Southern Africa - Zimbabwe to Durban

Spot the hippo!
Harare is just like any other large, western city - high-rise, lots of shopping malls and arcades, decent coffee and lots of icecream shops. There is a huge craft market in the middle of town, and a flower market selling thousands of beautiful blooms. We stayed a couple of nights, but were keen to keep moving. A couple we had met in Blantyre had recommended a small private game park called Hippo Pools, so we booked for a long weekend stay. The park was a couple of hours drive north-east of Harare; we were picked up and taken there along with a handful of other tourists. Arriving after dark, we couldn't really get a good idea of what the place looked like, and there was some confusion getting us all huts and beds, but eventually we settled in and everyone gathered up at the main house for what turned out to be a typically great four-course meal. Morning revealed that we were on the banks of the river, in an area surrounded by bush. The park has no dangerous carnivours, and is traversed by dozens of paths, all colour-coded, where we could walk without a guide. We spent one day walking in a circle downstream along the river then back up through the bush, spotting five hippos and a troop of baboon along the way, and the next day we spent out walking through the bush - not a lot of animals, but the countryside was lovely to walk through.

We had to return to Harare, but only spent a night there before heading south to the Chimanimani mountains. Catching the bus from Harare's Mbare bus station was probably the most dangerous thing we did in Zimbabwe. We were very grateful for the [black] taxi driver, who insisted on coming with us to fight off the many people hassling us as soon as we stepped out of the car. The bus only went as far as Mutare, but we managed to get a connecting bus to Chimanimani late in the day, and walked out the short distance to Heaven, where we were to stay. Heaven is a lovely lodge, with friendly staff, a bunch of cats to cuddle, and the likelihood that you will run into at least one of the many travelers you have made friends with somewhere else in Africa - we kept meeting up with familiar faces all along the way. We opted for a little luxury - a separate A-frame chalet in the grounds.

A daily lift is available to and from the National Park, so we were able to make a full day trip in the mountains. They are spectacular, with a steep climb up through a low forest hung with air ferns and dripping with epiphytes, the rocks covered with orchids unfortunately not in flower, surrounded with proteas. There are magnificent views over the surrounding countryside. Then follows a fairly level walk through fantastically sculptured rocks, and a slight downhill to the Mountain Hut. We would have liked to go for more than a day, and had we realized that the hut was so well equipped we would have made it a base for longer walks. Without a tent and cooking gear we had thought that the option of an overnight stay wasn't available to us. As we left the hut a group of eland crossed our path, some of the mere handful left in the area. The day was hot as we took the gentle walk down the stream, and after a picnic lunch at Digby's Waterfall, sitting in tiny cool pocket of lush, Gondwana-derived vegetation, we stopped near Peter's House Cave for a skinnydip before starting the walk back to the ranger station. I didn't enjoy the final stretch, since my back was giving trouble, and the constant steep downhill scramble caused considerable pain.

Back at Heaven the crowds were building up, drawn to the town by an arts and music festival, but we decided the midnight to dawn party planned for the lodge wasn't our scene, and set off for Masvingo. There isn't a reliable direct bus, and we wasted a lot of time by not just jumping on the first bus that went out to the main road, but eventually we made our way across the country with a series of buses, and arrived well after dark. Masvingo was a bit off-putting in the dark, and we could only read our scribbled notes about the lodge by squatting in front of a bus, with its headlights cutting through the inky black, but a call to Clovelly brought Ian in the van to collect us. Clovelly was one of the great backpacker lodges. There were large thatched rondavels set up as 6-bed dorms, wonderful meals, and an animal menagerie; a great dane with six puppies, a labrador, a bitser, three cats and lots of birds. The owners of the lodge lived in a shed down the back of the property, having moved out of the house and given it over to backpackers and animals.

Great Zimbabwe
We were in Masvingo to see the Great Zimbabwe ruins. As it happened, so was Rob Mugabe, along with the president of Tanzania, so we had to defer to them. They didn't close the park, but a huge rally was to be held there, and buses, truck and cars converged on the site disgorging rent-a-crowd supporters. We arrived early in the day, before the crowd swelled too large, and sneakily bypassing the security people with their body scanners we went in to see the ruins. These are quite interesting, being one of the very few ancient remains of architecture to be found in southern Africa, although I would have liked to an explanation of how the place might have looked in its heyday. There are two sections to the ruins - the village on the flat, including the massive round fortified enclosure, and the buildings up on the hill at the back. We looked around the flat area first, avoiding the armed troops positioned for security purposes, then went up the old path to the top of the hill, only to be met by some very friendly policemen who stopped us until they received word that the official party, who had arrived while we were exploring and who had gone up to the top of the hill, were no longer in the area.

Mugabe's entourage passed us as we walked back to the bus stop. It is really something. Our bus had been muscled off the road the previous evening just as we arrived in Masvingo, with the car cavalcade of police, army, official black mercedes and hangers on, and now this same circus was parading around between the ruins and the town, stopping all traffic in its path.

From Masvingo we went to Bulawayo, stayed overnight, then caught a bus to Victoria Falls, one of the 'must see' bits of Africa. The falls were pretty good, although strangely there was too much water, which meant that you could only see actual waterfall at the edge; in the centre you just felt the thundering power and listened to the roar, facing a wall of solid white spray. We got soaking wet from the spray, which falls back to earth from just a few tens of metres above your head like a tropical deluge. Some of the other aspects of Victoria Falls were also pretty good - there were elephants roaming around the edge of town, vervet monkeys playing on the fence, and a warthog which cropped the lawn at our lodge. Oh yes, our lodge was pretty good too. It wasn't finished yet, with no front door and the swimming pool just a large red hole in the front yard. In fact, it wasn't opened yet, but despite this it was full, and had to turn people away.

Vic Falls
There was one more place we wanted to see before going back to Durban. Hwange National Park wasn't far from Victoria Falls, so we caught a local bus to the turnoff and hitch-hiked into the main camp. We didn't have a booking and were dismayed to be told that it was a public holiday weekend, and they were booked out. Faced with hitching back to the main road and having to find some place to stay, we were grateful to be intoduced to Mike, who was booking in his park tour at the desk. He was catetaking a lodge at Dete, where we could stay. Mike had his tour to do, so we sat in the comfort of the outdoor restaurant and waited for him to come back and pick us up. The two boys who were his customers were also staying at his lodge, so we all went back together. Mike's place was just a house in town, one of the old railway company houses, and it was a pretty rough-and-ready lodge, but there were zebra and baboons just over the other side of the road, which was actually in the [unfenced] park, and things were just fine.

The next day Mike took us out into the park for what was nominally a three-hour game trip, but what turned into something more like six hours, as he vainly tried to find lion for us. Not to worry - we eyed hundreds of elephants, gawked at giraffe, viewed vultures, gazed at gazelles, backed off from buffalo, zealously looked for zebra, saw endless varieties of animals, and had a wonderful day. If we had not seen any large mammals at all, the tour would have been worth it for the birds. That night Marcus (one of our fellow lodgers) and I wandered off into the dark, hoping to see more zebras. There was a throaty cough nearby. 'That was a pussy cat', I said facetiously. 'That wasn't a pussy cat. That was lion!', said a startled Marcus, grabbing hold of me, and we scurried back up the road to the lights. We decided later it was a leopard, although Geoff was very skeptical - he still thinks we heard a baboon and panicked in the dark.

In the morning Mike took us out to the main road, where we caught a very slow bus back to Bulawayo, arriving just in time to get on an overnight bus back to South Africa. Johannesburg isn't the best of places to be at any hour of the day, but it looked positively threatening at four o'clock in the morning. We waited until it got light, then headed out to the airport and got on the next flight back to Durban.

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