Across Mozambique, we had shifted back into a feral state. Almost every night had been spent hidden in the dense woodland or on deserted beaches. Both our cookers had simultaneously expired meaning wood fires were how we now prepared our meals. When our head-torch batteries failed, we were surprised by how we could set up camp, start a fire, move around the car and prepare a meal by memory alone; reading the familiar contents like brail. Our threshold rose markedly for things that scuttled and crawled over us as we lay in the tall elephant grass.
We reached the town of Manica, near the Zimbabwean border. Our car was still without a working clutch, although drivable. Every traffic light became a spectacle of pushing and grinding until Tess jumped into gear. Every hill became a tense ordeal, teasing the gearstick to engage as we lost momentum. To make matters worse, our diesel tank was leaking when filled to over 20 litres. This meant we had to climb onto the roof and retrieve another Jerry can for the tank every 140 miles. One particular incident brought untold mirth to the town onlookers when Dan and I, having pushed Tess along the busy high street, ran to jump into the accelerating vehicle. Perfectly in time, I tripped over my flip-flops and Dan leapt for the door, bouncing his head off the top doorframe. We both tumbled into the dusty street as our car sped off.
Mozambique is not a Land Rover friendly country and we were advised to try our luck over the border in Zimbabwe. The problem was that the border was atop a steep hill with a perpetual traffic queue leading up to it. We had to have momentum to change gear. If we stopped on a hill, we would have to roll back down to the flat and try again. Such antics were unlikely to amuse the border officials.
We tried to learn more about the road ahead. The currency of information in Africa is traded differently. Back home, knowledge is cheap and available. The location of an amenity, the state of a road or the situation in a region are all a button click, or at least a phone call, away. Across Africa, we had learned to appraise and amalgamate the spectrum of conflicting opinions on any one question. Everyone is an ‘expert’, each has their version of the truth and many have an interest in skewing the reality. Zimbabwe appeared to be enigmatic even to those a few miles from the border.
“The elections are coming and the trouble is building,” our hostess at the flamboyantly named ‘Pink Papaya Hostel’ told us.
“We’re advising our guests not to go in. A Spanish couple came through a few weeks ago. They had been arrested there and were fed up with the place.”
“Its calmed down a bit since the power sharing with the MDC.” Another reported. “but everyone is waiting for something to happen to break the gridlock. ZANU PF are going nowhere without a big fight.”
Zim was one place for which we certainly held preconceptions. The last decade had provided ample images of the infamous land reforms, the hyperinflation and the seemingly runaway violence to all opposition. My dad had visited during the closing stages of the war of independence, during the transition from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe. The stories had captured my imagination. He had helped his friend campus for the Bishop Muzorewa in the 1981 election that bought Mugabe to power. He would reminisce on how beautiful the country was.
We had met scattered Zimbabweans along our journey: displaced white farmers, economic refugees and former soldiers, all with their stories. The more we found out, the stranger and sadder the history became. We picked up an old guidebook for Zimbabwe published in 1998, before the country had seemingly imploded. It cautiously praised Mugabe for developing the county’s economy and for his moderate treatment of the white minority. Although it was certainly a one-party state and rumours of well concealed brutality were beginning to filter through, it seemed Zimbabwe was (by African standards) on an even keel. What had gone so wrong?
We heard theories: How Mugabe had been challenged in his role as ‘benevolent dictator’, how ZANU PF were losing influence and lashing out, or simply how a party with a sense of entitlement and ‘history’, having fought for independence had degenerated into a disorganised kleptocracy.
Unlike the opportunism and banditry, which we had singed our hands on so far, the danger ahead seemed more targeted and sinister; less easy to prepare for. The spectacle we caused, pushing our rickety car through the streets of Mozambique could draw unnecessary attention from an authority with a particular dislike toward the British. All these fears were checked however, by our lack of an alternative. We had to push on.
On a quiet, sunny afternoon we found ourselves beneath the border-post. We regarded the line of freight queuing up and spotted the distant barrier at the top. We had one chance. We rolled the car forward and she lurched into gear. There was no stopping as we weaved through the beeping lorries. Up ahead, a gap was closing. We snuck through just in time and pulled up on the flat, inches from the barrier.
The usual crowd of touts, pretending to be officials, gathered around to force their help upon us. They were scattered by an armed guard. He looked the car up and down with a neutral expression before breaking into a smile. Dan and Rich went to arrange Visas and I stayed with he guard. I offered him a couple of our European Marlborough Reds which he smoked with relish. Conversation sparked up as the touts re-formed. There was no menace and our story was met with a measured consideration. These men seemed smart, educated and comfortable with discussing the world outside. They were also quick to joke, with a fatalistic sarcasm and a sense of the ridiculous that reminded me of home. Their English was rich in outdated words and aphorisms.
“The supervisor is having lunch, so I suggest you make hay whilst the sun is shining,” the security guard beamed.
The people behind the glass were equally as friendly and insincere. Apart from having to pay an extra-expensive Visa for being British we were through with no problems.
Nestled in the eastern hills, under pink granite mountains, lies the city of Mutare, Zimbabwe’s most beautiful city. Unfortunately much of the scenery was lost on us as we pushed our car through a frustratingly western system of traffic lights. The streets looked faded but functioning. Shops were open and cars lined the streets. The cities had been protected from the worst of the economic turmoil and violence that had raked the countryside. Furthermore there was now a large wealth divide. There was still money to be had and some people had found it. A large part of the new elite were associated with the ruling party. During the hyperinflation crisis many Zanu PF men had actually made fortunes by buying dollars at falsely low government rates and selling them on the black market for their actual price. Then there was the diamond rush.
We heard about this a few days later. We had settled in Mutare for a week to sort out our car. We had caused a predictable spectacle and most people seemed to know of us.
“How is the Defender?” two sharply-dressed, unfamiliar men enquired from their table.
We had just walked into a cafe for lunch and sat with them whilst we ate. They were -or rather, had been- diamond traders. They told the story of how a British company had been sitting on the place for decades before the government seized it. They were unable to control the resource however and soon an entire black economy had sprung up. All the shady characters from across Africa arrived in town. The army had been forcing locals to dig, with the extracted wealth dispersing up the ranks. The desperate locals would also break in to dig the fields at night, selling their findings for tiny fractions of their value. Young opportunists from the town became rich as middle men. Mutare had its boom when the rest of Zimbabwe was sinking. When the party found out its response (operation ‘No Return’) was typically brutal. Our new friends wouldn’t talk much on that. They were much keener to reminisce on the glory days. We found out later from a white petrol station owner who we befriended, that helicopter gunships had been called in to clear all the land of people. The myths of the death count vary wildly and in Zimbabwe, where so much is kept secret, myths are all they become.
As it turned out, Mutare was a haven for a Land Rover in need of some TLC. We were referred to ‘Quests’ an old and respected garage who clearly knew their way around a Landy. We frantically waved our way through a barrier, unable to stop and pulled up onto the large forecourt. A great bear of a man named Joseph greeted us with a smiling team. He was quick to learn our first names and had a playful air of authority. We spent many an hour in his office talking on the state of the country, life in the UK and the nuances of Mashona culture (his tribe and the current dominant tribe of Zanu PF).
“This place,” he orated, “used to have a reputation, before Zanu PF went and made such a mess of things.”
He patted a sheepish mechanic on the back. “Now we have to employ people like Jason. Ha!” -Jason was, in reality very capable.
They fixed our mangled clutch, finding and negotiating cheap spare parts. Nearby was a breaker’s yard that Dan and I went to investigate. What we found took our breath away. It was like walking into some sacred Landrover Graveyard. They were piled high in various states of decay. We had everything we could need. All those days scouring the cities of north and east Africa for spare parts seemed so barren and arduous. We decided to replace all of our remaining original doors. For this we selected one Zimbabwe Police (Birchenough post) door and one Zimbabwe Electrical Company door. This would give our ramshackle steed its signature appearance.
On the day we left Mutare, I was walking down the high-street when I noticed that there was police officer stationed at each corner. A crowd gathered on the pavement as the first cavalcade of motorbikes in slow formation passed us by. ‘His Excellency’, Robert Mugabe was arriving. Next to follow was a troop pickup with six gold-helmeted gunmen, then two ambulances, a firengine, a further twenty of so motorbikes and more gold-headed troopers. In the middle were a cluster of black SUVs and one garish, gold Range Rover. We later found out that the president was in town to announce the date of the national elections; July 31st 2013.
There was much anticipation for this oncoming event. We made a habit of not asking people about their political affiliations but there seemed to be a strong trend amongst the people we talked to that the country was tired of the regime. They were also dreading a repeat of the unspeakable and unspoken violence of 2008.
The hills above Mutare were lit with a golden sunlight as we left. It was a light never seen nearer the equator where the sun is either ‘bright’ or ‘off’. We were moving out of the tropics again. The reasonable roads were surrounded by bush and ramshackle smallholdings; apparently once productive, commercial farms.
Before our journey to Harare we had one last call. As the sun drew low we turned off the main road to Drifter’s, once a well-known backpacker retreat and the scene of one of Zimbabwe’s greatest recent stories. We drove up the dirt drive, through houses nestled in the trees. We we’re greeted by an old man who introduced himself as John Muranda. I didn’t tell him that I had read all about him.
Back in Ethiopia Claire, our solo, overland motorcyclist friend, had given me a tattered copy of ‘The Last Resort, a Memoir of Zimbabwe’ by Douglas Rogers. The patient and humanistic story of how the Rogers, their employees and lodgers had survived the chaotic events of the last decade had captured my imagination. It was amazing to visit the place and meet the people I had read about. Lyn and Ros Rogers were still on their land having evaded, negotiated and adapted under constant threat and turmoil. The were at home and came down to have a drink with in the hostel bar. We watched the sun set through the dense hillside trees and talked about the South West UK, The various over-landers who had come before us and the coming elections.
“In a mad way, I feel slightly sorry for the poor old man,” remarked Lyn to my surprise. We were talking about Mugabe.
“He tried to resign last election but the Generals and party leaders weren’t having it. It was essentially a coup.”
“There are too many crimes to be held to account and if he goes down, they all do.”
After all ZANU PF had done, both to the country and to the Rogers, it was surprising to hear these understanding tones. Of course, Zimbabwe’s decline was more complicated then the actions and mistakes of one man.
We left under darkness to begin our long journey to Harare, driving through the night to avoid the police road blocks.