Dark Star Safari Part 3 – The Southern Reaches

Mozambique – Scars of war
Peaceful River


To me, Mozambique was just another one of those markings that appear on Google Maps, however it wasn’t until Theroux mentioned the land mines that I realised that this was one of the many African countries that had been ravaged by war. In fact during the Eighties the African continent was one large chess board (or more likely a game of Risk) in which the superpowers would rage proxy wars against each other. A number of these countries declared independence (sometimes quite violently) and immediately established a socialist state only to discover that capitalist guerillas would be waging war from the hinterland. Okay, Wikitravel does suggest that Mozambique is safer these days, but fighting still erupts between factions of the left and the right, and they specifically advise you that the police should not be trusted.
The Zambezi by Canoe
Zambize CanoeAccording to Wikipedia, the Zambezi is the forth largest river in Africa, and its stretch includes the magnificent Victoria Falls. However, what surprised me the most in this book was Theroux’s intention to travel down this river by canoe. He arrives at a small fishing village where he hires a couple of locals (along with their canoe) to make the journey. These days I suspect that there is a lot more tourist activity along this river, especially in the way of canoeing, but also travelling by river boat. Mind you, it is not exactly the safest of rivers to travel, since you not only have to deal with crocodiles and hippos, but you also must deal with mosquitoes at night, and of course there is always the problem of Hyenas. Theroux, and his guides, made sure that they always spent the night at a friendly village (particularly since there are still people here that are decidedly hostile.
Theroux’s description of this region is one that has yet to be touched by civilisation, including the every increasing culture of aid. The people along the river banks still lead a subsistence life style and seem to get along just fine. He even discovered that they don’t ask for money, they just want stuff that you are throwing away because they would probably be able to find some use for it. The women tend the crops and the men are out regularly fishing. Everybody here seems to pull their weight, and while they may not have the luxuries of the west, they seem to get along just fine. There was one town that he did visit though that seemed to be the norm in Africa, but it was only three huts – the border post, the bar, and an empty shop. Theroux was even kind enough to shout the border guard a couple of beers to use the empty shop (you don’t sleep outside in these parts).
Yet, like other parts of Africa, the borders of Southern Malawi are very fluid and ill defined, just like the banks of the Zambezi. This is not a well defined river bank that you find in other parts of the world, but rather a river that tapers off into swamp. There is no well defined edge, and the banks of the river will constantly change depending on the season. This is also the case with the border, since the only indication that you are there is a vague outpost in the middle of the jungle where a guard spends his day whiling away his time, probably quite surprised to actually see a white man passing by in a canoe (though such a sight it probably not all that rare). On his journey he even met a former South African farmer who had moved up to Mozambique, simply because the land here was much cheaper. Mind you, the attitude of this farmer was that the locals were little more than indentured servants (though it was clear that Theroux really appreciated the assistance of his guides).
A Quick Exit
Theroux doesn’t spend all that much time in Mozambique, quite possibly because other than the canoe trip down the Zambezi, there wasn’t all that much else to see here, other than land mines and the scars of a decades long war. In fact the land mines were still such a problem that he was warned not to travel off the roads, since the roads were the only part of the country that could be considered free of land mines. In fact the heavy use of mines in the area I suspect was what caused the late Princess Diana to campaign heavily against their use. Personally I am with her, particularly since they are insidious things that can lay hidden for decades before blowing some poor unsuspecting sod to pieces.
MorrumbalaHe did mention about how Mozambique has long been a colony of the Portuguese, that is until the war of independence. They were the original African colonials, who came out here and divided the country into their own private fiefdoms. It wasn’t just the wealthy and the nobility who established their enclaves here, but all sorts of shrewd and disreputable people. He passes a mountain known as Morrumbala, which is a large almost citadel like outcropping of rock. This mountain has been used for centuries for its defensible capabilities, and even during the recent wars guerillas would hide in its crevices, launching raids against unsuspecting people.
Ruined MansionAs he said, when he arrived at the city of Biera, all he saw were the ravages of war. He had been here before, namely to canoe the Zambezi, however there wasn’t anything in the capital that really inspired him. All that he could see were the relics of a war that had been fought for decades, and a country that was still trying to recover from its ravages. Mind you, fifteen years have passed since Theroux walked the streets of Biera, so no doubt the city has experienced an influx of money in recent years. Like other parts of Africa the tourist dollar is a big earner and the plastic covering of the resorts line the beaches. That does not necessarily mean that the country is safe – by no means. Wikitravel does warn you not to travel alone, and it is even dangerous to wander the beaches at night. Most importantly, never trust a policeman.
Zimbabwe – A revolution in progress
Victoria FallsI have to say that I never actually realised that the Victoria Falls where so cool. Sure, I have heard of them, in fact I have known of them for pretty much most of my life, but I never realised that they were literally an entire lake plummeting into a chasm. In a way they make the Niagara Falls look quite ordinary (though from what I have been told the Niagara falls are also pretty impressive – the only waterfalls that I have ever seen are little more than creeks tumbling off of a creek, and since this is Australia, most of the times they are little more than a cliff face with a sign saying ‘waterfall’). However, thanks to the wonders of the internet, and helicopters, I have discovered that the Victoria Falls are one pretty impressive waterfall. The problem with the Victoria Falls is that they are in Zimbabwe.
I have had connections with Zimbabwe (formerly known as Rhodesia) in the past. First of all my uncle was sent there as a part of an international peace keeping movement during the war of independence, and I also went to church with a woman who used to live there. Her husband used to own a farm (there are an awful lot of farms in Zimbabwe) and when the troubles began they both left for Australia. However her son remained to continue to work the farm. I would regularly hear how she was really concerned for her son (as any mother would be) especially since this was the time when the land reclamations were beginning to ramp up, and you would regularly read details of murdered farmers and chaos in the country.
However, reading Dark Star Safari, I have come to understand that what President Robert Mugabe was doing was no different that what had happened in many of the other countries in Africa. African countries seem to go through a number of phases:
  1. A War of Independence: there would be an uprising against the colonial government resulting in the colonial powers retreating and the establishment of a native government.
  2. A Drift to Tyranny: the group that was victorious against the invaders would usually take the reigns of government, however while opposition parties existed, these parties would end up being the only ones ever elected, and after a time they would be entrenched.
  3. The Expulsions: As the economy of the country begins to decay, the government would  blame the non-Africans such as the Indians and the Europeans, claiming that they are the cause of the economic problems and progressively expel them.
  4. Descent into Anarchy: Over time, after all of the non-Africans were expelled, the country would continue to deteriorate as all of the people who knew how to run a business, and run a country, left resulting is a country that was barely functioning and riddled with corruption and crime.
Zimbabwe was in phase three, while most of the countries to the north were rooted in phase four. However, from what Theroux had noted, Zimbabwe, though a dangerous country, and not quite reached the state of its northern neighbours where decay had began to take over the infrastructure and that the cities had become little more than a cesspool of slums with a non-functioning economy and a government that literally pocketed what aid it could get. In fact, due to the sanctions imposed by the West, even the aid agencies avoided the place.
Harare Skyline

The main thing that Theroux had noticed when he arrived in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, is quite clean, which was a contrast to the many other cities that Theroux had visited. In a way it seemed to be quite unlike many of the other petty dictatorships that dot the continent. Theroux had mentioned that the government keeps a tight reign on information coming out of the country, and has even expelled journalists reporting events that paint him in a relatively bad light. In fact if you visit the Zimbabwe entry on Wikitravel, you will notice that it does not mention anything about the expulsions or the farm invasions. In fact he even paid a visit to the ministry of tourism, just to see what they had to say, and from his impression, not every minister in the government was as hardline as their leader.


Down on the Farm

Land reform was a big thing with the Mugabe government, and generally involved taking land owned by white farmers by force an parcelling it out to the local Africans. In fact it seemed as if the government did not necessarily order a particular piece of land to be taken, but rather the locals would simply move in and declare the land to be theirs. This was one of the things that interested Theroux and he managed to meet up with a local white farmer to discuss the problem. To his surprise, this farmer was actually really jovial, and while the situation in Zimbabwe was quite serious, he simply seemed to see the bright side of it all. He tells of a time when he was younger (there have been a number of land reform movements with the goal of getting the local Africans back onto the land) when a group of bandits attacked the farm with the intention of taking it, only to fight them off with a handy AK-47.  The farmer, with with quirk of saying ‘you see, it’s quite funny’ is quite a contrast with the Tanzanian who repeatedly says ‘you see, the problem is’.

In a way it is quite funny, despite the fact that this is really serious. I remember reading in the paper around this time about the land invasions, and seeing a really sad picture of a dog sitting beside his owner who had been brutally murdered by the local mobs. However, we are told that despite the fact that they want the land, they don’t actually know what to do with it. For instance we hear a story of how one family is driven off their land (and these farms, by the way, are quite large) and the farm then divided up, only for the new owners, within a couple of months, to return to the city. We even visit one of these squatters, and once again the farmer doesn’t see them as a menace, but as quite nice people. The one we meet is simply sitting next to his hut waiting. Sure, he has some crops in the ground, but they won’t grow in time. In a way he is expecting the government to come and grow his crops, and if the government won’t grow the crops, then the farmer will. It seems as if this squatter believes that he does not need to do the work.

Farm Fire

This is probably not surprising because many of the squatters have worked as labourers on these farms, and probably have the mistaken belief that the owners don’t actually do any work – all of the servants do the work. So, now that he is no longer a labourer,  but a land owner, he expects that he will be provided with servants of his own. However the reality is that farmers work really hard, though those who work for them probably believe the opposite. However, life is not particularly easy for the white Zimbabwean farmer (though many have remained, in a recent article that I have discovered Mugabe has made one final ultimatum – leave or face jail), because they also have to deal with their workers stealing from them, and there is little they can do about this since these workers tend to be politically connected.


Great Zimbabwe

After Theroux’s experience of the average Zimbabwean farm, he decided to catch a bus to his next destination, Johannesburg (otherwise known in my lingo a Jo’burg). Unlike many of the other buses that he had had the pleasure of riding in on his trek across Africa, this one was the lap of luxury – basically it was a Greyhound bus. He had his own seat, leg room, and was able to stretch (and even sleep). Despite the fact that Zimbabwe was quickly becoming little more than another African basketcase country, he was able to travel in what in effect was style (okay, driving in a BMW would be style, but the problem with driving is that it involves work, unless of course you have a chauffeur, though even in these African countries cars, and chauffeurs, were not cheap).


Anyway, on his bus journey, we travelled near a place known as Great Zimbabwe.I saw it marked on the map in the front of his book, however simply thought that is was just another African town (or city). However, as he was travelling nearby he mentioned that it wasn’t a city, but ruins (though he decided that he would not stop, but rather continue on to his destination – Jo’burg). That caught my interest, so I decided that I would jump onto Wikipedia and find out a bit more about that place, and what I discovered was in fact really interesting.


Great ZimbabweThe thing about Great Zimbabwe was that when it was discovered by the European Settlers it pretty much challenged the traditional belief of the backward African hunter-gatherer. You see, Great Zimbabwe is the ruin of an ancient civilisation (well, the word ancient is a bit of a misnomer since it was flourishing around the time of the Renaissance), and as far as the European historians were concerned, there wasn’t supposed to be such a civilisation this far south. In fact it challenged my beliefs as well, particularly with what I have already written in these three posts with regards to the idyllic hunter-gatherer. Not only was this place a bone of contention amongst academics, but was also subject to strict censorship in the southern African nations in the 20th century. The belief was that it simply was not possible for a native African population to attain this level of technology, so they fiddled with the facts and suggested that the local population were unwilling subjects of a foreign power (despite there actually being no foreign power – Arabic or European – in the region at the time). Further more, it wasn’t just this fortress, but lots of other, smaller, fortresses scattered about the area as well.


South Africa – Western Outpost

Once again I have had a number of connections with South Africa, including being invited to Pretoria for a wedding (unfortunately I wasn’t able to go – though I should have). In a way it is not uncommon to meet somebody who has come from the southern most country on the African continent, and in a way it is becoming even more so these days. I remember speaking to a young lady who had moved over here to Australia for work (and after moving over here the rest of her family wasn’t all that far behind) and she had suggested the the country simply wasn’t all that safe anymore. Mind you, I do have another friend that came over here for about a year, and ended up going back, and he is still over there.


When Theroux arrived at the border he discovered what he described as something that was akin to the security fence surrounding a prison, and the border post akin to the security gate at a prison entrance. However it wasn’t as if South Africa (or as some people are prone to say Seth Efrica) was a prison trying to keep people in, but rather a gated community regulating who is allowed to enter. In many cases South Africa has long been considered a developed country, despite their history of apartied, and due to the much higher living standards tends to be a magnet for those who simply want piece of the action. In a way it is like the difference between Mexico and the United States, and in fact South Africa faces many of the same problems with people doing their best to get smuggled into the country so that they might be able to have much better prospects than they do in their own country.


The contrasts between South Africa and the rest of the country, or at least as Theroux describes it at the beginning of the Millenium, are striking. The first thing he notices are all the the electric lights. For most of his travels electricity was intermittent at best, but upon crossing the border he discovers a place where the street lights are continuously lit. Also not only were the roads much better to travel along, but Theroux also discovered that he was now travelling along a motorway, something that he had yet to encounter on the African continent. Despite being on a bus, it seemed as if he could now have a rest from the harsh rigours of his journey.


Seth Efrican motoway


Ever since I was a kid I have already heard rumours about how Johannesburg is one of the most violent cities in the world. When I was much younger I simply believed that because one of my friends told me, and if one of our friends told us something then it must have been true because we believed that they had thoroughly researched the authenticity of that statement by either reading it in a book, or asking an adult (and books and adults, at least to us children, were very reliable sources of information). Anyway, while saying that Jo’burg is one of the most crime-ridden cities in the world is a massive generalisation, it is still famous for the fact that you seriously cannot walk the streets at night. In fact Theroux decided to spend the rest of the night in the bus station than risk going out on the streets to look for a hotel. However, after travelling the length of the African continent, and all of the dangers that it entails, spending the night in a bus station was probably a luxury that he could afford.



The thing about South Africa is that I have heard it being referred to as The Rainbow Nation, which is a far cry from the days of apartheid where the country was divided into white and non-white areas. In fact if you weren’t white (or even an honourary white, such as the Japanese so that they could play golf with business associates in the many white only golf clubs) and you travelled into a white only area, then you could find yourself in an awful lot of trouble. Back in those days the police had no qualms in using violence to keep the non-white population in order.


However things changed dramatically with the rise of Nelson Mandella to the presidency (which is also surprising considering that he was denounced by many of the European countries as a terrorist due to his involvement in the African National Congress – now the ruling party of South Africa) as one of the first things he legislated was an open doors policy which welcomed people of any race, creed, and colour into the country. As such there was a huge influx of people from all over the world in an attempt to turn the country from a bastion of apartheid to a successful multi-cultural country. The thing that stands out the most about Nelson Mandella though was his attitude towards his former enemies. He did not show hatred or resentment towards them, he did not turn on them and inflict vengeance upon them, but rather he offered the hand of reconciliation and showed them forgiveness and a willingness to put the past behind them so that they could chart out a new path of the nation. Nelson Mandella was truly a great man.


Theroux had some friends in Jo’burg which he had every intention of catching up with (and being an author these friends were also authors, so he did what every author does when they get together – they have dinner and bitch about how the books that everybody likes are the books that they think are rubbish). Anyway, as he is spending time with them one of the things that he discusses is the crime rate, and they agree that in Jo’burg it is pretty bad. They make the habit of always locking their cars when they are driving since one of the biggest problems are hijackings, especially at intersections. However this isn’t like Nairobi, where you are told to give whatever the muggers want to spare your life (and in some cases that doesn’t even work) but here it is possible to simply drive away. One of the comments that they did make was that ever since the end of apartheid respect for the police had diminished dramatically, and while back then they were able to maintain control, these days the city seems to have simply slipped out of their ability to keep order.


Jo'burg TowersThe interesting thing is that Theroux discovered that after talking to a number of the locals, especially ones from many and varied cultures, none of them seemed to actually have any friends who they could considered Africans. Now, I noted that he used the term Afrikaan a couple of times when talking about this, which confused me a little since the term Afrikaan does not actually refer to the dark-skinned native, but rather to white settlers (the word originally coming from the Dutch, who established one of the first colonies – Cape Town). So, I am not actually sure what he meant – was it that the immigrants didn’t associate with the dark-skinned natives (which is quite likely since it is also a reflection of the situation here in Australia) or was it that the white population desired to hold onto their apartheid past and remain hidden away in their gated communities – something that I also wonder about since many of those who like apartheid would have left the country, though a number no doubt would have stayed with the desire to return to country back to its previous days).


Big Game Safari

After his long travels across Africa Theroux finally decided to do something that he had put off for most of the trip – go and see the animals. Anyway, isn’t that what most people do when they visit Africa – see the animals? Okay, there are those out there that do more than simply look at the animals, namely because there has been a long tradition amongst the elite to go out and bag themselves one, or all, of the Big Five: the lion, the elephant, the cape buffalo, the leopard, and the rhinoceros (though it is probably nigh impossible to bag a rhino these days). Unfortunately hunting is a very big problem in Africa, and even though countries attempt to outlaw it, political pressure, and the fact that many of the governments have little control over the land, makes it very difficult to put a stop to it. In fact apparently the rhinoceros in Africa has pretty much been hunted to the point of extinction, particularly due to the mistaken belief that the horn is a form of aphrodisiac. Oh, I should mention that the reason that these animals are called the Big Five is because traditionally these animals are the hardest to hunt (though hanging around waterholes makes it a lot easier – if not a little lame).


So, Theroux gets a recommendation from one of his friends as to the best game park to visit, which is one of the good things about having connections in a country. Once again he hears numerous stories, and spends time with the game keepers as well as some of the guests. Apparently these places are a favourite for honeymooners, and the gamekeepers have the problem of having one of those jobs that are considered ‘sexy’ jobs – or it could simply be that being a rough and wild country man simply has that really romantic element about him (or we could use the term ‘sex-appeal’). Anyway, we are even told a story of how one newly wed became quite attracted to one of the wardens, to the point that everybody had concluded that the marriage simply was not going to last.


Back to Mozambique

Since Theroux was quite close to the border of Mozambique he decided that he would cross the border and check out southern Morzambique. From what he had to say, Southern Mozambique to the South Africans (or should I say Seth Efricans?) is like Mexico to the Americans. It is a place where you can go for a really cheap holiday at some high class resorts. However it was interesting to note that despite Mozambique being a united country, it is almost impossible to travel from the south to the north. In fact, from what he indicated, there was no infrastructure between the two halves of the country. As such, it was almost as if they where two countries separated by an impassible gulf. Sure, if you had a landrover, or should I say Toyota Landcruiser since those vehicles are reportedly indestructible, you could probably cross this gulf, however if you were lacking such resilient vehicles then you would be in a lot of trouble.


It was at this point in the story that I discovered that Theroux must really love trains (which seems to be one of those loves of people who are geeks like me) because he spent so much time admiring the railway station that he ended up having to go for a ride on one of their trains. In fact he seemed to spend quite a bit of time on trains, and when he returned to Seth Efrica he wanted to go for a ride on a train simply to go for a ride on a train. From my vantage point, a person who goes for a ride on a train simply to go for a ride on a train must be a real train geek (much like me, though I wouldn’t call myself a train spotter, simply because I couldn’t tell you what one train from another was). The train that he ended up taking in Mozambique was called the Limpopo express, and the only reason that he took this train was because he thought the name was cool.


Mozambique TrainOn this trip he ended up sitting next to a missionary who was traveling back to rural Mozambique to continue her missionary work. As it turned out she was from one of those extreme right wing, fundamentalist churches that are so dogmatic in their beliefs that any slight variation is considered heresy. They are also very easy to stir up, since they go out of their way to invite criticism. I remember when I was on a train once (why is it that they are always on trains?) when a group boarded an decided to evangelise the carriage. While a couple of them managed to reduce a poor girl to tears (that is their tactic by the way, because by reducing somebody to tears it it much easier for them to drag them into their church) one decided that he would have a chat with me. Bad move – I ended up talking circles around him to the point that the others sitting in the same seat that I was were more interested in what I was saying that what he was. In fact I even remember one of them giving me the thumbs up, encouraging me to continue to deconstruct his arguments – and I’m a Christian.


Journey’s End

Well, Theroux returned to Jo’burg and then took the final leg of his journey on the train that took him to Cape Town. The funny thing with endings though is that now I have finished the book I simply want to wind up this post and move on to the next book that I am reading, and the next post that I want to write about, however I probably should bring this particular story to a proper conclusion and talk about Cape Town and the final leg of his journey. Well, actually, it wasn’t the final leg because he ended up jumping on the Blue Train, apparently the most luxurious train in South Africa, back to Jo’burg where he put all his belongings into a secure storage facility, only to discover when he went to collect them they had mysteriously disappeared (maybe he should have left them at his friend’s house, but he ended up getting over the loss in the end).


However, while in Cape Town, Theroux did want to go and visit a squatter camp, despite everybody warning him against such an action. In fact he wanted to go for a ride on one of the trains to the end of the line, however once again he was warned against such actions since not even the train is immune from being attacked by angry mobs. However, he did end up going to one of the camps, and managed to walk out unscathed at the other end. The thing with these camps is that they are not necessarily new, and also do not seem to be going away any time soon. It is interesting that these camps seem to plague the African countryside however you do not necessarily see any here in Australia or other developed countries. Maybe it is because of our high standard of living, or it could simply be that if we started erecting our own camps the local council will move in pretty quickly and knock them down. However, and this is the unfortunate thing about poverty, is that where these camps exist, they are also going to be really dangerous.


The funny thing about arriving in a developed country, or at least familiar surroundings, is that sometimes it feels as if the entire world has passed us by, yet when we are not surrounded by the 24 hr News cycle, parts of us simply do not seem to care. Mind you, these days with a portable mobile phone, and access to the internet, wherever you go you end up staying in touch anyway. However, on a journey like Theroux’s, you end up being cut off even from the internet. Mobile broadband isn’t everywhere, especially places like Australia where much of the country is empty desert and bushland with no mobile coverage. In a way it would be similar to Africa, however it is not so much the vast and empty spaces, but rather the underdeveloped and corruption riddled lands.


However, just as Theroux’s journey came to an end, so must my entry in the blog. All I can say is that I enjoyed the book, and while at times it was quite cynical, and depressing, it also painted a different picture of this vast continent.

Creative Commons License
Dark Star Safari Part 3 – The Southern Reaches by David Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

Harare Skyline source: Macvivo used with permission under creative commons attribution share-alike 3.0 Unported.
Giraffe source: Luca Galluzzi used with permission under creative commons attribution share-alike 2.5 unported.


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