Sunday, March 28, 2010

Zimbabwe's thin green line...

... is around the swimming pool, as a matter of fact, at the high water mark where the water has reached after a torrential overnight downpour of rain.

Our friends, who were kicked off their farm in the latest round of totally illegal farm invasions (as if you can class any of the previous ones as having a legal basis - you can't, of course) are practical people. Fortunately they've been able to find an empty house - a mansion in fact - whose owner is overseas, meaning that they have a place to live for the time being while they look for a house to buy.

Unfortunatelty, it has no water... and no electricity either.

So, they've rigged up long pieces of plastic tubing from the drain pipes on the house's gutters and run them across the lawn to the swimming pool. When we were there, in February after hour Tanzania trip, Harare was getting some good rain, so the swimming pool was soon full of rain water.

Of course, with no electricity, the pool filter wasn't working, hence the charming GI Lime Cordial colour of the water. And the thin green line.

"You don't have to drink it," I was told by my friend, in a rather matter of fact tone, "but you do have to use it for everything else. Buckets are in the kitchen. Isaac will fill them for you."

It was nice to know that even in a town and a time where there was no running water and no electricity that Isaac the African cook was on hand to 'draw' my bucket bath. "Thanks, but I'll be fine by myself," I said.

It was such a nice day, the air clear after the night's rain the and the sky a perfect Highveld blue, that I decided to make my ablutions outside. Mrs Blog decided to join me and to make a little party of it. So, armed with buckets from the kitchen (and with Isaac laughing at the tourists in their cossies), Mrs B and I adjourned to the lawn and gave each other a jolly good soaping and rinsing down with slightly green water.

Welcome to Zimbabwe.

Tragic, destitute, ridiculous, broken-down… but still fun at times. In moderation.

Things had changed since our last couple of visits. There was food in the stores, petrol and diesel in the service stations, and the laughable Zimbabwe Dollar had disappeared up its own decimal point, reaching a stupendously worthless $100 Trillion (equivalent to about one US dollar) before finally collapsing once and for all. Instead, the legal currency throughout the country was the South African Rand and the US Dollar.

In one of those "only-in-Zimbabwe' moments I made a tentative and possibly foolhardy expedition to the ATM at Borrowdale Shopping Village. The last time I'd seen an ATM issue anything other than cockroaches was several years earlier but to my utter astonishment (and great pleasure) out spilled several hundred brand spanking new US greenbacks (at, it turned out later, a very good exchange rate).

It was just as well that we were able to top up our cash as Tonka, our less than plucky Short Wheelbase Series III Land Rover had just been admitted to surgery for his third life-saving operation (this after the two previous stints with two different mechanics who each assured me he would be back on the road in time for my return. He wasn't).

With no vehicle, no electricity and no water we did what any self respecting Zimbabwean does in a time of crisis - we loaded up the 4x4 with whatever food we could lay our hands on and several hundred litres of alcohol and diesel and headed for Kariba.

There is something about that place.

Even in the worst of times in Zimbabwe I've had some of the best times I've ever experienced in Africa on Lake Kariba. It's like the African bush, but with swimming and sunbathing and fishing and excessive drinking. Kariba's always hotter and stickier than any other part of the country so nature demands that you slow down, smell the kapenta (tiny smelly dried fish that taste out of this world fried with a bit of chilli and garlic), and get something ice-cold into you.

It was February when we were there, on the houseboat 'Take it Away'. If you're an Australian then you probably think of houseboats as floating caravans. Not so Zimbabwean houseboats - think five-bedroom Castle Hill McMansion on pontoons (complete with swimming pool).

The weather was hot and sticky and overcast on shore, but as soon as we jumped on the tender boat we started feeling a cooling breeze off the lake.

There was fresh water (a man-made ocean of it, perfectly fit to drink when drawn from out in the middle), electricity courtesy of the throbbing diesels charging a bank of truck batteries, and hot water.

Well, sort of. The geyser (hot water heater) didn't actually work, and the black painted water tanks on the roof (an ingenious back up) didn't really work either as it was overcast. But it was pure pleasure being able to turn on a tap and stand under the water without having to hoist bucket after bucket from the green swimming pool.

It's all relative, you see. When you don't have light or water and you suddenly get them (even if they were dim and tepid respectively) it seems like everything will be all right. There's a now-old joke in Zimbabwe still doing the rounds: "before we had candles, we had electricity".

People can laugh in the face of adversity, and they still have a hell of a capacity for having a good time, even when it looks like things can't get any worse.

For four days we drank and we fished and we sat quietly on the boat and marvelled at the zebra, elephant, hippo, impala, waterbuck and various other creatures that went about their business around us in total peace and harmony.

Even in Zimbabwe, despite the best efforts of Robert Mugabe and his cronies our troubled, disposessed friends could still find a place and a time to be happy. They were once well off, but now have next to nothing. They're not in a position to leave, which puts them in the same position as just about everyone else, black and white, left in this almost-God-forsaken country.

The economy is still in a mess, and even though you can buy stuff with proper money, you're lucky if you have a job and a source of income. The opposition MDC is part of the much-touted Government of National Unity, but the government is unified in name only.

There's another thin green line out there as well: the under-resourced, underpaid, overstretched national parks rangers who are doing their best to protect Zimbabwe's last few hundred black rhinos and all manner of other creatures being hunted for their meat or other body parts. Like everyone else they're hanging on in the hope that it will all come right again, one day.

When we got back to Harare, tanned, tired and relatively clean, I stood with my bucket and looked at the slimy scum that rimmed the pool and I realised that until this place was truly scrubbed clean of the one thing that sullies it that things would never truly be right, or fun, again.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Ngorongoro and Serengeti - a set on Flickr

Yo, Legion of Fans (LOF), I'm back, in what some call civilisation (rainy Sydney).

I'm already missing Africa and I'm looking forward to getting back in May for my next tour (there are still places available, by the way. Email me asap at tonyparknews (at) gmail (dot) com if you'd like to go to South Africa's magnificent Kruger National Park and Cape Town with me. Hurry, bookings close March 31).

In the meantime, to whet your appetite for all things African, here are maningi/hobos/stacks of pics from my recent trip to Tanzania...

(Warning: there are a few quite confronting pics in this set of a pair of hyenas taking down and devouring a wildebeest. Hyenas have suffered from bad press over the years, but, as I saw first-hand, they are expert hunters - and their kids are cute when they're little. Like Elton says, it's the circle... the circle of whatever)

Ngorongoro and Serengeti - a set on Flickr