbabwe are Safe’), where I was going etc before telling me that I was no longer welcome to sit on the bench as there were confiential matters that would affect state security that I could be hearing, and was to leave immediately. I looked at him, told him this could have been done sooner rather than forcing me to cycle in the dark turned around and left – scrambling to find a good place in rapidly diminishing light. I ran into a wandering white fellow with no teeth and an arm in a cast who was fairly excited to see me, telling me that I should try the church, and wanting to know my story after he exclaimed that he was from “Rhodesia”. Comedy aside, I had no interest in going down that path of a conversation with anyone after being hungry, frustrated for the past few hours said my goodbyes as polite as possible and headed over to a watchman who was just locking up the doors to a Church. He couldn’t speak much english at all, but hand waving, charades and motion had him open the door for me where I could set up my mattress for the night and catch some sleep. He ended up coming in 30 minutes later and sleeping on the other side of the church, More nightmares for the second night in a row. I started writing this post that night after fuming from the treatment at the Police Station and now looking back quite glad I’ve had a chance to rewrite a few days later. This has been the only negative Police experience in a few years of cycle touring – so it was rare. I thought about it the next morning as I pedaled away from the city of Karoi wondering about my experiences in cities with Police Stations, coming to the conclusion that I should only use them when there it is a village/township as opposed to a city. Besides – cities have an abundance of people you can talk to, sometimes schools, sometimes churches, and a lot more interesting things happen in these places as opposed to a secure police station.
I tried not to let it eat me the following day as I struggled again with electronics issues, phone still not keeping a charge, now GPS battery running low, speaers sounding weird (I finally got rid of the red speaker I’ve been carrying for 2 years straight moving back to the matched pair of purple Ihome HM-77 Capsule Speakers after breaking the red one in two by accident – it’s now time to order spares) and the chain clicking still occuring even though I had removed a link from the chain 2 days earlier. Paired with my mental anguish of missing friends and family I had a tough time enjoying what Zimbabwe has to offer, in terms of large trees, vast expanses of farmland and who can forget the crazy amounts of up and down hills. I spoke to a few people on the side of the road, one that stood out was a farmer who couldn’t speak any english but could understand – so I went full out and asked him how long he was doing what he was doing for, where he was from, and how he got the land – was it a gift? Yes.. He then pulled out of his pocket a couple handfuls of gold, kneeled down in the dirt and wrote $30/g – I delined and moved on, making it into the city of Chinhoyi by 1:30pm (not bad! nearly 90km in 5.5 hours!) finding an internet cafe trying to post the original posting (I only managed to get photos uploaded before the time ran out, and my own security systems on my website were blocking my attempts at posting though my Offline Writing system). I asked the first person I saw where I could find a church, and she directed me over to the Catholic Church (They’ll put you with the nuns, so no funny stuff with them!) to which I became lost and ended up over at the Anglican Church, where it was just the Reverend, his wife, newborn baby, and a few other travelers who were passing through. One of the men was an interesting fellow; born in Zimbabwe, lived in Zambia growing up, mom was British so he moved to the UK and had been back and forth every 5 years for 5 years at a time, and when not was driving trucks across Africa. We got along great and he shared some valuable experience and tips with me, and fortified my decision to go to DRC. He also explained that the Anglican Church had fallen in years past due to the government developments – people had began vandalizing this church as it was supported by the government, and people were being put in just to watch the land – with no people attending processions anymore. I don’t care what people believe in, but its interesting to hear that do no evil saintly types still find a way to break windows, steal pews and other items from the churches and not find it going against their moral values. There’s some deep frustration here over the government and straight up Robert Mugable himself.
I tried to pull the SIM card out of my phone thinking it was the problem, and 12 hours later in the middle of the night when waking up after the 4th consecutive nightmare nights I realized it was still happening – frustrated! Never again will I be buying a device that cannot have its battery changed! Even more so, never agin something where I have to jump through hoops to get it Unlocked! I figure I will try to find a replacement battery online, change it and sell it down the road and in the meantime bite the bullet and buy a Smartphone that is going to work in Africa, do what I need it to do (I simply want basic phone, Ability to scan for Wifi Networks, and play music) and then move forward – I can’t keep dealing with charging the device every day as it starts to impact my other electrical devices, it also takes nearly 3 hours to charge, time I don’t have, nor can I find power regularly.
I left the Church at 8 after fixing a few of their computers for them exchanging details and this time turning south off the busy trucking route towards Bulawayo – Its a 420km ride to get there and I’m 80km of the way in feeling good – body is starting to figure itself out again, mental state is starting to clear a bit, and I think I had a bit of a plan to deal with my electrical issues. It’s not perfect, but is life? These are the situations I knew I would encounter and I’m very careful to see how I am dealing with them as opposed to how I would deal with them in the past (Although I am quite curious to see what the local beer tastes like!)
Riding south was like riding through parts of British Columbia, especially the fraser valley with its low hills, tall stalks of corn and landscapes. I felt like I was back at home for most of the past 2 days – a comforting thought in times of dark. The people here are unbelieveably friendly – Not once have I been called Mzungu (I mentioned this to my trucker friend who laughed and said they now call you Urungu!, but still yet I have not been yelled at or catcalled). The Zimbabweans are _extremely_ intelligent, quick to reply and knowledgeable about world issues. Always with a smile and warm welcome they will shake your hands multiple times in a conversation, very curious as to my travels, and more often than not mentioning in some way shape or form “It’s nothing like you hear it is” or “Good, we’re glad you could come here and see for yourself!” – It’s obvious there has been some media manipulation here, pissed off countries throwing hissy fits that they can no longer pillage the landscape here and export it being one likely cause – but that talk is taboo – this isn’t a forum for world policy, politics, nor is it for religion – we can all keep those things to ourselves.
I’ve said it before and will say it again – nothing good ever happens fast, and the initial bumps are soon to move away fully into smooth riding – and all will be well. Being concious that surprises are bound to happen and how you react to them is one of the most important ways of getting through life. Glad I started to figure it out at 30, not 70.