American Bill Bryson in his book ‘Notes from a Small Island’ wryly observed that us Brits have the idea that Britain is a big place and therefore we have a unique and private sense of distance. After my second road trip in Southern Africa, I’ve found myself living up to the stereotype. I used to think driving the 415 miles (668 km) from Edinburgh to London was an epic and exhausting road trip, but I’m quickly realising that if you want to explore Southern Africa by road then a paltry 415 miles is not really very far at all. Southern Africa is vast and when you factor in the bureaucracy, perplexity and commotion of border check points then a road trip here truly does become ‘epic and exhausting’.
Once you escape the bustle of down-town Harare there is very little to appreciate as you travel south through Zimbabwe’s Midlands. Dry, bleached country-side, highway toll points, tiresome police checkpoints and wandering cattle and donkeys keep you occupied until you reach the classic crossroads town of Masvingo. From here you can head west to Bulawayo, visit the historical Great Zimbabwe ruins nearby or continue on south towards the infamous Beitbridge border point, where the scenery somewhat improves as you pass lush, green countryside studded with huge granite formations.
I don’t think I will ever get used to African border crossing points. After passing through several borders on my New Year’s road trip to Cape Maclear, I assumed that Beitbridge, being a more established and well-travelled border checkpoint, would be more organised and straightforward. How wrong can one be!! I’ve quickly come to realise that negotiating any border by road in Southern Africa involves a confusing, sweaty hour of shuffling from one place to another, never entirely sure of what you are actually doing. Leaving the chaos of Beitbridge behind the drive continues south into Limpopo through the stunning Waterbury mountains where you pass through the Hendrik Verwoerd tunnels on route to Pretoria.
Pretoria is one of those capital cities, like Ottawa or Canberra that is often overshadowed by its more well-known sister cities. Old handsome buildings, stately Union Buildings and wide streets lined with Jacaranda trees certainly make Pretoria a place worth visiting. The highlight for me was the hugely impressive 9-metre-high bronze statue of Nelson Mandela standing outside the Union Buildings, once synonymous with apartheid South Africa, with his welcoming arms embracing a new South Africa.
What stands out driving from Harare to Pretoria and back is the stark contrast between Zimbabwe and South Africa. Geographically next door neighbours they also seem a million miles apart. Zimbabwe’s dilapidated infrastructure and crumbling, litter strewn highways give way to a modern and clean South Africa with infrastructure to match any first world country. My visit was short but I can’t wait to visit South Africa again and fortunately I don’t have long to wait. This Easter weekend I will be Cape Town bound, where I will get the chance to climb Table Mountain ticking off the first item of my Southern African adventure bucket list. …..and this time I’ll definitely be flying.
Below is a time-lapse of my 1065km journey condensed into 2 minutes.