An unusual introduction to Africa

21 September 1987 Zambia Airways 3 London Heathrow to Lusaka
22 September 1987 Air Zimbabwe 355 Lusaka to Harare

My wife, Viv

After getting married, we naturally wanted to go somewhere unusual. However, we spent the first couple of nights in London, for that is as good a place as anywhere, and we couldn't find an easy way to get to Paris for the first night. The Bloomsbury Crest is as good a place as you will find. I stumbled across it as a possibility while leafing through a Crest brochure while away on business a couple of weeks earlier. The package I had bought included First Class rail travel from anywhere in the UK, an Underground pass, breakfast and accommodation. I was very grateful for the comfort of the journey. Getting married is a very stressful experience, and we were quite exhausted by the time we said goodbye to everybody. Not quite everybody, for a small group of very close friends was at Lime Street to see us off. One, indeed, would be travelling on the same train. He selected a carriage near the back, far away from us.

On arrival in London, we validated the Underground pass, much to the surprise of the ticket officer at Euston, who didn't see why we were validating a three-day pass at after 22:00 on a Saturday night. The reason was of course quite straightforward: Saturday, Sunday and Monday were the three days, and we would be leaving on Monday night, so we might as well use it now.

On arrival in the hotel, we checked in and went up to the room. I was intrigued to find evidence that this room was already in use, so I called reception. What made me think the room was in use? I surveyed the scene, and described the ash in the ashtray, the suit in the wardrobe, the hat on the bed...they sent somebody to the room to collect our things and take us to another room, returning shortly afterwards with a complimentary bottle of wine. I still wonder whether this was a genuine administrative error, or whether it is a stunt they pull on all arriving honeymooners. Even so, I have no complaints about the hotel.

To this day, there are people who ask us why we chose to go to Zambia and to Zimbabwe for our honeymoon. There are various reasons, including a desire to travel, a desire to travel somewhere unusual, interest in visiting the Victoria Falls and in visiting a friend of my wife who was working in Zimbabwe at the time. We must not forget that I had, for a long time simply wanted to visit Zambia. It is one of those desires that people sometimes get, for which there is very little rational explanation.

We had explored various possibilities and routings, and eventually chose this route, even though it seemed to have various disadvantages, not least of which was the long wait in Lusaka for the connecting flight, and the choice of carrier. Zambia Airways were, I was told by the consolidators, "goodish" and certainly have a better reputation than the famous carrier Balkan Bulgarian, who offer low cost flights to virtually anywhere via Sofia. The Zambia option was also reasonably cheap, and went to a country we wanted to visit. The other options didn't allow the possibility of a visit to both Zimbabwe and Zambia at a decent price.

The term consolidators is given to people who issue discounted tickets by arrangement with an airline. They are often called bucket-shops, a term which I choose not to use because of bad associations. I recommend the World Travel Centre in London, who have offered good service to me on several occasions, although this was the only time I ever bought tickets through them.

Balkan Bulgarian, Zambia Airways and other carriers like them are keen to offer flights at low prices through consolidators because it is a convenient and relatively cheap way of acquiring foreign exchange currency. Nobody would normally pay the full fare on these third world airlines, so the consolidators make sure that the seats are filled by somebody (either foreign nationals who choose a cheap carrier or country nationals who can only pay for international flights in local currency if they use the local carrier). However, there is considerable debate among economists whether this is cost- effective. Although revenue is generally in hard currency, so are expenses: fuel, overseas salaries, landing charges and the cost of the aeroplanes themselves are all significant figures. Then we discover that even Air New Zealand is the largest earner of foreign exchange for its country.

The tickets arrived, and we reserved some accommodation to go with them, in Harare. One unusual feature of them, or at least unusual for us, was that the return journey was OPEN, which obviously meant that at some point we would have to make reservations for the return flight. We attempted to do this while in London. The Central London Air Terminal at Victoria, run in those days by British Caledonian, is an efficient centre, and allows Gatwick passengers to check in without needing to visit the airport. The girl at the computer screen at Victoria found, however, that she was not able to make just a flight reservation, and needed to enter some other transaction into the system at the same time. So we made a hotel reservation for Lusaka, at the hotel where we had already decided to stay.

Then came the bad news. I'm sorry, that flight is already full. Could you put us on the waiting list? No, that is full too. We can make reservations for you in Business Class, but that will cost an extra one hundred and twenty pounds each, payable on departure from Lusaka. Reluctantly, I took that option, hoping like Micawber that something would turn up.

She couldn't understand it, said the Caledonian girl. Our flights on that route are never full. I could have told her what made the difference: British Caledonian didn't offer a large number of their tickets at cut prices to consolidators.

The next day, we arrived at Heathrow's Terminal 3. Most noticeable was that the pace of it was much less than at Terminal 4. We put this down to the fact that it contains, on the whole, long haul flights of foreign carriers, whose native tongue is not English.

Each terminal at Heathrow has its own character. Terminal 1 looks after internal flights and short international flights by British carriers, and provides a short check-in time at a very busy terminal. Terminal 2 looks after short international flights, generally by European carriers. Check-in times are longer, but still quite short. Terminal 2 is slightly more re- laxed. Terminal 3 looks after long haul foreign carriers, and many of the flights here have a very long check-in time. Terminal 3's policy seems to assume less familiarity with travel or English. Lastly, Terminal 4 serves British Airways long haul flights including Concorde, plus flights to Paris, Amsterdam and Athens. Undoubtedly it is seen as Heathrow's prestige terminal.

We checked in in good time, and chose some good seats. The simplicity of the seat allocation here was brilliant, and one which I had never seen done for an aeroplane as large as a DC-10 before. There are numerous check-in desks who issue boarding passes and collect tickets, but all seat allocation comes from one desk. At this, we have a diagram of the aeroplane, and all the seats have stickers on them, which are transferred to board- ing passes. If there is still a sticker on the diagram, then the seat has not yet been allocated.

We went through to the international lounge, and waited. It was interesting to see the unusual carriers' names up on the board. Before long, our flight was called. As we got on, we noticed that very few of the passengers on board looked like tourists, but then, Lusaka is not noted as a popular tourist destination. In any case, as from time to time we might all be tourists, can we characterise what one looks like anyway?

All meals served on flights from Heathrow, with very few exceptions, originate in the same kitchens, so it was interesting to see that this flight offered cuisine which was not just the typical British or Western European fare. It was a very acceptable meal, and indeed, the whole level of service was one which I would commend. Strange, for I didn't think it would be at all good.

Lusaka is not a busy airport, so we didn't have to queue before landing. Queuing at immigration was a surprise: we didn't. This was because we never legally entered Zambia, but were kept in the transit lounge. Lusaka transit lounge is a place I will never forget.

Once, it was very well appointed, with all amenities and everything that one might expect, but it is sadly neglected. This description also fits everything else in Zambia.

Drinks were available and all hard currency, even coins, were accepted in payment. Change tended to be in kwacha, not noted for their convertibility. Lunch was served with the compliments of the carrier, but was not to a high standard. The security guard, it seemed, had never seen any British money. Could I show him some? So far as I know, he is still looking at it.

There was only a limited amount to do in this intriguing lounge, so we were grateful when after about ten hours there, our flight to Harare was called. As we had checked in in good time, (just after arrival in Lusaka, to be precise) we had seats on the very front row.

Embarking in Lusaka, there is one important thing to remember, which I think would be a great success at all airports, though in fairness, impossible to implement at the busy ones. All the luggage is laid out on the tarmac. As you board the aeroplane, you point out your baggage. Any baggage not pointed out is not loaded onto the aircraft and it is as simple as that.

The flight to Harare takes about an hour, during which time we were served with a snack meal. We were grateful for better food and drink. One surprise was the high meat content in the snack. I would have expected much less meat to be available. This turned out not to be true at all anywhere we went in Zimbabwe.

We collected our baggage in Harare and got a cab to the hotel, where we arrived just in time for evening meal. The Meikles Hotel in Harare city centre is justifiably described as one of the great hotels of the world. However, throughout this part of Africa, many excellent hotels seem to be available at modest prices. We spent a couple of days looking around Harare and district. A nature reserve and an authentic village both of whose names I have forgotten were the highlights of the experience.

I have failed to mention jacaranda, a beautiful purplish tree which is seen in many parts, but only in the springtime. Fortunately for us, they were in full blossom while we were there. Jacaranda is very special in the hearts of the Zimbabweans, though apparently it is an introduced plant which comes originally from Australia. Be that as it may, it is not something to miss.

After this, it was time to catch the overnight sleeper train to Mutare, in the east of the country on the Mozambique border. The station staff were obviously fascinated to see white faces on this decidedly non-tourist route. First class sleeper compartments on Zimbabwe trains are very good indeed, and modestly priced.

We had reserved and paid for our sleepers in advance, and were surprised when as we arrived at the station, the station-master came up to us, addressing us by name and showing us to our compartment. When Stanley encountered Livingstone, he was identified simply by having white skin, and I suspect it was like that here. The journey took us overnight and overland to Mutare Station, where our friend met us.

After one night in Mutare, we hitch-hiked to Watsomba, some twenty minutes by car outside Mutare, which was the township where our friend lived. It was striking to see what a township was really like, having heard so much about the South African ones in the media. Few people live in a township itself: they are more likely to live in buildings nearby. The township of Watsomba consists of several houses, a couple of general stores, a Post Office, and a couple of beer halls, along the main road from Mutare to Juliasdale. Other houses, a church and a school are further away. The most surprising thing I saw was no less than seven Coca-Cola signs on various stores on the main road. This is undoubtedly global marketing.

On Sunday, we decided to take a trip into the mountains, but this didn't work out too well. Hitch-hiking is safe in Zimbabwe, but unreliable. We waited in the mist for a couple of hours for a lift. Eventually it came, in the shape of an army truck. This is, of course, illegal. They were only able to take us as far as Juliasdale, where we spent some time in the grounds of the Montclair Casino Hotel, enjoying the barbecue of much meat and sadza.

A little while, and it was time to hitch back to Watsomba. Another couple of days, and we were hitching back to Mutare, from where we took the train back to Harare, and spent another day there, before going to the cinema in the evening. We saw Frederick Forsyth's The Fourth Protocol, which is a much more interesting film to see in Zimbabwe than in England, for some of the action centres around the South African Embassy in London, and results in quite a reaction from the local people. After the film, it was time to catch the train to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second city and industrial centre, for the next day.

Bulawayo is quite a different place to Harare. The people are different and the weather is hotter. The parks and the fountain must not be missed. If you go to the railway museum, don't be like us. We took our cameras, but forgot to take any photographs while we were there. Overnight from there on a steam train to Victoria Falls. This is probably the only route on which I have travelled on a real steam train, not just put there for the tourists. All the steam lines in Britain are just stretches of preserved line and locomotives. This was the real thing, and the breakfast was good too. When we arrived at Victoria Falls, we stayed at the Victoria Falls Hotel, and if you visit the area, you should do the same.

Next page
Previous page
Back home