Friday, May 24, 2013



20 May, Monday

My trouble with being surrounded by impossible beauty is that it brings into sharp focus the closed places in me. My survival carapace, constructed so keenly through the years, makes taking it all in so hard. Can make me quite wild inside, the internal bickering that ensues as the a-mazing outside pushes and probes to be let in, at least in chinks.
So Vilanculos and the Bazaruto islands were divinely troubling, as is the place in which I currently sit. This place in Zimbabwe, though, is divine in absolutely incredibly exactly-not the same way: where Vilanculos was tropical suntansweat oceanside, Pungwe river is cooldrippingmist-lush mountainwoodside.
Not at all in our original thinking of the route north, we’re now in the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe – Mutare and Nyanga. It’s quite ridiculous that we didn’t factor it in as an obvious destination, actually, because this is Carol’s home turf.
It’s where she and her twin girls were born, where her parents lived for a decade, her mum’s ashes scattered, where she knows the slippery red car tracks so well she can point out which cut in the wooded surrounds goes to The Doctor’s house, which to the Scarps old place.
We were at Mutarazi Falls, a place just a hour or so drive along the puddled, behumped clay road, to the place at which the Mutarazi River hurls itself over the escarpment to crash on down to the Honde valley below, on its way through Mozambique to the Indian Ocean.
If Carol was an electronic-gizmo, you’d have to say she knows how to plug herself into the motherboard the way she lays herself down to soak it all up and recharge.

But more than the troubled feeling I have because of its beauty, the people-parts of Zimbabwe have me aPOPlectic. That’s when your a-lectic goes POP POP POP POP on a regular basis, mainly because of socialpoliticaleconomic mores that are just one katrillion steps beyooooooooooooooond. And which poke you in the eye all the time in everyday moments.
Like buying stuff from the Spar. Yes, Mutare’s very own Spar, which is not unlike our own SA friendly neighbourhood Spar, except that everything is priced in dollars – that would be YOU E$$ DOLLARS, of course, to which the RAND is presently valued (according to exchange rates set internationally by the Faceless Thems Who Know Best) at about R10 to US$1.
This is one key fact that the local people simply disregard: that a YOUE$$1 just ain’t the same to us as R1, not according to the god in which we trust (the international Faceless Thems), anyhow.
So when you say that my shopping has come to YOUE$$12, I give you YOUE$$20 and you give me R8 in change, this is not what I understand as being the correct change. But there is no YOUE$$ spare change. And that is 8, isn’t it? So there. You’re welcome.
Generally, in fact, NOBODY HAS ANY YOUSE$$ COINS TO GIVE YOU IN CHANGE AT ALL. This means everything is rounded-off, the minimum being, of course, the “lowly” YOUE$$1 (ie R10). So a scraggly daily newspaper is a cool R10, parking on the street for half an hour is R10, a coke is R10, a bag of five tomatoes is R10, etc.
Add to this the bezonkeling fact that almost nobody you should meet doing a bit of shopping – Ms Checkout, Mr Security – earn even a twinkling near what they would need to earn in order to buy the YOUE$$1’d goods around them, then you just have to ask:
How? – does? – this? – work?

Bought Julia the cutest camp apron. Perfect for making roti


Tuesday, 21 May

So we found ourselves, quite unexpectedly and completely delightedly, in Zimbabwe. In our five years of plotting our travels, our neighbour hadn’t figured in our plans. Mozambique was much more enticing and we didn’t want to go on holiday to a place with more severe political problems than ours.
But we were getting nowhere very slowly. At Vilankulo, we had finally moved beyond the latitude where South Africa’s northern border ends. We had 30-day visas for Mozambique and Jules and I had only 11 days remaining. If we were going to the north of the country, as planned, we would have to cover long distances and see beautiful places in a mad rush.
So we decided to go prematurely to Malawi and re-enter Mozambique through southern Tanzania when we get there one day. On the way to Malawi, Carol realised that our stopover at Chimoio would take her achingly close to the place she and her twins were born, Mutare in the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe.
Jules and I have either changed dramatically since we left home or we’ve been invaded by alien bodysnatchers who like shopping malls. We spotted a Shoprite as we entered Chimoio and skipped inside happily. Fresh milk, cheese, yoghurt, Marlboro, chicken that wasn’t alive and tied to a peg on the side of the road! Oh joy, they take Visa, we can hoard the limited daily withdrawals from Mozambican ATMs for petrol!
Carol came to join us at the dairy fridge and broached the subject of a visit to Zimbabwe as Jules grabbed a huge wheel of gouda with one hand and reached for the feta with the other. She would have said yes to anything then, but in our minute of reflection later we agreed that it was a pretty fine proposal. Instead of a long haul, we would skip across the border and meander short distances on the other side before returning to Mozambique in transit to Malawi.
Mutare blew our minds when we arrived, mostly Carol’s, of course. In the space of 48 hours we had travelled from tropical swelter to a mountain coated with lush green forests and enveloped in silvery cold mist.
It was low season and a Sunday when we arrived, but Zimbabwe’s tourism industry looks like a faded grand dame trying to retain her dignity despite the holes in the elbows of her cardigan.
We wound our way up a mountain under a thick canopy of intertwined trees, passing the house where Carol and Mike lived, to the Leopard Rock Hotel. It’s a pink French gateau on the outside and Tudor inside. The lounges are named “Windsor Room” and “Regency Room” and royalty and movie stars once cavorted there.

Pink faded grandeur

The first thing that meets the eye as you enter the hotel is the three-storey high atrium window through which you can marvel at a huge tree slowly being strangled by a fig. The glass at the very top of the atrium is shattered in places. The hotel is ginormous, with many a windowpane and mirror cracked. In the gloomy Regency Room, where we had lunch, there were light bulbs in less than half the wall sconces.
The fireplaces were spectacular and well stocked with sweet pine logs. The staff was incredibly attentive. Despite the fact that we saw not one other guest in the hours that we visited, they were all on full alert, not one was smsing; there was no idle conversation between colleagues. If five busloads of tourists had unexpectedly arrived, the kitchens and the empty restaurants with shining glassware would have coped – we were offered a choice of eating venues.
The food was fantastic. Like a faded old dame, what it lacked substance it made up with style. The two desserts I had for lunch – apple crumble with ice cream and scones with cream – were among the best I’ve had. The cheeseboard Julia ordered came with fewer items than promised on the menu, but extremely well presented, with artisanal bread nogal.
The bathroom was the sweetest I’d seen in weeks. It was a proper one, with two plump striped armchairs arranged diagonally across the way from a bank of mirrors. 
We’ve been haunted by septic tank blowback. All the toilets we’ve visited in Mozambique are serviced by septic tanks. They’ve been mostly clean and usable. It’s when you flush that the problem arises – you smell all the shits that were deposited before yours. We’ve become adept at recognising where the tanks are buried, and avoiding those places. At Leopard Rock Hotel, no odour climbed up the bowl when I flushed. I felt like kneeling down and licking the floor.

Leopard Rock has a stunning pool, a championship golf course, a casino, tennis courts and beautiful gardens. All it needs is guests. We were told that it has quite a buzz in season; it is popular with cabinet ministers, their wives, their girlfriends and their hordes of spoiled children.

Spot the golf course behind the aloes

We stayed at the La Rochelle Hotel outside Mutare. It had been the country estate of a stinking rich English lord and lady who donated it to the nation when they died. It is now leased to Simon Herring, who is valiantly trying to transform it into a hotel, after the government of Zimbabwe had left the place to rot for 20 years.
Julia instantly dubbed the place Miss Haversham’s Heartbreak Hotel and said it out loud, within earshot of Simon.
La Rochelle’s swimming pool is half empty, the felt on the snooker table is torn and worn and the carpet is faded to underfelt in places. When there are only a handful of guests who are charged premium prices, they get the luxury of choice. Jules and I chose the “State Room”.

There was a power failure when we arrived, and the room looked quite stately in the gloom. When the lights went on, however, we realised the carpet was filthy, as were the curtains. Our bathroom was huge – the shower could easily fit six people, but it had no showerhead.

Seen better days.

Our next destination was the Nyanga National Reserve, a mystical place with rivers cascading over the escarpment in breathtaking waterfalls. We went to a lookout point outside the reserve, called Worlds (no apostrophe) View. Jules and I sat on a rock warmed by the sun and watched a curtain of rain cover the crowd of mountains to the south.

The first place we stayed in the reserve, Pungwe Drift Cottages, right on the Pungwe River, has been concessioned to a tourism operator who shamelessly charges the same rates as top hotels in Cape Town. Charged and paid for in US dollars. It has no electricity; the handbasin hangs lopsided on the bathroom wall and only one tap works. 
But us weirdo bourgeois types from Joburg coughed up the dosh and split and carried wood for the cast iron stove in the kitchen and the donkey boiler out back. The water was plentiful, the bath was long and we all soaked for hours in the oily water.

But still, there is all this.

Our last stop was at the Nyanga National Park's accommodation – we'd been on their land at Pungwe Cottages – where we paid a little bit less to the government of Zimbabwe for a slightly better appointed cottage fondly reeking of Sunbeam floor polish.
We slept very comfortably on linen striped with the words “Zimbabwe Government Services”. We were very tempted to steal a pillowcase, but scared they might search the car at the border.

The best thing about our short sojourn in Zimbabwe was the people. The National Parks employees were unfailingly polite and helpful – they said “you’re welcome” every time we said thank you and “surely” instead of yes. And despite the long distances they trudged to get to work, their shoes were always buffed to a high shine.