Zim, one long road-block

Trip Start Jun 15, 2011
Trip End Jun 01, 2012

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Thursday, April 19, 2012

We started our next trip from the Kruger heading for Zimbabwe and Botswana on an amazing two week 4x4 trip. We stayed in Messina on the border of South Africa and Zimbabwe so that we could cross over into Zimbabwe early the next morning by the Beit Bridge gate. Beit Bridge has a reputation for being a nightmare to cross and it has been known for people to take 7 hours or more just to get across the border.

While we had a drink and some dinner, the police rocked up, walked over and gingerly asked us if everything was alright. We said it was fine and asked if they were called for a problem to which they said no, they just wanted to come over and check! So here we are in South Africa with it's terrible reputation for crime and being confronted by some seemingly proactive policeman. The guy working there suggested that they may just be checking to see if there were any infringements that they could fine for, in order to get a bribe.... But I'm not saying anything more in a public blog so take from that what you will.

Crossing the border was more than a little stressful but we fared reasonably well compared to some of the horror stories you hear. There are virtually no signs to help you, no obvious process, loads of people wanting to "help" and the staff there couldn't be less helpful or friendly if they tried. We went from one queue to the next and back again. 
 "Speak to her in that queue, no you need to speak to her in the queue you just came from... etc etc."

Then just as we got to the front of the queue, the women buggered off on her break and we had to start all over again. Frustrating doesn't begin to describe it. 

After a couple of hours we were through and crossed into Zimbabwe which looked quite barren and dry. The land was very flat, there were goats running around on the side of the road and people riding donkey carts which actually is a bit like what I was expecting given the stories of Zimbabwe in the news over the last few years. The Zimbabwean dollar is no longer in use and instead they use some South African rand but predominantly US dollars. They are the oldest, dirtiest, skankiest dollars you will ever see and they don't have any denominations less than a dollar. As such you don't get any change less than a dollar, you either get a credit note or sweets.

 We were probably only a couple of kilometres across the border when we came to the first police roadblock.... which was to be the first of many! We had been warned about these roadblocks and they wanted to check paperwork, licensing and the car, which was fair enough. However it seemed they were desperate to find anything they could possibly fine us for. We had all the mandatory things such as a fire extinguisher, warning triangles, reflective stickers, paperwork etc. So instead they tried their luck claiming the load on the roof was insecure and that having luggage in the back between passengers was illegal. This was argued for some time, and eventually a price was agreed for the fine. Whilst we were arguing that the load on the roof was perfectly secure, a local bus came past with way too many passengers and a massive  ball of luggage on top of the roof which made the whole bus tip over to one side. They didn't even look at it, let alone pull the bus over, which was just ridiculous. I think a Zimbabwean license plate is probably pretty valuable actually.

Simon (who was driving) went to get the money out of his wallet to pay the fine, and accidentally took out a 50 baht note rather than dollars. The policemen were so intrigued by the note that they let us go saying they were letting Simon off because he was too old. It was very odd!

For the rest of the day we were stopped around 10 times for various things and had to pay 2 fines in the end as well which was really annoying. It is such a con as they set drivers up to break laws in order that they can get a fine or a bribe and from what we could see everyone has the same experience and it's very frustrating. Apparently this used to happen a lot in Mozambique and in the end it killed the tourism industry because people couldn't face traveling there, this is hardly a problem that Zimbabwe can afford to have as they need tourist dollars.

One of the road blocks was very funny though. We were stopped and they guy asked us if we were having a good journey. We said it was fine and he replied...

"the reason I have stopped you is because we want you to be alert and to be very careful on the roads. We love you and want you to be safe" And with that he waved us on our way. Simply incredible!

Whilst our first impression of Zimbabwe was pretty negative, as we got a little further north, the scenery changed drastically and was actually very beautiful. The brown flatness was replaced by green rolling hills with rondavel villages at the bottom and fascinating enormous rocks balanced on top of each other. I had heard that Zimbabwe was beautiful but it was hard to imagine before actually being there as all we see is Harare and the chaotic towns.

Going through all the roadblocks meant that the journey was way longer than we had expected and we arrived into Harare after dark. Harare is crazy, there are people everywhere, wandering into the street and across the highway and the condition of the roads is terrible. There's also the added excitement of working out whether traffic lights are actually red or whether they're just not working, which is often the case. 

 We made it to my uncle's house where my grandmother lives with my cousin and they kindly put us up for the night which was a really great night. I haven't seen my grandmother in about 16 years so she was excited to see me and it was good to catch up. They seem to have made it to the other side of the financial crisis in Zimbabwe without being too heavily affected, although in essence people have become trapped there unless they are incredibly wealthy or have help from overseas. At one stage people had to negotiate their prices for a meal out before they started eating as with the rate of inflation the price would have increased significantly by the time they finished eating. There were multi trillion dollar notes and people would have to take huge bricks of money just to pay for day to day items. When the dollar came in, whatever money you had in the bank became worthless so then it would be impossible to leave as you were left with nothing.

It also really sounds tough as electricity was massively sparse, at one stage only being on between midnight and 3am. The demise is very sad, at one stage Zimbabwe was so rich in farming produce they could feed Southern Africa but now many of the farms have been severely run down if looked after at all. Even now, there are regular power cuts, water shortages and most wealthy people rely on generators to keep their fridges and freezers going. On the plus side, things are improving and it sounds like people are optimistic that Zimbabwe will recover even if it takes a long time.

So, we've seen the capital city and now we head for the bush!
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