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Pole to Pole

Day 120: Bulawayo

Michael Palin - Pole to PoleFrom the moment our night train rolls at a leisurely pace through a cutting and past the line-side greeting 'Welcome to Friendly Bulawayo', the illusion of being in Surrey circa 1958 begins.

Steam engines are at work shunting goods-wagons and big yellow diesels bring in expresses from Plumtree and Mafikeng, made up of varnished wood coaches with clerestory roofs.

We drive out to our hotel along wide streets - when they were laid out by the early settlers they had to be wide enough for a team of oxen to turn without backing up.

There have been changes - Selborne Avenue has become Leopold Takawira Avenue, Rhodes Street has become George Silikunda Street, and Grey Street, Birchenough Road and Queen's Road have all been subsumed into Robert Mugabe Way - but this is still a city of boarding-schools and bowling clubs, and when whites talk about it being multiracial they mean it includes Scots, Irish, Germans and South Africans.

There are cricket pitches and even an Ascot Racecourse. The high street shops are British of the pre-Tesco era, with names like Haddon and Sly, Townsend and Butcher, Stirling House, Forbes and Edgars, while some, like Kaufmanns and A. Radowsky, established 1907, reveal a Jewish influence among the early settlers.

The roads are full of Morris Minors, Hillman Minxes, Ford Anglias and solid old bicycles with delivery frames on the front, and at Mikles Store the 'Early Xmas Sale' begins today.

Not everything is comfortable and assured - an ominous sign in the centre of the city reads 'Save Water. Only twenty-two weeks water left in our dams' - but after Sudan, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Zambia, I have to pinch myself to make sure that I am awake and that Bulawayo is not some figment of my paracodeine-drugged mind.

This evening there is a four-hour thunderstorm and a downpour which should add a day or two more to the water supplies. After the rains, which broke a hot and humid day, the air is full of winged insects, committing mass hara-kiri against the windows. Paul says they're flying ants, out to find a mate, dig a hole somewhere and breed. They're eaten all over Africa, apparently, usually fried.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Pole to Pole
  • Day: 120
  • Country/sea: Zimbabwe
  • Place: Bulawayo
  • Book page no: 267

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