Beyond the Bike 2015/16 - Bamboo with a View.
A week in Zimbabwe: a troubled past and an uncertain future...
Beyond the Bike in Zimbabwe can be summed up with the following: desperation and hope, education, cricket, rocks, sand, gold mines, lions and rhinos. We only spent a week in Zim which is a great shame as it is such an interesting country but we had to keep moving to make Durban (and the test match for Stu!) for Christmas.
Ready to shoot from the hip on the back of Thandie - but we didn't need to be worried about safety in Zim!
Many people, when they heard we were planning to cycle through Zim, thought we were mad as the country must be very dangerous. Although we did not spend long there, it is one of the countries where I felt the safest and ‘got hassled’ the least. It is a country which sunk to rock bottom a few years ago and is trying to claw its way back. We met both white and black families suffering after being thrown off farms; we met a man who had stood against Mugabe’s Zanu-PF in the recent elections, ‘lost’ and then found his business getting fined $500,000 and so lost everything. Some say he was lucky to get off this lightly. We visited some gold mines in Matebeleland, infamous in the early 1980s for becoming the dumping ground for thousands of dissident Matabele, murdered by Mugagbe’s 5th Brigade. Some corpses are still being uncovered today. The big question is what will happen when Mugabe dies (which surely cannot be far off). Some people do think that the country has had enough and someone(s) will be able to make the dramatic changes needed, but who and when is yet to be seen. It is a county of relatively well educated adults, (until recently it had the highest literacy rate in Africa) although many of whom have emigrated. Sadly most people we met had given up hope of any positive change in the near future.
We got a lift from Livingstone to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second city, still so full of beautiful colonial architecture including the Bulawayo Club where we stayed for our first night. Although it broke our budget for the week, it was worth it for the somewhat surreal experience as we stepped back in time to the bygone era of Rhodesia. It is still run very much as a gentlemens' club, and although ladies are now welcomed throughout, the dress code meant we were not allowed in the bar (but we could have food and drinks outside). The staff were all so kind and helpful and the eccentrically wonderful manager, Audrey, took very good care of us, especially when we had to barter to stay an extra night as Stu was not feeling great - "OK my little cockroaches, I can do you a deal." I also found out that there is a Bulawayo Le Hur family. Sadly, we didn’t stay long enough to meet them.
Inside the Bulwayo Club, it was easy to think we were on Pall Mall...
We were lucky enough to have a drink with Heath Streak (ex Zimbabwe cricket captain) and a tour around his academy. He is such a nice man and doing great things with his academy getting more children (both boys and girls) into cricket and sport in general as his academy is also used for football, rugby, swimming etc. Local businesses support the academy and are often partnered with state schools to ensure that as many local children as possible have the chance to take advantage of Heath’s initiative. More about the role of sport & education in Stu’s forthcoming Economic Cycle Blog.
Heath Streak and the framed newspaper in his office from the 1996/7 tour.
We cycled down to Falcon College just over 50km from Bulawayo to speak to around 200 boys about Beyond the Bike. We were very kindly hosted by the headmaster and his wife, Reg and Martha. We arrived at the school in good time and when we found out that the school actually has a mini game park we did not need convincing to go on a quick drive with Reg, where we saw a brand new baby puku and several giraffe, before heading back to talk to the boys. They were great and got really involved asking loads of questions and having great ideas for Beyond the Bike III! The next morning we were then taken around the gold mine on which the school is built which is just being reopened as a mine, having been shut since the 50s and the shafts just used for water recently.
Then it was time to start cycling properly again and we decided rather than head down the tar we should take a little detour through the Matopos. Heath has put us in touch with Terrence, a mountain biker who gave us ‘a very scenic route’ to ‘the most beautiful camping spot I have ever seen’ telling us to keep on the dirt roads and not go near the tar as that would be ‘as boring as s**t.’ According to Terrence the road to the camp at Mtshabezi dam was ‘a good 50km’. Having looked at the route on google maps, we realised it was more like 90km but thought we would give it a go anyway. Two of the hardest days of cycling followed - days that made me think we really are working hard to get donations for our charities. The dirt road started with miles of ‘washboard’ - very painful to cycle over, then we progressed to sand and there were many moments when we had to get off and push the bikes especially when the track got too steep (up and down) to cycle. Luckily the scenery was stunning with the strange rock formations the Matopos is famous for, although we had to keep stopping to look at the view as we were concentrating so hard on cycling safely. When we arrived at the deserted dam it was well worth the hard day but annoyingly we arrived about 20 minutes before it got dark, so there was just time to sort out the tent and have a quick swim.
It was very hard work cycling (and pushing) along these tracks...
but it was worth it when we stopped for lunch and then arrived at our beautiful and deserted 'campsite'
The next day we tried to find the quickest way back to the tar road, Stu picked up Fred along the way, a displaced farm worker, who directed us to the main road from the back of Thandie. Again we had to battle through sand, getting off the bikes several times, but at least it was pretty flat. We finally made the tar and then had a relatively easy 40km to meet our next host - Duncan - a vegetable farmer. We also met Peter (Bobo) Gibbons, a real character, who lost his family farm and now runs a small gold mine. Bobo very kindly took us down his mine the next day which was a great experience although not one I feel the need to repeat! We had a fun afternoon exploring the small town of Gwanda and meeting loads more great people. Again we received such amazing hospitality with such generous and fun people.
Down the goldmine, these workers do 8 hour shifts - I coud barely stand being there for 30 minutes.
The next morning Duncan and Bobo drove us down the road so that we could make our next stopover in one day. We managed to get them both on the bikes, although not for very long! The same day Stu also picked up a (rather large!) policewoman and a he gave a preacher a lift to church: Preacher Foster usually walks the 7km to and from church every Sunday but as he arrived very early with us he gave us an impromtu sermon by the side of the road.
Yes, we really did get Duncan and Bobo onto the bikes (for about 1km!). Fred who guided us out of the Matopos to the main road.
We arrived at Mazunga, home to Blondie Leathem, famous for his anti-poaching work over the years, who manages the Bubye Valley Wildlife Conservancy, one the most successful parks in the country. Blondie was out trying to catch some rhino poachers but we were warmly welcomed by his wife, Katrina. Later that afternoon we were lucky enough to go out for a drive in the park with Byron, a lion researcher, who had just finished his PhD at Oxford. As some of the lions are tagged it we were able to find them very easily and even saw a recently born cub, spending a long time just watching these amazing creatures. We caught up with Blondie later that evening who was frustrated that the poachers had got away "maybe they were warned about us, maybe they just lost their nerve, but at least they didn’t get anything." After our time at Kafue, it was very interesting to talk more about poaching and also about hunting; one of the strange paradoxes is that these conservancies need the hunters as they bring in all the money which then enables the animals to be kept alive and thriving. Without rich people wanted to hunt this conservancy would not exist and so the hundreds of elephants, black rhinos and lions would not be protected.
Bryon trying to find the 'tagged' lions and then us sitting down to simply to watch them!
The next morning we had breakfast with two orphaned black rhinos - Katrina looks after orphaned animals before releasing them back into the conservancy - and Blondie had a quick ride on Thandie (a new vehicle for anti-poaching?), before we headed out for the Beitbridge on the South African border and got our ‘mileage’ above 3000km.
Breakfast with the baby rhinos and Blondie (notice his gun) heading off 'to find poachers' on Thandie.
We are publishing this from Johannesburg; our first few days in SA were also full of political and economic gloom, especially as the finance minister has just been sacked. Good for us as the Rand has continued its downward slide but sad to see another African president making a mess of running his country. More about SA soon but we need to set off for our next leg to Durban - we hope to arrive on Christmas eve!
PS. We’re going to be on Test Match Special on Boxing day during the tea time interval with Aggers - do tune in, even if you’re not cricket fans!!