On a frosty Tuesday morning there are rumours of snow, while a tornado swirls through Johannesburg. I'm glad to be getting out. This will be my sixth trip to Zimbabwe but only my second to Bulawayo, and I'm looking forward to reconnecting with the country and its second city.
Makhaya Ntini is on the same flight - he was at CSA's 25-year anniversary dinner the night before - and so is debutant Test umpire Michael Gough and members of the television production crew. They won't be working for African broadcaster SuperSport, though. The rights have only been acquired by Ten Sports, which means the series will not be broadcast on the continent.
We arrive in Bulawayo to clear skies and comforting sunshine. The airport has been refurbished from the tin shed it was five years ago, and there is now a small room to receive international flights. The queue snakes around it. When the security officer sees I have written "journalist" as my occupation, he asks to see my Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC). I don't have it as I have only been in Zimbabwe for five minutes. He makes me wait. Everyone else goes through, including the television crew, whose names are on a list sent by the ZMC. The officer says my name is not on the list. An hour later, when we check again, it is. I am let through with permission to get my ZMC card in 24 hours.
My only memory of Queens Sports Club is from the Pakistan Test in 2011. Since then, I have been to several other grounds around the world, so it's fair to say the recollection isn't fresh, but I am struck by the contrast of how run-down yet ready it looks for Test cricket. The walls have collected dust but are being washed in preparation for the match, a window in the media box is cracked from being hit, and the bar and the seats in the corporate suites are almost falling apart. But access is easy and the internet works - the two most important things for a journalist.
For the players, the most important thing is the pitch and this one looks flat. Ntini says his men are ready to show what they can do on it after last having played a Test 20 months ago.
Alas, Zimbabwe are anything but ready. Neil Wagner extracts a surprising amount of bounce and they are all out for 164. Perhaps the health of their game really has deteriorated as much as was feared.
I'm staying at Sondela Lodge, the guest house I stayed at last time around, and it is still run by the same people. The manager, Prudence, even remembers me. Prudence does everything from booking cabs to cooking dinner (on request). Best of all, the lodge has a new occupant, a one-and-a-half-year-old Jack Russell called Buddy. We become buddies immediately.
New Zealand bed in for a big total, and any excitement is to be found off the field. There's a new restaurant in town called the Deck, which overlooks the pool at a lodge. It's Friday night and full but we manage to share a table with a local called Lazarus, who lives in the US and has returned home for a visit. He regales us with conversation about whether his home country can rise from the almost dead, and we conclude that he does not think so.
After tumbling to 17 for 4, Zimbabwe manage to drag the Test into a fourth day. That should be good news for everyone, but with a serious bug doing the rounds, most people would rather have the day off. Neither Sean Williams nor Regis Chakabva have been able to take the field, with flu and tonsilitis respectively. I haven't been afflicted and want to quarantine myself until it is over.
As I enter the ground, I see Chantelle Williams, wife of Sean. She can barely speak, having coughed her throat ragged. She manages to tell me that Sean has recovered slightly. I am amazed she has arrived at the ground, but she would not have wanted to miss today. Sean is in to bat in the second over and does not look like a man who spent the last two days in bed. He plays with freedom, while Graeme Cremer holds his end up. Zimbabwe are starting to come alive. They lose anyway, but they have things to smile about.
I interview Vusi Sibanda and Prince Masvaure, who are at opposite ends of the international-cricket spectrum. Sibanda, who is 32, seems on the way out and is trying to stay relevant, Masvaure, at 27, has just arrived and is looking to establish himself. On the veranda of a cute coffee shop called Middy's, I write their stories.
Five days between Tests is a real luxury. Sondela's owner kindly agrees to us borrowing his car and we head to Matopos, 50km away. It's an area known for rolling hills, rhinos, granite balancing rocks, and cave paintings. On arrival, we are immediately directed to the Nswatugi cave, which has one of the best preserved examples of rock art in the world: a panoramic portrait of a migration that spreads across the back wall, complete with giraffe, buck, and warriors holding spears. Outside the cave, we climb a little higher for amazing views over the area. It is breathtaking.
South Africa have announced their Test squad to take on New Zealand later in the month. AB de Villiers and Morne Morkel will both miss out with injury, which is big news. Even on an apparent day off, there's no rest.
At 8:30am, Norman, a fountain of knowledge on the Matopos, picks us up for a rhino walk. He was with the New Zealand team yesterday, and took them for a game drive at Heath Streak's farm. "They definitely let off some steam."
About half an hour into the drive, Norman receives information from the trackers that they have found rhino around the vlei (seasonal lake). We park the truck and walk about two kilometres through long grass before we see them. A mother and two calves. Norman keeps us some distance away while the zebras sound warning calls to each other about the presence of foreigners in their territory. Once they trot away and the rhinos continue eating, we move closer. Eventually there are only 20 metres between us and them. I have seen rhinos before in the wild, but never from this close up.
I spend most of the day writing about a call for fans to stage a peaceful protest at the second Test. Pastor Evan Mawarire, who founded the #thisflag movement, has posted a video on YouTube and it has gone viral. I talk to many locals who are eager to join the action but also scared.
Later, the guest house owner's niece is giving a yoga class. Just a block away from Sondela is a sanctuary called Stillhaven. A colonial-style house has been converted into a wellness centre, complete with fairy garden, a health café and a studio offering yoga and pilates classes. Although I run regularly on a tour, it's nice to get in my some of my other favourite activities in too.
Chris Mpofu and John Nyumbu have both joined with Zimbabwe for training. Mpofu is as lean and not mean as ever, and he looks good in the nets but is unsure if he will play. "I pray so," he tells me when we catch up later. Nyumbu seems a more certain starter. After a lengthy period bowling, he straps on the pads. "Donald [Tiripano] set the standard in the last match. I've got to perfect the block," he jokes.
While Nyumbu gets on with his session, PJ Moor comes over to introduce himself. I'm a little taken aback because cricketers are seldom so forthcoming. "Sean's century in the first Test was an inspiration. Hopefully someone else can follow up," he says. Little does he know, he will get close.
There is a large police presence at Queens in anticipation of the protest, but early on, the action takes place outside. A group of protesters from Women of Zimbabwe Arise demonstrate outside the main gate against bond notes - the currency that is being mooted instead of the dollar. Their leader, Jenni Williams, tries to use a handmade note to buy a ticket into the stadium. She is denied entrance and then sits at the gate, refusing to move. Several female police officers eventually lift her into the back of a van and drive her away as she shouts at them, fist in the air. It's a sobering thing to see.
In the 36th over, the crowd rise to sing their national anthem. At first there is barely a whisper but they soon find their voice. They sing it through three times and finish with a stirring cry of "Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe." On the field, the players are chasing leather but for the moment, that does not matter. Something bigger is happening in the country.
A power cut hits Queens a few minutes into the third session. As a result, there is also no internet. Tafadzwa, who has been taking care of the media all series, assures us it will return "in five minutes". Half an hour later he comes back with the news that the problem is city-wide and will take a few hours to fix. As stumps approaches, I do not have a connection to send my story. New Zealand Cricket's media team let me use their phones to let the office know.
My guest house receives power from the same grid as the ground, so I know there will be no point going there. The only option is the Holiday Inn, the team hotel. I walk in as though I have been staying there all along and boldly ask for an internet voucher. The receptionist gives it to me as though she knows me, and I settle down at the bar to work.
Craig Ervine becomes Zimbabwe's second centurion of the series. Since meeting him five years ago, I have wanted to write the story of how he recovered from almost losing his hand to playing international cricket, but the details are sketchy in my mind. In haste, I reach out to his brother Sean, who fills me in and tells me how proud he is of Craig.
In South Africa, four players have been banned for their involvement in match-fixing. A long day of work ends with a meal cooked by Prudence, and Buddy sleeping on my lap.
I was not in Zimbabwe for the Bulawayo Test five years ago against New Zealand but it looks like I will get an action replay. After a New Zealand declaration, Zimbabwe are zoning in on trying to bat out the match, like they almost did then. Lance Klusener, their batting coach, is convinced they will be able to, but I'm wondering if the Zimbabweans are wishing he could pad up for them and do it himself.
In a frenetic 44 minutes after lunch, aided by some poor umpiring calls, New Zealand dismantle Zimbabwe. In the aftermath, I interview Cremer, who seems the right man to take them forward.
There is only one flight out of Bulawayo to Johannesburg daily, and the entire New Zealand contingent and the broadcast crew are on it. New Zealand's logistics manager, Riaan Muller (who used to be with South Africa), tells me the flight is overbooked and if I don't check in online, I may be booted off. I follow his instructions but I'm still a little nervous of whether I will get home. Then again, it might not be so bad to stay.