Our convoy of five white Toyota land cruisers shone bright in the morning sunlight, contrasting against the red African dirt. Our party of twenty-five had left Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital city, at 7 am for our 5-hour drive to our safari lodge at Chirundu, on the great Zambezi river, one of Africa’s largest water systems.
In the country for an old university friend’s wedding, our group from the UK were spending three days with her extended family who had travelled from all over the world for her big day.
The road was single lane and the only route North. It goes all the way up through Zambia, Democratic Republic of Congo and beyond, into Central Africa. It has a few potholes but has mostly survived the 40-tonne trucks laden with unrefined copper, zinc and other minerals, that use this highway as their only route into Southern Africa.
On leaving Harare, we quickly came to vast expanses of countryside. The rains had just arrived after a long drought, so luminous fresh growth had sprung up and the land was radiating green.
Sadly most of the farms we passed were not in commercial use. Since Mugabe’s policy of nationalising the land in 2000 by giving it to the people, Zimbabwe’s fortunes as the bread basket of Africa has been in free-fall. It is now a net importer of food from its neighbours, such as Zambia and Mozambique.
It’s apparent to the few white people that still live here, that land reform had to come and was long overdue. But their sadness comes as farmers, seeing the waste of fantastic farm land and the poverty to all Zimbabweans that has come from Mugabe’s political manoeuvring, using the policy of uncompensated land redistribution to keep popularity and absolute power.
As a result of this, and other economic mismanagement, inflation has sky-rocketed, ATMs have literally run dry and corruption runs deep.
The Harare-Chirundu road has anywhere from 10-20 police roadblocks, depending on the day.
This equates to being stopped or, if you are lucky, passing a block, roughly every 20 minutes.
Traffic slowed as police officers flagged down passing cars at makeshift roadblocks. Waving, they pulled us over, asked for our details and checked over the vehicle in the hope of pulling us up for a fine. Reasons can range from anything, supposed speeding, a dusty number plate (we are in Africa!) or accusations of touching the central line. Threats of impounding our vehicles were met with the opportunity to redeem ourselves by paying bribes, averaging US$20. Saying you’re tourists from the UK gets you worse treatment so it’s no wonder tourism in Zimbabwe is low.
We stopped half way into our journey at a small town called Lion’s Den, for bacon rolls and the best biltong in Zimbabwe, before continuing into the valley, spotting huge baobab trees as we went.
The Chirundu Lodge was homely and large. We had the whole place with pool and landscaped gardens to ourselves. The best thing about it was the wildlife on our doorstep. From the (fenced) gardens we could see grazing wild elephants, naughty baboon, wallowing hippos, wild Guineafowl and crocodiles, sunning themselves on the banks of the river. At night, hyena calls filled the air, along with a chorus of insects.
Over three days we took game drives, bush walks, fishing trips and river cruises to appreciate the natural beauty of this amazing place. Apart from a temporary stranding by an inexperienced pontoon captain on a Zambezi sandbank surrounded by moody hippos, it was a relaxing couple of days. We saw all animals, large and small, and though slightly harassed by flying termites, had an amazing time with some brilliant company.
But too soon it was time for us make the drive back to Harare. iPad plugged in and stocked up on snacks, we set off, after a long round of goodbyes.
After our midway loo-break stop, we had one again slowed in traffic. Expecting another road block, we sat back and waited for the police to wave the bus in front of us through. But it wasn’t.
A rudimentary spiked traffic block had just been thrown into the road, blocking traffic on both sides. A pickup truck coming the other way, went off-road to get around and drove off at speed.
“Why didn’t they stop and move it?”
Dave – our friend driving, said, believing it to be something that had fallen off the back of a lorry.
We looked on, confused as a group of men wearing camouflage fatigues and flack jackets came out of the bush and walked up to the bus. Before we knew what we were seeing, they had gone into the bus, marched the driver off with his hands on his head and pushed him to his knees on the side of the kerb. It’s then that we saw the guns thrown over their shoulders. One of them came towards our car.
Without thinking, I yelled to Dave. “DRIVE”. “NOW!”
He put the foot down, crossed into the other lane and off-road to get around.
Looking through the back windows, we saw one of the men smacking the terrified bus driver round the face with the back of his hand. A few seconds more and we were too far away to see anything else clearly.
Unravelling what we had all witnessed over those two minutes, it felt like a scene from a film. One thing we knew – they weren’t army, their flacks weren’t regulation. Coming to the conclusion we were close witnesses to a violent bus hijacking in the middle of the bush road, we were shaken for the rest of the drive home. Our minds filled with thoughts of worry for the bus driver and what could have happened to us had we stayed.
That night, back in Harare, we were woken at 3am to a neighbour’s screams. Fearing a repeat of the violent burglary which had happened to the elderly woman a few years before, Matt (our host) and Dave, jumped out of bed and armed themselves with kitchen knives, before going to investigate. Luckily, it turned out to be two drunk girls, home from university for the holidays. Which probably would have been our first assumption, had we been in the UK.
But not here.
This is Zimbabwe. Totally, and sometimes scarily, unpredictable.
You could get through every police roadblock. Or you could get stopped at every one. You could have a friendly police officer fine you just US$10, or your conversation could escalate and get out of hand. You could live in Zimbabwe for years not see what we saw on the Chirundu road in the space of two minutes.
But crime seems to be on the rise as poverty here worsens. Driving through the towns, the queues for banks were round the block, as the lack of physical cash makes living here increasingly hard. On 30th December, another bus hijacking happened on the Chirundu road – almost exactly fitting our description.
Zimbabwe is a place with huge untapped economic potential and warm and friendly people. It doesn’t have anything like the violence associated with South Africa and it is stunningly beautiful. But with Mugabe running in the 2018 elections, but also in his 90s and in ill health, its unpredictability is set to continue for some time.