It has been almost two weeks? It doesn’t feel like that. Time seems to be standing still when you are traveling. So I apologize for not haven written lately.
I left Harare for the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe on Monday morning, towards the town of Mutare and then up into the Vumba Mountains, which translate as “Mountains of the Mist”. The steep range borders Mozambique and is covered with a dense forest. It is one of the most magical places I have been to in all of Africa! As I rode, winding up and down the hillside, the sunlight filtered gently through the tree branches around. I swear if you were to look closely you could see fairies in the shadows, it was that supernaturally beautiful.
After a warm night sheltered from the cold in a dorm room I drove towards the ruins of Great Zimbabwe – the symbolical and geographical heart of the country. I get very excited by nature and my drive there was one of the most special I have experienced – five hours of looking around in awe with my jaw on the ground and going “Wowwww!”. The red earth, green trees and blue sky with occasional stony outcrops towering above, grey rock streaked with colors and concealing little houses in its shadows. Simply beautiful.
On arriving at the camp-site which sits beside the ruins and setting up my tent, I ran into some trouble with the playful monkeys around. They were intent on stealing my ginger cookies, and I was intent that they shouldn’t. Ha! This was my opportunity! I had heard horror stories from other travellers who told me that they had used pepper spray to defend themselves from the thieves. After lugging around two cans of pepper spray for five months and never needing them, this would be my chance to justify their presence on my bike. I yanked one out and opened fire on the rascals – only to find out to my dismay that this was not pepper spray at all. In fact, it was actually just that – “pepper spray” – i.e. an extract of chilli peppers mixed with water. Unless you spray it directly in someone’s eyes they will only look at you strangely bemused. I might as well have been shooting a water gun for all the help it did. So the rest of the afternoon I had to walk around hugging my precious cookies and avoiding the monkey’s smirks. I am actually a bit relieved, I would have felt terrible to harm them.
Great Zimbabwe is the greatest pre-colonial sub-Saharan structure, a set of three enclosures which were built by the Shona people at the beginning of the 11th century and served as the city of their king. Two of the enclosures are villages made of intertwining stone walls and mud huts, which sit below the impressive main structure perched atop a rock outcrop. The thick rock walls were made by burning large blocks of granite and then pouring cold water on them – the process causing the rock to break into uniform blocks. These were then stacked, with no mortar, in layers receding in height, so that the wide base stabilized the structure. Besides architecture, at the site were found eight soapstone sculptures of birds, sitting atop columns more than a yard tall. The carvings combine human and avian elements, substituting human features like lips for a beak and five-toed feet for claws. This regal bird appears on the Zimbabwean flag.
Walking atop the hill I was struck by the grace with which the “brick” walls harmonize with the natural rock, weaving in and out of one another. The brick walls built in fluid corners complementing the natural beauty. Somehow the fact that there is no mortar involved – the brick layering is raw and pure, makes it all the more poignant. The scenery from above was also spectacular.
From Great Zimbabwe I drove to Bulawayo, the second-biggest city in Zimbabwe. The amount of cops on the road here is absolutely ridiculous – there are road blocks nearly every 20 kilometers. However, hardly any of them stopped me and the ones who did asked me a few questions and immediately let me drive on. At the lodge that evening, a very kind South African woman invited me to stay with here if I were in Johannesburg. She had flown out in order to bring her maid, which was in late stages of AIDS infection, to be with her family in her final days. It was heartbreaking to hear, and also to understand that today in Africa, HIV/AIDS is considered shameful too have, dissuading people from getting tested and treated in time.
The following day I had a hectic border crossing into South Africa. It had to be hectic though, it was my last one! I felt so great getting to the other side of that border -I made it! South Africa to Kenya and back! I still have to get to Cape Town, but it seems so close now. What a feeling of great achievement!
I spent two wonderful days with Matilda and JP in Bela-Bela. Their beautiful house sits in a sun-drenched valley with golden hills around. Six dogs, three peacocks, a parrot, chickens and ducks give the house constant life and its own special soundtrack. We helped hatch a small duckling that was fighting to get out of its shell. In the evenings JP and I rode around the rocky hills, thankfully not on my BMW but on a much lighter Sherco that was up to the job. You know those bikes that feel as though they do all the work and you’re just getting in the way? I felt as though I should step off and let the bike ride up itself, it was so nimble and fast. Going back to proper off-roading was great fun!
From Bela-Bela I rode to Mpumalanga, the “Place From Which the Sun Rises”. I slept in Graskop overlooking an amazing gorge. The following morning I tried to get a look at God’s Window but the fog made it difficult to see much. God’s Window is a viewpoint over the Drakensburg escapement, on a cliff plunging 700 meters down to the low-lying land below. On a good day they say you can see the ocean from here. God’s Window features prominently in the 1980 cult film “The Gods Must Be Crazy”. Near the end of the movie, the Bushman character Xi travels there and due to some low-lying cloud cover believes it to be the end of the Earth.
I continued my drive, hunched up against the could and slightly miserable, all the way to Newcastle where I was all of a sudden very not miserable. The reason for this was being taken care of by Robin and his wonderful wife in their guest house on the peaceful outskirts of town. Several months ago I arrived at the BMW dealership in Durban and met Robin there, who invited me to stop over on my way back to South Africa. And so here I was to take him up on his offer. A warm bath, a hot dinner, a cold beer and a good conversation later I fell asleep happy beyond belief.
In the morning I woke up to find frost on the bike, so it was a good excuse to wander around the place a bit longer. Robin showed me his beautiful garden filled with budding apricot trees, lettuce and cabbage patches. He dug up fresh organic carrots and brought me an enormous bag of pecan nuts for the road. I was set!
The next stop was Underberg, at the footsteps of Sani Pass which leads to the high plateau country of Lesotho. There I caught up with Rob and Mandy, an Overlander couple who had come down all the way through West Africa in their Land Rover and whom I had met in Namibia. It was fantastic to see them again and catch up on mutual friends, hear about their plans and their thoughts about the trip. Despite the fact that months had passed it felt as though we had just parted yesterday. As always, we ended up drinking wine and beer and laughing quite a lot. The night itself was less charming though, scrunched up in my sleeping bag as I felt my limbs turn into ice one by one. It is too cold to be camping here (I have decided)!
We woke up, cooked a nice breakfast and then parted ways. Rob and Mandy headed up the abominable Sani Pass, a steep gravel road which leads to Lesotho. I have done it at the beginning of my trip so felt less ashamed at turning around and starting my way south-west – towards Cape Town! That will be the real I Made It Celebration. Writing is becoming more difficult and I can feel the weariness building up. But I know that I need to savour these last days which I will be missing intensely.