Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Brief Encounters at Beit Bridge

Through the window, I watched the other drivers hunched over their steering wheels, enveloped in their own thoughts. As our truck etched towards the border inspection point, a passenger in one of the cars parked by us noticed my gaze and turned his head. I took a chance, smiled and waved at him. He scowled and drove off as the barrier lifted.

Welcome to Zimbabawe I thought.

A country that once upon a time was known as the breadbasket of Africa, with its hugely productive farms and buoyant economy, is today rife with hyperinflation, political corruption and crime.

Years of misrule from its leader Robert Mugabe, whose lust for power and fondness for bribery completely destroyed the country, has left Zimbabwe on its knees.

On March 29th this year the Movement for Democratic Change won the parliamentary elections but the party fell short of gaining an outright majority, which meant a presidential run off took place on June 27th. During this election period, the country has been rocked by violence, which has escalated day by day as the elections approached. Mugabe and his followers have used every means possible to suppress, torture and even kill Morgan Tsvangirai’s supporters.

In order to avoid any further bloodshed, Tsvangirai pulled out of the presidential race, leaving Mugabe as the only remaining candidate and making the whole affair even more of a farce.

Given this political disaster that was unfolding, arriving in Zimbabawe in the first week of April was possibly not the wisest of decisions, but the lure of the country proved too strong for us to resist.

Driving up from Jo’Burg, South Africa, we stopped at Musina for some last-minute food and drink supplies and made sure we had sufficient fuel for any unforeseen circumstances.

Crossing the border at Beit Bridge was most certainly an eye-opener. Unlike many other borders, which consist of no more than a cattle fence at times, the Zimbabwean border with South Africa is separated by the high-security fencing, but also the Limpopo River that runs alongside it. The police at this border post are extremely vigilant at the best of times, and this week they were even more so.

Everywhere we looked there were vehicles packed to the rafters with food, furniture and people, as well as many other citizens walking around wearing pro- Tsvangirai t-shirts (an attitude I admired, though thought rather brave given the recent back-lash from Mugabe’s followers).

As we queued up to get our passports stamped, a gentleman turned round and asked us what on earth we were doing crossing into Zim. Very good question. As we looked across at the other passport counter, the number of people trying to cross over into South Africa was considerably higher, that is without taking into account the many petrified souls who every day chance their life by illegally smuggling themselves across the border, attempts which often end in death.

Even the slightest hope of a successful escape drives many hundreds of Zimbabweans doing this every day. That and the hope that “Bob” (as he is ‘affectionately’ known) dies. According to our new found acquaintance, this is something most Zimbabweans have been wishing for the last 84 years. Here’s hoping.

After the lengthy rigmarole of passport checks and queuing for what seemed an eternity, we were then told we were standing in the wrong queue for British nationals. Not surprisingly we were then ordered to pay an extra fee for our temporary visas – oh the joys of border crossing! This is not to mention the last minute attempts by one of the supposed officials to try and con some more money out of us. Eventually we managed to crawl our way onto Zimbabwean soil.

With our destination of Simuwini rest camp in the Mabaluta Province of the GonaRe Zhou National Park in mind, we hit the bumpy road. Though the camp is only about 30kms from the border, it took an age to get there, given we were trying to dodge pot holes as well as the odd stray donkey. In the vicinity of our lodge we were greeted by herds of fleeting impalas and boks, and two rather nonchalant looking elephants as they meandered down to the river at watering time.

For our first game drive we woke up for sun rise, and though not usually a morning person, I was rewarded when we came across a hyena darting in and out of the bushes, and spotted vultures and crimson herons circling above our heads.

When it was suggested to test out the 4x4’s 'true capabilities' and head down into the dry river bed on the look out for some wildlife, we should have known that this ‘adventure’ would end in disaster. As predicted, both cars got stuck. Well schooled in the principles of risk management, we diligently collected as many large boulders as possible to build a solid surface under the tyres to act as a ramp out of the sandy swamp, and then we sat back and watched as the boys struggled to sort out their mess!

Given the ongoing political unrest, travelling into Zimbabawe, was arguably not the wisest of ideas. Fearing for our safety and with the added worry of running low on fuel, we were initially hesitant about making this trip, however it was one of the most exciting and exhilarating trips I have even ventured on. Being able to see the Big 5, amongst others, in the wild, away from the tourist trap that the Kruger sometimes can be, was an experience not too easy to forget.

Sat overlooking Nyala’s river bed for the last time, I was reading through the not so well-thumbed visitor book that Robert the Camp Manager had given us to sign. Given that they don’t receive many visitors, many pages were still blank, though one entry particularly stood out to me: “We will pass the word on to others that if they haven’t visited this place, then they do not know Zimbabawe yet”.

There are one too many treasures that this Park has to offer and it is a great shame that as time goes on, many people won’t get to experience this first hand because of the trail of violence and destruction that Mugabe continues to leave. But until Mugabe is removed from power, people will still miss out on visiting this wonderful country, although this loss does not compare to the tragedy felt by the people of Zimbabwe.