• Wildlife and Waterfalls April 4th, 2012

    “Scenes so lovely they must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.” (David Livingstone)

    A tailwind aided me north from Bulawayo. It was only really noticeable as I was averaging over 20km per hour when my average speed would normally be closer to 15. Unless one has a jaw-dropping landscape to pedal through, a tailwind is perhaps the second best thing a cyclist can hope for on tour. Headwinds in monotonous landscapes are cruel mind-numbing experiences.

     The landscape north of Bulawayo is neither jaw-dropping nor totally monotonous, but certainly swings towards the latter. February and March are supposedly wet months  in Zimbabwe, but when I compare a rainy season here to one in Malawi, or more memorably Sierra Leone and Liberia, it feels more like a drought. That said, the landscape is noticeably green.

     The traffic was fortunately lighter, but the road no wider than it had been on the Harare-Bulawayo road. Locals (both blacks and whites) had made remarks to it being fairly remote, which it certainly is. Having missed a few opportunities to fill up with water closer to Bulawayo, I ended up cycling 150km before pulling off the road in a place called Ken Muir. Villages don’t line major roads in Zimbabwe like they do in most of Africa. Ken Muir is also known as St Lukes, named after the Catholic Mission here, which is where I peacefully spent the night on the floor of a hospital waiting room.

     The German Doctor, who has been here eleven years, seemed somewhat shocked when he found me the next morning and discovered I hadn’t been accommodated in one of the spare rooms. “These people don’t communicate. I told them there is a spare room for you”. It didn’t bother me in the slightest. I’d arrived in the dark during a heavy downpour and when one of the nurses on duty had shown me a dry, safe waiting room that I could pitch me tent in, I was more than happy.

     In the good old days the only place apparently worth stopping at between Bulawayo and Victoria Falls was a placed called Gwayi River Hotel. Like a lot of things from those times, that hotel is no more. I pulled off the road in an attempt to find it some 100km beyond Ken Muir, but other than a few crumbling outhouses, the area where people directed men to was covered in bush.

     What I did find in the end were several recently built chalets, an enormously fat black Zimbabwean and the stench of a rotting animal.

     “These rooms are for my clients”, he said surveying me suspiciously.

     “What kinds of clients come here” I asked. The truth is I already knew the answer. I spent the night before listening to the Council Administrator for Gwayi River telling me stories about elephants coming into the village and a boy who was lucky to have survived a recent crocodile attack. This was hunting territory.

     “Americans and Spaniards are popular, sometimes French. We don’t get British hunters.”

    “What’s that smell?” I asked, noticing a nearby washing lined draped with thin strips of meat.

    “My boys shot an elephant a few days ago just out the back. There are plenty around here so just be careful on the bike”.

     Before pedalling away from that foul smell I found out that it cost $10,000 to shoot an elephant and $2500 for a buffalo. As for Lions, he didn’t have a licence for that – $20,000+ perhaps?

     I was by now on the fringes of Hwange National Park, where I’d agreed to meet up with my Bulawayo hosts – Paul and Julie. Paul is a long term teacher in one of Bulawayo’s private schools, the kind which moulds itself on the British public school system, and Julie the owner of a woman’s clothing factory. She’s also the President of the Rotary Club, which was my initial link with them, having organised to give a talk there.

    Seeing wildlife at this time of year isn’t easy through the dense bush, but with half a dozen eyes peeled (family and friends joined them at Hwange) we were able to see a fair amount (Elephants, Giraffe, Zebra, Impala, Kudu, Bat-eared fox, Jackel, Warthog, Baboons, Monkeys, Hippo, Crocodile, Civet cat, Ostrich, Wildebeest and countless beautiful birds that my hosts knew far more about than me). As for those Lions, well hearing them roar from my tent at night in the ‘relative’ safety of the main camp was reward enough.

     

    I waved off my Bulawayo friends a few days later for the final 200km or so to Victoria Falls. Roadside activity, as remarked upon, continued to be distinctly lacking  (at least when compared to cycling through many other Africa countries), but I did pass the occasional huddle of local women selling watermelons, the smallest of which I could just about bungee onto my front rack.

     

    Victoria Falls perhaps needs no grand introduction. It is one of the seven natural wonders of the World, as Africa’s fourth largest River plunges over 100m to create a smoke that really does thunder. I came here 11 years ago and threw myself down the rapids with a white-water rafting trip. This time I was content to just view the falls, but when a member of the audience at a Rotary Club talk I gave here asked if I’d like a complimentary helicopter ride over them, I was hardly going to say no.

     

     

     

     

  • Harare and beyond March 20th, 2012

    “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.

  • A twist in the road March 14th, 2012

    Before the operation I wasn’t planning to write this blog post. Better to keep what had happened secret I thought – save myself the embarrassment and ridicule. As I lay on my back watching clouds passing by outside the hospital window I tried to digest what the Doctor had told me that morning. I’d never heard of this condition before. How had it had happened to me? ‘Very rare for a man your age,’ he’d said. Well that day of cycling was no different from hundreds of others on the road. No twists, turns, falls or knocks. Were all those thousands of hours I’ve spent on a saddle building up to this? I’m still puzzled as to how it happened.

    I was in Mozambique when the pain started. In fact I’d only entered the country the previous day on a 3-day transit visa from Malawi. I had 250km to cover in that time, so needed to make steady progress in order to reach the Zimbabwean border before facing an overstay fine. There was no need to push myself though. The ‘Tete corridor’, as the road is often dubbed, links Malawi with Zimbabwe and passes through a western branch of Mozambique. There were no big climbs and the road was pretty well paved.

    The night before I’d memorably camped on the banks of the River Zambezi as it passes through the city of Tete. Lights lit up the city skyline and the enormous suspension bridge spanning the river. With the Cahora Bassa dam not far upstream, responsible for powering most of Mozambique and a number of other countries, it was no surprise that this was probably one of the most well-lit cities I’ve been in on the continent.

    The next night was very different though. There had been a gradual climb out of the Zambezi valley earlier that day, passing small mud-hut villages selling bags of charcoal on the roadside, and the heat had been of an intensity I’m now familiar with. The rains I’d been cycling through in Malawi had now been replaced by blue skies, and once I’d seen the condition of the budget rooms available in the last Mozambican town before the border I decided I’d camp again.

    Most nights in my tent in Africa are spent beside a village school, Church or within the compound of the village chief, but it was clear from my surroundings that on this night I would be wild camping. I filled my water bottles plus a 10-litre water bladder before leaving the last town on a gradual climb towards the border, recording this video as I went.

    It was whilst showering under an acacia tree that I first felt the pain. It started with a stitch in my lower right abdomen, then moved to what I felt was my bladder. By this time I’d abandoned plans to cook pasta and lay down in my tent hoping the pain would subside. But it continued to intensify. Was it my appendix I wondered? But which side was my appendix? Maybe it was those two beers I’d taken mid-afternoon? I never drink alcohol in the middle of a cycling day, but I was leaving Mozambique and this was going to be one of the last opportunities to drink Manica, a far superior beer to the Carslberg I’d been drinking in Malawi. Perhaps that litre of beer in my system was causing the stitch and pain in my bladder?

    I found my first-aid kit, swallowed 2 Paracetamol, then started drinking water in the belief that peeing was going to flush this pain and alcohol out of my system. It didn’t. I took another 2 Paracetamol and continued to drink, but the water just seemed to sit in my stomach, and before long I was vomiting it back up. Lying down was more painful than standing up, and I spent most of the night pacing around my tent in agony. The road was several hundred metres away, but what little traffic had been on it during the daytime had now almost ceased, apart from a very occasional truck. Of all the places I could have been this was one of the worst. There was no-one around and my cries of pain were lost in the surrounding bush. I took another 2 Paracetamol and finally managed to produce a trickle of urine before sleeping for perhaps an hour.

    The intensity of pain had subsided a little when I started to pack up my tent early the next morning. The sun quickly rose and energetic flies buzzed irritatingly around my face as I went about repairing a puncture on my rear tyre before wheeling the bike onto the road. I cycled slowly. The border was only 30km away and I was there well before midday.

    I had little appetite, but hadn’t eaten the night before nor taken any breakfast so used my remaining Mozambican metacais on a plate of chicken and rice. I only managed to finish half of it before lying down in the shade outside to wait for the worst of the midday heat to pass. What had been agony in my bladder during the night was now a dull pain.

    Border crossing formalities passed without incident. Too many white faces had come this way before to make my presence be of any particular significance. A Zimbabwean official gave me a 30-day visa in exchange for $55, although there was some disbelief when I said I’d cycled from Malawi and was proceeding to Harare, about 240km away. “All that way, by bicycle?”  

    It was only later that night that I noticed the swelling. I’d pitched my tent on the veranda of a Primary School, then taken a shower under a nearby tree. My right testicle was hard, raised and swollen. No pain unless I moved or touched it, but this wasn’t normal. Surely it had something to do with that stitch and pain in my bladder?

    Well I slept like a log that night, hoping the swelling would go down by the morning. It didn’t. I cycled on slowly, greeting school children with what little enthusiasm I had to be on the road, but the discomfort and pain was increasing.

    It needs a really good reason for me to abandon ship, quit as it were and take motorised transport to reach my destination. Well by mid-morning I decided to throw the towel in; it was time to flag a lift to Harare.

    I waited some 40 minutes under the shade of an acacia tree before a mini-bus with a trailer passed by. Sitting squeezed in the back amongst vociferous Zimbabweans was no more comfortable than being on the bike, and what would have been a 2 hour journey in a private vehicle took more like 4 hours with the never-ending police check-posts.

    In downtown Harare I wheeled my bike around looking for a bank that would accept an international visa card. I had no map or information about the city. People seemed busy going places. I felt lost and had no idea where to stay that night. I had the contact number of a friend of a friend who lived somewhere in or on the outskirts of Harare, but that number was buried in an old facebook message. Why hadn’t I written it down? More than anything else I needed to see a Doctor, but I didn’t know who to ask.

    In the end a travel agent directed, then decided to escort me to a nearby clinic. “I want to be a good Samaritan. We Africans have a duty to help.”

    The Doctor was female and at first I wanted to ask if she had a male colleague before dropping my pants. “Don’t worry, I’ve seen everything here in Zimbabwe” she remarked puling on some surgical gloves.

    She took the right testicle in her hand and looked up at me gravely. “This is serious and you need urgent medical assistance. This looks like testicular torsion.

    I’d never heard of testicular torsion before, and explained that the pain was never really in my testicle, but my lower abdomen. She put her fists together then twisted them as she explained how the testes, the right one in my case, had twisted upon itself and cut blood supply to the testicle.

    The Congolese Urologist confirmed what the female GP had said, but was surprised that a man of 33 was experiencing torsion. “It’s usually young boys and teenagers who I see this with. Unless it’s Orchitis (an infection) this testicle is now dead”

    Dead!? I exclaimed in shock. I later did what research I could with limited Internet access, and read what the Urologist had said. Unless operated upon within 6 hours from the onset of pain the testicle dies from lack of blood supply and soon goes gangrenous.

    Coming to terms with the news that you are going to lose a testicle isn’t an easy thing for any man to deal with, particularly when you are alone in a hospital in a foreign country. I should have acted quicker, but there was no way I could have got to hospital within 6 hours.

    I did a lot of crying in the hours before being taken to theatre. “Don’t worry. You can still have 20 children”, said the Urologist. “It’s a simple operation and I’ll fix the left testicle so it can never become twisted”. The nurse smiled at me. “God gave you two and you only need one to function.” But one testicle I thought to myself. Hitler had one testicle didn’t he? What was it going to look like? How was it going to feel? When could I ride my bike again? Was it going to affect getting an erection and performing? How was I going to tell people? Maybe I should keep it a secret? Girls would think I’m abnormal and have no sex drive. Why had this happened to me now and not when I first started cycle touring years ago? Was it even connected to the cycling? The Doctor had said this could suddenly happen. “A bump or pothole in the road is all it needs sometimes.”

    A scan some hours before going under the knife confirmed that it was torsion and not orchitis and that the left testicle was still healthy. By this time I’d made contact with those friends of friends, who asked why the hell I hadn’t called them when I first arrived, and probably shuddered when I said I was in the government hospital.

    I panicked when I came round from the anaesthetic. “Where is my bike and bags?” I asked the theatre nurse. They were in fact still with that travel agent. I expected to be in some pain as I looked down at a large bundle of bandaging around my scrotum, and the tube which was draining out from where I guessed there to be a number of stitches. It was that numb discomfort again though. The cocktail of antibiotics and painkillers I’d been on before the operation were no doubt at work.

    I was discharged from hospital 2 days later, wheeled out on a wheelchair that used a white plastic garden chair as the seating component. How resourceful Africans can be I thought. “This hospital has changed a lot in the last few years”, remarked my hosts. “You wouldn’t want to have been here in the real crisis years”.

     At first the Urologist had said no cycling for 3 months, but when I revisited his consultation room several days later and questioned him on this whilst the bandaging was removed he said at least 1 month, 2 would be better** (see below). I guessed he’d never operated on a guy who was cycling across the continent. Apart from 6 ugly looking stitches and a little bit of loose skin my manhood looks no different from before. The stitches will fall out within a week or two I’m told.

    And so here I am recovering in one of Harare’s leafy suburbs, wondering when to get back on the bike, at least for a casual ride around the shady jacaranda lined streets?

    Other than the fact that it makes for an interesting, if somewhat wincing read, I decided to blog about this experience for two reasons. Firstly I want to hear from readers, cyclists or non-cyclists, as to what they know or don’t know about testicular torsion and the recovery from such an operation. Were all those hours I’ve spent on the bicycle leading up to this happening? Perhaps it was the heat that day and the added load I was carrying for the last 10km? Did the beer in my system have an affect?  Can I blame my brooks saddle even though I’ve done 30,000km on it now? I’m basically asking whether testicular torsion is an occupational hazard for cycle tourers?

    In my mind I’d like to be heading out of Harare in about 1 month, but I clearly don’t want to end up again in a hospital bed in Zimbabwe, or somewhere else between here and Cape Town.

    The second reason I decided to announce that I now only have one testicle is to pre-warn my cycling brethren, particularly those younger than me. I don’t think many people know what testicular torsion is, and I wonder how many guys have found themselves climbing a mountain, sailing an ocean or possibly wild camping after a day on the bicycle and thought to themselves, as I did, let me see how this pain feels tomorrow. Maybe it will go away. Well the next day is unfortunately too late in the case of testicular torsion. The moment you feel any kind of unusual pain or discomfort in any region of your lower abdomen or genital area don’t hesitate to get yourself, if you can, to the nearest hospital. When I think of all the places I’ve cycled and camped, unfortunately 6 hours would never have been long enough. But to ignore the pain and continue with the discomfort, which the Doctor said would also pass over time, is even more dangerous. That dead testicle will infect the other. Well if I’d lost both testicles I really don’t think I’d have easily found the balls to tell you this.

    ** I am as of now back on the road, cycling out of Harare some 32 days the operation date. I wrote this blog post about 1 week after the operation, but delayed posting it for reasons I’ll write about in a forthcoming post.