x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

From Zimbabwe to Zambia, across the mighty Zambezi

Around Africa Scott MacMillan visits Zimbabwe and Zambia on his way to Victoria Falls.

Below Victoria Falls, the waters of the Zambezi River run swiftly through a series of gorges. Scott MacMillan for The National
Below Victoria Falls, the waters of the Zambezi River run swiftly through a series of gorges. Scott MacMillan for The National

A guard appears from behind the gate, emerging from the darkness in the glow of the taxi's headlights to let me in. The streets are pitch black and so is the guest-house compound. Power's out in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second city.

A receptionist sits inside at the kitchen table, lit only by a candle, across from a man, probably her boyfriend, listening to music played from a mobile phone. She introduces herself as something like Ida.

"Like the opera?" I ask. I can't tell if she's pronouncing it with two syllables or three. "How do you spell it?"

"I-D-A-H." She's got skinny arms and legs and a gap between her two front teeth, and she laughs even though I've not said anything terribly funny. It's eerily quiet here. "What does it mean?" she asks me.

"What does your name mean? In English it means Idah. You."

She peers at the form I'm filling in by candlelight, examining my first name. "Scott," I say. "In English, my name means Scott."

The Zambezi River, I've heard said, is higher this year than at any point in the last 20.

The guard leads me to a dorm room behind the main building. There's nobody else in it, and since I lost my torch months ago, I return and ask Idah for a candle. I light it, place it on one of the beds, lock the door and absorb a feeling I've missed these last few months: the aloneness - not always loneliness, but sometimes, yes - of travel, a feeling that's at once banal and overpowering. I'm in Zimbabwe, I remind myself. Staring at a candle. Nothing now connects me to the rest of my world: no internet, no mobile phone, nobody except Idah knowing exactly where I am at this moment.

When the power finally comes back on, I notice I'm not alone at all. There are ants covering - and I mean covering - whole sections of the floor. They're crushed under foot and crawl up my ankles when I stand up. I decline Idah's offer to spray the room and sweep them out the door, but they keep coming back.

I'm a bit more delighted when friends from earlier in my travels start creeping back as well. Truth is, I'm rarely too alone on this 10-day solo trip from Cape Town to Dar es Salaam. In Victoria Falls, I run into a Dutch-Belgian couple I know from our time together in Cameroon. It's a chance meeting. They're still making their way south to Cape Town in their own car.

The Zambezi River, I've heard said, is higher this year than at any point in the last 20. The spray is such that it pours up and then down again. At many lookouts, visibility is zero, the falls nothing but a great white mist.

Across the river in Zambia, I meet up with another travel writer who's inadvertently following in my footsteps, going down the west coast of Africa on public transport. We began swapping stories online when she found my blog and discovered we'd have a one-day overlap in Livingstone, the town named after the purported discoverer of Victoria Falls.

In Lusaka, the Zambian capital, there's a woman I met briefly in Togo, an American veterinary student studying Zambian chickens; we have Indian food at a hotel restaurant where a one-armed singer with a wooden hand serenades us with easy-listening classics backed by a band of musicians stiffer than the undead. I remark that it feels like we've stepped into a David Lynch film.

Finally, the Tanzania-Zambia Railway, or Tazara, built in the early 1970s with Chinese investment, a two-day journey on a rattling train that cuts through national parks and reserves, including Selous Game Reserve. My cabin mates spot an elephant and a giraffe. Buried in a bad Norwegian crime novel, I see only impala and wildebeests. The terminus is Dar es Salaam, the port and main city of Tanzania, where I catch a 20-minute plane ride to Zanzibar. I'm to stay with a resident I met on a camping trip in Namibia two months ago.

In a few days, I'll head up to Nairobi to meet another friend from a faraway place, from a different life, who just happens to be in East Africa. We're planning a short safari, for in eight months in Africa, I've yet to see a single lion. I refuse to leave the continent until I do so.

Here in Zanzibar, I'm essentially back to where I began in Africa last summer, on the Swahili Coast, having circumnavigated three quarters of the continent almost entirely by land. I'll probably feel thrilled about that some day, hopefully soon, but as I sit on the beach gazing at a languorous Zanzibar sunset, I can only recall the words of one of the two teenage British volunteers with whom I'd shared the cabin from Lusaka. I'd already put my feet up on the berth as they boarded the train. "Wow," one of them said. "You look really tired."

Read all of Scott MacMillan's columns at Around Africa. He is also blogging about his journey on his website www.wanderingsavage.com.