Like many of the things I decide to do, such as selling my life on eBay, or setting out with a list of 100 goals, a familiar phrase can be used to explain my decision to head north into Zimbabwe by travelling overland… “It seemed like a good idea at the time!”
I had enough time on my hands, and the idea of a train, then bus, then another train to get up to Victoria Falls sounded very relaxing, and a refreshing alternative to yet another flight!
After meeting with helicopter pilot John, and his flying instructor buddy Gerhard first thing in the morning, the first part of the journey involved a shared minibus taxi from John’s hostel in Port Elizabeth to the railway station. I had bought my ticket for the overnight sleeper train in advance, and was very pleased to discover that I had a two-person sleeper coupé all to myself. Unfortunately the shaver power socket did not work, so I was slightly limited in the time I could use the computer for.
We departed at 1pm, and headed along the coast before turning northwards into the countryside. I read, relaxed, and headed to the very plush restaurant car for dinner, for a bargain $5, It was very atmospheric, as outside the window the sun set over the African bush. Finally I watched a movie before bed. The cabin was very comfortable, if slightly warm, and I slept so well after a few shared dorm nights in hostels.
The next morning I managed to recharge the computer in the restaurant car at breakfast, and had a shower too, (what great facitities!), before we arrived in Johannesburg. My plan here was to try to find a shared minibus heading north into Zimbabwe, and hopefully make it to Bulawayo in time for the 8pm overnight train. But we had arrived late in Jo’burg, and my initial wander around the streets to the area Martin’s guide book had suggested had produced no results, so I headed back to the station for a coffee. By now it was pretty obvious that I was never going to catch train from Bulawayo that evening.
My first taste of big bad Johannesburg came as I sat drinking my coffee. I had put my bags carefully down at my feet when I sat, and was lost in a tricky Suduko puzzle, when some sixth sense told me to look around, just in time to see my smaller rucsac, with computer, money, passports, everything of value in it really, being spirited away by my seated neighbour.
I was slightly lost for words, a surprised “Heyyyy..!” being the best I could come up with on the spur of the moment. “Yes, you mustn’t leave it on the floor,” he helpfully suggested. “Or what? Someone will take it?” I retorted, sounding annoyed now, I think. He left the bag and scuttled off, leaving me laughing in surprise and relief.
I bought myself a ticket on the only bus I could find for that evening that was going to Bulawayo, and headed out of the other station entrance with a few hours to kill. I got chatting to Tony, who runs a second-hand book stall outside in the square, and he was astounded when I told him I had been wandering around with my bags looking for a minibus. “You did what? With your watch and rings on, carrying your bags? Man, you really must have a guardian angel.”
“It’s not really that bad, is it?”
“Man, I’m telling you, it’s wild out there!” this tough looking guy told me. “They’ll mug you for a cell phone, and kill you just so you can’t identify them. If they can’t get your ring off they’ll cut off your finger to get it. I warned a traveller once, and he went around the corner just there, fifty metres away, was mugged and lost everything he had!”
I spent most of the rest of the afternoon chatting with Tony, and headed back into the relative safety of the station for dinner, before the bus was due to depart. I kept a very close eye on my bags.
The bus wasn’t the most comfortable, but I was lucky enought to bag three seats together on the back row, and managed to get a good amount of sleep throughout the night. We crossed into Zimbabwe at around 4am, a process that involved a US$30 cash fee for a visa. (It would have been $55 if I had used my UK passport instead of my Australian one!) A further unnofficial payment was required so that customs didn’t have to bother searching our bus. Our communal bus bribe of 10 Rand each kept our border crossing time down to only two hours instead of three.
In my bus there wasn’t one other white face, and among the many hundreds at the border crossing I was completely alone in the huge crowd of locals. My bus-seat-neighbours were very friendly, and I spent some time chatting to Tony (another one), who gave me plenty of local Bulawayo info, including some help to get to the railway station.
At the station I had breakfast in a nearby cafe, and decided to change some money with one of the dodgy looking, illegal money changer touts, who was offering a good rate. I was keen to get my hands on some out-of-date Zim Dollars, and we struck a deal. As we changed the money he rolled his half of the transaction up and surreptitiously passed it to me under the table, as there was a policeman nearby. What fun, I thought, trading on the black market like a professional already, and I’ve only been here five minutes!
My connection left, and I looked at the bundle he had given me, and an alarm-bell suddenly went off in my head. I knew immediately what had happened, and unrolled my bundle with a sinking heart. I had 60 billion Zim Dollars, but not the 150 Rand I should have had too. He had switched his bundle to another pre-prepared one as we exchanged, and what I had was worthless paper and nothing more. I dashed to the door, and down the street, but he was already gone!
Back at the cafe I sat down again and laughed. How could I have missed that! I thought I was a pretty seasoned and worldly-wise traveller, and yet had fallen for one of the oldest ones in the conman’s handbook! Still, I thought as I smilled to myself wryly, it could have been a lot worse, I was only US $20 out of pocket. It was a very cheap lesson really, and one I won’t forget anytime soon.
And of course, I can’t be too upset, as I am now a billionaire! Unfortunately the Zim Dollar was taken out of circulation last year as it’s value went into freefall, and a million dollars would no longer cover even the cost of a loaf of bread. The currency here now is a wild west sort of mixture, with prices in US Dollars, South African Rand, and purchases being able to be made in any other sort of well-recognised currency, such as Pound Sterling, or Euros.
Despite my lesson learned, Bulawayo is much nicer than the tiny part of Jo’burg that I saw. I left my bags in a baggage room and wandered into town. Although there isn’t much to see, it’s all very relaxed and friendly, and peolple seem very cheerful and happy. I did some shopping, and stumbled on a movie theatre showing a pretty average bawdy romp called “Virgin Territory”, starring Hayden “Star Wars” Christiansen. It only cost $2 entrance.
I also treated myself to a badly needed haircut, and paid $1 in a little shop that doubled as a bed salesroom too! However, if you pay a buck for a haircut, you do end up with a true one-dollar-haircut! You may spot it in future blog pictures, but I will be wearing my cap for a while!
I bought chicken and rice for dinner and sat on a pavement to eat it, feeling quite at ease and unthreatned, despite having seen only three other white people all day among the thousands in town.
More coffee at the station cafe allowed me to recharge the computer, ready for the third overnight leg of the journey, and at 8pm I was aboard the train departing for Victoria Falls.
The Zimbabwe train cost me an amazing bargain $12 for a first class overnight sleeper ticket, and although the old British rolling stock has long ago seen better days, the journey was reasonably comfortable. However, calling the journey first class is somewhat mis-leading, and true only in that it is a step above second class, where more people have to fit in the same size cabins.
Again I was lucky enough to have a cabin to myself, and was amused at how little worked. There were no lights at all, just bare wires hanging from holes where lights may once have been. The window was jammed, the sink held in place by wire, and the small table kept collapsing. However, being in first class meant that sheets and blankets were included in the ticket price. I slept really well again.
We arrived at around 10am at victoria Falls, and I soon found a backpacker hostel, dropped off the bags and had a coffee and a shower before going in search of spectacular goal 73.