Expectations tend to lead people astray. Utopia to one person is perdition to another; paradise lost may be deemed to be paradise gained. Equally, the grapevine is often thorny and any opinion, although usually taken at face-value, should be unbundled from the context in which it is given.
Returning from Southern Africa in August (and having time to reflect on the same) gave rise a series of difficult dichotomies. Race, class, nationality: they all matter, but to differing degrees to different people. The one nightmare which nobody can escape, however, is history.
For example, in South Africa, it is difficult to escape one’s skin colour; in Zimbabwe less so. Why is this, despite how both countries were subject to Apartheid regimes at similar times (although, granted Zimbabwe’s did not last as long and was arguably not as pernicious)? Conversely, in Malawi, Zambia and Lesotho, race seemed to scarcely matter, but that is from the perspective of a solo backpacker with the good fortune of being born in Britain; the Indian man I met on a bus travelling from Zambia to Malawi and who had lived in Zambia for eight years would fervently beg to differ.
History matters because the roads across Malawi and Zambia were riddled with potholes like a rubber thumb page turner. History matters because Lesotho was placid and peaceful but poor. History matters because my (black) tour guide for the Matobo National Park in Zimbabwe quipped how he has better relations with the white and Indian populations of his country – an inverted form of racism which also matters because a public lynching would ensue if such sentiment was expressed in South Africa.
Indeed, history also matters because the sheer ineptitude of President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe has helped foster a sense a disillusionment which has resulted in blame being pointed at a political rather than a racial level: to some extent, Zimbabwe is now a post-racial state (although not if you are a farmer). Conversely, in South Africa, the sense of hope for a new dawn, generated by Nelson Mandela at the end of apartheid, which has since proved to be so elusive, seems to have led to a stasis whereby blame is pointed at the very present at the same time as it is haunted by the past: as such, political momentum seems to be stuck in limbo.
History also matters because it led me to Southern Africa, namely (in case you have not guessed), Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and South Africa.
The trip started in Lusaka, the dusty capital of Zambia. Lusaka was distinguished by how indistinguishable it was and other than the series of modern malls sparsely spread across its environs, nothing was memorable about it. In fact, for that matter, the malls were scarcely memorable either.
I then traversed East across the ruddy plains to Malawi. The journey was meant to take eight hours: thirteen later, I had arrived in the capital, Lilongwe.
This became a theme. Throughout the trip I was frequently told that I had to board the first bus leaving at 6am. Hence I would routinely wake at 5:15am, scuttle to the bus station, purchase a ticket and locate a seat to perch on. None of this was particularly problematic, of course, and the buses tended to only be half-full at 6am. But what was problematic was the fact that I then had to wait. And wait. And wait. And wait. And so forth.
When all of the seats were finally occupied I often felt a small sense of relief and jubilation. But alas, it was unfounded. Seats are one thing and floor space is another. The bus was not deemed full until every nook, cranny and crevice was filled with human flesh. So the wait continued. On average, a 6am bus would leave at 11am.
Needless to say, I learnt to be flexible with my timetable.
As it was the late evening on a Sunday, most restaurants were closed. Lilongwe also supposedly has a night-time curfew and I did not want to be ‘that’ guy who ventured out alone (well, actually, I did in order to withdraw some cash and the ominous darkness arising from the lack of streetlights was unnerving). Fortuitously all was not lost, however, as I ended up staying in a dorm with five girls who were working for the US Peace Corps and they kindly offered me a cup of ramen.
The following day I travelled south towards Monkey Bay, ultimately settling by Cape Maclear which is nestled at the foot of Lake Malawi, a colossal tract of water comprising 20% of Malawi’s landmass. It was pristine and beautiful, particularly around ‘Otter Point’, a prime spot for snorkelling. I also had the luck of meeting some young British students (oh, whither youth), two of whom had spent part of their youths growing up in Malawi, and this led to me being taken on a boat round around the lake by a Malawian acquaintance of theirs.
Three days later, it was time to move on. I travelled further south to Mulanje via Blantyre. Mulanje is the tea-growing area of Malawi and it was replete with lush verdant scenery. I was in a rush, so I took a bicycle taxi to the village of Likhubula before climbing up to a plateau on the mountain with my trusty guide. I stayed in a Malawian bedsit in Likhubula that evening which was conveniently placed next to a night club (read: concrete den serving stiff methanol spirits that plays cacophonous music); it was a feat that I managed to sleep at all that evening.
It was now time to traipse back north and dart West back to the other side of Zambia. The journey, which comprised three limbs (and was abetted by a wonderful Malawian woman called Mary who had been living in Zambia for several years who guided me across the border and directed me to a Zambian government owned hostel for a three hour power-nap) took 17 hours, and eventually decanted me in Livingstone, the Zambian base to explore Victoria Falls. The journey was not without its delights, however…
On more than one occasion, a preacher-cum-children’s entertainer hopped onto my bus and began to PRAISE THE LORD. This was fantastic as there is nothing more galvanising than a bit of God to wake you up from a morning stupor. Their voices were booming and resonant: they were the Reverend Jesse Jacksons of Africa. Even better, these tended to be interactive affairs, with large swathes of the bus joining in with the cantor. And to top it all off, before asking for money, of course, the whole affair finished with a song and dance.
Livingstone was a pleasant place to spend a few days: it was built for tourists and this offered a few additional amenities. In addition to exploring Victoria Falls – where, in one foray, I was dangled over the edge of the waterfall in the forebodingly named ‘Devil’s Pool’ – I went white water rafting and on a sunset ‘cruise’.
Next up, I travelled a few miles down the road to everyone’s favourite despotic state: Zimbabwe. Leading up to this, Zambians, Malawians and travellers alike instilled a sense of fear and trepidation at the thought of visiting Zimbabwe. Indeed, as part of his final farewell, my driver to the border told me to ‘take extra care’.
I crossed the dark bridge from Zambia to Zimbabwe. I boarded a taxi. He greeted me with a boisterous and bombastic “HELLO AND WELCOME” and that point I knew I would okay.
My first destination in Zimbabwe was the town of Victoria Falls where, believe it or not, I re-visited Victoria Falls. The vistas were even grander from the Zimbabwean side as the views offered almost untrammelled snapshots of the cascading waterfall.
I then boarded what was meant to be an overnight train to Bulawayo, the commercial capital of Zimbabwe, but this materialised into an overnight and over-day journey taking 24 hours. My only consolation was the wonderful company I had in my carriage from Peter, an artist who was born in Harare, and who told me about the perks and troths of living in Zimbabwe. For example, even though it may seem counter-intuitive, the hyper-inflation of yore (or specifically, 2009) was a better nightmare for Peter than the current relative stability of having a currency pegged to the dollar because dollars are so difficult to obtain without access to banking. Nothing is simple.
In Bulawayo I visited Matobo National Park, the spiritual heartland of Zimbabwe, where Cecil John Rhodes is buried amongst the Matopos – giant boulders which are like a Zimbabwean testimony to Stonehenge. I also spotted a rhino.
Next I travelled up north to the capital, Harare, which was an enjoyable and amiable city to explore. With time descending upon me, I then headed back south to South Africa via Musivingo and ‘Great Zimbabwe’, the one notable pre-historic site in Zimbabwe with what seemed like almost Romanic ruins. It was a fleeting but worthwhile visit.
And then came South Africa. If I had any apprehensions before visiting Zimbabwe, these were dwarfed by South Africa. The reputation plighting the country – that of crime, violence, drugs and disease – would make even the most resolute person quiver. Johannesburg seemed almost like a place of myth; a place where even stepping outside risked a mugging at worst and a violent, bloody death at best.
It was not to be. Downtown Jo’burg certainly had a daunting milieu, but this seemed largely because everyone treated the city with a sinister air, thus generating a vicious self-perpetuating trap of paranoia. For example, when I asked a policeman for directions, he insisted on walking me to my destination which was no more than thirty seconds away.
On my first day in the city I visited Soweto, the township of lore, which was one of the centrifugal centre points during the battle against the apartheid regime. The following day I gallivanted across the city with Skye – a vivacious person I met at the backpackers I was staying in – on the most efficient mode of transport available: THE BIG RED BUS (complete with an audio guide).
From the relative comfort of this trapping, we hopped off at the harrowing apartheid museum (which was fascinating and more nuanced and candid than I expected) and exchanged beers in the evening. Cheers.
The race against time continued so I boarded a bus across the heart of South Africa, ending up in the sleepy university city of Bloemfontein (which is a joy to pronounce) before embarking a bus to Lesotho, where I visited the capital, Maseru and Malealea. I cannot describe Lesotho in words. To summarise my sentiments, however, it was the first place where I felt relieved and free; the first place where it dawned upon that I was going to be soon returning home. Here are some photographs:
And then, after my quick saunter through Lesotho, I headed to the base of South Africa, Cape Town, undoubtedly one of the most beautiful cities I have visited. Whilst there I climbed up various hills and peaks, visited Table Mountain, went to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated, braved shark cage diving and sampled wine tasting. It was a dignified way to end a wonderful trip, and one which had one foot back in Europe with the other still firmly implanted in Africa. Cape Town (or at least the central core of it) is a city which feels distinctly middle class in a way which most other cities in Africa do not. Let’s hope it is a sign of things to come.
(I also popped to Dubai on my way home. Vive la desert!).