Chez Ncube, Bulawayo

It’s 14 hours from Johannesburg to Bulawayo on the Intercape, with two stops.

The first stop is the border town of Musina, where the bus refuels at the Engen Station. It’s 1am when we arrive and the Engen Station is a heartbreaking sight with the small patch of grass in front packed full of bodies, side by side, sitting and sleeping, men, women, and children – presumably newly arrived migrants, possibly many to become asylum seekers in South Africa. It’s a story I’ve heard countless times before.

The second stop is Beit Bridge. We disembark from the bus on the South African side, quickly queue and get our passports stamped, get back on. As the bus drives across Beit Bridge and we enter Zimbabwe, the smell of the air changes and the road becomes unpaved. The Zimbabwean side of the border is not so quick. Three hours pass as we purchase our visas ($30 for French and $75 for lucky Canadians), clear immigration, pass through customs, customs officials search our bags, the bus pulls up ahead, and our passports are again checked as we reload the bus. The border post is full of buses and large vehicles packed to the brim and people waiting, waiting, waiting.

It’s 4am by the time we are back on the bus. We fall fast asleep, and the next time I open my eyes there is a song called “It’s a Brand New Day” playing and I see a green Zimbabwean landscape whizzing past. We arrive at the N1 Hotel in downtown Bulawayo just after 8am.

We are welcomed in Bulawayo by Mrs Ncube, the mother of some good friends met in South Africa. Her house rings with classical music as we arrive and she comes out to greet us, youthful with a warm smile and bandanna tied around her neat dreadlocks. For three days, Auntie Ncube pampers us and we feel truly as if we have been taken in as part of the family. We hang out with nephew Thembani, with whom we visit the Rhodes Matopos National Park (where Cecil John Rhodes lies with his grave carved out in the rocks at the View of the World). We are also taken to meet various family members, including her memorable father – a remarkably fit and proud man in his 80s – at his home in Mpopoma. Sunday is a family outing with Mrs Ncube, her father, Thembani, and little nephew Mikey. Together we visit the Khami Ruins, the archeological remains of the capital city of the Torwa (Shona) civilization from the 15th to the 18th centuries. We are impressed by both the ruins and Grandfather Ncube, who easily hikes to the top of the ruins of the Hill Complex (which likely served as the royal residence) with the rest of us.

It is a friendly and smooth start to a long journey. On Sunday evening, as Mrs Ncube drops us at the Bulawayo train station, we say a sincere thank-you and goodbye to the comforts of our adopted Zimbabwean home and family, and mentally prepare for what is sure to be a bumpier road ahead.