Zimbabwe, You meet the nicest people

With some trepidation, we set out early in the morning for the border crossing from Botswana to Zimbabwe at the Ramokgwebane/Plumtree Border Post. Why some trepidation? Well, Britain really isn’t a favourite of Robert Mugabe, and we are carrying our lovely bright red British Passports, so I guess it was a case of “suck it and see”. The exit from Botswana went efficiently, if not the most friendly of experiences, then it was short drive to the Zimbabwean side, oh well here goes…….

The first sign of the governments anti-British sentiment was getting the Visa to actually enter the country, all citizens from outside Zimbabwe (apart from Southern African countries who pay nothing), pay $20US, but if you are from Britain, Ireland, or Canada you pay $55US ! To be honest we did already know this as we did a little homework before hand, but the immigration guy was almost apologetic about the increased charge. We then had to go to another desk to pay for the Visa’s, then back to get it stamped and inserted into the passport. Then the Carnet de Passage was stamped (so no payment for the Temporary Importation of Colonel K), then we had to pay Carbon Tax ($30US), and when we tried to pay for 3rd party insurance we were told that we didn’t have to pay anything as it is covered under the Carnet by the Zimbabwean AA! I was extremely doubtful about this and continued to ask if I needed to pay it, but apparently no, its included. Everyone at the Zim border was so helpful and friendly, we even had a bit of a laugh with them (honestly this is unknown at African borders). All was going well, perhaps too well……. maybe.

We were told to proceed through to the next stage (this was to hand in our stamped exit fee, and pay the Road Access Fee), there were two lanes, a red route and a green route, and although we were told to drive through the green route (no items to declare), the official in charge insisted that we go through the red route and wait behind a coach. It was chaos! The coach was packed, both with people and goods (ranging from a double mattress, a cycle wheel, a wheel barrow, plus hundreds of bags), every person that was on that coach, and every item was taken off and then EVERYTHING was checked. Jac, went back to the kiosk and asked why we had to go through this red route, we were told that our vehicle must be checked over by “Isaac”, oh no, we are going to be here all day, and the truck is going to get stripped! Then Jac found Isaac, amazingly he stopped what he was doing, asked “do you have any rocket launchers on board?”, then asked to look inside Colonel K, opened a few cupboards, and signed our exit card. No bribes, no thieving, just lots of helpfulness and smiles. Perhaps Zimbabwe is going to be ok for a couple of Brits after all.

We then caused our own chaos by reversing back out of the red route and drove through the green route, and got to the final stage of paying our $20US Road Access Fee. Being left hand drive, Jac usually deals with this stuff at booths etc, and the first I knew of a problem was hearing Jac say “what do you mean, coupons?”. We were told very politely to park the truck (we were blocking the exit from the border), and follow an official back to the main area again. I was convinced that we were about to get shafted big time, especially as we went past Customs and Immigration to a separate building. Inside were two Road Agency guys, eating a cooked breakfast (at their desks from the frying pan) and watching Southampton Vs Man City on the TV. It turns out that as Colonel K is classed as a Heavy Vehicle, we have to buy coupons to drive on the main highway, and after a long discussion with a map of Zimbabwe in front of all 5 of us, it was decided that we would be driving from Plumtree, to Bulawayo, then up to Hwange National Park, and then exiting the country at Victoria Falls. This would cost us 50US dollars, and would be valid for 14 days, but if we wanted to stay longer we could only renew it at Vic Falls, and we would again have to state the route we wanted to take. They also told us that as we have paid this fee we wouldn’t have to pay the road tolls that are all over Zimbabwe (if we had paid the Road Access Fee we would have still have had to pay the tolls), so not so bad. We had a good laugh with these guys, and of course discussed how the hell Leicester City have run away with the English Premier League. And that was it, all in all a very pleasant border experience.

If you believe everything that is written about Zimbabwe (especially in the UK Press), you’d think that the infrastructure was a mess, well maybe things have gone drastically down hill over recent years, but first impressions of the roads was good, in fact way better than nearby Namibia and Botswana. Don’t get me wrong there are sections that are horrendous by European standards, but still better than much of what we have travelled on, it didn’t feel like we were about to break a leaf string every five minutes.

About 120km from the border (and after several Police road blocks) we got to the small village of Figtree. Here was the turning for a track off the tarmac, that was a short cut to Motobo Hills (an area we wanted to visit), also at this turning was a sign to Phomolo Lodge, there was no mention of camping here, and we tried the phone number but couldn’t get through, so as it was “on the way” we thought we would give it a go for camping. Several villages and a couple of gates (and a long sandy track) later we arrived at the gate to the farm. It truly looked closed down, but in the distance we could see a guy walking towards us to open up the last locked gate. ‘Wilfred’ greeted us warmly, and told us that ‘Mr Vince’ will be along shortly to take us to the campsite. ‘Mr Vince’ couldn’t believe that I was also a ‘Vince’. Next thing we knew, we were getting a guided tour of their two lodge rooms, (which were very new and very nicely done), it turns out its a national pastime to experience the lodges that you aren’t going to stay in!

It turns out that we were the first “overseas” guests to stay at the campsite (I think we might have been the first guests full stop), and we were made to feel very welcome, we had Mr Wilfred, Mr Vince, and the farm manager Mr Lee, all running around getting things perfect for us. The cost of camping was $5 per person, including firewood, amazing value. It’s a lovely quiet place, overlooking a “dam”, and surrounded by some fantastic rocky outcrops (that this area is famous for). There was a family from one of the villages down at the dam, and the kids seemed to be playing at fishing, it was a lovely scene, and they were quite unaware that I was there.

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Then the owner of the farm and lodge turned up, his title, Mr High Chief Justice Cheda, (like our Cheddar Cheese, he said), what a lovely guy. He couldn’t do enough for us, and suggested that we should be his personal guests into the National Park at Matobo Hills, and take us to the various sites there, including the grave of Sir Cecil Rhodes. Obviously it would be rude to turn down this offer, so agreed we would stay here another night. As it turned out Judge Cheda couldn’t make it the next morning so he got the farm manager Mr Lee to take us out for the day in his double cab Toyota Hilux.

Motabo Hills is a stunning place, and my photo’s can’t begin to do the rock formations justice, the balancing granite boulders mixed with the lush green vegetation form a beautiful backdrop to various “tourist” sites within the park.

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Within this area there are an abundance of ancient rock painting’s, and whilst we experienced some of these in Namibia, the ones here in Zimbabwe are in such good condition, and of course in great locations, that makes them very special to see. The ones below are in “White Rhino Cave”, which was a fair hike up into the hills (bear in mind that this place is over 4,500 feet above sea level).

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And just as you start to descend back to the car, you are faced with views like this……

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After hearing that we were going to see the grave of Sir Cecil Rhodes, we thought we had better find out who this guy was….. Well it turns out (according to our Western Guide book) that he was not a very nice guy, that he tricked the local Chiefs out of their lands, had his own personal army, and made a fortune out of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi). But in true Rhodes style he chose a  sacred tribal area of land as his final resting place in the event of his death. He named it “World’s View”, and from the top of the Granite hill you can see for miles.

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The grave is a simple, but huge bronze plaque, nearby (but obviously slightly lower than Rhodes grave) are two similar graves, one of these was his close “friend”, and the other is the former Prime Minister of Rhodesia (from this time). But under the instruction of Rhodes, a huge monument was built containing the bodies of 34 of his soldiers that were killed as they tried to capture the local King. This is so out of place on this hill top, it looks like it should be in a city centre.

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But the thing that made me laugh, was that it seems Zimbabwe has had the last laugh on Sir Cecil….. His grave was absolutely covered in lizards, maybe they are taunting his soul ha!

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“Mr Lee” then drove us to ‘Pomongwe cave’, which is the home to yet more ancient cave paintings, again the condition of these really is amazing bearing in mind that theses date from between 2,000 and 6,000 years ago.

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In ‘Pomongwe cave’ an experiment was carried out to try to preserve these painting during the 1960’s, they painted over a large section of this priceless art with linseed oil, the result is plain to see in the cave, the rock paintings behind the linseed oil had completely disappeared! I’m no expert but I’m not sure they actually needs preserving, the rest of it is so clear. The cave lives up to its name (Big Cave) and is huge, and must have made a fantastic dwelling for a family or community.

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Just as we thought we were due to leave the National Park Mr Lee had other idea’s, he needed to do some ‘market research’, or check out the “opposition”. He drove us to a lodge that is set inside the park, but is only about 30km from their farm’s lodge. 

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Ingwe (Leopard) Lodge, is hidden away down a very bad mud/sand track, and we arrived to what seemed like a deserted place, there was no sign of any staff or guests, eventually Mr Lee found a young guy who said he was the manager. I think Mr Lee told him that we were potential guests and wanted to see the rooms and have a full price list, so once again we were shown rooms that we were never going to stay in! This place was a serious step back in time, the decor and furnishings were like a 1950’s english house.

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The rooms are a massively priced $120 per night, not including meals, and we were shown round the WHOLE place. The manager (who is also the chef, and receptionist) was so polite and helpful, that we decided we should at least buy a couple of drinks at the bar. I got chatting to him a bit more and it turns out that it only opened in January this year after being closed down for 16 years, they have reused all the original beds and furniture……. mmmmmm.

On the way back, Mr Lee was proudly telling us about his Toyota Hilux, it had done nearly half million kilometres, all with nothing replaced apart from service items, this is incredible and of course the kiss of death! Ten minutes later we pulled over as the temperature gauge was rising rapidly. Under the bonnet it was obvious what the cause was, the top breather hose off of the radiator had snapped clean off, not the hose, but the entire outlet. In Europe this would have meant a tow-in and a new radiator, but this is Africa! Mr Lee used superglue, and a reinforcing powder to stick the broken outlet back on! Leave it for 10 minutes to harden, scrounge some dirty water from a local village, top it back up and we were away! Unbelievable! I must get some of this glue and powder……..

Again that night we had Mr Wilfred “protecting us” on the campsite with his short barrelled pump action shotgun (slung over his shoulder with some nice blue string), we were not sure what he was there for, but they were convinced that we were petrified of the wildlife! We assured them that we were fine but still Mr Wilfred was there in the background. Next morning Mr High Chief Justice Cheda turned up to see us off and take photos of us and Colonel K, he also gave us his business card (High Court Judge, not farmer), with his personal mobile phone number written on the back. He told us not to accept any nonsense from the many Police blocks that we were to encounter on route, and we were to ring him if we have any trouble. He had effectively given us “a get out of jail free card”.

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When we crossed the border into Zimbabwe, we purchased a local sim card and some airtime scratch cards, and whilst the phone was working ok for calls and text messages (local only), we couldn’t get any internet connection, despite buying separate Facebook and WhatsApp packages (only $2 for a week), so we headed for the large town of Bulawayo. After trying 3 or 4 different “shops” (and having a right laugh with a few of the locals), it was obvious that we had to visit an actual Econet shop and get the sim ‘internet enabled’. This would mean driving right into the city centre and parking Colonel K, so we decided to leave it and head straight to Hwange National Park. This days driving meant us passing about a dozen Police Checkpoint’s, a few we were waved through, but most we were stopped, and the truck and our paperwork was checked, but all without exception was carried out with a smile and a bit of a laugh and joke. All was in order each time.

We stopped that night at “Tuskers Campsite” that is part of “Ivory Lodge”, just outside the National Park, this is a lovely place (and unlike most places in Zimbabwe has seen continued investment and upkeep), and there’s HOT WATER! There is a large waterhole in front of the Lodge and Campsite, and this is frequently visited by Elephants, Kudu, Impala, Warthogs, Hyena, and there was a fantastic platform right next to where we parked to give you a better view of the waterhole and surrounding bush veld.

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The perfect place for a cold beer or a gin and tonic.

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That night as usual we cooked our dinner over the open fire, that we had made in a oil drum that was provided for this purpose, we didn’t want to make a mess with the ashes. Then at about 8.30 “Papa” appeared and dragged a few very large lumps of wood over to us and used our cooking fire to light them, that night we had the mother of all fires!

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We loved it here, and spent three nights, the staff were amazing, and we got internet on the wifi….

And of course there was the sunrises, and the wild life.

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One afternoon, we were enjoying a drink from the bar (it would have been rude not too), and using the wifi, when there was scream from ‘Jamie’ the manageress, then the shout “SNAKE”, I ran round with my camera (it was only a couple of settee’s away, and I do love a photo), she had been walking through the side opening (there are no doors to the bar/reception/restuarant), when a snake lunged at her, fangs bared at face height! Apparently it was highly venomous, bright green with spots, and it was definitely NOT HAPPY.

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No one was going near it, but wasn’t coming out of its own accord, so they sent for Peter the guide, he confirmed it was venomous, and agreed that it must be removed…… He did no more than pick up a tin of “mossy spray” and spray it in the general area of the by now very pissed off snake. It dropped like a stone offf the roof timbers and the slim 4 foot reptile shot out (luckily away from us), onto the garden and straight under the raised deck that we had been sitting on, as far as they were concerned the snake had been dealt with! We went back to the raised deck to finish our drinks, knowing there was a highly venomous (and quite angry) snake just under our feet (but the gap between the boards were nice and close). Whilst talking about snakes, we have seen lots more snakes in Zimbabwe than in any other parts of Africa (mostly on the roads). Eventually Jamie’s heart rate returned to normal, she was a very lucky girl.

The plan was to spend the next couple of days driving through the huge National Park, but the officials at the entrance office had other ideas, and decided that Colonel K was too big for the roads in the park, and that other vehicles would struggle to pass us! This was crazy, as we had already been told that the vast majority of roads in the park were tarmac and quite wide, and secondly there are virtually no tourists self driving in Zimbabwe anyway. I think we got the wrong person on the wrong day, but her mind was set. When asked what the weight limit is for the park, no one knew anyway. She did say that we could stay on the campsite that night, but we would have to pay park fees to stop there, even though we weren’t allowed into the bloody park! Bye……

We decided to take a chance and drive up to Lake Kariba on the Northern border with Zambia, and find a camp up there, it was a little risky as our road coupons didn’t cover us for this 350km detour from our stated route, but we thought it unlikely that there would be Police road blocks on this tiny road, plus I was still convinced that we had no insurance. How wrong we were, this is Zimbabwe and there are Police everywhere stopping traffic, always a minimum of 3 officers, and no Police vehicles, no cars, no bikes, not even a cycle. Despite being stopped at each one, luckily none of them asked to see our coupons or insurance, and not one of them had ever seen a Carnet de Passage before. We had been warned by the staff at Tuskers that the road was very hilly and dangerously steep in places, and told “when the sign says use low gear, you must select low gear!”. Wow they weren’t kidding, steep downs mean steep up’s, we ended up doing about 50km in low range, it was seriously steep in places.

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We found a campsite near the village of Binga, right on the Lake in a small secluded bay (its not actually a lake really, its more a very wide section of the Zambezi River), it was down possibly the smallest and toughest track we had driven with some huge boulders to negotiate (even “Tracks 4 Africa” had given up on us). But eventually we arrived at a rough looking boat yard with a sign to Chilila Lodge. The place was once obviously very nice, with beautiful gardens, but now it was very run down, clumps of thatch was missing from the roofs of the chalets, and reception area, the camping area, obviously hadn’t seen many visitors recently, and the ablutions were full of leaves and debris. But we were as usual met by the most friendly guy, that could not do enough for us, he swept out the toilets and showers, brought us a wheel barrow of firewood, and generally made us most welcome. Zimbabwe desperately needs the tourists to return to these places. It was a beautiful setting, with a few house boats moored nearby.

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One of the fanciest houseboats was called “The Lady Jacqueline”, which Jac assures me was named after her, apparently its a “boat of note”……

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These are the ablutions, a little grim, but there was sort of hot water in one of the showers, these guys are trying their best under increasingly bad economic conditions.

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Next it was the long drive to Victoria Falls, oh the Police road blocks, this day  were becoming very tedious, always polite and again always jovial, but very tedious. We had about 15 to 20 this particular day, and almost every one (even if they are only 20km apart), checked headlights, tail lights, indicators, brake lights, reversing lights, driving licence, TIP (our carnet), and of course the fire extinguisher! But it did give me a chance to catch up on the English Premier League scores, and discuss the return to fitness of Wayne Rooney, several times……. but again no fines, no bribes and definitely no heavy handedness. At Vic Falls later, we were chatting to a guy from the campsite that was amazed that we had no complaints against the Police, and didn’t have to pay any bribes, he was telling us he had seen self drive tourists in tears about how they had been treated by the Zimbabwean Police. Personally I think its more about how you treat them, its so important to arrive to them with a confident, but polite smile and try to immediately engage with them, but also to show them some respect.

Victoria Falls was a shock, after over a week in rural Zimbabwe, at Vic Falls we were suddenly plunged into a huge tourism hub. We found Vic Falls Rest Camp which is right in the centre of town, and as we got out of Colonel K and switched off the engine, the roar of the falls hit us. It is more than two kilometres away, but the noise from the water is always (during high water times anyway) in the background, then theres the helicopters constantly buzzing over the falls , and there’s tourists here! There seemed to be very few self drive tourists in Vic Falls, but there were lots of “overland tour trucks”.  It seemed like lots of German tourists that were on air-conditioned coaches and staying at the posh hotels down near the falls (we are still not far from the Caprivi Strip in Namibia after all). The camp site was huge, but very few people were camping here, there was a bar next door that had thumping music until late into the evening, it was a real shock for us. 

Next day we walked the two kilometres to the falls, after paying our $30US per person entry fee, and telling lots of locals that we didn’t want to “rent a poncho”, we walked the short distance to the actual Falls. At this point we noticed that 99% of the tourists had indeed “rented a poncho” and WE were the remaining 1%!  Within 5 minutes we were absolutely soaked to the skin, tops, shorts, pants, socks, rucksack, and even my trusty Panasonic camera, all soaked…… Check out the guy behind Jac in the photo below, he’s got a poncho and an umbrella!

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About six years ago we visited Victoria Falls from the Zambia side, and it was impressive then, but this was on another level, and will definitely be one of the high lights of this trip. Here you can walk  for quite a few kilometres, and all the time the water is coming UP at you, falling Down on you, and blowing horizontally in the wind straight into your face! Its very invigorating, and we got some very strange looks from the many groups of Germans, with their tour guides all neatly wrapped up in their “rent a poncho’s”. How we laughed……. Not sure what David Livingstone would have made of it!

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Next it was a coffee stop back at the entrance gate, this was a cappuccino Zimbabwe style. We just ordered a couple simple cappuccino’s, and with each came a shot of Amarula, and a glass of iced water, very welcome, but perhaps not very “pc” at 11.00am.

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We then walked to The Lookout Cafe, this was only about 1km away, but overlooks the canyon a fair way after the falls, and the Zambezi is now just a churning, boiling mass of water. On the walk to the Cafe we had to walk past a herd of elephants…… they really are close to the town centre here. We had a lovely lunch sitting on the terrace overlooking the Zambezi, with the old British built Iron Bridge in the distance ( we are going to have to cross it in a couple of days time to get to Zambia).

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The last day at Vic Falls, was a day for chores in the morning, lunch out, and then Jac decided we should go to the poshest, most expensive hotel in town for afternoon cocktails, and wow was it posh! The Victoria Falls Hotel is sheer decadence, and clearly harking back to the days of the British Colonial Rule.It even had King George V, the Queen, and Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret stay in 1947. It really is lovely and more like a working museum, but it is immaculate with beautiful gardens, and the view up to the Iron Bridge is the best we had seen, oh and the cocktails were pretty damn good too!

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It really is a fantastic place, but on another planet as far as the rest of Zimbabwe is concerned. The vast majority of guests here I suspect, arrive by coach from either Namibia or Zambia, visit the Falls, and then exit the country again. There’s nothing wrong in that, but I wonder what their thoughts on Zimbabwe are? Perhaps they think all lodges and hotels here are like this.

The people of Zimbabwe are without a doubt the nicest people that we have met on this trip (and the bar had already been set very high by Ghana), it is a country that has gone backwards economically, and the vast majority of its population are struggling big time. We were told by a few people that they have partially stopped trading in money (as they can’t trust the value of it), and have gone back to the old days of bartering goods for other goods and services (a bag of maize for some thatch maybe). The country is now officially using the US dollar as currency, which has stopped the unbelievable inflation that was hitting the average person in 2009. One guy was telling us that shop keepers were increasing their prices on an hourly basis, every day. Another told us how by the time he got paid at the end of the month, he didn’t have enough money from his salary to buy a can of Coke.

To show how bad things had got, I bought a banknote from a street vendor in Vic Falls, the face value of this note was 50 Billion Dollars! Thats, 50,000,000,000.00, and that wasn’t the highest they got to (I paid $3US for it as a momento). The prices here are all out of kilter, with a loaf of bread being a dollar, and most food stuffs being very expensive for the average Zimbabwean, (we were told that the unemployment rate was 90%), there are virtually no cars on the roads outside of the main cities (fuel is the most expensive we have seen in Africa so far). But still we are greeted warmly where ever we go. Lovely people……

Sorry its a bit long, we would have done it in two parts, but we were warned not to blog from inside Zimbabwe, as we could be accused of working for the BBC as journalists !……

Thanks for reading

 

 

  

 

  

 

  

 

  

 

 

 

   

 

  

 

  

 

 

   

 

  

 

  

 

 

 

 

  

 

  

 

  

 

  

 

 

 

   

 

  

 

  

 

  

 

  

 

  

 

 

 

 

  

 

  

 

  

 

  

 

 

 

 

   

 

  

 

 

 

 

  

 

  

 

  

 

  

 

 

 

 

  

 

 

2 Comments on “Zimbabwe, You meet the nicest people

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