Day 285: The Lilongwe Round


Ah, well you see it’s like this: I’ve been kicking myself (literally, you want to see the whelks on my ass) about Algeria and Libya. Not because Libya sounds like an area of the female genitalia and I haven’t cracked a joke about it yet, but because of this: WHY DIDN’T I JUST BRIBE THE BORDER GUARDS?? This notion has spread like an itch all over my body and I can’t help every time I look at that bloody map on the Odyssey Home page but wince over the fact that Algeria and Libya, those two vast swathes of North Africa are still coloured in white – white goddamnit! WHITE!!

I never crossed those borders. For those of you who are joining in The Odyssey a little late (bless you I need all the support that I can muster) you might not know what happened, but a quick surmise is that I wasted an entire week in Tunisia trying to ‘do’ a border-hop into these infernal territories. Even though I was well aware that I would not be allowed to cross the secondary checkpoint without a visa (procured from London, not on-the-road), I was confident that I could at least cross the border, which invariably lies between the ‘home’ checkpoint and the ‘away’ checkpoint. But it was not to be. The Tunisian border guards (NOT the Libyans or the Algerians I might add) wouldn’t let me cross the first checkpoint and so I ended up wasting a load of time (not to mention expense) travelling over to Tunisia for pretty much no good reason as I’d have to return there in due course avec visa.


Now, as I travelled towards Zimbabwe, crammed in a minibus designed for 15 but carrying 30 (same old story, are you as bored of it yet as I am?!), I’m struck with the same fear – what if the Mozambique border guards turn up their nose at me?

Ah, but here I have a secret weapon – like many other places that I’ve tried the old border-hop in, you can actually buy a visa on the border, so no troubles right?


In the morning, I hopped on the first bus to the border, only to find that the bus driver figured that it might be a good idea to stop at the crossroads town of Changara for an inordinate amount of time (nothing new there) but then when he thought that it also might be an idea to slam into reverse while a stack of luggage sat precariously a couple of inches from the rear bumper, ah well, your heart goes out to the poor people that had now a caved-in subwoofer and a huge birthday cake with a tyre mark down the middle of it.

What would have (in the West) been a case for Clouseau turned out to be a case for Mozambique’s Special Agent Starling, and thus I found myself stuck in the midst of legal turmoil as the police tried to arrest the driver for reckless driving (and presumably wanton destruction of a birthday cake) and I was left squatting at the side of the road, 70km from the border, waiting for all the hullabaloo to sort itself out.

This all took place amidst the backdrop of Heroes Day, for yes, Mozambique has one too, so while the driver and the driver’s mate screamed lorks-a-lordy at the bizzies, the rest of the town was singing hallelujah and clapping hands. Strange bedfellows indeed.

Eventually (and isn’t that the word that best sums up Africa…God knows I’ve used it enough!) we were back on our way, but I didn’t think there was any chance of my promised rendezvous with Gui in Tete at noon – it was now 11am.

Where was I? Oh yeah… the border with Zimbabwe. Now Zimbabwe is one of the countries that I have less than no interest in. While the evil corrupt murderous fool Mugabe is in charge, I have nothing to say to you, Zim. However, it is a nation and therefore I do have to step foot in the wretched place. Oh, you’re right that’s unfair, Zimbabwe isn’t a bad place – I’ve met a ton of fantastic Zimbabweans, it’s just (unfortunately) Satan running the show – that’s probably why a third of the population has left in the last decade. Once Mugabe’s dead, book me a ticket to Bungee Jump off the Victoria Falls, but until then, I, like the Commonwealth, will continue to cock a snook at that bizarrely moustachioed varment.

The border didn’t seem like too much hard work – it was only a short distance between the border posts. I asked for a ‘day pass’ into Zim and promptly got myself stamped out of Mozambique. But when I got to the Zim border, I discovered that the fabled Zim day pass didn’t exist – only it did, but the FOOL Mozambique border Vogons needed to stamp a separate piece of paper, not my passport. I went back to the Mozzy side and asked them to stamp a bit of paper. They refused. I returned to the Zim side, but there was nothing they could (or would be willing) to do. This somewhat perplexed me. Here’s a white guy with no baggage (I left my stuff in Tete with Gui) just wanting to come into your gaff for a few hours, spend some money and then leave again. But to do that would cost me a visa, and that would be a whopping $55.

Sorry, not propping up this murderous regime. Not today.

Anyway, I had passed the sign saying ‘Zimbabwe’, so I was happy that I had crossed the border. No biggie baby. I headed back to Mozzy only to be told that as they had stamped me out all of ten minutes ago, I had to go to Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, wait for there for FIVE days and get a new visa for Mozambique. I had asked for a multiple-entry visa on the border with Swaziland, damn this Portuguese gibberish in my passport; I could see the sadistic glee in the Vogon’s eyes. But I’ve got no luggage, no clothes…

I don’t care.

Typical Vogon. God I hate these guys. I put $20 in my passport and handed it over to him. He shook his head. Oh for Christ’s sake man, I have no entry stamp to Zimbabwe, all you have to do is cross out the mistaken exit stamp, sign it and everything is hunky-dory.

I put another $20 in the passport and handed it back to the streak of misery. This, he accepted. Throwing it in the usual Vogon money drawer under the desk (there is ALWAYS a Vogon money drawer) and crossing out the stamp with a biro. I should have just done it myself. Ah, but why didn’t I throw a few Euro in my passport at the Tunisia/Algeria border post all those months ago?

I kick myself I really do.

So then back on the bus to Tete to meet up with Gui. The reserve trip was only slightly more hilarious than the one out – the locals call the minibus’s Twomores, because there is always room for two more, and my word, the contortions people put themselves through to squeeze into what space that simply doesn’t, can’t possibly, but-then-it-somehow-does, exist. Wowser’s Trousers.

Gui was a little surprised that I was a good three hours late, but there was just enough time for me to get to the border with Malawi – Nation 119. I said my fond fare-ye-wells and crammed myself into a minibus that soon enough took off towards the frontier. If I could make it to two countries in the one day it would be amazing – the first time since Equatorial Guinea/Gabon.

And I was stuck in Gabon for three weeks, so I hoped it wouldn’t be a precedent.

But yeah, the journey to Malawi, after starting off sloooooow (the bridge across the Zambezi was being repaired; as a consequence the traffic was one way for an hour and then the other way for an hour; we waited a loooooong time) picked up speed after the river and we arrived at the frontier just after nightfall.

There was the usual hustle and bustle at the border, I found myself taken under the wing of a woman named Mel from Zimbabwe, who was travelling to Lilongwe – the capital of Malawi – with her mum and her family. She would be setting up a new life for herself in Britain very soon, far from Mugabe’s brand of genocidal nonsense. They saw me through the all-too familiar procedures; the stamp woman didn’t even give my biro’d out exit stamp a second glance, she just – marvellously – stamped me on my way.

Mel, her family and I grabbed a taxi to the other border post (it was a few kilometres) and it was there I discovered I would have been much better off changing my money – my Mozambique Gobbledegooks for Malawi Thingymajigs at the first checkpoint. Ah well, you live and learn, eh? Within a few minutes, my deniro had been exchanged and I had myself a new SIM card for my phone.

After we crusaded into Malawi (no Visa necessary THANK YOU MALAWI I LOVE YOU), we shared a bush taxi to the nearest town. I wasn’t really expecting to get into Lilongwe tonight, but it looked like I was going to make it. After waiting in a large darkened car park for half an hour, the fringes lit with the bulbs-on-string of the many food/provisions/godknows stalls, a couple of large coaches rucked up and we made ourselves comfortable on the second one – the one with the spare seats.

I texted Jason, my Couch Surf contact for Lilongwe – I felt awful telling him what time I’d be getting in – I’m not going to tell you what time it was because it might give you ideas. In my defence, I did offer to stay in a backpackers, but Jason seemed cool for me stay at his regardless. When the bus was a good couple of hours later than they told me, I sunk into my seat.

But by now the dye was cast, and things had been indelibly set in motion. I jumped off the bus in the capital, said my goodbyes to Mel and her mum and flung myself into a taxi towards ‘Crossroads’, the nearest landmark to Jason’s gaff.

You owe me a drink said Jason in his charming Colorado drawl as I jumped into his car. I most certainly did.

Day 1,420: Who Wants To Be A Trillionaire?

Tue 20.11.12:

After grabbing a whole three hours of sleep, it was time to SLAM DUNK DA FUNK and hit the road once more.


Janine, being the great sport that she is, agreed to drop me off at the local train station through some rather horrific traffic jammage. The bus for Lusaka, Zambia, departed at 0900. By 0830 we were still miles away, stuck in traffic and my chances of making the coach was looking slimmer than Victoria Beckham after I drive over her with a steam roller.

We arrived at the train station at 0840. It takes 10 minutes to get to Park station from where the buses left. After hugs and see-you-agains, I ran inside. The next train was at 0848. I rushed down to the platform, pacing like that’s going to help. On the train it was all I could do to stare at my mobile phone watching the minute tick up to the hour. We arrived at 0858. You’ve never seen a ginger move so fast. I was Greased Lightening, a streak of red blazing up the up escalators. I got to the coach station at 0900 on the knocker. I saw the Intercape buses (mercifully close to the entrance – this is a BIG station) and made a beeline. The bus to Lusaka was pulling out. I knocked on the door… and they opened.


Now it was just time to kick back, relax and enjoy the journey. We’d be arriving in Lusaka at 1200 tomorrow. Or so I thought.

You know my bus broke down yesterday? That wouldn’t, couldn’t happen again… could it?

Oh, come on Graham, T.I.A.!! Of course it could… and it did. We hadn’t been on the road for an hour before we were pulled up on the outlane of the motorway services and some wrench-welding grease monkey Afrikaners were tinkering away, fixing our coaches innards. I should point out that this is no chicken bus: this is a brand-new, clean, modern, ‘luxury’ coach (although I always believe the words ‘luxury’ and ‘coach’ make queer bedfellows). Still, I’m pretty sure that the two hours we were getting fixed would come back to haunt me further down the line.

DID YOU KNOW? The reason why South Africa’s international code is ZA is because in Afrikaans the ‘Republic of South Africa’ is ‘Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek’. True!

It was around sunset that we crossed the border into Zimbabwe, sitting as it does between South Africa and Zambia.

Until Zimbabwe won independence it was known as Southern Rhodesia. Northern Rhodesia became Zambia.

Here are the old and new names for the countries of Southern Africa:

 Northern Rhodesia       = Zambia
 Southern Rhodesia       = Zimbabwe
 South West Africa       = Namibia
 Bechuanaland            = Botswana
 Basutoland              = Lesotho
 Nyasaland               = Malawi
 Tanganyika (& Zanzibar) = Tanzania

Now commit that to memory. There shall be a test in the morning.

It was a shame, really, getting there so late: I was looking forward to seeing Zimbabwe in the light. Oh poor old Zim: run by a psychopathic tyrant gazillionaire for the past 32 years, it serves as a microcosm of the entire continent of post-colonial Africa: it started with high hopes and then rapidly turned into a horror show to which the world can only shrug and say ‘oh dear’.

Mugabe’s crimes against humanity are myriad, but I’ll just give a few examples, you know, in case you were ever wondering why ONE THIRD of the population has left Zimbabwe since he took power in 1980.

Mugabe’s party was called ZANU and was made up mostly of the Shona people (can you see where this is going…?). In 1983, he accused ZAPU, the opposition party (consisting of mostly Ndebele people), of ‘plotting against the government’. He promptly deployed the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade to ‘quell the disturbances’. The brigade launched an orgy of killing; innocent villagers were gunned down. Tens of thousands of civilians, sometimes entire villages, were slaughtered.

Meanwhile, the world was too busy waving its finger at apartheid-era South Africa to care.

In 1990, another opposition party, ZUM, was formed. Mugabe, being the insane murderous bastard that he is, ordered (allegedly) ZUM candidate Patrick Kombayi’s assassination. Kombayi managed to survive the attempt on his life, but the ZUM leadership immediately went underground, fearing for their lives.

In 1997, Mugabe hiked up income and fuel taxes (he owed his ‘friends’ in the army a lot of money, and he wasn’t going to be the one left footing the bill). The Zimbabwe dollar lost over 50% of its value. To sort this problem out, Mugabe did what all idiots do in situations like this: he printed more money.

In 2000, incensed that the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) – led by Morgan Tsvangirai – were becoming so popular, he did what any barbaric megalomaniac would do and unleashed waves of violence, voter intimidation and a ‘land reform’ programme that rivals the Rwandan genocide in its speed and ferocity. Over 100,000 black farm workers were butchered to death by Mugabe’s so-called ‘war veterans’. Scores of white famers were also murdered (Mugabe blamed them for publically supporting the MDC) and over a million asylum seekers – black and white – fled the country.

I’ve met a fair share of Zimbabweans on my travels around South Africa, Mozambique and Tanzania. They all tell me the same thing: they love their country, they miss their country. They want to go home. But they can’t. Not until Mugabe is dead.

Meanwhile, remember that whole ‘print more money’ concept I mentioned a couple of paragraphs back? It resulted in THIS:


In the twilight days of the Zimbabwean dollar, inflation was running at 20,000%. THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU LEAVE A PSYCHOPATHIC DIMWIT IN CHARGE OF A COUNTRY FOR THIRTY YEARS. Zimbabweans have now abandoned their own currency and everybody uses US dollars instead. Good job Mugabe, you ruthless tyrant billionaire. As much as I would not wish death on anybody, I will read Robert Mugabe’s (hopefully not-too-distant) obituary with glee.

The coach thundered on into the night. Northwards, ever northwards…