Lusaka was glumly described at the beginning of last century as a far-west like cowboy town, with tumbleweeds and dust devils the best entertainment one could hope for. The dust devils and tumbleweeds still abound, but there seems to be a vibrant dynamicity to the capital. We didn’t study the topic for too long though, growing an acute aversion to shopping malls with shiny tinsel and blaring carols, in stark contrast to life outside, and swiftly moved on to Livingstone.
The capital of old, Livingstone feels far more like the sleepy colonial town that it was, with tourists being the new shorter term invaders. The rains don’t seem to have quite started upstream yet, as the Zambezi waters were all but absent on the Zambian side of the Victoria Falls. I was 8 last time I visited the famous waterfall, and my memories were of a mighty roar soaking you to the bone; the little trickle we saw was obviously disappointing for us both.
Not one tour operator could persuade Emma to take part in the white water rafting or the bungee jumping – surprisingly – so we packed our picnic, crossed the Vic Falls bridge with a little thought for Rhode’s Cape to Cairo railway dream, and paid another $30 to see the waterfall from Zimbabwe. Now that was more like it, the spray, the sound, the smells, it was all as I remembered, and all the better to find a nice spot to pop a cork of not-champagne on the edge of the gorge with the best view in the world.
The Zimbabwean border officers had been absolutely charming and had confirmed my idea of a nation with impeccable manners. Old Bob for all his faults had seemingly kept the education standards high, but that we realised didn’t extend to the traffic police. Out of the blue (I’d asked at the border), we needed a red strip all along the boot door and this and that, and we got away with it once but not twice, they were merciless.
Mulungu was left to his own devices as we enjoyed a break on the stunning Kariba dam, where my reputation as the world’s worst fisherman preceded me and was confirmed by my shameful catch of a tortoise. Emma’s scottishness of course shined through when it came to gutting and filleting the day’s catch for dinner, having caught a lot of the bream herself! There was speculation as to how fast we’d be siphoned into Mozambique if the dam wall finally gave up the ghost, or even if one of the many monster crocodiles would get us first. Hopefully Niaminiami – the snakelike river god who tries his best to destroy this man-made hubris-driven monstrosity of a barrage – will stop sapping the wall and be content for a while longer with the huge amount of fish and the breathtaking sunsets over the submerged forest of dead trees.
Frustration and hope are the two strong under-currents in a Zimbabwean’s discourse. Frustration at the helplessness of local politics, at the height from which the country fell (GDP was level with South Korea’s in the 60’s, it is now 10% of Samsung’s turnover), at all the foregone futures people are missing out on, ‘if only’ opens many a sentence. Hope is for a power vacuum leaving the people to get on with their lives unrestricted the day Old Bob pops his clogs, as Zimbabweans of all colours vow to return full time given the slightest opportunity. It is a country loved by all, except its leaders it seems.
Mulungu was very pleased to see us upon our return to Harare and was kind enough not to break down in front of the presidential palace and the scary camouflaged guards there. We headed for Masvingo to see where it all started, at the ruins of Great Zimbabwe where with great gusto and not much preparation, we started climbing the hill complex of the ruins; Emma laughed at how Scottish this holiday was becoming when it started raining. Laughter gave place to nervous giggles when the downpour hadn’t stopped half an hour later and the tree we’d hidden under no longer kept us dry… Soaked to the bone, we put a rain check on the visit until that afternoon but were later not disappointed with yet another stunning African sunset over the historical site.
Great Zimbabwe was our last touristy stop over on our way from Cairo to Cape Town and proved a perfect architectural euphemism. It is a vestige of former greatness with no real explanation as to the how or why of it all, a higgledy piggledy maize of misunderstood hierarchy and structure. Mud huts to stone castle, back to mud huts, stories of potential and misused richness. Leaving Zimbabwe means almost reaching a goal, nearly being home, but also ending a story and finishing our travels. Lindikhaya isn’t over yet, but Zimbabwe was the last unexplored country on the itinerary, and did not disappoint, it showed us that Africa has its own way that we don’t necessarily understand, that it can bite as well as purr.