Pet Sounds

AFTER so long travelling together, there is a bit of a danger of a truck uniform developing.

We all have items of clothing which get worn a lot more than the rest, but chances are a quick glance around the truck will spot a selection of hoodies (almost exclusively blue, worn when the wind is whipping in the side of the truck), shorts, quite possibly khaki, (Kris and myself managed to buy the identical pair from the same shop in a giant Cape Town mall) or tracksuit bottoms, flip-flops (almost all Havaianas) and T-shirts (which people have differing ideas about how long they can be worn without changing).

Throw in growing collections of bracelets, the odd baseball cap and sunglasses and that’s pretty much the Trans Africa uniform – although the girls have a tendency to thrown in the odd dress and skirt, just to mix things up. If they were relatively clean and comfortable on the truck, sure some of the boys would go for that as well.

Kande Beach
Still Clothed – Late enough at Kande Beach to be dancing on the bar (complete with bandage), early enough to still be wrapped in sleeping bag and rug

That all changed at Kande Beach, Malawi, when clothes were dispensed off altogether (increasingly so as the evening wore on), but more of that later.

Since Victoria Falls, we have gone a step further with matching tour T-shirts in a range of colours (although a quick look around camp suggests most of them are actually with the laundry women or, for those who opt to do their own washing, hanging from a line).

Trouble is, the design (which somehow fell to me) is already out of date.

The back of the T-shirts features the map of Africa with each country’s name spelled out to form its boundaries, with the ones we visit then picked out in yellow to mark the route.

But having donned our new (clean) clothing marking out Mozambique, we headed north out of Zimbabwe instead and took a detour through Zambia before rejoining the original route in Malawi.

As well as saving us money – a combined Zimbabwe-Zambia visa is considerably cheaper than one needed to pretty much drive through Mozambique – it also provided the chance to break new ground for the Trans trip.

No Clothes – Gareth takes the rules to the extreme

Not that we were in Zambia that long, making our way across the country to the Malawian border in just a couple of days.

But that was long enough for the contrast between Zambia – not a rich country, but one starting to show the signs of growth – and Zimbabwe as we drove past any number of building works and developments along the roadside (the capital Lusaka is shaping up to look like the type of city Harare could be).

Which, together with the number of people and villages which dotted either side of the road regardless of how far we got into the countryside, made the hunt for a place to bush camp a lengthy one.

Many of us were looking forward to getting back to bush camping, which provided a staple of our time journeying through West Africa, but which are few and far between on the more developed east.

And by the time darkness was falling over Zambia and a few extra layers had been wrapped over the standard truck clothing, we were really looking forward to a bush camp.

Sandy Beach – Chitimba

Only trouble is, every time we spotted a likely path off the side of the road, it turned out there was a village at the end and we headed off to try again.

Eventually, we pulled off onto a track not much wider than Nala, squeezed a fire alongside to cook the evening meal and stretched our tents out in single file in front of the truck.

And then the local farmer arrived on his bike.

Pretty sure the vast majority of farmers back home finding a big yellow truck and its inhabitants setting up camp alongside his crops are far more likely to greet them with a “get off my land” than a smile, a handshake and a warm welcome – and goodbye early the next morning, even as Nala reversed over some of his crops to get back out on the main road.

The return to bush camping was brief as we returned to campsites either side of the border, the first reuniting us with more overlanders and the second, in the Malawian capital Lilongwe, with (rapidly used-up) wi-fi as we made our rapid way to a rendezvous with the beach.

Two beaches to be exact as we wound our way north through this sliver of a country along the banks of the lake which shares its name and covers a huge part of its surface.

First up was Kande Beach, a bit of a mecca for overland groups since it was opened by a former tour leader who used to bush camp on the spot he eventually bought and turned into a restful base for a couple of nights.

Maybe restful is not the right word.

Tradition demands each truck marks its stay at Kande with bit of a party, a tradition we had no intention of ignoring (even if it did provoke a couple of late-night requests for quiet from one of the other groups in camp).

Having spent the afternoon fighting for the truck title in Beersbee* – a beach game involving throwing a frisbee at a beer bottle balanced on a pole, all the while holding (and supposedly drinking from) a different beer bottle – events moved to round the food eskie which, thoroughly cleansed, was used for a rather potent punch which rather stole the show from the goat the staff had been cooking over the fire all afternoon.

And, challenged to come dressed in anything bar clothes, the group rose to the occasion – donning sleeping bags, rugs, potato sacks, bin bags, toilet paper and, best of all, some egg trays – before heading to continue the party in, around and, if memory serves me right, on the bar as we toasted the arrival of our 200th day on the road.

Not surprisingly, our second day at the beach was rather quiet before we upped sticks and moved up the shoreline – via a craft market which filled any remaining space in our heaving lockers – for another two nights at Chitimba, where we took the chance to kick back, relax and chat with one of the other trucks we had already bumped into and another Oasis group (bolstered by Katie from the office) heading in the opposite direction.

Some people found enough energy to head out and tour the local village and (another) craft market – which did require plenty of energy – but for most of us, it was a pretty chilled time until the lure of the beach volleyball court drew members of both Oasis trucks out onto the sand.

Being kind, the sports journalist in me would describe some of the play on show as mixed, topped by Kris who, with the added advantage of height, was evidently pretty good at this sort of thing in his younger years.

He certainly hits the ball pretty hard. Especially if it happens to be your face in the way as you attempt a block up close to the net.

Still, forgot about my foot for a bit.

* Reto and myself were edged out in the semi-finals, having seen off the self-proclaimed champions from our last game, with the title eventually going to the one pair who were not drinking from the bottles (or flip-flops) they were required to hold. These facts may be linked.


A Fistful of Dollars

THERE’S a tale from the weekend Karla and myself spent in Bulawayo that sums up a lot about Zimbabwe.

Having popped out for breakfast on the Sunday morning – eventually giving up finding a cafe open and installing ourselves at one of the myriad of pie/pizza/chicken places which dot the city – we went into a shop for Karla to buy something.

After paying in US dollars, she was given the change in South African rand.

Not wanting to be saddled with coins from a country we had left, in the next shop she asked if they would accept the rand to pay for a drink.

Having been told no, she again paid in dollars – only to be given the change back in rand.

Not sure if that is better than the chews and lollipops often given out in lieu of small amounts of change, but it does show the confusion and hurdles which need to be overcome if Zimbabwe is really to emerge from years of turmoil.

Zimbabwe is far from alone among African countries in not being able to sort out change. Coins are very much an afterthought (and largely worthless), while nobody in shops appears to have a stock of smaller notes, bar Namibia and South Africa when actually being handed the correct change came as a major shock.

Instead, we have been given too much change, too little, had staff rifling through their own bags for notes, given credit which the person serving can never remember when you come to get the next drink or offered anything from sweets to packets of cigarettes to make up the change.

Whatever Africa’s economic woes, somebody, somewhere is making a fortune from all the change which is never given out.

But in Zimbabwe, the mix of two other nations’ currencies sums up the state of flux which continues to run through the country.

Unlike many of the less developed countries we passed through on our way down the west coast, Zimbabwe clearly has – or had – an infrastructure in place. Both Bulawayo and Harare are cities waiting to be brought back to former glories, boasting most of the requirements for a thriving modern metropolis.

But the emphasis is on the waiting. As it stands, the country is fraying badly at the seams as years of mismanagement and neglect have taken their toll under the leadership of Robert Mugabe (though doubt the power cuts which hit the city pretty much daily occur around his plush pad).

Pretty much all major buildings you walk into in Zimbabwe, be it hotels, banks or (trust me on this) doctors’ surgeries, have a big picture on the wall of the man who has, pretty much single-handedly, led the country since independence.

For how much longer remains to be seen.

He is 91 and at some point in the not too distant future, he will get his wish to have been President for Life and somehow the void he leaves behind needs filling if the country he has run into the ground over the past three decades or so is to continue the improvements we were repeatedly told had been slowly happening since the days of land grabs (which removed not only white farmers, but also their knowledge and experience in producing crops – much of which is now being utilised in neighbouring Zambia to export food back to their homeland) and hyper inflation.

Who takes over is critical for a country which is so rich is so many areas – the people were unstintingly friendly during our stay and it boasts enough natural wonders (Victoria Falls, mountain retreats, abundant wildlife and the huge man-made Lake Kariba, our final port of call before popping over the dam which created it into Zambia) for the slowly increasing trickle of tourists returning to the country to become a flood.

And, depending on who you talk to (and who is willing to talk to you without fear of being overheard in a land where free speech and a free press is some way off), there are tales of untold riches to rival those which have helped the likes of Angola, Botswana and Namibia become economic success stories.

All of this, of course, is watched closely from around the world. The Chinese are making their presence felt across Africa – providing an ever-improving ribbon of asphalt through previously tricky terrain – while even North Korea has close contacts with Uncle Bob.

Watching on even closer is the local powerhouse of South Africa, while the dollarisation of the currency and historic links suggest the US and UK are going to be watching what (or who) happens very carefully, to say nothing of the rest of Africa and the Commonwealth.

Internally, opposition leader Morgan Tsangverai appears the obvious alternative to any pre-ordained succession to wife Grace, having already had a taste of leadership in a power-sharing experiment, but who eventually steps into Mugabe’s shoes – and how far they are willing or able to walk in them from Uncle Bob’s path – has a massive job on their hands.

Ideally, this post would be extolling the virtues of a country which has so much which is easy to like.

Our final farewell on the banks of Lake Kariba was hardly action-packed – bar those who opted to stroll from our base into town, only to be picked up by a passing car as walking through a national park containing so many wild animals was not the best idea.

For those of us who stayed in base camp, we did not have to strain too hard to spot those animals – a quartet of elephants spending a good hour or so splashing about in the shallows, surrounded by the bobbing heads of numerous hippos, while those who ventured closer to the water assured us there were plenty of crocodiles hanging around as well.

Elephants even paid a visit to camp, strolling among the tents, while the noise of the hippos throughout the night provided a soothing, if initially startling, soundtrack to the evenings.

Wherever we went in Zimbabwe, we met people delighted to see us and proud to show off the considerable delights their country has to offer. But there is no ignoring the issues which face a country which has the ability to punch its weight as a real African powerhouse.

We began our journey across the country on the Victoria Falls to Bulawayo train, which a reader of a previous post thought was portrayed as a disappointing trip. Far from it, the night and following morning on the train providing a hugely enjoyable change of pace and chance to chat with the locals.

But the train, in many ways, sums up the malaise which has beset the country.

Far from the pristine carriages which Michael Palin recalled from his 1991 journey along the same route, the whole thing was falling apart. On the tour he provided for his privileged white passengers, the train manager mixed pride in his steed with frustration at the way things had been allowed to decay.

From a train and railway system that worked, it has suffered years of neglect to the point where pretty much nothing works.

Somehow, there are still enough people willing to keep things just about rolling forward, from the guy who helped us at the platform and said he had not been paid for 10 months but still turned up for work each day to the employee who chatted to me while at a station stop in the early hours.

“It’s politicians,” he said. “We need businessmen, but we get politicians. That’s why nothing works.”

Whoever succeeds Mugabe should heed those words. Zimbabwe needs reforming from the ground up, not from the top down.

And getting the railway back on the right tracks would be a pretty good start.


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