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10 Years After (Zimbabwe swansong – Part 1)

18 September 2017

Neville and Pat Lance have discovered much about overland travel in the decade since they began their annual forays into Southern Africa. Neville regales us with a colourful account of this 10th anniversary trip, with friends in tow, as well as some lessons learnt from the past.

It’s a pity that we can’t have Alvin Lee’s intro to ‘I’d love to change the world’ as the opener to this piece. One of the great guitar intro riffs of all time, but probably only remembered by a few of us from that late ’60s/early ’70s era (the group was called Ten Years After).  It doesn’t really matter… all a bit esoteric anyway, but as it relates to what follows, I’ll simply let it rattle around in my head while I write and hopefully some of the gees will find its way into the body of the article.  It was exactly 10 years to the day since we began our annual odysseys on 1 April 2007 through Southern Africa. Our 2.5 TDI 4×4 Ford Ranger was barely a few weeks old as we pulled out on that first trip (she now sports just under 300 000km), and despite huge hammerings along a great many tracks that even the baboons stay away from, she still looks pretty damn good and is unquestionably the most comfortable long-distance vehicle either I or my wife Pat have ever experienced.

On that first trip, we were real greenhorns, and despite having done the obligatory 4×4 course, we had absolutely no idea what to expect as we blundered forth into the unknown with no equipment whatsoever other than a pup tent and a National Geographic Africa Adventure Atlas. Now, 10 years later, we left Cape Town this year with 200 000km of overland travel experience under our belts. We both doubt very much that we would go to some of the places that we visited on that first trip, at the time of year that we did, despite now being fully kitted out and considerably more experienced. On that first trip in 2007, we went up through the Matsiloje Border Post, as it was then (a small container and no bridge), and into Zim, then on up to the Embakwe Mission near Figtree where Brother Donald Kennedy, a past teacher of mine at Christian Brothers College in Pretoria, was doing his best to try and feed, house and educate 600 boys from a variety of disadvantaged backgrounds.

Today Brother Kennedy (now 82) lives close to the Embakwe Mission, at the brothers’ house in Bulawayo. We arrived at this house on 4 April this year (almost the same day as 10 years ago), to camp for two nights in his yard – except this time we were three vehicles and six people – not just the two inexperienced wannabes of 2007. But let’s go back a couple of days: on 2 April, my wife Pat and I, along with Cobus and Colleen Dippenaar met up with my cousin Bill Lance and his wife Juliana in Gaborone, at the home of my son’s in-laws, Ian and Jill Hunt, at whose home we have stayed on numerous occasions when either venturing to, or returning from, jaunts into the hinterland.  On this trip, the Hunts suggested we treat our travelling companions to dinner at that well-established Gaborone institution, the Bull ’n Bush. While we were eating, the seats and tables began to shake and literally hop about as an earthquake ripped through the capital of Botswana, making for some interesting after-dinner conversation.

The following morning, we left early in the hope that we could make Plumtree by lunchtime. It always pays to cross our various Southern African borders at mealtime as the officers in charge are generally too busy feeding their faces to concern themselves with anything as mundane as people wanting to cross from country A to country B. After 10 years of crossing these borders, we are of the firm opinion that if you want to invade one of our Southern African countries, you do it at mealtime.  As things turned out, we only got to Plumtree after 2pm, but the whole process was relatively painless and we were through in just over an hour. We would have loved to have taken our friends up to Bulawayo via the Matopos Hills, as they are absolutely picturesque and a fitting introduction to a generally beautiful country, but after our last experience – driving from Matsiloje to Bulawayo via Maphisa in 2013 – we decided that the grade three 4×4 trail had probably not improved, and we really wanted to make Bulawayo before dark.

In 2007, Pat and I headed out through Plumtree towards Maun with the vague intention of visiting Moremi. As we approached Zoroga, I suggested we visit Kubu Island in the Makgadigadi Pans, a mystical place that I had vaguely heard about or read about sometime in the past and which I knew was south of us somewhere. We had no maps of any description, only the National Geographic Adventure Atlas (which doesn’t mention or show Kubu Island), so we asked three guys sitting under a tree drinking beer next to the road where the road to Kubu was.  “Do you see that hut,” one guy said pointing at a mud hut about 200m away among the trees, “you must go past that and you will find the road.” So off we went only to find a multitude of tracks leading through the sand in what the sun told us was a vaguely southerly direction. We drove through bush, through pampas, across salt pans… everything, following whatever tracks seemed to be the most used.

Then we hit a fence. It was a foot-and-mouth disease checkpoint and the guy on duty indicated, pointing south-east, that Kubu was, “That way”. So off we went, with Pat keeping a beady eye on the sun in order to ensure that we were heading in a roughly south-easterly direction. Salt pans, pampas, bush, salt… about 50km later I spotted a tiny fish-shaped sign on a stick and drove over to it. Pointing east, and hardly bigger than my hand, it said ‘Kubu’. As we would later find out, it was the sign from the southern (Letlhakane) approach to Kubu, we had completely missed the one from the north, finding instead a small kraal where we hoped to get directions, but were chased on in no uncertain terms by a very aggressive man with an AK47, forcing us to carry on towards the south, and the ‘hand’ of Kubu. About an hour later, as the sun was threatening to set, we saw our umpteenth mirage across the never-ending salt pan and decided that if that wasn’t Kubu, we would either turn around or simply pitch our tent right there. It was Kubu, and as we approached there was a sign: ‘Please sign the book’. What book?

We drove right around the island – not a car, not a soul – just a toilet bowl facing out onto the pans. We picked the biggest baobab we could find and pitched our little pup tent beneath it. I planted the final peg, stood up and nearly fainted as I turned around. There was a guy standing right behind me with a large register: “Please sign the book’,” he said, and promptly asked me for 350 pula. We were the first people there for three months, and still count ourselves lucky that we made it across the pans without incident as we saw numerous patches of black mud here and there where it was evident that vehicles had sunk into the pans. It was clear that many of them had struggled to get out. After subsequent discussion with overlanders, we now know that this black stuff is dangerous and could have been our nemesis had we strayed onto a patch. I suspect that the salt is dark in certain areas because the area below retains moisture, making it softer than the white salt. The following day, we quickly drove back to the foot-and-mouth fence after being pointed in the right direction by the attendant and then turned left along the fence and headed through some heavy sand for Gweta, Maun and Moremi, but that’s another story. Suffice to say that had we got stuck anywhere on the pans or on the way to Gweta we would probably still be there, but luckily we didn’t.

Pat and I had last travelled in Zimbabwe, and then on through Caprivi to Etosha and Damaraland in 2013, a trip recorded under the title Dear Mr Mugabe and published in three parts by Leisure Wheels (Issues 127, 128 and 129 in late 2014/early 2015). This year’s trip was planned as an overlanding swansong of sorts, covering two bucket list items: Mana Pools in Zim, and the Khwai Conservancy in the Okavango Delta. We would have tackled these alone had the camping costs and park fees in Mana not been so exorbitant – ultimately working out at R10 000 for four nights for the six of us – which was why I invited the others to join us, building a bit of a tour around the trip encompassing places none of them had visited. Before getting on with the details of this trip, however, I think that I should tell Mr Mugabe that despite all of my advice after the 2013 trip, nothing has improved. In fact, most things have deteriorated substantially. Cash is simply not available and it was sad to see what looked like the entire population of Bulawayo queued up outside the banks all day in the hope of being able to draw the $100 that each of them was entitled to for the day.

We went to the Bulawayo Club for tea and scones on the morning of our day in the city to show our friends this marvellous institution where everything is still clean, maintained and historically intact, despite the increasing degradation that surrounds it. For those who have never visited Bulawayo or the Club, I would highly recommend it and for anyone needing to stay in Bulawayo. I suggest that you make a booking for one of the suites on the top floor, which hint nostalgically at the elegant past, and which go for the same daily rate as the average B&B, including breakfast. While visiting the apart-ments, I could just imagine the gentlemen of the late 1800s parked off here and there with their whiskies and G&Ts, smoking cigars and discussing the state of the protectorate, keeping in mind that this was a gentleman’s club until quite recently, with all the pomp and sexism that the term implies. Their attention to detail, and the history that is evident all around is not only educational, but a real pleasure to behold. That evening, Brother Kennedy’s niece and a friend, who were out from Ireland for a few days doing some investigative work for an NGO, joined us. It was a real African evening; balmy weather, a big fire, a potjie, and plenty of wine and interesting conversation.

Early the next morning, we took off via Gweta for our next stop, Mazvikadei Dam about 40km from Chinhoyi, which had been recommended to us by friends who were prior residents. We made it easily by mid-afternoon and set up camp with plenty of time to relax, make a fire, and have a few obligatory toots. The following day we made a relatively early start and stopped at the Chinhoyi Caves to visit the Sleeping Pool at the bottom of a long set of stairs, which is well worth the effort. Much like Lake Otjikoto near Tsumeb, this body of water also has the reputation of being bottomless, no doubt because it slopes off at an angle some 315 feet below the surface and is reputed to be linked in some way to the Great Rift Valley. Amazingly, the water in the pool remains at a constant 22°C every single day of the year. Traditionally, the caves are called Chirorodziva, which means the Pool of the Fallen. Rumour has it that Frederick Selous was the first white man to see the sandstone/dolomite caves, and the name (it is said), derives from an incident in the 1830s when some Shona tribe members living near the caves were surprised by Nguni warriors moving northwards. The Nguni hurled the Shona to their deaths in the pool, establishing the oral tradition that the bones of the fallen still cover the bottom of the pool.

From Chinhoyi, we tackled the 170-odd kilometres north to Marongora, a hellish drive defined by hundreds of huge trucks making their way to and from Kariba and beyond. These trucks also constitute, it seems, a substantial source of revenue for the great many roadblocks along this stretch of road. This is an annoyance from the overlander’s point of view, as you can be stopped as many as six or eight times along the same stretch of road and be forced to deal with a series of different officers’ interpretations of what constitutes an offence. All in all we had to deal with 48 different roadblocks during our 10 days in Zimbabwe, quite enough to put overlanders entirely off travelling there again. Once through Marongora, the descent to the Zambezi floodplain offers the most riveting views, and the strain of the truck traffic quickly dissipates as the two-hour dirt road drive to Mana takes hold and you drive in awe of the magnificent baobabs and myriad tree species that surround you. We were lucky to come across a herd of elephant within minutes of going through the boom, putting a smile on all our faces and heralding a promise that the next few days would be great, which they most definitely were.

After setting up camp in Mana and getting down to some serious braaing and a few beers, we were woken in the middle of the night to some raucous clanging of metal on metal, only to discover that a Hyena had lifted the No 2 potjie pot (lid and all), off the concrete slab where it was soaking the last of the pap to soften it, and carried the whole thing about 100m, where it proceeded to lick it beautifully clean before taking off into the night. As we were finishing off breakfast the next morning, a large bull elephant with a set of very impressive tusks wandered right up to the camp. He was wearing a tracking collar, and apparently goes by the name Boswell (after the circus), due to his unusual habit of standing on two legs while at rest. I was first alerted to his presence by screams as I looked up to see him mock charge a guy on the site adjoining ours who had gotten a little too up close and personal while trying to take pictures. He then turned and wandered over towards us, pausing to have a good scratch between trees about 20m away. After seeing how he had behaved with the neighbours I made a point of keeping a large tree trunk between the two of us while I fired off a whole bunch of pics and called on the others to get their cameras. He then strolled around the outer edge of our site and made his way to the floodplain next to the water where he quietly grazed for the next few hours.

Bill was over the moon, thanking me profusely for recommending this place, which he had never heard of until I suggested they join us. Yes, it is a magical place and rightly deserves its reputation as one of Southern Africa’s last remaining truly wild places. We saw plenty of elephant, hippo, crocs, lion hunting, hyena, impala, birds, birds and more birds. In fact, without going out of our way, Pat and I managed to identify 91 species over the 23 days of this trip, and I know that Cobus spied a few more that we didn’t. He has phenomenal eyesight and seems to see quite a lot that we miss. In Savuti, he spotted a leopard at a quite ridiculous distance that anyone else would have simply written off as a rock, it definitely helps to have him around. Thanks Cobus. Leaving a place like Mana Pools is always a problem for me. I know that I will more than likely never pass that way again and wish that I could spend the rest of my life there. However, there are other places to visit and unfortunately, deadlines to meet. We would be tackling a tough stretch of road south of the Kariba Dam from Karoi, via Siabuwa to Binga, and then on via Hwange to Vic Falls. I knew as a result of reading everything that I could lay my hands on that there was a campsite at Siabuwa, but had no details…

Travelling north, we usually overnight at the Kimberley Road Lodge. It is quick, clean and the restaurant is quite good. $49.50 (R627) for a double room booked through In both Gaborone and Bulawayo, we stayed with friends, but average camping costs in each work out at roughly R175-R200 pp pn.

MAZVIKADEI CAMPSITE and MARINA (about 40km from Chinhoyi via Banket)
Beautiful setting on the Mazvikadei Lake with large trees and lawns – 3-star ablutions. S 17º 20.055 E 30º 39.166 $5 (R63) pp pn  $5 (R63) pn per campsite (1-6 people) $3 (R38) pp pd fishing

Campsite No 2 – right on the water’s edge with large shade trees – 2-star ablutions Campsite cost for 4 nights:  $322 (R4 065) (for up to six people)
Conservation fees for six people: $264 (R3 333) We paid R9 065 for the four nights in total. Beautiful hard mopani firewood is available at $5 (R63) per bundle – two bundles lasted us four days. $5 (R63) pp pd fishing

Text and photography: Neville Lance

Look out for the continuation of the of Neville and Pat’s travels next month.