Rocks and rhinos

Trip Start Jun 25, 2006
Trip End Aug 01, 2007

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Flag of Zimbabwe  ,
Thursday, November 2, 2006

He Said:

Tuesday we took a night train south to the city of Bulawayo. It was an uneventful ride except for the fact that the lights in our sleeper compartment didn't work, so we occupied out time watching old episodes "The Office" on the computer. Bulawayo was a bit of a surprise, as it looked pretty much like a large Midwest American city in 1960, complete with a big Woolworth's store in the center of town. Actually it was quite a pleasant place! We didn't go to Bulawayo though for the relaxed ambiance...we went there in order to take daytrips to the ruins of Great Zimbabwe and to visit Matopos National Park.

Zimbabwe is the Shona word for "house of stone." So one would expect a place with the name Great Zimbabwe to be a really big house of stone, which is exactly what it is. From Bulawayo, we took a full-day tour to the southeastern city of Masvingo to visit the largest stone ruins in Africa south of the Pyramids of Egypt. The buildings of the complex of great Zimbabwe were built as a royal palace over a period of a few hundred years around 1100 and 1400. The place was really impressive! A hilltop fortress and huge stone enclosure in the valley below were certainly the highlights of the hundreds of structures in the area. Because tourism has slowed down so much in the recent past, for much of the day we were the only people at the site!

Today we saw Matopos National Park. The park has rather unusual geology, and eons of erosion have created some very strange formations. Huge granite boulders arranged in improbable heaps pepper the landscape. Many look like giant hands must have stacked them in the whimsical towers. I've never seen anything like this place, absolutely stunning! Some of the caves in the area also contain ancient paintings thought to be over a hundred thousand years old. In the middle of all this there is a wild game preserve with many of the usual animals you'd expect to see on a safari, but it also has a sizable population of rhinoceros. Twice when we spotted rhinos our guide, Benson, switched off the truck and we walked out towards them, getting within about thirty feet! This seemed crazy, and against every instinct we had, but hey, he'd been doing it for years and never had one of the docile giants charge, it turns out that rhinos are rarely aggressive towards humans. Amazing stuff! As we were just about to heading out of the game reserve we came upon a family of three rhinos sleeping on the side of the road. They were initially a bit alarmed at the noise and got to their feet but didn't run away. We were only about ten feet away! Check out the photos!

Tonight we are heading back to on the train to Victoria Falls. So far Zimbabwe has been awesome. If we hadn't taken the "travel advisories" and "official warnings" with a grain of salt we would have missed so much in this incredibly beautiful and friendly nation. Although the economic situation is undoubtedly causing some suffering, we didn't observe anything even remotely as traumatic as were we told to expect. There were plenty of cars on the road, goods on store shelves, and people going about their daily lives. Zimbabweans we encountered were without exception, welcoming, friendly, and warm people.

She Said:

While Vic Falls is a really nice place to visit, it is a town that was developed solely for tourists, and doesn't really feel like "the real Africa." So we decided to take a side trip to the town of Bulawayo for a few days to see the Great Zimbabwe ruins as well as Matopos National Park. I have to say that when we started planning this trip about a year ago, Todd mentioned that he wanted to visit the Great Zimbabwe ruins and showed me a picture. I did not respond very well to the idea, and remember saying something like "you want to go five-hundred miles out of the way to see a ruin that looks like a basement foundation?" It reminds me of that scene in the movie "Vacation" when Clark takes the Griswald's to see the world's largest ball of twine. Anyway, we are in the neighborhood, so ruins it is!

The overnight train ride to Bulawayo was interesting to say the least, particularly because we didn't have power in our cabin for the entire ride. Once the sun rose, I realized that it was better that I couldn't see anything because it was quite dirty and I would have had a hard time sleeping if I had known.

Turns out that Great Zimbabwe is far better than a basement foundation, and it was a pleasant way to spend the day. But the best part of the day was all the interesting cultural tidbits we picked up from our guide, Benson. We were able to have a pretty frank conversation about the economic and political situation in Zimbabwe with him, and we finally had a chance to ask all of our many questions that had been building up. Such as "If things are so bad, why isn't there a resistance movement (answer: there was, but it split into two opposing groups that can't agree on anything, thereby weakening the power of the resistance)," and "what's the deal with this whole black market currency and fuel situation (too long to explain here, but you are in really good shape if you have access to foreign currency)," and my personal favorite "Why do all the villagers that live in clay huts burn all the grass around them (answer: to get rid of all the dead grass so new grass will grow)?" Benson was a great sport and talked openly and honestly about his experiences growing up in Zimbabwe, his perspective on what went wrong, and his pessimistic view of the near future. Prior to about five years ago, Zimbabwe was a relatively prosperous country, and Benson made a great living as a guide. Tourism is now down to only 15% of what it once was, and whole weeks go by where there are no tourists to take on tours of the sites. Many of Benson's friends have left the country to work in South Africa, Zambia and Botswana where the situation is much better.

The following day, Benson took us to Matopos National Park, which was amazing! The trip was worth it just for the rhinos, which by the way are extremely LARGE!! And yes, I actually got out of the truck and followed Todd and Benson to the rhinos. I was extremely freaked out the whole time, particularly when we were kneeling on the ground about thirty feet away from four large rhinos. Thankfully, they have poor eyesight and a great sense of smell, so as long as you are upwind from them, they apparently don't know what is happening. Whatever!! This fact still didn't console my nerves. At one point, Benson picked up a large stick, which he said was "for protection." Like a stick is going to help! Our guidebook says that if you come upon a Rhino unexpectedly, you should let it charge you, and then move out of the way like a bullfighter at the last minute. Who writes this stuff?

We took the night train back to Victoria Falls last night, and met many interesting folks at the train station in Bulawayo. There were four other trains leaving for all parts of Zimbabwe around the same time, to the station was packed. As you can imagine, this is a great place for opportunists to hang out to try to take advantage of unsuspecting foreigners. We learned that single females are much easier to approach than a couple. I stayed with the bags alone for about five minutes while Todd walked literally 100 yards down the train platform to find out our cabin assignment. When he came back, I had already given up one of our water bottles to a women who was "very thirsty," a bit of bread to a kid, was babysitting six comforters wrapped in plastic wrap for another woman while she ran to get the rest of her bags, and was sitting next to a 20-somethingish man who "needed assistance." He was visibility nervous when he learned that I was married, and that in fact, my husband was walking towards us at that very moment. He proceeded to ask us all sorts of odd questions, and then assumed that we must know Bill Gates since we were from America. Anyway, we made it out of there will all our belongings, and our cabin actually had power this time! What luxury!
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