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Zealous in Zimbabwe

I’m still licking my wounds a bit from an extremely challenging expedition in this tattered country, but I’m happy to report that not a drop of regret or resentment remains as I move north now through East Africa. Zimbabwe was by far the most taxing country of the Peace Pedalers expedition, but a piece of my heart still remains in this deeply distressed nation.

Like most travelers, I considered skipping Zimbabwe all together based on reports from the media. But after meeting my Zimbabwean buddy Tony in Mozambique I committed myself to explore the country with an open mind and heart. My two weeks off in Tofu, Mozambique certainly recharged my batteries, and I was optimistic about my ability to uncover some nuggets of beauty, friendship and hope in a nation abandoned by its own people and most of the global community.

I arrived at the border below the charming mountainous town of Mutare at sunset and a long, steady climb was awaiting me. As I chugged my load up the hill a dreadlocked man at an abandoned gas station (still no gas in Zimbabwe, minus the black market) greeted me with a huge smile and beckoned me to stop. His name was Costa and, like everyone in Africa, was amazed to see me riding in his country with my tandem train. He informed me the climb was a dozy and he was certain I would end up rolling into Mutare in the dark. This is a no-no anywhere in Africa, especially in Zimbabwe.

The look on his face was of genuine concern for my well being and he offered to toss all my gear in his little four-dour Toyota car with his two lady friends Polly and Jeane. After a few turns of some allen keys and wrenches my tandem train was scattered throughout the car, on our laps and hanging out of the trunk as we made our way to Mutare at dusk on a Saturday night with a festive energy filling the car.

They took me to a guesthouse that they highly recommended due to the fact that they had 24 hour security. They all took a sincere interest in my safety and the last thing they wanted was for me to leave Zimbabwe having a negative experience. After settling into my room and taking a shower they returned again to take me out on the town where we ate, drank and danced until 3AM. I was welcomed like family into their tight circle and I was grateful to have met such great people to ease me into my adventures in Zimbabwe.

Costa is well known in town as one of the best people to find black market diesel and other necessities to survive in Zimbabwe, and Polly and Jeane were both well educated professionals in the real estate industry. For decades Zimbabwe was one of the shining stars of the continent with many talented and educated leaders, but Polly and Jeane were the few that remained as most of them escaped to other countries when the Zimbabwe economy collapsed.

As we enjoyed a lazy Sunday at one of the local sports clubs chilling in the sun with my new friends I could not ignore the anxiety that was beginning to brew in my stomach about riding the next day and starting my solo expedition in this troubled nation. The club we spent the afternoon was once filled with well-to-do locals enjoying a Sunday afternoon in the cool mountains, but it was completely empty that day and I could not ignore the depressing energy moving about the immensely underpaid staff..

The next day I planned to take a light load into the steep Bvumba Highlands and Burma Valley surrounding Mutare. But when my alarm went off on my mobile phone I hit the snooze button at least a dozen times crippled in fear and loneliness. I eventually mustered my courage and packed the bike, but soon realized that my seat post collar had a broken screw which sent me into town for a successful mission to find a 4mm screw. I now had no excuse not to start my ride, but I could not ignore the fear and anxiety.

The Bvumba heights and Burma Valley used to be a huge tourist attraction back in the days of Zimbabwe’s leadership with some of the country’s tallest mountains towering into the mist with endless views into Mozambique and beyond. The Burma Valley used to deliver the countries best coffee and bananas, but this farm land has since grown mostly dead due to President Mugabe’s deeply flawed Land Reform Act (check out this monstrosity of a blunder on the net for more information, as I’ll do my best not to get into politics in this newsletter)

With all the courage I could muster I made my first pedal stroked toward the highlands and, I’m happy to report, the act of just moving lifted my fears immediately and my spirits lifted to new heights. As I made the turn to start the long, steep climb I met a group of mostly unemployed young men on the corner and I stopped to invite someone to pedal with me. A handsome young chap David was waiting for a ride and quickly accepted the invitation to take him, a bag of food, and some clothes up to a work site where he was laying bricks for about 20 cents a day.

We got a late start due to my snooze bar surfing session and seat post screw mission so by the time we started pedaling up the hill there was only a few hours of daylight left. My plan was to ride a few hours then look for shelter with a local family or at a lodge, whichever came first. But David told me, with his limited English, that I could stay at his place up the mountain with this fellow brick laying co-workers. What he failed to mention was just how far up the grueling mountains his place was located.

With the first 400 meter climb out of the way we began the real climbing as the sun went down behind the mountains. I had no topo map and had no idea what to expect, and David was either unable or unwilling to mention that we would be tackling 16+ degree grades to get up to his pad. We hammered the pedals up the road in the lowest gear at a whopping 4KM per hour and before we knew it, it was pitch dark! Add the exhaustion to the fact that I was warned by Costa and the Mutare crew NOT to ride this area after dark and you have the ingredients for a pretty agitated Jamie.

David kept reassuring me that it was safe to ride and that we should carry on and we would “soon be there”. The grades got so steep that we actually had to push the bike as I could barely see the road with the thick mist that was obscuring our view. We finally tackled the steepest section and were soon flying over rolling hills through the mist with my headlamp barely making out the faint center divide line. Just as my legs started to cramp we turned off to David’s work site. It was 10:30PM. I started riding at 3:30. Needless to say, I we were knackered.

We woke up David’s co-workers and, to my surprise, they all greeted us with open arms and quickly made a fire in the kitchen hut to start preparing the famous maize meal staple food called Sadza in Zimbabwe. Within a half hour we were eating freshly cooked Sadza with a salty green veggie relish that nourished our tired bodies immediately and lifted my spirits to enjoy the company of new friends Morgan, Ronnie, Roy and Marshall. We stayed up until 1AM laughing, sharing and celebrating our adventure into the highlands. They set me up with a cot to sleep in next to 4 other workers and we all slept like babies.

I woke up to an amazing view of the mountains and the boys cooked me up a huge bowl of porridge made from the same Maize meal the Sadza came from the night before. We took a hike together to the summit, I gave all the guys a ride on the tandem, and I made me way solo to the main road to continue my climb to the summit where I planned to get a few rounds of golf in at the famous Lion’s Head Golf course before exploring the Burma Valley. One of the benefits of traveling in a country with 1000% plus inflation is that you can actually enjoy a 5 star lifestyle at backpacker prices. For example, you can play a round of golf with a caddie that would cost 200 dollars or more in the West for about 2-3 dollars. Bonus.

On the way to Lion’s Head I saw a spunky elderly man walking on the road and decided to see if he was keen for a pedal. He accepted with a smile and when I looked behind me I was shocked to see him seated not on the saddle, but on the Pelican camera case that was strapped to my rear rack! It was a hilarious site as this little old man held on to the case and put his feet on the bike frame waiting for me to ride him to his destination. We finally got through the language barrier and I was able to explain that he needed to sit on the saddle, hold the handlebars, and deliver some pedal power with me. We finally pedaled away and we both were cracking up pretty hard. We rode for about 5KM through the beautiful winding roads with endless views of the valleys to Mozambique and stunning mountains of Zimbabwe.

On the turnoff to the golf course I picked up another rider named Peter who was walking down to the course. He had a smelly plastic bag with him and when I took it from him to strap it on the bike I took a quick peek inside. I was mildly traumatized when I discovered it was full of dead, stinky red bugs! Peter got a kick out of the look on my face and took it to the next level by grabbing a handful of the greasy suckers and tossed them into his mouth with a childish grin. Turns out Peter is a caddy at the golf course and he’s in the bug business part time to supplement his dwindling caddy income. I held my breath on the curvy decent to avoid the horrific smell and made my way to the course and rolled into the stunning, yet totally empty, posh golf resort.

I spent a few days enjoying my passion of golf with my bug buddy Peter as my caddy eating amazing food served on fine china with posh waiters for less than 5 bucks a day. I would honestly prefer to have the country flourishing economically and my not being able to afford a posh golf holiday on my shoestring budget, but the reality in Zimbabwe is what it is and I could not pass up a few rounds of golf on one of the best courses in all of Southern Africa.

After three amazing rounds of golf in two days my batteries were as charged as they could get to start exploring the Burma Valley and the devastated farmlands that just a few years back made Zimbabwe one of Africa’s biggest exporters. I knew that I would be facing some depressing stories but I wanted to understand the reality from mouths of the people and not the media. I had to venture down to the farmlands.

As I rode back up the hill from the golf course I picked up an elderly man Jenson who had super strong legs for a 68 year old man. He lived at the top of the hill and invited me in for a cup of tea. Jenson used to work on the farms surrounded the golf property but is now forced to work in Mozambique to get by. His story was not as sad as others I’ve heard as he at least had a house and had made some wise decisions financially before losing his job.

Jenson encouraged me to explore a back road to the Burma Valley that he said would give me a good taste of the current state of the farmland in the area. After the huge climb up, I was blessed with a downhill adventure from heaven until I finally reached the valley. The downhill ride was great from a mountain biking perspective, as it appeared that I was riding through overgrown bush. But I was soon told that the land was once flourishing with coffee plantations and provided hundreds of jobs to local Zimbabweans. I finally hit the main road and made my way down to a farm I heard sold Bvumba Cheese, famous in the tourist days.

I arrived on the farm of Huge and Toffy, a vibrant elderly white Zimbabwean couple who are some of the last white farmers left in the valley. They told me they stopped making the cheese when the tourists fled, but invited me to spend the night and cooked up an amazing curry dinner. We were joined by the only other white farmer in the area Oliver, who was my age and also fighting to keep his land from being snatched by the Zimbabwe government.

It was about 2AM when I was awoken by the sound of two gunshots that sounded way too close for comfort. My heart rate soared as I recalled the stories of white farmers killed while defending their family’s land and homes. I was scared to death and was praying nobody would come into my room. I finally went back to sleep and was told the next morning that it was just Hugh’s security guy firing a few shots over some guys trying to steal coffee from his farm.

Next day I made my way along the long, hot Burma Valley road through the old bananna and tobacco farms, 95% of them abandoned or growing just enough maize for some families to survive. The energy in the small villages along the road was truly depressing, and nobody wanted to ride or even engage in any real conversation. Many of them were starving and were quick to complain about the current situation. The roads that once were full of people and farm equipment were empty, and I rode solo and a quite sad all the way to the turnoff back to Mutare. I finally hit a town where I met a cool rider Philip who came along for about 10KM to his home. He was also out of work and, like so many other unemployed folks in the area, was trying to sell me diamonds and emeralds that were stolen from the local mines. It was a huge business, and a few lucky Zimbabweans were making a killing.

Just as I was ready to make the final descent back to Mutare to meet up with Costa and the crew I met my final rider of this mountainous expedition. His name was Wellington and he was just 15 years old. I stopped for a rest after the long climb out of the valley and met him and a huge bunch of street vendors selling fruit. He was looking for a ride down and we were soon mostly coasting down the 500M decent to town. He had a huge smile and positive attitude, and had a dream of being either a pilot or a business executive. I rode him back to his mother in town who was grateful for his safe arrival and saving the money he would have spent on a minibus.

When I arrived back in Mutare a huge busload of university students had the place rocking on a Saturday night. All the rooms were full so I got my own caravan in the back. After my shower I was welcomed by the group with delicious barbeque, cold beer and pumping music in the back yard. Costa came and picked me up and we hit the town one last time dancing till 4AM.

The next day Oliver, my buddy from the Burma Valley, came by to give me a lift to the capital Harare in his pickup truck. He told me the road between Mutare and Harare was pretty depressing and uninspiring and he was right. He recommended the stretch from Harare to Buluwayo for a higher likelihood of guest riders. He set me up with a great place to stay in the capital and I was able to record some amazing jazz musicians that night called “The Other Four” and hook them up with a live CD to sell at their sporadic gigs for which they were super grateful.

I almost made it out of Harare without any incidents but got scammed by a money changer on the street who ran off with $100 in cash in broad daylight. The desperation of the people in Harare is beyond words. After a few days of preparation I was soon pedaling out of town and it was not long before I met my first guest rider of the stretch, also named Philip. Philip had lost his job at a packaging plant after the farms dried up and now made just enough to live by collecting bottles and cans. I was able to save him the bus fare to his house and learn about his struggles in Zimbabwe first hand. He was a kind man and was grateful for the meal we ate together in his village. He wanted to ride further with me, but I knew it was just so he could get more meals and perhaps ask for some support. So I bid farewell and pedaled onward.

The road was perfect—nice shoulder, no traffic, nice temperature. I was enjoying the solo riding and almost stopped to pick up a guy walking on the road but passed him by for some reason. Then I got a phone call from Costa and the crew to say goodbye and, while I was on the phone, the same guy I passed caught up with me just as I got off the phone. I figured we were meant to meet, so I invited him to pedal along. He accepted with a smile and I strapped on his bag to the trailer and off we went.

His name was Bernard and he was currently working at a small farm making about $10 a month. He used to be a heavy truck driver for the farming industry but lost his job. He was now using his $10 a month to rent a place near this farm, while still having to rent a small one bedroom shack in his home town for his wife and two children, pay their school fees, and feed his family. He could not even afford a bus ticket so walked 1.5 hours each way to work.

When I told him I was heading toward Buluwayo he begged to come along so he could get to his home town to see his daughter, who was sick. So we hammered the pedals hard to make it to the next town of Sealous where we found a place to stay and a nice meal for about $4. Bernard is a gentle, friendly, family man who, like many Zimbabweans, is truly struggling to survive.

The next morning we hit the road early for the long haul to his village, about an 80KM ride. Along the way we passed dozens of barren farms that once flourished with soybeans and Africa’s finest tobacco. Now there were a few maize crops and rusted old signs of the old white owned farms. I have to admit, it was depressing. Luckily, Bernard warmed up and was soon giving me lessons in Shona, telling his story to the video camera, and even joking a bit. We built a solid friendship those two days together and I was happy to help him reconnect with his family. We made it to his home town just before the rain fell and I stocked up on tons of food to fill up his refrigerator and feed his family for days.

I was invited to spend the night on the floor of his one bedroom house but was then invited to stay in a bed of his neighbor, which made more sense considering the fact that 4 of them share this 12x12 foot room. There was one condition I was not informed of when the invitation was made—to share the bed with an old man who liked to smoke multiple cigarettes at all hours of the night. We had a huge meal, shared the stories of our adventure with his family and friends, went out in the village for a few games of pool, and sucked in our last moments as together as friends. Needless to say, my night sleep was broken up by hacking coughs of my bed mate and the smell of heavy tobacco.

The next morning we were both feeling blue as we knew a farewell was eminent. and the rain started early. Bernard was insistent on saying something to the cameras and opened up how grateful he was for our friendship, my support and how sad he was to see me leave. I left with tears in my eyes towards the town of KweKwe and was not in the mood to pick up any riders the whole morning. That’s one about my expedition I don’t like—saying goodbye.

My mood changed right away when a group of kids invited me into their home and I spent the afternoon with a delightful rural family sipping tea, exploring their small farm and relaxing in the shade. By the time the afternoon rolled around I was super hungry and found a small village to ask for some Sadza for lunch. I was directed to a decrepit little strip of concrete buildings where dozens of dirty miners cheered me into the village and welcomed me with open arms. I was soon told that this area was the hub of illegal gold mining, another booming new vocation of displaced blue collar workers from Mugabe’s economic disaster. The workers were waiting until spies gave them the green light to the dangerous shafts and rob all they could before the police came.

I had a huge meal of Sadza and invited a cheery Rastaman decked out with various red, gold and green jewelry and clothing named Chungu to ride with me to the next town of KweKwe. He said he loved to ride and was extremely excited to adventure with me. I set him up with some Assos cycling clothes and he went off to change in an abandoned building. When he emerged in tight blue shirt and shorts the crowd erupted in loud cheers and laughs. It was comical. I was running two video cameras at the time and setting up to film our departure when I got my worst scare of the trip.

It is highly illegal to professionally film in Zimbabwe and until now I was able to stay under the radar screen of the police. But just as we were ready to pedal off an undercover police officer pulled me aside and asked me what I was doing. I gave him some Peace Pedalers stickers and my very best puppy dog eyes telling him I was filming for fun and not for professional purposes. He did not buy it at all, especially since I had a wireless mic on my jersey and a few tripods setup outside. The Peace Pedalers angels blessed us as he let me go with a serious warning telling me I would have all my equipment confiscated and likely do jail time if caught by anyone else. My heart rate was pumping as I quickly put away the gear and pedaled off grateful for my freedom in Zimbabwe.

I managed to sneak in a few clips of Chungu and I on the bike but I knew I was pressing my luck. He shared his sad story with me on the bike and, like Bernard’s, it was hard to stomach. He had taken up illegal mining and sent his wife and 3 kids to live with his parents in the rural areas after he was evicted from his house. He used to be a telephone sales guy making plenty of money but now risked his life and going to jail hoping to find some big gold nuggets. Crazy. About half way to KweKwe I realized I had camera problems of a bum microphone and a newly scratched lens so I decided to take all this as a sign that my filming days were over in this region.

I decided to treat Chungu to a special experience and invited him to stay the night at a cheap local hotel. He got me the local rates so it was a win-win and I used the cash savings on my room to take him out on the town in KweKwe for a festive Friday night dance session. I dressed him up in some stylin’ Sierra Designs pants and shirt after a hot bath with essential oils and he was ready to roll. We ate a nice meal and then I proceeded to kick his butt and the butts of everyone in the bar in several games of pool listening to blaring reggae music at a local pub. My game is getting good! We built a lovely friendship that day and we both hope to reunite my next visit to Zimbabwe, hopefully under more fruitful circumstances.

Next morning I decided to hop a bus to the city of Buluwayo to get my bearings again and make a plan to get the replacement parts for my camera equipment sent out quickly so I could get filming again. It was also Saturday night and Buluwayo is quite well known for its live music scene so I wanted to capture some of the action for my program. I arrived just before dark and found a reasonable room at the Grey’s Inn where a jazz band called Jazz Impacto was scheduled to play that night. I recorded their gig and gave them a free live CD, which they were SO SO grateful for as they planned to use it to feed their bellies as starving musicians.

I spent the next few days recording live music, sending home a list of spare parts to Mamacita to have sent out FedEx, and trying to fix a few issues on my bike. I met some lovely people in Buluwayo who treated me like family. I told my story of the near police bust and my need to wait for parts to my Zimbabwean buddy Tony up in Victoria Falls who quickly invited me to stay at the backpackers he manages for free as long as I needed. He also said the police were really harsh in the Buluwayo area since Mugabe killed thousands of people in a huge Genocide recently and they would not be as tolerable as near KweKwe. He strongly suggested getting out of there if I wanted to keep my equipment in my possession.

I decided to leave town via bus but not without some drama first. As I went out to take care of some business in the day somebody broke into my room and stole all my cash. Luckily they left the $30,000 in camera and computing equipment there. It was the second time somebody stole from me in Zimbabwe and boy did it feel terrible.

I hoped a bus the next day and rolled into the rowdy backpackers Shoestrings in Victoria Falls just as the nightly party was getting rolling. This backpackers is a regular stop for the overland truck companies and was rocking just about every night. Although I wanted to explore Zimbabwe more, I was quite relieved to be with other backpackers and not worrying about the police, robberies and hearing depressing stories from locals.

I settled right in and Tony and the management took great care of me. But on the second night in town somebody tried to steal my bike from the backpackers but fortunately left the scene before getting caught when the alarm lock went off. This meant I had to have another lock sent out and I would be stuck for even longer in Zimbabwe waiting for another shipment from Mamacita.

With my wide angle lens and wireless microphone out of commission I would be unable to capture the magic of Peace Pedalers on the road so decided to focus on capturing music. I spent the next week or so recording some truly amazing percussionists Pardon, Spencer and Clayton who became my brothers in no time. We were inseparable. From there they introduced me to about a dozen other artists and we recorded about 25 live tracks alongside the Zambezi River and in the gorge as well. It was special to be up close and experience private concerts of Mbira (traditional thumb piano instrument), drums and vocals from such soulful guys.

The Zimbabwe Customs Office held up delivery of my goods for a while so I ended up heading to South Africa to connect with my executive producer Les Stroud who was filming a few episodes of Survivorman II down there to chat about my filming efforts. I also grabbed a fresh supply of malaria medication and my plans were to dispurse them in the rural villages with huge malaria rates near Lake Kariba. But when I arrived in Zimbabwe the government confiscated the medication saying I needed some special papers to bring them in.

I had several meetings with the health officials and they would not let me disperse them and said I could only pick them up at the border when leaving the country to Zambia! My mission in Zimbabwe was being forced to an end and it was a shame to think that right during peak malaria season the government would not even let me help their people.

I took a two day tour of the villages with my good buddy and poi teacher Clayton to grab a bit more footage and experiences of Zimbabwean rural living then finally was on the road to Zambia! I bid farewell to my Zimbabwe crew and pedaled off to the border with my good friend Lance, a local Zimbabwean artist, grabbed my temporarily confiscated Malaria medication from the border patrol and off we went. The mist from the mighty Zambezi River pouring over Victoria Falls drenched us as we crossed the border bridge to Zambia and I had mixed emotions of relief, sadness and excitement as we rode to the Zambian town of Livingston.

Honestly, there was resistance to write this newsletter as it meant feeling and reliving the experiences again. I met some of the best friends I’ve met on the continent in Zimbabwe, and also had some experiences that challenged me more than ever before. I WILL be back to Zim one day, but I’ll likely wait until Mugabe gets out of there first. It was an experience I’ll never forget and one I’m grateful I was able to have. Even with all the challenges, I still recommend a visit there if you get the chance. I have plenty of good people to connect you with!

Over and out from Kenya where I’m picking up my mom from the airport shortly and we’ll be heading to Western Kenya and Uganda together! Sorry for the delay in the newsletters. It’s tough to motivate to relive some experiences—and Zambia is right behind it with plenty of tough challenges…stay tuned!

Live Big. Give Big.
Jamie :)

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