Travel Report from Zimbabwe and Botswana (28 March 2004)

Greetings from Zimbabwe and Botswana!

Having crossed from Zambia to Zimbabwe via the Victoria Falls Bridge, we arrived in the town of Victoria Falls. Since I was last here five years ago, this town has grown in size (five star hotels, shopping malls, craft villages etc), and then become a ghost town. Locals who were once tour guides, rafters and bungee jump operators in the adventure capital of Zimbabwe now roam the streets looking for any tourist they can find, friendly and desperate for food and work. Although Victoria Falls is still just as attractive, it is depressing in its emptiness and surprising in its prices: One roll of camera film costs 18 Euro! In Zimbabwe, local produce is inexpensive, but any imported products are horrendously expensive.

The lack of tourism is a direct result of the political situation in Zimbabwe. In an effort to recompensate for embezzling the state pension funds, Mugabe has followed a programme of land reform and forcefully evicted various white farmers from
their land, handing the land over to his war veterans in turn. Whilst it is disturbing to see how much land is owned by such a small, white majority, also disturbing is the brutality which occurred as a result of Mugabe’s initiative. World news provided extensive coverage of the murders and assaults on farmers that have taken place, although in reality very few farmers lost their lives in relation to the number of farms involved, some left the country, and many continue to live on their farms to this day. There is also a sizeable community of white and Indian business people who are not farmers and see no need to leave the country. The second angle to Mugabe’s regime involves the marginalisation of the Ndebele minority who fall victim to Shona brutality. Even the national football team in the recent Africa Nations Cup was selected along ‘tribal’ lines.

We had a brief lunch in Victoria Falls before departing for Hwange Game Reserve. It is raining so heavily in Zimbabwe that the rain leaked through our car doors and at times we had to travel at a snails pace as we could see very little through the windscreen. This didn’t stop us from spotting the craft stalls on the side of the road though, some of which stopped to have a look at. Though much has changed in Zimbabwe, they still produce the best carvings in Southern Africa, and we treated ourselves to a few! One artist asked if we would please swap clothes and shoes for his carvings, these items being of more value than the ever-depreciating Zimbabwean dollar. Also noteworthy was the lack of traffic on Zimbabwean roads. Fuel is again available, but few can afford it. The Zambians get around high fuel costs by cycling everywhere. This is not the case in Zimbabwe though.

We spent two nights at Hwange Main Camp and Sinamatella Camp respectively. Both camps are equipped to deal with hundreds of tourists, complete with bars, restaurants, guest houses, cottages, caravan and camp sites. In Sinamatella we were the only visitors present, at Main Camp we were joined by one Zimbabwean businessman, Shane. The lack of visitors has something to do with the rainy season, which is particularly heavy this year – the most rain Zimbabwe has had in 23 years we were told, but it is also related to the Mugabe regime which understandably has scared away the majority of would be tourists. Staff at the camps were friendly but withdrawn, and when Shane spoke to us about the situation for all in Zimbabwe, we was careful to ensure that the staff could not overhear him in case they reported him to the police for political slander. The plus side of the empty camps was having breathtaking views stretching for kilometers over the Sinamatella valley all to ourselves. We saw very little game in Hwange for two reasons. First, the rains result in a wide dispersion of game owing to plentiful water distribution, thereby rendering waterholes ineffective in attracting thirsty herds. Second, poaching has been taking place in the park, for purposes of food for the hungry, and also as Mugabe has been supplying ivory from his presidential elephant herd to China. The highlight of our stay in Hwange was tracking wild dog with our guide Jimmy. We did not manage to get close to the wild dog, but we did surprise an elephant and had a close encounter with a giraffe.

After four days in Hwange, we moved on to Bulawayo to search for an old friend of mine. We stayed at Paradise Backpackers which is frequented by overland tour operators. Now that fuel availability is no longer an issue, overlanders have started tours through Zimbabwe again, and things seem to be picking up. The groups we met (mostly British and Australian) were certainly having a great time. On a sobering note, they informed us that 32 people had been killed in Stone Town, Zanzibar the previous week, during an independence demonstration which was violently put down by Tanzanian military. We shared a lounge with the overlanders which had a television and a well stocked video cabinet. Given the rainy nights and that we have not watched television for nearly 6 months, the videos occupied most of our evenings in Bulawayo. Although I managed to track down my friend, we were unable to meet. Nevertheless, we explored Bulawayo, which is a picturesque colonial town. We also chatted to local business people who told us of the difficulties of coping with hyperinflation. One restaurant owner explained to us that she has to change the prices on her menu every week, and often the weekly stock she gets in is more expensive than the stock she has just sold. Electricity bills are erratic and climb with out notice. Credit cards are no longer accepted in Zimbabwe, as store-owners have to clear the cards with the bank two days before a transaction is to be processed. Most business people change what Zimbabwe dollars they have accumulated for American dollars on a daily basis.

Whilst in Bulawayo we also visited the Motobo Hills National Park. This is a limestone valley that over the centuries has been eroded by wind to produce a series of limestone outcrops with impressive rock formations. Caves in the area are famous for their cave paintings. Cecil John Rhodes grave is situated at the top of ‘View of the World’ which is also populated by rainbow lizards which come out when the ranger on duty whistles to them.

From Bulawayo we headed towards Plum Tree where we exited Zimbabwe and entered Botswana. This was an easy process marred only by the behaviour of the Botswanian officials toward the Zimbabweans entering Botswana. The Zimbabweans were friendly and well behaved, but the Botswanian officials taunted and humiliated them. We asked one Zimbabwean woman why they did this and she told us that it is because Botswana does not agree with the Zimbabwean government. She admitted that she didn’t either, but what could she do?

We spent very little time in Botswana – 4 days to be exact, which does not do justice to the country. The highlights are the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans and the Okavango Delta, but with so much rain, the two are largely inaccessible. We stayed on the edge of the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans for two nights and then headed straight for the Caprivi Strip. Our last night in Botswana was spent off road and deep in the bush. The following day we drove along the Okavango Pan Handle, where most of the game fishing in Botswana takes place, and then exited Botswana via the Caprivi Strip.

We are now in Namibia, where we are now experiencing temperatures akin to Europe in late winter. That and more in the next report! We hope you are all well,

Julianne and Christian.