- At this point we rarely were sleeping past 7am, as the tent was no match for the heat of the Zimbabwean sun
- We had been on the road for 9 days at this point, which meant that I had been constantly sweating for 216 hours – hadn’t showered since Botswana but who’s counting
- It was unsafe to walk outside of our campground a few years ago due to elephants, but their numbers have been vastly reduced in recent years due to poaching and commercial and residential development
Part III: The Big Two-Six
December 22nd, 2009- one day before the most important birthday in a person’s life, the big two-six. We woke up in Mlibizi, really, really early, to catch the (at this point) practically mythical Lake Kariba ferry that would be our home away from home for the next 24 hours. Knowledgeable, dependable, tourist guides, agents, or anything for that matter, were few and far between in Zimbabwe. So it was no surprise that any inquiry concerning the near-fabled Lake Kariba ferry that we had made over the past week was met with confusion and skepticism. But Alas! When we woke up that morning it was in sight. It DOES exist!
We strolled onto the ferry, easily the only passengers sans car, and made claim to the smaller upstairs area with a group of other travelers we had become friendly with. The ferry was probably at 50% capacity, giving us a greater sense of comfort (yes, than even our tent granted us). Having lived on so little money over the past (almost) week, the $100 fee seemed paltry, especially once we realized all meals were included, and, wait for it, they let us into the captain’s area and let us use his binoculars!!
After navigating through a plethora of weeds that attempted to keep us at bay, the ferry chugged peacefully up the lake. We read, played games, watched the various animals grazing on the shores, and devoured buffet after buffet that were put in front of us. The sunset was amazing, the nighttime thunder spectacular, and the morning sunrise breathtaking. Our “what time is it, where am I, and where on earth are we supposed to stay tonight” only kicked in as the boat pulled into the Lake Kariba “harbor,” which consisted of, nothing. Luckily (is it really luck at this point?) the boat’s owner’s daughter gave us a ride in her pick up truck to the local supermarket, where we got pot-food and water. She proceeded to drop us off on the side of the road a couple of kilometers farther, pointing in the direction of a camp ground. Hitchhike numero uno lasted 5 minutes when a South African picked us up. I think the negligible waiting period was due to our intimidation factor being at a cool, Level Green, courtesy of the Happy Birthday balloons that littered the straps of my backpack
Our new campsite was located in an enclosed park on the edge of Lake Kariba. The $16 a night got us a great, grassy campsite, a braii, an outdoor bar with satellite tv (for our soccer pleasures), and a nice, warm pool. The bar sat on a secluded bay, home to a couple dozen of our friends, the hippopotami. We celebrated my 26th birthday in style, with a delicious meal of bread, potatoes, and pasta, and the remainder of our Johnny Walker Black that had made the trip with us all the way from the duty-free airport in JBurg. A Hooter-infused remix of “Happy Birthday” was followed by the presentation of a “lifestraw.” A “straw” with an innovative filter ensured that we would never run out of water again – we took it straight to the lake and took pulls as the other three eyed the lurking hippos. The festivities continued well into the night; we may or may not have convinced Amy that it included elephant sightings along the way.
The three nights we were on Kariba provided some serious R&R. The second day we ventured into the township next door for some Christmas Eve groceries, and were greeted by a hippo on our walk home. Luckily he was more intrigued by the grass he was munching on than Sarah’s look of shear terror. Physical funds were running low at this point, due to every ATM in the area being “out of order,” so our Christmas Eve feast was more of a modes meal (though delicious of course!). We went to bed early like usual- our ride was coming at 4:45am to take us to the township where our bus to the capital city of Harare was to pick us up. Christmas in Zimbabwe would have a rough start, though a memorable ending.
- Mbare residents emphasized the safety of the township, saying that there are very few guns, knives, and gangs. At least in my (albeit short) experience we did in fact feel far safer than in a township of South Africa.
- Every black Zimbabwean we met in Harare, whether in the suburbs or the township, spoke perfect English.
- When we hitchhiked to Vumba, the black driver tried to force all the black passengers in his flatbed out to make room for us, his “bosses.” We insisted on sharing the space.
Part IV: Merry Christmas from Mbare, Harare, Zimbabwe
We woke up at 4:30AM in Kariba, Zimbabwe, packed up our possessions, and disassembled our tent with military efficiency. One of the owners of the campground arrived promptly at 4:45AM to take us to the township, where we were to catch our bus the capital city of Zimbabwe, Harare. Dazed and confused we boarded the bus as dozens of inebriated (to say the least) men poured out of the bars. I guess Christmas Eve is a big party night in Zimbabwe. They drunkenly harassed us for food and “Christmas Boxes” (the name for ratios that had been donated to the politically unstable country in years past by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP)). After 45 more stops the bus finally got going on the main stretch of road that led to Harare.
All things considered, that ride wasn’t horrible. The bus did break down 15 kms from Harare, but thankfully Hooter’s friend Garika (Gaza) Govati, whom we were meeting up with in the city, drove out and saved us. Gaza’s story is incredible. Having grown up in the township of Mbare, Harare, Gaza received a full scholarship to Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. Majoring in economics, he studied for a year at the prestigious London School of Economics, (LSE) before returning to Wesleyan to receive his degree in 2007. He now works in Johannesburg for the private equity firm, Emerging Capital Partners, and frequently returns to Mbare to see his family and friends, giving back to his mother and family for everything she did for him.
We wasted no time. Gaza drove us directly to his house, where we enjoyed a delicious, home cooked, Christmas dinner. His siblings, and mother in particular, treated us as family. It was an incredible feeling, and definitely one that we needed, as we each were slowly realizing that it was the first time we were spending Christmas away from our families. We spent the remainder of the day meeting friend after friend, attending party after party, well into the night. Every person we met was so excited to share the day with us, so excited to show us their home, and probably the most excited to give us beer after beer after beer. The night was complete when we each used Gaza’s phone to call our families; I think that sent everyone into tears (definitely my Mom). Drunk, exhausted, full, and happy, we checked into our hotel with a street football matched etched into our calendar for the next morning at 10AM, sharp sharp.
Surprisingly only a little hung-over, Amy, Hooter, and I, arrived back in Mbare right on time for kick-off. Gaza’s friends were setting up a makeshift sound system as the players and fans arrived to watch the match. Rocks formed the goals on far left side of each end of the road we were playing on, and bags tied tightly together served as our ball. The Zimbabwean’s passion for soccer became evident to me for the first time, as we danced, sang, and played throughout the afternoon.
After more beers in the township, we were invited to one of Gaza’s friend’s (who he met while studying at LSE) brother’s engagement party, a precursor to a 1000 person wedding to be held a few weeks later. Dozens of family members and friends attended the party, and we were all treated to an incredible dinner. One of the senior members in the family even sang an on-the-spot improvised tune celebrating the occasion. We were able to talk with much of the family, and it was quickly apparent that they were extremely well educated, having studied in London, traveled extensively to the United States meeting many dignitaries, and holding (or having held) high positions in Zimbabwe. It was an interesting contrast to the remarkable individuals that we were fortunate to have met in Mbare.
Again, we went to bed nice and early in our plush hotel beds (don’t take anything for granted, don’t take anything for granted!). We woke up nice and early, I stole our free breakfast, and Gaza drove us to Mbare, where we caught a 8 hour bus to the city of Mutare, just to the west of the Mozambique border. We hitch hiked 25kms south to the Vumpa Mountains in a dilapidated excuse for a pick up truck, holding on to each other for dear life. Famous for its incredible botanical gardens, and some of the best views in Africa, Vumpa did not disappoint. Birds, monkeys, lizards, and insects provided a symphony of music as our iPod speakers lay dead in my backpack. We listened silently, watching the sun set behind the mountains of Mozambique to the east. The next morning, the nickname for the area, the “Mountains of the Mist,” took its true meaning as low clouds obscured our view in every direction. The longest day of the trip had begun; it was 4:57AM.