The Semi-Adventures of a Nomadic Mathematician Rotating Header Image

How I Beat the Queen

After my Moldova-Russia-Azerbaijan trip, I got maddeningly close to beating the Queen Elizabeth II. She has been to at most 112 countries (some counts only go up to 103), and I was at 109. A conference trip to South Africa opened the door to another handful of countries. Given the wildlife and the political situation in the region, beating the Queen turned out to be adventurous.

The conference itself was near Durban. The city hosted another conference, it was on AIDS, attracting some twenty thousand attendees. My conference attracted about twenty attendees (including the hotel staff), which does not mean that the topic was any less important than the fight against AIDS. Quite the contrary. Nevertheless, the South African immigration facilities were designed for conferences with twenty attendees, not twenty thousand, so entering the country was as trying as getting into the US at JFK or getting out of Uzbekistan via the Friendship Bridge to Afghanistan. I made it somehow, and my immediate impression of the safety situation recalled my memories of Caracas, the only place where I had ever been robbed. South Africa is not a place for an underweight white bloke to saunter about. The sea around the country teems with sharks and nasty currents, so swapping sauntering for swimming was not an option either.

Durban sea front

Saunter not, swim not.

After the conference, I was quick to make an escape. I flew to Kasane, a tiny city close to the Chobe national park in the northern bit of Botswana. All of these countries in this part of Africa are English-speaking, which made my life infinitely easier compared to the daily struggle in West Africa four years ago. Another British heritage was impeccable order: the wild warthogs populating the streets used the zebra crossing to get from one side of the road to the other.

True British warthogs

True British warthogs.

I did the usual touristy things. First I went on a boat trip to spy on the thousands of elephants that spend their time swimming between the islands in the river and foraging. When I saw the sheer number of elephants, I realized how stupid I had been to attempt to walk the four kilometres from the Kasane airport to my lodge. I would be an even flatter person now if a guy had not stopped and given me a free ride.

The joys of mass tourism: four hundred people gawking at two elephants crossing.

The joys of mass tourism: four hundred people gawking at two elephants crossing.

Then I crossed to Zambia to have a close-up view of the Victora Falls. There is a pool that is perfectly void of current or whirls just inches away from where the water drops a hundred meters. I took a dip there. Once I had enough thrill, I crossed to Zimbabwe on a cast-iron bridge built by the British above the gorge. This side gives a much better view of the falls, but swimming is only recommended for people with suicidal tendencies. There was a marked difference between the number of selfie sticks per person and their length: on the Zimbabwean side, more people were wielding these weapons, and they were longer. I cannot seem to find a plausible explanation to this curious natural phenomenon.

Swimming possible at the top left: no sharks, no currents.

Swimming possible at the top left: no sharks, no currents.

The city of Victoria Falls was a baboon-infested tourist trap, so I wanted to get out soon. Unlike the rest of Africa, rail traffic is still very much alive in Zimbabwe, and they use the exact same 1950s trains the British left behind. My destination was the middle of the country, a city called Bulawayo. It was three hours away by bus, or sixteen hours away by a night train.

Baboon infestation.

Baboon infestation.

I love trains and the first-class ticket was only $12, so I was not dwelling much on the decision. The train was unreal. The wooden benches in economy class ($8) were not packed, there were a few people in some of the cabins in second class ($10), and out of the two first-class coaches, a total of three cabins had occupants. So I had my own cabin, complete with a fold-down steel sink made in Birmingham. I also learned a new word: passengers were kindly requested not to expectorate.

First-class, fold-down steel sink, proudly made in Birmingham. You should never expectorate in it.

First-class, fold-down steel sink, proudly made in Birmingham. You should never expectorate in it.

Bulawayo was a gem. The city was a perfectly planned British colonial post, to which post-independence zeal attached an enormous coal power plant to shroud the city in a dark, poisonous fog, but without the advantage of having consistent electricity. A chance encounter paired me up with a local guy who was involved in almost every environmental volunteer programme in the district, and we visited some of the numerous world-heritage sites around the city, both of the natural and the cultural type. He even invited me to his 40m2 apartment to dine with his wife and six children.

The God-given natural beauty of Zimbabwe.

The God-given natural beauty of Zimbabwe.

The same day I was forced to leave Zimbabwe much against my will: in the ongoing cash crisis, the country disconnected all of its ATMs from the international networks and it was impossible to get cash for a foreigner. I managed to buy a bus ticket out online. A brisk sixteen-hour ride later I was dropped in a particularly unsavoury area of Johannesburg, but at least I could get cash.

The former Zimbabwe residents who are depicted here had no issues with ATMs.

The former Zimbabwe residents who are depicted here had no issues with ATMs.

The city was so tense that I barely left the guesthouse, although I had to, because they did not have internet or a power socket compatible with my phone charger. I only had another night before my flight, but I wanted to get out of the country, so I booked a bus ticket to Swaziland.

I boarded the bus the next morning, and an hour later we smashed into a car on the highway. We were only collateral: the car in front of us hit another car, and our collision was at a lower speed as we were already breaking. Nobody was hurt, but the bus driver got out of the bus with gun in hand to have a friendly chat with the other drivers about what had happened. Looking at the neighbourhood on either side of the highway, my main worry was that the residents would pay a visit to loot us at gun point. Fortunately, the police and the paramedics were there in three minutes.

In any case, the four-hour journey turned into nine hours, and we arrived in Swaziland as it was getting dark. I spent three hours walking around on almost lit streets looking for non-existing guesthouses, thanks to the wonderful open source efforts Wikivoyage and Openstreetmap. It is on my list to edit both.

The central business district of the Swazi capital is ready for investments.

The central business district of the Swazi capital is ready for investments.

Locals were warming themselves around makeshift fires, giving me weird stares. One third of the country’s population tests HIV positive, so it is really not the best place to establish any form of unsolicited violent physical contact. Eventually I was pointed to an unmarked place in a dark street where they had a room, and I was saved. The only thing indicating that it was a guesthouse was a sign dangling on the fence that said “Right of admission reserved”.

Swaziland may have many problems, but they got a Spar.

Swaziland may have many problems, but they got a Spar.

The following morning I bought a Swazi daily newspaper while waiting for the bus back to the Johannesburg airport. This was a treasure trove. Among the usual assortment of reports on corruption by MPs, the greatness of the royal family, and the imminent rise of the Swazi economy, there was also a full-page ad on the national circumcision campaign sponsored by USAID, two pages dedicated to the latest wonders done by Jesus Christ and his contemporary Swazi followers, and it had a classified section for witchdoctors. This last one captured my attention the most. They would apply black magic for any purpose: success in gambling, love, job promotion, family fights, and so on, all with immediate effect. Here was an impoverished country run by an unchecked king, where 50% of women under forty in urban areas were HIV+, and where men went to casinos after engaging the services of witchdoctors, and everybody flocked to the tents set up by celebrity preachers on every Sunday to hear the word of God. I seldom have the pleasure to spend a few hours in a country as surreal as Swaziland.

Classifed ads like nowhere else. All sexual problems. Win casino by using oil, etc.

Classifed ads like nowhere else. All sexual problems. Win casino by using oil, etc.

When I arrived at the Johannesburg airport, I found out that Air France cabin crew was on strike, and my flights could get cancelled. The contrast was incomprehensible. I just returned from Zimbabwe because the country did not have enough cash to allow tourists to generate more cash, then I survived a small car crash where the actual danger was the potential of subsequent gun violence, I spent a night in a country where most people were carrying at least one lethal disease and used voodoo dolls to ward it off, and these jolly French declared they wanted higher pays for working less. I was speechless.

First-world problems: that plane is being loaded with strictly non-vegan food. French vegan food also joined the strike of the cabin crew.

First-world problems: that plane is being loaded with strictly non-vegan food. French vegan food also joined the strike of the cabin crew.

In the end, I handily beat the monarch: Queen 112 (at most) versus Peter 114 (exactly). Moreover, I beat her on her home turf, while visiting her majesty’s former colonies. I never felt so royal. Probably this is a good moment to stop travelling, if only it was so simple. I celebrate my victory by not travelling for three weeks.

With marketing like that, no wonder the African fitness industry is yet to take off.

With marketing like that, no wonder the African fitness industry is yet to take off. Once I give up on science and quit travelling, I will settle in Botswana and teach people how to stay puny.

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