"You're going to Zimbabwe? Why??"
Trip Start Jun 25, 2006
127Trip End Aug 01, 2007
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Sorry about the long history blurb that follows. I figured it would be difficult to understand many of our experiences in Zimbabwe without some historical and economic context. Feel free to skip the next two paragraphs if you time or attention span is limited.
Like other Southern African nations, Zimbabwe followed the usual pattern of tribal rule, colonization, and eventual independence. During the late 1800's an Englishman named Cecil John Rhodes who had made his fortune diamond mining in South Africa founded the royally chartered British South African Company to govern and exploit the resources of south central Africa. Being the humble man he was, the new territories were naturally called Northern Rhodesia (what become Zambia) and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe.) The government Rhodes set up was "of, for, and by whites" and was strictly segregated (which was pretty much identical to the apartheid system in use by South Africa until 1994) and granted whites legal preference and huge amounts of land. Of course the huge majority of citizens were not white, and naturally became rapidly fed up with their subjugation. Almost a century of rebellions, negotiations, and political wrangling eventually resulted in full independence (and a name change) in 1979. The man who took over the new government was Robert Mugabe, who continues to be President today. A legacy of the apartheid policies of Rhodesia was that whites (1% of the population) continued to own over 70% of Zimbabwe's farmland. The white farmers' crops and agricultural exports were critical to the nation's food supplies and economy so Mugabe (until recently) naturally didn't want to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs by repossessing or redistributing the land in any dramatic way. So in the twenty years that followed independence, Zimbabwe was relatively stable, prosperous and developing at a steady pace.
In the last few years, Mugabe's decision making has become very questionable and the nation is rapidly slipping into economic oblivion. The situation began to unravel when the economy slowed down around 2001 and it became evident that Mugabe's political party was rapidly losing popularity. He tried to gain favor with poorer voters (the vast majority of Zimbabweans) by allowing squatters to illegally occupy and take over high production farmlands owned by a small minority of the population. Naturally these subsistence farmers were not able to be even remotely as productive as the previous high-skilled agribusiness operations, so Zimbabwe lost its largest source of export earnings and actually had to start importing food to feed its population. This in turn made Zimbabwe have a huge shortage of foreign currency reserves which it had used to pay its debts and buy imports. Mugabe decided to take the easy way out and just print more money to exchange for the desperately needed foreign currency. Not surprisingly, inflation immediately spiraled out of control. A travel guidebook from 2002 shows 1 US dollar = 35 Zimbabwe dollars. The current "black market" exchange rate is 1 US dollar = 1,400,000 Zimbabwe dollars. Think about what that would do to the value of any savings you had! Of course this had had a devastating effect on the economy and the Zimbabwean people, crime has increased, unemployment is rampant, many businesses have shut down, there are shortages of anything imported (especially gasoline) and many rural residents are on the brink of famine.
Got all that? So the natural question that follows: why on earth are we here? The simplistic reason would be that the overland safari we are taking through southern Africa starts on the Zimbabwe side of Victoria Falls so we had to go. The real explanation though is that we arrived at the Zambian side of Victoria Falls two weeks before the start date of our tour, so we thought we'd be squandering an incredible opportunity if we just used all of our extra time sitting around a swimming pool. Zimbabwe has some really amazing historic and natural sites and we wanted to personally witness what was going on there. After speaking to people in Zambia who had been to Zimbabwe recently, it sounded relatively safe as long as reasonable precautions were taken.
So Sunday we crossed the border over the Zambezi River Bridge to the Zimbabwean town of Victoria Falls. We were expecting a total shakedown, requests for bribes, etc at the border, but had a completely pleasant experience. The immigration officer seemed bemused at Katie's exclamation of "Oh! We get a full page Zimbabwe visa sticker in our passport instead of just a stamp, that's so special!" He replied in a chuckle, "Oh yes, it is very special." Prior to the financial crisis, this was THE place to go to if you wanted to see the falls and experience all the area had to offer. It was pretty obvious from the nice houses, boutiques, and rows of gift shops in cobblestone pedestrian malls that this town had been relatively prosperous. Business now seemed very slow, some stores had closed down, and the town was pretty quiet compared to its sister city on the other side of the river in Zambia. With the recent troubles, it looks like most tourists in the region are opting to experience the area from the Zambian side. However our hostel (or "backpackers" as they are called in this region) had quite a few visitors and nobody reported anything worrisome.
We were both a bit nervous crossing into Zimbabwe. After reading the stern travel warning on the US State Department website, as well as an equally disturbing travel warning on the British government website, we were both questioning the rationality of this little excursion. Even Mr. World Traveler Todd was visibly nervous, and I recall a few tense conversations between us about who would be carrying all the US dollars across the border (unfortunately, we have more US$ on us at the moment than we would like or is probably safe because we have to pay for our big Overland trip in US cash). Once we arrived in Victoria Falls, we both felt a little silly for being so stressed! This town is so cute and modern, the people are very friendly, and it is much more developed than the Zambian side of the Falls. The only reason that you are warned against walking around at night is because of all the wildlife that comes out at night to feed... elephants, water buffalo, and even leopards frequent the area. It's so strange that the town is only about 25% as busy as the Zambian side - the Zimbabwe side is so much nicer! Stern travel warnings can really devastate tourism (well, that, and a major economic crisis). Anyhoo, we are really glad we took the advice of the knowledgeable people at our hotel in Livingstone and decided to make the journey into Zimbabwe.