July 29, 1998

Zimbabwe: What's Cooking Restaurant, Masvingo

Uncertain of the time because my watch has tragically ceased to function.

Good few days. Bulawayo's a very nice little city. Train journey's about as cheap & comfortable as your average backpacker lodge - makes you wonder if it'd be smart to just spend your whole time shuttling from city to city on overnight train.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Saturday the 25th, drove off with the Possum medical students in Mike's (old Rhodesian) minivan to see granite outcroppings, Bushmen paintings, little villages and old ruins. Caves like gouges in a rock wall, with 25,000-year-old paintings still etched on the wall. Got lost trying to find ruins and came upon a lonely rondavel with solar panel & TV antenna. Returned for dinner, went downtown, saw movie - THE ASSIGNMENT - returned.

Sunday, loitered for awhile, went to the National Gallery only to find that it was closed, so walked to the pleasant Botanical Gardens and spent the afternoon there, returned to Possum, packed, ate, left. Rode to Bulawayo with Tom the sharper-than-he-seems American, a couple Brits, a couple French, the usual backpacker column, all put in the same car. Roved down to the buffet car for a round of port in plastic cups. Armour-plate windows, wood panelling, and PLEASE REFRAIN FROM EXPECTORATION signs.

Got into Bulawayo on early Monday morn, fought off the hordes of lodge touts and taxi drivers and went to the v. nice Africa Sun lodge. Scuppered plan to take day off and went straight to their Matopos tour. More Bushmen paintings, there even older, amid stunning backdrop. Cecil Rhodes' grave, at Malindzidzi or View of the World, one of the most spectacular vistas I have ever seen, valleys of otherworldly granite formations twisting towards the sky as far as the eye can see. A game drive amid white & black rhino, sable antelope, giraffe, wildebeest, and more ridiculously implausible columns and piles of balancing rocks. Returned to Africa Sun and discussed the problems of the world over many beers & cigarettes - and some lethal slivovitz - with three Dutch guys and a Slovenian couple. A very good day indeed.

Yesterday, rest & relaxation & recovery. Traipsed around Bulawayo's wide streets and very pleasant parks, spent a couple of hours in its extremely impressive Natural History Museum, read newspapers and drank coffee, changed money, nothing strenuous. Back to the lodge, played some guitar and a couple games of pool, drank & talked with the same crowd as the previous night.

Today a travel day: a few hours on the bus, trying to listen to Joan Osborne on my Walkman over the bus's extremely loud music. Tomorrow, Great Zimbabwe.

Great Days (to date)

* Meknes, Volubilis, and the muddy olive grove.
* Roving the markets in Marrakesh.
* Sand mats across the Sahara, to Angela-Andrea's party.
* Carnivorous trees and the epic night in Kayes.
* Dogon country, day 2, up the escarpment.
* Ouagadougou, God Is Love, 5th Element, Cup-Winner's Cup.
* Voodoo drumming festival in Ghana.
* Navigating in the cab through Nigeria.
* Truck stuck; Land Rover to chimps & rainforest.
* The Mount Cameroon climb: 'nuff said.
* On foot in the bush in Mana Pools.
* Bulawayo train, Matopos tour, and slivovitch.
(later additions)
* Grand trek through the Vumba, blackjack at Leopard Rock.
* Trekking from Heaven Lodge through Chimanimani to Mt. Binga.
* Rafting at Victoria Falls.
* Sossusvlei, Windhoek, and Joe's Cafe.
* Stellenbosch, Cape Flats, and Mama Africa.

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July 24, 1998

Zimbabwe: Scoops, Avondale Plaza

What a long strange eleven days it's been.

Zimbabwe is a different world from West Africa: orderly, organized, wide clean streets, buses not tro-tros, shopping malls not markets, teeming with backpackers and Europeans.

Spent my last couple days in Douala just wandering about, blowing the rest of my CFA on food & drink, warning (via email) of my impending Zimbabweness, writing/sending postcards, etc. Met a nice Nigerian guy with an EE degree and talked shop while the Cameroonian web cafe operator blustered outrageous demands for money. Saw CONGO and half of ADDICTED TO LOVE, in French. Stayed at a "missionaries-only" hostel run by a nice but sadly Parkinson's-ridden priest. Ate brochettes and drank real coffee.

Thurs. the 16th, taxied to low-hassle airport and waited 'til we were called, when the chaos ensued. First there was no one to exit-stamp our passports, then the guy who arrived went a little stamp-crazy. The security guards were having a keg party in the departure lounge, the X-ray machine and metal detector were broken, and the lone on-duty guard waved me through without opening my bag. Boarded plane - 737 - mentally kicking myself for having checked luggage, but it came through OK. Took off, ate crustless sandwiches, and got the surprise news that we were stopping over in DRC. Flew over the wreckage of Brazzaville, landed in Kinshasa for an hour, and proceeded to Harare. Taxied to Possum Lodge - where I now reside again, good place - and crashed.

Got up v. early and wandered around Harare, dazed by culture shock, gaping at store windows and office buildings, dining on cheap-n-good meat pies and real bacon, checking email, etc. Returned and slept for 12 hours: felt jet-lagged, badly, though I'd only crossed one time zone. (whoops: also saw MAD CITY n' CITY OF INDUSTRY. Am in the midst of attempt to catch up on my pop-culture gap, which consists of seeing as many movies as possible.)

Saturday, roved 'round downtown again and finally made contact with George & Amalia. Met, went to their new-place-in-2-weeks (nice big ranch) and their current-place (flat), went out for dinner - pizza! - talked for awhile, returned to Possum.

Sunday: a drive to Sue & David Ford (Sue nee Bullman) and pere's farm, or what was left of it.

David is working on an irrigation/farming-techniques project on a communal land/reserve/tribal trust land (same thing, but apparently names with three very different connotations) which has been renewed because it all went to pieces when the European money/skills pulled out, which is apparently usual, and the dam burst, which is a bit extreme.

David's a nice guy, taciturn, with a walrus moustache and a tough job: the locals keep damaging or destroying machinery through carelessness, theft has become rampant - very un-Shonalike - and his successes may well not outlive his departure. Sue's terrific too. Sat and had tea and listened to colonial talk; like stepping back through decades. Favourite phrase: MMBA - Miles and Miles of Bloody Africa.

Then up to Msonedi with the farm pere grew up on: not much left but field now on that side of the road. Nice country, though: rolling hills, stands of gum trees, winding rivers, granite kopjes.

Sunday night went to hear George speak at a Jehovah's Witness meeting, which is much more like a university lecture than a church service. Actually mildly interesting. Everyone contributes, if only by rote. Wider cross-section of society than expected.

Monday morning George & Amalia & I set off for Mana Pools National Park, a trailer full of camping gear hitched behind the Renault.

Long drive through hectares of commercial farms. Past the idea of a fence into National Parks. A vast black burn scar beneath the singed but surviving trees on one side of the road. Overturned trucks littering the winding road down the Zambezi Escarpment. A kudu antelope patrolling the dirt road to Mana Pools. Dead grass and dry riverbeds where baboons dig through the sand for water that still flows beneath.

Mana Pools: a huge bull elephant grazing scant metres from the campsite when we arrive. Made camp, went for a bit of a walk, ate dinner, crashed. It's a cacophony at night - rumbles of hippos, yowls of hyenas, baboons and honey badgers rushing about, a chorus of birds, and far away the low growl of a lion.

Woke, ate, went on a long game drive. Hordes of impala & baboons, lots of waterbuck & zebras & warthogs ("hippocrocopigs"), plenty of hippos & crocs in/by the water, occasional kudu & eland. Stopped to watch six elephants dine on an acacia tree.

Returned and George, a bit unwell, crashed. Walked for a couple hours, squelching across the Zambezi flood plain, blundering through forest startling antelope, examining buffalo from the safety of a sheer cliff.

Next day, got up super-early, went for a drive-then-walk. A clear blue view beneath the endless canopy of trees; Mana Pools seems to go on forever. And you can walk unescorted.

Saw a pack of wild dogs take an antelope; an unnerving experience.

Afternoon, long (4-hour) walk to an overlooking point on the Zambezi, picking my way around rivulets and over rocks, avoiding tall grass where lion might sleep, stopping to watch an elephant take a bath in a stream, exchange glares with an eland, examine a buffalo skull.

Returned and went on another drive. Came on a big buffalo herd, well over a hundred, slowly making their way through the forest. Big dangerous beasts.

Next morning, a drive-and-walk before we left; on the way back to the car we found that the buffalo herd had cut us off, and we had to end-run around them.

Afternoon's drive back to Harare and the Possum. Kicked back, saw DEEP IMPACT, chilled.

Today - now 25th - going on semi-organized tour of Harare area. Tomorrow, I think Bulawayo by overnight train; Matopos & Great Zimbabwe. We'll see.

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July 13, 1998

Cameroon: Holly Wood Snack Bar, Limbe

The truck is dead, long live the truck.

A line of soldiers just filed past, on the main road: surreal.

I'm sitting with "American," self-appointed tourist agent, who unlike most s-a.t.a. seems an honest, nice, reliable guy.

In 72 hours, if all goes to plan, I'll be in Harare.

A ray of sunlight lights up a patch of Limbe's green. Equatorial Guinea, above a bank of clouds and below the streaks of a sunset, a faraway dreamscape. Mount Cameroon behind Mile Six Beach with the waves battering me as I look.

Slept four-in-a-(huge)-bed at the Mountain Hotel and set out, found a guide, changed money, bought food, went back and read and waited out the day impatiently. Up at 5 AM for the climb, surprising the assault-rifle-and-German-shepherd-armed hotel security guy, and set out while it was still dark.

The climb: gruelling work, from before dawn to after dusk, as physically arduous a day as I can remember. Chong and I never doubted we'd make it, but Ali & Andrea got there on sheer stubborn grit & determination.

Humped our own packs, which didn't make things any easier. Two hours to Hut 1, forest air thick as a sauna around us, the path steep and slippery and laced with ankle-catching roots. A sea of green behind us when we could spare a breath to look. Bananas and boiled eggs and nuts and raisins and roast coconut splinters, good climbing food, when we hit the hut.

Hut I to II was the worst stretch. Out of the forest after half an hour, than a mind-reeling expanse of very steep grassy ridges that seemed to go on forever. The "magic tree" in an otherwise bare plain. Patches and breaks in the clouds driving around us. Rocks tumbling down the mountain for minutes as we gaped.

The universe shrank to my feet, my aching legs, and where they might go next.

Lunched at Hut II, corned beef sandwiches & chocolate, drank tea from Tupperware, filled our water bottles with ice-cold rainwater, and decided to go for the summit. Dumped most of our stuff and set out.

Isaac-our-guide, he of the lazy but unwavering pace, didn't think we'd make it. I caught my second (OK, more like seventh) wind halfway to Hut III, but Ali & Andrea were running on vapor. Always one more ridge between us and the top.

From Hut III to the summit was almost easy, though the wind at the top was viciously cold and we could feel the altitude-thinned air getting to us. Clanked & drank the two beers Chong & I had brought to the top. Cursed myself for forgetting my camera on the truck.

The way down to Hut II is a long miasma of stumbling misplaced steps in my memory; too exhausted to think, the last hour with only the moon to light our way, it's a wonder none of us were hurt.

Ate a tinned & cold but much-appreciated dinner, drank tea straight from the pot, and slept, too tired (except Chong) to be bothered by the scuttling rats.

Woke & watched a cloudy dawn, stretched aching muscles, breakfasted, and went down, four hours' hard slogging. Took a wrong turn after Hut I and walked half an hour further than the others but came out in the middle of town right next to a bar as the rain began to pass. Rarely has a beer been so appreciated.

Rested the rest of the day, ate down the road, glanced into a nifty if deserted nightclub, crashed.

Next day - 10th, only three days ago - packed and set off to Limbe, easy enough journey, where we promptly met Sam/Nick/Tim/Naomi. Drank & swapped tales of the Ekok-Mamfe road.

11th, Saturday, a day off: wandered down the forest track to the east of Limbe and a ways out west as well, strolled through the (very nice - trees with trunks intertwined like vines, flanged trunks big enough to drive a car through, limbs like octopus tentacles, overgrown amphitheatre) Botanical Gardens, watched the sunset, ate and watched the World Cup 3rd place match, slept the sleep of the just.

Yesterday, slept in through a lazy rainy morning and headed out to Mile Six Beach and the truck, chatted to people, ate a final truck meal, had a final strumming session, swam. Returned to Limbe's fine street food - brochettes and maize in particular - and the sight of France stuffing Brazil 3-0 in the World Cup final. Reminisced with da boyz (Nick, Sam, Tim, Chong) for a while, called it a night.

Today, hitched a final ride (yes, "final" is cropping up a lot in this entry) in the truck to Douala, checked out the travel agents and got a pleasant price surprise, wandered a little vacillating about which day to fly, returned to see da boyz buy their tickets (they too are leaving, but for Nairobi), said my mercifully brief goodbyes, returned here with "American."

Tomorrow, Douala and ticket purchase.

The geometrical precision of palm plantations. Brian's AIDS-ridden paramour. Hot baths at the Mountain Hotel. Watching the rain approach us on the Ekok-Mamfe road. "Softly, softly," said the wise woman.

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July 06, 1998

Cameroon: Mountain Hotel, Buea

In the lap of luxury, with Mount Cameroon above.

Fantastic place: cool mountain temperature, green lawns, hot bath, ornately comfortable sitting room where I write this, and a swimming pool. OK, the pool water is opaque with muck, but you can't have everything.

Buea is a very spread-out town: taxis are required.

I like Cameroon a lot. Relaxed, cafe culture, many police checks but they're generally perfunctory, green countryside, nice and so-far bilingual people.

So: hated Calabar at first, but warmed to it considerably. Paradise City Hotel is a dilapidated but charming complex: snack bar, mini-zoo, nightclub, bar, hotel, grounds, etc. Moped taxis to and from and around town. Just watched the World Cup the first night.

Next day, moped'd to town to change money, an epic journey: walked an hour through Calabar's winding streets, to a bureau de change that no longer exists, asked at a plush restaurant and wound up following a 300-pound woman around town on moped to a black marketeer. Came back to her restaurant, ate & watched African MTV, shopped, returned, made (last) dinner. Then went down to Freedy's, where we met Ricky - Scottish expat welder/helicopter pilot for Mobil - and watched England lose a nail-biting World Cup match to Argentina (or, more accurately, watched the referee steal it.) A dejected crowd returned.

Next morning, to the drill-monkey sanctuary up the road, an impressive place, founded & staffed by people who came to Nigeria for 10 days and stayed for years, plus an army of knowledgeable locals. Drills frolicked and played in their cages, but the real stars were the chimps, who strutted, fretted, flung wood chips at Wendy & Patsy, shook hands (and feet), posed for the cameras, ooked and howled, all very human.

Left to have an (excellent) jam donut at the bakery down the road and bumped into Tim & Naomi: after letting Ricky buy us a drink, we went on the brief (hollow laugh) boat trip to Creek Town.

After whiling away the wait for the boatman by sampling kola nut (bleah), we set off on a pirogue past naval warships, docked oil rigs, and ship's graveyards, followed by thicker and thicker mangrove swamps, sun beating on us, mangrove branches dangling above. Fish thrashing on lines hung from the branches. The ominous B-movie buzz when paddling ceased. took 2.5 hours to reach Creek Town, a very peaceful town - especially for Nigeria - with a beautiful riverfront, statue-laden cemetery, cheap palm wine. But hard to judge as we were only there for 25 minutes, because there was one more bus and no more boats back.

Hurtled pell-mell deep into nowhere, on roads so bad the axle ground against pothole edges, the whole vehicle shaking and quivering, passengers screaming threats at the driver. We stopped in the middle of nowhere, the driver muttered something about bad directions and loaded fifty litres of diesel into the bus, and we went back to the main road and Calabar and Paradise City.

Next day, up to the Mount Afi drill monkey sanctuary, stopping to look for diesel on the way. Halted off the paved road by a ford and bush-camped. In the morning we tried to cross the ford. Heh. The creek was exactly wide enough for the truck to bog down. Three hours of digging interspersed with good-natured mud fights, got us back exactly where we stared, with a punctured tire and a curious sense of accomplishment. Fortunately, the sanctuary's Land Rover pulled up, we piled our gear and half of us onto it, put the other half on "machines" - motorbike taxis - and headed up to the sanctuary.

Stunning Land Rover ride through rain forest and villages, green ripple of hills around us, to the monkey sanctuary. Liza-the-founder put on a Nigerian accent & dialect to speak to the locals - interesting to see. Watched chimps in their big fenced enclosure - or were they watching us in ours?

Camped - after a futile but entertaining torch-building collaboration with Mike - and chatted around the campfire.

Went for a 3-hour solo wander through rainforest the next morning, which was outstanding. Enormous trees, 80' tall and as little as 6" wide, raising up a canopy to block out all direct sunlight. Narrow trails, barely the idea of a path, through thick brush and vine-wound trees. Bush noises - crickets, birds, things scuttling and crying out in the distances, bushes shaking as they passed. Swarms of butterflies and showers of yellow petals. Huge flanged tree trunks. Perched on a log above a babbling brook, watching leaves bob boy.

Back to the campsite, where we got a taxi to carry our gear back but were on our own. Mike and Tony and I wound up walking the whole way, through rain and blazing sun, 15K over rough and rolling ground, to three much-deserved beers.

Abandoned the truck the next day, w/Ali & Andrea & Chong, off to jump ahead to Mount Cameroon. Caught a lucky taxi ride straight for the border and its 7 desks we had to stand in front of. Dash showdown with an immigration officer: Ali & I were reaching for our wallets, when Chong & Andrea made a stand on principle and - amazingly - not just talked him out of it but had him telling us not to let anyone try and get a bribe from us and not to dash anyone.

Across a picturesque bridge to Cameroon, quick immigration, lunch & a celebratory beer, and then the road from Ekok to Mamfe, a sea of mud with puddles deep enough to swallow our car and improvised detours around the impassable parts. God knows how long the truck will take to get through. [ed. note: three days. To go 25 miles.]

Eight of us crammed into a tiny Corolla, but we had a fantastic driver who gunned the engine through some amazingly tricky situations; only had to get out and push a couple times. Hit Mamfe, got (nice) hotel and arranged transport to Buea, then found a bar, drank several beers, had a spur-of-the-moment street-food dinner, slept happily.

Today, hurry-up-and-wait taxi finally left at 11. We were stopped at a police stop because the driver had the wrong pass; tried again and failed; moved our luggage to a different car, failed to negotiate terms, moved it back, tried a third time, looked as pathetic as we could as the driver explained, and amazingly got through. Made it here with daylight left, had good if expensive steak & chips.

Tomorrow, guide & admin & shopping: Wednesday, Mount Cameroon.

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