Danger and Disaster on an African Road Trip
Authors Note: I’ve done many stupid white-girl things in my 25 years, and often acted out on my privilege. Often out of fear and often out of plain convenience. These coping mechanisms or patterns have been developed in order to protect my self or make things easier for myself in a very unpredictable world. I’m not saying this is right, or that it won’t change, it is just my learned response and understanding in this moment. In this story, I was both attacked and saved for being a white South African. Entering another country in times of uncertainty was silly, and one would say we were looking for trouble. And that’s the thing: I was looking for trouble. It was in these troubled moments that I realised how fortunate I was, that I had the means to get out of them. That’s where my privilege lies and that’s where the stupidity dawned on me. Looking for trouble to leave behind the problems that my privileged life breeds: my eating disorder, self-centered fear, depression etc. Looking for trouble so I don’t have to sit with myself. Would I do it again? Probably, because I learned and bunch, and haven’t realised another way of being yet. Thanks to the commenters for bringing me closer to truth – this is a story of my experiences, not a political comment.
Sitting in my car outside my apartment in Johannesburg, my fingers moved quickly on my phone keypad.
“Should I go?” I asked my friend Alice. Her response was almost immediate.
“Of course!” So I turned on the ignition, and off I headed to Swaziland.
After a couple of weeks in the big city, I needed a break in nature, and had settled on Swaziland. I’d never been, but had been told of its gorgeousness. The drive was easy and the backpackers I chose was no more than four hours away.
I arrived at dark to be met by three enthusiastic Cape Townians. We got on quickly and we got on well. They informed me that they were heading to a gathering in Mozambique on an island off the coast of Pemba for the Moon’s eclipse, and urged me to come. There were people travelling from all over the world, they assured me. So I put one of them in my car, and first thing in the morning, we took off.
There had been major conflict in the centre of Mozambique, and apparently you could only move through it in convoys with military protection. This sounded slow and dangerous, so we figured we’d bypass it by cutting through Zimbabwe and Malawi, entering Mozambique further north.
My travel companion, Chris, was an Afrikaans 40-something-year-old travel blogger with long grey hair and rather large black eyes. He was a trueborn pessimist in the throes of trying to surrender. On our first day, we just drove. I opened my first coffee; he opened his first beer. The beer soothed his pessimism, and allowed us to chat about the universe, love and various plant-medicine experiences. We spent the first night in Polokwane, and the next day, headed towards the Beitbridge border post, which we were both a bit anxious about due to its bad reputation.
The lines were treacherous, but we decided to reject any help from the men lingering outside, who offered to do all our paperwork in 30 minutes for 100 rand. When we finally crossed to the Zimbabwe side, where there were no lingering men and no help offered, we kept getting directed to a new counter in order to make new payments. There were tariffs and duties for everything. By the time four hours had passed, we’d spent over $200, but were told we still couldn’t enter without an original copy of the car’s registration form, which I didn’t have. We bantered with the woman in charge for a further 20 minutes, and finally, she let us through.
Tired and a bit shaken, we entered Zimbabwe. She grasped for us and caught us in her unseen evening light, her leaves dancing shadows over the ground with which the trees held root. Sights of peace and a feeling of calm ushered us towards a smallholding of huts. There, we approached a family and asked if we could park and camp there for the night. An elderly man opened his gate, sticks strung together with wire, and introduced us to everyone. A fire was made in the middle of a hut and everything was done in the heat contained by its walls. Chris sat and drank wine with the head of the house while I watched the woman prepare the food. There, both Chris and I spent a sleepless night in fear, realising how little we knew about the world.
At first light, we began to drive, only to be hit by roadblock after roadblock, being fined each time for the most obscene reasons. After seven hours, we reached Harare, a city a couple of hours from the border of Mozambique. As we entered its centre, we found ourselves weaving through large pieces of rubble and wire. We knew there had been protests, but couldn’t have imagined the havoc caused. My GPS told me to turn left in the direction of the border. So I did. There, we found ourselves on a deserted main road. We were the only car.
On the sides of the road, and near its end, people were standing in clusters. One man pointed to us and shouted as we approached. This was not good. I flung a U-turn as the clusters broke, and men started to run towards the car, throwing rocks at the windows. I accelerated and went through a red light. “Don’t stop! Don’t stop!” screamed Chris. We hit a dead end, so spun around again and headed back to the main road, gaining some distance from the mob – enough for me to start laughing.
Getting to the festival was now the last thing on our minds – our primary focus was trying to find our way out of Harare as quickly as possible. While stopped at another red light, I looked into my rear-view mirror to see a man get out of the car behind us. He strode over to my tyre, pulled out a knife and started stabbing at it. I tried to move, but we were cornered in by traffic.
As soon as the light changed, I got the car with its deflating tyre in motion. Chris and I pulled into a business park, which we figured seemed safe enough for us to change to the spare. To my dismay, I found that I had keyed bolts with no key. This took a further three hours and an extra $100 to burn off each bolt.
It was dark by the time we reached the hotel we had been recommended. Chris and I decided to split: he would carry on hitchhiking, and I would head back to South Africa. I messaged my friend Chloe to inform her of my plan, and she insisted I join her and her family at Punch Rock on their piece of land, a spot three hours out of Harare.
So at 4 the next morning, I was back on the road, this time bound for Punchrock. After such a traumatic experience, I arrived into what felt like a dream. One-by-one, smiling faces emerged from the bedrooms to greet me. We spent two days finding waterfalls, eating tasty meals around big tables and dreaming of how one day, this land would be ours. But I was still anxious to make my way back and get out of Zimbabwe, especially as we had received word that there were more protests planned for Monday and Tuesday and threatened attacks against travellers for Wednesday, with the added potential of a national shut down.
By Tuesday at 5am, I was out on the road again. The journey was going well, with only my thoughts to dampen and heighten my mood. I reached Masvingo, three hours from Beitbridge border, and while organising a new tyre, I realised my wallet was gone. My wallet, which contained all the money Chloe had given me, my bank cards and my passport. Being in a country where ATMs have no cash and systems have no urgency, I knew I was screwed.
I filed a police report and they took me to the immigration office. This is where I met Basa. He told me to go straight to Beitbridge, to tell them that I had lost everything and to call him when I got there.
Obviously, I wasn’t convinced. He was asking me to risk my one tank of petrol to go to a border with no money and no passport. On the other end, I had Chloe urging me to head back to her home in Harare and apply for new travel documents, but I knew that could take weeks.
“I’m scared and I’m alone,” I told Basa. “If this doesn’t work, I’ll be in big trouble.”
“You are not alone,” he said. “I am with you.”
I had to try. So after three hours of trying to overcome my dread with chanting, positive affirmations and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, I arrived at the border just after sunset. I gave the chief a call, and he happily met me outside the immigration building. From there, he led me through all the lines, getting me all the right stamps and signatures as he chatted to the ladies, smiling and giggling throughout the process. He then directed me out of my parking bay and sent me on my way through the border post.
I couldn’t believe what had just happened.
Arriving in South Africa, I was met by a very tired mama behind the desk. She was not impressed with me, but by pleading for her help, and by supplying the male desk clerk with my telephone number, I was through in 30 minutes. I had safely made my way back onto South Africa’s tarred roads. I stopped at a familiar service station, grabbed a coffee and headed towards the nearest trucker lodge for the night.
Cover by Outsider63