Sunday, 24 November 2013

Zimbabwe

"Did you know what the woman was saying to me through the window? "The taxi driver asked us, as we sped through the streets of Harare,
"No, what was she saying?"
She was saying "are you the taxi driver now who takes the White Ghosts?"
"White Ghosts! Do we look like white ghosts then?"
"Yes. If you went to Victoria Falls, you would hear the local children call you White Ghosts, in the local language (Ndebele)" and he muttered some words that we recognised.
"Yes, actually, we did hear that."
"You see? White Ghosts."


We'd arrived at the border crossing into Zimbabwe late, having been delayed on the Zambian road by a truck that had decided to crawl along at 20km an hour, whilst the police cleared the road to let it through. We had just half an hour to get ourselves and the car through the formalities before the border post closed - we weren't entirely sure we'd make it, but thought we'd give it a try. If not, we'd camp another night nearby.


We approached the building and looked inside - complete chaos. Truckers jostled and shoved each other in a desperate bid to get stamped through before nightfall. We went to the visa counter and said hello to the border guards - we'd already got double-entry visas at Victoria Falls so they stamped us out of Zambia and into Zimbabwe. Three minutes, two stamps, and US$70 later, we were through.


As we drove down the road, spotting elephants munching on trees by the roadside as we passed, we realised we only had an hour of daylight left, and a lot of terrain to cover in that time. The map showed an expanse of green through the mountains of the Hurungwe safari area. "We'll have to stay in the first lodge we come to, there's nothing detailed in the Lonely Planet for this area." We drove on into the countryside in silence. The roads were a little dilapidated, and the crash barriers at the side of the roads were broken and falling apart. A sense of sadness pervaded the twilight. The radio picked up only static across all the bands, and as we drove up hills and looked out over the landscape, it became increasingly apparent that there wasn't anything for miles around. Horizon to horizon was nothing but bush. Stunningly beautiful bush, but we didn't particularly want to be driving in it in the dark. We continued cautiously for two hours, driving first in the diminishing light and then in the pitch black. We hadn't known it at the time, but a power cut meant that even remote buildings couldn't be seen.


At long last: a lodge glowed in the distance: it obviously had its own generator for power. We pulled over and gratefully climbed out of the car, and followed the sound of laughter into the bar area. Twenty young men looked up in surprise, falling silent as we walked in.
"Hello" we said, wondering why they were looking at us, "how are you? Is this a lodge?"
"Yes, of course it's a lodge." The leader of the young men looked up and smiled a slow smile.
"Is it possible to stay here?"
"Yes of course, ask her for the keys". He pointed to a waitress hiding by the kitchen door, peeping round nervously at us. Feeling a little uneasy, we walked over and said hello to the timid girl. She told us to go around the back and she'd meet us there with the manager. Nodding in agreement, we walked back through the bar and out into the night. Alex and I glanced at each other and looked around to make sure no-one was listening.
"There wasn't a barman in there. They were just helping themselves to drinks from the bar." We stood and wondered what to do, when suddenly a trucker who had been in the bar hurried outside and spoke to us in a hushed voice,
"Look, I know you're from Namibia, I can see from your car sticker. You need a really nice place, so I would really advise you to go to another place up the road. There's another lodge a few kilometres away, called Twin Rivers, go there, it's very nice. This place... this place used to belong to someone else and now... it doesn't. Go. Now."
Hearing the urgency in his voice, we got in the car and left.


We found Twin Rivers easily enough, and pulled into the car park. Already, the atmosphere was lighter - and the power was back on. We were showed to our room by a polite young woman, and went to the restaurant for dinner. We were just having a drink when the same trucker who had warned us about the previous lodge walked in.
"Thank God" he said "you're safe. I couldn't go without making sure you'd found it and were ok." He turned to the waiter who was bringing us a drink. "Can you imagine? They went to Springs." The waiter looked at us worriedly.
"But it's okay, now you're here. That other place, it was taken over. And now it's run by... not nice people. If you'd stayed... if you'd stayed your car would not be safe, nothing would be safe. Really, nothing. So I am so glad you are okay. I can continue now and not worry about you!" We called him back and bought him some food. "No, no, I didn't do it for that. It's important to look after visitors to our country, tourism is important, and we don't want you to go back and say, ah, Zimbabwe, not a good place." We insisted though, for helping us and checking in on us.


Once he'd left, we looked around as we waited for our food to arrive. The service was impeccably polite and the people very sweet and friendly. The lodge, however, although cheerful and bright, also felt a little sad and run-down. We were its only guests. Parts of the walls were crumbling. A sign saying 'Caroline's' hung above the dark, empty bar and swayed silently. The tablecloths were old and frayed and a dozen or more tables were laid out. It just looked like they hadn't been used for two decades. Old colonial photographs lined the walls. One showed a cart being pulled by zebras with a black driver and two white settlers perched in the back with improbably bushy moustaches. We looked out of the window and watched as a young boy cycled into the night, gradually blending into the darkness until nothing could be seen but a white t-shirt flapping in mid-air.


The next morning, after breakfast, we walked back to our room and found one of the porters cleaning our car.
"Sir, please excuse me, but I just couldn't see this car stay dirty. It's a beautiful car."
We laughed, a little bemused, and Alex tipped him, prompting a broad smile. "Sir, if you know of any work, here is my phone number".

We were on our way that morning to Harare, and decided to stop by the Chinhoyi Caves on our way down. These lovely caves, composed of limestone and dolomite, are an extensive cave network in Zimbabwe, and the cobalt blue water is beautifully impressive. After posing for some photos, we were on our way to Harare. The weather in Zimbabwe being more temperate, we watched the scenery with amazement. There were times we asked ourselves whether we were driving through Zim or through parts of Devon.



Coming into the capital, the number of hitch-hikers increased. We have a policy of never picking up men, but since there were two lonely women on the side of the road, we offered a lift. One of them only wanted to go a short way, the other woman together with her sleeping baby came right into the capital with us. Offering us petrol money - which we refused - she smiled brightly and with a short 'Thank you, God Bless', she jumped out and walked to her home.

Harare surprised us after the quiet orderliness of Windhoek and the ugliness of Lusaka and Lilongwe. Lovely colonial architecture stood on tree-lined avenues, which were filled with traffic that weaved, smoked and honked incessantly. Swerving to avoid potholes, we arrived in the centre of town, passing a rusted sign for 'The Embassy of The Republic of Yugoslavia.'

We arrived at our backpacker's hostel, parked up and checked into a room with a high ceiling and bay windows. This particular backpacker's was filled with interesting people - musicians from the US collaborating with local artists, a woman who had previously worked with VSO Ethiopia and was currently doing research in Zimbabwe, travellers doing the Cape-to-Cairo. Plus a jolly, chucking woman who did night guard duty. Alex and I still occasionally woke in the night worrying our car was being broken into again - and Alex would rush out into the yard in the middle of the night to check on the car, much to her endless amusement."What you worrying for? I'm here!" She'd say before bursting into laughter at the sight of his shorts in the cool air. She would draw her shawl tightly around her and resume her position, sat five yards from our car. In the morning, she and her colleague killed a cobra who'd decided our car was a nice spot for a sleep.

Zimbabwe was growing on us day by day. Since dollarisation, where Zimbabwe stopped hyper-inflation by bringing in the American dollar, the economy has stablised somewhat. The people are industrious - selling anything they can at the side of the road, cheerfully offering beautiful avocados the size of hams, or soapstone sculptures. Culture is thriving - we watched street performers entertaining crowds in the centre of Harare, and enjoyed a couple of hours walking around the National Art Gallery. The quality of writing in the newspapers is significantly better than in some other countries in SADC.



The National Art Gallery



A street entertainer performs for the crowds

Since there are more than 200 rock art sights around Harare, with paintings believed to be between 10,000 and 2,000 years old, we decided we would visit two of the most well-known sites, the Domboshawa Caves and Ngomokurira just north of Harare. Setting off in the car to begin the 90km round-trip, we arrived first at Domboshawa, and walked up the clearly guided path to appreciate the stunning views over the surrounding rocky countryside. Walking into the cave area, we were amazed by the sheer number that had survived over the years. Excitedly taking pictures, we examined the monochromatic paintings of elephants, kudu, and ancient man hunting game. A group of young white Zimbabweans lounged around drinking and smoking nearby, talking loudly about Facebook and the party they'd been to the night before. Upon returning to the ticket desk, we reported them. "They cause us so much trouble" sighed the security guard, "and they don't even realise that they are spoiling their own heritage."








Continuing on to Ngomokurira, we asked a family along the way for directions. "It is just over there," they replied, "could you give us a lift if we show you the entrance?" "Of course," we said, "hop in!" Excitedly jumping into the vehicle, all five squeezed into the backseat, the children beaming as they looked around the car. We passed them a bottle of water, and they told us how they were originally from Durban in South Africa, and had come to Zimbabwe to find work. "Until it all went wrong. Life is harder now." The eldest sighed.


Being waved off by the family after we dropped them off, we returned to the entrance to the cave paintings site, and climbed for well over an hour into the surrounding mountains. "This better be worth it" we muttered to each other as we sweated our way up. Rounding a rocky corner at the top of the mountain, a sharp intake of breath. The paintings stretched along the whole side of the mountain, and were huge - perhaps 10 metres wide and nearly two metres high. Elephants, women dancing, the sun beaming down on hunters, kudu, rhinos. We took photos and video of the paintings until we noticed the rapidly setting sun, and scrambled back down the mountain, which was growing increasingly shadowy. At the bottom, by our car, a group of children selling vegetables had assembled. We bought as much as we could carry and watched the children run delightedly back to their families as we turned the car around. At the hostel that night, we cooked a feast of carrots, tomatoes and avocados drizzled in olive oil with garlic rice, and shared some with the envious Dutch girls who were stirring their cup-a-soup and casting us longing looks.








The next morning, studiously avoiding the smiling gaze of the night guard (we'd given her another surprise visit in the night, which had kept her chuckling for many hours), we set off for Masvingo further South. The number of police checks on Zimbabwean roads was nothing new to us now, but still made us tense up everytime we approached a stop. Fortunately, the only time a policeman decided he was going to try and 'fine' us, the two old ladies in our backseat, who we'd picked up as they hitched along the road, berated him soundly and he backed off. We thanked them profusely (although they didn't speak English, we made ourselves understood with a mixture of sign language and laughter) and dropped them off in town. They clapped their 'thank you's' as they exited the car, and we drove to our campsite within the site of Great Zimbabwe, where our guide Stressman ("Is that actually your name?" "Yes. Apparently I gave my Mother a lot of stress during birth") showed us around and enlightened us on the history of the ruins.



Great Zimbabwe is a site of a ruined city (Zimbabwe means 'stone walls') that was once the capital of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe (about 1100 to 1400). It's pretty big - it was once over 700 hectares and had up to 18,000 people. The construction on top of the hill acted as the palace, where the King would look down on his 200 wives and shout "Wife number 34, get me food!" Stressman reenacted this for us.  The architecture of the place is truly amazing - the walls are over five metres high and constructed without mortar. The city was an important trading post - pottery and gold has been recovered, demonstrating that trade routes through the city extended as far as China. Eventually the city was abandoned and fell into ruin. The ruins were then encountered by the Europeans in the late 19th Century, and they quickly realised that they were in trouble: essentially, the site proved that Southern Africans had a rich, complex history and culture, and that they weren't, in fact, 'savages'. The government of Rhodesia put huge pressure on archaeologists to state that Great Zimbabwe had been constructed by whites or 'yellow people' at a pinch. The site has since given the country its name, and the symbol of Great Zimbabwe, the stone walls, has been adopted by Zanu-PF as the party emblem. 





Zimbabwean music and dance





That night, we cooked a dinner of veggie burgers and rice over our campfire, and took some rice and vegetables to the night guard on duty. He came and sat with us, and we asked him about his life.
"I have five children, and I want them to go to school. It's hard because for each child, it's US$50 each term for school and I earn US$200 a month. But I like my job, although I miss my wife."
Alex slipped him some money and asked him to keep an 'extra special' eye on our car that night. He sat right by our tent all night and didn't move - when we opened the tent in the morning, he was right there outside. We made him a cup of tea before his shift ended.


Travelling down to Bulawayo, a family that we picked up by the side of the road regaled us with tales of the farms that the road skirted around.
"That one there, that was taken over. There's no-one there now to pick the fruit and it doesn't produce much." We looked at the huge piles of rotting oranges that lay on the ground. The family sighed.


Drawing up to the lovely town of Bulawayo, we decided to treat ourselves and stayed one night in a fabulous hotel called 'Nesbitt's Castle'. This outrageous copy of an English gothic castle was once a family home, and now functions as a hotel. Alex and I explored the small stairways, the billiard's room, the ladies powder room, the gentlemen's smoking room and marvelled at the architectural extravagance. A wedding was happening in the grounds - although everything was finished and everyone was home again by 8pm - and we watched as the bride danced away with the small bridesmaids. We settled in for dinner, and read by the low lamplight as the Sun set over the town.

Nesbitt's Castle

Our room

The next day, we drove down to Matopos park to find some more cave paintings and set up our tent in the park grounds. The park was unkempt and run-down, but eerily beautiful in the afternoon light. We drove around, examining Cecil Rhode's grave, and the lovely view.




Cecil Rhodes' grave







Driving over to an area just outside the park to see some cave paintings, we recognised the click language that the people were speaking, and realised that the village was inhabited by the San. We asked a young woman with a baby strapped to her back to show us where the paintings were, as we couldn't quite locate them from the pencil map given to us at the park gates. She nodded and led us into the bush, before she began scrambling up the side of a mountain.
"Are you ok climbing up here with the baby?" we asked, out of breath and sweating.
"Yes, I am" she replied, grinning, not a hair out of place.
As we reached a ledge half-way up, the girl rounded a rock and we realised that there was a cave just hidden from view. Walking in, we stopped short. The paintings were amazing: hundreds of them covered the cave from wall to wall, up to the roof. Some were huge, others small enough to almost be mistaken for dirt. We stood there for half an hour, just staring. The girl swung her cooing baby gently in her arms. We eventually re-descended the mountain crawling backwards on our feet and backsides. Returning to our campsite, some wild horses, smelling our food, decided to come and say hello. As they munched through whatever we'd tried to cook, we shut ourselves in the car to eat. They stayed there all night, occasionally kicking the erected tent outside. Without too much choice in the matter, we slept in the car.



















The way home took another four days, travelling through Botswana and the Trans-Kalahari highway. Coming back into Windhoek felt familiar, almost like home.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Saying Goodbye

The time had come to say goodbye.  We'd wrapped up our projects and handed them over, arranged our leave and the flights were booked.  It was our last few days in Namibia, and we still had a lot to do.

We'd been able to say goodbye to Dickson and a few others at the penultimate VSO'ers meet up, where we also played a few games to help evaluate and discuss our time at our placements. It was a useful day, and it helped to have some closure knowing that we were leaving.

VSO'ers meet up in Windhoek: Paul leads a game on evaluating placements

Both of our work placements had organised a leaving party for us. When I arrived at Friendly Haven the day we came back from Luderitz, everyone was eating, Carolina from VSO was present as was Kat!  Alex had also been invited, but the LAC had chosen that afternoon to hold his farewell do too. The Friendly Haven staff and board members gave some lovely speeches, we ate together, and then they presented me with a voucher for a free night's stay in a lodge in Windhoek, to say thanks for my work in the year - and thanks to Alex too, who during the year had also helped out at the shelter, taking the kids out (to the park or the cinema), helping to wire up the telly, sorting out the combi van.  We also sang some songs, and I gave them all some gifts too: I had to blink back tears, which threatened all day. I didn't take any photos during the leaving do as I was having so much fun, but it was an afternoon that I won't forget - a really sweet gesture on their part, and a lot of work had gone into it. That evening, Alex and I met the VSO'ers at the Wine Bar, and some of my colleagues came too.

This isn't from the actual leaving do, but a picture from a previous outing at the wine bar, with Lisiana, Amelia and Charmaine - but since I didn't take any pictures at the leaving do either, I thought this one would do instead.

That night, we ate, drank, and sang more songs with my colleagues, who I'll miss dearly. Now, writing from Paris, I can say that I think of them every day and wish them well. Amelia is getting married next month, and is recovering from an operation - my fingers are crossed for her everyday!  Lisiana is now pregnant, and Charmaine's little boy is growing up very quickly.

The following night, we had our night in a lodge, thanks to the voucher from Friendly Haven.  What a treat!   Since we'd been moving most of our stuff out of our flat, it was a bit stark and bare, and we were pleased for a little luxury. We sank into the fluffy duvet and pillows, watched TV (we didn't have a TV all year in our flat, so watching Namibian news was always a novelty) and had dinner, just the two of us, in O Portuga, nearby - the restaurant that VSO had taken us to on our first night in the country.  With full tummies, we watched a film and had a fantastic night's sleep.  Alex's favourite meal is breakfast - he could have it any time of the day - and he made full use of the buffet breakfast in the morning, as well as the good coffee.  We were now ready to go home and do the final packing - tomorrow, we were leaving.  

That night, we watched the closing London Olympics ceremony on TV at Sue's house - Kat picked us up and we were able to hand over a few promised items to her, before heading over and enjoying the wine and jacket potatoes that Sue had whipped up. Spending our last evening with Sue, Paul and Kat was great, and took our minds off the fact that we were facing a 24 hour journey tomorrow (14 hours of which would be spent in planes.  How much fun for someone who's afraid of flying).

Sue was kind enough to take us to the airport, and had been kind enough to help us the previous week with some more deliveries of our various bits to other people. Cecilia, our cleaner, stood on our porch as we drew out of the driveway, crying and saying "I thought I would die without knowing my name, but now I know my name," referring to the reading and writing lessons that Alex had given her.  Our dog Snowy sat there watching us with doleful eyes.  She was always grumpy when we packed the car to go anywhere, and this morning she seemed particularly so.  

The drive to the airport was stunning - another clear blue Namibian day. We left Sue and went through customs.  Crying in public isn't usually my thing, but this time some tears slipped through. The flights were hideous - British Airways usual customer mis-service - and when we touched down at London Heathrow, I wasn't sure what to think about the grey, cloudy skies.  It reminded me of Chalabi's book 'Late for Tea at the Deer Palace,' where she describes how her Iraqi family first felt about living in London - describing it as like living in a grey, cloudy, lifeless limbo.  I could certainly understand what she meant.  Having lived under Namibia's bright skies for a year, London felt heavy and choking.

It was very strange having a leaving do for the two of us, when we'd been to so many other people's leaving do's. Finally, the adventure was at an end.  We were both grieving for our time there, and excited by the future. I think it's only over time that we'll understand what this period in our lives has done for us.

Kolmanskop

The day that Alex finished his work, we packed the hire car and set off for our final trip to the South of Namibia. We were going to see Luderitz, on the coast of Namibia, and the ghost town of Kolmanskop nearby.

Luderitz is not visited all that often due to its isolated position.  From Windhoek, you travel 500km South to Keetmanshoop, not too far from the South African border, then turn right and travel West for another 300km until you hit the coast and the small town of Luderitz. Flanked on either side by sand dunes of the Namib desert, Luderitz was founded in 1883 when Adolf Luderitz, from Germany, bought the land from the local Nama chief. When diamonds were discovered in the area in the early 1900's, the town enjoyed a sudden boom, which, of course, ended the minute the diamonds dried up.  What is left is a pretty town with a lot of quaint German architecture, and deserted mining towns nearby that are slowly being taken over by the shifting sand dunes of the desert.

Since I had a sprained ankle from a trampoline-related injury whilst back in Europe for two weeks, I couldn't drive the hire car at all.  Alex and I therefore decided to stop off on the way there in Keetmanshoop, a town we really liked, and in Mariental on the way back.

Keetmanshoop, a Nama town where we'd done a research trip previously, was as dusty and dry as we remembered.  Pulling up in our hotel, we drove over to the township to drop off some copies of the research reports (that had, by that time, been printed and published) for the caregivers groups.  The supervisor at Catholic AIDS Action chuckled as he saw the photos inside the report.  "Ah, that one is in Walvis Bay now," he chuckled, pointing at one man in a picture "I will tell him this is here."

The church in Keetmanshoop

The drive to Luderitz is a dusty 300km through parched land that slowly turns into desert. We only saw one other car on the road the whole time.  We were pleased we'd packed extra water, just in case. 

Kokerboom tree

The road to Luderitz

Wild horses roam in this part of Namibia


The ever-blue Namibian sky

Alex did all the driving and I put my feet up

The land turns into desert

Finally arriving in Luderitz, we pulled up to our hotel. The owners only spoke German - mixed with Afrikaans - and so we chattered until our simple German gave up (which was quite soon).  The town itself was very reminiscent of German architecture - as though a small Austrian village had been picked up and transposed to the desert.

Hot, sticky and dusty - in Luderitz, the view from our hotel over the water.

Wandering through the town and comparing prices of boat rides, we decided to call our hotel and ask the owners to book a boat ride for us (as they'd offered to do earlier) for the next morning.  That sorted, we went and enjoyed rice, wine, cheese and pizza as the sun set over the sea.

The next day, following a good night's sleep, we went very early to catch the boat ride and set out to see the dolphins and penguins that frequented the area.

The harbour

Luderitz from the harbour


Ships, and desert in the distance

Chatting away with some German tourists on the boat, the Captain came and sat with us, interested to hear that we were living there.  He knew Alex's boss who worked at the LAC, Toni. "What do you think of the Namibia?" we asked him, and he lamented the decline in education and hospital standards. Asking us to say hi to Toni, he soon had to tend to the boat again, and we turned our attention to the penguins who'd sprung up and were swimming by the boat.


On the boat

Jackass Penguins

Dolphins


Enjoying the waves

The sea has an incredible calming effect.  Whilst I don't enjoy flying much, the lurch of the waves doesn't make me feel sick - on the contrary, I find it very soothing. Sitting with Alex on the boat, warm in our jackets and sipping hot chocolate prepared by the crew, watching the birds and dolphins as we skimmed over the water, I wished we'd booked the day-long ride. It wasn't possible, however, as the opening times for Kolmanskop meant that today was our only day to view it. So when the boat docked at 11am, we quickly drove over to the museum entrance to catch the 11:30am tour. 

Kolmanskop, the deserted mining town, has been turned into a museum.  Tourists here aren't very numerous, however, as Luderitz is still comparatively off the map for most coming to Namibia, who focus on Sossusvlei and Etosha. So even though it was 'very busy', there were still only twenty in our tour group.  When we divided into different languages, there were only five left in our English-speaking group. Seeing the museum was, therefore, a lot of fun, very free, and we were able to ask all the questions we wanted.




This train took fresh water from Cape Town to Luderitz, as there's no fresh water supply nearby.  It would then also carry the ladies - in their huge dresses - around town.

Going into some of the abandoned houses.


Quite a view!




That night, we enjoyed another fantastic dinner of pasta and wine, and sat by the water watching the world go by.  The sea air felt clean and healthy.  It was nice having a break before what we knew would be a hectic period - moving back to Europe and then settling into new jobs.  This would therefore be our last holiday this year.

The following day, back up to Mariental, on the way to Windhoek.  We stopped for lunch in Keetmanshoop and said one last goodbye to the town. Reaching Mariental just as night fell, we settled into our farm house lodge and cooked ourselves a tomato and pasta dinner, washed down with whiskey. Getting back to Windhoek the next day was easy, and before we returned the hire car, we used it to drop off with friends some of the kitchen items that we couldn't take back to the UK. We were ready to start packing and saying goodbye.