Some years ago in a bar in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, I mentioned to my friend Ben that there was a part of the country I had always wanted to visit, the south-western region known as Matabeleland, and that the bit I really wanted to see was the Matopos, a National Park of rounded granite hills and dramatic rock formations that had long been sacred to the Matabele people. The main problem with the plan had always been how to get there. Driving was one option, but the roads were very bad and offered limited opportunities for access. Hiking was possible up to a point, but lions, leopards and elephants were present in the area, and being on foot seemed to accentuate our lowly status on the food chain. Ben had been frowning while I voiced these concerns, and suddenly said: “Why not go by bike? We’d do a good distance each day, we could get right off the beaten track and could probably avoid any potential dangers by being more mobile.”
I took some convincing. I had been working as a guide in a National Park in the Eastern Highlands, and knew how rough some of the ground was going to be and how much kit we’d need. He assured me that he had the perfect bikes for the job, and we agreed to meet the next day at his house.
Ben lived in a part of town known as the Avenues, a series of wide boulevards shaded by glorious jacaranda trees that in October would shower the streets with purple petals. Driving along Enterprise Road into the city in the bright sunlight there was no sign of the jacaranda blossom yet; we were still in July, mid-winter, and the mornings were crisp with frost, although by midday the temperature would be 30ºC. Lines of people stood at the bus stops along the road, and occasionally a groaning Peugeot estate car would suddenly swerve off the road towards them, stopping a few yards ahead of the bus stop and precipitating a stampede. Known as ET’s or Emergency Taxis, with a regular load of two passengers in the front seat, four in the back and four in the boot, these venerable contraptions afforded a degree of intimacy; it was necessary for all the passengers in the boot to link arms to prevent the one closest to the tailgate from falling out over the bumps.
Arriving at the gates of Ben’s house I embarked upon the protracted greetings that were required with his security guard, who was known as Cherub. This involved commenting knowingly on the likelihood of rain, whether his wives had got in the harvest yet in his home village and how his children were getting on at school. Cherub walked for three hours from his township to get to work in the mornings, and no doubt as a consequence of this spent much of the day snoring in the guard hut in the company of a huge spliff of marijuana, known as mbanje. These came as a round twist of brown paper, of the kind used for wrapping parcels, which was simply untwisted and then rolled up and smoked. Reminiscent in many ways of a burning field of stubble, they were nonetheless effective, and the particular type was known as a half, one, or two, which was the number of days that you were stoned after having smoked it. There was some legendary three-day stuff, but that only came from Malawi and sometimes gave people heart attacks.
An unsteady Cherub led me round to the patio where Ben was kneeling surrounded by camping gear. Two purple Saracen mountain bikes were propped against the table, and he was busy hammering a pannier into shape. I was introduced to my bike, which was very impressive – I had never been on a mountain bike before, and it seemed to exude confidence. It had 21 gears, changed with two buttons operated by the thumb, and the tyres appeared enormous and rugged. I had a trial run up and down the driveway, and found it deceptively straightforward. Everything was to be carried on the rear panniers, which posed a challenge with regard to weight distribution. For a 14-day trek in the mountains I would normally carry a rucksack weighing up to a third of my bodyweight, but cycling was going to involve entirely new muscle groups, and I wasn’t sure what would be feasible. Night-time temperatures in Matabeleland would be bitterly cold, we knew, so a tent was essential, as well as fairly warm sleeping bags. Cooking would be done on a Trangia stove fuelled by meths. Water could be a problem – the whole area was semi-desert, and cycling in the heat of the day we would dehydrate very quickly. In the event we took 2 one-litre bottles each as well as a water bag which could be worn as a backpack.
I had last been on a bicycle while at school in England, and no matter how bad I had thought the standard of driving in the Home Counties, nothing could have prepared me for cycling a heavily-laden mountain bike through the centre of an African city. Ben showed his true colours early on, zipping across gridlocked junctions and dodging round buses and army trucks, all the while cackling like a maniac, while I clung grimly to the handlebars, legs flailing and heart pounding as I attempted to keep his flapping tie-dye T-shirt in sight. When it became clear that actually the road had ceased to exist at all since all the traffic was travelling in separate directions at once, we knew we had arrived at Mbare Musika, Harare bus station. The noise was indescribable. Drivers revved their engines, conductors bellowed at passengers, lumps of meat sizzled on spits and street traders glided past with bowls of fruit or mealies on their heads, all the while giving a curious hissing noise while trying to attract attention. Above this racket was the ubiquitous sound of lilting Kwasa Kwasa music, as some Congolese crooner’s mellifluous voice was distorted in a sea of static.
I caught sight of Ben talking to a very tall policeman, and shouldered my way through the crowd to them. He introduced me to Knowledge, who told us that we should stay close to him as nobody wanted to sit next to policemen on buses so we would be guaranteed some space. We made our way to a bright green bus with the words ‘Kukurwa Kurerwa’ on the side and managed to get the bikes stowed on the roof. It then transpired that this was the wrong bus, so down came the bikes, the temperature rose several degrees and the driver walked off in the direction of the bar. Knowledge found a conductor for another bus which was reassuringly emblazoned with the words “Trust in God” and somehow herded us aboard; in the ensuing melee his cap was knocked askew and his shiny boots were trodden on, but all along he continued to smile bashfully as he pushed his way down the bus. I ended up squeezed into the window seat, and was just taking stock of the situation when a middle-aged lady wearing a colourful dress decorated with pictures of the president turned to me and said “hold this”, handing me a large, irate chicken. Being of a generally helpful disposition I took it from her, not realising that it was to become my companion for the next 11 hours.
Somehow we got underway, the bus nosing its way out into the Harare traffic. The conductor spent more time outside the bus than in, vaulting through the doorway and up onto the roof while we were still rolling to a halt to pick up yet more passengers. Although all the seats were taken, room was found in the aisle for a group of Mozambicans who carried enormous laundry bags full of Kapenta, a small, pungent fish not unlike whitebait. The music was played at earsplitting volume, meaning that the conversations that were continuously carried on down the length of the bus had to he shouted. We stopped at a building site where several scaffolding poles were tied onto the roof, and I wondered about the condition of the bikes which were beneath them; there didn’t seem much point to be stuck in the Matopos with two trashed bicycles, assuming of course that we ever got there at all. The journey itself has become one of those fragmented events in my mind that one usually associates with feats of great endurance. Within the first hour I lost all sensation below the knees, as the bench ahead of me was so close that I had assumed a kind of squatting position. I could see Ben a few rows ahead, and occasionally he managed to turn his head far enough to catch my eye and give me a wink. Otherwise I could not move a muscle, and tried to focus on events outside the window. The first roadblock was negotiated without too much trouble – a twenty minute delay while beer was found for the soldiers – and their keen young officer who had intended to search the bus got as far as the steps before having second thoughts. The second roadblock came an hour later, as the sun was setting, and was a more protracted affair; it was here that we lost the Mozambicans, who probably didn’t have the money for the bribe. Quite what the soldiers wanted with 200 kilos of stinking fish was beyond the realms of my imagination at that point. Somehow I began to fall asleep, the chicken on my lap giving an occasional, increasingly feeble squawk. I dozed fitfully, waking periodically to see the lights of lorries passing us in the night, or hearing low murmured voices and seeing guns glinting in the moonlight at the roadblocks.
We began to establish a routine of sorts. It was too cold to do much before 8 am, and we would try and get to where we were going by mid-morning to lie up in the shade for a while. The terrain could literally be impassable – we would blunder our way across bush-covered hillside, tormented by mopane flies which crawled into your ears and up your nose, only to find our way blocked by a wall of rock or a deep crevasse. The bikes were indestructible, which is more than we were. I slipped on a tree root, and in putting my arm out as I fell my wrist got bent back on itself. It swelled up and began to ache until I could no longer use my left arm. We had spent most of the day pushing the bikes through thick bush, and it became impossible to hold the handlebars. I dragged the bike behind me up the slope, past caring what damage I was doing to either it or myself. At last we came to a small clearing, and decided to camp there as we were simply too shattered to go on. Lunch was some bread, half an onion and some biltong – dried meat like beef jerky, usually elephant. I went in search of some water, not holding out much hope in that parched landscape, but after a short walk I could clearly hear a trickle of a stream, and there was a strong smell in the air. Coming over the crest of a hill I saw a spring emptying into a shallow pond below me, and three very large Cape buffalo standing nearby. I watched them for a while but they showed no sign of moving, so I crept back and got Ben. We decided to give them an hour and then try and get to the spring. The alternative was to force our way back through thick bush for several hours to the last waterhole. By late afternoon my head was pounding. We had about 3 inches of warm water left in our bottles, and my tongue was sticking to the roof of my mouth. We looked at each other, and then stood up. I began to walk down the hill, legs shaking and heart racing. I remember I had a packet of cigarettes in my pocket, and wasn’t sure if I should light one or not. The buffalo were a group of old males, and like old males of many species were therefore grumpy old gits who were pretty set in their ways. They could not work out why these odd-looking monkeys were marching towards them. It was the smallest buff who broke first – he snorted, jerked his head in alarm and suddenly they all took off across the hillside. I filled the bottles while Ben kept watch. The water smelt thick and rank with animal scent, and there were bits of mud or dung floating in it, but I didn’t care. Loaded down with the bottles we made our way back to the bikes.
As we were running low on provisions, we planned an excursion outside the park into what were called the communal areas. There was a village about 10 km from the gate and the map we had showed a bottle store and butchery. We set off into the chill morning, and as we crossed the cattle grid into the communal areas we came across children making their way to school. There were no fences round the park, so the cattle grid seemed a bit pointless, and I wondered at these small kids, perhaps seven years of age, who walked home each evening past long, thick grass that was the perfect hiding place for a lion. We could not have caused more of a stir if we had tried – barefooted kids carrying books on their heads ran alongside us laughing and chattering all the while as we pedalled our way up the hill into the village. We bought some biscuits, bread, margarine and mealie flour at the butchery. At the bottle store we asked for two cokes, and were told that we needed two empty bottles as a deposit before the owner would sell us new ones. This was an unexpected blow. Seeing our dismay, she agreed to lend us two empties until we had finished the full ones, and thus everyone was happy.
It was then that Ben spotted a rectangular two litre cardboard carton on the shelf. Asking what it was, the owner fetched it down for him. On the side was a picture of a pink elephant below which ‘Ndhlovu’, elephant, was written, and the words ‘Shake Shake’. Unsure whether this was an instruction or a description of the side effects, we decided to find out. It was what they euphemistically term ‘opaque beer’, although the stuff bears no resemblance to what most of the world considers beer to be. It was thick, sour and grey in colour, with the unmistakeable tang of vomit. The bits that stuck to your teeth only served to encourage this illusion. After a few swigs I’d had enough, but Ben was going to get his money’s worth, and somehow drained the entire vile carton. At this point we realised we had an audience. Two old men pushed their way past the children crowding round the door, came inside and greeted us by clapping rhythmically and inquiring after our health. We knew the form by now, and had a good line on crop rotation, the ailments of cattle and general expense of wives. I realised with a sinking heart that they were eyeing up the Ndhlovu which Ben had just emptied. There was nothing for it. I broke out a twenty dollar bill and ordered four of the damn things. We handed round cigarettes, and got stuck in. They were probably both in their fifties, but looked much older. Dressed alike in wide-lapelled jackets, one had pinstripe trousers and the other wore a pair of brown drip-dry nylon slacks. One had a pair of baseball boots on and the other was barefoot. Both had trilby hats and were carrying knobkerries, a kind of walking stick with a rounded head traditionally used as a weapon. We spoke of house prices in England, the importance of a good education, and how the world was as usual in a sorry state and wasn’t it a shame that the Arabs and Israelis couldn’t sit down over an Ndhlovu together like we were doing. Much clapping and nodding sagely.
After a time I became aware of an unpleasant tightness in my abdomen, caused by three-and-a-bit litres of ‘opaque beer’, and I thought we ought to be heading back. We parted amicably, and not without some difficulty I managed to swing a leg over the saddle and get on the bike. I merely felt bloated; Ben on the other hand was acting very strangely. He kept muttering and giggling to himself and was swaying all over the road. We came to a section which we had laboured up that morning, a steep descent with soft sand at the bottom and long grass on either side of the road. Ben went for it – I heard him click into top gear behind me, and I did the same. We were flying down the slope in 21st gear crouched over the handlebars , and I was slightly in the lead, when out of the corner of my eye I saw a snake emerge from the grass at the side of the road. It took us in at a glance, and rearing up, catapulted itself forward, passing between my wheels and underneath the pedals as they turned. I saw it shoot across the road and into the grass on the opposite verge. I was so surprised that I turned to see if Ben had seen it. I thought he was in pain judging by his expression, until it dawned on me that he was paralysed with laughter. I hit a stone and slid off the bike in a graceful arc, collapsing into the dust. He crashed into my bike and went over like a sack of spuds. We howled with laughter until tears ran down our faces. All I could repeat was “Did you see that?” and all he could do was nod, wide-eyed.
That evening we sat wrapped in our sleeping bags in front of the fire. Overhead were stars upon stars, coruscating colours gleaming with untarnished light. Occasionally a satellite would track steadily across the sky, and shooting stars dropped silently, trailing glittering strands of debris. Around us the bush was alive with chirps and rustles, and we saw a pair of close-set golden eyes watching us from the shadows – probably a genet or one of the smaller felines. A nightjar’s fluting call came from below us in the valley, and periodically the rock dassies would begin their nightly social rounds, which consisted of standing on top of a hill and screaming “Oi!” at the top of their voice.
Sunrise saw us driving through a landscape of undulating hills studded with granite boulders called kopjes, pronounced ‘copies’. We passed mud huts which had layered thatched roofs in the traditional Matabele style and groups of pot-bellied children waved as we roared by. One toddler took fright at the din and ran yelling across the village, diving into a hut doorway then peering round the side. I managed to escape my seat by climbing over the backs of the benches, and spoke to Ben about where we should be dropped. The driver knew the road we needed, and pulled up at a crossroads, with a narrow dirt road leading off into the hills. We said goodbye to the passengers, the conductor vaulted onto the roof and lowered the bikes down to us. The handlebars were twisted at crazy angles, but no damage had been done, and we wheeled them onto the verge. With a crashing of gears the driver pulled back onto the road, the music started up again and the bus disappeared in a haze of red dust as the engine note grew fainter and fainter. Suddenly there was silence except for the wind in the grass and the chirping of insects. We loaded up, covered ourselves in sunblock and started riding south.
The road was soft sand, with occasional corrugations from where 4×4 vehicles had churned up the surface. It was rough going. We found that riding down the centre where the grass had sprung up between the wheel ruts offered much better purchase for the tyres and the bikes were more stable there. We were passing open fields of tawny-coloured grassland which grew to roughly four feet in height, and after a while we began to climb up an escarpment lined with msasa trees. These offered some shade as it had been growing very warm, and our thermometer, which was in the shape of a green plastic frog, showed 32ºC in the shade. Passing beneath one tree Ben suddenly shouted a warning, and I stopped quickly. He leaned over and picked up a thorn from the road, handing it to me as I drew alongside. It was roughly four inches long, needle sharp, and would have gone through the sole of an army boot, let alone a bicycle tyre. We learned very quickly to watch the ground at all times. As the afternoon wore on we settled into a comfortable pace, mostly using the middle ring and gears 7 to 10. Several stops had to be made to adjust panniers, saddle height and to keep drinking, as we were both dripping with sweat constantly. Heat haze shimmered across the hillsides, and the drowsy afternoon torpor was punctuated by the thrumming calls of Cape turtle doves: “work hard-er, work hard-er.” Now and again we would hear rustling in the bush on either side of the road, and once a kudu crossed the road ahead of us in one magnificent leap that must have carried it 30 feet.
As the shadows lengthened we passed a white painted boulder and a sign that welcomed us to Matopos National Park. A small hut stood nearby, and we propped the bikes against the wall and went in. The interior was wonderfully cool, and a cheerful young Matabele guide in a khaki uniform emerged from a room at the back of the hut, the soles of his desert boots squeaking across the highly polished stone floor. He was aware of this slightly comical effect, and had consequently developed a rather coy form of locomotion, almost wincing as he tiptoed towards us, as if his squeaking shoes might undermine his dignity. At a long wooden counter beneath the standard issue portrait of the president we filled out disclaimer forms, promising that if we were eaten by hippos (but curiously no mention of any other animal) we would not hold the government of Zimbabwe responsible. We paid Z$14 each, roughly 5 pence a night for a two week stay. Emerging into the glare again we set off towards the campsite at Maleme Dam. Overlooking a lake surrounded by a ring of dome-shaped granite kopjes, the campsite was deserted, and we found a small bay in the shade of a mahobahoba tree, pitching the tent in the sand a few feet from the hillside. I went to fetch water from a standpipe as Ben dug out the Trangia and got dinner on the go. This consisted of Sumu (ratatouille in a tin) with chopped beer sticks (like Peperami) and Sadza (thick porridge made from maize flour). After coffee we had a smoke and watched the mist descend across the lake as the moon rose high in an ice-blue sky.
I woke at 4 am with the cold. It was absolutely freezing. Sand had rucked up under my back and my breath misted the air. I had a system when camping of keeping glasses in the right boot, torch in the left, and I located both and found the little green frog thermometer. It said -12ºC. I shivered for another 20 minutes and then decided to forsake my sleeping bag and get up. I put on every item of clothing, which was two T-shirts, two bush shirts, tracksuit trousers, jungle fatigues, bush hat, wool jumper and a parka. I was still freezing. There was no frost at all as it was so dry, but the sand was hard and cold and when I picked up the Trangia my fingers stuck to the lid. I could hardly strike a match to light it but finally got it going, and climbed back into my bag as I waited for the water to boil. After a short time a monotonous stream of obscenity showed that Ben was awake and feeling the cold as well. There was nothing for it but to sit and wait, and at 5.30 the first rays of sunlight struck the top of the hills behind us. Within 15 minutes the golden light crept down the slope until it bathed the tent in warmth. We began to recover and gradually shiver less, and we watched the mercury rise up the little green frog from -10ºC to +17ºC while we had breakfast.
Malindidzimu translates more or less as ‘home of the ancestor spirits’, and was a site used by an oracle who predicted the future by consulting the ancestors. The Matabele are an offshoot of the Zulus, and shared many cultural characteristics, using cattle as a measure of wealth, and having essentially a highly militarised warrior society. The Matabele had launched raids on the Shona tribe, who live on the highveld of Zimbabwe, ever since they had split from the Zulu nation and headed north across the Limpopo River. In the late 19th Century, the Shona began to hit back hard, and the arrival of white men who were assessing the land for Cecil Rhodes caused great concern. The oracle of the time stated that the white men brought with them the end of the Matabele nation, and councils called Indabas were held deep in the Matopos between the chiefs over the best course of action. In the event, even the might of the Matabele was no match for the guns of the settlers, and the survivors retreated back to the granite kopjes, hiding out in caves in what was basically their spiritual heartland. None of this was of any great interest to Cecil Rhodes. He admired the Matopos for the view, and pronounced that he would like to be buried at Malindidzimu, with its stunning views across Matabeleland. When he died this was carried out, and the name of the site became known as ‘World’s View’. When Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980 the name was changed back to Malindidzimu, but Rhodes’ black granite slab remained, a sombre scar in the face of the hillside.
We headed along the dirt road to the site, and after a while turned off onto a narrow trail that led up a ravine. The path itself was roughly a foot wide, with thick bush on either side, and at times the undergrowth forced us to dismount and push the bikes, angling the handlebars between the trees. At one point I brushed past a green, ivy-like plant similar to bindweed and saw a row of thorns embed themselves in my shirt. They were curved like hooks, but did not look substantial so I pushed on. The next second a huge tendril wrapped itself right around me, pinning my arms, and as I struggled another one caught my legs pulling me off balance – the more I struggled the tighter it gripped me. I could do nothing but feebly call for help, and when Ben had finished laughing like a hyena he eventually came and untangled me. Finally, covered in scratches and dirt, we emerged onto the great bald dome off the hillside, which shimmered and sparkled as quartz in the golden rock caught the sunlight. Red and yellow lichen streaked the surface of the boulders, and small lizards eyed us warily as we got back on the bikes and pedalled slowly upwards. Coming over a rise we could see the peak of Malindidzimu ahead of us, and it became easy to comprehend the site’s significance. Looking down into the valley ahead you could see small kraals and villages, cattle wandering home in the company of herd boys, and the scene was one of timeless tranquillity. A hot wind blew up from the valley and carried the scents of African dust, herds of animals and the faint smell of woodsmoke. Behind us rose eerie rock formations, with almost spherical stones piled one upon the other in a miraculous balancing act, forming patterns and images that changed and shifted constantly. An old Zimbabwean tradition says you must not speak of what you see in these places, because then you will have to stay there and become one of the rocks – it was all too easy to believe, and felt like being watched by a row of sculptures.
We took our time over breakfast the next morning: mealie meal porridge, fig rolls, bread and jam. The sun was high in the sky by the time we had packed up, and we planned a fairly easy ride. The previous day, while we had been steaming up one of the ascents, we had seen an extraordinary rock formation a few kilometres away; a large hill which tapered to a triangular summit, below which jutted out a rocky promontory that appeared to be an almost horizontal slab of rock stuck into the face. We had a vague ambition to head towards this and see if it was possible to climb it. Within a few minutes of setting off I discovered that my bike had developed an alarming creak from the crank at every rotation, and it was starting to look a bit battered. Still, it seemed solid enough, and inspired slightly contradictory emotions in me – I was becoming rather fond of it, although at times I couldn’t stand the sight of the bloody thing. As we rode along, we would pass trees that were full of Christmas beetles. They had a shrill chirping call that would fade in volume as we approached, only to strike up again as soon as we passed, as if the tree itself was singing. Hornbills would call to each other across the hillsides, sounding uncannily like a creaking door, and sometimes we would see an eagle spiralling lazily upwards as thermals rose above the bare domes of the hilltops. Once, a sable galloped away into the bush, ducking his sweeping horns under the branches as he ran.
We had been crossing a plateau for some time, and rounding a corner we saw the road curve to the right and lead downhill. Off to one side was a drop of perhaps 700 feet, which the road tilted sharply towards. The surface was scarred and cratered – chunks of shale the size of housebricks covered it, loosely anchored in the dust, and vast potholes led right to the edge of the precipice. A boulder the size of an armchair sat right in the middle, blocking it almost completely, but there was a narrow gap on the far side with tree roots to hang on to for support. I was standing up but squatting as far back towards the rear wheel as I could, actually behind the saddle, and had both brakes on to slow my descent. Much of the time the wheels were in fact locked, and I was just sliding downwards, coming to a halt when I hit one of the larger stones before resuming my barely-controlled course. Across a huge culvert that nearly took the front wheel off completely, the road mercifully levelled out, and we stopped to do a brief kit check and have a drink before carrying on. I was wearing my jungle fatigues, and looking down saw that they were covered in black spines. Roughly a centimetre long, these contained two stems twirled round each other at one end, which had a corkscrew effect. As you moved they worked their way in through the fabric, stabbing you like a needle until you were forced to stop and remove them. For us they were an inconvenience, but these screw-thorns had been known to work their way into the hides of cattle and drive them mad with pain.
The road rose again, and we passed a series of termite mounds. I stopped and hacked off a chunk with my knife – putting a lump of termite mound on the camp fire at night kept away insects and gave off a herbal scent a bit like a joss stick. During Zimbabwe’s war of independence in the 1970s, the guerrillas had cut the tops off termite mounds and stored weapons inside; the constant temperature and humidity meant that the guns didn’t rust. We pedalled on, and after a while the sound of singing reached our ears. It was an old African song called Tobururuka, “We are flying”. It grew louder. From behind us, hauling up the road on a huge pre-war style bike came a young Matabele. He had a weightlifter’s chest and arms and was gleaming with sweat, clad in only a pair of shorts. On the rear pannier of the bike was a knobkerrie and a machete, and on his head he carried a large log, probably 5 feet long, which he supported with one hand. He seemed to possess double the usual complement of teeth, and these were all on display now as he saw us.
“Good morning, how are you, how are you?” he said, addressing each of us in turn. “My name is Bili”.
“Hi Bili, how’s it?” we replied. We shook hands with the traditional African three-clasp handshake.
Ben looked at the log on Bili’s head. “Did you just come down that hill with the big stones?”
“Sure”. The word sounded like ‘Shuwa’ with his accent.
I looked at Bili’s bike. It was painted glossy black, and had the words “Flying Pigeon” on the crossbar, as well as some Chinese characters. I noticed he was missing the right pedal, and that his bare foot rested on the metal rod. My eyes bulged.
“Bili, that’s one hell of a nice bike. Really strong.”
“Ya. It is nice. But it’s too hot. I want to buy an Isidududu.”
“What is an Isidududu?”
He asked us for our addresses, which we gave, and then I handed him my notebook and pen. Frowning with concentration, he carefully wrote in block capitals:
MR MUSENGA’S BUS STOP
Handing them back, using both hands to support the metaphorical weight of the valued pen and paper, he made us promise to write. Picking up his log again, he settled it on his head and set off.
“Goodbye my friends, write to me soon from Ingirend (England).” His voice grew fainter as he disappeared round the bend. “You can send me… a snowball.” He began to sing. “Tooooooobururuka”, he bellowed, “Tobururuka…”
I looked at Ben. “Did you see that log?”
He nodded. “Holy shit”.
A small track led off the road towards the gigantic grey hill. We wheeled the bikes through a grove of straggly trees, their fruit covering the ground. These were known charmingly as Snot Apples, and had a slimy, sour taste but were apparently rich in vitamin C. We forced our way through waist-high grass, looking for a path up the side. Beyond the trees the rockface split, and halfway up the cleft I could see a small cave which looked like it could provide access. We locked up the bikes, since although the area was deserted, it was a very long walk indeed without them. We made tea and had a smoke. The pipe itself had come from a woodcarvers stall overlooking Lake Malawi on one of my trips up there the previous year. Carved of ebony, it bore the shape of an African face, and as you raised it to your mouth the effect was like lowering your face to a pool of still water and seeing an African reflection looking back at you.
The cave itself was partially screened by foliage, and was much smaller than I had first thought. I had to lie on my stomach and crawl, and when I was halfway in I remembered my “Go Go Goi” routine, and went through it more forcefully than ever. My hat tilted over my eyes, and I wriggled forward, then felt the roof open up above my head. I was in. Looking up I could see the ceiling of the cave arch high above me, vaulting naturally upwards like a cathedral – the whole interior of the hill was hollow. The floor sloped upwards and was covered in dried leaves. I could see clusters of bats along the joins of the walls, but they were motionless. I called to Ben to pass me a stick, and probed under the leaves to disperse any snakes. A chink of light shone at the top – it was a steep scramble rather than a climb, but the last 20 feet or so was a vertical shaft like a chimney. I called Ben in. Slowly we made our way up, deliberately taking heavy steps because of snakes. The main fear was the puff adder, who tends not to move out of the way when disturbed, and is highly venomous; if one of us had been bitten there would be absolutely nothing we could do other than sit down, have a smoke and wait to see what happened. The bats began to chirp a little as we drew near, but thankfully restrained themselves from their usual form of defence, which consists of spraying guano in appalling quantities. We entered the shaft of the chimney which had abunBent handholds, and at the very top I pulled myself up out of the hole and into the sunlight.
I emerged onto a flat rock roughly 50 feet wide and 100 feet long. It was stained and marked with guano from the bats, and there were small piles of bones and fur in places. I approached the edge, and the sight took my breath away. Before me a valley opened up, with a distant range of hills lying blue and hazy on the horizon. Serried ranks of cumulonimbus clouds sat motionless in a bright blue sky as if resting on a pane of glass, and I could see a herd of elephants moving through the bush off to the north-west. Below a lone acacia tree stood an old bull, and as each of the other elephants passed him they touched trunks briefly in greeting. Ben came and sat down next to me, and for 10 minutes or so neither of us spoke, just drinking in the view. A breeze blew across the rock, and I lay on my back to watch a bateleur eagle wheel and tumble high above. I closed my eyes, seeing the warmth of the sun glowing through my eyelids, and feeling my chest rise and fall as I breathed.
Suddenly I jolted upright. A sharp sound had cut through the drowsy afternoon stillness. I listened hard.
I crawled to the edge of the rock and peered over. We were not as isolated as I had thought. The slope curved away downwards to one side, and over the ridge walked a large baboon who was about the same size as me. Two smaller ones appeared, and scouting ahead, ran to rocky outcrops which they clambered up, watching us all the while. The big male sat down cross-legged, and yawned, displaying canines that were larger than a leopard’s. From behind him, more and more animals appeared, walking casually on their knuckles. One suddenly started galloping up the slope towards us.
I looked around, and now it all made sense. The smell, the piles of bones and bits of chewed fur that lay dotted around the rock. We were sitting on the bed of a troop of baboons.
Complete panic set in. I grabbed my cigarettes and we both ran across the rock towards the cave. Ben got there first and literally dived in, disappearing from view. I kept looking over my shoulder, expecting to see that huge dog-like muzzle appear over the edge of the rock. I could hear them barking to each other, and they sounded furious. Back into the cave, I got my back against the rock and braced my legs against the facing wall. I was going alright until Ben disturbed the bats. Suddenly they took off, and came streaming past me up the chimney, drenching me in foul-smelling liquid before flying out of the hole at the top. My foot slipped, I clutched frantically for a handhold, missed, and fell. I only fell about ten feet and landed on soft earth and leaves, but it completely knocked the wind out of me. Gasping for breath I slid down the slope, past caring about puff adders or evil spirits. I saw Ben disappear through the exit like a mouse down a hole, and I followed suit. Barely able to speak, we fumbled for the keys, unlocked the bikes and rode crazily down the hillside. After five minutes or so we hit the main road, and we turned left onto it and just kept pedalling.
Throughout Zimbabwe there are numerous caves and rock formations that contain what are known as bushman paintings. These paintings depict the animals that the San Bushmen, who were the original inhabitants of the land, used to hunt. The natural fortress of the Matopos has hundreds of these sites, and one of the most spectacular is Silozwane. Situated just to the south of the park, the site lies high on a bare hillside that involved a steep descent to the entrance of the cave. My jungle boots had no purchase at all on the surface, so I took them off, feeling the warmth of the rock under my bare feet. The cave entrance itself lay in shadow, and before I went in I clapped several times and called out “Go Go Goi”, like saying “knock knock”. Reasons for this were twofold; the world of spirits is palpable in this place – you feel that you are in a sacred location, and that your system of rational explanation for things can be turned on its head in an instant. Tradition dictates that you enter these caves politely so as not to disturb the spirits, rather than blundering about in a disrespectful manner. Secondly, the Matopos has one of the highest concentration of leopards in the world, and they like living in caves.
The cave must have been 100 feet deep. The air was cool and still, and we could see the paintings that covered the far wall. Underfoot was a soft, grey, powdery dust, and we walked deep under the arching roof towards the back. The paintings were in a range of colours from creamy white to a dull ochre red. Some black objects were hard to make out, but you could see the twisting spiral horns of kudu, giraffes with rectangular patterns on their coat and some insects that appeared to be ant lions. The hunters themselves were done in a rich brown colour, and they carried bows and spears in their outstretched arms. Animals overlapped each other across the walls, and I made out the picture of a lioness which was remarkably clear; the curious thing about it was that where her each of her legs ended, there was a perfect imprint of a lioness paw – the three tear-drop pads and separate toes. Additionally, her tail was extended as a long line reaching behind her. I realised that this wasn’t just a picture of a lioness, it was a guide on how to track one – the pawprints were naturally the traces she would leave, and if you ever see a lion walking down a sandy road, you’ll see that their tail drags in the dust leaving a long line. The artist had crossed the line between what it looked like and what it actually was.
There were scores of tracks in the cave, indications of the activity that the hours of darkness saw. So much had passed through in the night that it was hard to make out what was what, but we discerned porcupines, vervet monkeys, klipspringer, leguaan lizard and a snake. I searched along the walls for grain bins, but in vain; many caves throughout the area still have grain bins that were hidden during the Matabele Rebellion of 1896, when warriors would launch hit-and-run raids on settlers before retreating back into the hills. Some of these caves saw more recent use in the 1980s, when Matabele guerrillas hid from the Zimbabwean army that swept through Matabeleland like wildfire in an attempt to stamp out any dissent to the government of Robert Mugabe. Most notorious of the troops were the 5th brigade, who had been trained by the North Koreans. So many atrocities were committed by these soldiers that some figures estimate that up to 30,000 people were killed, and countless others tortured and maimed. In the 1990s, when international mining companies began a project assessing some old gold mines with a view to restart digging, reports began to emerge that they were discovering shafts hundreds of feet deep that were filled with bodies, and the project was quickly abandoned. The Matabele have not forgotten, and the time became known as “Gukurahundi”, “the rain that washes away the chaff”.
The hillsides shimmered in the sun and my breath scorched my throat. Waves of heat rose from the glaring rock and I narrowed my eyes to slits. There was a scuff on the toe of my boot and I kept looking at it stupidly as it went round on the pedals, idiot rhymes forming and unforming in my head: ‘one step, two step, tickle you under there’. ‘My fingers and toes keep moving’. Sweat ran over my glasses and off the end of my nose, and my ears were singing, though whether from my personal cloud of mopane flies or simply my pounding bloodflow I could not tell. I dreamed of a cool English autumn day with rain in the air, or sitting in front of an old black and white film while raindrops pattered on the window. The green lushness of fields and the breeze of the Suffolk coast, cool even in midsummer. The tinkle of ice in tall glasses, and sitting in the shade of a garden with a fountain trickling nearby. The seethe and swish of the waves on Southwold beach. ‘One bloody foot before the next bloody foot’. We entered a glade where trees met overhead, casting pools of shade, and stopped, thank god.
Ben was in a bad way. We both were, but he was worse. He looked absolutely haggard, with hollow cheeks and feverish eyes. I was dripping with sweat but saw his shirt was dry. He sat down dully on a rock and stared at the ground. His lips had cracked in the heat and a trickle of blood ran down the corner of his face. I found my water bottle and rummaged around in the panniers until I found the rations. I tore open the plastic bag with the sugar in it and emptied 6 teaspoons into my water bottle, then found the salt and put in a teaspoon of that. I shook it up and gave it to him. He brushed it away, and went back to looking at the ground.
“Just fucking drink it, will you?”
He looked at me, took it, and shuddered at the taste. He got through it, and then I relaxed and lit the Trangia for tea. After a few minutes I heard a voice say:
“Of all the arrogant, self-centred twats to be stuck in the middle of this god-forsaken wilderness with, I had to pick you. And you stink. And you’re bloody hideous as well.”
I started laughing, and looked over my shoulder at him. He grinned, then theatrically winced as his lip split in another three places.
“Look at the state of you then, you sack of shite”, I replied, causing more laughter.
“Stop making me laugh you bastard, it bloody hurts”.
Needless to say, over the next twenty minutes or so I have never been funnier.
The smoke from the slab of termite mound on the fire rose slowly, releasing a musky, herbal scent, and drifted across our little camp. We had found a sandy spot overlooking a lake on the far side of which stood a National Parks picnic site which was deserted. Bedrolls and crockery lay strewn about us, the aftermath of dinner, which had been soya mince granules, a tin of tomatoes and some rice-shaped pasta. It wasn’t bad, but was improved greatly by the addition of chilli sauce, which came in a conical bottle and was called “Cheeky Chappie Piri Piri bird’s eye chilli hot sauce”. Two teabags bobbed in one of the mess tins on the fire and I was mixing up some powdered milk in a tin mug. The torchlight from the tent glowed through the orange fabric as Ben got out his sleeping bag, and I looked across the lake and wondered if there was an ablutions block at the picnic site. I needed a bath. Even if there were no crocs in the lake, which was far from certain, there was definitely Bilharzia. That was a really interesting one. The larvae of snails that dwelt in the reeds were miniscule, and being splashed by water landing on your skin enabled them to enter the blood stream. From there they were pumped around the body, setting up colonies in the internal organs and causing severe liver and bladder pain as they grew larger. Eventually they made their way to the largest organ of all, the brain, and things started to get frightening. Insomnia, headaches, irritability, lethargy and fatigue were the first symptoms, followed by slow personality change. There were drugs for it, but they were only effective once. I needed a bath, but not badly enough to want to jump into that lake.
Out of the corner of my vision I saw movement in the flickering firelight, and without turning my head I swivelled my eyes. A guinea fowl emerged from the shadows and I relaxed. Three or four more followed it, looking for all the world like chickens in polka-dot dresses. They clucked and chirruped as they went, pecking at the dust, walking within a few feet of me quite unconcernedly.
Suddenly the night was split by a terrible wail of anguish from the tent. The guinea fowl fled. I stood up, and called out: “Are you alright?”
Ben emerged ashen-faced into the firelight. He was shaking and pointing downwards.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Bugs… down there.”
“What, like crabs or something”, I laughed.
“No, real ones. Big effing bugs on my balls”.
I had an awful thought. I had been itching all over for days, and hadn’t changed my clothes for over a week. That rock which had baboons sleeping on it every night. I stuck a thumb into my waistband, took a torch and peered in.
“Oh my god”.
Black beetles covered my waistband and down between my legs. Roughly the size of my small fingernail, some were so stretched and gorged on my blood that they had gone grey in colour and were the size of a pound coin. It looked like a bunch of grapes. Ticks. Maybe 30 or more ticks all over me.
“Don’t pull them out,” I cautioned. “The jaws will lock and the head comes off and stays in till it goes septic”.
Ben was trying to light a cigarette and stab it onto the ticks, but he was burning himself more than them. Something from the back of my mind was trying to get through the horror of having a crotch infestation. One of the Outward Bound courses, and something another instructor had said.
“Ben, where’s the marge?”
“The margarine, man. We bought margarine at the store, where is it?”
He looked at me as if I had finally flipped, then shuffled stiff-legged across to the bag and pulled it out.
“Listen, what we have to do is rub this on them. I was told this at Chimanimani by one of the survival guys. The ticks breathe through holes in their exoskeleton. If they are covered in margarine they can’t breathe, so they crawl out backwards and you pick them off.”
“You bloody Outward Bound types, you’re all the same. What do we do then? Fry them over a low heat with a little seasoning?”
“Stop laughing and get greased up.” I grabbed a handful of Stork and slapped it into my crotch. It was cold and felt extremely nasty. We smeared ourselves liberally, then I got the torch and peered down. One particularly large tick suddenly dropped down my trouser leg. Others were starting to move now, backing out and rubbing their antennae. I started pulling them off. It took a while, but eventually, after exhaustive checks, we were free of them.
Out in the darkness I could hear the perpetual ululation of cicadas. It was a sound that I heard for years, and when I left Africa I could not sleep properly for a long time because of the unfamiliar silence of the northern nights. There was another, deeper note, a cross between a squeak and a honk, which I could not identify. Months earlier I had asked a friend called Joyful what it was.
“That is a bed.”
“Sure” – Shuwa.
“Or a bat?”
“Well which is it? A bat or a bird?”
“Ya, a bed”.
None the wiser, I let it go. I think now that it was a Mozambique nightjar, but it was a wonderfully evocative sound.
We were starting to look a bit rough. The constant exposure, being outside all day in those extremes of temperature and never having enough water to wash properly was taking its toll. My arms were covered in scratches from thorns, I had sores on my shoulders and numerous bites, stings and cuts. Ben had a huge scab on his lip, almost an inch long, and in consequence could not drink anything without elaborate slurping and gulping noises.
“What do you reckon?” I said. “Time to make tracks?”
“A bath. Imagine that. And a beer. Clean sheets on a bed”, he said wistfully.
“Well, you’ll be bound to pull in Bulawayo with that bloody great scab hanging off your gob.”
We loaded up in another freezing dawn. We had to head towards Maleme to join up with the main road out of the park. I watched the sun move across the land, creeping into the pools of shadow and glinting off spider webs thick as tripwires. The road was deep sand, and despite wearing my parka and struggling to make headway through the sand, I was cold. Into a dip the temperature dropped dramatically and made my ears burn, and then the road climbed up the other side into the sunshine again. We passed the carcass of an impala by the roadside; its hindquarters had been torn off, and the beautiful lyre-shaped horns, head and front legs ended abruptly, like a pantomime horse.
I felt rotten. My head was thumping, and every time I moved my eyes to look at something I got stabbing pains in my temples. All I could think about was having a hot bath. Suddenly an unfamiliar sound reached us – a car engine. We made out a trail of dust coming towards us. The road was narrow, and we had to get off it. I wobbled onto the verge, and half fell on the grass. My legs ached. Round the bend came a Toyota Land Cruiser towing a large caravan, and as it passed I saw the ZA sticker on the back, indicating South Africa. It was followed by another, and then another – three of these enormous trucks, that flew by a few feet from where I sat, covering us with dust. I doubt they even saw us.
After a few minutes the dust settled. I looked at Ben, and said: “How are you doing?”
“I feel rough.”
“Yeah, me too.”
We carried on, crossing the cattle grid into the communal areas. Once again, barefooted schoolchildren ran alongside us, shouting: “Hello, how are you, where are you going?” Only this time we couldn’t even keep up with them as they ran. At the bottle store we asked about a bus. No bus today, sorry. How about tomorrow? Yes. Perhaps. Or maybe Friday.
My bones ached. It felt like they were being twisted in their sockets. There was a packet of aspirin on the shelf, and I bought them. The best before date was six months earlier. We bought a carton of Ndhlovu to wash down 4 expired aspirin each. That was breakfast.
“We can’t stay here. There’s no bus. I think I’m ill. Bulawayo is only 40 miles away, and it’s a good road. Or we can stay here and die.”
“That won’t take long then.”
“Dying, or 40 miles?”
We set off. After an inordinate length of time, most of which was thankfully downhill, we came to the crossroads where the bus had dropped us two weeks earlier. Ahead of us the long, black strip of tar unfurled like a ribbon, coiling around itself up a hill, disappearing into a dip and then appearing again, narrower but still visible.
‘One bloody foot before the next bloody foot. One bloody mile before the next bloody mile’. Trucks roared past us, hooting merrily. We came to a roadblock. Two ZRP men cradled Kalashnikovs and watched us approach.
“Good afternoon my friends. Where are you going?”
“To Bulawayo, then to Harare.”
“Where have you come from?”
“Ah! It’s too far. OK, you can pass”
There was masses of rubbish on the roadside. Bits of chewed sugar cane, plastic packets of some vile liquid rich in E-numbers that was sold by bus-station hawkers, empty Ndhlovu cartons. Cars whizzed by as we wobbled up the verge. Suddenly a Mazda pickup that was overtaking us braked to a halt. We pulled up. It was a young white couple.
“You oans look finished. Need a lift?”
“Oh god yes.”
“OK, just throw your stuff in the bakkie. Where you bin?”
“Matopos. For two weeks.”
“Shit man, bandit country.”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
We lay in the back of the pickup truck cradling our bikes and groaning. The driver’s name was Roger, and he carried on a shouted conversation out of his open window, fuelled by a stream of cigarette smoke. His young wife sat and smiled at him all the while that he spoke.
“There’s no bleddy rain. It was nothing last year, just guti, and the tobacco price is terrible. Those guys in UK don’t smoke enough now, hey. Nobody is buying Zim beef any more, either. Our local MP just got himself a new Mercedes, and the funds we raised for the clinic we gave to them have just disappeared. We try to help, but this is how it is. I’m thinking maybe Canada, or Australia. But we’re Zimbo’s, hey. Third generation. We are from here, our kids are from here. How can we leave?”
We drove down wide avenues lined with shops. OK Bazaar. Edgars. Bon Marche. Old Mutual. Buses roared past belching out black smoke, and an army truck drew alongside us – it was one of the diagonal shaped ones called rhinos. A row of soldiers on a bench watched me impassively as I lay in the bakkie, until I lifted a hand in salutation, and suddenly a grin broke out all down the line. Advertising hoardings rolled past – Lifebuoy Soap, Katiyo Tea. Envi skin lightening cream. Roger went out of his way to drop us at the train station. “Go well, hey.” We waved him off into the traffic. There were a couple of hours before the Harare train so we found a bar. People were so clean. They glided past in dazzling white shirts and snappy suits. Occasionally young women teetered past on high heels, wholly capturing our attention. They smelled of flowers.
The barman wasn’t sure whether to kick us out or get us a drink. In the end his commercial acumen won over, and he brought us two Castles. It was ice cold. I drank it straight out the bottle, half in one go. I could taste the hops, wonderful flavours, each ingredient distinct. Two more. We cracked open the aspirin and finished the packet. My eyes still ached every time I moved them, but it didn’t seem to matter so much.
“Hey Ben, you’re bleeding again, you scabby git.”
“You sir, are drunk, whereas I am only ugly.”
“I don’t think you’ve got that quite right.”
“We’d better get on this train. Can you walk?”
“I expect so.”
The train was half-empty. At least second class was. We had stowed the bikes in the guard’s van, and he promised to look after them. We had a couchette, with three folding bunks. It was wood-panelled, and the bunks were of green leather. Polished metal fixtures contained reading lights, table and a foldaway washbasin. There was a logo on the fittings, of two R’s intertwined. Rhodesian Railways.
The train began to move, and soon we were dozing, swaying our way across Matabeleland, climbing across Midlands province, rattling through Gweru in the middle of the night, across the border into Mashonaland and the highveld. Sometimes I woke in the night and could see the orange glow of bushfires in the distance, but the metronomic drumming of the wheels soon lulled me to sleep again.
The sunlight streamed through the carriage window as we clanked over a set of points, and I looked out to see the cooling towers of a power station go slowly past. We were coming into the industrial suburbs of Harare. An ice cream vendor in a red hat and overalls sat with his back to a wall and shaded his eyes to watch us as we passed. I was wrapped in my bivvy bag lying on the bunk, and every jolt of the train was excruciating. From the opposite bunk Ben’s head emerged. He groaned.
“Any more aspirin?”
“Hapana.” – none.
With painful slowness we got up. My head was heavy on my shoulders and the glands in my throat stood out like golf balls. Again this curious sensation as if my bones were being bent. Bone-break disease.
We got the bikes out, wheeling them down the platform past our fellow travellers who were emerging from the carriages. Out through the main station we emerged onto Robert Mugabe Road. In a practiced routine we kicked our legs over the bikes and set off. We made very slow progress, but still managed a couple of near-misses. Up Second Street, right onto Herbert Chitepo, past the college, left into the Avenues. Finally we wheeled round the corner and into Josiah Tongogara Avenue, Ben’s road. Halfway down it he began to pedal harder, and I matched him briefly for all of ten seconds before resuming my plodding pace. He started to shout out greetings:
“Cherub, shamwari, where are you?”
“Ah! Mistah Ben! You are back!”
“Mangwanani, Cherub, mwarara ereh.”
“Tarara kana mwarara wo, ishe, and how are you?”
All this as he frantically unbolted the gates, pulling them open just as we swung round the corner, over the bump of the drainage ditch and into the driveway, freewheeling up to the house and coming to a halt against the gleaming whitewashed kitchen wall.
I got an appointment with the doctor the next day. I described my symptoms.
“Oh, you’ve got tick fever. Lyme’s Disease. Course of antibiotics should sort that. Have you had any insect bites in the last few days?”
“One or two.”
“You know, when I was in the army I was told the best way to get rid of ticks was to smear margarine on them. Like Stork or something. Never tried it myself, though.”
As I sit here I can hear the soft hush of rain as it shines the roofs of the town, and TV aerials dance in the wind outside. Through the window the waves roll in towards Southwold beach, breaking and hissing over the stones, one after another. Looking at them my eyes lose their focus and I can see towering boulders and balancing rocks, white clouds that sit motionless above the land, shafts of golden dust rising from the ground. I can hear the guitar notes of Kwasa Kwasa and smell the woodsmoke of burning gum trees. But the images break up, merge into one another; it is slipping away.
I left Zimbabwe ten years ago. The Matopos trip with Ben was my last major expedition there – after it was over I went back to the Outward Bound centre for a few more courses, before one day boarding a 747 to London and watching the people and trees and houses get smaller out of the window as Africa fell away beneath me.
The country that I knew and loved has gone forever. We didn’t see it coming, nobody did, but anyone who has lived in Africa for a while knows that life there can be a precarious existence. Events spin out of control and the mood changes, becomes sullen and fearful. I wonder how the people we met have weathered those events. Knowledge, the tall policeman. Could he reconcile his innate decency with orders to destroy the homes of his neighbours? The woman on the bus who handed me the chicken – would she still wear a dress covered in pictures of Robert Mugabe? Does Bili still ride down that insane road over the escarpment carrying wood? Is he even still alive? Them, and so many others like them. I think of them all the time.
Dedicated to the people of Zimbabwe.