I LIVED and worked in Bulawayo â€“â€“ Zimbabweâ€™s second and friendliest city for almost four happy years and am always pleased at any reason to return.
For long I helped conceptualise and man trade fair exhibits, usually wangling three or four weeks a year at a decent “Skies” hotel, or a stay at the architecturally spectacular pleasing Cape colonial Bulawayo Club. The city had more, better and much cheaper restaurants than the capital; these days the same applies, certainly in the respective CBDs.
I have mainly only passed through Bulawayo in recent years, snatching a drink or sandwich, driving to Victoria Falls or Hwange or touching down at the airport. Ten months ago, we booked into Bulawayo Rainbow Hotel late Sunday when it had little or no water, depending on which floor you were on. Leaving early next day, it was impossible to have a stare at the many attractions. Certainly not the case on a recent sojourn to “The City of Kings” (all two of them!). I erred, telling Val Bell, boss of the Publicity Association I would be there five days and pleased to cover the type of tales my readers enjoy. Her schedule would have taken a keen, eager, hungry, ambitious cub reporter (are there any these days?) a month to handle. I had to extend the stay three days and must return soon.
But I didnâ€™t explain to her an overnight stay at Matobo Hills Lodge was pencilled in, also a trip to Francistown, Botswana, to witness the tragic human tsunami of folk fleeing their famished homeland, seeking succour in pastures newâ€¦ and to buy a few essentials and â€“â€“ candidly to have an albeit brief “sanity break” from the stress of Zimbabwean life. The second a Zimbabwe Immigration Department EXIT stamp hits my passport it seems a tonne weight leaves my shoulders.
It would be my first visit to Francistown â€“â€“ then a tumbledown, dusty, dirty, grit-in-your-eye, almost Wild West-style frontier, dorp â€“â€“ for 32 years, but I was in the booming, buoyant Chobe-Kasane tourist/safari areas 11 months earlier.
Thirty-two years ago, Francistown folk visited this then war-torn nation, allegedly crippled by sanctions, to buy essentials like toilet paper, candles, tinned, frozen and dried foodstuffs, fish, fruit, veg, cooking oil, motor spares, tyres, toiletries and muti, wines, beer and spirits, cigarettes, DIY gear, petrol, diesel, oil, paraffin and cooking gas and to have vehicles serviced. Now it is the opposite! We go to Botswana either permanently or shopping in droves!
Due to a lack of Zesa and water I had left home after a flask of tepid tea, biscuit and apple, so was ready for Rainbow Hotelâ€™s table dâ€™hote Sunday lunch but disappointed the trademark groaning buffet/carvery wasnâ€™t available. Food shortages and erratic price controls of the hospitality sector caused a â€“â€“ hopefully temporary â€“â€“ demise of some hotel buffets. Lunch was cream of carrot and orange soup, a sophisticated concoction with rolls and butter, then chicken “umbrellas”: barbecued meaty, tender, flavourful drumsticks; a fresh fruit salad with ice-cream and pleasant coffee. A table companion had a juicy rump steak from the a la carte. It would have been even juicier had he not wanted it well done: “gochaed”: an order many snooty First World chefs would decline.
I suppose I could (and maybe should) have pounded the wide Bulawayo streets, seeking stories and pictures that afternoon.
But I had had a full business and social calendar Wednesday to Saturday (in fact for weeks). My humble business room was upgraded to a breathtaking Hollywood-style suite: lounge with giant tan leather sofa, matching chairs, writing bureau (nowhere near plug for laptop!), coffee table with a massively well-stocked fruit bowl, paring knife and finger bowl, flowers, nuts, crisps and equipped mini-bar (but no openerâ€¦enter reliable Swiss Army knife!)
Remote controlled DStv was there and in the bedroom, with enormous bed, desk (with plug.) The huge bathroom had deep tub and needle-point shower. Water was scalding and plentiful, albeit in Bulawayoâ€™s typical, slightly-opaque-to-weak-tea, mineral-rich hue.
It was definitely chill-out time until supper at one of Bulawayoâ€™s two great steak houses: The Cattleman (open Sundays, shut Mondays) which you can read about in Sundayâ€™s Standard, along with details of the cityâ€™s other steak joint: Golden Spur (open Mondays, closes Sundays) and various other spots.