In my book ‘Red Inks’, I wrote a story titled ‘ON MOSI-OA-TUNYA ROAD’. This was based on actual events from my first overseas trip. That one event had an extraordinary effect on my holiday and my life, for a number of reasons – such as 13 years of being teased about my first trip to France – but its broader impact on my life, how I view the world and my place in it, makes it a story that I wanted to tell in Red Inks. I wrote this piece as a travel article that was never published. In it, I talk about two of the most important people in my life, whose kindness, support and friendship, saved my life. I am grateful to Zohra Aly, who edited it so wonderfully.
Jacarandas were in bloom as I checked the view from my Harare hotel room. The dawn light caught on the mass of purple flowers while a neon sign showed me the way to the ANZ Bank. It was my first morning in a foreign country. It was also the second anniversary of Mum’s death.
Grief had been my constant companion for two years. Dad died within six months of Mum, and six months after that, my Aunty died. Those jacarandas outside the hotel could have been Australian and that neon sign is common in Australia. But I wasn’t at home. I was in a deep hole of self-pity. It’s fair to say that I was angry at the world. I was 24. I didn’t know how else to cope.
Harare, Zimbabwe was a vibrant city at the time. An all pervading smell and taste of dirt served as a constant reminder that this part of Africa was struggling with a drought that had entered its sixth year.
With Livingstone for my surname, I was a curiosity to locals and fellow travellers alike. Was I related to Dr David Livingstone: doctor, missionary, explorer? Wherever I went, people remembered my name. Well, not my first name. I was simply called ‘Livingstone’ – at the bank, hotels, by police.
I flew to Victoria Falls, where a school friend had been teaching when I booked my trip. By the time I arrived, she was long gone, driven out by the drought. I was left alone to wallow in my destructive thoughts.
When I sat down to dinner at my Victoria Falls hotel, I’d already met and been shown friendship and kindness by other travellers, who shared dinner, day trips and the mist from Mosi-oa-Tunya (Victoria Falls). But they’d all moved on and I was eating dinner alone when I was approached by an American man, who introduced himself as Monty. He invited me to join him and his companions for a post-dinner drink.
Lorna and Julian were Brits, who met Monty a few days earlier on a kayaking trip on the Zambezi.
The next morning when I caught up with Lorna and Julian walking the kilometre into the town, I invited myself to join them on a bike ride across the border into Zambia to Livingstone. This was a town I was desperate to visit. The town museum kept Dr Livingstone’s travelling trunk and I wanted to see it. I should have felt ashamed for imposing on Lorna and Julian’s trip. I didn’t. Either they were extraordinarily polite or they took pity on the solo Aussie traveller.
Plans were made for the next day. Bikes were hired and small denominations of Zim dollars were acquired.
Once in Zambia, Julian and I clambered down to the base of Victoria Falls, joking about what we’d do if we were confronted by a lion.
Our adventure in Livingstone began with meeting two bold schoolboys, who chatted to us, not necessarily in English. Inside the museum, I was given permission to photograph Dr Livingstone’s trunk and its contents before my bicycle succumbed to a flat tyre. We found a garage whose employees expertly patched my puncture and sent us on our way. Being blonde, Lorna found herself the centre of unwelcome attention, stared at and her bottom pinched regularly. With my brunette locks, I on the other hand, felt rather ignored.
Zambia’s poverty was confronting. The bustling market was filled with stalls selling tomatoes, the only crop that seemed to be thriving. Unlike Zimbabwe’s fixation with Coca-Cola, the only drink we could find in Livingstone was Fanta. Not my favourite but I drank it anyway. We bought some bread to go with the tomatoes. Julian, however, was allergic to tomatoes, so a diet of Fanta and bread was his lot.
Cycling out of Livingstone, Julian steamed ahead of Lorna and me. When I announced I wanted to take a photo of a green sapling amongst the brown parched landscape, Lorna rode off to catch up to him.
I’d only been riding for a few minutes after taking the photo when three men suddenly appeared at the side of the road ahead. It was a common sight. As usual, I waved and said hello. Unusually, these men did not reply. They continued walking across the road.
‘I’m going to run into them,’ I thought.
As I approached, one of the men grabbed the handlebars and before I had a chance to dismount, another man had taken the bread and bag of tomatoes from the basket at the front, and ran away.
The third man whipped off my hat, sunglasses and waist bag – containing my passport and wallet – and took off too.
The first man’s interest was drawn to my daypack. My bike was on the ground by now and, in my panic, I decided there was no way this man would get my pack. It contained my camera, the most expensive thing I’d brought on my trip. In my family of seven siblings, I was known as the loud one and the biter, habits Mum hated. I screamed loudly as I hit the ground, lying on my pack as the man reefed at the shoulder straps. His arm reached across me, determined to get my pack off. It was in the perfect position for an equally determined bite. Sorry, Mum.
Both actions had the desired effect. He released my pack’s strap.
Events are garbled after that. Julian appeared from nowhere and ran off into the bush after the bite victim. A white woman was talking. A policeman arrived. He had a rifle pointed at my chest. Julian was back. The policeman diverted his rifle to the driver of a passing vehicle, who was told to take me to the police station near the border. Julian and the policeman took the bicycles and disappeared.
We stopped for Lorna, who was on the crest of a hill. Upon seeing me, she burst into tears.
‘I thought you were dead. I thought they’d killed you,’ she cried.
Something about the tears from a woman who barely knew me but cared enough to cry because I was alive made me see things in a different light. Maybe the world didn’t have a vendetta against me after all.
Hours passed before Julian and the policeman returned, unable to find the men who had attacked me. My drama wasn’t quite over. I had no passport and all my belongings apart from my camera were in a hotel room on the other side of the border.
I burst into tears – about the tenth time since the attack. Julian rolled his eyes and gritted his teeth.
“Stop being ridiculous,” he said. “If you saw how these people live, they have nothing and you’re crying about a passport? Stop blubbering and do as I tell you.”
It was like a verbal slap across the face. Until then, I hadn’t given much thought about the desperation of the people who had mugged me. I remembered how the first thing they’d taken was the food. They hadn’t threatened me or used weapons. They wanted to eat; to feed their families. Unlike me, they didn’t have access to a supermarket filled with whatever food they desired.
Julian’s words stung but they were the words I needed to hear. My parents were dead but I was still alive. I was lucky for what I did have. His words weren’t cruel or mean. They were necessary.
A few weeks later, I was back in that same hotel in Harare. Looking out the window, the jacarandas looked different with their flowers gone. I was different too, content with my place in a complex world.