Monday, October 01, 2007

Hello, testing, testing...

This is Mr and Mrs Blog, live from the Zimbabwean border... (on the South African side, where most journos file their reports about Zimbabwe these days because they're either banned from entering Zimbabwe or too chicken to cross).
If you are reading this, Legion of Fans, it means we have successfully completed another tour of duty in Zimbabwe.  I'm writing this from Hwange National Park in the hope that as soon as we return to the land of mobile internet and 3G that is the Republic of South Africa, this message will wing its way into cyberspace. 
I've been diligently recording our travels for my very good friends at Getaway Magazine and a more detailed, sensible blog should be available very soon at
I said 'tour of duty' in the second paragraph because life is a mission here in Zimbabwe.  Everything from finding food and fuel, to booking accomodation, to changing money is a challenge.  For tourists like ourselves these things (such as buying toilet paper and beer on the black market) are inconveniences, and at times amusing; for ordinary people here the simple act of staying alive is a full time job.
There's more detail on the other blog, but just imagine having to live with one and a half days of water connected to your house, and one and a half days of electricity per week.  Add to this chronic shortages of Mr B's staple foods - red meat and beer - and you have yourselves a recipe for a nightmare.  Prior to our visit to Hwange National Park to take part in this year's annual game census (our eighth), we did what those in Zimbabweans who can afford to, do - shopped in Botswana for essentials.
The food and drink shortages (and a lack of many other basic goods) are all to do with Comrade President's latest genius plan to curb the rampant (read 4000 per cent) inflation that his policies have caused.  The government introduced price controls a few weeks ago which forced shops and suppliers to sell their goods at half price - below cost.  Those in the know (police, government and military people) were tipped off in advance and cleaned out entire supermarkets as soon as the new pricing regime was forced into existence.  They're the ones behind the currently thriving black market.
Now, shops are closing and supermarket shelves are totally bare, except for the most bizarre items. For example, it's comparatively easy, LOF, to buy fabric softener, but you can't drink it (it's the lemony scent I detest more than the consistency).
Prices continue to rise out of sight.  Yesterday the one-bedroom national parks chaelt we are staying in cost ZW$900,000.  Today it costs ZW$2 million.  OK, that's still only about US$5, but it means that the ZW$6 million we changed with friends the other day is now worth half. 
In other late breaking and potentially devastating news, the day before yesterday Tonka the venerable Series III short wheelbase Land Rover did something he'd never done to us before - come to a complete stop.
In the past our trusty steed had had his mechanical problems, but we'd always been able to limp into a garage.  The other day, following a series of mildly alarming clunks, Tonka stopped dead, amidst much whirring and grinding.  For a while we feared it was the gear box.  This would have been a disaster, given the amount we'd recently paid to replace said item.
We broke down near Nyamandlovhu, a major waterhole in Hwange which means meat of the elephant.  Mrs B and I might have been meat for the lions and vultures if not for the help of Zimbabwean businessman who is currently a resident of Cuba, and a grey-bearded academic and author of "Fishes of Rhodesia".  They towed us back to Hwange's main camp (which is, surprisingly, called Main Camp), about 10km away, and got us so drunk that we couldn't remember to be depressed.
Phew, LOF.  Mrs B and I had just spent the past week in the furthest reaches of this run-down, but still game-rich national park.  Had we broken down, say, at Deka Vlei on the Botswana border (which features in my latest book, SAFARI, rrp $32.95, $21.99 in K-Mart) then we might never have been found.  For several days before game count we were the only tourists in that part of the national park.  And it's lion country.  The area around Main Camp is comparatively busy (there were two other vehicles staying here last night).
It's not what you know in Africa, but who you know, and the man in the know in Main Camp is Mr Owen Mangwana, chief mechanic and Land Rover fundi (expert).  Funnily enough, we met Owen about four years ago when we came across him broken down, outside the park, in a Series III Land Rover not unlike ours.  We towed Mr Mangwana to camp, even though our clutch plate was slipping badly at the time.
So, it was with some sense of soothing Karma that Mr Mangwana (which means tomorrow) said he would help us today, even though it was Sunday.  With two apprentices in tow he diagnosed Tonka's problem as "ma-clutch-i" (the clutch).  Mangwana and Co then proceeded to dismantle the floor and remove the gear box while I stood by, repeatedly trying to phone a Mr Sibanda in the village of Dete, about 19km away, in search of a part.
Even using a phone is a challenge in Zimbabwe.  The land-line system is all but kaput across the country so most people carry cellphones.  The network is not, shall we say, first world, and is regularly clogged.  I kept pushing the call button for two hours before finally thrusting the phone to Mr Mangwana "it's ringing!"
Mr Sibanda was in church, but would meet us at his workshop in an hour, where he was sure he had ma-clutch-i plate.
Mr Mangwana and I then needed to find a vehicle to get to Dete.  We went to see his friends at the Lion Research project, to beg one of their Land Cruisers.
I should add here, Toyota-fans, that we were towed into camp by a Hi-Lux and, yes, we were on our way to fetch a part in yet another Japanese-made vehicle.  Before you all start disparaging Land Rovers, however, I should also point out that two of our friends from game `count had to abandon their hi-lux at Main Camp after blowing a head gasket, and that the Land Cruiser Mr Mangwana and I eventually borrowed had dangerously ruined tie-rod ends, was full of rust, and nearly got stuck in the sand because its four-wheel drive no longer works.
Anyway, the intense young murungus (whiteys) at the Lion Research project (who all affect that detached-from-the-real-world, Africa-savvy, wind-blown, copper and elephant-tail- bangle-wearing air of bush-chic) leant us a vehicle, which was very nice of them.
In Dete (pardon the pun, but I had no idea how I was going to pay Mr Mangwana, posessing, as I did, a scant $6 million Zimbabwean dollars - about US$12) we caught up with Mr Sibanda in his Sunday-best - grey trousers and one of those Gordon Gecko pink-and-white striped business shirts with contrasting collar (much frayed, but quite smart).
Mr Sibanda had taken over the local brewery - since no beer was being brewed in the country at the time of writing - and was using it as his workshop and chicken coop.  It was more like a vehicle graveyard.  In a darkened warehouse we came across the auto-version of CSI - the disected body of a Series III Land Rover.  Every nut, bolt, hose, clamp and widget had been unscrewed or disassembled and dropped on the floor beneath where it had once stood.  Quite a sight, and I wished I'd brought my camera (as much to get a pic of Mr Sibanda's shirt as the dead Land Rover).
Under the bonnet (being careful to check for snakes first) Mr Mangwana found it.  Here in the remotest corner of this isolated country, in the wreckage of a once-sturdy vehicle, covered in dust, feathers and chook pooh, was a ma-clutch-plate-i (only in slight need of repair).
This is the way of Land Rover, and the way of Africa.  Just when you think the chips couldn't get any lower or soggier you find hope, amidst the shit.


ali g said...

Good to hear you weren't lion tucker with the breakdown! Snakes & poo are bad enough without being lion food.
There's a story about two blokes coming accross a pride of hungry lions while out of them immediately starts putting on his running shoes to which his friend says..."you cant possibly outrun a lion" to which he replies.."I know, it's to outrun you old mate"

meggie said...

I have previously seen Ali G's joke.
I don't believe my aging heart could cope with your lifestyle!
I will content myself with reading your wonderful heart stopping anecdotes.

Java said...

How lucky were you, good o'll Africa, she never lets you down hey?