Zimbabwe!

Trip Start Nov 30, 2012
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27
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Trip End Jun 02, 2013


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Flag of Zimbabwe  , Manicaland,
Monday, February 11, 2013

Right now we are in Tofo, Mozambique. We arrived a few days ago having spent just ten days in Zimbabwe, but they were ten really memorable days. It's difficult to describe what Zim is like. The landscape and the nature are beautiful, spectacular in places, the game parks are as impressive as anywhere else and the people amongst the most welcoming and friendly as we have met. Tragically though Zimbabwe is, with the exception perhaps of Victoria Falls, completely off the tourist track.

The majority of you I guess will be somewhat familiar with Zimbabwe's political history. President Mugabe, who came to power in 1980 and still rules today. Under his tenure, his country has gone from being one of the most productive African economies, consistently held as a shining African example to being an isolated, regressive place, with 96%25252525 unemployment! 96%25252525! Despite this Zim is a much livelier place today than five years ago. In 2008 , Mugabe, facing his first real power struggle, unleashed a reign of terror throughout the country targeting primarily antigovernment supporters. Thousands of people were killed and tens of thousands tortured and beaten up. Despite the opposition candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, winning the election, Mugabe declared the win unconstitutional and insisted on a second round of voting. This time he stepped up the violence to such an extent that Tsvangirai withdrew from the race, relinquishing the election to Mugabe. Mugabe offered Tsvangirai a position as Prime Minister, albeit with very limited decision making power.

From the border to Victoria Falls we got a taxi. We shared it with a rather talkative French guy who pushed the driver quite a bit about Zimbabwean history. Thankfully the driver was relatively ok with this, but clearly indicated that some issues where not up for discussion (anything to do with Mugabe was not allowed) and advised us, for our own safety, not to discuss political issues with Zimbabweans. The driver spoke openly about the system of land reform, which he agreed with. The land reform was a process whereby Mugabe declared that all land held by the white farmers to be illegal and initiated a system of land reallocation. This effectively meant that he and his cronies brutally evicted the white land owners (the vast majority who had been there for many generations) and allocated it to his closest political allies. It should be noted that these farms where some of the most productive farms, anywhere, and one of the reasons Zimbabwe was often referred to as Africa's 'bread basket'. Of course those that took over the farms had little or no agricultural experience which sadly means that today the vast majority of these farms are now destroyed. These farms often employed hundreds of workers and housed their families too. There were schools and health clinics. This has also disappeared. Driving through Zimbabwe this destruction is very clear. In the only opposition newspaper, published weekly and from London, one article described the ongoing confiscation of land. Sally Mugabe, the presidents wife had just allocated 11000 hectares of farmland for herself, meanwhile the finance minister announced in parliament that there was just $217 dollars left in the state coffers and pleaded with the UN for additional funding to host upcoming elections.

That was a bit of a digression, but we arrived nonetheless in Victoria falls, having already bribed a police officer. We checked into the local backpackers which was a small, empty place. It was ok. It was run by a lady, Lia and her son Ruan, both white Zimbabweans. Lia told us to be very careful walking to/from town at night, and not because you might get robbed or murdered, but rather that elephants and hippos often wandered into the streets. There was also a leopard around town which had killed off a few dogs and hadnt been captured yet, but otherwise it was fine and very safe! Thankfully all we met was a few warthogs. We got to know Ruan quite well and even though he was just 18 he spoke quite openly about the experience of growing up in Zimbabwe. He had lived on the family farm, which he described as paradise, until it was confiscated by Mugabe sympathizers in 2003. He had spent his schooling years at boarding school in South Africa as the education system in Zim was in shatters. He felt trapped in Zim, he hated it in fact and all he wanted was to travel to Europe.

The first impressions of Vic Falls is that life seems to have been put on pause somewhere in the mid 1980s, the houses, the shops, the cars, even the clothes people are wearing. its a bit weird. Victoria falls itself was a town built originally as a tourist destination. it is a pretty, little place with tree lined avenues and small little shops, a few restaurants but unfortunately some pretty nasty mega hotels, which would not look out of place in Disneyland. there are also very few tourists here, the vast, majority opting to visit the falls from the relative stability of the Zambian side, despite the fact that the falls are much more impressive from this side. The falls themselves are only a few hundred meters from town and as such the mist hangs like a curtain overhead and the tremendous roar of the water can be heard all over.

We had hoped to take a microlight spin over the falls but this was impossible to organize, so we opted for a helicopter ride instead. The weather at this stage had unfortunately taken a turn for the worse. For two months we had managed to avoid the rainy season but now it seemed to have caught up with us. The helicopter ride was postponed and we spent the day in our little straw shack washing clothes and watching movies. In the evening the weather relented and we ate dinner with an American guy. Later we were joined by another Irish guy and guess where he was from....Durrow, Co. Laois. And guess who he was first cousins with? The one and only Padraic Woods! What are the chances. That night we ended up downing far too many pints and I woke up with the fear that I would throw up in the helicopter which was scheduled for 9am. Thankfully there was a small break in the clouds to allow us to fly our short, very expensive trip over the falls. It was well worth the money. The view was spectacular. From the air you can appreciate so much more the scale and mightiness of the water. Thankfully I didn't throw up either.

The following day we climbed aboard the Pathfinder bus service to Harare, just 1000kms and 12 hours away. This bus however, was unlike anything I have ever seen in my life, with almost fully reclining seats and complimentary onboard meals and drinks. It made the journey pass quickly . Outside we passed through endless, deserted fields and derelict farms. This was our first taste of real Zimbabwe. When we arrived into Harare it was dark, really dark. We assumed the electricity was out, but our taxi driver, named Fortune, told us that Harare Municipality could not afford to pay the city electricity bill. It had been like this for over ten years.

Our accommodation that evening was in a B&B run by a Danish couple, possibly the biggest mosquitoe infested hole we have both been subjected to....and they charged 50dollars. The guy worked as a consultant to an NGO, yet drove a 5 series BMW and his wife drove a similarly impressive land rover. They lived in a huge home, with a large pool, in one of Harare's exclusive white neighborhoods. It amazes me how much money there is in development aid! What's also clear is that trip advisor cannot be trusted! We left early next morning making excuses about our premature departure. We checked into Harare's only hostel which had about ten guests, including us and a Sami!

We unfortunately didn't spend much time in Harare, but the sunday we spent strolling around the empty streets was really interesting. The actual city centre is pretty small and like elsewhere also a place where you get the impression that it's golden days have passed. The architecture is interesting, I liked it, especially the national gallery which was struggling to maintain some functionality despite the hardship. Its interesting that despite the economic woes, the government has promoted the arts and in particular traditional arts and crafts, singing and dance. Buckets were strategically placed throughout the gallery to capture the rainwater which came through the ceiling. But the vast majority of Harare's residents live in isolated suburbs with British-sounding names, such as Barrowdale, Avondale, Westgate and so on.


We spent the next few days comtemplating where we should go next. Our original was to head East towards the border town of Mutare, also the gateway to the spectacular Eastern Highlands which we had read alot about. However the weather forecast was for a lot of rain, in fact it was supposed to rain for the next week throughout most of Southern Africa. This would make hiking in the mountains impossible, but would also destroy our hopes for a week of scuba diving on the Mozambiquean coastline. We contemplated different options to avoid the rain and seriously considered hopping on a flight to Cape Town, but in the end we decided to give the highlands a chance and in the worst case scenario we could just come back to Harare and fly out.

This turned out to be a very good decision, although getting there was a bit of a nightmare. We took a combi, a Zimbabwean matatu. It was hot, we were in the back row, squashed. Our luggage was partly in the back, partly under the seat and my small bag (with all the passports and everything else valuable) was shoved under the feet of the guy who sat in the front beside the driver. The journey was supposed to take about 3 hours, but ended up taking almost five, mainly due to the amount of police checkpoints we had to pass through. I reckon we were stopped close to 15 times over the space of a 150kms. They are looking for anything to fine the driver over, lack of correct paperwork, speeding, something wrong with the bus. the fines are so excessively high it means that the drivers are not in a position to pay them, hence the drivers end up paying bribes to the polices officers to avoid receiving the official fine. We saw money being handed over, cans of soda, even sandwiches.

Mutare is a beautiful town set in a valley, surrounded on all sides by the Bvumba Mountains. These mountains are really spectacular, completely un-African if that makes any sense? They were a favourite holiday destination for royalty, heads of state and other celebrities. Queen Elisabeth 11 on one of her many visits to Bvumba apparently referred to the mountains as 'the most beautiful place in the whole of africa'.

The sun was setting as we drove into town, but it was still hot and we struggled with both our tempers to carry all our stuff to our accommodation a the other end of town, only to realize that the place we were staying was at the other, other end of town (Engelke had the map, and seeing as there were no street names, orientating was somewhat difficult).

We stayed at Ann Bruce Backpackers which was recommended by a guy we had met in Harare. He told us that the proprietor, Ann Bruce, was quite a character, a bit vulgar and not everyone's taste. We thought she sounded perfect. The place, Ann's home, built in colonial style, was absolutely in need of renovation, but nonetheless had a homely sort of feel to it. We took to it at once. Ann, who we reckon was about 70, wasn't there when we arrived, but we bumped into her on our way back from the supermarket. She was indeed quite a character, but seemed very friendly, not least very funny. She was white Zimbabwean, her grandfather, an agriculturalist, emigrating from England to join the first wave of colonialists. Her father had been one of the founders of the Zimbabwean Police Force and she spoke proudly how the Zimbabwean police was once one of the most respected forces in the world, the envy of not just other African nations. It was at this moment that I realized, which Engelke later agreed, that everyone we had spoken to in Zimbabwe, whether white or black, talks about things in two tenses, past tense, the ways things used to be (much better) and present tense (how terrible things are now). Ann and Engelke bonded instantly over their common love of Greg's Anatomy. They (and I, by force) watched it together that evening.

Ann's housekeeper told us that her nephew, John, could take us on a tour of the mountains in his car for just 50 bucks. Perfect we thought. We didnt realize it was a tiny Toyota Yaris that he drove, but ok, 50 bucks is 50 bucks. The next morning we rose early and hit the road. It wasn't far to drive before we reached the Prince of Wales Pass, which overlooks Mutare. From here you can see all the way to Mozambique. After this we headed up to the most famous point in the Bvumba mountain range, known as Leopard Rock, thankfully not because of the amount of leopards living in the area, but rather because it looks like a leopard sleeping when you view it from a particular angle and distance. We saw little resemblance. We hiked up to the top which wasn't far from where the car was parked. The 360 degree view was beautiful. Below Leopard Rock is a hotel, also of the same name. This is probably the most famous hotel in Zimbabwe and where the majority of those high profile guests I mentioned earlier stayed. The hotel was empty apart from a handful of South Africans. The hotel has a golf course (voted the best course in Africa and the second hardest course in the world in 1990 by the European PGA) and its own game park, although this was rather small. The hotel itself is pink and set in lush grounds. Engelke was at once taken by the possibility to go horse riding through the game park which we arranged to do later that day.

We visited the botanical gardens which were very impressive and as immaculately manicured as anything we see at home. Yet again we were the only people there, although the steep entry price for foreigners ($20) was probably rather off putting for most travelers. We put on our best white African accents and pretended to be local. Engelke even spoke a few words of Shona, the local language. It worked and we paid just $5 in the end (which we feel a little guilty about now).

The afternoon was spent eating lunch on the terrace at Leopard Rock and then horse riding. John, the driver, also came along and it was his first time on a horse. Although I am not a big fan, I must admit I thought it was pretty cool riding on my horse through the African hills. By the time we were finished it was getting late and neither Engelke nor I were overly keen on doing much more. John, however had other plans and insisted that we hike to the top of Bvumba Mountain. Not wanting to be rude, we agreed, but became a little anxious when John drove down a dirt road where we passed a sign which said 'Police Training Facility and 'strictly no enter'. Knowing the reputation these police officers have we were both uneasy, but thankfully when John parked the car, no police officers were to be seen. We started the short but steep climb to the top. Obviously in the past, wooden steps had been dug into the face of the mountain but these were now unusable. A rusty metal pipe, the handrail, snaked its way along the path. When we reached the summit, after about 30minutes, we had just enough time to take a few snaps before the thunder clouds closed in and within minutes it started to rain, very heavily. Not prepared for this at all and it being unwise to attempt to get down that steep hill in wet weather, we took shelter in a small metal shed. After about 30 minutes, with the light fading we started to contemplate heading down. We engineered an ingenious water tight container for the camera, wallet and iPhones. See satisfied picture. Regretfully though I never got a chance to test it as just as we were about to leave, the rain abated as quickly as it started. On the way back we met the police officer in charged of the facility, but he was friendly and satisfied with the $6 bribe he received from us, although his parting words was that next time he expected $9.

When we returned to the backpackers, Ann and her friend Lynn, who we had also met the previous evening, were updating each other on the days activities. On the small table was a carton of white wine, a bottle of whiskey, 4 cans of soda water, a bucket of ice and some popcorn. We joined them over our dinner of Chinese takeaway (surprisingly good). The stories they told were truly remarkable and listening to them both was very special. Ann told us about her daughter, who moved to London to become a ballet dancer, but ended up, with her mothers consent, becoming a stripper. Ann also had all the gossip on the royalties and celebrities who had been in town, since her father and later her brother had been the police officers in charge during those visits. She also spoke about her ancestors and we both were really amazed when she told us that she was in fact a descendent of Cecil Rhodes, the man himself, the explorer who originally colonised this part of Africa and named it after himself, Rhodesia. She showed us letters from Rhodes to her grandfather. We spoke about how the backpackers used to be full, every evening, but how she now struggled to get guests. We were her only guests that week.

We in turn admitted to her that we had almost not come to Zimababwe after reading so many awful things about the place. In particular we read two books by Peter Godwin, 'When the Crocodile Eats the Sun' and 'The Fear'. The first chronicles Godwins upbringing in Zim and the slow destruction of the country and the second an account of the horrific election circumstances in 2008. The books have received much acclaim, but within Zimbabwe, they have been very much critisced. Ann, who knew Godwin personally and showed us her signed copy, got really angry. She resented that he, who had spent most of his adult life living in the relative luxury in New York, could write such negative books. 'How dare he', she kept on saying. 'How does he know what's it like, he doesn't live here. I do, I know whats it like', she shouted at us across the table. We were a little taken a back, but sympathized with her and understood her grievance. So many people did read Godwin's books and were too afraid to come to Zimbabwe. She calmed down and said that despite all the hardship and the very few friends she has left, she still loved Zimbabwe and would never change. Lynn nodded in agreement.

She then recommended we read another book called, 'The Last Resort' by Douglas Rogers. Also a best seller, and recipient of many awards. Like Godwin's first book it tells the story of a white guy growing up in Zim, who has, like most young people, now emigrated. Ann was less negative about this book, mostly because the boy grew up in Mutare and most of the characters he writes about are well known to Ann. She told us about one chapter called 'Miss Moneypenny' . Here the author describes how during the worst of the hardship he visits his father who was still living in Mutare. Needing to change Zim dollars into US dollars, the unofficial, currency, his father took him to a dodgy industrial warehouse on the edge of town where an underground foreign exchange was being run by a lady his father referred to as 'Miss Moneypenny'. He spoke about her in superlatives, after all she was the only one with access to US dollars. Zim dollars where at this stage worthless. Rogers humoursly describes how he expected to find a striking blond, Russian lady but instead he meets an older, plump lady with messy hair and wearing a flowery dress sitting behind a cluttered desk. Beside her she had a huge chest full of cash and she counted it out in stacks of thousands before handing it over. She wasn't in the least bit intimidated by the police car which sat outside following the proceedings inside, after all they were also her clients. Your probably wondering why I'm telling you this and it won't mean much to you but after Ann finished telling us the story, she nodded in the direction of Lynn, who was sipping her whiskey withs big grin on her face. Lynn was Miss Moneypenny and had run the largest illegal foreign exchange in the whole of the Eastern Province for many years. She was still plump and still wearing a flowery dress.

The next morning John took us to the border, only 10 Km. It rained as we crossed the bridge into Mozambique. We were both truly sad to be leaving such an amazing, beautiful and completely unique place. There have been a few occasions on this trip when we have been overly presumptuous about a place or a person we have met and in hindsight have been proved completely wrong. This is the case for us and Zimbabwe. We'll be back!
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