We reluctantly dragged ourselves away from Cape McClear, the land of the mystical philosophers where marijuana grows in cobs, and set out for the last phase of our trip. The battered and cramped hi-ace vans that took us back to Balntyre were the last time we would enjoy the intimacy of this type of public transport. From Blantyre we were travelling onwards to Harare in Zimbabwe. This leg formed part of the infrastructural network of roads and rails that the British put in place in the late 19th century. Modern South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia were all part of the Cape to Cairo axis of the British Empire from the late 1880s onwards. Railways already connected the main settlements and mineral deposits of the region to South African ports by the early 1900s. Settlement from Britain was significant and, in the course of the 20th century, the settler-administered colonies constructed a network of high-quality long distance paved roads which mostly paralleled the old railway connections. This infrastructural integration and quality persists today – comfortable modern buses run scheduled, timetabled services on paved highways and maintain the speed limit of 80 or 100km for most of the journey. Some of the border crossings have purpose-built immigration booths at the roadside and are optimised for efficient and high-volume traffic.

Blantyre in Malawi is connected to the main infrastructural core of the region by way of a road that cuts across Mozambique through the town of Tete – the Tete corridor. Like virtually all of Mozambique’s transportation infrastructure, it was constructed with British finance, in order to transport the empire’s goods and people across Mozambiquan territory. In contrast to Mozambique, which contains virtually no infrastructure for internal transportation, the core countries of Britain’s old Southern African empire are internally interconnected via reasonably high quality paved roads. This makes travelling around a lot more efficient, at the cost of less entertainment from farmyard travel companions.

Route Travelled – Full Map

Britain’s Southern African Empire

By African standards, these countries are all relatively urbanised, with low population densities and vast, wide-open spaces where great herds of wild-life roam. Subsistence farming plays a relatively small part in the economy – mining and commercial farming predominate. In South Africa and Zimbabwe, significant manufacturing industries were created in the 20th century with varying degrees of success. They were motivated by settler-led desires for colonial development which intensified with the need for import substitution to deal with the sanctions that the apartheid regimes attracted in the second half of the 20th century. Modern, large multi-national corporations, headquartered in South Africa, have much greater penetration into the consumer economy of the region than anywhere else on the continent. Whereas in many African countries the national brewery is practically the only industry, here Castle Lager distributes a dozen different brands across the region and Nandos restaurant pops up under several different brand names in different city malls.

The whole region was colonised by settlers travelling overland Northwards from the Cape. Settlement has been ongoing since the 17th century, when the first Dutch settlement arrived in 1653. It intensified after the Napoleonic wars, when Britain seized the Cape Colony and made it their base for 19th century expansion into Southern Africa. The relatively long history of settlement and large numbers of settlers has transformed the indigenous societies considerably. The traditional ways of life, which were mostly based on subsistence farming communities, have been pushed to the margins by large scale land confiscations, many of which took place over a century ago and have been maintained resolutely for the majority of the intervening period. Although most people still strongly identify with an ethnic or tribal culture and identity, and keep their rituals alive in whatever ways they can, their day to day lives have been Europeanized to a considerable extent and integrated into the money economy. Miners, agricultural labourers, domestic servants, service workers and urban unemployment have long traditions in the region and their own cultures and identities. Trade unions, ideological political parties and class struggle are significant forces in political life, with long roots, in addition to the usual patchwork of tribal, ethnic and linguistic identities – much like in Europe.

Settlement largely followed the railway and telegraph, which the British relentlessly developed from the 1870s, pushed onwards through a series of great engineering marvels, ever further into the interior. It reached Zimbabwe in the 1890s and spanned the whole continental central plateau, all the way to the copper-belt in Zambia, by 1909. The area stands on a plateau which gives it a mild climate and it includes large tracts of high quality farming soil. The railway brought large numbers of settlers, fresh from Europe, armed with maxim guns. At this stage, the empire enjoyed vastly asymmetric military capacity compared to the locals. They could subjugate and dominate relatively large populations with relatively small numbers of troops. The British wars in Rhodesia in the 1890s to pacify the Shona and Ndebele were ritualised slaughter as British machine guns and artillery mowed down the disciplined ranks of native warriors armed with muskets and spears. It foresaw the killing fields of the first world war, but with only one side being killed. Press reports in the Times praised the natives for their valour in maintaining disciplined ranks through the engagement which had a 5,000 – 3 outcome in casualty numbers.

The history of Zimbabwe: Cecil Rhodes and the colonial period | Exploring  Africa

The wholesale expulsion of the natives from the best farming land was immediate and maintained by law through the colonial period. Numerous ethnic and social groups resisted this takeover and rebelled in various ways at various times, but all ran into the same asymmetry of technology – machine guns against machetes – and were suppressed readily and rapidly. Forced labour was used extensively initially – to build the railways and infrastructure need to penetrate the interior, and then to work the mines and commercial estates of the settlers. The settlers retained a monopoly on modern military technology and continued to use this to coerce the natives into providing servile labour in one form or another. The second class citizenship of the natives was written into the structure of the settler states – Africans were prevented by law from holding, land, property or important office and were compelled to live in slums and to work for survival wages for settler farmers, mines or businesses.

The British continued to subsidise and encourage settlement through the 1960s, with settler numbers only peaking in Zimbabwe in 1975. However, from the 1960s onwards, the British also effectively abandoned the settlers by insisting on independence on the basis of racial equality. The settler states had constructed societies which offered a reasonably high standard of living for white people – roads, trains, houses, education, health. The disadvantages of the relative geographical remoteness was counter-balanced by the ready availability of cheap local labour. A large proportion of settlers could afford to employ staff to take care of their domestic needs – cooks, cleaners, gardeners, maids, nannies and so on. The racist nature of the settler states was built deeply into the infrastructure. Large numbers of natives were forcibly located, at one time or another, to live in state mandated townships or purpose-built ethnic concentration camps. Native housing settlements were often physically separated from the settler towns and connected by a single road, which was patrolled by militarised security, allowing native movements to be efficiently controlled by security services enforcing racial pass laws.The settlers faced a mathematically insoluble problem – they remained a small minority everywhere and they would never be able to afford to extend the benefits of their civilization to the natives. In Zimbabwe, the settler population peaked at 280,000, or about 4% of the population. Even in South Africa, after 300 years of settlement, Europeans never made up more than 20% of the population.

Why Economic Sanctions Failed to Kill Rhodesia | by Mwanikii | History of  Yesterday

The white settlers in Zimbabwe responded to British pressure to remove racist laws by effectively mutinying, declaring unilateral independence as Rhodesia in 1965 under a racist constitution and doubling down on their terrorist war against the independence movements across the region. Without the protection of the surrounding Empire, the settlers however, gradually lost their monopoly on the supply of modern weaponry. The collapse of the Portuguese empire in 1975 left the Rhodesians increasingly isolated, engaged in covert terrorist wars against most of their neighbours and increasingly under pressure from rebels at home who were threatening to overrun their own country. The settlers finally came to terms and negotiated a settlement with the ZANU and ZAPU rebels in 1979. This removed the racial laws and saw the country gain independence under a native administration in 1980 as Zimbabwe.

The general rule that was applied in migrating from colonies to independent countries removed all racist rules and placed the state administration under the control of native majorities, but did not allow for changes in the distribution of property. Colonists who owned the largest farms and businesses and occupied the top professional positions were able to transition to being simply wealthy elites post-independence. They could afford to pay for private education, health and security to maintain their high standard of living and didn’t depend so much on state subsidies. The bulk of the colonists, however, found that their quality of life deteriorated significantly – the white-only social safety blanket and services were eliminated and competition from newly mobile, educated natives drove wages down. Less wealthy settlers started to leave steadily.

In Zimbabwe, 70% of the quality arable land had been seized and retained by settlers and they continued to dominate mining, commercial farming, media and publishing, manufacturing, tourism, the judiciary and the professions. Land reform and redistribution was a critical demand of the independence movement but the settlers had negotiated a ten year moratorium in which land reform would be purely voluntary. The newly independent government followed a conservative path and strove to minimise disruption to the economic elite. However, after the voluntary program completely failed to produce any land redistribution by the 1990s, the government became increasingly frustrated at the white elite’s successful efforts to stymie reform. The wealthiest settlers continued their ferocious rear guard action in the media and through the courts to maintain their dominance of the upper echelons of the economy. The government was under increasing pressure from its native support base to introduce economic reforms. The rebels who had led the rural independence struggle had been promised land and were becoming restless after more than a decade without movement. A rapid expansion of the educational sector in the post-independence period was not matched by a rapid expansion in jobs. An IMF structural adjustment program in the 1980s removed the state’s ability to subsidise labour programs and unemployed graduates multiplied. This created an increasingly disillusioned urban workforce.

The Zimbabwean Crisis

By the late 1990s, matters were coming to a boiling point and the struggle for land reform in Zimbabwe was starting to fill the international headlines. In 1997, the Zimbabwean government initiated moves to introduce a new constitution which would permit compulsory land redistribution. They also intervened in the conflict in the DRC on the side of the government, against Rwanda and Uganda, to sweeping criticism by the British and the local settler elite. The British responded with economic and diplomatic warfare. The Zimbabwean currency came under sustained attack, driving up import costs and instituting a long period of price instability; IMF support was suspended and a range of sanctions were introduced by the UK and their global institutional brands and allies. Large numbers of workers emigrated to South Africa in the ensuing economic crisis, which contributed to growing anti-immigrant resentment and a series of violent pogroms there. An international media campaign focused on vilifying the government, through the personality of the president, Robert Mugabe, for corruption, authoritarianism and repression.

Matters came to a head in 2000. In February, the government unexpectedly lost a constitutional referendum to a coalition of NGOs, trade unions and civil society groups. This prevented them from constitutionally clearing compulsory land redistribution. The coalition then immediately formed themselves into a political party – the Movement for Democratic Change – under the leadership of Morgan Tsvangarai and fought a bitterly contested election campaign against the government in June 2000 which saw the new movement fall just short of a parliamentary majority. Tsvangarai denounced the election result and fled to Britain in the aftermath and continued to encourage sanctions and international isolation of the regime from abroad.

When we arrived in Zimbabwe in October 2000, the country had already long since attained pariah status in the international media. International news reports had contained an increasing stream of news about the country’s corrupt regime and dictatorial president for a number of years. Many commentators in the international media were predicting that this election crisis would soon precipitate the final collapse of the regime. The day before we arrived, Zimbabwe was in the international news headlines again, as skyrocketing food prices prompted riots in Highfield, a high density suburb of Harare. Sky News showed us pictures of youths burning barricades in the streets as a sign of their fury.

Back to Europe

The media impression of crisis and repression was not borne out on arrival. After 11 months of roads and vehicles that had mostly comedic value, the 14 hour, 600km bus journey that brought us from Blantyre to Harare, seemed to have transported us back to a gentler, old-fashioned version of Europe. Rhodesia was Britain’s model colony of the Victorian era and Harare retains the air of a quaint and charming provincial capital from a bygone colonial era. Handsome wooden mansions with delicate lacy-metal balconies and elegant wooden shutters line the streets. Cafes, shops, hotels, restaurants and art galleries cater to an urban educated class on the calm, leafy avenues just North of the city centre. We stayed in a sprawling old wooden Victorian mansion that had been transformed into a backpacker hostel with a swimming pool, outdoors braai area and bar area. Myself and Deirdre strolled around town, marvelling to one another at how developed and tidy everything seemed. We enjoyed lunch at a Wimpys restaurant – the first actual familiar Western fast food that we had encountered on the whole continent.

The Irish WSM anarchist organisation that we were members of was closely affiliated with the Zabalaza federation in South Africa. The South Africans had a number of political contacts in Harare whom they had put us in touch with. We met up with a group of them at a cultural centre in the city centre called the Book Café – a venue for vegetarian food, leftist political meetings and alternative cultural events, quite reminiscent of European leftist bookshops. There were two Zimbabwean anarchists present to meet us (although one thought he might really be a council communist), and one Zambian – all were students in the local university, bookish, idealistic and intellectual and full of ideas for the future. They were excited to meet real life anarchists who they had only ever read about on the internet before. They were, however, somewhat abstracted away from the social upheavals that were going on around them and had no idea how they might influence matters.

Harare had enough of an urbanised, educated population to sustain a political left that resembles the European version. We found posters around the book café advertised an upcoming event by the Zimbabwean Socialist Workers Party. We even managed to purchase one of their papers from a city news-stand. The Zimbabwean SWP had participated in the MDC and had been swept up in the electoral wind, with 3 of their members winning parliamentary seats. In doing so they had become one of the leading lights of the SWP’s international Trotskyist current. We travelled out from town to attend the workshop that they were hosting in the high density Highfield suburb, which had been the flashpoint of the recent food riots. The workshop was hosted in a simple community school and was attended by some 100 people, almost all African. The content and tenor of the talks was remarkably familiar and consistent with the SWP’s international practices. The keynote, presented with aplomb by a charismatic African man in a beret with a goatee, who was one of the newly elected MDC members of parliament, was an analysis of the differences between Che Guevara and Leon Trotsky’s positions on the role of revolutionaries in national liberation struggles. They felt, unsurprisingly, that Trotsky had the greater insight. The rest of the talks covered the views of other thinkers of the Trotskyist canon as they related to national liberation struggles. Outside the window, in the distance, street protests and barricades could be seen and smoke lingered in the air. The audience of the workshop was drawn from the local community – proletarian and African and obviously motivated by pragmatic factors. It included women in traditional patterned dresses with babies wrapped around their backs. The entire event seemed strange and incongruous to my sensibilities – the pattern of political action did not seem to fit to the circumstances or context. However, it remained testament to the climate of vigorous political opposition that was present among Harare’s urban poor and the dedication to method of the SWP.

Although the MDC complained about state interference, the results of the June election had unequivocally demonstrated that the population was divided in a binary pattern between rural and urban. The small rural majority had voted for the president, the urban population had voted for the MDC. The MDC was essentially an urban anti-government coalition without any strong unifying political project. Its politicians included a very broad spread of positions, from Trotskyite to neo-liberal, and its basis was in the trade unions and international NGOs, not traditional political power bases. It presented itself as a movement of movement of civil society against corruption and autocracy, but its leadership acted in close cooperation with Britain and the large commercial farmers to increase financial pressure on Zimbabwe and try to prevent land reform. Even among the left of their own party, it was already felt that their chance had passed by the Autumn of 2000 – Tsvangarai was perceived to have lost his nerve and had become too closely associated with the British which would him unelectable by the rural population.

The impression of generalised crisis and disorder that the media had generated turned out to be upside down in many ways. Zimbabwe remained a bastion of order, civility and development compared to those around it. Its political and cultural life remained closer to Europe – with radical political parties openly organising and holding public workshops and new political parties emerging to challenge incumbents – than almost any other African country where such things typically simply don’t exist. There was just no question that virtually every single other African country was considerably less politically free. All the public services remained fully operational and operated at a level above almost all the rest of the continent – the cities contained less visible crime and squalor than anywhere else we had visited. The one place where the political crisis had made a huge and negative impact was on the business class. Zimbabwe had an extensive tourist industry that was dominated by wealthy settlers, with Victoria Falls and several large Safari parks attracting extensive large numbers of tourists. By 2000, Britain’s political and economic war had effectively completely shut down all tourism and a large proportion of all international travel and freight. The hotels, lodges and tourist sites stood completely empty and deserted, with a knock on effect for the upmarket consumer services. The highways were virtually empty of traffic in the West of the country. The picturesque city centres of Harare and Bulawayo were strangely quiet. Everything remained resolutely open for business despite the lack of visitors – the lodges, national parks and wildlife reserves were open but tumbleweed ran through everything.

A large majority of the businesses targeted at tourists and upmarket consumers were owned by the white settler community. They were almost universally extremely warm and welcoming and were genuinely delighted to see us – a few stray Irish tourists gave everybody hope that the worst was behind them and foreign tourists were starting to return. They typically had strong political opinions relating to the state of Zimbabwe and defended the white land owners from the charges of selfishness that they perceived from foreign observers. They were united in the belief that the expertise of the white farmers was necessary to maintain the flow of cash crops for foreign currency needed by the economy. The government’s resettlement plans would simply destroy the country and hand out some lands to the president’s cronies. To me, the jarring part was the complete lack of doubt that they all seemed to have with respect to the criticality of their particular skills. Undoubtedly there were many commercial farmers and business people among the white community with expert skills who were valuable to the local economy. However, this is far from the impression given off by most of the settler populations that we encountered. They often appear to have lifestyles where they are waited on hand and foot by servile staff and have lost all useful skills including the ability to boil water. In many cases, they simply hire highly qualified managers to look after their estates and their households. This means farmers who are competent people with degrees in agricultural hydroponics and chemical fertilizer yields – and in most cases that is what they should prudently do.

In the end the economic crisis completely engulfed the land redistribution question and the settlers ended up being once again sacrificed by greater imperial forces. Britain’s economic and diplomatic warfare squeezed the life out of the economy and ended up crushing a large swathe of the remaining settler business community – white flight accelerated after the crisis and the settler population dropped from its high point of 280,000 in 1975 to less than 30,000 today.
Despite the crisis among the great powers, Zimbabwe remained broadly integrated into the Southern African economy and South Africa remained allied on a governmental level. It was still possible to rent a car in South Africa and drive it without immigration or insurance issues throughout Botswana and Zimbabwe – unthinkable anywhere else on the continent. South Africa also had a factory which assembled old models of VW Golfs for the local market and these were rugged and cheap to rent. It seemed like a good time to take advantage of the lack of tourists to get off the beaten track and visit the national parks in search of wildlife. We also wanted to visit some archaeological sites that were far off the major routes and were not served by public transport.

From Harare, we therefore continued onwards directly to Pretoria in South Africa, by comfortable long distance bus. There was a three hour wait at the crossing into South Africa, caused by enhanced immigration controls targeting illegal immigration, but otherwise it was smooth sailing. In Pretoria we teamed up with an Irish guy called Mark, who we had met months earlier in Mali, to share the rent of a car with which to return to Zimbabwe. We also invested in a cheap tent and some basic camping gear for the trip into the outdoors. For the next two months we were able to drive around more or less wherever we liked in the region, deep into the wilderness, and could sleep by camping anywhere we could find a suitable spot.

Great Zimbabwe

Great Zimbabwe was our first stop once we returned by car North of the border into Zimbabwe. It contains the great monumental stone archaeological site which gave the country its name, dating from the 14th century. The area of present day Zimbabwe was a centre of kingdom formation from as early at the 11th century, trading African ivory for Asian manufactured goods via the Swahili city states on the coast. A succession of large polities emerged in the region over the subsequent centuries. They built huge fortified stone settlements, in great mesmeric circular and spiral formations, using distinctive patterns of blocks to decorate the building faces, all constructed without masonry. The most famous archaeological sites are associated with the civilization of great Zimbabwe itself which lasted from the 13th to the 15th centuries. It was replaced by later kingdoms, which emerged from break away factions that grew stronger as earlier empires hit their own internal crises and faded. These later kingdoms included the warlike Rozwi, who expelled the Portuguese from the area in the 17th century. The Shona people, who make up 70% of the Zimbabwean population today, are descended from these ancestor kingdoms in one form or another. In the mid 19th century, the pressure of European settlers migrating Northwards from the Cape caused waves of disruption and warfare to spread into the interior. The rise of new meta-ethnic warrior groups like the Zulu intensified warfare throughout the region and this had a devastating impact on many previously settled societies. The Ndebele, a Zulu breakaway, invaded Zimbabwe in the mid 19th century and subjugated the Shona, raiding them for slaves and tribute thereafter. By the time European colonisers reached Zimbabwe, Shona civilization had collapsed and stone architecture had disappeared, as communities turned to lightweight, mobile living to evade capture.

It did not fit European ideas of social progress to imagine that Africans could be responsible for these artefacts of such an obviously complex historical culture. European explorers invariably saw the ruins as evidence of an ancient civilization brought by an external people of biblical origin – the Land of Ophir, the Queen of Sheba and Prester John were the perennial favourite candidates. These fables particularly excited explorers as they were strongly associated with legends of great treasures, with cities made from gold and jewels.

The stone ruins of Zimbabwe caused particular excitement in the late 19th century because they really were associated with historical gold mines. A minor gold-rush quickly followed British colonisation as prospectors reworked the old abandoned gold mines with modern techniques – thereby destroying much interesting archaeology. The British South African Company even imported expert archaeologists to inspect the ruins in order to confirm that they were indeed the biblical land of Ophir, thus driving up the share price among the treasure seeking investor class.

The site of Great Zimbabwe is today serene, set on the side of a hill surrounded by tall palm trees, in the gently rolling, lightly forested fertile farmland terrain in the South of the country. The huge stone walls and conical towers remain standing although exactly what happened within remains slightly mysterious. Our first night in a tent in Africa was spent drinking beer in an empty camp-sight overlooking the ruins in the moonlight.

The Great Snake of Nalatele

From Great Zimbabwe we travelled North towards another archaeological site from the Great Zimbabwe period, Nalatele. To reach this lesser-visited site we had to leave the main national road network and travel through a winding network of small unpaved tracks to the North East of Bulawayo. After three hours wrestling with our camping map and exploring the lanes of the region, we finally arrived at the site at mid-afternoon, as announced by a small wooden sign on a gate at the side of the road. A flat area in front allowed us to pull off to park. We were deep in the remote countryside with no sight of human activity in any direction apart from the fence surrounding the hill in front of us. We could see the ruins on top of the hill that rose beyond the fence. An African man was sitting all alone on a pile of stones in front of the gate, apparently asleep. He woke up when we pulled, dusted himself down and introduced himself as a guide to the site. I thought the economy must really be in desperate straits to make it worth his while to sit there all day in the forlorn hope that an obscure archaeological tourist shows up. Nonetheless, he gracefully guided us through the gate and up to the ruins where he started describing the walls and gesturing for us to look at various features that he was pointing out. The walls of Nalatele are particularly famed for their geometric patterns which still appear highly unusual and distinctive today. The guide’s commentary did not, unfortunately, inspire any confidence that he knew anything about the site or its history. Much of what he announced I knew to be wrong or was simply obviously made up. I spotted a gap in the side wall and wondered off through it to find some peace and to look at the patterns in the wall from the other side. A pleasant grassy meadow ran away from the ruins to a stream at the bottom of the hillside a hundred metres away. I walked slowly through the grass and bushes away from the ruin, looking back from time to time to savour the sight of the strange old geometric blockwork set in such a remote and wild setting. The site had a meditative quality, with everything bathed in a warm and lazy afternoon sun.

Something caught my eye in the grass. I looked down. I was straddling a huge snake. Yes, directly between my legs, was a section of a snake the thickness of my calf. Time stood still as my cognitive clock rate suddenly increased in response to this urgent threat and my thoughts went into overdrive. I immediately recognised the snake as a black mambo – we had visited a snake farm in Dar Es Salaam recently and the markings were unmistakable. I recalled to my dismay from the display card that this was reputed to be both the fastest and most poisonous of all the African snakes. I decided that, before moving any other muscles, I should first find out where the snake’s head was – I could only see the thick section between my legs so far. My thoughts raced through the relevant material from my guide book about snakes as I turned my head to one side in slow motion.

“Snakes cause only a handful of deaths among tourists in Africa every year. They are shy and sensitive to sound and normally hear people coming. To avoid snakes, just make some noise as you walk through the bush and watch out for areas where they might be asleep in the sun.”

I reflected that the dreamy nature of the place had caused me to lose all discipline and I was, tragically, about to become one of the five biggest annual idiots in Africa.

As my head rotated to the left, tracing the route of the snake’s thick body along the ground a couple of metres away, I began to console myself somewhat with the thought that ‘at least it’s a fucking huge snake that’s going to kill me’. It then revealed its full extent, suddenly throwing its head up several feet into the air, still mercifully a couple of metres away from my face in the direction I had been turning. I had obviously woken it up – it’s mouth was wide-open showing off its fangs in a threatening manner. Before I could process any of this information, however, my body had departed in immediate flight in the opposite direction. With the snake’s body still between my legs, I dropped down into a crouch and launched myself into a low sprint across the ground for maximum escape velocity. I felt something glance off my back as I accelerated away. Mark had followed me through the gap in the wall and was later able to tell me that he entered the scene to witness a huge snake striking at my back as I ran away. I continued my sprint to safety oblivious. I spotted another snake before my feet as I ran, immediately dived forwards over it, landed on one shoulder, rolled back onto my feet and kept going without breaking my pace. It took me a few seconds to process the image – the second snake had, in fact, been the root of a tree. I slowed and eventually came to a halt, still wondering where I had learned how to do that dive and roll move. I looked behind me only to see that the snake had in fact departed in the opposite direction and was in the process of disappearing into a hedge at the bottom of the meadow near the stream in the distance.

This unexpected encounter introduced a thoroughly unexpected rush of adrenaline into our tranquil afternoon. Had the snake bitten me, we were too remote for medical help and I would have been a goner. I asked the guide whether he had seen the snake before, as I knew black mambas were supposed to be territorial, and he confirmed that this snake was in fact a habitual resident of the area. Obviously, I should have explicitly asked him whether there were any enormous killer snakes in residence in advance. Although the quality of his archaeological tour was questionable, he improved greatly once we got talking about the land repossessions. He pointed out a hill in the distance which he said had been occupied by protesting farmers – there was certainly no questioning his loyalty – to him they were protestors not occupiers with righteousness clearly on their side.

Matobo National Park

Continuing West from Nalatele, we passed by Bulawayo and turned South of the city, to our next destination, Matobo National Park. It is renowned for the strange shapes formed by piles of granite rocks that cover the area, created by unusual geothermal activity in the area. The rocky hills are covered with acacia and similar low woodland trees and thorning tropical bushes. A rare and protected herd of white rhinoceros roam the area and a wide diversity of eagles and birds of prey patrol the lakes. Within the park, we found a free public camping area consisting of a couple of wooden benches in a clearing, protected on one side by a cliff-face rising behind. This proved a more challenging location for camping than our first – a large troop of baboons and several large families of wart hogs kept a wary eye over the campsite at all times. If anything was left unattended for a micro-second, one of the baboons would launch a crazed dash from a hiding spot in one of the surrounding trees or from the cliff face behind, capture the object in a big hand as they dash by to be then taken back to the trees for inspection and hopefully, ingestion. Meanwhile, the families of wart hogs, with two gnarly big parents leading a fleet of small warty babies in a line after them, perpetually investigated the perimeters of the tents, cars and bags, rooting out any gap in the defences so they could launch themselves inside and devour everything inside. This meant that at all times while sitting in the campsite, we needed to be armed with a collection of stones to ward off wild animal attacks and to discourage the warthogs from tearing holes in the tent walls. Happily the rhinos stayed away from the campsite. They were still easy enough to encounter driving through the park, wandering around, grazing from the foliage quite oblivious and uninterested in the cars that they come across.

In addition to the entertaining wild animals, the park contains several archaeological sites – particularly a trove of 2,000 old cave paintings from the indigenous hunter gatherer San populations that still survive in the region. The park also contains the monumental grave of Cecil John Rhodes, a marble slab set into one of the wooded hill-tops overlooking the rocky parkland below.

Rhodes was the poster boy of British Victorian Imperialism. He had already amassed a famous fortune in South African’s diamond mines and was an international statesmen of standing when he led a plucky band of 500 pioneer settlers into the territory of present day Zimbabwe and thereby claimed an area bigger than France and Germany combined for the British Empire. When he visited London huge crowds came out to cheer and wave patriotic flags and the colony was named Rhodesia in his personal honour. His life was dedicated to the construction of an empire led by English speaking people that would dominate the world. He was an ardently enthusiastic imperialist and genuinely believed in the virtue of his civilizing mission. He was not motivated by luxury or wealth – he spent most of his life taking three month long trips on donkey carts through malarial parts of Africa and he left all his money to a series of foundations and mining and financial conglomerates which would continue to promulgate his passion for Anglo-Saxon imperialism and minerals long after he died – through De Beers, Rio Tinto, Anglo-American, the Rhodes scholarships, Chatham House, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Institutes of International Affairs. Rhodes and the great heroes of Victorian Imperialism were never more than small cogs in a much bigger machine, parts of an administration that conquered territories by logistics and supply chains – laying railways to allow millions of people and resources to be moved into areas when needed. The adventurous heroism of the Victorian imperialists was certainly real – their expeditions into the interior in advance of the railheads were always difficult, uncomfortable and had a significant chance of death. But the heroes were merely the tip of the iceberg, a show put on for the salons of Europe, with narratives carefully groomed to provide suitably heroic entertainment for the newspaper reading masses at home.

In reality it was nothing remotely like plucky, heroic British pioneers overcoming the natives by force of bravery, as the jingoistic dreamers at home imagined. The sophistication and complexity of Britain’s imperial planning machinery had been honed over two centuries of expanding global competition. By the late 19th century, they had developed a suite of institutional forms for financing and administering colonies, which spanned chartered companies such as the British South African Company, the important offices of the Privy Council under the crown, local, commercially oriented administrations, supported by the army, admiralty and a small coterie of trusted international investment bankers in London. These sophisticated and stable arrangements allowed them to effectively focus development of transportation infrastructure across the continent to support their long term strategic imperial goals rather than short term profit.

Far from jingoistic yahoos charging into battle to subdue the lesser natives on behalf of Britannia, Rhodes and his colleagues tended to operate quite differently – they valued accurate ethnographic information about local populations, put much effort into learning local languages and customs, carefully designed treaties and ceremonies in order to hold together the necessary alliances to move onto the next phase and were often obsessively interested in mundane engineering and drainage issues. Rhodes and many of his peers were entranced by the cultures and crafts of Africa – he took a carved head that he removed from Great Zimbabwe everywhere with him and believed it to have magic powers. British imperialists won because they coherently directed huge reservoirs of manpower, information, money and natural resources from all over the empire to build the railways and colonial administrations through the heart of Africa in a miraculous period of time in order to give them long-term dominance of the continent into the future. Nobody else could match the long term consistency and broad scope of the investment.

Although the Victorians appear to have been rendered immune to hypocrisy in their statements, they were never so successful in policing their actions. By the standards of the British civilization that they were fervently championing, the private lives of Rhodes and many of his famous military-imperial peers such as Gordon of Khartoum and Kitchener of the Nile were unconventional to put it mildly. Rhodes surrounded himself with a harem of burly young men who he called his “lambs” and his “angels” whom he took everywhere with him. One of the unexpressed perks of the job was obviously a chance to get away from the constraining prurient moral atmosphere of Victorian Britain and to allow oneself to be perhaps exposed to the sinful orient and their despotic ways. Kitchner and Gordon were not unusual in the circles of the imperial elite of the era in always going everywhere attached to a fresh faced young boy, a marker of the aesthete manners of the time.

The deeper one looks, the more difficult it is to figure out exactly what these people meant by the British Empire or the Global Empire of English Speaking Peoples that they worked so fervently towards. Many of them were atheists or deists or followed mystical and psychic magical belief systems or eccentric branches of Christianity such as Christian Science. They clearly didn’t have the same Empire in mind as the Queen does. Most of them weren’t even racist in any heartfelt way: Rhodes was perfectly happy to accept the concept of an African becoming British or even an Englishman. Their conception of empire encompassed essentially whatever qualities that they associated with the British people, the English people and the broader civilization and culture surrounding them. In the early, Elizabethan era of English colonialism, the desire to create a new protestant Anglo-Saxon nobility certainly underlay the notion of empire. By the late nineteenth century, this had evolved substantially – England was associated in the minds of many of her admirers with liberal values, freedom of speech, the scientific method and the rule of law, none of which had anything to do with genetic supremacy or noble blood. To this breed of Victorian imperialist, the competition between great European powers and their increasingly advanced weapons meant that the conquest and subjugation of Africa was inevitable. Although liberal British imperialism might be harsh for the locals, all of the other alternative colonisers were sure to be even more destructive – the medieval Portuguese, hand-chopping Belgians and genocide-happy Germans would hardly be kinder. They empire expressed an inchoate faith in progress and the ability of mankind to master their challenges with science and reason.

Hwange

Hwange is Zimbabwe’s largest national park. It straddles the border with Botswana in the West of the country and covers a vast area of almost 15,000 km2 of savannah and woodland running along the edge of the Kalahari desert. The improving qualities of outdoor activity in nature, wildlife, camping and survival skills were an important part of the Victorian world view and formed a large part of the lure that brought European settlers to the colony. Robert Baden Powell, the founder of the scouts movement, first learned his woodcraft while participating in the colonisation of Zimbabwe. The major national parks in Zimbabwe reflect this heritage – they are not designed for tourists on upmarket safaris with tour guides. They are for the edification of the people. They contain a network of high-quality public camping grounds, furnished with wooden rondevals and cabins with hammocks and nice rocking chairs on wooden porches. Everybody has braai facilities and the porches are typically protected by screens from insects to allow visitors to relax outdoors unperturbed by the numerous irritating small flying creatures that the bush generates. The camps are large, containing as many as a few hundred wooden buildings, protected by chain link fences from the ravenous wildlife outside. They are often set around good viewing spots, overlooking a river or open meadow. They contain well stocked supermarkets, with rooms full of cold beer and meat ready for the braai. They also offer a range of inexpensive guided walks into the park under protection of rangers – walking safaris – and other similar services. The camps are connected together by a network of roads which cut across the park and are in good enough condition in the dry season to be passable with an ordinary car. The facilities of these national parks are heavily subsidised by the government – a rondeval for the night cost us as little as $5. Wooden viewing platforms and hides have been constructed around waterholes and riverbanks, where you can sit in the shade and watch great herds of animals watering themselves in the dry season. The area of the park is so vast that it is always easy to drive to some part which is completely empty of human activity, get out of your car and just watch vast herds of wildlife roam around the plains.

All of the public camping sites remained open despite the absence of visitors and we were able to drive through the park and stay at several of them over the course of a week. Everything was almost completely deserted. The camps felt like towns that had been abandoned by civilization after a zombie holocaust emerged out of the forest. The supermarkets remained operational, however, and the staff were in place behind their desks to provide cold beer and meat in exchange for money, but the process of decay was already setting in around the edges. Holes were starting to appear in cabin walls, roofs and especially mosquito nets. In two of the camps, significant gaps had opened up in the perimeter fence and a variety of different types of animals scavenged openly through the camp, grazing on the cabin porches looking for food. This included herds of small antelope, many types of monkey and, my favourite, family groups of banded mongoose. They would scour the camp as a foraging group, sending scouts ahead to watch out for predators, constantly communicating with one another through twitches and beeps, a hypnotising blanket of hyperactivity flowing across the camp’s surfaces.

Wildlife conservation efforts in the area date back to the 1930s and today there are healthy populations of a large number of the signature exotic big game species – elephants, buffaloes, giraffes, lions, hippos, leopards, zebras, monkeys, crocodiles and antelopes of many types – with a wide range of smaller and lesser known friends all the way down to the great dung beetles and tiny termites with their huge red earthen mounds projecting strange whirling patterns into the sky. When we arrived, it was approaching the end of the dry season and there had been almost no human visitors for two years. Large herds roamed wild and frequented the watering holes in different entertaining combinations. Leopards dragged cute springboks up trees to feast on their corpses nearby.

Victoria Falls

In the far West of the country, beyond the great Hwange national park, Victoria Falls lies on the Zambezi river which separates Zimbabwe from Zambia to the North. A great suspension bridge crosses the river’s gorge beneath the falls, another marvel of imperial engineering, completed in 1905. It is one of the principle border crossing between the two countries – the bridge links Zimbabwe to the town of Livingstone, a few kilometres North, on the Zambian side of the border. It provides a spectacular view from about 100 metres away of the face of the world’s greatest flow of water. On the Zimbabwean side of the falls, the eponymous town, Victoria Falls is the centre of a tourism industry centred on adventure sports that has grown up around the famous falls. The town contains dozens of lodges, bars, restaurants, tour operators and guides catering to kayakers, fishers, hikers, wildlife trackers and every type of outdoors pursuit. There are helicopter tours, hot air balloons and tours to see the great herds of the Okinvango delta by light airplane, as well as survivalist trips into the wild armed with only a pen-knife. Bungee jumping, white-water rafting and parachuting are also popular. Most of these businesses remained open but only a handful of tourists roamed the streets. The bars and restaurants were virtually empty and their operators looked forlorn.

We stayed in a camp-site a few hundred metres out of town, in a field that had well maintained showers and toilets but was otherwise empty. The principal attraction of the area for us was, of course, the waterfall. Because it was the end of the dry season and the flow was low, it was possible to cross to the Zambian side of the bridge and walk back out along a series of stepping stones across the top of the falls, right into the middle, where one could bathe in a pool protected by a stone ledge hanging over the edge of the great falls. One could also keep ones beers cool in the water flowing around the pool.

After a few day paddling in the waterfall, hanging around town, wondering through its watering holes and talking to the depressed operators, we had more or less exhausted the easily accessible entertainment options. Mark was keen on partaking in one of the adventure activities, in particular the white water rafting – he had heard good things about the experience on the Zambezi. I had never properly even considered doing such a thing and really didn’t know what to expect. I figured it would most likely be some kind of funfair ride – rushing through sections of fast water and getting splashed. The fee – $50 each seemed like an extravagant amount for a boat ride to me, but both Mark and Deirdre seemed keen on the experience, and we had been living frugally, so I agreed and we signed up for a trip the next day with one of the operators in town. Myself and Mark hung around for the rest of the evening drinking with a group of the local business owners. Like the rest of the tourist-facing industries that we encountered, they were pretty much all white – mostly locals, but some English and Australians. Everybody was highly critical of the government. They were spooked by the economic crisis and international isolation and were facing the imminent ruins of their businesses.

As we left the bar late in the night to return to our campsite, having consumed far too much beer to help drown the sorrows of our suffering new friends, a thunderstorm broke overhead and torrential rain engulfed us, cutting off the moon light and casting everything into pitch blackness. We followed the paved surface of the road at our feet, keeping our heads down out of the driving rain as we trudged sodden through the night. A flash of lightning broke the darkness. No more than 6 feet in front of my face stood a huge adolescent male elephant. He reared his front feet into the air in front of me as the lightning flash illuminated the sky. As the sky faded back to darkness, in a flash he descended back to his feet and charged headlong in my direction, crossing the road, passing through a hedge, smashing a tree in passing and continuing his rampage onwards into the bush. His flank knocked me to one side as he charged by – it all happened so quickly that I didn’t have chance to move, it was only after I’d been knocked over that I had a chance to even process the imagery.

Death by Rapids

The next morning, unfortunately, there was no relenting in the conspiracy of the great outdoors to kill me. We rose bright and early and were taken by car to the rafting launch point, several hundred metres to the South of the town. Immediately below the Falls, the Zambezi runs through a deep gorge for several kilometres – this gorge is intensely windy, with high, sheer walls and many rapid areas where large flows of water squeeze through narrow channels at high velocity. A path through the cliffs from the road, down towards the water side, brought us to a large flat boulder, overhanging the water. There we were furnished with life-jackets and helmets and were given brief instructions. In addition to the three of us, myself, Deirdre and Mark, there were two other guests, a pair of large, athletic, burly outdoors men from South Africa and Australia and the local African guide who was to be our pilot. Everybody got furnished with an oar and we took up our positions in three rows. Myself and Deirdre were in the back. I was on the left side with the two large guys in front of me. The boat was a simple inflatable ring design – an inflated cylinder ran around the edge with similarly inflated cylinders serving as cross-beams. In this case, we sat on the edge of the boat, clinging on with our thighs, as we hung over the side of the boat trying to paddle our way safely through the current.

The going was easy at first – the water started out deathly calm and the first few rapids were barely enough to get the heart racing. Things started to go wrong from my point of view as we approached the sixth rapid. Something startled me and I instinctively flinched backwards, causing me to push my body weight too far over the side of the boat and flip overboard. As I hit the river, I inhaled a large gulp of water and then suffered a minor panic when I tried and failed to climb back on board before we hit the next rapid. This new rapid further increased the amount of water that I had inhaled and left me paddling in terror after the receding boat, before finally scrambling back on board by my fingernails in terror and desperation. I had been in no real danger as my life-jacket kept me resolutely afloat throughout, but I was chagrined by the terrifying experience of seeing the raft disappear away from me in the rapids. I resolved to maintain concentration and to cling on for dear life thereafter.

The rapids increased in ferocity – in two cases throwing several others overboard but not me, I clung on rigidly, bracing myself for every twist and turn. Things reached a climax at the seventeenth rapid. The boat got stuck on the equilibrium point of two powerful waves that intersected the rapids. The front of the boat rose into the air, reaching almost the perpendicular and then just froze, balanced perfectly in the air by the momentary equilibrium of the two great forces on either side. The passengers at the front of the boat started to lose heart – the Australian let go. He fell horizontally backwards, smashing into my head with his full body weight as he passed. I clung on grimly through my bleeding nose. The South African let go and again his falling body smashed fully into me as he fell into the river below. I clung on. The whole boat was still suspended in the torrent, suddenly entirely empty except for me. The dynamic equilibrium was unstable; with no warning, the force coming from behind dissipated and the boat was immediately flipped over backwards with violent force.

The force that flipped the boat sent me hurtling straight downwards like a bullet through the water. I was not alarmed. I once learned how to surf in California and I knew how to handle such situations – the key to survival is that one must remain passive and conserve energy until one stops tumbling and can accurately determine which is up. I had also completed a diving training course only a few weeks before which had required a lot of breath-discipline. I didn’t panic. I waited for myself to stop tumbling downwards, then looked up and around for the source of light. I was immediately disappointed to see how dim and distant the sunlight appeared. By my reckoning, it looked like I had descended about 15 metres from the surface – an unpleasantly long trip back to oxygen, although I couldn’t be sure, the light in the gorge might have been less direct than I was used to. In any case, I reasoned that I was wearing a life-jacket which would provide me with increased buoyancy and acceleration. I kicked my legs as strongly as I possible could and continued my calculations in my head as I strained every muscle to return as quickly as possible to the surface. Just as my chest was starting to scream for air, I looked above me to see a bright orange glow directly ahead. I kept on going and my head erupted from the water, straight into the submerged, capsized interior of the boat. I snatched a tiny gasp of air from a pocket of air that remained submerged in one of the chambers between the inflated internal cylinders.

This again filled my lungs with splashes of water, giving me an irresistible urge to cough and gasp for air. My hands felt for the outline of the edge of the boat above me. I pulled myself back under the water to try to get around the cylinder at the edge of the boat. Alas, I found myself thrust back into another internal chamber. In an act of final desperation before I could no longer hold my breath, I reached my arms behind me, grabbed the edge of the cylinder there and violently thrust myself down and backwards into the water, and then catapulted myself upwards as violently as I could, to attempt to break through the surface and grab a desperately needed gulp of air. To my immense relief and pleasure, I broke the surface outside the boat’s edge and gulped down a lung full of air with the open river in front of me. To my immediate dismay, my leap for air coincided almost exactly with the arrival of the next rapid. A wall of spray and waves smacked me directly in the face as soon as I broke the surface and sent me tumbling downwards again through the water. But I had filled my lungs and this was merely an ordinary surface level tumbling – I soon washed up on a rock to the side of the river a few hundred metres downriver. I lay there feeling lucky to be alive and resolved to never again indulge in any such activity for the rest of my days as I watched the rest of the group come straggling, floating down the river after the boat.

I later learned that the Zambezi rapids are considered to be highly dangerous during the dry season when the water is low. It was widely claimed amongst the unreliable adventurer grapevine in the area that the course has a mortality rate of 1%. This seems like a ridiculously high risk activity to undertake just for the sake of adrenalin. I prefer to keep my adrenalin for running away from dangerous things that I inadvertently wander upon.

Chobe

West of Victoria Falls, the border of Zimbabwe extends along the South bank of river for 30 kilometres before coming to the border with Botswana, which is itself separated by only a few hundred metres of riverbank from the Namibian Caprivi strip. The legend has it that the British concealed the Victoria Falls far enough inside their borders to dupe the Germans into acquiring the Caprivi strip, thinking that the river was navigable downstream from its source in that area. The area above the Falls is today a great wetland safari area spanning the four countries. South of the border, is the Botswanan Chobe park, a vast, wild semi-arid wildlife reserve, famous for annual migrations of herds looking for water.

After exhausting our stay in the adventure ghost-town in Victoria Falls, we headed West, across the border into Botswana and the Chobe park. Unlike Zimbabwe, safari tours in Botswana are firmly marketed at upmarket tourists and there are no facilities for self-driving through the parks. The internal roads are not in good enough condition to allow them to be crossed by ordinary road cars – there are several river fords which require high clearance and four wheel drive. There is, however, a road that lead to a public campsite area near the entrance to the park, right on the bank of the great Chobe river, looking across the river into Namibia. By the time we found the park and made it to the camping ground, daylight was fading. Unlike in Zimbabwe, here the park seemed to be doing a healthy trade – there were tents of various sizes and shapes strategically located throughout the area, under trees and bushes in the shelter of along the riverside setting. From a few weeks of experience of African camping, an ability to predict shadows in the morning is a critical skill in choosing a site. Sleeping out in a cosy tent with an atmospheric campfire among all the sounds of nature in its full majesty is always a pleasure. Waking up in a tent that has turned into a greenhouse baking in the African sun and finding no running water available is no fun at all – the flip side of the romantic outdoors life.

Having wondered through the camping ground for a while in the gloom, we found a spot right by the water’s edge and made for it. I reconsidered as it looked a little steep, and spotted a free area set further back from the shore where I instead parked. We set up our tents in the darkness beside the car. It was only the next morning that we saw the warning signs about crocodiles preying on people camping beside the riverbank spot that we had vacated. According to the campsite’s own tourism literature, they lost on average 3 people a year to crocodiles. Furthermore, hippos were also a source of frequent life loss to holiday makers – they come out of the river to graze at night and if they happen to get caught in the morning with something between them and the river, they go through it. This was explained to us in the morning by the helpful park officer who manned the main desk in the campsite, along with tips on how to escape potentially lethal encounters with crocodiles and hippos. It did not make me sleep easier at night.

In order to explore further into the park, we had to charter a tour with one of the operators who provide game viewing tours on specially constructed wildlife viewing jeeps. These four wheel drive vehicles have raised passenger platforms with open sides, specially for providing unobstructed, unmediated access to wildlife. These tours are very different than the self-guided excursions that we had taken before – for one thing the guides are much better at locating and tracking the more glamorous animals. Large groups of jeep drivers keep in touch with one another by radio, driving cross country through the bush in search of packs of lions. In many cases large fleets of safari vehicles quickly converge on high value scenes, particularly when packs of lions are feeding. The vehicles and all of the people within their confines are effectively ignored by the lions, allowing one to get up close and personal to these huge beasts. Although the intimacy is hard to beat, these tours have a tendency to quickly devolve into a checklist of wildlife experiences to witness, in order to make up the list of the big 5 or some other competitive classification of wildlife sightings. When sharing nature’s wonders with a load of other gawping tourists, it loses some of its charm.

After Chobe, we parted ways with Mark. He had been deeply bitten by the outdoors bug and was set to continue his journeys into the wilderness. The next time we heard of him he was chaperoning night-time, lion tracking expeditions on foot through the African bush for adventurous safari tourists who truly wanted the raw experience.

We were on our way to South Africa, travelling along the high-quality paved highway that runs North to South all along the Western border of Bostwana, alongside Zimbabwe and South Africa. It connects the 900 km length of the country’s expanse together, passing through hundreds of kilometres of little inhabited wilderness. Herds of elephants walk nonchalantly across the road; giraffes graze by the roadside. There is little or no traffic. Only a few kilometres after leaving the park, we came across a hitch-hiker, walking down the long straight road towards the South in the middle of nowhere all by himself with his thumb out. We naturally gave him a ride – he claimed to have walked from Somalia and was headed for Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, where his sister worked as a maid. He spoke a little English but was not talkative. He was a refugee from the war but that was all the detail he provided. He sat there in silence as we rolled along the relentlessly straight road through the desert fringe. We took only one detour on our way South – driving West into the desert for a hundred kilometers to see the great salt pans in the middle of the country. Large, flat, dried mud-plains, bleached white with the salt and desert’s sunlight – an eerie dead landscape set among the already dry scrub of the surrounding desert.

Botswana is blessed among African nations in having a very small population density, a climate that is not attractive to settlers and no significant mineral resources that were known about until after independence. It is a desert country – virtually all the population live along the semi-arid border with South Africa and are descended from traditional pastoralists and hunter gatherer populations that predate European contact. Significant diamond reserves were discovered only after independence which enabled the government to avoid great power competition and invest significantly in public services for the relatively small population. The result is that Botswana has become one of Africa’s most developed country, despite being a land-locked desert on the margins of agriculture.

We dropped our passenger to an address in the Gaborone suburbs and returned to the highway which connected it to our destination, Pretoria, in South Africa, the final step of our African journey.

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