Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe, Tete

“I have no right to this!” I reprimanded myself disbelievingly, cruising along to Mutare in the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe. I was still savouring the last of the tasty smoked chicken and avocado roll purchased before leaving Harare – a city seriously under siege, suffering shortages of everything, even such basic commodities as bread, meat and cooking oil.

After a stimulating week in Harare, it had been time to leave the comfortable haven of ‘It’s A Small World’, my hostel in the leafy suburb of Avondale. Heading north for Malawi next, the most direct route would be through what is known as the ‘Tete Corridor’ – a stretch of a few hundred kms transiting north western Mozambique. As with the “Beira Corridor’’ connecting Zimbabwe to the Indian Ocean port, in former times this was a notoriously dangerous region with travel by convoy, guarded first by Rhodesian troops against Frelimo guerrilla attacks in the Mozambique war of independence, and subsequently by Zimbabwean troops against Renamo terrorist attacks in the civil war.

However, instead of north, on a hunch I decided to ride directly east from Harare to the country’s fourth largest town Mutare, and drop down into Mozambique from there before continuing north to Lake Malawi. I had a memory from my days with an overland company, of ex Africa drivers eulogising about the beauty of Zimbabwe, a country to which one friend was planning on settling in, opening a campsite or tourism enterprise once he ‘hung up the steering wheel’. Of course this was pre 2000. Vaguely recalling mention of the Eastern Highlands I took off in that direction, three hours ride taking me over a scenic pass and down into the border town of Mutare.

Border towns
Border towns tend to owe their existence to their trade position and usually attract an unsavoury mix of traders, smugglers, refugees, and assorted chancers. Due I suppose to the temporary status of many inhabitants making their living from trans frontier trade, and the transience of most of the people en route, border towns in my experience tend to be unpleasant holes. Not nice places in which to spend any time. Mutare, set in a valley surrounded by the Chimanimani Mountains, however seems to be an exception. Nicely laid out with plenty of gardens, tree lined streets and a busy centre, I passed through the town following the signposts for the Mvumba area, which I’d been told was about 30 kms further, and “in the mountains, very cold”. This idea wasn’t particularly exciting as the previous five days in the country the weather had been miserable. I was aware this was the middle of winter, but wasn’t expecting it to be this uncomfortably cool!

The three hour ride from Harare was interesting, and yes Mutare was in a pretty setting but I was beginning to think I’d made a mistake taking this detour instead of heading directly for the warm shores of Lake Malawi. Ascending the winding road up into the mountains I considered turning back. What was I expecting to find? I didn’t even know if there was any accommodation available, let alone backpackers, and I didn’t fancy the idea of camping in this temperature with my lightweight sleeping bag.

As the road climbed and the views got more impressive, I began to loosen and enjoy it a bit more. There was still enough daylight left to make it back to Mutare if things didn’t work out. And then after twenty minutes of climbing, a ridge led across to a spectacular view down across the forested slopes to the plains of Mozambique stretching out way below, the sunlight glinting off distant lakes, framed by blue hazy mountains towards the Indian Ocean. Continuing along the ridge through stands of huge eucalyptus and pine, glimpses through the trees offered continously changing views all around. NOW I understood why I had been advised to make for Mvumba! It is breathtakingly beautiful.

500Vumba house1

Asking a strolling (white) couple for advice on accommodation I was directed to Ndundu Lodge, a delightful thatched post and beam timber cottage set off the road in the forest. There was no problem with availability even though it was a weekend, in fact I was apparently the first visitor in weeks (“What? You’re a tourist?” was actually one response to me, the assumption being I was from an NGO visiting from Harare). Ndundu Lodge is a real gem - tastefully decorated, atmospheric and comfortable. And it was affordable. I had definitely struck it lucky. After unloading my bag, I took off for a walk in the fading light, marvelling as every turn in the road provided another magnificent take across the surrounding mountains and down into yellow, evening lit panoramas of Mozambique below.

Vumba eve

It was a refreshing and stimulating few days. The first morning I awoke with excitement and an urge to go for a run – something I never do! Later I stopped into Tony’s Coffee Shoppe (right), a stone built thatched roof cottage straight out of a fantasy English country garden. The menu offered a selection of 100 tea’s, as well as coffees and various forms of hot chocolate with liqueur additions. My Irish Breakfast Tea was served in a bone china cup, with silver pot, milk and hot water “to top up” in front of a log fire. I think I was the first (and last) customer that day.

Affordable Four Star
On the Saturday afternoon in the four star Leopard Rock hotel, set in a beautiful location overlooking Mozambique, I joined the handful of whites left in the area in watching the Springboks play the Wallabies. Not only did the hotel have satellite television, it also had its own generator – useful when regular electricity cuts meant no power for most of the day. Belonging to the same family that owns the Avontuur wine label in South Africa, the hotel is famous for its golf course (one of the most scenic in the world I was told by someone who knows these things). The golf course, the grounds and gardens, and the large hotel itself are still immaculately maintained, with many uniformed staff evident. But for who? There are no longer any tourists. That night I elected to eat there – €5 for a five course meal that included “braised impala”. Apart from just a few other diners, there was a group of about thirty including children seated at a long table. A waiter proudly told me after the meal, that Gordon Gono, the Treasury Secretary, was staying and that was his party. I had noticed his picture that day on the front page of the newspaper, in association with an article distancing himself from the current price controls.

The Wildlife Conservationist
The following evening dining with a neighboring family, I mentioned Gordon Gono's presence at Leopard Rock. “Ahh,” it was exclaimed. “That’s why we didn’t get an electricity cut today.” I had been invited over by Jenny Saunders, a warm and hospitable lady retired in the Mvumba with her husband Dr Colin Saunders, the former head of Zimbabwe National Parks. An interesting man, Colin a medical doctor with a strong interest in wildlife conservation, is chairman of Mililangwe Trust, responsible for a game reserve in the remote south east of the country, next to Gonarezhou National Park (spectacular pictures of which I was shown, a herd of elephant in a river against a dramatic backdrop of evening lit sandstone cliffs). When I met him, he was in the process of editing an autobiography by a friend who had farmed in that part of the country during the middle of the last century. “They didn’t have roads to the farm, had to home school the kids, grow their own food – of course there was no lack of game. These people had to know how to do everything – repair the landrover, fix a gun, build, plumb. Nobody to help them. Extraordinary stuff.”

small view1
The game in the reserve is only surviving through international donations, there are no tourists to spend money going on safaris or staying in the lodges. Yet the reserve and wildlife there still had to be managed and protected – against encroachment by surrounding communities, poaching and disease. There had been a recent outbreak of anthrax which stays in the soil where an infected animal has died, or poisons a predator that eats an infected animal, and an outbreak of rabies killied most of the endangered wild dog population. Colin has also devised a nutritionally balanced daily meal for local children which the Trust provides.

Of the seven or eight at the table, I believe I was the only one without a dangerous ‘wildlife experience’. There were three stories of being charged by elephant which sounded hair raising! A relaxed, friendly family, the two adult daughters now lived in South Africa, coming up to visit the parents whenever possible. It was clear they very much missed their country. Recently Colin and Jenny had been in Kenya for an 80th birthday party, and mentioned how South Africans, usually safari operators or businessmen, tend to be disliked up there - something about a lack of respect shown to local people. "When you were in Morrocco, did you pass through Casablanca?" Colin asked me. The celebration had been for an American friend of theirs who had recently bought Ricks Bar in Casablance - of course I recognised the name from the film 'Casablanca' - and having done it up and reopened its doors, was now by all accounts quite popular.

Son in law, Harry, a quiet and unassuming businessman from Cape Town, was describing his latest venture – fruit bars extruded from raw pulp with no added sugar. The product is widely distributed in South Africa, but seemed to appeal more to the health food market. The ‘snack’ market, mainly school kids, preferred the more sugary alternatives. As Harry said, he sells his bar for the same price as the competition, who have sometimes half the costs as they use sugar instead of fructose to sweeten it. He wryly recounted how a product they have ready to go, based on a natural appetite suppressant found in a Kalahari desert plant, was all ready to break into the States, where there is obviously a massive market for dietary products. It was explained to me who the celebrity Nicole Smith was, and that she was contracted to promote the product over there. However, very unfortunately she died in February! So the launch was scuppered.

present were the Dutch couple that owned Ndundu Lodge (left) where I was staying. A dynamic pair, they had invested in it ten years ago, around the time I had been hearing stories of “the beautiful Eastern Highlands” from my overland colleagues. That, as Bart said, was exactly why they had moved here. Formerly a wildlife guide and familiar with much of southern Africa, it was the Mvumba – meaning ‘mist’ in the local Manika language - region which attracted him. Little were they to know a few years after that the tourism market would begin to collapse. After leaner and leaner years, they were delighted to get work on Gorongosa game park in neighboring Mozambique, just a few hours drive away. “I’m getting paid to do what I would do for nothing.”

Conversation came around at one stage to a wildlife documentary maker commissioned by National Geographic to study the behavior of hyenas in Mililangwe, the game reserve Colin is involved with. The son of a Kruger Park warden, he was brought up with wildlife. I heard how such was his dedication, he would set up camp for months on end near his subject, gaining their trust just hanging out and observing, with the result he managed to get his camera right in among them. A second cameraman, from a distance, filmed the first one in the midst of the hyenas. Mention was also made of the famous ‘Survival’ documentary maker Alan Root and of the work of a protegee of his (the name of whom couldn’t be recalled) which really caught my imagination. As I understood it, this man’s approach to wildlife documentaries is to avoid focussing on the obvious – a pride of lions, a cheetah hunting – and by investigating what happens
around these attention grabbers, portray a fuller story of the bush. He based one documentary on elephant dung, how it's created and what happens to it once its deposited. His next documentary is to be filmed in Gorongosa National Park, following the water off the mountain as it passes through the park, I presume in this way observing wildlife using the river.

Vumba eve b1

ATM's instead of Currency Exchange
It was time to move on from the memorable Mvumba region. After descending to the Zimbabwean border, I exited this troubled and beautiful country easily enough over to the Mozimbique side, through what must be the loveliest sounding border post on the continent – ‘Mashipanda’. Stopping in the delightful town of Manica, once the heart of a goldmining area, for a ‘prago na prato’, a small steak and chips (€1.80), I took the opportuntiy to withdraw some local currency ‘metacais’ from an ATM. In my travels over the years I have learned not to bother any longer with travellers cheques – a nuisance to cash, and always at a poor rate. Withdrawing from an ATM (unless in Zimbabwe!) gives the best rate of exchange, and of course is convenient. The only concerns are that my credit card account is kept in credit, and any withdrawal needs to be greater than €200 to avoid excessive charges. In this way I manage to keep the amount of cash to be carried on me down to a minimum (I’m fortunate to have cousin Lisa, who works in the bank, keep an eye on things). However in the event of there being no access to an ATM, or if I’m not going to spend much money in a country, its necessary also to carry some ‘hard currency’, US dollars the most preferred.

Western Mozambique
Leaving behind me the Mvumba mountains, looking back I could see high above where I had looked down to the plains of Mozambique – across which I was now riding. Taking the road north before reaching the town of Chimoio, it was three hundred kms through this little travelled wilderness. Each side of me the bush came up to the roadside. Off up to my left were the highlands of Zimbabwe. Recently a pride of lions had raided a horse trekking stables up there in Nyanga and mutilated six horses, before retreating over here to the Mozambique side of the range. When I asked why would lion wantonly kill animals they weren’t going to eat, it was explained that, similar to a fox in a hen run, its in the predator’s nature to attack the prey, and when they don’t run away or can’t escape, he will keep killing.

Gorongosa National Park
Over on the east side of me some distance was Gorongosa National Park. I had heard of Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, more in association with how the wildlife numbers there had been decimated during the civil war. Bart, now employed there, quoted astonishing figures – before the war there were 22,000 buffalo and now there were only 38 remaining, 32,000 impala reduced to a present population of just a few hundred. Similar astonishing figures for giraffe, rhino, eland, and many others. The only antelope unaffected was waterbuck, which, spending much of its time in marshy ground, excretes a deterrent to parasites, which also taints the meat. My understanding was it had been through necessity – the Mozambicans had no food. Bart corrected me, claiming there was wholesale slaughter of animals by Renamo guerillas, based in the park, which were then butchered and sold to Russian freezer ships moored off the coast of Beira. The Park had been one of the most popular in southern Africa, attracting more visitors than its now more famous neighbor the Kruger National Park in South Africa.

So where does that leave it now? An American philanthropist by the name of Greg Carr, his fortune made in IT, has decided to invest some of his millions in an attempt to rejuvenate Gorongosa. In cooperation with the Mozambique government, he has set up various teams to research the ecological situation, wildlife conservation, community relations, the environmental impact of restocking the park from other game reserves, and of course the tourism potential. Including game rangers there are nearly 500 employed. From Bart’s description it sounds like a huge effort, well thought out and planned, with Greg Carr himself taking an active interest in every part of the project. (I subsequently heard some dissatisfaction however with the competence of some South African and Zimbabwean team leaders - accused of not respecting local practices and advice. Roberto Zollho, the warden associated with heroic efforts at maintaining some kind of conservation in the park during the long years of war, has recently resigned.)

river wash1

Riding through this poor land, interrupted occasionally by a mud hut village clustered around the fertile banks of a river, was very enjoyable. It was a decent sealed road, with one ten km stretch of dirt just to keep me on my toes. Though there were few people, I found I was getting a tired arm returning the grins and salutes (the natives were friendly anyway!). After four hours the road joined the main Tete corridor road, and before much longer I was entering the quite sizeable town of Tete. This is the site of the only bridge across the mighty Zambezi in Mozambique, after its long, circuitous journey from the top of Zambia near the Congo border, briefly wandering into Angola, falling over Victoria, parting Zimbabwe and Zambia, being squeezed through the massive Kariba, and then Cahora Bassa dams, before its final lazy stage, at times 8 km wide, across the flood plains of Mozambique. Weather patterns anywhere else in the catchment area thousands of miles away, have consequences nearer the coast. Television images seen around the world, of Mozambicans being rescued from tree and roof tops in serious flooding in the year 2000, put the country on the map for many people in the West.

Tete - The Wild West
In the west of Tete province and now partially submerged, the Cahorra Bass rapids, as the Bradt guidebook informs, were the obstacle that prevented Livingstone’s Zambezi Expedition from opening up the Zambezi as ‘God’s Highway’ into the African interior, and which led the explorer turning his attention to the Shire River in what would eventually become the British enclave of Malawi. The rapids are now mostly submerged by the Cahorra Bassa dam, the fifth largest in the world, and potentially Africa’s largest supplier of hydro-electric power with a capacity ten times the requirement of Mozambique. Since the end of the civil war and the repair of the dam, it is now expected to earn a considerable amount of foreign currency from the export of electricity to South Africa and other neighboring countries.

My guide book also warned me that the province of Tete is “not the most inviting of areas: a dry, dusty badland covered in puny acacia scrub and punctuated by the occasional small thatched village, which only makes you wonder how anybody can live in this harsh, arid climate. Lying at a low altitude on the south bank of the Zambezi, the town of Tete manages to be both dusty and almost intolerably humid… a town of little or no aesthetic appeal…” also dismissing it as the hottest town in the country, and the unhealthiest because of the prevalence of malaria. Oh, and poor restaurants and non existent budget accommodation!


With all this in mind, it was with some curiosity I approached Tete. Historically an important Swahili Arab trading post, the town was then used by the Portuguese to access the goldfields further inland. The first thing I noticed on dropping down to the Zambezi basin was the very pleasant evening warmth, welcome after the coolness of Zimbabwe. Pitching my tent on a small triangle of grass in the Paraiso Motel by the river, I relaxed with a cold Dois M beer, named in honor of a General MacMahon, apparently a senior figure in the French government who brokered a peace betweeen Portugal and Britain in the 19th century, granting the province of Tete to Portugal. After a tasty sirloin steak I chatted to some interesting visitors. Two women in their thirties, I didn’t get their names, from the Netherlands and UK working for UNICEF and the UNFP in Maputo were passing through to inspect conditions in the province. Of the four men I met, separately, three were hunters and one was employed by a mining company. All were South African. I learned the region west of Tete is very much wilderness, with next to no habitation, and much wild game remaining. The goverment has sold concessions to hunting companies, who bring clients from the US and Europe to their lodges in the bush to hunt all the biggies – hippo, rhino, lion, elephant, giraffe. Yes, I was told, customers pay money to these operators to shoot an elephant! Disturbed, I later reflected that I can understand the challenge and thrill of tracking and shooting an animal for food. I can maybe understand the challenge and excitement of tracking an animal that has to be shot for culling or security reasons. I cannot understand shooting and killing a wild animal solely in the pursuit of pleasure - although I’m sure I have met people, probably even have friends, who can try and explain it to me.

On Being Irish Abroad
One dour and taciturn Afrikaner I encountered, when he learned where I was from, was genuinely friendly, thrusting out his hand to shake mine, and wanted to buy me a beer. Being Irish seems to ease past certain suspicion monitors, and I’m not quite sure why. Is it the shared colonial experience under Britain and fight for independence? Or is it something to do with that ‘lovable’ national stereotype of being high spirited, a good laugh and always fond of a drink? (I was reminded of the three middle aged, very surly Israeli “businessmen” I met in the Mvumba. At first my casual greeting was met with a stare (as in “do I know you?”. We were the only people around) and an offhand, bordering on rude, reply. Amused I persisted. When they heard I was Irish, the one acknowledging me (the other two were ignoring my presence) broke into a big beam declaring Ireland as the most beautiful country he had visited, and what was I doing here, etc.)

Game Hunters
In the broadest Afrikaans accent I’d heard - my friend here in Tete was struggling a little with his English - I was asked about my travels, and told him I had been in South Africa a few months and found it a beautiful country. A throwback to apartheid days, he was probably an example of the type of South African unpopular all the way up through east Africa. My compliment about his country provoked the response I had heard a number of times when mentioning the beauty of South Africa – “Aag no man. You see what they’re doing to it now!” Invariably there is a comparison to how the country was run previously, followed by some reference to “they”. This man was from Louis Trichardt, and I told him I had passed through the town. Makhado is what its called now, isn’t it? “No!” he exclaimed triumphantly. “We brought ‘them’ to the High Court and got it overturned!” He grinned. “They can’t get their figures right. We got one over on them.” This man seemed happy up here, away from the country he doesn’t recognise anymore, able to hunt with impunity in a wilderness area. I was sad to hear him disparagingly referred to later by another hunter as doing “canned lion”. Lions are bred in captivity, and released to be easily set up. A wealthy client can then shoot a lion.

Rui from Mozambique was just the man I needed to talk to. Yes he was familiar with the north of the country in response to my query. I told him of my intentions to head across after Malawi to the north coast of Mozambique and from there attempt to cross to Tanzania. Rui confirmed that yes indeed as far as he knew, there was a poor track - "deep sand" (words that strike serious alarm in my heart!) - up to the Ruvuma River which was the border with Tanzania. Rui in fact had a concession for taking hunting safaris into the north of the remote Niassa state. And he wanted me to know that what he did was more conservation than hunting.

What Rui did suggest was to visit the Mozambique side of Lake Malawi, Lago Niassa. Though quite inaccesible he explained, it is worth the trouble getting there as its a lot less developed than the Malawi shore and very beautiful. My intended route was across Mozambique to the north coast, and now the idea began forming in my head - to take the MV Illala, the lake ferry I had read about, across to the remote Mozambique side, before making my way east across the country. That could be an adventure.

As was becoming the case, once more I met a stranger who was very helpful and friendly, jotting down names and places to visit, insisting I email him with any queries or anything he could help with. Interestingly I had met two expats living in Beira - Philippa from South Africa and Vincent from Belgium - who I was interested to hear were very positive about their experience living in Mozambique. They loved it. Rui was also very positive about the future prospects for his country, reckoning tourism was going to increase significantly, suggesting to me I should invest in something now! This Wild West region, now increasingly exploited for hunting and mining, appears to be one of the last wilderness areas in Africa.