(excerpted from The Grateful Unrich: Revolution in 50 Countries: Chapter 26: African Bush Taxi)
Kasane, Botswana is a sprawling overpriced shit hole. Our bus from Francistown has arrived hours late so we’ve just missed the nightly boat safari departure into Chobe National Park.
We walk 10 kilometers, dodging the warthogs that run all over town. We give them wide berth, remembering what Jimmy had told us in Nelspruit. Taxi drivers hassle us. A young woman, sensing our frustration, walks us up the hill to the town’s bargain hotel. We get a shared-bath room for $65. Fuck!
Another night of such usury will not do, so wake up at 5:30 AM, chat with the front desk staff and walk down the hill. We change pula for dollars and get a taxi to the Zimbabwe border. We drive past the confluence of the Chobe and Zambezi Rivers, skirting a troop of trash-eating velvet monkeys as we walk to the border post. The stern official gives us 30-day visas for $30/each.
Unable to hitch a ride, we make our way towards a group of taxi drivers and negotiate a price for the seventy mile ride to Victoria Falls. We have to wait for two more passengers to get our price, so we pass time talking with the drivers.
They are articulate and intelligent. I am blown away. It’s the best conversation I’ve had the whole trip. One man explains the entire history of British land theft and Boer tenant farmer belligerence that led to the current Mugabe land reform morass. He confirms many of my suspicions about the political situation here. Say what you want about Mugabe, but it was the London bankers who crashed Zimbabwe’s currency from 100 per $1 to 100,000 per $1.
Jill sits on my lap, since three more passengers and a baby show up. The driver goes out of his way to miss running over a black mamba. He says he often sees lions on this road at night. The four other passengers are bound for the capital Harare. We drop them at the train station for the 7:00 PM overnight train to Bulwayo and go to Lorrie’s Guest House. She is a white racist with biting dogs. Her rate has gone from $18 in the 2008 Lonely Planet guidebook to $70. She blames it on the electric bill.
I have her call Victoria Falls Backpackers. We can get dorm beds there for $10/each and they’ll come pick us up. No one else shows up so our dorm is like having our own room- a cute little thatch and bamboo hut. A German traveler named Florien is staying here awhile. He has done the Cairo to Cape overland route. We play chess and pool, but he seems forlorn. I wonder if African realities have taken their toll. The owner here is also a white racist, but the black staff is friendly and adept.
The walk down into town is littered with teenage boys with names like Christopher Columbus and Monkey hawking wood and stone carvings. They want to trade for the most basic Western goods- clothes, soap, etc. The country has been unable to import anything until just recently so there are huge used goods markets everywhere. The currency collapse was followed by two years of hyperinflation. A couple months ago the government dumped its currency. Now everything is priced in either USD or South African rand. It’s been a hard time here, but there is a sense that things are getting better. There’s a coffee and pizza joint just opening up downtown. Troops of baboons run amok through the streets. We go to sleep to the rumbling sound of The Smoke That Thunders.
Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
Victoria Falls is the biggest curtain of falling water on the planet and one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the world. Its power is hard to describe. Its torrent shakes buildings. Its mist reaches downtown, a good mile away. We rent raincoats. It doesn’t matter. We get soaked. It’s part of what makes the experience so awesome. We walk the circuit and at the last drenching spot see two of the brightest rainbows I’ve ever seen spanning the Zambezi Gorge.
Downriver bungee jumpers are diving off the railroad bridge that also spans the gorge- connecting Zimbabwe with Zambia. Men with overflowing baskets of bread atop their heads are coming from Zambia with badly needed food. Production here has been crippled since Mugabe seized many white-owned farms.
One of those farms was taken from Dennis- the owner of our backpacker place- who ropes us into dinner at his house tonight. I know right away it’s a bad idea. Dennis is an overt racist, a tyrant of a boss and a fucking crybaby. He used to do dirty work with South African intelligence. Now he’s got some Chinese import deal cooking.
While his 7-year-old grandson grills chicken, we hear a bang and the power goes out. I grab Jill and head for the middle of the house, thinking ZANU-PF is attacking this asshole’s house with mortars. Turns out a baboon got on a power line and broke it. It was a helluva’ light show. We eat half-cooked chicken. All the food is horrible.
We talk politics and disagree on everything except our mutual hatred of British colonialism in these parts. These Afrikaners are a different bunch. They live in massive denial. They are very defensive and even more belligerent. In many ways they have continued to serve the British, even after the bloody Boer War, where the British ran the world’s first concentration camps full of Boer prisoners. Over 100,000 died in those camps, mostly women and children.
Here in Zimbabwe, the defeated Boers became tenant farmers on British-owned land, acting as a buffer zone between angry dispossessed blacks and the London banker crowd which had owned all the land here. Dennis reminds me of a Korean liquor store owner in Compton. Dennis deserved to have his land seized.
The visa costs add up north of here and Africa is more expensive than we thought it would be. Zambia wants $30 for a one day visa just to see the other side of the falls. Tanzania hits you for $100, Kenya $50, Uganda $30 and Burundi $40. The transport here is always a waiting game. It wears on you. So we decide a five-country loop of southern Africa will do for now. I find an internet deal on Etihad Airways from Johannesburg to Kathmandu and pull the trigger.
We check out late and walk downtown to get something to eat for dinner. We have a pot of coffee at a fancy hotel, where we have a beautiful view of the mist rising from Victoria Falls, painting the sky in insanely beautiful colors at sunset. We use the bathroom several times, finish our coffee and head to the train station. On the way, we see two police severely beating a man in a park. We have tickets on the 7:00 PM overnight train to Bulawayo.
The woman at the counter would have preferred we’d booked a higher priced sleeper car, but kindly gives us our own private sleeper anyway. The room is well-worn, but retains shades of its former Rhodesian majesty. We wave at children as we leave the station, vaulting out into the African night. Africa has a low population density and light pollution is far less than in other inhabited places in the world. The Milky Way jumps out and lights the northern sky. We see the Southern Cross and a huge upside down Big Dipper. I have never seen brighter stars. We are riding across the Big Empty.
The narrow gauge train averages about forty miles per hour, covering the 435 kilometers to Bulawayo- Zimbabwe’s 2nd largest city- in 15 hours. It is a cold night since we have no blankets. I don’t sleep much. Jill sleeps better in the warmer top bunk. But the morning sun warms us up quickly and the photo opportunities out the window are superb, as we stop often to pick up and drop off passengers near remote villages.
When we see a big city we know it is Bulawayo. We arrive at the busy station at 10:00 AM. Had we decided to continue north to Malawi, we could have caught another night train to Harare from here. Instead, we exit and walk towards the Greyhound station on Fife Street. We pass several alleys where men are pissing. This part of the city reeks of urine.
We stop by another bus company office. The guy tells us he’s got a minivan that can take us directly to Oliver Tambo International Airport for less than bus tickets to Johannesburg. Having seen enough of that city, we take him up on it.
We drop our packs at their office and head to Papa’s to get a bite to eat. It is run by a Lebanese man who opened it just a year ago. The food is superb. I ask him if he is part of “things getting better”. He proudly says he is. I am starting to like this town.
As we walk around burning time ahead of our evening minivan departure, my heart goes out to the warm, kind, intelligent, wonderful people of Zimbabwe. They have been through so much- thanks mostly to British, US and EU sanctions. Yet the people remain steadfast and upbeat. There is virtually zero crime, despite grinding poverty. People smile and retain their sense of humor. Today it dawns on me how much I will miss Africa. It is no easy place to travel, but it is rich in human spirit. The people endure. While money is scarce, the African soul looms large. I especially love Zimbabwe, where I celebrate my 44th birthday by visiting Victoria Falls. This is the 50th country I have visited- one I have wanted to visit since I was a boy.
The drive south is mesmerizing, as we pass through labyrinths of massive colorful dome-shaped rocks. We sing along with the driver and other passengers to a Lucky Dube CD. “Hey Rasta Man. Hey Afrikaner. In the end, you know, we’ve got to come together as One.”
But as night falls, this stretch run transforms into another ghastly metaphor for travel in Africa. They’d already pulled the old van switch on us, replacing the shiny new one with leg room that we saw with a cramped little van with a wrecked front end. We get the last two seats, although we were earlier promised “the best seats”. Still, all is good until we hit the border. Checking out of Zimbabwe is a breeze, but as we speed away for the South African border post a few more kilometers up the road, a group of men in military fatigues carrying automatic weapons, led by a plainclothes guy wearing a brown coat, force our van to stop.
The leader commandeers the keys to the van while another guy checks everyone’s passport. Everyone else gets theirs back right away, but he keeps mine. We are driven back to the Zimbabwean border, where we sit in the van from around midnight until 4:00 AM. Despite the constant bustle of South African trucks bringing goods into Zimbabwe and Zimabwean workers trying to cross into South Africa for jobs, we all fall asleep. The driver finally gets in and we resume our journey, next clearing the South Africa border.
We sleep more. As the sun begins to rise I wake up to find that the driver is going right past the airport exit. Despite my pleas he insists we will go the Johannesburg first to drop passengers off, before returning to the airport. When all other passengers have disembarked I grab our backpacks from the trailer- which they unhitch and leave. The backpacks are covered with grease. Neither the driver nor his assistant is sympathetic. Instead, they hit us up for fifty more rand for the ride back to the airport.
I tell them we bought tickets to the airport already. They act as if it’s the first they’d heard of it. I show them my receipt and tell them to take it up with their boss and that I’ll not pay them another dime. And, oh by the way, can you please stop at this gas station because we need some coffee.
They admire my sticking by my guns, knowing they are part of a scam. They tell us the tour company operator charged everyone 300 rand but gave the driver’s brother- who owns the van- only 250 rand per person. The operator also told them to hit us up for extra for the ride back to the airport.
Having gained their trust and respect, they now proceed to tell us that the reason the van was stopped last night was not something the driver did, as we had up until now thought. No, they said the “officials” were interested in us. When pressed the driver said no one at the Zimbabwean border post knew who the guy in the brown coat even was. So he must not have been a government official.
Was he a Mugabe henchman, a CIA thug or some private mercenary working for the Rothschilds or the Oppenheimers? Lord knows, I’ve been railing against their monopolies over southern African diamond and gold mines. Had Dennis tipped them off?
At any rate we are relieved when we finally hop out of the van at the airport. I clean the bags the best I can. We both take scrub showers in the handicapped bathroom. We go to the same tourist desk that booked our hostel rooms a few weeks earlier. We’d heard of a place nearby called Airport Backpackers. The people at the desk won’t even call for us, citing increased telephone costs. Our flight is booked for the day after tomorrow, but we are now completely done with Africa. We pay $125 extra and board the 1:35PM Etihad flight to Abu Dhabi.
We arrive around midnight. It is a lavish facility. We use the free internet, have a few smokes and find some floor space to crash out. When we awaken we realize we are sleeping right next to our Kathmandu departure gate. The flight leaves on schedule at 10:10 AM, filled mostly with Nepalese contract workers returning home from their servitude here.
It’s another great Etihad flight. No other airline comes close. There’s more free Ballantine Scotch, Bailey’s & coffee and great food. The stewardesses are super-friendly. We watch The International- a very accurate portrayal of the global mega-banksters. The plane is relatively empty, especially at the back where we are.
As we begin circling over Kathmandu, the jagged snow-covered 25,000’ peaks of the Himalayas burst into view through thick cumulous clouds. We see K-2, Machapuchare and the Annapurna Range. Even the stewardesses are giddy. We circle and descend through turbulence and clouds, but land safely.
Jill loves it instantly. I knew she would.
Dean Henderson is the author of four books: Big Oil & Their Bankers in the Persian Gulf: Four Horsemen, Eight Families & Their Global Intelligence, Narcotics & Terror Network, The Grateful Unrich: Revolution in 50 Countries, Das Kartell der Federal Reserve & Stickin’ it to the Matrix. You can subscribe free to his weekly Left Hook column @ www.deanhenderson.wordpress.com