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23rd September 2013

The home run - there has to be a pony…

By the end of July, I’d finished work with Microloan and had begun the final leg of my journey to Capetown.  I’d deliberated for a long time over what route I should take and had seriously considered heading South from Malawi into Mozambique to explore that vast, volatile and relatively undiscovered country of Portuguese dialect and Latin temperament.  Though my interest had been piqued by the uniformly negative, accepted truths about the difficulties of travelling through Mozambique, including monstrous potholes, high prices, impossible bureaucracy, hostile locals and warring rebels, with the only saving grace reported to be the beauty of her diving sites, in the end I’d decided to head West instead.  For me, the far greater pull of curiosity lay in discovering Zimbabwe, a country synonymous with the greatest failure in Africa, a once most powerful, productive country marched to complete economic and social ruin by a despotic octogenarian still in power today.  I would only have a week to discover something of the spirit of this complex country and by an unavoidable coincidence, this week would collide with the highly controversial Zimbabwean Presidential elections.   Given the appalling track record of violence at previous elections, at first I feared that I might be putting myself in unnecessary danger by visiting at such a time, but after contacting some locals in Harare, I was assured that events were expected to proceed peacefully.   I put my fears to one side and headed West.

 It took several days to travel from Lilongwe in Malawi, across Zambia over towards my border post of choice at Lake Kariba.  It’d be suggested that this might be a much better option than the main border post at Chirundu, some 65kms East of Kariba, as Chirundu took all the major trucking traffic and the chances of very long queues and general hassle would be far greater there.   Indeed after a memorable night’s camping at the Eagle’s Rest campsite on the Zambian side of Lake Kariba, surrounded by signs of “beware of the Hippos!” and disturbed by a violent storm in the wee small hours,  I promptly arrived at the quiet Kariba border post on the morning of 30th July.   Having gone through all the necessary and lengthy procedures on the Zambian side, I collected my gate pass, mounted up and rode along to the machine gun toting soldier at the border gate.  The guard walked over and took the pass from my hand. “You go to Harare alone?” he asked me, clearly a little surprised to see a girl alone on a motorbike.  “Yes!” I replied with a grin that I hoped was large enough to mask my spiking nerves at what might lie ahead of me and create a little of the confidence that I would certainly need.   The man grinned back with a large white smile.  “You are very brave!” he said.  “Oh yes!” I called back with a cheeky smile, curling my heavily jacketed left arm up in a strong man arm pose.   With that, the soldier burst out laughing, clipped his ankles together and with a smart salute, waved me on through the gate.   Laughing back and so grateful for this moment of light-heartedness, I waved my farewell and set off down the slaloming road towards the no-mans land of the Kariba dam.

The single track road was thickly bound with rolls of barbed wire, which after a few minutes of enforced tunnel vision, opened out onto a narrow road right across the Kariba dam wall – on one side, a massive expanse of perfect blue water, on the other a sheer,  steep drop down into the gorge of the Zambezi river.  It was a stunning scene of natural beauty harnessed by a gigantic feat of human engineering - this is one of the largest dams in the world.  Much as I’ve never particularly been interested in concrete structures, the enormity of this construction was hard to overlook.  The temptation to stop to take a photo was huge, but I was very aware of being watched and was loathed to do anything to unnecessarily provoke any attention.   Instead, I slowly but steadily proceeded along the dam wall and up the winding road towards the Zimbabwean border post.  

Much as the traffic on this side of the border was also light, the process was far from swift.  Not only was the paperwork lengthy, but all instructions by the border guard had to be repeated several times as I struggled to hear him over the noise blaring from the large, wall mounted flat screen TV, airing an episode from some kind of bizarre hybrid US crime drama inspired by both CSI Miami and the Fresh Prince of Bel Air.   I had to fill out many forms both for myself and the bike so perhaps it was in tackling this vast stack of papers that I failed to give one important box the attention it deserved.   Alas the consequences of my haste soon manifested themselves.   The border guard was checking through one of my entry/exit papers, when his pen rested next to my response to the line item: “Occupation”, which I had given as “writer”.   The guard looked at me searchingly.  “You say you are a writer”, he accused.  I gulped, suddenly realising my error.  He went on.  “What kind of writer are you?” he demanded.  “Shit”, I thought, knowing immediately that I should have claimed to be a teacher or a doctor or in fact anything other than what I am - I should have known that it would raise suspicions.  Given Zimbabwe isn’t exactly famed for its tourist industry these days and with a highly scrutinised election just days away, me presenting myself as a writer from the UK would of course be viewed with high suspicion, not least as it is illegal in Zimbabwe to express negative views about Mugabe.  I quickly decided that my best bet was my proven fall back in such dodgy situations, which was to bluster on through in my “dippy/naive tourist” mode and hope for the best.  I took a deep breath.  “Ah yes!” I confirmed enthusiastically, “I am a writer….of children’s stories!  And I’m here for a wonderful holiday to relax and see your beautiful country!”,  I crashed on with Donkey-inspired cheer, trying my best to mask my fear and gloss over my rather flawed cover story.  

The guard regarded me coolly.  “OK”, he said slowly and unsmilingly, never breaking his gaze on me.  “But you must not do any of your writing here”,  he commanded.   He then proceeded through the rest of the document, the one which listed my intended date of exit and border post.   Once all my paperwork had been checked and with my mind still quietly racing, my documents were stamped and just as I thought I’d finally be able to get out of there unscathed, the guard issued me with one final instruction.  “You must take this pass here and go to see Interpol, they are behind this building”.   I had no idea if this was standard procedure or not for Zimbabwe but this was certainly a first for my African crossings.  As I headed out of the main building to find the Interpol office, I was quite certain that I was about to be cross-examined in a dark room for hours about my journalistic intentions and most probably never seen again.  Suffice to say that after a patchy night’s sleep, my “writer” gaffe and the growing fear that there might be someone waiting for me at my chosen exit border, I was feeling more than a little paranoid.  However when I went in search of the Interpol “office”, I struggled to find it, so went over to three men jovially sitting in the sun on some old plastic office chairs.  “Excuse me, where is Interpol please?” I asked.  “We are Interpol!” said one of the cheery men, who took my papers and without so much as a passing glance, stamped them with gusto and handed them back.  As I walked back to my bike, ready at last to leave, I couldn’t help but laugh to myself.   Yes, I had made a schoolgirl error with my papers but no-one was about to follow me and no-one would be tracking me.  This wasn’t the set of CSI Miami, it was Zimbabwe and it had far bigger problems on its hands than a bizarre but harmless motorcyclist.  I’d need to be smarter in future but for now, it was time to forget it and move on, fresh and ready to tackle whatever should  come next.

After a 360km ride past an endless patchwork of abandoned, weed littered fields, I eventually came to Harare and stayed there the night, keen to push on the next day towards Mutare.   I wasn’t keen to linger in Harare, in part because the next day was the first day of voting and I thought it best not to be in the capital at that point in case anything did kick off, but also because I had met a guy in Zambia who had told me that his grandparents lived just north of Mutare and would always welcome a passing traveller.  When Adriaan, the young man in question, gave me their address, he mentioned that they lived at Drifters, which immediately rang a bell.  If you’ve read any of my earlier blog posts, you might remember that when I returned to Ethiopia after Christmas, I was reading a book on the plane called “The Last Resort” by Douglas Rogers, all about how Douglas’s parents had tried to protect their backpackers resort called “Drifters” from being taken under Mugabe’s 2002 Land Reform.  In a bizarre twist of fate, Adriaan’s grandparents, the De Klerks, were mentioned in the book as one of the major white farming families who had fled to Drifters for shelter after their farm was taken in 2004 and indeed were now still living in one of the small houses on the site.   Suffice to say, I was really interested to visit them and having been assured that it was OK just to turn up, set off that Wednesday, 31st July from Harare for the 250km ride South. 

Its also perhaps worth mentioning at this point that the weather by now was turning cold – and I mean really cold.  Not just “mulling over the prospect of pulling on a light jersey” cold, I mean “wearing every single item of clothing you’ve packed and still so freezing you can’t feel your hands and are actually shivering” cold.  Unluckily enough for me, Southern Africa was experiencing an atypically cold winter and it wasn’t about to get better.   Riding in this weather was really grim and despite doing my best to embrace the power of positive thought and think of somewhere really hot, I was still freezing cold and consequently far more exhausted after being on the bike after a day’s riding than usual.   You can imagine then how relieved I was after 4.5 long hours in the saddle to finally spot a modest little signpost just 13km North of Mutare for Drifters.  With a noisy “hooray!” in my helmet, I turned off the main road and wound up the track towards Drifters.  At some point it seems that the Rogers lost the battle to save Drifters, which is now being used by some construction workers as a base for the road development project along this stretch.  Realising that I didn’t have a house number or any more precise way of finding the De Klerk house, I asked one of the workers where the De Klerks lived and was pointed to “one of the houses” up the track.  Indeed, it soon transpired that there were 16 houses all spread out throughout the wooded grounds and after a couple of false starts and further enquiries, I finally pulled up outside the right house. 

Spotting an older lady surveying the scene from her armchair on the veranda, I quickly removed my helmet in order to avoid any undue alarm and walked across the grass towards her still fully togged out in my space invader-esque riding suit.  “Hello, is this the De Klerk house?” I asked in my very own “Dr Livingstone, I presume?” moment.  The lady remained in her armchair as she coolly and quickly studied my face before breaking into a broad smile and announcing with what would soon transpire to be her trademark directness, “Yes it is.  But I have no idea who you are”.   I laughed  and reassured her “Quite right, we’ve never met before.  But I did meet your grandson Adriaan two days ago in Zambia, with his wife Laura?  He suggested that if I was passing through this area, I should pop by and say hi.  I hope that’s ok.”  With that, the lady rose from her chair and bounded towards me, giving me a big hug and holding my shoulders tightly with her hands, asked  “Child, my goodness have you come here like this?” (She held up her solitary, lit cigarette, smoke curling into the breeze).  “All on your own, on that motorcycle?”.   “Yes, that’s right, from England”, I replied with a laugh and a nod.  “All that way!” she cried, “My goodness, well, do you have any place to stay tonight?  No of course you don’t, well you must stay here tonight with us, and in the morning I’ll ask my girl to clean that riding suit of yours, you’re filthy and we can’t have you leaving here like that, its not decent!  So in that case you’ll stay tomorrow night as well as it’ll take a while for that to dry.  Now, come with me, I’ll get you a cup of tea and some rusks, and I’ll introduce you to the old man, he’ll not believe this”.  (“old man” is what she very affectionately called her husband Piet, who at 83 was only 3 years her senior!).  

With that, Mienkie shuffled off in her tracksuit and slippers, apologising for her lack of “elegance” but citing the cold weather and the prohibitive expense of heating their 2 bedroomed cottage by way of explanation, through the sitting room and into the kitchen, which Piet was just entering from the porch.   The first thing that struck me about Piet is his size – a remarkably tall and well built man despite his age (it later transpired that he had captained the Rhodesian Rugby team in the 1950s!), with a close second being his warm smile and twinkling eyes.  Once Mienkie had related the story of my arrival to him, he stood for a moment quite amazed.  “Well”, he said, “I must say that we are very privileged to have you come to stay with us”.  This was not the last time that either Piet or Mienkie would say this to me over the two days I stayed with them and on each and every occasion I sincerely countered that the privilege was all mine. 

I wasn’t sure at first whether the subject of their farming history would be a taboo subject or not, but indeed it soon arose over that first cup of tea.  Their farm, Kondozi, was developed from scratch by Piet, a South African by birth, and it had once employed 6,000 people from the local area.  At 3000 hectares, Kondozi had been one of the major suppliers of all kinds of baby corn, mange tout and green beans for Tesco and Sainsburys in the UK and was originally earmarked as being exempt from the Land Reforms of 2002 as it was an export producer, but in the end greed overtook reason and in 2004 Piet and Mienkie were “chased off the farm” at 2am one night by hundreds of soldiers with water cannons.  Its hard to imagine just how terrifying that event must have been, or how one could possibly accept such an epic theft, to have all that you have worked for and developed for decades taken from you by people who have no idea at the very least how to farm the assets they have taken, to watch everything you created turned to ruin. 

“But the worst part”, Mienkie explained “is not the money or the farm.  Those are just things really, they don’t matter.  The worst part is that I had my family stolen from me, my children and my grandchildren.  My boys used to live and work on the farm, but I hardly get to see them now, 3 of my 4 boys have left Zimbabwe, what’s left for them here now?  Farming is gone, its never coming back like it was.”  As I sat listening to Piet and Mienkie speak, it was hard not to feel shocked and appalled.  I wondered how it was that they hadn’t become consumed by bitterness or anger, instead balancing an understandable degree of frustration and resentment with a thankfulness and respect for what they still do have (namely each other, their friends and their family, albeit not as close as they would have liked).   Mienkie pointed my attention to the wall.  “Do you see that plaque there?  It says ““Debet esse parvus equus” , which means “there has to be a pony”. Do you know what that refers to?”, she asked.  I shook my head.  Mienkie explained that this was a quote that was always on Ronald Reagan’s desk.  It relates to a story that he often loved to tell about two brothers, one an incurable optimist, the other an incurable pessimist.  The boys were taken to a doctor by their parents as they were worried about their boys’ extreme personalities.  First the doctor tried to cure the pessimist, so took him to a room with a big mountain of toys.  Immediately the boy started to cry.  When asked why, the boy replied “But if I play with them, I’ll only break them!” he wailed.  A little amazed, the Doctor tried to assess the optimistic boy by taking him to a barn full of horse manure.  Immediately the little boy cried in delight, scrambled to the top of the dung pile and started digging away with his hands.  The doctor asked him what on earth he was doing.  The boy beamed with great delight and replied “With all this manure, there has to be a pony in here somewhere!”.   It was very much Piet and Mienkie’s way to walk on the side of optimism and constantly look for the “pony”, however much manure appeared to be in their way. 

In the days that followed, Piet and Mienke treated me with all the warmth and love that you might usually bestow on a family member, not someone who literally just sprang up out of no-where in your garden one day.  They amazed me (that’s a horribly overused word but in this case I do mean it) with their kindness, humility, generosity and above all optimism, which is something that has remained with me since.  When I came to leave their home, I felt it was appropriate to give them what I would ordinarily budget for 2 days on the road, not because I thought that in any way I had to but I wanted to – they couldn’t even afford to heat their home properly and I knew that since the farm had been taken, money was seriously tight.  But when I came to give Mienkie the money and before any debate could start, firmly insisted she take it (Mienkie is without doubt one of the most spirited, sparkiest people I have ever met so I was expecting a fight), she surprised me greatly by accepting it graciously before excitedly asking that she could give some to “my girl” (Irene) for scrubbing away so heroically at my riding suit, adding “She would be really thrilled at that”.  It spoke volumes about Mienkie that her first thought was to share what she had and to think of others, and yet again it saddened me greatly to think of what great unfairness had been done to her and Piet in the recent past.   It truly had been an absolutely privilege and honour to stay with them.

After several more weeks on the road, I finally reached the Cape of Good Hope, the most south westerly point in South Africa, one cold afternoon on Saturday 24th August.  It was somehow a shock to the system to arrive there.  Despite the logical part of my brain being fully prepared for this conclusion, the emotional part is still going to take a while to catch up I think.  Its hard to accept that that part of my journey is over and honestly some days its quite scary to think about this next chapter because this time there is no Michelin map showing me the way. Then again, I’ve learnt a lot of lessons on my travels that I’m having to keep in mind and remember now.  Like sometimes, not knowing every detail of the future (day, week, month) doesn’t always mean that it won’t work out well, usually in fact, quite the reverse.  Live in hope and not in fear.  And always look out for and follow the little markers that only I can spot to lead me to where I should go next.  

Some people ask if I’m going to return to “reality” now, which seems to me to be a peculiar sort of question.  There was nothing “unreal” about the people I met over the last year or the experiences I had, in fact that was the most real thing I think I’ve ever done (and far more real than attempting to predict future moves in the European equity markets I can assure you!).   So what are my plans?  I’ll be spending quite a lot of time in my little cottage in Scotland, writing my book and also getting out there giving presentations to all kinds of bike clubs, adventure organisations and anyone else all over the UK who might want to hear from me about what riding through Africa on your tod with only a little Donkey for company is really like.  Speaking of whom, Donkey meanwhile is mostly enjoying eating vast quantities of highland shortbread whenever he thinks I’m not looking, while also pondering what to do with his own stories.  He’d love to inspire the young adventurers of tomorrow and tell anyone who’ll listen about the wonders of Africa.  Food for thought…

On that note, the wood-burner looks like its hungering for another log or two so I’ll finish by saying thank you so much to you all (not least Suzuki GB for their unwavering support) for your constant encouragement and interest.  I’ll always welcome suggestions and feedback so if anybody out there has any pointers, requests, ideas (or part-time job offers…!) to share with me, I’d love to hear from you.

Over and out for now (and don’t forget the pony)…..Claire