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Thanks, Gideon


There I was, sitting in a hostel in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.  Suddenly alone after leaving my travelling companions of five weeks, I sat feeling strangely isolated yet excited by the new and challenging situation I found myself in.  It was tough saying goodbye to people I had spent nearly every waking hour with for over a month as we travelled from Kenya, through Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia and finally Zimbabwe.  We had been in Victoria Falls for a few days so my surroundings were not completely unfamiliar to me – I had strolled up and down the bustling main street, hired a mountain bike for the day and ridden (with an enthusiastic young guide) around the town and along the nearby Zambezi River and made the obligatory visit to the unashamedly colonialist Victoria Falls Hotel for “high tea” where myself and some of my more unruly friends made a bit of a mess of our scones and cream.

Then there was the Falls themselves – there is a reason these waterfalls are World Heritage listed and considered one of the seven wonders of the world.  They are truly magnificent and I was thoroughly overwhelmed by the sheer power of them.  First discovered by Europeans in 1855 by the famous African explorer David Livingstone, the 1700m wide chasm of the falls separate Zimbabwe from Zambia and attract tourists from all over the world.  As I ambled along the well-built walkway around the perimeter of the falls I felt as if I’d entered a magical, mysterious world – the spray of the falling water creating an almost constant misty rain over the surrounding rainforest while the rumble of the masses of water crashing into the pools below after an 100m drop overtook all other sound.  Yet again – as I had been many times in the past few weeks during my time on the African continent – I was awestruck.

Now, I sat outside in the small but well maintained hostel, surrounded by similarly weary-looking travellers, sipping a beer and basking in the late afternoon sunlight, appreciating that wonderful time of day in Africa when it feels as if the whole world is winding down, preparing for the darkness to envelop the land and the night to begin.  I sat writing in my journal, relaying my feelings at leaving my friends and my slight concern as to exactly how I was going to get to Johannesburg in four days to catch my flight to Europe.  The fact that the airline I was travelling on had announced its collapse a few weeks ago when I was somewhere in the deserts of northern Kenya didn’t help my confidence levels.  Just as I was wondering if it wouldn’t be an entirely stupid idea to hitch-hike to Johannesburg, a young, sandy-haired man approached my table.

“G’day, how’s it going?  I saw you wave goodbye to all your mates.  How long are you here for?”  he said casually in a very broad Australian accent.  Just when you think you are as far away from home (my home being Australia) as possible, you encounter a fellow Antipodean. Whether it be in a run-down bus station in Scotland, Heathrow airport at 3am while trying to sleep upright in a very uncomfortable chair or a youth hostel in Zimbabwe – there always seemed to be an Australian close by. I was actually quite comforted to hear his accent and we immediately began chatting.  He was from Queensland and spent a few months of every year in Zimbabwe buying local art and crafts before taking them back to Australia to sell in his shop.  He tried to pay a fair price to the Zimbabwean artisans, while also making a living himself.  It was a good life he thought. He loved Zimbabwe and spent weeks on end driving around in his Ute, catching up with old friends and making new acquaintances.  But, he surmised, it was always nice to get on the plane for home too, especially since things in Zimbabwe aren’t exactly safe in some places.  He told me of a terrifying ordeal a few months ago when he was stopped by a gang of men who called themselves “war veterans” but couldn’t have been more than 17 or 18 on a dusty track just out of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city.  The men were suspicious of him and his Ute full of goods and questioned him, all the while pointing a semi-automatic machine gun to his head.  They then made him sit on the side of the road while they stood around talking, smoking, laughing and playing with their weapons.  After a few hours, a local policeman who knew my Australian friend stopped and explained to his captors who he was and that he posed no threat.  He was released with no further questions, some of the men even shook his hand and smiled as he shakily climbed back into his vehicle.

After this story, and a few more anecdotal exchanges we headed into downtown Victoria Falls, where we met some others we recognised from the hostel and had an enjoyable evening relaying experiences of travelling in Africa.  I told my new friends about my predicament as to how I was going to get to Johannesburg in time for my flight and a young Danish backpacker named Stefan informed me of a notice on the pin-up board at the hostel offering a lift to Jo’burg for $US25.  Stefan said he was being collected at 6am the next morning and was sure there would be room for me.  So, after a few too many beers and a couple of hours sleep, I presented myself the next morning, hoping I could get a lift.  Here I met Gideon, a large strong-looking middle-aged man dressed in shorts, shirt and boots who said he was a tour guide from South Africa and was on his way home to Pretoria (near Jo’burg).  He spoke with a thick Afrikaner accent.  He was friendly looking and his offer seemed genuine.  I accepted, mainly because I didn’t feel as though I had much of a choice – my plane left in four days and I’d heard the bus service from Victoria Falls to Jo’burg was dubious and uncomfortable to say the least.

We slung our backpacks into the back of Gideon’s truck-like car and off we went.  The first few hours passed quickly and quietly – Gideon hardly spoke while Stefan and I both dozed until lunch time.  We stopped at dusty roadside petrol station, Gideon asked us gently what we’d like to eat and came back a few minutes later with sandwiches, fruit and soft drink.  The food was part of the $US25 we had paid him back in Vic Falls he informed us.  We ate in between polite banter.  It was very difficult to get any long-running conversation happening with our driver, but he was courteous, friendly and obliging.  After a few more hours of driving we arrived at the Zimbabwe/Botswana border.  We showed our passports to the sleepy looking officials, they gave us a stamp, a smile and a wave and we were let through, no questions asked.

We were still driving as evening began to fall, I watched out the window as the sky turned from blue to purple, pink, red and orange, a few wispy clouds catching the last rays of the setting sun, providing us with a magical sunset – one of the best I had seen in Africa so far.  We had been driving for over 12 hours and I was starting to wonder if Gideon planned to drive the whole way to Jo’burg in one session.  An hour or so after the sun had disappeared and shadow had covered the land, Gideon left the main road and we drove along a bumpy dirt track.  After a while we pulled up to what looked like a campsite, with a few little cabins dotted around.  The place was deserted – or as far as I could tell in the darkness.  Gideon informed us this was where we would spend the night. It was a lodge owned by one of his friends, situated on the Limpopo River, it was mostly frequented by game hunters.  His friend wasn’t here but had said we were welcome to stay.  We cooked a simple dinner and after a couple of glasses of red wine, we were all more than ready to retire to bed.  I wondered if we were going to sleep in the little cabins but as Gideon began to make his bed on the ground next the truck, I assumed we wouldn’t.  Stefan and Gideon kindly allowed me to sleep in the rather large and roomy back seat of the vehicle.  I fell into slumber immediately.

The next morning, Gideon had breakfast cooking on the little gas stove when I awoke – eggs, bacon and tomatoes.  There was orange juice and coffee, Gideon passing a steaming cup to me as I struggled to wake up after a long, deep sleep.  Again, he didn’t say much, but he was certainly looking after us.  I felt at ease in his presence and was suddenly quite overwhelmed by my good fortune in finding this man and his truck.
After a couple of coffees and a brief exploration of my surroundings in the light of day, I was adequately awake enough to pack up my sleeping gear and prepare for another long day of driving.  Gideon said something about going to stay with another of his friends who owned a game reserve just inside the Botswana/South Africa border.  We drove through Botswana, passing through a few towns along the way. We passed a large group of young girls in bright purple school uniforms – they waved madly at us as we sailed past, smiling and laughing.  The rest of the landscape was relatively barren and empty – the occasional tree or shrub interrupting the view of endless grassy plains.  I liked the loneliness my surroundings evoked in me – a loneliness that could be embraced with the knowledge that I was merely passing through.

After a few hours Gideon slowed and we took a turn onto another bumpy, dusty track.  We entered what I assumed was the game park he had mentioned and pulled up not far inside the gates.  Gideon got out of the driver’s seat without a word and started walking away from us.  My Danish companion and I looked at each other questioningly and decided to follow.  As we rounded a clump of trees, we saw Gideon waving at a helicopter that was circling above, spinning around rather menacingly.  After a few alarming twists and turns, the helicopter landed and the engine was turned off. A burly man with dark hair and a thick moustache disembarked and gave Gideon a vigorous shake of the hand.  Stefan and I were introduced to Steve.  He was friendly and proved to be far more talkative than Gideon in only a few minutes.  He owned this game reserve and would be putting us up for the night.  He had been conducting a survey of his vast property in the helicopter, noting where the herds of game were and if there were any unwanted visitors such as lions or leopards prowling around.

We arrived at Steve’s headquarters – a small yet spacious cottage surrounded by a few small wooden buildings where we would be sleeping. Steve suggested he give us a tour of his reserve and we all piled into a small roofless jeep and headed off into the bush, just as the sun was sinking low in the sky.  We drove around for an hour or so, Steve explaining to us what kind of animals he had, how easy it was to hunt them and how much businessmen up from Jo’burg or Durban paid for a weekend hunting.  He told us to keep a special eye out for leopards – he needed to shoot them because they were killing the game.  I had seen a leopard in the wild from only a few metres away in Tanzania and I wasn’t too enthusiastic to point out one of these majestic creatures for Steve to kill in front of me.  Thankfully, there were no leopards to be seen.

Steve took us to the top of a rocky outcrop where we were treated to a wonderful view of the expanse of his reserve and the land beyond.  After some photographing and looking through binoculars at some gazelles grazing on the plain below, we headed back to camp.  As we were driving along a track beside a creek, without any warning, Steve hurled the jeep down into the creek and attempted to drive up the steep bank on the other side.  Not surprisingly we became stuck.  Steve and Gideon just laughed and said casually that we’d have to walk back to our quarters.  Strange.  After an hour or so we were back at the settlement – tired, dusty and rather hungry.  It was quite dark now and our hosts set about preparing a huge barbeque meal.  We sat in the still, warm evening eating and conversing on many topics including South African politics.  Gideon and especially Steve – both Afrikaner South Africans – had some interesting points to make about Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress and his successor and current president of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki.  Was South Africa a better place since the ANC took power?  It is becoming increasingly harder to tell they thought.  Does Mandela deserve all the accolades that are laid upon him by the West?  Gideon thought he did but Steve wasn’t sure.  Will Mbeki be able to rescue South Africa from poverty, unemployment and the increasing problem of HIV/AIDS? They doubted it. A lively yet respectful debate followed. As the night wore on, the desire for sleep overtook me and I retired to my very comfortable bed, in a strange, unfamiliar land – a place I never knew existed until a few hours ago but was, for this night at least, where I was to lay my weary head until morning.

The next day we set off relatively early, Steve was to accompany us the rest of the way to Jo’burg. The rest of the journey was through a relatively deserted landscape of grassland savannahs, empty plains and the occasional rolling hill dotted with those wonderful flat-topped trees (called Umbrella Thorn Acacias) that are indicative that one is in Africa.  I was feeling quite relieved as we made our way into the outskirts of Jo’burg, knowing that I was closer to finding out whether or not my flight still existed.  I was sincerely hoping the collapsed SwissAir would have arranged some sort of alternative.

We left Steve after taking him to his home in a leafy outer Johannesburg suburb with wide streets and nice looking houses.  The main difference between this suburb and a similar one in Britain, Australia or the United States was the ominous presence of huge wrought iron bars around all the properties and huge signs warning of ferocious guard dogs.  Some even boasted the use of private security guards after dark.  The crime must be quite bad I thought.  Gideon said it probably isn’t as bad as us in the West are led to believe, but it is still a major problem in South Africa and especially Johannesburg.

After leaving Steve, Gideon deposited Stefan and I at a hostel in another leafy part of Johannesburg, shook our hands, smiled genially and bade us farewell.  Then he was off – my gentle, quiet host for the past few days who had looked after me and delivered me safely to my destination – drove away into another glorious sunset.  I had spent the better part of three days in the presence of someone I hardly knew and now I would most likely never see him again.  What an experience.

I did catch my flight back to Europe.  Swissair had thoughtfully transferred its passengers to another airline.  24 hours after Gideon left me in Jo’burg I found myself in the cold, sterile surroundings of Zurich airport – a far cry from the sun-baked, lively and colourful continent I left a few hours earlier. I was exhausted after 6 weeks in Africa and thankful I had made the long journey from the hostel in Victoria Falls to Zurich with ease.  As I made my way through Swiss customs I thought with affection at the experience I had just had – one of those travel experiences that could never have been predicted, but will never be forgotten.

Thank you Gideon. I hope you are happy and well wherever you are.

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