Bull and Bush Pub was packed to overflowing with a mix of expats and their local partners, rich multi-cultural Uni Kids with their friends, and one or two families.
It wasn’t long before I was approached by a middle-aged man drinking with friends to provide some “company” at the end of the night. Aside from being horrified, I couldn’t blame him for thinking that an overdressed woman standing at the bar alone was out looking for company, and not cursing her ancestors for what was turning into a horrible trip.
Then it started raining – summer rain with fat summer rain drops of water and big gusts of summer wind. There I was, standing at the outside bar trying to keep the bottom of my dress down so I didn’t flash the crowd; trying get as much of myself under cover as possible without rubbing up on the man next to me or spilling my drink.
Frustrated, I decided to call it a night. Standing at the entrance waiting for my cab guy, I discovered that the pub did takeaways. Finally, something was going my way. I rushed to place an order only to hear they’d just sold out of ribs and I’d be going home empty-handed. While staving off thoughts of an irretrievable trip, I started wondering how I got there.
Last December, I had the brilliant idea to do some local travelling on my annual sojourn to Zimbabwe. Aside from a national chess tournament in high school, I had never been to Bulawayo so that was my first choice; it didn’t make sense that I’d seen more of South-East Asia than my homeland.
My original plan was to attend a friend’s wedding in South Africa, then fly back to Harare with a two- or three-day stop in Bulawayo. The sheer dramatics of trying to organise such a simple return leg should have been a warning, but I was willfully blind and barreled on anyway. By dramatics, I mean cost and logistics. No matter how I tried to change dates and flight times the return trip wasn’t making financial or logistical sense (with or without the Bulawayo leg).
The flight search engine I used offered me another alternative; Johannesburg – Gaborone – Harare. It seemed like destiny – I’d finally get to start seeing more of Africa without breaking the bank.
Mistake number one – I booked my flights without checking TripAdvisor or the general interwebs to see what a young woman travelling solo could do for kicks in Gaborone. When I finally did start looking, I was met with a black hole of nothing.
Even when I turned to friends and family in Zimbabwe, assuming that someone would know someone who knew something, nothing was forthcoming, but I merely took it as an indicator of upcoming adventure.
The first hint of trouble came when I tried to get an Uber to the airport from the wedding venue; an estate outside Johannesburg. Ubiquitous as they are in Jozi, there were no Ubers available and the hotel shuttle had left before breakfast. The concierge called “a guy” he knew, but he was 45 minutes away. We ended up cutting it pretty fine, but I made it to the airport in time to catch my flight to Botswana.
I had tried to get Botswana Pula in both Australia and South Africa before my trip but none were available, so the airport in Gaborone was my last bet. Although I was the only customer at the money exchange counter, it took almost an hour to complete my transaction because “the system was down” and I had arrived at the tail-end of a tea break. When I finally made it out, I was grateful to see that my ride hadn’t given up and was still waiting for me in arrivals.
Having lived in Perth for over a decade I thought I was used to heat, but Gaborone humbled me. It was a hot, flat, treeless furnace and I had 48 hours to explore it, or so I thought. My room at the bed and breakfast wasn’t at all what I’d expected, but it was clean and had working air-conditioning so I couldn’t complain.
Mistake number 2 – it was too hot to even consider walking outside during the day. I hadn’t thought renting a car would be necessary for such a short trip. My cabbie had hinted that there wasn’t anything to see in Gabs except for Kgale Hill of “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” fame, but my enthusiasm for exploration had tuned him out.
Given that I had three new books and a fancy new journal, I was happy to lie around in my room with the air-conditioning on while I waited for cooler walking weather. When five p.m. rolled around I was ready to see what Gaborone had to offer. I set out, camera-phone in hand, to explore my neighbourhood and the city centre which was a friendly 2km walk away.
Mistake number 3 – never leave home without a hat and with exposed skin if you’re gonna walk around Gaborone. There was nothing to protect me from the relentless sun, and my shorts and tank top made me feel the sun’s heat all the more. Once in the city centre, I took a few photos of impressive government buildings including the High Court and the Ministry of Youth, Sport and Culture.
Aside from that there was just a lot of dust. Given that it was Monday I was set on going to “Bull and Bush Pub” which according to online research, was the place to go on a Monday night for half-price ribs and a taste of the local scene. I sent my cab driver a text asking him to pick me up at 7:30 and dolled myself up for a night of ribs and dranks.
Mistake number 4 – always check the dress code if you’re going somewhere unknown. While I hadn’t gone over the top, I certainly felt overdressed in my cocktail dress and strappy heels.
My cabbie’s arrival text snapped me out of my reverie. As he pulled away he casually mentioned that we’d be stopping by the clinic to pick his wife up on the way back to my place. Bizarrely enough, when I greeted her in English, the lady gave me a lecture (in English) about how she wasn’t white and didn’t want to speak English. Not sure how to respond, I just asked to pass by Nando’s on the way home so I could eat my first meal since my hotel breakfast at 8 that morning.
The local Nando’s was packed – it took almost an hour for me to order and get my meal, by which time I was well and truly over absolutely everything. Surely nothing else could go wrong, right?
Mistake number 5 – never assume that you’ve reached the end until you’ve reached the end. As we turned towards the B&B, the whole neighbourhood was pitch black thanks to load-shedding. To make it worse the B&B itself had no generator, and we pulled up to an eerily silent and still house. Thankfully there was still enough power in the gate battery for my remote to work.
Walking into the house, I was greeted by a lone candle in the hallway and my phone battery was on 1%. Fantastic. I had cold Nando’s by candlelight in my room and went to bed thinking that if nothing else, at least I’d have a good story to tell.
After hearing my lament over breakfast the following morning, the B&B owner offered to take me for a drive in the afternoon and to take me to meet some of his friends for drinks. As soon as he left the room, the power went out again. No power meant no air-conditioning and no running borehole water.
I spent the day drifting in and out of sleep due to the heat. As promised, we went for a drive to Kgale Hill that afternoon, but all I wanted to do was go back to my mother’s house in Harare and enjoy the rest of my holiday with family. Clearly my attempt at winging a trip to Botswana hadn’t worked out very well, and it was time to call it.
The next morning at Sir Seretse Khama International Airport, the woman at the foreign exchange counter offered me Canadian Dollars (!) for my remaining Pula as that was the only currency they had on hand. When I explained that I needed either U.S. Dollars or Australian Dollars she looked at me as if to say they were all the same thing and I was just being difficult.
Needless to say, I felt every minute of the additional two hour wait while my flight was delayed. Once we landed in Harare, I was ready to make peace with my ancestors for getting me home safely, and ready to enjoy life in the Sunshine City… until I reached the arrivals terminal.
Two other flights had arrived within a few minutes of ours and there was complete chaos. I’m not sure if they were checking for possible carriers of Ebola, or if they were bored, but two officials stood at the top of the stairwell and insisted on checking everyone’s passport before we could line up at the Immigration counter. I was at the back of the line slowly melting while they casually flipped through people’s passports and then allowed them to pass and enter the arrivals hall.
Keeping in mind that it was over 35 degrees, the last part of the arrivals process was the most painful: baggage claim. Remember how three flights had landed within a ten minute window? Only two baggage carousels were working and no one could tell us with any certainty which carousel had the bags from which flight.
We were all spending five to ten minutes at each carousel then swapping over in the hope that we’d find our bags and finally leave Harare International Airport. I don’t know how long it was until I found my bag, nor do I remember how long I stood in the “nothing to declare” queue to bypass Customs.
All I remember is the African mother side-eye I gave the official who tried to get me to join yet another queue to have my suitcase x-rayed.
Maybe that was why he changed his mind and waved me through, and I all but ran to my waiting family and freedom.