Gas up or bust

Rating: NNNNNHARARE, Zimbabwe -- There's no way out of town. Not on wheels, anyway. Rental cars have dried up. The.

Rating: NNNNN

HARARE, Zimbabwe — There’s no way out of town. Not on wheels, anyway. Rental cars have dried up. The tour bus from the Monomotapa hotel was cancelled.

It’s my only day to see what lies beyond this city, and I’m stuck in Harare. Stranded in this tower with its courtly Shona staff and its hundred election observers from the European Union. Nobody’s going anywhere.

There’s no race war raging outside. There’s just no gas.

Folks blame it on Bob. “Bob” is what people call President Robert Gabriel Mugabe — one way of turning his nation-crippling antics and his little Hitler moustache into harmless quirks.

Bob’s been hinting that the Brits are behind the fuel shortage. But that’s not what I hear. I hear tankers are standing docked in Durban, full of fuel for the cars on these streets, cars that park all night in mile-long petrol queues, with their owners sleeping in them. But Bob can’t afford to pay.

I’m never going to get out of here. I’ll have spent three weeks in a CNN hot zone and never got further than the Sam Levy mall. Typical.

I want Zimbabwe. I want the headline Zimbabwe. I want to fall into the middle of righteous war veterans storming Rhodesian farms. I even brought a camera.

Slaughtered weekly

I keep reading that Bob has squandered all the foreign currency, that white farmers are slaughtered weekly, that one in four Zimbabweans is HIV-positive. So why does no blood flow in these streets?

The only odd thing is that the street lamps are out. At night, the city is dark and quiet. Police roadblocks will do that.

One night I’m in a car with my host, Ben, and three of the writers I’m training here. We’ve been eating stewed chicken, drinking South African red. We’re packed five into his little Beemer. A cop waves Ben out of the car.

“Open the trunk!” he barks. “What have you got in that trunk?”

We tense up. No telling what a bored cop on a dark road will do.

“Trunk full of submachine guns!” he shouts. He laughs his head off. Ben joins him, nervously. What the hell is going on?

This place is supposed to be a powder keg. But all I see in Harare are petty annoyances. The banks stopped selling U.S. dollars. It takes longer to get home now. If you’ve got gas.

Which I don’t. But I’ve set my heart on Dzimbadzamabwe, and it’s a four-hour drive away.

Dzimbadzamabwe is better known as Great Zimbabwe. From the 12th to the 16th century it was the home of Shona kings. They had it built from mountains of granite bricks, engineered without a speck of mortar. It’s the African equivalent of Hastings castle, and it’s the place that gives Zimbabwe its name. There’s nothing like it between here and the pyramids, but I can’t get there unless I walk. I give up.

Then Ben steps in with a connection. He lends me the company car, a little Nissan Sunny. With a full tank. He knows somebody. Harare’s like everywhere else — the more juice you’ve got, the more juice you get. I hit the road.

The straw-coloured veldt stretches out forever. Somebody’s spray-painted an opposition MDC sign on the asphalt. People have been killed for less lately. But there’s no sign of the land war out here. Not yet.

By Mvuma, I need gas. Back in the 70s, the Rhodesians designated this place a “European area” and forced blacks off the land that fed them, the land where their ancestors are buried. Now Mvuma is white farmland. And it has gas.

Two hours later, I pull into the Great Zimbabwe Hotel just in time for the last tour of the day.

As the sky darkens, we climb the steep granite rocks. But the tour is too fast and I’m too distracted to take it all in. I scramble up and down, shooting off my super-8 camera. Shona royalty lived here 800 years ago. Eight hundred years. But all I notice is that I’m losing the light. And the king’s throne smells of piss.

The next morning I learn why. Up at dawn, I make the climb alone. Mist drifts across the rocks, and for the first time I feel how magical this place is. I glimpse what it must have felt like for the Arab and Chinese traders who visited, seeking an audience with the king and his spirit medium.

Acrid smell

The breeze carries the acrid smell, and with it a high, screeching croak. I nearly jump out of my skin. I take the camera from my face and look up. Baboons. Striding around up near the king’s throne. When the tourists leave for the day, they run this place.

Two days later I’m on the road again, this time to the airport. There’s another roadblock up ahead. The cops stop us and politely ask me to open my suitcase.

Shona society reminds me so much of Barbados. People tuck their shirts in here. They stand in queues. The Namibians to the west, say the Shona, are oversexed. The local Ndebele are pushy. And the British? Well, words fail.

“What is this?” the cop asks.

“It’s a camera,” I say.

He looks dubious. He picks up my Bolex 155, with its moulded black pistol grip.

“A super-8 camera,” I insist.

And it’s been to Dzimbadzamabwe.

cameronb@nowtoronto.comGas up or bust

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