Following our glorious four week Home Leave full of fun, American comfort food, and functioning traffic patterns, coming back to Malawi was a bit of a shock. On top of missing our friends and family, lamenting the loss of string cheese purchases at the Super Target, and just an overall in-our-faces realization of the drastic differences between life in the U.S. versus that in Malawi, the summer transfer season was upon us. Its always an “interesting” time at Embassies across the world as seasoned officers transfer out, new ones transfer in, gaps form and those left cover two or more other positions, and Washington realizes that it is getting close to the end of the fiscal year (ends Sept 30) and thus decide they want to use the money to travel to you — just when staffing is at its most precarious. In Malawi, the political situation too had been less than stable since the election, and an umbrella group for governance civil society organizations and activists had been holding demonstrations on average once a week. Some were canceled by the group itself, other times they were forced to postpone due to government court action, but every time we had to prepare nonetheless. And even when not transferring, others are on vacation, and C missed her Malawi friends and struggled in the weeks leading up to school. At last C started upper primary school and there was the usual flurry of preparations for a new school year. Whew. Within a week or two of our return, I already found myself fantasizing about the next vacation.
About a year ago my good friend JK1 had moved to Zimbabwe to take up a position at the U.S. Embassy. C and I had previously visited her and her family in Chiang Mai, and we were excited to have them relatively close to us again. Soon after they arrived in southern Africa, I began to plot our visit. I also wanted another chance to see Harare given my only other trip unexpectedly coincided with the overthrow of the long-time president Robert Mugabe, and thus I had been largely confined to the hotel. Given our different work schedules, JBK and her husband JK2 were unable to take any days off, so we would have to make do with a three day weekend with them and Little JK.
Fall break arrived and our trip to Zim at last! What a breath of fresh air to fly only one hour, direct, and just be at our destination. JK2 picked us up at the airport and within 30 minutes we were at the beautiful JK homestead. About an hour later we were at a Harry Potter-themed birthday party. It was likely the birthday party of the year and Little JK was not about to miss it. It was a wee bit awkward for C and myself as we did not know anyone other than who we came with (and I happened to know the hostess as well, but she was very busy hosting) but hey we are diplomats, so we made do. That night the JKs took us out to dinner at the fabulous Queen of Hearts, which is on the order of an upscale food court, with Italian, American, and Japanese food on hand.
By now I was already busy comparing Zim with Malawi. The two countries are geographically close, have similar climates, flora and fauna, a shared history (both British protectorates and part of the short-lived Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland), and similar culture. Both countries struggle with governance and their economies. But there is something very, very tricky about playing the comparison game, especially as a short-term tourist. Though I noticed both countries had the purple-blossomed jacaranda trees in bloom and both were struggling with power cuts of some kind, the nagging deja vu feeling was less a mirror of Malawi as it is now, but as it might have been or could still be; a same-same, but different. Malawi does not have the long lines at the petrol stations (except during the recent two-day trucker strike that blocked the delivery of oil and gas) and the power cuts seem more a function of mismanagement than a deliberate policy, and yet the existing structures of Zimbabwe – the airport, the roads, the Embassy housing, even the range of restaurants – all seemed more modern than in Malawi. Zim seemed both better, and worse.
Early on our second day, we loaded up the JK’s larger vehicle, with suitcases, snacks and several jerry cans of extra fuel, and we made the 4 1/2 hour drive south to Masvingo, and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Great Zimbabwe. I could not help but find the long drive similar to ones we have encountered in Malawi – distances between villages with little else in-between but scrub brush, static police roadblocks, and seemingly random road works. We were all grateful to pile out of the car at the far end, in a gravel lot in front of the canopied tourist entrance to start a tour of the ruined edifices of a former ancient Shona kingdom.
Great Zimbabwe is actually the largest of approximately 200 similar sites across a part of southern Africa, especially in Zimbabwe and Mozambique (Zimbabwe means “stone houses” in the Shona language). The earliest known mention of the once-great gold trading city was in 1531, by a Portuguese garrison captain based in what is modern-day Mozambique. At a certain time in history, colonialists and white settlers ascribed to the view that the ruins were of Semitic or Arab origin, i.e. could not have been built by Africans. It is perhaps of little wonder that nationalists selected the name Zimbabwe for their independent nation.
With our knowledgeable guide we enjoyed our several hour-tour of the ruins through the Great Enclosure, with its five-meter high walls of interlocking stones, fashioned without mortar, the mysterious conical tower, and naturally air-conditioned passageway designed for the king to secretly visit his highest of queens, and then into the Valley Complex, where the lesser of the elites, king’s concubines, and such would have lived. These structures were in a far more ruined state, piles of grey stones in places, in others palm trees growing through the middle of walls, with baboons, monkeys, and the occasional cattle frolicking among them. Then we headed to the museum. And finally, we herded our bedraggled, and yet oddly energized selves (there was something really special about Great Zimbabwe and our tour), back to the car and continued on to our lodging for the evening.
Although we all found the food options to be somewhat lacking, the ambiance of the Lodge was fantastic. They had designed the main building in the style of Grand Zimbabwe, perhaps at its grandest or at least an imagined magnificence. The simplicity of the outside of our rondavel, a traditional round African-style dwelling, belied the roomy and attractive inside. C and Little JK parked themselves in our room for a bit to play, but with our long drive and then the two-hour walking tour at the site had us all yawning early on.
JK1 and I woke up at the crack of dawn – literally – and made our way back to the Great Zimbabwe site for its 6 AM opening sans JK2 and the kids, with plans to employ another guide to lead us up the Hill Complex. The sky was already light, blue and clear; the sun bright but the air crisp. It was a good time to do a little bit of climbing. Unfortunately, although the stated hours indicated a 6 AM opening and the gate was open, there were no guides yet on site. And thus we waited. Monkeys snuck past the ticket building and scampered across the field toward the Hill Complex as small groups of children began to stream out on their way to school. And grey clouds began to roll in over the Great Zimbabwe complex, the wind began to pick up, and JK1 and I began to regret not having a light jacket. Although October is the warmest month for both Zimbabwe and Malawi, we were not feeling the heat.
Close to 7 AM the guide arrived and we set off. It turned out one does not really need a guide to climb up to the Hill Complex, as the trail is well marked; however, once at the top, we would have had no idea of what we were looking at without our guide Loveness. According to our guide, the Hill Complex was the abode of the king from which he could look over the Great Enclosure, where his number one queen resided, all of his approximate 18,000 subjects, and the entirety of the Mutirikwi valley.
As we wound our way up increasingly narrow steps framed with stone walls, which then suddenly terminated at the citadel, I was reminded of the rock fortress at Sirignya in Sri Lanka. Standing below the hill nothing can prepare you for the size and intricacy of the fortress atop. In Zimbabwe, there are large igneous boulders strewn across the landscape, some balancing precariously on top of others. At Great Zimbabwe, such boulders are stacked atop the Hill Complex and were cleverly integrated into the compound. Although I had hoped for blue skies at the summit, the swift-moving grey clouds evoked a sense of history and atmosphere that clearer skies would not have. And at a very few intervals, the clouds granted us cobalt blue.
Our tour at the top took approximately an hour; our guide knowledgeable and thorough. We literally left no stone unturned, historically speaking that is. JK1 and I even had the guts to climb to the top of a balancing rock above a natural auditorium, where supposedly the ruler would sit looking down upon his court, rather a la Lion King and Pride Rock. Getting to what I guess could be termed the Seat of Power was deceptively easy, but once on top, neither JK1 or I wanted to get too close to the edge. The spot afforded incredible views across the valley but the stronger winds and, frankly, the edge and space beyond left my knees a wee bit shaky. (I am not afraid of heights, only afraid of falling from them!) We returned to the parking area via the easier pathway and then headed back to rouse the troops, pack up, and begin our long drive back to Harare.
Once back in Harare, JK1 needed to do some work, so their wonderful nanny took C and Little JK for a playdate next door, while JK2 took me for a short spin around the neighborhood. That night we headed out to a Thai restaurant for dinner. Let me repeat that, a Thai restaurant. And it was authentic and delicious. It was so good I almost wanted to cry; we definitely do not have any Thai food in Malawi.
On Tuesday morning we said farewell to the JKs. I had arranged for a driver to pick us up in Harare and take us the 90 minutes southeast to the Imire Rhino and Wildlife Conservation Lodge. C and I have been on a few safaris but C had not yet had the chance to see rhino; I wanted to change that.
We arrived before the 9:30 AM game drive, just in time to partake in a mid-morning tea before departure. We were divided into two jeeps for the day-trippers and the overnighters and headed out into the conservation area.
The upside of a place like this over going to a National Park is the guarantee to see certain animals. At Imire we would see four of the Big Five–elephants, buffalo, rhino, and one lonely, old male lion. The animals were somewhat conditioned to associate the safari vehicle with snack time, giving us up and close personal time with all but the lion (he killed his partner about a decade before and he resides by himself in a large enclosure).
We drove for about 2 1/2 hours and then had a lunch set up in the bush near a reservoir, with benches and tables carved out of rock facing the water. Then another 45 minutes after lunch before heading back to the lodge for afternoon tea and relaxing in the beautiful surroundings. A cheeky monkey grabbed cookies from the spread and headed up as high as he could go into the tallest nearby tree. While normally we might have both got on our devices, the lodge had no power during the day, with the management only switching on the generator at 5 PM. So we had to find non-electricity related activities. There was a pool but the winds were cool and picking up, so we just enjoyed some relaxing time. I sat outside the rondavel, reading and writing in my journal. C made friends with one of the resident dogs (she really would like me to get her a dog) and ran around the lawn and climbed trees. Then in the late afternoon, we went out again for a sunset game drive and sundowner.
We were served a delicious four-course meal in the dining tent that evening. The wind had picked up more, whipping through the tent flaps. I had a hard time believing it was October and wished we had packed sweatshirts or light jackets. With our drive out to the lodge that morning and two bumpy safari drives (in Malawi we call these bouncing around on bad roads the “Malawi massage”), so we had no problem turning in early.
The next day, after a lovely breakfast, a driver transported us from Imire to the airport for our return flight to Malawi. And the second part of our Fall Break.