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posted 1 Aug 2012, 03:24 by Robert McLaren


Having said goodbye to Zimbabwe, I am back again in Johannesburg again. I want to share the story of how that was accomplished.

Many people already know about Nzou - my 1983 Ford Cortina, appropriately named ‘The Elephant’ for her lifetime of unstinting service, to all sorts of places, with all sorts of loads and for all sorts of reasons. For one, if the history of theatre and the arts in Zimbabwe is ever written and does not include at least a paragraph on Nzou, it is no history! No-one mentions Alexander the Great without paying tribute to his horse, Bucephalus, so how can anything be said about theatre and the arts in Zimbabwe without mentioning this untiring and intrepid elephant?

Having had my eye operation in Harare, I had to wait two weeks before I could travel. But I had decided to drive down in Nzou as I need a car here in South Africa and I also needed to carry a whole lot of my books, papers, office equipment, household and kitchen utensils and clothes to my new home.

But it is a long way and Nzou, though it has made the journey countless times, is now getting old. However I got our local mechanic, Va Makhonya, working on it as part of a planned refurbishment of the old beast and finally was able to leave on Thursday morning. Not everything is yet working -  for instance, the rear left side lights, the speedometer, the oil gauge and in particular the fuel and the temperature gauges. The latter have somehow got linked and so when the temperature suddenly soars into the red for no apparent or real reason, the fuel gauge keeps it company so one can never be quite certain when the engine is going to overheat or when the petrol is going to run out.

The 480 km run from Harare to Bubi River, about 70 kms from the border, was mercifully uneventful. This was the stretch I was dreading as a lot of it is very far from any habitation and in some places from mobile phone network. Also the stretch from Masvingo to the border is now notorious for armed gangs that swoop on travellers if they happen to stop on the side of the road. Anything could have happened - but it didn't, and Nzou spent the night peacefully with her relatives at the Lion and Elephant Motel.

The worst was almost over. I wallowed in the luxury of a bath full of water. The fact that it was cold made no difference. It was water and we had not seen proper water for more than a couple of days for the entire six weeks I spent at our house in the Harare suburb of Marlborough. After a good meal and a restful night, we set out for the most dangerous stretch of all - Bubi River to Beit Bridge. I did not want Nzou to break down then - and it didn't.

Once I was over the border in South Africa I felt a lot better. If anything went wrong, somebody could be contacted and something done about it. All went well till I passed a place called Mookgopong, formerly Naboomspruit. It was now getting late in the afternoon and I did not relish driving any more, especially after dark in the rush hour of the Friday evening traffic. In a way, Nzou solved the problem for me. Suddenly the alternator let out a wild screech, not dissimilar to that of an elephant in pain, and seized solid.

I phoned my daughter, Gugu, in johannesburg to get the AA to arrange a tow truck for me. There were some anxious moments as the shadows fell and I was stuck on the side of the busy N1 highway all by myself. But eventually Chibi, a tall and expert Shangana-speaking man, pitched up and loaded Nzou onto his truck. He did a hair-raising U-turn across four lanes of speeding South African cars that bore very little family resemblance to Nzou, and he had me in Mookgopong in a matter of minutes. There I was given the number of an auto electrician to phone, by the name of Andre, and he was the proverbial Good Samaritan. He found me a very comfortable B and B with the best shower in the whole world - this time the water was hot - and then whipped out the alternator. Next morning after breakfast he was back with it, repaired and ready to go.

And with it, by midday, I managed to drive into Johannesburg with my load and Nzou. So a journey we used to do over and over again in one day, took us two and a half - but Nzou had done it and that was all that mattered. Even the alternator was not her fault. It was our negligence. We should have attended to it in Harare where it was already beginning to make complaining noises. But what if the alternator had seized somewhere out in the bush on the Zimbabwean side of the border! 

The drama wasn't quite over because when I tried to drive up the drive into the house, Nzou got stuck. I forgot to mention earlier that she really does need rear shock absorbers and, being heavily loaded, the exhaust simply impaled her on the tarmac. We had to unload and carry things into the house so that I could gently coax her off the rocks.

And then what a homecoming! Such relief, such a sense of achievement, that Nzou had made it and we were safely at the end of our 1,200 km journey. I am afraid to say that too much wine and whiskey was drunk and by the time I made my way off into the garden to my cottage and a good night's sleep, I knew for one of the first times in my life what it means to be 'legless'.