Cycles with Zebras

Zebra ParkingCycling with zebras is not something you are likely to forget in a hurry. At Hell’s Gate National park, its high time you did away with your safari stereotype, put down the North Face khakis, slip on your trainers and get on your bike. Located just an hour and half from Nairobi, this national park is home to zebras, giraffes, elephants, birds, the endearing hyrax and a host of wild deer and antelope. While you won’t see any of the big cats that roam other parks, their absences means you are free to explore by bike. For the adventurous, there are night safaris, rock climbing and a long gorge to climb down. Be careful in the rainy seasons when flash floods can make the gorge a deadly trap. However, its just as rewarding to cycle down the dirt path, stopping to take in the rock cliffs that served as the inspiration for Lion King. After you realize that, its hard not to sing Hakuna Matata at all the warthogs. Try not to… you’ll probably offend them with your awful Kiswahili! And there’s nothing worse than an offended warthog!

Hire a bike!

Further from the lake is Mt Longonaut, an extinct volcano that towers over the flat landscape. It’s a beautiful hike that goes from the base of the volcano and then circumnavigates the crater. While no guide is necessary for the summit walk, it is worth hiring one to explore inside the crater, where thick vegetation and crumbling rock faces constantly hide the path. Book well ahead if you wish to camp in the crater and be sure to check all camping equipment is good quality as it gets cold at night. The hike is not a challenging one, but good footwear is necessary. Be aware that in the rainy seasons, flashfloods can degrade the trail further. Bring plenty of water, as there is no shade during the walk.

View from the SummitWhen your legs get tired, head towards the lake for a boat ride amongst the hippos. If you don’t fancy waiting for a boat to fill or are on a tight budget, just sit by the lake long enough, a hippo or two will drift by. Near the lake, everyone knows someone who knows someone who’s been eaten or partly eaten by hippo. After a while it gets to sound a bit like an urban legend, but the dangers are real. Be sensible and listen to your guide. Even if you don’t see a hippo, there are hundreds of birds wandering its shores, making it a favourite spot for bird watchers. Enjoy a drink (try a Stoney Tangawazi!) at one of the food stalls that dot the shores of the lake along the more popular access points or follow a random path to see locals going about their daily life in their wood salvage houses.

There is a range of accommodation options- from camping in the national park or lakeside to luxury resorts. The Sanctuary is a remarkable venue for lunch or a few nights stay. Safari animals brought in to star in the film Out of Africa were never returned to their natural habitat. Finding their new home blissfully free of predators, what was once handful of animals took the “discovery channel” route and now roam in herds across the hotel grounds. If you are on a tighter budget, the camping is excellent and there is a selection of hostels, including the YMCA. Most of the resorts will offer food at a price, but there are few local restaurants around the lake. For a good feed, at a good price, head to Naivasha Town. Meat lovers will love the disco nyama choma (barbequed meat) spot on the main street- just look out of the disco lights and listen out of the pounding bass! While hardly picturesque, this a good spot to shop for supplies, as well as catch matatus to and from Nairobi and the rest of Kenya.

Whether you are after a hippo or a nightclub in a greenhouse, you will find it around Lake Naivasha. Its close proximity to Nairobi makes it a popular spot for travellers and locals alike. It’s the perfect spot of an active weekend, followed by a luxurious massage and watching the moon rising over the lake. What are you waiting for? On yer bike…Zebras, giraffes and the odd hyrax are waiting!

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Travelling to Great Zimbabwe

The bus slows gently as the driver changes down through the gears; annoyingly the moment before it stops he breaks sharply and sends every passenger lurching forward from their seats. After settling back into my original position I look out the window and notice another person waiting to board. This can only happen in Africa; surely not another soul can fit on the bus.

An old man holding a rudely constructed cage made from sticks and wire, full of unhappy chickens steps on, he speaks to the driver in Shona the local language and hands him a coin. I laugh to myself when I see the old man is wearing a woolen hat and large coat, the temperature is around 38 degrees and I’m finding it unbearable in shorts and T shirt. My heart went out to the poor chickens inside their prison, their heads hanging out constantly gagging for air.

How many chickens would survive their journey? Also how many of us passengers would survive ours? The cramped hot conditions on this bus were intolerable. I felt like I was in a cage. I felt like a Chicken.

This was my first experience of public transport in Zimbabwe. My plan was to spend three months traveling throughout the country, mainly riding these small Mitsubishi buses. Unbelievably I’d soon start to look forward to boarding them; I would find pleasure in other passengers company and happily daydream whilst looking out of the window. My love for this cramped, basic transport materialised whilst on a journey to the ancient ruins of Great Zimbabwe. I knew little of these Great ruins, only that it was a place I had to visit.

Leaving Bulawayo the second largest city in the country my destination was Masvingo, which was the nearest town to the ruins in the south east of Zimbabwe. Before 1980 Masvingo was called Fort Victoria but after independence the name was changed. The driver revealed the journey was three hundred and eighty kilometers, cost eight American dollars (the currency which is now used to stabilise the economy) and took five hours. I could not complain about the price but generally drivers underestimate arrival time by a couple of hours.

The route would take me via the A6 through the small settlements of Esigodine, Mulujawane, Mbalabala, onto the A9 which crossed the beautiful Insiza river, a life line to everything in the area, through Pambuka, Zvishavane, over the Runde river and then finally through Mashava before arriving at Masvingo. These very British sounding road names need to be respected. In Zimbabwe motor vehicles have to swerve constantly for unconcerned livestock, avoid hitting potholes a grown man could get lost in and pull over what seems every 30 kilometers for tollgates. The tolls are only around one American dollar but are enforced by police armed with AK47’s, they are usually a friendly bunch but give every vehicle a close look for anything illegal, bribes are meant to be fairly common which is not surprising as the police wage is so small.

Every town and village I passed through was bustling with activity, there was always people waiting, usually women trying to sell food and drinks to the passengers. Pushing, shouting and banging on the window feebly trying to get noticed, trying to earn a living. It was very hard to look these desperate people in the eyes knowing you cannot help them all. Zimbabwe is generally a country you hear about in the news for the troubled times it has gone through. Disease and starvation has killed thousands in the last few years, with an unsupportive government it amazes me how people live with smiles on their faces, the African sense of humor never seems to evaporate. The country is changing rapidly, life is defiantly improving, people are happier but the stories of bad times are still on peoples lips. I hid these depressing thoughts in the back of my mind when finally the bus pulled into Masvingo. I knew these mental images would reappear at a later date, but for now excitement took hold as I would be visiting the Great ruins first thing in the morning.

On first sight of the ruins you cannot appreciate their magnitude. To start with all you notice is a rocky hill, but this Royal Palace takes your breath away the more you explore them. They were built in the 11th Century and shout the old Kings status and political power. The most prominent feature is the eleven-meter high walls, which extends two hundred and fifty metres, this is known as the Great Enclosure. The only other ancient structure in Africa to beat its size is the pyramids of Egypt. Every stone was laid upon one another without the use of mortar, which is very impressive as they are still as strong as the ground they were built on.

There is a theory that says the word ‘Great Zimbabwe’ comes from an old dialect of Shona, and simply means ‘large house made of stone’ which is very relevant, because the hill I first noticed is exactly that. This hill has a warren of passages throughout and Royal Quarters dug into the rock face, as well as hundreds of other little rooms that would have been used for servants, cooking and even burial. One King who ruled here was suppose to be married to over four hundred Queens, but they were given there own area to live down in a nearby Valley. It is more of an ancient city as these ruins span about two thousand acres and in its peak would have been home to eighteen thousand loyal subjects, who would have gazed at the ‘large house made of stone’ with the upmost respect, just as I did.

We have all been recently reminded of famine, how countries in the Horn of Africa have suffered one of the worst droughts in years. I just hope Zimbabwe does not repeat the heartbreaking circumstances of the last ten years and it has a positive future. I believe tourism can make a huge difference to the poor rural communities such as the ones in nearby Masvingo. Zimbabwe is a country that has so much to offer, the people are so friendly, it has amazingly diverse landscapes, shockingly beautiful wildlife and ancient fortified ruins that will keep you thinking for hours about the kings who used to rule from them.

I want to thank the people of Zimbabwe and to the people who looked after me. Hopefully one day you will be able to thank them too.

Images courtesy of William Addison-Atkinson

Fashion Experience in Zimbabwe

“This trip was planned for months” Eva Mutsago confirms as waking up every Sunday morning to buy and organise fashionable clothing for Zimbabwe, comes into the mind of my dearest aunt. She would carefully assess the garments before buying them, ensuring they’re are up to her standards. Then when she is satisfied, she would buy the clothing she believes will make her customers happy. Her collection ranges from River Island dresses for the Zimbabwean teens, to nicely polished suits for adults from NEXT.

The biggest worry that came to mind was how people would put the clothes from the Western World together. The trend in Zimbabwe seems to be colour-blocking which is not entirely far from what we have seen here. However admittedly they seem to abuse this term. Where we involve colours that are in the same colour wheel, in Zimbabwe they tend to wear colours that clash. Criticisms aside, their eye for fashion is progressing thanks to those who inspire people to be involved. ” I don’t wait for people to come to me,” Eva claims “I go to them because fashion waits for no man!”

Every day Eva would carry about 6 bags filled with Western fashion goodies ready to sell to Zimbabweans in Harare – which was 45 minutes away from her home. Eva already had loyal customers who would wait for her next arrival with outfits. They humbly take her advice on styling and look fabulous while doing so. “I love to look good for work, because then I feel confident in what I am doing” one customer tells  me, “by feeling good about your outer self, you feel almost invincible!” Eva’s customers also admitted as to how hard it is to find clothing in Zimbabwe. “There isn’t a lot of different styles here” one tells me, “so we have to wait for Eva to come around so we can harrass her to update us” and everyone was amused by this comment.

Eva Mutsago in her African home demonstrating colour-blocking

Eva Mutsago in her African home demonstrating colour-blocking

It was truly an inspiring moment stepping into Zimbabwe and witnessing it slowly emerging into the world of fashion. Even though it is evident that the economic crisis had affected the country, it has not prevented the people from having a burning desire to be kept updated on the latest trends. Eva Mutsago is just one case study of those who want to contribute in updating fashion in Africa as a nation. There are many people who are aware about bringing fashion cultures to both sides of the world, such as DeciMall, who are holding a massive event in showcasing modern African clothing mixed with Western trends. Look out for their fashion show which will be held in September!

Alex Ruffell Memorial Fund

Looking out from my seat into the African bush I can see Buffalo, Zebra and too many Impala to count. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for all day; the breathtaking experience earlier of viewing Victoria Falls for the first time drained all the energy out of me not to mention the six-kilometre walk in 40°C heat.

Now leaning back into my chair at the Stanley and Livingston hotel, rubbing my sunburn and watching African wildlife with my mosquito repellant and a bottle of local lager, I look back over my Zimbabwean experience with a smile.

One of the main reasons for me visiting Zimbabwe was to observe the charity work that has gone on in Chidobe primary school which was founded eleven years ago, after the sad and sudden death of Alex Ruffell, by his mother Sue Ford and step father Graham Ford. Alex died in 1998 at the age of 16 and was 2 years older than me at Friends School Saffron Walden, although I didn’t know him well at school, I know he was much loved by his friends and family, and the amazing results of this charity keeps Alex’s name alive for ever and helps hundreds of the Chidobe people. Everyone in this rural community will speak of Alex almost everyday, as there is a classroom built in his memory as well as the outdoor sports centre. The charity has provided drinking water, toilets, school uniforms, books and electricity which is not only used by the school but the rest of the community, this is to name but a few as the list seems to go on and on.

At Alex’s funeral, £5,000 of donations was kindly given to Sue and Graham; this was used to build the classroom in his memory. Since then more people have donated to the Alex Ruffell memorial fund, many of which from the Saffron Walden area, these generous people are kept informed of any development at the school.

Alfred Mpofu, the village head was diagnosed with HIV 4 years ago and certainly would have died if the charity didn’t supply the drugs he needed. Rural communities in Africa have very complicated politics, and rely on influential figures such as Alfred.

Graham and Sue Ford organize the charity back in the UK, which involves the time consuming role of collecting all the generously donated money, clothes, shoes and other items back to their family home. Once everything has been collected their container makes the long sea voyage to Durban in South Africa, and then the slow journey by rail to the city of Bulawayo in Zimbabwe, then on to Victoria Falls, before being loaded onto a truck and then delivered to the school. This can sometimes take months as the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (ZIMRA) can be very difficult, everything in the shipment has to be proven that it has come from a donated charity or duty has to be paid on every item. Graham and Sue visit the country twice a year making sure that the shipment has reached its final destination and distributed correctly.

When I visited the school I witnessed the shipment being delivered, and was amazed at the number of people who turned up, 500 in total, 350 of which were school children and the rest were teachers, village heads, friends and family. It was a huge party with lots of singing and dancing, the charity supplied food and drink for every person.

Chidobe village football team with Sue Ford, Alfred Mpofu & William

After everyone had eaten and the entertainment finished, a game of football started on the school pitch. Brand new kit and boots were supplied to Ford United the local Chidobe football team, (this is another reminder of the respect Sue and Graham receive here). Previously I’d mentioned that I’d played football for my school team at Friends and was immediately placed at left midfield, I think more out of politeness me being a visitor than my ability to play. The whistle blew after the longest 90 minutes I’d ever experienced; it was time for the clothes to be distributed to the village. As I limped over to the queue of people I noticed young children wearing a very familiar school blazer with huge smiles on their faces, I couldn’t help but put one on and have my photo taken with them. The whole day was a complete success and everyone seemed very happy.

The people of Chidobe have really shown me this amazing will to survive, as every day can be a struggle, especially over the last four years. It didn’t take long for me to be accepted into the community, and they were keen to show me their way of life, smiling faces are everywhere you look. This African hospitality is evident all over the country.

I want to thank the people of Chidobe village who I’ll remember forever.

Image courtesy of William Addison-Atkinson