My first view of Africa. This might seem strange. For most people it is probably coming off the ferry at Tangiers or Alexandria. For others it was the end of a cruise in Cape Town or Mombasa. When flying it would be the Libyan or Algerian coast. For me, it was the copper mines of Zambia. The reason for this is quite obvious. I took an overnight flight from London (in the days when BA African flights went from Heathrow) direct to Harare. Not sleeping too well, I was roughly aware of being over Africa, but couldn’t see anything. I woke in the morning and lifted the blind to see a brown bushland. There was very little detail; it was quite hazy, but I could see the ridges and hills, valleys where rivers should be, and then a road, obviously tarmacced. I followed it for a mile or two, and suddenly I saw a massive factory with smoke billowing out of it. It was such a shock in amongst the bush, but a few miles further on was a large town, and then another huge factory and smoke stack. I blearily tried to work out where we were, and looked at the BA chart in the back of the in-flight magazine. From this, I realised it could only be the towns of Kitwe and co in northern Zambia, the copper mining region I had learnt about for “O” Level Geography.
Later, I looked out and could see the great scar of the Zambezi escarpment in front, and then we descended and the bush became tamer. Then there was a large city before me, and a series of swimming pools and trees that could only be Surrey. I had flown for nearly ten hours and landed in an environment which looked almost exactly like the one I had left. Harare’s richer suburbs could easily be transported to Esher if you replace the eucalyptus and jacaranda with oak and beech.
I was so full of having crossed the equator for the first time.
I rushed into my hotel room and turned the taps on just to observe the way the water runs down the taps. However, since I couldn’t remember whether water in the northern hemisphere drains anticlockwise or not, I wasn’t sure I was looking at something different. Next, I was enraptured by the way that the sun moves round the sky to the north in Harare in June, the shadows cast on the wrong side. That would catch some estate agents if they tried to sell a house in Avondale.
So much was the same, so much was unfamiliar. I had to get used to Robots all over town ( I used to call them traffic lights), but then everyone drove on the left and spoke English. The air was crisp and high. I had several nosebleeds. I’d never been so far inland before in my life. Being brought up on a long thin island, you are never far from sea level or coastline. Here I was nearly 5000 ft in the air and at least 500 miles from the Indian Ocean.
We moved on from Harare after about three days. Down the high veldt ridge of the centre of the country. I soaked in every detail, it was all so novel and yet comforting. We drove through the great dyke at Norton, across the great breadbasket of Zimbabwe and on through each small town; Chegutu, Kadoma, Kwekwe, Gweru, and finally down into Bulawayo.
The distances were amazing, but the roads were wonderful smooth tarmac, nicely cambered and graded. On the following day, the first birthday I had ever spent abroad, we set off north west for Binga. We travelled along the Vic Falls Road. And saw twenty cars in 300 miles. The road signs said Victoria Falls as we left Bulawayo and still said Victoria Falls as we turned off at Dete Crossing. We had passed no towns, but still this beautifully graded road continued down the long gentle slope towards the Zambezi. The road mesmerized you as you travelled. On each side a neatly cut verge often lined with acacias separated civilisation from the bush. Every hundred metres a carefully placed road marker counted up the number of kilometres and tenths of a kilometre from Bulawayo. I saw this number steadily climb. Every ten kilometres or so, a very neat picnic area was laid out, two concrete stools around a round concrete table.
We saw little wildlife. Occasionally a couple of Colabus Monkeys would scurry across in front of us. Once it was a tribe of Baboons. We saw no antelope, and it was the wrong kind of area for anything else. Willy drove on without batting an eyelid, he had seen too much in his lifetime to be disturbed by a few monkeys.