On land, on water and in the asphalt pits
Harare Airport welcomes us as if a nuclear war has just begun: no soul to be found. This morning we flew from Ruckomechi Camp by turbo plane to the capital where we now, under the guidance of the pilot, walk to the exit. We’ve rarely seen an airport of a capital city that is so deserted. For the desk clerk of the car rental company it must be a big day: a customer! Travelers who rent a car in Harare, let alone Europeans, are unique. He takes all the time for the enormous administration work and personally guides us to the parking. “Sorry for the dust,” says the man with the tie. “It was washed this morning, but the wind is carrying a lot of sand.” We take a seat in an eclectic blue Japanese SUV and drive across wide avenues with little traffic to Armadale Lodge, a gem of a guesthouse from 1904 in a suburb of the city. It has been in the hands of the same family for three generations. In the evening chef Michael cooks us an excellent piece of chicken with coconut and we make open up a bottle of South African pinotage. For dessert some wise advice: leave early, just before dawn.
Harare is busy, later in the day it will take you two hours to get out of the city. And there we are the next morning, ready for 480 kilometres of African inland. Our little Japanese sloshes through the outskirts of Harare. We soon learn that at this hour red traffic lights are considered purely indicative, half of the minibuses (which operate here as privatised public transport) ignore them anyway. We drive straight through Harare and are confronted with the real black Africa. That means litter, wells like craters in the road surface, pedestrians who take the road as a footpath and a mass of people who are begging for a lift. That Africa fascinates many travelers and gets under their skin is obvious.
But of course nothing is perfect all of the time. The continent also has its shadow sides, its poverty and decline. Downtown Harare is such a place, we conclude. We are therefore not unhappy that an hour later we are rolling through vast green hills away from chaos. A toll booth suddenly appears. “Two dollars”, the man says, the receipt already in hand. It seems like our ticket to peace, a babbling road through the countryside of Zimbabwe, where cows run free and children still play football in the street. Villages are still villages here, houses are huts, shops a corrugated iron loft brightened up by billboards of the world’s most drunk soft drinks.
An unexpected roadblock makes the eyebrows frown. In Africa, anything could happen. Soldiers and police are too happy to organise such roadblocks. Especially since the intentions are not always clear, we are not fans. ‘Police checkpoint’ is written on a large rusted board next to an empty oil barrel. The officer on duty is dressed in an old raincoat that is two sizes too large and has an oversized old military cap on his head. Fortunately, we cannot see any weapons. “How were things on the road”, he asks cryptically. And apparently we have to take that literally.
Of course, he had long seen that we are foreigners in a rental car, so he also knows that the vehicle papers are in order. Only a friendly chat remains. So he wants to know, among other things, whether there aren’t too many pits in the asphalt. When he asks us from which country we come, a smile appears on his weathered face. “Football… Eden Hazard… Fantastic… He is magic,” he suddenly calls out. As a farewell, he also has a message for us: “Make a lot of publicity for Zimbabwe, Sir. We can use every tourist! Have a nice day,” he says as he slaps gently on our roof with one hand, the signal that we can leave. We continue, smiling. “If we had asked for a selfie, he certainly would have agreed,” says Timo. We might not ever know.