Monday, December 02, 2013

Adventures with Landy: Zimbabwe Edition

Last installment of the Africa series, I promise!

When I began planning our Africa trip, I was originally thinking we’d visit South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia. Eventually it became clear that doing the best parts of Namibia would be a huge detour given our time available, and that country is best left to a future trip. Simply retracing our steps from Botswana to South Africa seemed a waste, though, and we were already planning to cross into Zimbabwe to visit Victoria Falls. Why not come back to South Africa through Zimbabwe?
Why not, indeed: a thoroughly wrecked economy, a recent history of political violence, a fairly unhinged dictatorship, corrupt government structure, institutionalized reverse-racism and little remaining tourism infrastructure were all potential reasons to skip Zimbabwe. But most of the country’s bad press was from 2008 and before, and a little research showed that the power-sharing agreement between Robert Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF party and the opposition MDC in the wake of the disputed 2008 election had slowly stabilized the country. A friend visited Harare earlier in the year and a lot of good to say about it. The owner of our hired Land Rover had no objections to driving through Zimbabwe and said no other renters in recent memory had significant problems. I thought it’d be interesting to get a first-hand look at a country often in the headlines for all the wrong reasons, if only for a few days.

The one potential hiccup was that a presidential election was scheduled for just before our visit. It was the first such election since 2008, had been set under conditions that vastly favored ZANU-PF, and MDC was already crying foul. There was widespread speculation that it could get violent again. Thus our Zimbabwe plans were decidedly tentative when we entered Botswana.

The election took place while we were in the bush and my first task after emerging in Kasane was to look up the news from Zimbabwe. Robert Mugabe had won the election, as expected, and this time ZANU-PF had taken pains to rig it so massively that there would be no bloody aftermath as in 2008 – and no power-sharing agreement, either. Mugabe’s enablers in the South African government and SADC were staying mum on the charges of massive electoral fraud and Jacob Zuma went so far as to publically announce that he had phoned Mugabe his congratulations, so that was that. It was a disappointing result for those who hoped that Zimbabwe would see positive change sometime before Mugabe’s death, but at least the country appeared perfectly safe to travel in.

We reached the Zimbabwe border via a short drive from Kasane early on August 7. The border was loosely organized chaos, as expected, and we received multiple offers from touts to shepherd us through, which we politely declined. Checking out of Botswana was quick and effortless; Zimbabwe’s bureaucracy, on the other hand, lived up to its reputation. We queued in a long, slowly moving line for well over two hours to be issued a visa ($30 US pp, issued entirely by hand with nary a computer in sight), and then huddled in a much less orderly scrum to import the Land Rover. A gracious queue-mate procured the forms I’d need, explained the process, and then insisted I go before him. Our paperwork was in order but the surly customs agent insisted I would need to use the services of a bonded agent since our hired Land Rover was a commercial vehicle. I asked round the queue but none of the Zimbabweans or South Africans present had crossed with a hired vehicle so I had little choice but to enlist the services of a tout-cum-agent, who gamely charged me $50 to fill out the same forms I had just completed myself! And this in addition to $100 in import fees, “carbon tax,” and road use fees. Ah well – with the economy a self-inflicted disaster going on eight years, clearly the state needs to bilk the few remaining tourists for all they’re worth to replenish the coffers. This was not entirely unexpected.

My mood improved 300% when we were clear of the border. The 70km of road to Victoria Falls was quite good, in fact better than most of the pavement we’d seen in Botswana. Vic Falls was an interesting town; it had obviously once been a tourist mecca, but was now very nearly empty. We procured a comfy room at Vic Falls Rest Camp, ate lunch, and went down to the falls. It, too, was quite uncrowded. In fact, many of the people there we already knew from standing in the queue with them at the border! Most of the rest were smartly uniformed groups of schoolchildren, who were enormously friendly and rather keen to have their picture taken with the tourists! We also chatted with a couple from New York; the woman was a Zimbabwe native and was quite surprised that we’d come without knowing anyone and even moreso that we were planning to drive south the length of the country. Clearly, we were already a bit off the beaten path.
The falls themselves were pretty spectacular. They mostly tumble across the Zambian side of the Zambezi River, making for excellent viewpoints all along the Zimbawean side of the gorge. The falls raise such a thick mist – even in dry season - that you can only see a sliver of their length at any given point, so the view constantly changes as you advance along the paved trail. Initially the viewpoints are quite protected, but when you get to the northern end the fences end and the incautious visitor is given every possible chance to fall to his death 100m below. This we avoided by as slim a margin as possible, snapped the requisite photos, and headed back into town. We walked around town for a while and were again struck by the lack of high-season activity. There were plenty of shops open but they didn’t seem to be doing much business. We were approached several times by young men trying to sell us now-worthless $100,000,000,000,000 Zimbabwean dollar notes (worth just $.30 when the US dollar was finally made legal currency in 2009). Back at the rest camp, I asked about the road conditions south to Bulawayo and was told the road was quite good. I was skeptical.

In fact, we made good time the next day on mostly excellent roads that appeared to have been paved fairly recently. There was little development save for some small villages as we skirted Hwange National Park on the 440km between Vic Falls and Bulawayo. There were a surprising number of stands selling large woodcarvings out in the seeming middle of nowhere. Given the extremely high number of unemployed Zimbabweans, I suppose woodcarving is a cheap way for one to pass the time, and if the occasional piece sells on the only highway with any tourists left, all the better. The other interesting diversion was counting the leftover election posters. The area around Bulawayo is the MDC’s stronghold, and by my count about 1/3 of the posters were MDC versus 2/3 for ZANU-PF. Even that number is excellent considering the number of MDC activists that were beaten & murdered after the 2008 election. It takes guts to staple up an opposition party poster in Zimbabwe.

About halfway to Bulawayo we were stopped at a police checkpoint, which we had been waved through until that point. The policeman was signaling Dawn to slow down, and then gave her a “halt” sign just before she reached him; she was slow to brake and rolled to a stop a car-length past him. He came to her window and demanded “why did you not stop!?” and then announced he was arresting her for disobeying a police officer. I figured a $20 “fine” would take care of it, and indeed it did, but I was impressed by how official the extortion was. The arresting officer wrote the ticket, another collected the money, and a third wrote a receipt complete with badge numbers. I supposed the money might end up in their pockets anyways, but almost didn’t mind given the team effort they put into making the corruption respectable!

The Land Rover attracted quite a few stares in the villages and even in cosmopolitan Bulawayo, despite being on one of the country’s main north-south routes. Nevertheless, when we stopped for the night 70km north of the Zimbabwe-South Africa border, there were a number of South African vacationers at our guesthouse, so I presume foreigners aren’t that rare these days – perhaps just foreigners in kitted-out Land Rovers. The guesthouse was interesting; it was built in the 1930s by the current owner’s grandfather. Being white, the owner and his wife have had nearly all of their farm property (5000 acres) taken by the government, retaining only the guesthouse and 53 acres. The government has even tried taking that 3 times, and the owners have had to fight to retain ownership in the courts system nearly continuously since 2004. There is one particular MP that keeps coming onto their property and claiming ownership; they’ve been able to get a restraining order against him, but nobody will enforce it! We stayed up late talking with the owners and their friends (who have managed to keep their land chiefly by being 40 km from the nearest graded road!). Incidentally, they had a pet giraffe who we got to pet.

The next day we were off early for the dreaded border crossing at Beitbridge. It was actually much better organized than I expected; the exit from Zimbabwe was easy and the entry to South Africa fairly efficient once we reached the head of the massive queue (2 hours). After that we made a beeline for Johannesburg, arriving in the middle of a massive thunderstorm, where we sadly said goodbye to the Land Rover and enjoyed our last night out in Melville. We spent the next day poking around the Sterkfontein Caves and then flew out to Frankfurt on Lufthansa’s new A380 (Seat 93F for me!). We’d spent an entire month in South Africa, Botswana, & Zimbabwe – three very different countries – and enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. If I’d had another month or two to spare, I would have very much liked to keep the Land Rover and continue north into Zambia, Tanzania, and Kenya. Another time, perhaps.


Jason said...

Africa is an amazing country, trhe wildlife and the people are lovely

ace maxs said...

its amazing :) great africa :)

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