Jun 20

A Whole Lot of Wet

by in Africa, Mini-Tour, Zimbabwe

 

From the Okavanga Delta we flew to a city on the edge of Botswana and made the border crossing into Zimbabwe by car.  The contrast was immediate.  Botswana is one of the best and most efficient African countries, with an average income of $14K.  Zimbabwe has been torn apart by war and has an average income of $400. 

As in South Africa, Zimbabwe made a transition from white rule to popular rule in recent times, but here the country was seized by a warlord rather than turning into a democracy.   One of the major changes was forced eviction and sometimes murder of white farmers as land was divided among the citizens.  While there are titular elections, the ballot boxes are stuffed and voters forced to vote in favor of the existing government.  Between violence and famine, the country is still reeling – the population down from 12 million to 8 million or so.  Tourism was down by 80% a few years ago and is now slowly climbing back, owing to an uneasy truce under a coalition government.  Locals say that the coalition will continue as a military regime until Mugabe’s death – he is quite elderly and some say ready to step down, but cannot because those around him have committed so many atrocities they dare not permit free elections.  Once Mugabe dies we can expect to see a struggle among factions and hopefully the people will be able to achieve a democracy at that point.

Yet in all this misery, there is one oasis that somehow all sides have agreed not to touch, and that is the tourism town of Victoria Falls, site of one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World.  Within this town is the Victoria Falls Hotel, a comfortable holdover from British colonial days and the best place in town.  We saw some fascinating native dances here, especially from the Zulu and Uganda-area tribes.

Seeing Victoria Falls is a wet proposition and all visitors prepare for a drenching.  The Falls themselves are a mile wide, stretching along a canyon about 100m deep and 100m across.  They form a border with neighboring Zambia – Zambia has the Falls, but Zimbabwe has the view, and that is where the tourist dollars go. 

Our guide Sim marched us along past successive viewing points.  A rickety fence of brambles and thorns is all that separates you from a slip to death.  No one has ever survived falling into the canyon.  Visitors are rewarded with loud roaring, facefuls of spray, a colossal expanse of waterfall, and numerous rainbows. 

The return path leads past a souvenir stand frequented by peculiar monkeys.

After drying off and enjoying a bite of lunch, we dropped by the local souvenir market.  The artisans here are tough and scrappy and they bargain like mad.  Payment in the market can be in any currency – Zimbabwe no longer has its own.  This is one of the few markets where they will accept a ballpoint pen or an old shirt or pair of shorts in trade. 

One of the most sobering items you can buy nearly defies belief:  a one hundred trillion Zimbabwe Dollar bill.  Talk about hyperinflation!  The bill can still be used but only in the nation’s capital city and it has an actual value near zero.  Tourists pay $2-10 for a crisp note, depending on how hard you bargain.

The people in Zimbabwe are just as nice and warm as anywhere else.  It was a great pity to meet bus drivers and market vendors who spoke perfect English and were highly educated.  They just do not have any other job opportunities here.  Throw in an AIDS epidemic and the odds feel hopeless.  Nevertheless, the town of Victoria Falls has persisted, anchored by an unbeatable tourist attraction, and is slowly on the path to recovery.


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