60th Post: 2nd ZIMBABWE – Black Mambas and Other Guests

The Africa Diaries

 BULAWAYO

1995 August: Sunday

‘3.30pm: Back at Martin’s house, I phoned through to the Bulawayo Theatre and asked to speak to Meryl, my contact.

A black voice answered:

“Nobody’s here. Ring Roy.”

Dialled the new number and asked again.

An elderly white voice (presumably Roy) replied:

“I am sorry but Meryl is on holiday in Europe.”

“What!!”

“But there is a notice in the theatre bar with your name on it.”

Oh hell, another cock-up! Roy said that he’d meet my train in Bulawayo but sounded very tentative about it. Now what? I was committed to what sounded like a nightmare railway journey with nothing certain at the far end. Oh well, go with the flow, man.

I joined Martin on his small front lawn and drank tea in the afternoon sunshine. Martin, an experienced and sophisticated world traveller, reckoned that the trains were not as bad as they had been reported.

“It’s just that the Rhodies are paranoid about them.”

He said that there was a difference between Harare and Bulawayo. Harare was regarded as being bustling and crude, while Bulawayo was seen as genteel and snobbish. It reminded me of the Glasgow/Edinburgh rivalry.

Martin was still undecided about whether to travel to Australia but said that I was welcome to stay in his house on my return. In case he did leave, he showed me the house security arrangements. Due to three recent burglaries, he had installed a reinforced iron gate behind every interior door – each door and gate had to be unlocked individually. He handed me a bunch of keys that would have looked ostentatious at Alcatraz.

‘8 45pm: After a final restaurant meal with Martin, Gil and Jackie, we headed out to the car. The car park itself was guarded by more looming thugs dressed in Ruritanian uniforms. Gil paid them off and, awash with booze and a squeal of tyres, gunned the car towards the station.

With only five minutes left to departure time, we ran to the platform. The carriages stretched out for at least half a mile – the longest train I’d ever seen. Scoured some glass framed boards that contained the passenger lists, spotted my name, then set off at a trot to find the compartment. Climbed aboard and slumped down in my seat opposite a burly black man. My companions arrived breathlessly at the open window. Jackie leaned in and handed me a cigarette. Gil laughed:

“A cigarette for the condemned man.”

Then he added:

“If you want a native girl, just ask the conductor.”

There was a sharp intake of breath from my fellow passenger. Damn it, I’d got to spend the next nine hours with this bloke, and I’d now been cast as a racist sexual predator. Thanks a lot, Gil.

The train began to move and Martin pretended to jog alongside it:

“I’ll be in Bulawayo before you will.”

Then it picked up a bit of speed and they were left behind, waving goodbye.

‘9 15pm: The train moved out slowly through an industrial area of Harare – I watched the strings of lights in the darkness. A warm wind blew through the open window. Then, just as we were clear of the city, the train stopped. Ahead of us, the grass by the side of the track was ablaze. It looked like African railways were going to live up to their reputation.

I offered my fellow passenger a cigarette; he gave a curt shake of his head and stared, his eyes hooded in cold contempt. Gil’s comment about the girl had been duly noted, I suspected.

An hour later, the ticket inspector arrived at the compartment. He was accompanied by two impassive policemen, their hands close to their holstered revolvers. The sight did not add to my sense of security – if the bloody inspector needed two armed guards, what chance had the passengers?

‘10 30pm: Read the Lonely Planet. Bulawayo was the capital of the Matabele tribe, an offshoot of the Zulus. They arrived here in 1834 and drove off the Mashona. Their king, Lobengula, established his royal kraal at Bulawayo in 1870. Then Rhodes’ men came in 1890. From then on it had been a race battle of varying intensity.

It was easy to notice the change of atmosphere from the natural tolerances of Ethiopia. Still, it was no use coming here blinkered by the prejudices of liberal North London – I had to explore before judging.

On a more practical level, the words of one London friend recurred: “Don’t get your throat cut on one of those African trains.”

Well, what was there to prevent my waking up with a gun to my head and a demand for my goods?

I surreptitiously took out the canister of CS gas and placed it under the pillow, then opened the long blade on my Swiss Army knife and inserted it up my sleeve.

‘Midnight: dead on the hour, the train lights were extinguished – pitch darkness. Another gobbet of information from Lonely P leapt to mind. In English, Bulawayo translated as ‘the killing ground’.

Dawn on the Bulawayo train

1995 August: Monday

‘2am: dozed fitfully but kept waking. Accidentally nicked my hand with the bloody Swiss Army knife.

‘4am: Pondered over the implications of Mugabe’s attack on the gay scene. This could get rather tricky? If something went wrong, I didn’t really have any allies – Martin was leaving Zimbabwe; the blacks would be against me because I was white, and the whites would be against me because they’d assume I was gay. While I had absolutely no animosity towards the gays at all, the fact remained that I was rather solidly heterosexual. How ludicrous to become an accidental martyr for a cause with which I was not involved.

‘6am: Woke from a half-doze. There was a glow behind the window blinds – that had got to be dawn. Well, at least I’d made it through the night. Stashed my armoury away and stepped out into the train corridor. It was a beautiful sunny morning. The train was travelling at about 30mph; we were meant to arrive in Bulawayo at 6 30am – there was no danger of that happening.

Just endless dry savannah – or rather bush. It suddenly dawned on me why ‘bush’ was so called. Because that was exactly what it was – just three-foot high bushes sprouting out of the sand. I hadn’t realised that the name was that literal before. A few thorn trees as well.

The air was very dry – not surprisingly, I suppose. Matabeleland bordered on the Kalahari Desert. Thirty yards away a road ran parallel to the rail track – it carried mostly trucks and the occasional cattle. There were a lot of animal skeletons lying on the sand. In the distance, an impala bounded ahead. As it seemed to be doing about 40mph, it soon left the train behind.

Passed a village; the huts looked like fat hairy mushrooms. Stood, watched, and smoked. It would have been quite exhilarating if I hadn’t been so tired. A guard passed and announced that our arrival would be two hours late.

‘8 15am: Nearing our destination, the train chugged through an area of shanty towns – rows of rectangular, two-room, corrugated iron huts. We were now going even slower than before. At one point, a steam train passed us on another line with an African boy sitting on one of its buffers.

Fife Street, Bulawayo

‘8 30am: The train shuddered into Bulawayo Station. This was reputed to be the longest railway platform in the world. Whenever another station surpassed it, Bulawayo just added on a further few feet to retain its record. As I looked down the concourse, all I could see were hundreds of African heads bobbing along towards the exit. I really was the only white on the train.

As I neared the exit a white man stepped forward:

“Neil Titley?”

He was quite tall, aged about 70, with a lined, pleasant face, and introduced himself as ‘Roy’, the man I’d spoken to by phone. He said that I had been allotted accommodation by the theatre committee.

As we drove off down Lobengula Street in Roy’s car, he told me about Bulawayo:

“The population is about a million people. Or, at least, there were. Ten years ago, Mugabe sent his North Korean-trained Shona Fifth Column here and they massacred about one third of the Matabele. The Matabele hate the Shona. They’d prefer the old white rule back.”

We passed through the centre of town – it was absolutely lovely. The oxcart-wide streets, low-rise buildings, and arcades shading the pavements, gave an open, welcoming feel to the city. It reminded me a lot of the old American Western towns of the 1880s. Roy:

“Bulawayo’s a sleepy old place. It’s known as Ian Smith’s retirement home.” [Ian Smith had been the leader of the old white Rhodesia independence movement]

The lodgings in Bulawayo

We arrived in an acacia tree-lined suburb called Burnside and stopped in front of an exquisite residence nestling against a rocky hillock known locally as a ‘kopje’. It was a two-storey villa, one side wall of which actually consisted of bare kopje, and was set in two acres of ornate garden.

A black maid who introduced herself as Felicitas (“I’m called Felly usually”) answered the door and led me out to a small swimming pool set further up the kopje. Settling into a deckchair, I absorbed the hot sun and the silence, broken only by occasional birdsong.

A small dog waddled up and licked my hand – he had a dachshund head and a terrier body. I discovered later that he was known as ‘Bitza’, because he was ‘bitza breed’. Around the pool red Flame Lilies cascaded between the trees; lizards darted between the shadows of the rocks.

‘Bitza’ at the Bulawayo lodgings pool

‘10 30am: My hostess Anne arrived. She was a brisk blonde aged about fifty. She ordered up another pot of tea from Felly and we introduced ourselves. It turned out that she was the Irish-born wife of a German baron.

“My divorce papers should come through next week. In fact, this is my last week as a Baroness. My ex is a famous hunter locally and he runs safaris for tourists. But I found the hunting crowd really boring. All they ever talk about is guns.” She added that guns were a common topic in Zimbabwe “because during the war everybody had to learn about them.”

She was currently living in the house with an Irishman called Jim. She gestured down towards the house where a boy of about twelve was playing with another dog.

“That’s my son Michael. He’s very sporty. He wants to be like his father.”

Anne took me on a tour of the house and showed me the bathroom.

“When you have a bath, please don’t let the water out. The maids will scoop it out for you. We have to save it because of the drought here.”

It turned out that the Matabeleland drought had lasted for eleven years and was the reason why there were so many animal skeletons out in the bush.

She also told me about the drought mantra regarding lavatories.

“If it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down.”

Tandy at the Bulawayo lodging

‘2pm: Michael, Anne’s son, gave me a guided tour of the garden, in company with Tandy, the other dog of the household. Tandy was a large Bull Boer, a breed evolved in South Africa for hunting.

The garden had been constructed on several levels up the hillside – hard African red earth with bare stone outcrops, and tall cactus-like plants for decoration.

Michael turned out to be a mine of information about local fauna and flora. In fact, rather more information than I’d bargained for.

“African bees are much more aggressive than in other places. They don’t like the smell of perfume, or alcohol, or cheese and onion crisps – and they will attack.”

“Be careful when you get dressed or if you’re feeling around in dark corners. Scorpions like to hide in your clothes. A scorpion sting can kill you and even if they don’t, they can give you rabies.”

“If you’re attacked by a crocodile, remember it can move its head at 200 miles per hour.”

Relaxing for a moment, Michael threw a stick for Tandy to chase before resuming:

“There are seventy five species of snake in Zimbabwe and seventy per cent are dangerous. Puff adders are the most common ones and the most lethal.”

He thought for a moment then added:

“Then there’s the Egyptian cobra. And then the spitting cobra. They can spit venom in your eyes and they’re accurate for up to three yards.”

“The black mamba is about nine feet long and their bite destroys your nervous system.”

Battered by this flood of unwelcome information, I was now examining the ground like a soldier going through a minefield. Michael noticed this and shook his head.

“It’s no use looking there, sir. The black mambas are tree dwellers.”

By the time we returned to the house, my nervous system was pretty well destroyed already – the black mambas need not bother.

‘5pm: Michael left for a week in bush camp and we waved him off. Although he was a charming kid I didn’t think I could take another of his nature talks.

Bulawayo lodging

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