Zim & Zam: Our travels through Zimbabwe and Zambia

June 4, 2008 - Lilongwe, Malawi

Zimbabwe

We had never planned to go to Zimbabwe. With Robert Mugabe in charge, the economy in crisis and elections looming, we had originally thought it would be unsafe. But since travelling around Africa, we had met many people who had been to Zimbabwe and told us it was safe to go, particularly in the area around Victoria Falls.

So why did we end up going? When I sent my father an SMS saying we were heading to Zimbabwe, he replied with one word: "Why?". I told him that I wanted to see Victoria Falls from both sides, but that was not the full story (sorry Dad). The main reason was to get a feel for what was really going on in the country. We had heard a lot in the news, but wanted to get an understanding of how it affected the people on the ground. Part of me wanted to help the people out by simply spending some much needed foreign currency in the country. Part of me wanted to become an instant billionaire, and part of me simply wanted another stamp in the passport.

You could sense some of the problems as soon as you hit the border. Most, if not all, of our border crossings in Africa have been surprisingly quick and efficient. But, with hardly any other travellers there, getting a visa for Zimbabwe took ages. The official came and went to his desk as he pleased, and managed to get away with my pen in the process.

But we made it to the town of Victoria Falls, checked into a hostel, and spent some time checking out the town - or what was left of it. What was once a booming tourist town now felt more like a ghost town. There were more baboons running down the streets than tourists. Old tour operators, car rental agencies and banks now looked abandoned, dusty and dishevilled. The plush resorts were now experiencing occupancy rates of 5% - 15%. Petrol stations no longer had petrol, and shops hardly had food. And this was all in one of the better parts of Zimbabwe. What a disaster.

In the streets, kids begged and young men tried to sell or swap their crafts. When you would not buy their goods, they would ask you to swap them for the shirt I was wearing, or even a bit of food. Johanna and I had previously agreed not to encourage begging on the trip, and could not possibly carry any of the wooden carvings they were trying to sell. But I did find it hard not to help these guys out. They were friendly, gentle and articulate, but struggling to survive because some asshole was running the country.

I wandered into a large resort in town to find it almost empty. There I went to change some money, and spoke to a guard there. He took me around to see the old Zimbabwean notes, now framed in a window. The old $10 and $20 notes were once of the same value as the American dollar, but now worthless. Now you can only get bearer's cheques, and the exchange rate is 405,870,441.18 to one. Why they use decimal points, I don't know. Of course, with spiralling inflation rates in the thousands, this was up from around 350,000,000 the day before. In the end, I received about $4 billion Zimbabwean dollars for a US$10 note, becoming an instant millionaire. It would almost be funny if it was not so tragic.

Once I had the money, it was time to spent it. With limited choice at most stores, I went to the biggest supermarket in town, a Spar. Despite being the largest, most of the shelves were now bare. One whole aisle contained nothing more than bottled water, light bulbs and hair gel. The fresh produce section did not look so fresh, and the meat selection was questionable. Although I have to admit, the cow hooves did look particularly appetising.

The food was also overpriced. Four small bread rolls, two oranges, a can of Sprite and a small block of chocolate (for Jo of course) cost me a bit over $3 billion ( US$8 ). This may not seem like too much, but when a teacher would now earn about that much in a month, I wonder how people can survive. I later learnt that most people now buy basic food in the "black market", but even there the goods are expensive and in short supply. At the counter, it was quite a wait while the check-out chick counted piles and piles of $50 million bills placed on the counter by the customer in front. But after a long wait and a short blackout, I made it out of the Spar.

As I wandered back to the hostel, I tried to contemplate how people survived in such a difficult economic and political climate. I couldn't. I tried to imagine how a country that was achieving such prosperity could collapse in such spectacular fashion. I couldn't. I tried to understand how the world could allow this to happen. I can't.

Over the time there, we heard of some of the many tragic stories that run rife throughout the country - retired engineers whose life savings are now worthless, so-called war veterans running down previously productive farms, refugees fleeing the country to neighbouring South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana and Zambia, villagers being bashed and intimdated into supporting the Mugabe government. Almost everyone in Zimbabwe has been affected, and has a tragic tale to tell.

But somehow, the people here seem to be patiently awaiting change. Considering the situation, there seems to be surprisingly little violence from the masses. We never felt scared or intimdated, but welcome by these open, friendly people. While some are skeptical, most people we spoke to remain positive the election in June will bring about a change in government, and are hopeful that, in the long-term, Zimbabwe will return to its old levels of prosperity and freedom. You have to admire the positive outlook of these people in the face of adversity.

Our last day there, we got to the Zimbabwean side of Victoria Falls. Known by the locals as mosi-oa-tunya (the smoke that thunders), Victoria Falls is one of the seven natural wonders of the world, and we soon found out why. When David Livongstone (I presume) stumbled on to the falls in 1855, he wrote in his journal "On sights as beautiful as this angels in their flight must have gazed". While I may not be so eloquent, I was also awestruck by the sights, sounds and obvious power of the falls.

From the Zambezi River, one million litres of water tips over the falls every minute, creating a huge rainbow coloured spray that lifts well above the falls. From the west side of the falls, we walked along admiring the view and enjoying the light spray. As we contunued east, the light spray turned into a heavy spray and then into a downpour. It was a sunny day, but the falls and sun were soon masked by the spray from the falls, and the track turned into a small creek. But despite becoming soaked, we were impressed and refreshed by the awesome power of the falls.

Outside the falls, we met Joseph, the cook from our hostel, and walked across the bridge to Zambia, watching bungy jumpers take a leap along the way. As we left Zimbabwe, we had hope that positive change would come about soon to improve the situation for these friendly and peaceful people.

Livingstone, Zambia

Across the bridge, we caught a rattling minibus into Livingstone Zambia, and pitched our tent at Jollyboys Backpackers. The next morning, we went back to the falls to explore them from the Zambian side. While the view from the Zimbabwean side gave you a good overall impression of the falls, the Zambian side allowed you to get further into the falls - much more fun. We donned our wet weather gear and courageously marched into the heart of the falls. We crossed a bridge that ran alongside the falls, careful not to slip, and looked out at the white wall of foam to our right.

It was not long until we were drenched, but we enjoyed the refreshing feeling of nature on our face. We drip dried by the banks of the Zambezi watching children daringly play in the river, and baboons milling about in the trees. One baboon was particularly amusing, sitting in the tree with his legs wide open and bearing his private parts to the tourists below.

Back in town that afternoon, we chatted with many friendly locals as we took advantage of the services - the laundry, the barber and the craft shops. The guys and girls at the craft market even taught Johanna how to carry the laundry on her head "like a real African woman", much to the amusement of the onlookers.

Lusaka

We moved on to Lusaka, the nation's capital, and spent the day there on our own little walking tour while waiting for our room to be ready. Our first priority in the morning was to find coffee. We walked into town, and with some difficulty, found a place that served coffee. We waited for half an hour, so you could imagine my disappointment when they returned with a jar of instant coffee and powdered milk. It took another 20 minutes for hot water and a tea bag for Johanna. They did apologise for the delay though, saying that despite being open for many years, Johanna was the first customer to ever request a cup of tea. A small reminder that we were in Africa.

Three spoonfuls of instant coffee later, we hit the local markets, a chaotic array where nuts and bolts were being sold next to fruit and veg. The dried fish (in a land locked country mind you), covered in flies, smelt particularly unappetising. But when we ventured further in, we discovered the cooked food area, which was engulfed in a more pleasant aroma of fried chicken and beef curries. In the evening, Johanna shouted me a lovely Indian dinner. After too many meals of pasta, rice, fried chicken and maize meal, it was great to have a Rogan Josh again.

Chipata

From Lusaka we travelled east to Chipata, a small town near the Malawian border. I liked Chipata. It felt like a real African town. Through the dustry streets, people went about their daily lives - riding bicycles from place to place, selling food by the side of the street, or shopping in the local markets. It seemed strangely poor and prosperous at the same time.

At the local markets we bought some fruit and vegetables. People were friendly and charged a fair price rather than the muzungu (white man) price you often get. Young boys sold plastic bags and carried your groceries for you. While I would rather they be at school, I preferred this to the sad begging you get elsewhere. At least they were learning to make a buck rather than getting something for nothing.

Unfortunately, Johanna had decided to wear a knee-length skirt that day, which attracted some attention from the locals. No one was outwardly rude about it, but we did get looks and comments, hearing the words "miniskirt" and "muzungu" interlaced in the local language. On the way back to the lodge, some teenage girls across the street were also looking at Johanna's attire. As they looked on, I shook my bum a little, which set them off in fits of laughter. Johanna and I continued to shake our booties, which continued to entertain them as we walked down the street.

Back at the lodge, we met a couple of Aussies named Deidre (aka Didge) and Stu who offered us a ride to our next destination, Luangwa National Park, and we happily accepted. The only catch is that it was in the back of their truck / campervan, so we were in for an interested ride. Curled together on a mattress, we bounced away for two hours, trying desparately to avoid the chilli sauce that was dripping down the cupboard and stop the beer bottles from smashing into each other. Johanna hated the smell of chilli sauce in back, but I kind of enjoyed it. If I closed my eyes I could imagine I was at a yum cha restaurant back home.

South Luangwa National Park

Flatdogs Camp had been recommended to us by many people, and we soon discovered why. The camp was situated on the Luangwa River, where you could watch hippos basking in the water at sunset or enjoy the pool while being surrounded by vervet monkeys and baboons. But the highlight of the camp were the high tree platforms where we pitched a tent. With the fly off at night, we could stare into the stars, watch monkeys climb through the trees or watch the hippos graze below.

There is no fence around the nearby South Luangwa National Park, so the only barrier between us and the teeming wildlife was the Luangwa River itself. So it should not have been so surprising when we were woken up by a herd of nine elephants who had swum across the river and were walking through the camp. It was one of the nicest wake up calls I have ever had.

Later that day, we went on an afternoon / night drive through the park itself with our Aussie mates. For the first 20 minutes, we stopped for every bird in the area. Not being twitchers (bird watchers) ourselves, it was quite frustrating. Johanna made a comment "I'm not much of a bird enthusiast myself", which our guide seemed to take personally, saying he knew what he was doing. But the point had been made, and we stopped less for birds from then on.

As we drove along, the wildlife was plentiful - elephants, buffaloes, crocs, impalas, kudus, pukus, civets and genets. We admired troops of baboons with their funny looking babies, giraffes walking off into the sunset, and hippos in lush, lily covered ponds featured on the front of the Lonely Planet guide to Southern Africa.

But the highlight was the lions. First we saw a pride of ten lions lazing next to the road. The group included lionesses as well as about five cute cubs who sat with their mum and tried to growl at us. It amazed me that something so cute can become such a formidable killer. After a short beer break, we returned to the pride in the dark. The dad had returned and was sitting there watching over his pride. He let out a ferocious roar which sent chills through our bodies. Would not want to meet this guy in a dark alley.

Back at camp that night, we almost bumped into a huge hippo on the way to the bathrooms, but then had a peaceful sleep in the trees as the grunted happily below. We then jumped back into Stu and Didge's truck for a bumpy ride to Chipata, and then on to the Malawian border.

All in all, we only spent a week in Zambia, but felt like we got a good sample of the country - the falls, the capital, a rural town and an impressive park. But more importantly, we got a nice feel for the friendliness of the local people. It has been a real pleasure.

Next we are on to a country that everyone raves about - Malawi.

Pictures as always are posted on the blog. The slideshow is the easiest way to check them out.

We have also updated our route on the map.

Enjoy!


Pictures

Newspaper headlines in Lusaka, Zambia
Lusaka, Zambia's capital
Bus snack - a 4metre sugar cane perhaps?
Stocking up for camping in South Luangwa NP
 
 

5 Comments

Denise:
June 4, 2008
really touching story about Zim
Dec:
June 4, 2008
Hi Mike/Jo!

Great post, thanks! Nice to hear that ye'r having such an exciting trip across Africa and we're mad jealous of ye!!!

All the best and lookin fward to ur next tales!
Dec
Chris Smith:
June 17, 2008
Mike

Ben Veness has circulated this. We read daily of the mess in Zim, and the inaction of South Africa to bring about change. I had earlier read Paul Theroux's book "dark star safarai" which was written some years age as the decline was gathering momentum.

Thanks for the blog - its a great read and you are clearly enjoying Africa...At last SFL is selling like hot cakes in the branches - 1500 last week.
sonia:
June 18, 2008
Hi Mike and Jo
Africa sounds amazing your journal gives such insight into life there i am so happy your enjoying the whole experience (but of course you would ) makes us think how lucky we are. Jo went to milk with mum the other day wasn't the same without you, have to go when you come back.
All my love
Sonia
Linda Klein:
August 2, 2008
Hi,
Your account was an interesting and articulate synopsis of your travels. Victoria Falls sounds amazing and my heart goes out to those in "Zimbawe". The National Park must have been exciting. Thank you for including me in your journey and I loved your photos..
Sincerely,
Linda klein
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