Zimbabwe

Next up was Zimbabwe. A country with a relatively recent turbulent history and home to the World Famous Victoria Falls, and the whole “Doctor Livingstone I presume?” event.

We entered Zimbabwe by crossing the very impressive Kariba Dam, spanning The Zambezi River.

Welcome to Zimbabwe.

Our first stop was then only a couple of miles into into the country at Lake Kariba. A couple of house boats had been organised for a three day trip on the lake. It was an expensive optional add-on to the trip and we had thought hard as to whether we would do it or not. We were getting to the point where we needed some time on our own. We are so used to travelling independently and we were missing the flexibility. Our minds were quickly made up when we arrived at the dock area. We were naively expecting houseboats similar to the great ones we had seen in Kerala, in Southern India. The cost certainly implied they would be. Oh no, these were two old fibreglass ramshackle vessels, one of which could easily have been a converted fishing boat. This, added to the usual organisational incompetence of our leader, meant there were not enough bedrooms for everyone and we would have to sleep on deck. This made our decision very easy, and what a great decision it turned out to be.

We headed off to a nearby campsite and rented a ‘rustic’ bungalow overlooking the lake. Bed, shower, toilet, fridge, outside seating area and a restaurant on site. In this part of The World it doesn’t get much better, or so we thought.

About 20 metres in front of our bungalow was an electric fence. There was a detachable section at one point, enough to get a car through, and then there was about 100 metres of open bush to the lake. The campsite also had several signs saying ‘Beware of the Hippos and Crocodiles’. This could be an interesting stay we thought.

We had a superb meal on our first evening and sat on our little terrace afterwards as the sun set. Then all of a sudden, right there in front of us munching on the grass, was a hippo. We hadn’t even heard it approach. It slowly made its way across the campsite in front of us having its evening meal. A security guard turned up to tell us that as long as we didn’t get “too close” then we would be OK. There didn’t seem to be a specific distance for ‘too close’, it probably depends on how fast you can run to safety!

Our after dinner visitor

During our stay at the campsite we also had five Zebra, several Kudu and numerous other little animals including mongoose stroll by our bungalow.

We also followed two Sea Eagles as they flew from post to post and, as always, Steve went out running and saw four elephants and dozens of baboons.

However, the highlight of our Lake Kariba stop was when we asked the owner if we were allowed beyond the electric fence. His response was “Yes, but make sure to reconnect the electric fence, be back before dark” and, you guessed it, “Don’t get too close to any animals”.

We were deliberating going into the bush as we sat on our terrace one afternoon when Steve said “Look, there is an elephant”, and sure enough, coming out of the trees, just the other side of the fence was a big old elephant. It was followed shortly by another and another and another. In total nine elephants wandered past in line and in the middle were a couple of babies! Our decision was made.

Here come the elephants

We unhooked the electric fence, remembered to reconnect it, and strolled into the bush, making sure the family of elephants were a good distance ahead of us. At one point, two big juveniles, broke from the main group and wandered down to the lakeside for a drink. We watched the main group for about 30 minutes before they started to retrace their steps. At one point, we got a little too close but the big Matriarch soon let us know, standing up tall and sticking out her big ears. We beat a hasty retreat, back towards the electric fence, and waited for them to wander past.

“Don’t get too close, whatever that means”

However, they took a different route back and popped out of the trees only 15 metres or so in front of us. The electric fence suddenly looked very flimsy, as the Matriarch stopped, turned towards us, and once again stuck out her ears. In her excitement and in a little bit of a panic, Sarah tried to get a photo but ended up with her camera on the wrong setting and missed it. “Don’t worry”, said Steve “She will be so much bigger in our memory than in real life”.

That wasn’t the end of the Elephant Action. We had almost forgotten about the two juveniles when they suddenly appeared back in view and we were treated to a great display of ‘Play Fighting’. It looked pretty serious to us as they charged and headbutted each other for over 10 minutes.

The photo doesn’t do this ‘play fight’ justice.

When we returned back into the campsite the owner was there and he had been watching us. “You might have got a little too close there”. He said, “Those juveniles can come straight through that electric fence when they are fighting”. “At least we know what too close is now”, said Steve. The owner also showed us a video he had taken from a 4×4 a few days before, of a pride of lions chasing down and killing a buffalo. It had been taken less than a couple of miles away from where we were. “Maybe we should stay in the campsite from now on”, we both said.

We rejoined the truck after the houseboat stop and we had seen so much more action than the trip on the lake. However, we guess that was more about relaxing and seeing the lake from a different perspective. But we’re so glad we didn’t miss those elephants.

We made our way South across the centre of Zimbabwe and passed through the capital, Harare. Hyperinflation goes hand in hand with Zimbabwe and its history. It was at its worse in around 2008 when inflation was running at almost 100% per day. This means prices were doubling every 24 hours. It meant cash was effectively worthless and the government was printing huge denomination bank notes. 100 Trillion Dollars was the biggest note, that’s 1 followed by 14 zeros!!. Today the US Dollar is the main currency but Zimbabwean Dollars can and are still used but these huge denomination notes are no longer legal tender and just sold as souvenirs. The notes now are much more sensible with 100,000 being the biggest!!

We were in a supermarket one day and saw a man pushing a trolley. The part of the trolley fitted to carry a child was pushed open and rammed full and high with Zimbabwe currency. The guy was paying for just a few groceries with it.

We made our way on a long drive day and stopped over at The Great Zimbabwe Ruins. We went on a three hour tour with a local guide. As a guide he was really good and very enthusiastic but neither of us were that impressed with the ruins.

Walking around The GZR!

It is obviously very important in the history of Zimbabwe and the country takes its name from the town where it is located. But visually, for us, it ranks way down this list of global historical sites.

The view wasn’t too bad.

Our big loop around Zimbabwe continued on towards its second city of Bulawayo. This was to allow us access to Matobo National Park, and the hope of seeing some Rhino. Our guide for the day came with a big reputation and was built up to be some National Celebrity wildlife/ rhino ‘whisperer’

Even baby rhino’s are cute.

To be honest, we were a little disappointed. We did get to see a mother and baby rhino and we got pretty close for some decent photos, and that was a fabulous thing to see. But that was the extent of the wildlife we saw during the whole four hour trip.

Getting this close, would salvage any tour!

We did get to hear the guide tell us about the things he had done and how good he was. It’s a shame his exploits hadn’t been shared with his assistant who was a little lacking in knowledge and contradicted herself a few times. It was a strange tour but Steve enjoyed the ride through the park as the safari jeep had a spotter seat at the front which he got to sit in.

Steve in ‘The Box Seat’

Up until now the campsites in Africa had been way better than we had expected but, other than Lake Kariba, Zimbabwe brought us back down to earth, with either no facilities at all or super basic, pretty dirty facilities. As we drove out of Bulawayo our feelings about the country were mixed. It had been a fantastic start but for us things had dropped off significantly. We had heard big things about the country before we arrived but it wasn’t living up to its big ticket billing.

We had one more stop so we were hopeful things would turn around at Victoria Falls, ‘The Smoke That Thunders’. Would it be like the commercial over touristic Niagra Falls or would it be like Iguacu Falls, totally awesome?

The answer was, for us, that it was somewhere in between. The town of Victoria Falls was not hugely touristy. Yes, it had souvenir shops, restaurants, bars, and all the activities you would expect including bungy jumping, zip lining, helicopter rides, boat trips etc etc. But it wasn’t overbearing and the town and Falls were not jam packed full.

After a few days of rough camping we took the opportunity to rent a room in a villa in town, get cleaned up, and hopefully get some decent sleep. The villa was superb. It had four bedrooms, a huge living room and a pool. It also came with a maid, or domestic as they are referred to here, called ‘Happy’ and a security guard. Luckily for us, we were the only people staying, so we had the entire place to ourselves for little more than we have paid in the past to pitch a tent in the United States! The owner gave us a run down on the town and things to do, and cautioned us that if we were out after dark to make sure we got a taxi home as elephants roam the town at night. Sure enough in the mornings fresh elephant dung in the streets was evidence of the nocturnal visitors!

This was a real treat!

‘Happy’ was there to prepare food, cook, clean, wash and tidy up after us. We felt particularly uncomfortable with that so we did our own prep, cooking and tidying. And we took advantage of using the washing machine as our clothes were badly in need of a freshen up!

We spent a day at The Falls and thoroughly enjoyed it. Although it was The Dry season, The Falls were still very impressive, especially at the Zimbabwe end.

There was significantly less flow at the Zambia side though. Sarah took millions of photos and with it being Africa, Health and Safety was not so heavily enforced as it might be elsewhere, which gave Steve the opportunity for some close to the edge views.

Steve grabs a selfie with the Zambezi below!

Our other full day there was spent wandering the town and its outskirts. We found some amazing cafés to have a cold drink with unbelievable views.

A table with a view.

We also popped into the Victoria Falls Hotel for tea and cake. It’s a beautiful old, colonial hotel with impeccable service and reminded us very much of Raffles in Singapore.

Someone’s happy 😊

Steve managed to get in a couple runs, one of which was worthy of a mention. He ran out of town for about five miles to where the road ran out at a reserve area. He turned around to head back and became aware of a family of baboons on the side of the road. You never know which way baboons are going to react, they can be pretty temperamental, so he crossed to the other side of the road and ran past a bush straight into two warthogs. The startled warthogs sprang up and shot off into the bush, and the startled runner shot off back to the other side of the road, only to go straight towards a four metre long crocodile! It was facing away from him and luckily it was the other side of a two metre wide gully, which thankfully was quite deep. But it was still a lot closer than Steve wanted to be to all those teeth. The rest of the run back was a touch faster than he had planned it to be!

We had a great time in Victoria Falls and thoroughly enjoyed it. Did it rescue Zimbabwe for us? Probably yes, it did. But it seemed to us that there were several other places to visit in the country which may have been more to our liking. If we had visited those it may well have been a fantastic country. But that is a downside overland travel on a schedule.

“So then Sarah, where next?”

“Botswana. We’ve been looking forward to this one”

“Get out, it’s my turn”

“No way, I’m staying here until Cape Town”

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