African shoestrings – Zimbabwe Day Eighty Seven Bulawayo

In Canada I was asked how Niagara Falls compared to Victoria Falls. I said bluntly that whilst the Zimbabweans had made a bit of a mess of the town the area around the falls was still protected and in a natural setting. Somehow the North Americans had turned the falls into a Disney meets nature theme park and built something ugly on almost every square inch of land around the falls.

And that is the great thing about Victoria Falls. Surrounded by rainforest created from the mist that the falls generates, you can imagine that what you are seeing now is pretty similar to what David Livingstone saw when he stumbled across it in the mid 1800’s. As I explained previously last time we had been here the water level had been a lot lower. Now the falls were torrential and mist was everywhere, not enough to spoil the view as on the Zambian side but enough to get us wet again. Probably the most dramatic view is to be had from Cataract View. This requires a climb down a steep stairway into the gorge and it’s from here that we found the classic view found in all good coffee table books. There are many other view points along the path that parallels the falls. The closer ones were a waste of time but the ones further away enabled us to get a sense of scale and that’s when you realise how awesome this place is. Its as if there are billions of tiny droplets of water dropping 100 metres into the gorge, each one independent of each other and then coming together as one seething mass of water on impact at the bottom. We stood and watched this incredible creation of nature for sometime before leaving and finding somewhere to toss some fluid down into our abyss and watch the world cup cricket.

We were a bit disappointed with our coupe on the train. We’re not sure whether it was the luck of the draw or the fact that we booked second class but we didn’t get the wood paneling, red velour upholstery and brass of a bygone era. Instead we got metal paneling and grey dull upholstery. Most trains in Zimbabwe run overnight on long journeys and run very slowly! It took ten hours to travel a distance of 439 kilometres or twice as long as it would have done by car. But we had, so we thought at the time, some good reasons to travel by train; it would save on accommodation, it was cheaper to hire a car in Bulawayo than Vic Falls and I liked trains. Whilst I’m not in the train spotter league, I find it quite comforting to sit or lie down listening to the rhythmic ‘clatter de clatter’. I was to be disappointed, just as we would nod off to the gentle swaying of the carriage the train would stop at some imaginary station in the middle of nowhere and then spent the next thirty minutes shunting. Add that to the fact that the doom and gloomers had been at us in Vic Falls, warning us to keep our windows locked to guard against straying arms that appear at stations and whip away your possessions and never to leave your coupe unattended, and you can see why we got very little sleep. To add insult to injury we discovered that hire cars cost the same in Bulawayo as they do in Vic Falls after all!

Louise from Burkes Paradise Backpackers met us at the station at around 7 am and whisked us away to a reasonable size house on a reasonable size property away from the centre of town. Louise and her husband Colin were caretaker managers whilst the owner Alan Burke was away and whilst they were pretty helpful they were obviously new to the game. As with white South Africans white Zimbabweans were fearful for their future under the current regime. Certainly they had good reason, Zimbabwe’s economy was in tatters, inflation was out of control and there was no money to pay the souring national debt or anything else for that matter. Of course since we left the country it’s gone from very bad to chaotic with the well publicised grabs of white owned farms that have resulted in crop failures of massive proportions and therefore very little left to export. The Z$ is worth nothing outside of Zimbabwe, so those who choose to get out, leave with very little unless they were smart enough to have some investments overseas. To a lot of whites still there, Zimbabwe is their home and has been for a least a couple of generations so leaving the country is the last resort.

Not that they’ve been there all that long. The remarkable Cecil Rhodes managed to obtain mining rights from the Ndebele tribe for his British South Africa Company as late as 1888. From then on the area that is now Zambia and Zimbabwe was settled by whites and the long running conflict between black and white that still continues today was born. Eventually after ten years of fighting between the Shona and Ndebele on one side and white settlers on the other, Southern Rhodesia started to push for self-government, which was eventually achieved in 1923. Thirty years later, along with Northern Rhodesia (present-day Zambia) and Nyasaland (present-day Malawi), it became part of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. This federation lasted a mere ten years, when the other two countries obtained independence as Zambia and Malawi. Rhodesia, as it was now called, started negotiations on their independence. But with no plan to involve black Africans, the Poms rejected this proposal. Eventually the white government led by Ian Smith got pissed off by this and declared independence anyway. It wasn’t until 1980 after a lot of bloodshed, two different governments and Britain regaining control, that free elections were held. Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) won the election easily and the rest as they say is history!

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Victoria Falls from the Zambia side

Victoria Falls from the Zambia side



African shoestrings – Zambia Day Eighty Five Victoria Falls

We left Livingstone via the hostel shuttle that was masquerading as the back of a Ute and into Zimbabwe the next morning. The driver actually stopped at the border and took in our passports to the Zambian immigration office for stamping which was a bit disconcerting as a passport is considered the only thing that you should never let out of your possession. But he looked like a trustworthy soul and from the couple of grunts he had given us, he had this air of knowing what he was doing.

A good thing about the backpacker hostels is their network. At each one you can usually book ahead for the next one and even further ahead. In Victoria Falls we had booked to stay at a place named with obviously a lot of thought, 357 Gibson Road. It was a quite comfortable place run and owned by a Dutch couple Hans (who else?) and Elizabeth, full of Aussie travelers and cheap, which in Vic. Falls is a rarity in this age of mass tourism. There’s always a reason why a place is cheap and 357 Gibson Road was no exception. It was 25-minute walk to the centre of town. Now if you’re staying in Rome, Paris, Sydney or even Perth that’s great. In a small town that’s a long walk.
Fortunately Hans gave us and a couple of other Aussies, Greg and Leann, a lift via the local markets into town. Zimbabwe at that time and in fact as I write is in the process of having its currency nosedive into totally a dark void of worthlessness.
Great if you’re a traveler from almost anywhere but not if you live there. You can almost always tell how much a country has lost confidence in its currency, the good old US$ starts to become the currency of tourism. Zambia had already made that transition, we paid for our accommodation in US$ even though we paid by credit card. As John one of the owners of Fawlty Towers put it “You just can’t rely on the Kwacha (Zambia’s currency) to be the same value tomorrow morning as it is today”. At that time 1500 Kwacha equalled one Aussie dollar or US$0.60. It cost us 8000Kwacha (US$3.00) to travel the 11 kilometre distance from the falls back to Livingstone in a taxi! So in Zimbabwe the A$ was only worth 25 Zimbabwe dollars but we still felt like millionaires in the local markets.

Hans left us to wander around whilst he went about his normal business of purchasing his weekly supplies. These markets weren’t the usual stalls and stands but a dusty, rambling and poorly maintained open-air shopping centre.  There wasn’t a lot to look at except hairdressers. Every second shop seemed to be a hairdresser or a bitsa shop. You know one of those shops that sell a bit of this, that and anything else. It was at one of these shops that we all decided to stop and have Z$5.00 (US$0.12) cokes. We actually hadn’t planned to stop but we had to stay there until we had finished drinking so we could hand back the empties. Coke in most of these countries comes in the old coke bottles that have probably been around since it first came on the market early in the twentieth century. What worried me is whether the coke we drinking is that old as well!

As we drank at this rather poor excuse for a milk bar, we did the usual story swapping that travelers do. It turned out Greg was from Perth and had just hitchhiked from Mozambique and somehow got caught up with a drunken driver who stopped at every bar on the 500 kilometre journey. Mozambique is apparently not the sort of place you walk away from a lift unless you have a few months to spare or worse still a gun! This story was to have a lot more relevance to us later on than we realised at the time.

In the 4 years since we first visited Vic Falls it had changed a fair bit. Like any tourist town it always had its fair share of hotels and shops, now it had even more and a lot of them were more upmarket. It had even acquired the obligatory casino.

One place that hadn’t been touched was an area nicknamed curio row. It’s here that you will find almost any type of African curio but in particular rhinos, hippos, African figures and any other shape considered popular, all carved from soapstone or wood. The trouble is there are so many of them that it’s hard to be convinced that guy selling them from his stall (often a just a chair in a small section of a crowded car park) actually made them himself or represents his local village. Somehow I get the impression that it all comes from a huge factory secretly hidden away in the bush. But I guess for these people all that matters is that they sell.

And they do!…………. Tourists gobble them up and take them home and pepper them all round their home or put them aside and forget about them. In these times of globalisation you can find most of these goods in specialty shops in any big western city but usually at four or five times the price. So sometimes it’s often the price and the perception of negotiating a bargain with the seller, that attracts tourists rather than the quality or its origin. We as ‘discerning’ buyers found a small shopping centre around the back of the curio row and bought what we considered more original and quality goods (albeit at higher prices and no option to bargain) than what was on offer elsewhere.

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Victoria Falls from the Zambia side

Victoria Falls from the Zambia side