I have wanted to write about Zimbabwe since I entered the country for the first time on the 3rd May. It dawned on me however that maybe I should wait until I had left the country before I actually posted anything – paranoia perhaps:-) Before arriving in Zimbabwe, I was very excited. When choosing my African trip, I had deliberately chosen an itinerary which went to Zimbabwe. I was attracted to the idea of lesser visited countries and those with intriguing history. However, while approaching from Mozambique, it felt strange to be entering the country occupied by Robert Mugabe. Was I supporting his regime by visiting?
It was noticeable on the truck that the non-Brits/Irish were not really very conscious of “Uncle Bob”. In many ways, I was surprised that Brits could get into Zimbabwe by simply buying a visa at the border ($55). This money may have gone straight into the regime’s pockets but otherwise, for the subsequent nine days, there was little sense of his presence. We were very welcomed as tourists. At the National Gallery in Bulawayo, we wandered around some artist studios and chatted (and yes, I bought a couple of pieces). They commented that we were the first tourists they had seen in a couple of years. They were excited to see an overlanding truck in town again as this would offer them more chance of a revenue stream in future. It has been two years since the Zimbabwean Dollar spiralled out of control and the country descended into crisis. A mixture of US Dollar and South African Rand is now used and this has stabilised the situation. This however does not change the fact that unemployment stands somewhere between 94-7% - people are desperate.
Nonetheless, there were marked differences as soon as we crossed the border from Malawi into Zimbabwe. Gone were the mud huts and whilst the properties were still thatched, they were all made of brick and the thatch was reed and not banana leaf. As we approached Harare, we saw a lot nice properties and even a suburban housing estate. It is very easy to see that people have previously lived through better days. Things however are changing quickly. To use the example of our campsites: our crew had visited just over a month ago and were able to point out the progress made in a short period of time. At the Backpacker Campsite outside Harare, the swimming pool had been restored to service and at Norma Jeanne’s, fast Wifi had been installed. Elsewhere, shower blocks were being refurbished and hot water becoming more reliable.
Things seemed slightly less male orientated. Dress sense felt more western and I was thrilled to see a young women wearing a Liverpool shirt and driving a motorbike. Such a sight would have been unthinkable in East Africa. The landscape was less dominated by small businesses along the side of the road. The cities of Harare and Bulawayo felt fairly modern.
We went on various early morning, afternoon and night time game drives in the Matobo and Hwange National Parks. We didn’t manage to succesfully track the rhinos on foot but we did see some spectacular bushmen cave paintings and learn a lot from our guides Ian & Andy (disco donkey = zebra). I saw giraffes run for the first time and an elephant swim!
We also visited the wonderful Great Zimbabwe Ruins (the National Monument after which Zimbabwe is named). A UNESCO World Heritage site, Great Zimbabwe is a ruined city which was first constructed in the 11th century where it was thought to have been a royal palace for the Zimbabwean monarch. Here our guide was a charming and intelligent young man called Philip. Philip’s parents had been a head teacher and a nurse but the ruling party decided that his father had been promoting the opposition. They sealed up their house with Philip’s father, mother and younger brother inside and burnt it to the ground. It is very humbling to hear a young man tell you this story (we had asked about his family) so matter of factly, adding that “such things happen in life”. I may be a soft Westerner but I can’t agree that this should be the case.
In addition to the overwhelming welcome reception from the Zimbabwean people, what I will remember most about Zimbabwe is the red sunsets, the boulders in the landscape and the crisp golden wheat in the fields. This is a country that will shine again in the future. I remembered not to mention the BBC.