“Having sniffed the air south of the Zambezi I felt Zimbabwe to be not a continuation of black Africa, but – both historically and emotionally – the beginning of South Africa”. (Devla Murphy)

I’m blaming the cold shower for causing the testicular torsion. Those who have commented on my last post, and others who have written to me by e-mail, provided a convincing consensus that it was the cold water on my hot body, rather than the friction between body and saddle that led to me experiencing probably the most painful night of my life. It’s easy to blame the cycling, and an obvious conclusion to make, but why would it happen on that particular day when it could have been hundreds of others which were far harder?

Now that the story has been told I ought to back-track a little. I did after all spend almost 5 weeks recovering in Harare, which is longest I’ve stayed and will stay in any place throughout this journey.

My hosts during that time, who had been complete strangers at first, introduced me to a side of life that I’d probably never witness had I joined the few other low-budget travellers who most likely pitch up at a municipal campsite or backpackers hostel in the city.

Martin, the husband referred to this as the ‘parallel World’ of life in Harare. First there was the Caledonian Society Burns’ lunch, where I ate haggis and heard the bagpipes being played, and then there was a Valentine’s dinner, a quiz night, a Welsh Society St David’s Day lunch and various other social events and introductions in surroundings that I would not associate as being like the Africa I know. Most of those I met were at least a generation or more older than me, and there was one thing on almost all of these occasions that was noticeably missing – a black face.

Zimbabwe does indeed feel like a farewell to the more familiar atmosphere of black Africa and an introduction to the complex social segregation of South Africa. It need not be a farewell, but once you have found yourself invited into a certain sphere of society, and then inevitably introduced to others within in, crossing into the other side or moving freely between the two doesn’t seem so simple.

Many of the people I met in Harare had lived there most of their lives. They’d speak fondly of the “good old days”, which most likely referred to the time when Zimbabwe was still Rhodesia and under white minority rule. Blacks or munts, a derogatory term I occasionally overheard in conversation, knew their place and the economy ranked as one of the strongest in the World. I was never sure what these white audiences I spoke to at various functions made of my experience travelling through an Africa often devoid of familiarly-raced faces. I’d often introduce myself as the crazy English cyclist who likes a challenge, then wait for more questions or allow the conversation to drift back into something far more familiar, such as pets. My hosts had 8 dogs and 11 cats, excessive by anyone’s standards, but it was amazing how much time could be filled by talking to people about the personalities of one animal or another.

I heard more recent stories from the last decade when white-owned farms had been seized and the economy lay in a mess. Inflation was out of control as prices of foodstuffs increased between the time one picked something up from a shelf and paid for it at the checkout till. Not that there was much food on the shelves to buy then. Supermarkets were near empty for a number of years and people would rush down to the nearest shop when they heard that a vital commodity like sugar or toilet paper was available to buy. And then there was the fuel crisis where petrol stations witnessed day-long queues. To have lived through the economic hard times must have been tough for anyone. “We had to make a plan” is an expression I heard many times when talking to whites in Harare.

Many white Zimbabweans left the country during those hard years, finding a better or just more stable life in the UK or Australia. For many of the older ones that have stayed I couldn’t help but feel how trapped and often out of place they seemed. This parallel World holds onto a lifestyle and time that has long since disappeared throughout most of the continent.

Well at least the hard or the worst times, in many respects, have now past. Since 2009 Zimbabwe has stabilised its economy by introducing the US$. There is no fuel shortage and the supermarkets are stacked with mostly South African imported foodstuffs. The country’s ageing and infamous President is never left out long from a conversation about Zimbabwe’s problems, and most people reserve a bottle of Champagne in their fridge for a certain occasion.

My hosts lived in what planners might refer to as a ‘low-density suburb’. High-density suburbs, (townships) lie around the periphery of Harare and I only visited one when I joined a group of keen birdwatchers who drove out to a spot where thousands of migratory birds (Falcon hawks?) from Siberia came to settle each night in an a row of trees. The locals were far too used to the sight of these hawks to regard them as anything more than a noisy nuisance.

Houses in Harare’s low-density suburbs are large, by any standard. It is probably one of the greenest capitals on the continent and signs for tree-cutters and lawn-mower repairs appear everywhere.

Unless you enter through the guarded gates of a low-density suburb residence all you are likely to see is perhaps a rooftop when driving past. High walls crested with barbed wire or some electric cabling line most tree-shaded roads and the dense vegetation within helps screen out people trying to look in. All of these suburban side roads are paved, but many are badly pot-holed. The common joke is that you can always tell if someone is drink driving in Harare as they will drive straight, whilst a sober driver will swerve to avoid the potholes. In most African capitals I’ve been to these side roads would almost certainly be dirt-tracks. Many white residents in Harare have not seen life in countries north of Zambia to know just how civilised in comparison their city is, or at least was.

High speed Internet at my host’s office helped pass the time in Harare. I e-mailed, photocopied, scanned, and posted various hospital receipts to my insurance company in the UK to try and claim back the $2000 or so of medical costs that had to be paid for upfront in cash. When the insurance company found out I’d bought the policy in Africa and not before I’d left the UK they finally wrote back to tell me I wouldn’t be covered. Well they paid out a measly sum last year when I was in Kenya, and that previous policy had been purchased when I was in Africa too. Several readers have mentioned offering to assist in helping to pay for medical costs, so I’d massively appreciate any donations here. I won’t be using Columbus Direct again, and neither should you.

During the week before leaving Harare I’d been leisurely riding around the suburban back roads to get a feel for being back on the bike. I decided that paying the Congolese Urologist another $50 for a consultation when I felt fit to continue wasn’t worth it. And so I just set a date and left.

The road out of Harare wasn’t all that enjoyable to re-commence the biking with. There was no hard shoulder for much of the way and the road was too narrow for the density of traffic. Even the scenery was a mostly featureless continuation of unremarkable bush, interspersed with what perhaps was once commercial white farmland. The familiar small mud-hut villages with waving children are noticeably absent in Zimbabwe. One passes the odd service station with a bottle store and butchery, but the social structure here with black communities living close to what were once commercial white-owned farms has changed the rural fabric. It’s quite dull to be honest.

Having met various people in Harare (all white) I was invited to stay at a place mid-way between Harare and Bulawayo called Antelope Park. The idea had been to just pitch the tent for a night or two within the grounds, but the owner, who wasn’t there, had e-mailed and arranged for me to stay in a river-side lodge on a fully comp basis. For what would have cost me more than a week’s budget per night I was treated to more luxury than I’ve experienced on most of this trip.

Antelope Park is privately run and kept busy by groups of young volunteers, almost all of whom are female and from Norway for some reason. Well I guess girls have more of an affinity for cuddling animals, and Antelope Park’s main focus seems to consist of raising lion cubs under captivity with the hope to release them back into the wild. Can this really work?

For the 40+ volunteers, who each pay a small fortune for the privilege of being here, it appears more like a repackaged holiday, but at least the money goes into employing a large number of local staff, and the park is probably one of Zimbabwe’s premier tourist attractions.

Shortly before arriving at Antelope Park I’d arranged to meet another UK cyclist here, who I’d been in contact with for several months. Ginger-haired Jack started his trip in Kenya on a bamboo bike, which had been designed and made as a prototype at Oxford Brookes University. It didn’t get far. The rear derailleur was damaged in the outbound flight from the UK, and by the time he’d got as far as Zanzibar he’d already ditched it and bought an expensive touring bike from a Dutch cyclist about to return home. The Africa leg of his trip will finish in Johannesburg in the coming weeks, from where he’ll fly to Istanbul and ride another bamboo bike, hopefully without too many glitches, back to the UK.

Antelope Park’s staff included us in the various activities, which included riding elephants (incredibly uncomfortable), watching lions being fed and walking with lion cubs. African wildlife purists might scoff at the activities taking place here, and I for one never thought it possible to either ride an African elephant nor walk with lions. Jack and I had the idea that we could easily tell people back home of the day we encountered lions on the road, but the whole experience couldn’t have been tamer, and several Norwegian girls took the lion cub walk more as an opportunity for glossy sunset pictures than a serious exercise of rehabilitating lions back into the wild.

From Antelope Park I had to take a bus 160km to Bulawayo in order to speak at a boarding school the same day. What should have been less than a two hour journey took more like six as the original bus never left the bus terminal in Gweru after the conductor ran away with everyone’s money. Police seemed utterly useless in assisting me to get a refund and once I’d finally given up waiting, got on another bus and paid again it was too late to reach Bulawayo in time. This is one of the few times I’ve used public transport with the bicycle in Africa and following this experience it will be the last. African time always applies and after a short period there is really nothing enjoyable about sitting in a hot, noisy and smelly African bus terminal for many hours on end.

Fortunately a ride within Matopos National Park, just outside Bulawayo, provided a much needed change of scenery. I visited this park 11 years ago and remembered sitting atop Cecil Rhodes’ grave. Some Zimbabweans over the years have talked about digging it up – the name so embedded with the colonial history of the country, but the view from here couldn’t be removed.

Here in Bulawayo I’m being hosted by more kind strangers within that minority sphere. Fundraising talks have been arranged for me at various clubs and schools before I cycle north from here later this week to Victoria Falls.