An insured beginning
Slicing through Zimbabwe in a few days seems plausible, even considering the political situation. White farmers were killed here recently; their land reclaimed. Zimbabwe has become synonymous with civil unrest. Guerrilla warfare has been on and off since ’66; claims to racial supremacy since the ‘30s. We hope to slip under the political radar and into the insignificant basket.
We cross the border from Botswana and fall into the Victoria Falls end of the country. We park our car at the border post, head into a baking tin hut where the complicated world of red tape awaits. There are no lines, but the wait is substantial; seems a prerequisite at any border post. A rickety fan is moving hot air around the room under the watchful gaze of a framed picture of Mugabe. We are welcome to enter the country, however, we need to purchase insurance for our car. It is insured for Zimbabwe, Botswana, Mozambique and South Africa, we duly inform the heat oppressed clerk. I am quickly informed we can purchase insurance outside at small ramshackle huts set up as offices. I produce my insurance papers to clear up the misunderstanding; I am greeted with a finger pointing towards said huts. We decide buying insurance wouldn’t be such a bad idea
Accommodations in Victoria Falls are at 30 percent occupancy rate while on the other side of the falls in Zambia, they are close to full; sometimes double the price. The town of Victoria Falls is like a tourist ghost town. Zimbabwe’s recent escalation of unrest, or end of the brief reprieve of relative peace, has scared off 75 percent of visitors. The number of locals trying to make a living from the tourist trade remains constant. I guess it would be the same for butchers if 75 percent of the population suddenly became vegetarians.
A white face represents either oppression or easy money. We park our car at a supermarket for supplies, and are approached by some young boys who offer to "watch" it. We get the feeling "‘watch" means they won’t put it up on blocks, in return for a nominal fee. After shopping, we return to find our car in one piece. We load our shopping; I tip the boys for their harassment. I have a handful of notes, still unaware of their real value, I tip them $20.00, thinking this is fair.
On the drive to the inn, we calculate the amount we paid for car protection. It turned out to be the equivalent of three euro cents. I made a mental note to tip more in the future, and not to park at that supermarket again. Car protection is a common career choice for young men of Zimbabwe. In some countries, kids wash windscreens at traffic lights; in Zimbabwe they run reasonably priced intimidation rackets.
We stay at Victoria Falls Backpackers. It is an oasis from the heat: a pool, a fountain and a fridge stocked with cold beer. We settle in our dorm and have a chat with the amiable owner. He is forthcoming with history, hints and tips for those interested.
We have a few hours till sundown, so we take one of his tips. There is a crocodile park close by; feeding is at four. At first I baulk at the idea, not having travelled half way round the world to see another predator get fed, plucked and skinned prey. This isn’t the suggested attraction, though. At about five past four behind the crocodile park, there is another more unique experience to be had. We drive up a dirt road leading behind the park, and wait where our new friend had instructed. We are in for a treat.
The reptile pool drains into a creek outside the park; with it comes lumps of meat the crocodiles have missed. In the wild this equates to a free meal, a zoological soup kitchen. We arrive about ten minutes before show time; there isn’t an animal to be seen. At about four, animals start arriving. First a brethren of vultures land in a dead tree, creating an ominous feeling as they silhouette against the sun. The warthogs come and repress any urge in me to stretch my legs. When standing still, the warthog is a regular beast. Long strands of stringy hair dot their tough skin. Their tusks are short, but then again, so are most pocket knives. Couple this with their wary eyes and guttural vocals, and you don’t feel like they are going to burst out a chorus of "Achuma matada" any time soon.
There are storks, not the kind that deliver babies; they look menacingly at parked cars. Water starts to flow out of a pipe and into the creek, presumably the crocodile's leftovers. Animals fight to get a front seat, warthogs charge birds, who fly off and land, only to be charged again. The vultures have little patience or fear, pecking at other birds or beasts to get their fare share of crocodile meatloaf. The scene lasts about five to ten minutes, the occasional squawk, grunt or chewing sound interrupting the silence. Then the warthogs strut around breathing hard out their noses; charging random birds out of spite. The feeding frenzy is over. I don’t know of another place where you can see warthogs, storks and vultures fight it out for crocodile crumbs.
Where the water falls
The next day we head to Victoria Falls. I am not overly excited to see them, considering they are just water falling, of which I have seen a lot. We have to fight our way from the car park to the entrance through carved goods vendors. Victoria falls is known as "Shungu Na Matitima" by the Batoka people, "Amanza Thunquayo" to the Matabeles and "Mois-oa-tunga" to the makololo. A rough translation for each of them is "the smoke that thunders". This is appropriate because you hear the falls long before you see them. Then you feel the mist created from the thousands of litres of water plummeting over them every second – like constant rain.
The approach to the falls is via a well graded track, with heavy vegetation on either side. Most of Zimbabwe's landscape is dry; only rugged plant life survives in the heat. If you look at Victoria Falls from the sky, it is an oasis. There is prolific greenery on both sides for about a kilometre. It draws a perfect green border line between Zimbabwe and Namibia, thanks to the continual mist.
I approach the first lookout point, and I begin to sense that these falls may have a reason for being famous, not least of all to the pounding water resonating in my ears. It takes my breath away. I sit and stare stupefied at the beast formerly known as water pounding the rocks. I guess there are some things that a thousand postcards can’t capture. We drift along the path, stopping at each lookout to get another view, recognizing particular angles I’ve seen on postcards.
When you see the falls, you are at eye level with the top of them. Look down into the Batoka gorge, where the water calms and devolves back into a river. This is the point you can enjoy a spot of white water rafting. I met a Japanese chap who jumped head first into the adventure activities. He went white water rafting on the Zambezi, down it on a body board, across the gorge on a flying fox and plummeted into it while bungee jumping. Victoria Falls has no shortage of adrenalin activities. I wonder if he ever saw the falls without screaming.
Upside down trees
We drive to a famous baobab tree in the area. The Baobab symbolises Africa in many ways; it is featured in numerous legends. One of them tell of the tree complaining to the gods that it wanted to be tall, like the palm tree and beautiful like the flame tree. The gods became annoyed and thrust it into the ground upside down, so they wouldn’t have to listen to it. If you look at the baobab tree during the nine months of the year when it is leafless, it resembles an upside down tree with the roots stretching to the sky. Another reason the baobab tree features in many legends may be because the locals make rope, soap, glue, rubber, medicine and condiments from it. When it is in blossom, an edible "monkey- bread" fruit is available. Every part of the tree is useful. A hollowed out tree can even act as shelter and occasionally, a unique bar. In some parts of Africa, the hollow baobab tree is used as a burial site to honour prominent people.
The following morning we head to Hwange Game Park. The park hosts the big five, along with crocodiles, warthogs and wild dogs. We spend two days there, relaxing and animal spotting before making a run for the border and our flight which leaves in four days from South Africa. The only problem we can foresee is getting fuel. Apart from a shortage of basic foods and necessities in Zimbabwe, there is also a fuel crisis. You are never guaranteed of fuel being available. If it is available, a long wait is inevitable. We go to Bulawayo; our best chance for petrol.
Bulawayo has the nation’s main museum, various art galleries and theatres. People speak more than three languages: English, Ndebele, Zulu, Xhosa, Kalinga, Shona, Suthu and SiSwati. It has the highest concentration of opposition to Robert Mugabe. It is also famous for Victorian architecture. Unfortunately, it is going to be renowned for entirely different reasons. We line up around the block for gas; we wait an hour and a half to reach the pump. I finish filling. A man approaches and tells me I have to see someone inside, whom he points to. I head inside to see what the problem is.
At this moment another man starts begging for a lift to Victoria Falls from my partner. I have since seen the man inside; he has no idea why I must see him. It all makes sense when I realise our travel wallet is missing from the glove compartment. It has our passports, money, plane tickets and other cornerstones of our trip. Thieves work fuel stations on unsuspecting tourists. I am indignant to be considered unsuspecting. Since I have no funds to pay for the fuel, I leave my camera as a guarantee, while we go and jump on the merry go round of Bulawayo Law Enforcement.
After explaining our situation, we are greeted by the kind of silence that is reserved for time wasters and tourists. The woman we are talking to instructs us to purchase an affidavit so she can take my statement. I restate the fact that me and my money are incommunicado, therefore, we can’t purchase said paper. I think the Zimbabwean police must give courses on how to roll your eyes with gusto. We are taken into the commissioner's office, and told to park inside the police compound. Judging by mix rumours and past experience, we believe this is risky, but don’t see a way to refuse politely. So we deliver the one commodity we have left into the hands of strangers with guns.
Two hours of being general pests in the police station, they let us give a statement and make a phone call. The embassy tells us to come to Harare: don’t speed, don’t drive at night and be there in three hours – good luck. It’s nearly 600 kilometres to Harare; it is already three in the afternoon.
Kindness of strangers
The lady who took our statements had a heart of gold. She loaned us the money to retrieve my camera, and for our drive to the capital. Inevitably, we run out of sunlight, but our luck holds out till Harare. For a car to be deemed roadworthy, it has to have one light, an engine of some description and something fastened to the car by twine. My embassy is more than happy to help, if only I would kindly return during office hours. Berating myself for getting my stuff stolen on a Friday night, we try my partner's embassy. Tea and cookies greet us, along with sympathetic faces. First beer, then chocolate and now this salvation. God bless the Belgians. They give us a loan and let us stay at one of their cottages until we figure something out.
Cash twenty two
One of the hair pulling problems we face in Zimbabwe is their poor economy. Money exchange bureaus won’t change ZD into foreign currency (forex) due to its low value. To help bring more foreign currency into the country, tourists can only spend forex. If you stay at an inn, only forex is accepted. Our problem begins. We have no money; we get euros cabled to us at the bank. The bank can’t give out forex, so it gives us our money in ZD. The embassy can’t release its foreign money. Anywhere we stay or eat before the border won’t accept ZD. The money bureau won't change leftover ZD after the border; another bridge to be crossed. Black market money traders approach me frequently. If you know your way around a stock exchange, exceed in math and are a third degree black belt, these guys will still get the better of you. Plus the police are harsh on illegal money trading. Considering I get confused trading tickets at the fair for a cuddly prize, I head to a more likely place of getting money – to the races.
Races at the races
Our passports must wait until Monday. The Saturday races are irresistible. The sun is shining and the race grounds are lush with soft green grass; it is the perfect oasis to the world of teeth grinding red tape. I can afford to put five thousand dollars on a horse for the first time in my life (15 euros). Once inside the track, you realise the blatant colour segregation. The bleacher is full of blacks, screaming and waving tickets in frustration and joy. We sit in the front to watch our races, sensing silence and glares. We are not welcome. I don't see a black person in the room. It takes the sweetness out of winning thirty grand.
On Monday morning I go to the embassy to organise my passport. It is ready Tuesday; on time, no waiting. The insurance company had already organised another flight for the one we missed, and the Belgium embassy loaned us forex to get us over the border. We leave Harare, getting to the border crossing on Saturday. There is a small tribe of bushcraft vendors eager to sell their wares. There are masks, chess sets, mortar and peso and other African mascots. We had leftover ZD and a trunk of clothes we didn’t feel like packing. I pull over, open the boot and begin the friendly barter game. We trade old jeans for carved masks, swap T-shirts and hats for serving bowls and wooden animals.
Beyond the border, we head for Johannesburg for a few days before our flight. We take in the apartheid museum; some of the old photos remind me of the Harare race track, without the blatant signs. It makes you realise how far some parts of Africa have come, and how much of their long walk to freedom still remains.