Gweru to Victoria Falls via Bulawayo, Zimbabwe
Mugabe’s propaganda machine continues to manufacture anti-British and American sentiment while the queues for bread are the longest yet. More importantly, Tom gets trapped inside a toilet on the Victoria Falls overnight train.
Bulawayo seemed to be suffering greatly from the downturn in tourism, far
more than Harare. Shaka’s Spear, a hostel we had chosen, had closed down,
another casualty of the economic meltdown. Instead, we stayed at friendly
Berkeley Place in a double with ensuite shower for Z$3000. Circle Tours,
affiliated with the hostel, had closed their curio shop a while ago,
auctioning off their stock when Bulawayo had become devoid of tourists. At
the internet cafe it was the same old story, the owner commented that few
travellers passed through these days, deterred by the adverse publicity.
The morning news bulletin reported that the Government was trying to crack
down on people reselling mealie meal, cooking oil and bread at exorbitant
prices. Enterprising locals were hoarding these food stuffs to resell at
three times the normal price. The leading newspaper headline was: “Woman In
Bulawayo Bites Police Officer”. This unfortunate woman joined the queue
for bread a second time, even though shoppers were limited to purchasing one
loaf per day. When bakery staff refused to serve her, she threatened
violence, so a policeman was called to restrain her.
After spending a week in Zimbabwe, the queues for bread are the longest yet.
Bakery security guards were shuffling people into side alleys so they did
not block the pavements. Even ‘Wimpy’ wasn’t immune from the food
shortages, running out of flour to make waffles and ice cream.
The terrifying pro-Government propaganda continued unabated in newspapers,
painting a rosy picture of rural life and defending land reform policy:
“The Government has allocated more than 300,000 landless people plots with
an additional 154,000 to be resettled, boosting food production. This is
despite resistance from local white farmers, their cousins in Britain and
the United States working in cahoots with the local puppets from the MDC.”
“The farmers should be left to get on with the job of producing food for the
nation to prove wrong the many prophets of doom in our midst who believe in
the misguided notion that the indigenous people of this country owe their
existence to white commerical farmers.”
“It is however disheartening to note that while the rest of the people are
working for the recovery of the economy, some soulless individuals in the
MDC and trying to sabotage the agrarian reforms.”
The newspapers are filled page upon page with articles just like this one
and yet I have not met one Zimbabwean who agrees with the Government. Since
reading this article, I have heard rumours that the land is often being
reallocated to Mugabe’s Government ministers and supporters, not the average
Zimbabwean that longs to provide for his family.
Our next destination was the mighty Victoria Falls. For a mere Z$1800, we
could travel overnight in a first class coupe sleeper (for two people) in
relative luxury. I nearly fainted when I was told the price; bedding was an
The train was scheduled to depart at 7:00pm arriving at Victoria Falls at
7:00am. Platform 4 was designated for our train, but railway staff
instructed us to wait outside their office until names were posted on a
board assigning sleeper compartments. There were literally hundreds of
people waiting for the train crammed onto platform 1 and restrained behind
an iron chain by railway staff. I felt we were lucky that we could wait
unmolested outside the office. To calm the unsettled masses, music that was
a cross between 1940s music hall and traditional church hymns was broadcast
over loudspeakers. We were treated to renditions of “Morning Has Broken”
and “Amazing Grace”. It loses its appeal after listening to it for the
fifth time, however soothing.
At 6:45pm, railway staff informed us that the train was late, but we could
now wait over at the notice board. The hoardes of people being held back
were finally allowed to charge down to platform 4. At 7:10pm, the long
awaited sleeper compartment names were posted on the board. This unleashed
a mad scramble at the board, just like being back at school when exam
results are displayed.
Our compartment had an upper and lower berth, a sink, extractor fan,
fold-down table, mirrors on every surface (the designer must have had a
kinky streak) and a night light. The lights didn’t come on until we left
(an hour late) at 8:00pm. Tom visited the buffet car but they only had
fizzy drinks for sale. Another problem was that the buffet car lights were
not working, so the bar and diners had to rely on candles.
While I was kept company by my new found friends, the cockroaches, Tom mad
a fateful trip to the toilet, only to discover once inside the cubicle, that
he was trapped in the pitch black. The door refused to budge so he yelled
for help, beating incessantly on the door. I never heard a thing, lying
comfortably on the lower berth. In fact, the noise of the train rocking
over the tracks drowned out all Tom’s pleas for help. Eventually he
found a hole in the door that he could insert his finger into, to wrench the
door open, bruising his knuckles in the process.
Victoria Falls is one of those peculiar places that I felt I had a duty to
visit rather than it being on my main highlights list. It’s rather like
travelling to India, and on returning friends exclaiming “You didn’t go to
the Taj Mahal?” Not visiting Ayers Rock in Australia would also be
Victoria Falls does have a wow factor but at the end of the day it is just
another waterfall. (I know, I’m a heathen and I don’t appreciate natural
beauty enough). Why the small, charmless village has become an adrenalin
activity mecca, is hard to fathom. Touts persistently hassle tourists to
change money, get a taxi, buy a soap stone hippo (I already have four) and
raft down the Zambezi. The restaurants and accommodation are overpriced
compared with the rest of Zimbabwe – it deserves its tag of ‘tourist trap’.
Everyone gazes at you as if there is a dollar sign swirling above your head.
My advice is save your hard earned cash to do the same activities for a
third of the price in South Africa. If you can’t resist, then you could
easily blow your budget on the following (all prices in US dollars): white
water rafting ($95), helicopter flight ($150), flight of the angels ($55 for
20 mins), elephant ride ($90), bungee jump ($90), Chobe National Park 2 days
($250), Hwange National Park 2 days ($260).
We walked to Victoria Falls Park, avoiding the bush path due to warnings of
muggings. For a hefty US $20 each, we could visit the numerous view points
to our heart’s content. Once inside, we could hear in the distance the
rumble from an enormous volume of water tumbling over the rocks.
Victoria Falls is approximately 1000km from the source of the Zambezi. At
1078 metres wide, it is the greatest curtain of falling water in the world.
The highest point of the falls create a plunge pool of 108 metres deep. The
Devil’s Cataract is the first view point where the mist rises from the
steamy cauldron of water at the bottom of the gorge. The Main Falls are
just as impressive but I imagine the spray and sheer volume of water is
spectacular in wet season. Horseshoe Falls was a trickle of water, so we
moved onto Danger Point that permits a breath taking view down to the bottom
of a stunning gorge; churning emerald green water rapids flow into an area
known as the Boiling Pot.
After three hours of view points, it was unbelievably hot, so we stopped at a
water fountain. Here we met a well dressed, middle-aged British couple
staying at the Victoria Falls Hotel. They had spent two weeks in Botswana
on safari (I suspected that the cost of their holiday probably equalled the
cost of our whole trip). They hated Zimbabwe, telling us that the locals
were rude and unhelpful. Unimpressed by the luxurious Victoria Falls Hotel,
they couldn’t wait to leave. I tried to assure them that Victoria Falls is
very different from the rest of Zimbabwe, where everyone has been so
welcoming and friendly. I urged them to explore Zimbabwe’s other delights.
We were reunited with Natasha and Jason again, indulging in huge foldover
pizzas for dinner, while they related how they had walked with lions in
Gweru three times. Natasha had a cautionary tale to tell us – she had been
mugged walking back to Pat’s Place (the cheapest hostel in town). So what
possessed us to walk back in the pitch black to Savannah Lodge? All
seasoned travellers have moments of madness and my heart was in my throat
when four men approached us. Petrified we sprinted back to the lodge, not
looking back. Luckily, no harm was done.
Just when you think that it is safe to leave the confines of your room, an
overland truck materialises to ruin the peace. Hysterical, shrieking
girlies ran riot in the grounds of Savannah Lodge, letting off steam after
their sundowner cruise. Not a chance of being able to get a decent night’s
sleep – if I could have slapped them round the face I would have done, just
to shut them up. I’m such a killjoy!