I have been wanting to write this story for some time as whilst it took place a few years ago, it shares a beauty of Africa and its people who love travellers and will embrace you, leaving a fuzzy warm feeling and wanting to return again and again, possibly even to settle. Yes, as with any other continent, there are bad elements and common sense prevails when travelling particularly to far-flung places. If you’re not used to roughing it, ensure that you have the right equipment, insurance and your family or someone knows where you are.
I met a wonderful girl at a friend’s party and we got on really well from the start. A few weeks later she showed up at my door and said, “I’m leaving for Malawi in 3 days. If you would like to join me, be in Johannesburg in 2 days at this address”. I will refer to her to as 'Z' in the story that follows.
CAPE TOWN TO JOHANNESBURG
With my belongings spread out all over Cape Town in storage and with friends, I am arranging last minute items on the morning that I am due to leave. A girlfriend offered to drop Carl and I on the motorway outside of the city and we could hitch from there. Carl is a Kiwi chap I met at my local pub and he was travelling to visit his brother in Johannesburg and we agreed to hitch together.
With my mountain bike on the train as cargo — I hope — we’re off.
It was the year of the Rugby World Cup with the South Africa vs New Zealand match at Ellis Park in just a few days. Those that saw us on the road, assumed we were on our way to watch the game and cheered as they drove past. What would normally take an hour by car, took us approximately 5 hrs to hitch, a distance of 77km to Du Toitskloof Pass but that didn’t phase me. I am always about the journey, not the destination and if it took me a month to travel 10 miles down the road and I had an awesome time doing it, that would be fine. Rain approached and the road was quiet but a highway maintenance man offered us a lift beyond roadworks to Rawsonville from where we walked for another hour with a 'Bloem' cardboard sign in hand. It was getting late and at the rate that we were going, we would be happy to make Bloemfontein by evening. That way, we can spend the night at a petrol garage in relative safety.
A driver stopped and it turned out that he was going to Johannesburg, and within 1km of our destination. He was on his way to watch the rugby and due to meet up with mates who were still trying to convince their wives to let them go to the match. I squeezed in the back with the cooler box full of beer and Carl sat in the passenger seat. Carl’s job was to keep the driver awake and mine was to feed him drinks from the cooler box. He hadn’t intended to drive us all the way to Johannesburg but was happy for the company. Stopping only briefly to fill up the cooler box when needed, he drove through the night, drinking a whole case of beer, a bottle of energy syrup and coffee at stops. I think he dozed off once where the vehicle drifted but we finally reached our destination around 3am.
JOHANNESBURG TO ZIMBABWE
Because of the short time given to prepare, I was a bit disorganised but finally have an opportunity to jot down notes down in the diary instead of scraps of paper and I’ll switch between a narrative and diary entries. Here we are in Zimbabwe, sipping on a Zambezi Lager at the Lion & and Elephant Motel on the A4 just beyond Beitbridge. Trying to hitch out of Johannesburg, the police chased us off the motorway and huge transportation lorries travelling so close that we were threatened with being sucked into the vacuum behind them. Z and I finally ended up taking a train from Verwoedsburg to Pretoria and from there, as happens, we caught the last train from Pretoria to Beitbridge overnight. With a bit of negotiation, we managed to get a 1st class cabin for the price of 2nd class. A great trip in all, swaying to the rhythm of the train and we slept well.
The next morning, the view out the train window is bushveld as far as the eye can see. Arriving late morning at the Zimbabwe border near Beitbridge, we disembark and join the throng of passengers awaiting customs clearance. An hour later we clear customs, negotiate blackmarket dollars on the other side and then hit the road. An hour into the ride, I experience my first puncture and little do I know that this is to be one of many that I am yet to experience. Halfway through fixing the puncture, a bakkie already crammed with people and goods stops and offers us a lift. I quickly pick up the pieces, dump everything in the back and we’re off with me trying to fix the puncture whilst everything is flapping in the wind. These folks were in a hurry to make kick-off time for the rugby and how we ended up at the Lion and Elephant.
We settled for a burger and beer and decided to watch the game. The bar is called 'Bubi Trap', named after a local village close by called Bubi Village. After the game, Z and I decided we’re going to keep moving and head back on the road toward Harare — the locals made it quite clear we were insane. 12 kms out, I get my second puncture and decided there and then that we would turn back and camp for the night, which is what we should have done in the first place. Z went back to get things setup and to see if she could find anyone to who would come collect me but ended up walking the longest 12km ever, pushing a bike with a 30kg load and flat tyre off the road across rocks and stones as it was too dangerous at night with large lorries. It was so dark at this point that I could not see in front of me. Z had the only torch and I should point out that we did not intend or anticipate cycling at night — I had no lights. I was young, inexperienced, yet optimistic and adventurous — maybe even stubborn. I decided to walk on the other side of the road to face the oncoming traffic but then a bus overtaking a lorry drifted off the road and I had to dive down the raised path and into the bush with my bike to avoid it. As if an angel, Z appeared in the distance with torch in hand waving it back and forth, calling my name into the darkness. She said everyone was having too much of a good time at the motel to want to bother to collect me — fair enough. Back at camp I fixed the puncture, finished setting up camp and crashed for the night, exhausted. What a day!
It took a couple of hours to pack everything up and load our bikes in the morning, everyone else was done in 20 mins. There were two other guys cycling and said they had never seen such a disorganised bunch but we made do with what we had and took it on the chin. Back on the road.
A half hour later, a bus stopped close by that was on its way to Harare so we opted for that instead — an experience only available in Africa. Carbon and titanium bikes were not affordable yet so our bikes were heavy and loaded with their packs, the bus conductor worked really hard to carry them up the back ladder and on to the roof. We were the only whites on the bus, a rare novelty that got passengers buzzing. Because of all the beer, food and toilet stops, it took a good 10 hours but an opportunity to experience some of the local delicacies like chibuku, a local fermented sorghum beer, available in small barrel-shaped containers called 'scuds' — so referred to when requesting one. One scud please!
Our first stop is Ngundu, a small rural bus terminus and food market where I purchased sugar cane for our travel companions and the next is Masvingo, a major depot approximately 290kms further where we stopped for a half hour and bought bananas, ice-cream and corn on the cob grilled on the fire, wonderful and crunchy. And finally we were making our way to Harare with a couple of stops along the way. We made a few friends on the bus who were only too happy to assist us on our journey. And because it was getting dark, the bus conductor was kind enough to amend the bus journey to escort us to a safe haven for the night. Harare is very much a transient city for travellers from all over Africa and therefore not entirely safe, particularly at night. We did as locals would do and stayed at what is referred to as a 'cat-house'. It was only much later that I learned what 'cat-house' meant — much to my surprise. Mr Gwatidzo is the manager, really friendly and helpful and settled us in. He fed us and also bought us a few beers to settle in for fear of our safety of walking around at night. Dinner consisted of chicken, cabbage and sadza, a wholesome meal for any traveller. I admit I did not feel safe in the place and we kept our room door locked throughout the night, as you would in any hotel, but we would sneak out for a shower in the early hours of the morning as the facilities were communal.