It’s a little after 5am, and we’re on the road out to the airport in Harare to catch a 7am flight to Johannesburg. Anne’s driving us, and in the pre-dawn darkness she’s telling us why you should avoid driving around Harare when it’s dark and, if you have happen to find yourself on the roads then, why you should never, ever stop at red lights. Especially on Airport Road. “They wait for you at the lights, ya. Then they come rushing out of the bushes and smash your car windows, taking anything they can. Sometimes they’ll wait in the airport parking lot and cut your of your tires just enough to give you a slow leak, and then phone their friends down the road who are waiting for you to pull over and fix the tire. It’s bloody scary, ya! So that’s why you don’t see anyone stopping at the lights around here after dark.” As Anne’s regaling us with her favorite Harare tourist and driving tips we find ourselves behind an omnibus, and as the bus approaches the intersection in front of us it comes to a stop at the light, which is red, forcing us to do the same. “Oh no,” Anne says, “this isn’t good.” Too close to the bus’ back bumper, with another car approaching us from behind, we can’t easily navigate around it. So instead, we start scanning the nearby bushes, nervously waiting for the inevitable attack on our car. “This is not good at all, ya.”
If you like piña coladas, and getting caught in the rain / If you’re not into yoga, if you have half-a-brain / If you like making love at midnight, in the dunes of the cape / I’m the lady you’ve looked for, write to me and escape.
-Rupert Holmes, “Escape – The Piña Colada Song.”
The suitcases stand at attention outside our river tent. Inside, it’s empty save for a small collection of odds and ends we won’t be taking with us. Water bottles and work gloves, which we’ll donate to Antelope Park for future vols to use; and various toiletries, which we’ll be provided with at our next stop, Elephant Plains. We take one final look around, then stand against the railing facing the river, looking out towards the Ps enclosure. The vols taking them on their morning walk won’t be arriving for a few more minutes. Instinctively, I eeoww, wondering if the cubs can hear me. After a second eeoww both Penya and Paza pad up to the fence line facing the river and look across at us inquisitively. Our hearts lift. “Hello, girls! Just wanted to say goodbye and wish you well. Going to miss you bunches! Eeoww.” They look at us with hopeful expressions, probably thinking we’re on our way over to take them out; and for a long minute I consider doing just that, but the suitcases remind me that, in no uncertain terms, am I to break rank. So Kim and I wave to Penya and Paza from across the water, acknowledging with sadness the slowly rising river of time and distance that has begun to be placed between us and the lions here.
We rendezvous at the roadside between the vol lounge and the dining area. Peggy, Kay, David, and Julie are all making the trip to Harare with us, with “Bunny Colvin” driving. Nathan and Leigh-Ann have come to see us off, along with Chris and Sharon. We hug everyone goodbye – laughing to hide any tears. I look around for JB, but he’s nowhere to be seen. When we shook hands last evening I asked if I’d see him this morning before we left, but he said that he doesn’t like goodbyes – something I understand, because with so many vols rotating in and out every few weeks it’s best sometimes to keep your distance. We pile in the mini-van where Peggy has, once again, ensconced herself up front in the passenger seat, leaving the middle two seats to me and Kim; with David, Julie, and Kay crammed into the back row. It is not, by any means, comfortable. Whatever illusions Kim and I had of the seats we’re now in being plush and comfortable with plenty of leg room, as we stared at them longingly from the back seat on our trip to the Great Zimbabwe Ruins a week ago, have been firmly quashed. It just looks more roomy, nothing more.
We promise to rotate seats with those in the back row when we stop down the road during our four-hour drive to Harare, but that stop never comes. All three have flights to catch later in the day, so we speed through as fast as we can without stopping. As we roll our way down the highway I put on headphones and listen to the first music I’ve heard since the flight over. It’s the “Cocktail Hour” side of the mixtape Kim and I made for our wedding. Coltrane shifts into DJ Krush; Syd Barrett picks up where Malvina Reynolds has left off. I lean my head against the window and watch the country roll by. Beat up, ages-old vehicles crammed with people pass us on their way to points unknown, to be met by officers in shiny new BMWs at the waiting toll booths. A number of people are on old beach cruiser bicycles, some of which are kitted out with shiny chrome rims and retro-looking front lights that look like hood ornaments from classic American cars. Families walk up the roadside pulling suitcases behind them; standing in burned-out bush amidst the endless trash that stretches along the highways from one end of this country to the other; waiting for an omnibus to arrive or for some other vehicle to pull over and give them a lift.
Fortunately for us, we don’t find ourselves giving a lift to any unwanted soldiers on our way to Harare; probably because Liz isn’t with us. fIREHOSE’s cover of Daniel Johnston’s “Walking the Cow” is now playing, and as Mike Watt sings the refrain – “lucky stars in your eyes” – I get a tap on my shoulder from David. He’s received a text from someone back home in England. “Rupert Holmes,” he says. “Really?” I ask, brows raised. “Yup. Rupert Holmes.” For several days now we’ve been having an ongoing discussion on who sings “The Piña Colada Song.” It’s been stuck in my head since that first game drive, when I mentioned aloud how good a piña colada sounded. Since then, a number of us have been trying to figure out who sang it. Jimmy Buffet, Kenny Loggins – even Willie Nelson’s name was put forth. So when David got a cell signal on the road he texted a friend back home for official confirmation. Word back down the line: Rupert Holmes.
The hours pass, our legs stiffen, and we all have “The Piña Colada Song” stuck in our head, some of us humming aloud the one or two lines we know. Kay has fallen asleep, her head between her knees in some kind of emergency crash landing yoga position. When she wakes up she looks at her watch and starts to worry about making her flight. As Bunny pulls up to the curbside at the airport we all fall out of the back and try desperately to make our legs work again. Kay is frantically pulling her suitcase out of the trailer we’ve towed behind us. We all give her a quick hug goodbye, promise to meet up again and have a piña colada, and watch as she rushes inside to check in for her flight. And then there were five.
David and Julie are also unloading their bags, not quite as rushed as Kay, as their flight is not leaving for another few hours. We hug, make the same promises of piña coladas, and watch them disappear inside the terminal. And then there were three.
Bunny then proceeds to drive me, Kim, and Peggy to the parking lot of the Rainbow Towers in central Harare, where our journey first began, and where we’re reunited with the indefatigable Anne Williams. After a warm hug and kiss hello, Anne loads us up into her car and starts driving us out to the guest house, where we’ll be staying the night before flying out early tomorrow morning. As we’re leaving the parking lot we once again pass under the shadow of the ZANU-PF headquarters, and I again look up at the building, wondering if Robert Mugabe is inside looking back down. I’ve almost finished reading Peter Godwin’s The Fear, which I started on our way into Zimbabwe, and as I look up at the giant rooster atop the building (the symbol of the ZANU-PF party), I want to ask Mugabe how he could do such terrible, horrible things to his people, and I want to ask him what his end game is. How long can you keep beating, torturing, and killing your fellow countrymen until there’s nothing left, for you or anyone else? How long? To what end?
These thoughts stay in my mind as Anne drives us down Chancellor Avenue and past the State House, the official presidential residence. Each side of the avenue has upraised blockades and a presidential honor guard stands at its entrance, their rifles tipped with very sharp-looking bayonets. Nathan once told me that, when he was younger, he was hurriedly making his way to the Royal Harare Golf Club, which sits next to the State House, and cut across a corner of its grounds because he was late. He was immediately rushed upon by soldiers who put their bayonets up against his neck and held him until they were convinced both he and his bag of golf clubs were not a threat to the president. All because he stepped on a corner of the grounds. Anne tells us that they close the road nightly between 6pm and 6am, and anyone caught driving down Chancellor Avenue after dark is to be shot, on orders of the president. Welcome to Zimbabwe. TIZ, motherfuckers.
We arrive at the guest house. Dixon greets us with his wide, toothless, heartwarming smile, and helps us bring our luggage in. He then makes us grilled ham sandwiches, which Peggy, Kim, and I enjoy out on the veranda while drinking coffee and spending a quiet afternoon talking with each other. At 5pm, Anne returns to pick Peggy up. Her flight doesn’t leave until the middle of the night, but Anne says it’s unwise to drive after dark in Harare, so she’s going to take Peggy now, and Peggy will have to spend eight or so hours at the airport entertaining herself before her flight leaves. So we give Peggy a warm hug and wish her well. And then there was just me and Kim.
Dixon bids us farewell for the evening, and we’re alone in the guest house until Anne returns early tomorrow morning to round us up for our flight. Since we have a narrow window of time in which to make our connecting bush flight from Johannesburg to Sabi Sands, Kim and I decide to repack our luggage similarly to how we arrived in Zimbabwe: fitting everything we can into our carry-on bags, assuming we’ll lose our checked pieces. We also have weight restrictions on our bush flight, so even if our checked luggage does come through unscathed and without delay we’ll still need to leave it behind with the charter flight company. Best to plan for the worst now while we have the luxury of doing so.
Finishing up what feels like an exercise in re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic, I step back out onto the veranda, crack open a Heineken, light up one of the Romeo y Julieta cigarellos David left me with (thanks, David!), and catch up on some writing. We feel very alone in the guest house – very alone – and are a bit unnerved by it. It feels like a safe house: keep the doors locked and the windows shut, don’t go out anywhere, don’t talk to anyone, and keep a low profile. By the time I finish my second beer and cigarello, it’s dark out. I lock the door to the veranda, make sure all the other exterior doors and windows are shut, and retire to our bedroom; making sure our bedroom door is also locked before turning in for the night.
A little before 5am, Anne arrives to take us to the airport. As we’re traveling down Airport Road in the pre-dawn darkness we listen to her tell us how you shouldn’t be driving around Harare when it’s dark out, especially not on Airport Road; and how you should never stop for red lights, because oftentimes there are hooligans waiting in the bushes at the intersections who will run up and smash your car windows in an attempt to grab anything of value that you might have. “Especially not on Airport Road,” she says. So it’s with some surprise that I see her pull up behind an omnibus, and that when the omnibus slows and stops for a red light at an intersection, we do the same. “Oh no,” Anne says, “this isn’t good.” Too close to the bus’ back bumper, with another car approaching us from behind, we can’t easily navigate around it. So instead, we start scanning the bushes near the intersection, nervously waiting for the inevitable attack on our car. “This is not good at all, ya.”
My eyes dart furtively across the intersection to each corner, trying to see in the darkness if anyone is waiting to jump out at us. I have visions of glass breaking against my face and unknown hands shoving their way into the car, attempting to grab whatever they can. I’ve made it through Zimbabwe without being eaten by lions and without being shot by soldiers on our way to orphanages. For the past two weeks I’ve worn zip-off pants without complaint, and I’ve even completely avoided running across any snakes in the bush; something I dreaded was going to be an unfortunate inevitability. I’ve put up with all of that only to wind up being mugged in the early morning darkness while on our way out of the country, in sight of the airport. TIZ, motherfuckers.
I look at Anne, and she’s also nervously looking around. The car behind us quickly reverses and pulls out around ours, running the red light. I keep waiting for Anne to do the same, but she doesn’t. After a very tense thirty seconds the light finally turns green and the omnibus pulls through the intersection, with our car fast on its heels. “Phew,” says Anne, laughing nervously. “That was a bit nerve-wracking, ya!” Only just, Anne. Only just.
At the same curbside where we dropped off Kay, David, and Julie less than twenty-four hours earlier, we bid goodbye to Anne. Such a wonderful, wonderful lady; although I’m not sure I want to be in a car with her again anytime soon. Kim and I head into the terminal. With a few minutes until the check-in counter opens we sit down and breathe a sigh of relief, happy to have arrived here unscathed. The counters are supposed to open at 6am, and at 6:05am when they haven’t a Chinese businessman goes up to an airport employee, taps his wristwatch aggressively and starts loudly complaining. “6am! 6am!” Tap, tap, tap. The employee shrugs his shoulders. TIZ, motherfucker.
When the counter does open, the Chinese man pushes past us and goes straight to the front of the line, demanding to be issued his boarding pass, still tapping his watch. Kim and I follow, and once we check our luggage we head to security. At immigration we’re greeted by a young gentleman who asks for our passports. “Good morning,” I say.”How are you?” He looks me straight in the eyes and with a huge smile replies, “I am blessed! Thank you for so much for asking!” and then waves us through. TIZ.
The next stop is security screening, where we put our carry-ons down on the conveyor belt to be scanned and walk through the metal detector. The lady running the scanner asks us to open up our luggage, concerned about something she’s seen. Kim and I immediately think it’s our copy of The Fear, and worry that we’re going to finally be arrested for carrying around something that’s been deemed “subversive literature.” It turns out she is interested in one of our books, but not The Fear. Instead, it’s our copy of the National Audubon Society’s Field Guide to African Wildlife. For what reason, we do not know. She thumbs through it, apparently satisfied it doesn’t contain anything subversive – because, you know, detailing the characteristics of Mellivora capensis is such a thought crime! – and then waves us through. TIZ, motherfuckers.
Inside the terminal I finally see a picture of Mugabe. It’s the first picture of him I’ve seen anywhere in Zimbabwe; something I’m surprised by. I start wondering if that’s the reason Michael was detained by intelligence officers when he first arrived. He did have a nasty habit of filming everything he could. The South African Airways crew assigned to our flight arrives early, and it looks like we’ll be rolling out of the gate several minutes ahead of time. As we take our seats at the front of the plane and watch the other passengers board, I see “Gabe” – the South African student filmmaker who joined us on an Early Morning Encounter where the MK’s made a zebra kill – making his way down the aisle and trying to find his seat, still looking as disheveled as the last time I saw him. Small world. TIZ.
Everyone onboard, I look at my watch – 6:55am – and think to myself: Right now, the Ps are being walked and I bet Penya’s trying to ankle tap one of the vols. Cheeky little Penya. Seatbelts fastened, emergency crash landing yoga positions explained, the plane pulls out from the terminal and makes its way slowly down the tarmac towards the runway. Right now, Lewa and Laili are probably scampering up their favorite tree, and maybe this time Lewa’s feeling just a little bit more confident. At the edge of the runway, the plane turns, straightens itself, and pauses briefly. Right now, Wakanaka, Milo, and the rest of the Ngamo Pride are probably eyeing some impala in the distance and thinking about how good breakfast sounds. Thrusters engaged, the jet’s engines let out a howl and my body pushes into the back of my seat as we go barreling down the runway. Pulling away from the ground, I look out the window. Right now, we’re leaving Zimbabwe, leaving the lions, leaving our hearts behind.
And then there were none.