I woke up at 3:00 am and could not get back to sleep. It always takes two or three days for me to adjust to the time change. I organized and repacked my bags because we were leaving by 5:30 am to reach the Botswana border just as it opened. I was actually quite excited for this road trip to Zimbabwe. I love to see new places and experience new things, so I considered the drive to just be part of the adventure.
We grabbed some yogurt, loaded our things and I was on my way back to Zimbabwe. We arrived at the Botswana border and I always get excited to receive a new stamp from a country I’ve never been to in my passport. Before we could proceed any further into the country, they had to spray the tires of the vehicle with a chemical that kills foot and mouth disease. We also had to get out of the car and wipe the bottom of all our shoes with it. Other than that, we passed through without any incident.
By noon we had reached a a community called Francistown. We stopped at the local South African fast food franchise called Wimpy. Most the time I don’t give much thought to the difference in the way Americans eat compared to others around the world. But this day it was painfully clear that I was not eating according to the acceptable African etiquette. I ordered a sweet chili chicken wrap, Claire ordered a grilled sandwich, and John ordered a cheeseburger and fries. Naturally without a thought, I picked up my wrap with my fingers and began enjoying it. I was completely oblivious to others in the restaurant watching me out of the corner of their eye, as they properly cut every french fry with a knife, and lifted each perfectly cut bite to their mouth, with a fork. I looked down at my dripping, messy wrap, and thought, are they really expecting me to eat this with a fork? I nonchalantly set the wrap down, and wiped my chili sauce covered fingers with a napkin, (they call it a serviette). I could see John and Claire inching their way away from me, pretending not to be with the inappropriate American, while John daintily cut his CHEESEBURGER with a knife and fork. Who eats a cheeseburger with a fork? Cheeseburgers are hand food! And, the messier the better! I’m sticking to the American way.
After eating, we stopped at the local market to buy some meat for the next ten days. The market was very limited so we had to improvise. They didn’t even know what bacon was. We loaded the cooler up to the brim with the meat, no room for ice. Hopefully the meat would be ok for the next several hours until we got to camp. We continued on our road trip eventually coming to the Zimbabwe border. The way it works is you have to get out at the country you are in which was Botswana at the time, then fill out all your paperwork, get your passport stamped, get in the car and drive across the border, go into the customs office of the country you are entering, fill out paperwork, get your passport stamped, then you are good to go. It’s quite lengthy process.
After driving several more hours, we arrived in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. We stopped for a quick walk and then kept going. By this time I had been on a plane for a total of 22 hours, then going directly to a car for another 14 hours. I was ready to stop traveling. We still had another three hours before we reached camp.
I was so happy to finally see the familiar elephant skulls and train cars as we drove in to the camp. It was past eight o’clock in the evening, and I just wanted to sleep. I was exhausted and ready to lie down. As soon as we got out of the car, we could see things were not right. There was a man there that was not supposed to be. We were all caught quite off guard. Then we were told there was no water, no refrigerator, and no cook. Wow. I retreated to my familiar room and sat down to collect my thoughts. John poked his head in the door and said not to unpack, we might leave. I immediately said no, let’s make do, we can make this work.
After John left, I became very concerned. I had a very uneasy feeling that I couldn’t quite explain, but I was not feeling right about the situation. I began pacing the five foot room, and the more I paced, the more agitated I became. I knew for some reason we had to leave. I didn’t want to. I figured my hunt would be over, I would be on my way to the airport, and all this time and money spent for nothing, again. It didn’t matter. Something wasn’t right, and I knew it. John and Claire agreed. By the time we arrived at a consensus the rest of the camp was long in bed. We discussed our options. We had spent a lot of money on food that was hauled up in another truck.
Our vehicle was packed to the brim. We had a lot of meat that had not been properly cooled and was going to go to waste if we didn’t get ice on it. We moved all my large bags to the roof of the car, tied them down, then crate by crate loaded all the food into the car. We debated on whether or not to bring all the cases of soda, but we found room. John quickly informed one of the camp staff that we were upset and leaving and that he would call the concession operator in the morning. Then we were gone like thieves in the night. Only we weren’t thieves, just runaways. There was not one ounce of space left in that car. We all had things on our lap, under our feet, and an occasional flying can hit us in the back of the head when we drove over a bump.
The government in Zimbabwe isn’t exactly stable, and the laws can be ignored or changed in order to accommodate any particular situation. I’m not going to lie, I was a bit nervous about leaving. The concession operator was counting on the money, and had strong ties to the leading officials in the government. John ensured me everything would be fine, and we were well within our rights to leave because the camp wasn’t up to standard, and some promises had not been honored by the concession operator. I figured I was the only one with knots in my stomach until John turned the opposite direction as we left the dirt road and hit the pavement. Then he flipped a u-turn and headed the right way. He said that was just to throw them off in case anyone was following. What? As we picked up speed on the blacktop road, the bags on top began to fall off. By this time it was around midnight, and we had past the point of exhaustion and were nearing delirium. We burst out laughing each time a bag would fall and block Johns view from driving. At one point, one of the bags fell to the side and hit my window with a bang. After realizing that we were not under attack, we laughed again. We had seriously been traveling too long, and were sleep deprived.
We continued to laugh as we realized that our gas was running quite low. We had passed a couple of gas stations but they were obviously closed because it was the middle of the night. We were praying we would make it to Bulawayo before we ran out of gas. We all breathed a huge sigh of relief as we pulled into town and the GPS said there was a gas station within two kilometers from us. Finally something had gone in our favor. Just kidding. As we stopped at a stop sign and John began to ease on the gas, the car shut off. No way. We all looked around at the dark streets and questionable surroundings. John tried to start it again. Nothing.
We were sitting in the middle of the dark road in a not so great part of town, it was three o’ clock in the morning, freezing cold, no sleep, we were runaway’s, and out of gas. There was silence. We all looked straight forward, not wanting to say anything but maybe a bad word. John finally said, let’s push it off to the side of the road, and he will go find a gas station. All three of us got out and pushed this four door Mahindra Scorpio with four very large bags tied on top. It looked like a scene right out of National Lampoons Vacation. We pushed it to the only street light around and locked the doors while John left to wander the abandoned streets of Bulawayo in search of an open gas station. Claire and I discussed that we didn’t have a gun with us, only a couple of bows, that were tied on top of the car in a bag. We certainly wouldn’t have time to protect ourselves if we had to. Claire told me of a very scary experience when she had been carjacked. That seemed unusual to me, but it is quite a common occurrence in South Africa. We noticed a man watching us from some red curtains on the third floor of the building next to us. I can honestly say, I was not very comfortable at that moment.
Soon I could see a large figure way down the road coming toward us. I was very relieved to see it was John. But there was no way he had time to find a gas station by then. When he got to the car, his face was all red from the cold, there were tears coming from his eyes because of how sensitive his eyes are to the cold, and he was out of breath from jogging. He said, Rebecca, please hand me your tissues. With the exception of hunting, John is never serious, but I knew by the tone of his voice, and the way he was standing, at that point, he meant business. He grabbed the tissues and disappeared in to the dark. Claire and I just looked at each other in confusion and shrugged. When he returned about 15 minutes later he seemed a bit more relieved and said he had a plan.
I personally didn’t think the plan was that great, but there were no other options. John was behind the car pushing, Claire was on the driver’s side pushing and holding the steering wheel, and I was on the passenger side pushing. About two blocks later, Claire started coughing and couldn’t catch her breath. It seemed the cold had burned her lungs from the exertion. John and I continued to push. I was surprised at how far we got. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. A man appeared from the darkness and asked if we needed help. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but he seemed very friendly. He helped us push the car a little further, then said he would show John where the gas station was. As Claire and I found ourselves alone again, we spotted another man in a dark hoodie watching us from around the corner. Behind us there was another guy in a brown coat leaning on a fence watching us. Why were so many people up at three o’clock in the morning? Just then a small car pulled up to the side of us and John jumped out laughing and carrying on with the driver. He asked us to grab a couple of Orange Fantas to give to the guy to pay him off for driving him. Thank heavens we decided to pack the soda. All of us were so ecstatic when John started pouring the gas in the car.
Note to self: Never try to pay off someone in Zimbabwe without Orange Fanta!
When John got in the car and tried to start it, we just naturally figured it would go. Nope. It still wouldn’t start. When Claire got in she disgustingly asked, WHAT IS THAT SMELL? There was unquestionably a really offish smell. We just figured it was something someone stepped in.
We figured John just hadn’t put quite enough gas in the car to get it started, so John left us and ran back to the gas station AGAIN. Moments later another small car pulled up and like deja vu, John jumps out laughing with his new best friend, gives him a couple of Orange Fantas and sends him on his way. He poured the gas in, tried to start it, nothing. It was no use. Claire finally remembered she had a cousin that lived in Bulawayo. She called him and it was such a relief when he said he was on his way to come and get us. It was past five o’ clock in the morning.
Be sure to catch my African adventure on Eye of the Hunter, Thursdays at 2:00 pm EST, on the Versus channel.
Next: Day 3