Category Archives: Zimbabwe

Summary of Zimbabwe

I don’t think there’s any country I wish well more than Zimbabwe.  It is filled with the kindest people you can find anywhere, yet living in the most desperate conditions one normally delegates to “somewhere else.”  Except when “somewhere else” it makes an impression that guarantees the place will stay with you long after you leave.

Also, if anyone can give me the opportunity to meet Robert Mugabe let me know, I want to sucker-punch him.

Highlights-

Victoria Falls- “wow” doesn’t quite begin to cover it.  So long it takes 20 minutes to walk from end to end, so loud you can hear it day and night in town a mile away, and so wet half the tourists don garbage bags to avoid getting soaked (which begs the question which is the stupider half, the ones who look silly or the ones wet to the bone?).

– Beer was a dollar and really quite tasty.  I can never say anything completely terrible about the dollar beer countries.

– On an arguably similar note, due to a combination of great locals and overlanders you can have a very fun night in Zimbabwe.  Probably bad if you actually plan to catch up on sleep, but on the bright side the murmur of the Falls makes for excellent white noise!

– If you want an adrenaline rush in the middle of Africa, come here.  You can jump off cliffs and whitewater raft down world-class rapids and all sorts of fun stuff that makes you sound more hard-core than you really are.

Lowlights-

– Want to see what happens when the fabric of society breaks down?  Zimbabwe is unfortunately the classic case for what it’s like right now, with buzzwords like hyperinflation, rampant poverty, and epidemics you only read about in history books.  I wouldn’t wish such things on my worst enemy frankly.

– Another odd thing I frankly cannot begin to understand- a few of the girls did the one-night stand thing while in Victoria Falls.  Ok, I understand some people indulge in such things, but in sub-Saharan Africa? Where the HIV rate is a scary high number so high the odds are almost on par with flipping a coin?  Geez, people.

Adrenaline Rush

I realize I am terribly behind by now in this trip blog.  Please address all complaints about the matter to the Case Western Reserve University Physics Department Graduate Program.

Before anyone gets too confused, yes, this post is categorized under “Zambia” as well as just “Zimbabwe.”  Why?  Because most of the adrenaline activities in Victoria Falls center around the narrow gorge the Zambezi River fills after the falls- about 100m high, filled with whitewater, and having Zimbabwe on one side and Zambia on the other.  The dividing line is of course in the middle of the river so we technically have been to Zambia when we did whitewater rafting.  We have just never set foot on Zambian soil!

So we had a multi-national gorge as our playground, what crazy things did we do first?  Jump off into the gorge a few times-

This picture is more to show the scale of the gorge than the jump- if you look carefully you can spot me in the middle of a flying fox leap.  Flying fox is when you’re attached on your back and run down a platform and fly like Superman- really fun, naturally, but I realized it got me in the precarious position of getting a too-good view of the gorge for the later jumps.  It’s one thing to have bravado to jump off a cliff when you’ve only looked at the thing from the edge, quite another when you had a good thorough look and plan to jump again

And jump we did- #2, the zipline!  Had a bunch of experience with these in Laos and it was the only jump we could do together so we decided to, on the grounds that you go a lot further on a zipline if you have more mass.  No guts required in jumping here as you’re sort of left to dangle and they do the letting go and hey, it was fun to have a sister to scream with as we flew above the gorge!

Finally, the gorge swing.  It should be noted that Linda is a much more awesome gorge swing jumper than I am because by this point the only other guy who had jumped before us screamed like a girl so I was thoroughly rattled- jumping off a platform is always a lot easier when you’ve seen a few people enjoy it in my opinion.  Anyway, a gorge swing is basically like a bungy jump but instead of bounces at the end you go into a huge parabolic arc after a 70m freefall in this case, which is actually more freefall than the bungy jump in Victoria Falls has! (Bungy jumps always just measure the distance to the ground from the platform but you obviously don’t actually want to fall that far, so the ~110m Vic Falls jump is considerably less than that.) And it was fun, really, except my neck was a little sore later from some whiplash when the swinging kicked in- the stuff we put up with for adrenaline!

Death-defying jumps under our belts it was time for some whitewater rafting in the infamous Zambezi River, Class 5 rapids considered to be some of the best in the world, all with wonderful names like “The Overland Truck Eater,” “Corporate Suicide,” and “Oblivion.”  Call me weird but I was much more nervous about this than I ever was about jumping off a gorge, and by nervous I mean this was the first time in my trip I was actually scared about what I was doing because I really don’t like getting thrown into water not on my own terms.  Funny that…

It should be noted that we did the course just at the beginning of high water season, when they only start from Rapid #11.  In low season you start at the beginning of the course I really don’t think I’d enjoy that from what I hear- as YouTube can attest there are a lot of rapids where it’s a miniature waterfall, or your boat can get stuck as the rapid flows up, or a myriad of other things you wonder why people fork over good money to do.

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Before getting to raft, though,  you need to climb down to the river!  The gorge is about 90m deep and I for one was happy I had my Teva sandals and didn’t have to do it in flip-flops like many others, as some parts were quite slippery.

(Before anyone asks, the whitewater rafting pictures are funny as they were illicitly taken during the viewing of the rafting DVD they tried to get us to buy.  The girl climbing down this crazy wooden ladder was a British girl in our boat.) image278

So here’s our raft, practicing our paddling skills before the first rapid.  I am the second person on the right side of the boat (behind a girl who spent a summer guiding whitewater rafts in Canada) and Linda was on the left.

The surreal thing about calm stretches like these in the Zambezi is you are warned in advance not to fall in on them.  Why?  Because this being Africa there are crocodiles- we saw one sunning himself on a rock at some point- and while they avoid whitewater sections for the same reasons sane people do it’s probably best to not go for a swim in a calm patch just in case. image279And here is the part where we almost died.  Kidding!  No really, this was us on a Class 5 rapid called “The Washing Machine” which is quickly followed by the equally lethal Terminators I and II.  Having so many hard rapids without a break made it the toughest stretch of the river by far- half the rafts in our group capsized, but ours emerged victorious!  Hooray!  And by emerging victorious I mean at some point the front half of our boat was completely underwater, we were crouched down and the water was over my head, so I suspect we were a lot closer to a proper capsizing than we dared consider.

I confess though that after this I was left with a feeling of “that was it?” as far as my fears were placed- having done more whitewater kayaking than rafting in my life I suppose I was pre-biased towards the suicide that particular sport entails, and thanks to luck and general raft awesomeness we didn’t even capsize once!

Last bit of adrenaline relished and numb from being tired, we then had to climb up the gorge again (all the while sending forlorn stares at the cable car the Zambian side is equipped with).  But hey, we survived the part I was scared about!  I guess it’s always important to face your fears, even when something like “crocodile-infested Class 5 whitewater African river rafting” is one of them.

Victoria Falls

I’m sure most people don’t realize it but there is a method to my traveling madness, or at least the Africa portion of it anyway. Two years ago when I returned from study abroad in New Zealand I realized I had no answer to the “where would you most want to go to in the world?” question, so I checked a map to see what corner of the world should top my list. Victoria Falls in the middle of Africa seemed like a suitable candidate because it caught my eye first being in the middle of the map and seemed like a place that would take a couple years to get to.

Two years later there I am, traveling  thousands of miles over bumpy roads in questionable countries, under the technical guise to see Victoria Falls.  Life is really funny sometimes isn’t it?

So anyway, the Falls.  Because most people have been to Niagara Falls it’s easiest to describe them based on Niagara- they’re officially taller but I never noticed a serious difference in height.  Instead what is the most noticeable difference is the length of the Falls- imagine Niagara being twice as long and it will give you a good idea of what it’s like.  It takes about 20 minutes or so to walk from one end to the other in a nice little national park, the entire time enduring a gigantic roar so loud you can continually hear it in the town of Victoria Falls about a mile away.

Other than dimensions, I’d say the biggest difference between Victoria Falls and Niagara is the mist.  You never really get wet while at Niagara Falls if you don’t want to- the gorge on the other side is significantly wider, and there’s probably less water going over because of the hydroelectric station- but in Victoria Falls you’re a lot closer and there’s so much mist it’s more like rain (there’s even a small rainforest, the only one for hundreds of miles in any direction!).  Some of the tourists will hence bring rain jackets or don trash bags sold by the hawkers outside the park, but Linda and I didn’t realize this would be an issue and it was a warm day so we instead got completely soaked.  But the rainbows created by all the mist were quite lovely…

Me in my “looking like a wet rat” phase after getting soaked by the mist in front of the famous Victoria Falls bridge, linking Zimbabwe with Zambia (we never went to the Zambia side because it was an additional $45 for that visa and Zimbabwe has most of the view).  The bridge was originally built at the turn of the 20th century by Cecil Rhodes to link his mining fields to Southern Africa and as part of his (never built) “Cape Town to Cairo” railway scheme.

A word about Cecil Rhodes because the man is the only person I know to have two countries named after him (Northern Rhodesia and Southern Rhodesia, now Zambia and Zimbabwe respectively), and I suspect having even one country after you is grounds for being a little crazy.  He started out in a little diamond business called De Beers, and was briefly Prime Minister of the British Cape Colony until forced to resign because of an attempted take over the Boer colony of Transvaal (ie where the Boers discovered gold) which failed miserably.  Undaunted, Rhodes managed to consolidate de Beers to control the diamond market that still exists today, partly by going north and creating colonies by getting mining concessions from tribal chiefs in his former-namesake countries, most questionable at best, then forcing the native tribes to give him cheap labor through taxes in a system Mark Twain dubbed “worse than slavery.”  Rhodes was an imperialist because he believed the Anglo-Saxon race to be the most superior on Earth- in fact, he included the United States in the famous Rhodes scholarships because he wanted to breed an elite of philosopher-kings who would get the US to rejoin the British Empire.

Ok, so Rhodes was probably a combination of crazy and a product of the colonial mindset (“the white man’s burden” and all that).  Regardless, it is hard to find a man who shaped modern African history more.

Except perhaps this guy could make an argument for that title- Dr. Livingstone, I presume?  Livingstone was a Christian missionary and explorer who among other things was the first white man to glimpse Victoria Falls.  He accomplished all this by traveling light and (gasp!) respecting local chiefs he met which caused everyone to say he was crazy.  The famous quotation was uttered by the journalist Henry Stanley who was sent to find Livingstone after he’d been missing for four years or at least allegedly uttered- Stanley tore the pages out of his diary detailing the encounter.  Either way, Livingstone intentionally or unintentionally set in motion the European colonialist movement in Africa, and in turn the mission schools whose foundation inspired ended up educating most of the leaders of independence movements on the continent years later.

So there it is, I have finally been to the place I most wanted to visit on Earth.  Which leads to an interesting question- what should I choose as my place I most want to visit in the world next?  I’m not sure yet but I’m tempted to continue the waterfall theme and say Iguazu Falls on the Brazil-Argentine border- after all, I have never been to South America…

Welcome to Zimbabwe

When it turned out that my overland trip in Southern Africa would end in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, I can’t say I was certain what to expect because of all the stories you hear about on the news these days- nations associated with words such as “hyperinflation” and “cholera epidemic” and “lowest life expectancy rate on Earth” (37 for men, 34 for women) do not exactly sound like premier destinations. But people on the ground said “Vic Falls” is safe so I decided to trust them.

I should also note that about two weeks after I went to Zimbabwe the main story I saw that day on BBC News was about how they were finally back in Zimbabwe and showing the conditions. So on the other hand of the above advice, I have officially visited places the BBC doesn’t dare go! Wimps.

The reason Zimbabwe is such a bad place to live these days can be seen above- hyperinflation. The notes above, all printed in 2008, range from ZA$200 million to ZA$50 trillion, which if you stop and do the numbers is the same as going from $1 to $100,000 in a year. Obviously these notes are worthless now- they stopped printing the notes this past April because they literally ran out of paper to print the money on, and the Zimbabwe dollar ceased to exist on July 1, about two weeks before we were there. Nowadays everyone uses American dollars or South African Rand in the country, and you need to bring in all your currency as there is no money in any of the ATMs. Makes for interesting planning.

So what is the effect of such massive hyperinflation unparalleled anywhere else in the world? Well the way to imagine Zimbabwe these days is it’s in a state of decay- when a window breaks you just cover it up because you can’t purchase or even find the glass you need for a new pane, and when you can’t afford money to treat the water anymore you get a cholera epidemic. (To be fair the epidemic does not exist in Victoria Falls, but everyone showered with their mouth shut to be on the safe side.) Even in a tourist town like Victoria Falls some of the big expensive hotels had collapsed roofs because there’s no way to get new thatch or pay people to re-thatch the roof.

As a result of the hyperinflation, you can’t assume on any given day that you’re going to get the supplies you need to survive, as everything even very basic needs to be brought in from outside the country.  This is the sign at the Victoria Falls gas station- they had diesel the day before, but guess they ran out.  No paraffin on any of the days we were there, which is a pretty basic thing to have when the electricity is known to cut in and out erratically.image268

The advantage of hyperinflation is the price of the local beer at the tourist bar (called Zambezi) is US$1.  The bad news is, believe it or not, these are two brand new beers just handed over from the barman!  Obviously these bottles are recycled as long as they don’t leak beer and the machine filling the bottles is a bit eccentric as well, but everyone just hopes that the alcohol has killed off whatever might have survived what must be a rigorous disinfecting process. (Like that cholera bacterium- yay?)

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Of course there’s only so much I can say about the current situation in Zimbabwe because I only went to one town in it, which was a tourist town on the border at that.  Having said that I think my heart would absolutely break at seeing the conditions in the rest of Zimbabwe, because the only word I can use to describe the people there is desperate.  Absolutely desperate, to a degree I did not come across even in Asia or other places in Africa.

Take going to the market.  My sister and I had heard you can barter for souvenirs at the market with old stuff you don’t need anymore, so we took her pair of six-year-old tennis shoes to see what we could get for them.  We couldn’t have gotten a better reaction had we showed up at the market with a bar of gold- every person at that market greeted us with a “hello sister,” breathed down our necks, asked if we wanted something if we so much as looked at it, and generally harassed us more than I ever have in any other 3rd world market before.  My sister and I were lucky we were able to speak in Hungarian before, but we needed to make up code words for things that sounded too similar to English pronunciation because the hawkers would latch onto any small indication that we might be interested (elefant became a szurke, “the gray one,” for example, hippos became “the fat one”).  We also said we were from Hungary instead of American when asked- God help us if we ponied up on that detail- but one guy decided to give us the standard “oh Hungary, I love that country and have friends who live there!” shpeel.

“Do you even know where Hungary is?” I asked in an exasperated tone, getting pretty worn out by the harassment by this point.

“No, but I’d rather be there than here,” he pointed out, and I really couldn’t argue about that.

Anyway, pictured above is the lucky guy who got my sister’s old shoes, which we exchanged for two beautifully carved sets of stone bookends and a stone soap dish, the whole lot probably worth US$100 in the rest of the world. (I just typed “the real world” actually but deleted it- we often forget stuff like this is in the real world!) I took this picture after we confirmed the deal and immediately he became overjoyed that this was his lucky day- said the shoes were for his wife- and became the nicest guy you could imagine.

You’ll run into this a lot in Zimbabwe by the way- you will be harassed within an inch of your life because you’re probably spending more in a few days than many will have in a year because there’s 80% unemployment, but once they realize it’s a good day they relax and smile and engage in great conversation.  Two brothers even threw in a pair of necklaces and showed us a shortcut out of the market as a gesture of goodwill.

I spent my weekend in Zimbabwe enjoying the Falls and doing various adrenaline activities I will outline in a later post.  But as the final note on the “current situation in Zimbabwe” post, it should be noted that I while getting into Zimbabwe was pretty easy (hand over US$30, you are handed a visa to stay as long as you like), I had a surprisingly hard time getting out.  See my handwritten airline ticket above for the flight to Johannesburg, complete with handwritten luggage check of the same type, which I got at the counter next to the giant old definitely-not-digital balance scale.  I had an electronic ticket for the flight, and it turns out if you’re doing so you need to make sure you document it within an inch of your life because (obviously) the computers were down.  So we needed to call Johannesburg for me to get on the flight- lucky the phones were working!- so I was luckily able to get the hell out of Zimbabwe.

The other object in my lap there was one of two postcards my sister and I purchased for US$2 each, probably the most expensive postcard I have ever purchased especially when compared to the prices of everything else in the nation.  Why so expensive?  Because they’ve ceased printing Victoria Falls postcards, of course, so if you want one you’ll need to pay dearly for it.

What a heartbreaking country.  I cannot think of any nation on Earth where I wish the people a better life and future more than Zimbabwe.

Rules of the Overland Road

Posted from the semi-real world of South Africa- hello everyone!

For those who may have not heard before, it turns out it’s hard to travel around the interior of Africa on your own in a way that doesn’t exist in other countries. Infrastructure is nil, public transport can be dodgy and not go where you want to go anyway, and I hope you’re a mechanic if you’re driving alone because if something breaks down you’re the one to fix it. So what is a young and/or crazy pair of lasses going to do? Join an overland safari, of course!

Basically about 30 other people plus guide, driver, and cook pile into a converted truck and get to experience every bump in the road for 7,000km from Cape Town to Victoria Falls (about twice that if you choose to go all the way to Nairobi). Tip #1: if you’re doing an overland safari, do not point out to people that the town of Victoria Falls is in Zimbabwe, as the Falls is bordered on the other side by Livingstone, Zambia. They will worry unnecessarily about you, but more on what it’s like later…

Anyway, one of the first things about overlanding you need to get used to is how you wake up really, really early every day because odds are you need to drive several hours (covering several hundred kilometers doesn’t go fast, plus odds are it’s a dirt road). I’m not particularly a morning person, so to make myself feel better I took a picture of brilliantly bright Venus in the pre-dawn sky, this particular picture over Spitzkoppe Mountain in Namibia.

And then you drive for a bit. The most random detail about our driving routine was how thoroughly obsessed everyone became with gossip magazines and the like- I can’t say I ever read a Cosmo or People all the way through, but I surely can’t say that anymore! The fact that our group was heavily skewed in the female direction surely didn’t hurt.Another pre-dawn picture, arguably looking the most tramp-like I ever have been. I know, I can’t believe there was a time when I’d get dolled up either! To explain the picture, it is awfully cold early in the morning as it’s currently wintertime (we had frost on the tent one morning in the desert), but it can heat up quite a bit by the middle of the day. Solution? Invest in knee-highs. Best socks ever!

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Speaking of tents, we slept in one almost nonstop for the past three weeks. Not to say camping isn’t fun, but beds still excite me. Laundry can be done about once a week, but you need to hand-wash bras throughout Africa yourself. Turns out they’re an extremely rare commodity in this part of the world so they’ll get stolen off the line or just plain go missing. And of course because this is camping everyone has to help out with something or another, the daily roster going between food prep and washup and the like. Everyone has to help out with “flapping” at the end of a meal though- it’s unsanitary to dry things with dish towels, so everything has to be air-dried by flapping your arms. Towards the end of the day it’s also a convenient excuse to warm yourself by the fire as well.

So that is overlanding. As to the things we saw whilst doing on this, let me begin the copious effort of catching up…