Zimbabwe


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Zimbabwe is a landlocked country in the south of the African continent. The democratically elected president Robert Mugabe, 40 years ago put an end to oligarchy regime to impose a … “democratic dictatorship” with broad violation of human rights. In the 2000s the country began to be driven to an economic collapse, its currency after repeating devaluations, repealed


People

The Zimbabweans are “numb” people. The country’s adventures have greatly destroyed the investments of white people and despite the fact that the Apartheid regime has expired long ago, like in neighboring South Africa the living standards have not improved and there is lack of growth. Despite the similarities with the neighboring country, residents mostly are peaceful, polite and do not make you feel in danger.


Places

The capital Harare is a modern, contemporary city with suburbs that testify the wealth of the upper class but also includes the classic African slums. But the beauty of the country is revealed outside the big cities. Hwange National Park, with intense tropical vegetation contrasting with the savannah environment of the rest of the country, homes many wild animals and is one of the largest elephant sanctuaries in Africa. Unfortunately poaching here is a bitter reality. The Kariba lake created by a hydroelectric dam, is a holiday destination for locals and the few tourists visiting the country, where you can observe closely the African fauna. The Mana pools national park on the banks of the Zambezi, the only one in Africa where you can wander around on foot, unaccompanied, on your own responsibility and with fatalities happening. (Update: the regulation unfortunately changed on 2015 https://www.zamsoc.org/?p=2023). And of course the majestic Victoria Falls, one of the most spectacular in the world, on the border with Zambia. Finally, the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, monuments of the largest African culture after the Pharaohs.



Taming the wild beasts…

August 2014

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We arrived in Harare with a flight of the famous airline based in Dubai, with a dirty, most obsolete aircraft of the fleet and having the last row seats that are not reclining, in front of the toilets. The country was still under the 35-year leadership of the controversial president Robert Mugabe, just after its bankruptcy and the abolition of the national currency. We were quite curious to see the house we had booked at a very cheap price, since we skipped the known booking websites and found the accommodation on the country’s yellow pages. It was a two-storey villa with spacious rooms, luxury bathrooms and huge, comfortable beds that accommodated the 5 of us comfortably for two days. Harare is a capital city that follows the modern South African standards, with many upper class neighborhoods, wide streets beneath relieving tree shades, with large super markets and gourmet restaurants. Of course there are slum areas, but not to the extent of the South African townships. Regarding the security level, I felt it was much better than the neighboring country.

Our road trip in the three countries of the south part of Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Botswana is about to begin. We picked up the car that would carry a bunch of 5 people and their bulky luggage over the next 23 days, an old, 1st generation Toyota RAV4. In the absence of an initial plan, and given the country’s poor road network, we moved north towards a non defined destination. Before we reached our first stop and shortly after a meeting with elephants at the edge of the road, two treacherous “predators” ran out of a ditch wearing police uniform and a speed radar in hand. In this forgotten country road, they offered us “a gift” the first one of the many speed fines to follow. Until dusk we managed to get to lake Kariba. While darkness had fallen to the lakeside area, we were looking for a place to sleep. Asking the few passers-by, we eventually led to some chambers with walls of thinly built bricks with intermediate “ventilation” spaces. A beautiful white frog was resting in perfect camouflage on the pillow. Ηippos rides were hanging around the hut all night, with noisy breathing and heavy footsteps. We’d watch them from a safe distance in the morning, cooling their bodies in the wide artificial lake Kariba. The safety distance, of course is not quite defined when it comes for a wild beast that is naturally irritable, fast in water and on land too, responsible for many deadly attacks in Africa.

Our route will continue back to the Makuti junction where we’ll get supplies for our 4 days camping at the Mana Pools National Park. The limited space of the car was full of our luggage, the necessary water for 5 people and some basic food we found to buy, like crackers and some packaged cheese that we didn’t hope to preserve under that heat. But the biggest issue was the car’s fuel autonomy. The old vehicle with a small tank, combined with the weight of 5 adults with luggage, reduced significantly the available range in these remote areas. Even on the main road leading to Zambia, there was no gas station, except from the border area! This forced us to travel 40 km to the border town of Chirundu and another 40 back to the entrance of the National Park. Moreover, the country’s unreasonable bureaucracy required another 15 kms back and forth to be registered at the park office that was weirdly far from the entry gate. Finally, passing the iron bar, we pressed deeply the accelerator pedal creating a red cloud of dust following us. On the horizon of the straight dirt road we often encountered some impalas, initially surprised and then frightened, escaping with huge jumps. After about 80 kms we reach the park’s command center, which was decorated around with skulls and bones of large mammals. The park offers nothing to visitors except fire wood. We need to save on our drinking water and of course to stay fasting for 3 days. Our concern with the available fuel, prompted us to ask for some help. Perhaps another visitor would go back to civilisation on the next few days. At some point, a helicopter was parked, and some children of the guard’s families welcomed us with enthusiasm. The guards showed the spot where we could set up our camp on the elevated bank of the Zambezi river, which is the natural border with Zambia. But our spot was occupied by some other campers who refused to leave. After long discussions and with the assistance of the officers they realized that their stay had ended. All that time I was absorbed with an elephant mother and her calf, that chose that point on the river bank to quench. Mom was calm, but when I approached beyond a certain limit her behavior was obviously nervous. Mana Pools National Park was at that time the only one in Africa where unguarded walks were allowed, with the individual responsibility of the visitors. Some deadly incidents had caused a change of policy in 2015. The truth is that we didn’t see anyone else walking around in the savanna between the wild beasts. The few visitors in that isolated national park were South Africans with large 4X4 vehicles and roof tents. Some had hired armed rangers. We, taking advantage of the loose rules, were parking the car in various remote spots, walking away for up to 6 kms, looking for the lions that were seen one day before devouring an elephant calf. Fortunately we did not find them. With caution, we were looking behind the bushes if a lion herd was resting, in one of my most frivolous moments of travel. We were competing with the antelopes as who’s more tasty for a lion’s menu, while we were trying to move as a compact group, to appear as a deterrent mass. Apart from the countless antelopes, there was a large number of elephants, big carnivorous birds, hippos and crocodiles in the river bank areas, and also a herd of buffalos, one of the most irritating and dangerous animals. All these on foot, face to face. At one point, one of my companions stayed behind, near out car that we parked next to the Zambezi bank. Due to a misconduct, we believed he would stay there, but he followed us alone, causing him stress, slipping into a stream and scratching his foot. He came to us almost in tears, giving us blame and too much importance to the odor of blood from his wound, that could attract predators. We reassured him that the girls of  our team had periods so the beasts would prefer them instead. In the afternoon we returned, meeting elephant herds near the camp site and waiting for them to move as they were blocking the passage. Before the darkness fell, we set the tents, and the sun sank “setting fire” in the waters of Zambezi.

My tent was the smallest and cheapest scene I could buy. A piece of nylon from a bargain store, with the sole specification the size that could fit into my backpack. We lit fire, ate some biscuits with cheese, taking care not to leave any door or car window open because the monkeys waded. We used the camp  toilets, since it wasn’t allowed to get out of the tent at night. Big animals only perceive the volume of an object and you are theoretically safe in the tent, of course you should not have any food inside. At some time in the darkness, we saw eyes of animals glittering as in the movies. We shot the flashlight on them to see that it was a herd of hyenas. We had them as permanent visitors throughout the whole night. From the window of the tent, I watched them ignoring the fire, surrounding it. Every now and then they came to the window to look curiously inside. It’s not quite comfortable to try to sleep on the hard ground and every minute to be scared by the predator with the strongest jaws between land beasts. Each time I was ousting them and they run away, in fact they are scaramouch animals. But their persistence and the herd number made me worry and gather my limbs away from the edges of the tent.

The South African “neighbors” had enjoyed barbecue before, and the carnivores were dying to break bones all night behind my headrest. I can not say I enjoyed sleep. But I enjoyed the most exciting night sounds, with grunts, screams, roars and cracks from all the animal kingdom. I am almost certain I heard the lions honoring the “neighbors'” dinner.

Shortly after the dawn, the heat forces us to get out of the tents and stretch our numb bones. Our breakfast consisted of… what else? Crackers. Oh, and a small cart of chocolate milk. Don’t even think of it monkeys! I will fight with nails and teeth for the minimum food and water I qualify for. The latter began to diminish. For our good luck, however, gasoline arrived! You’d say, you can’t drink gasoline. But our Toyota was more thirsty than us, and if we wanted to explore the park further and also get out of it, we would have to take care of it. In addition, the car exhaust was breaking down, so we tried to stabilise it with a wire. In these wilderness it won’t be good to have the car broken. The day continued like the previous one, except that we got very used to walk relaxed and comfortable in the savanna. This is where my most dangerous travel experience happened, almost my last. The car was fortunately parked a short distance, the keys on the engine and my phobic travel body near the driver’s seat. Without its own fears, perhaps this story would be written on my grave. Large elephant herds were pasturing in the area and I was eagerly approaching a huge male for a good photo shot. He reacted with a warning, shaking his ears, but I ignored by getting even closer. There was no second warning, the giant beast was outraged, made a scream, and began to move threateningly towards me. I hear behind me my buddies shouting “RUN!”. I was calm, perhaps underestimating the danger. I began to recede smoothly so to not provoke the animal more and then I started to run while the elephant was chasing me. Fortunately the car was near, I got a narrow escape inside and we drove fast speed escaping the beast. We were moving at 60 km/h on rough ground and the elephant was chasing us for about 5 minutes. Miraculously, we and the vehicle were saved in one piece. However, we continued our hikes, but more cautious. At some point there were so many elephants in the landscape that the car was trapped among them, we were far from being able to approach and were moving, hiding from one tree to another.

Leaving Mana Pools, we set next destination to the great Victoria Falls. The route from northern Zimbabwe to the west was not a simple matter and required a ling drive back to Harare. The map showed a much shorter route through Zambia, so we chose this alternative. We got back to Chirundu where we had to pay for another visa, but we did not succumb to pay bribe and pass the bureaucratic hell of customs officers and dispatchers. You have to be armed with patience, persistence and plenty of time if you need to cross an African border with a vehicle. The customs officer had presented a number of shortcomings in the car’s documents, even though the owner had assured us for the permits to neighboring countries. At the typical African rhythms, after a few hours we stepped ground in Zambia

 

After the road trip to Zambia and Botswana, we enter Zimbabwe again, paying for a new visa. The bureaucracy was less but the delay was long again. In the very first kilometers we got stopped by the police again. This time they were looking for the slightest defect in the car. And they found … the exhaust we had stabilised with wire. So they asked us to pay a fine for it. We naturally responded with courtesy and told them that the wire is a preventative medium and the exhaust is in perfect condition. So they couldn’t do anything but let us go. We arrive in Bulawayo. A rather dull city with wide streets and industries, but also with restaurants that offered food, mostly fast food. There was no point in staying any longer here so we drove east to Masvingo. The police stopped us again. This time they wanted to fine us because the back seat passengers were not using a seatbelt. At that moment, a pick up car with children in the carriage was passing by, with no safety standards at all. I got furious, I start shout and blame the police for racist discrimination, while taking pictures of the situation ignoring his bans. I told him we would not accept the fine and we demand to resolve the issue with his commander, at the police station. He was talking on the phone with the commander, explaining in his language the “white guy with the black shirt he was taking photos”. He agreed to get us there. The car, of course, did not fit a 6th passenger so we said goodbye to him and drove alone. The commander was surprised that we finally got there, as we could have “escaped.” We told him that we are following the laws and we do not accept unequal treatment. He was polite and understanding, we talked a lot about unrelated issues and he didn’t impose a fine but explained to us that once the vehicle has rear belts, we have to use them. I asked him: What if I cut them with a scissors? Then we are not obliged, he replied. There is no sense of logic in Africa.

We arrive at Masvingo in the evening. We did not find any cheap accommodation and we were driving searching in the darkness. At sometime we got inside a ghetto, with a lot of drunk people strolling on the road. The car was blocked by people who shouted and started becoming threatening. A drunkard almost fell in front on the car wheels. We managed to get away from there and returned to the only decent hotel we had seen in the area. Fortunately, for once again our negotiating skills were successful and the owner gave us a good discount. The following day, we headed to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Great Zimbabwe. These are city ruins of an ancient kingdom of the Iron Age of Zimbabwe, which flourished from the 11th century AD until the 15th. It is the largest of the few sub-Saharan African monuments, dominated by the Great Enclosure building, a circular cluster of exterior and interior walls of 11 meters high with a central tower. All buildings are made of huge, smoothed stones without mortar, many of them in an organic match with the rocky hills. Adjacent to the archaeological site there is also a small settlement.

 

After exploring the wider area and towards the end of the day, there was a disagreement between us. I think is not a good number of travel buddies on such a demanding trip. Of course everyone is traveling for his own reasons. Therefore, one person wanted to return to Harare, distance of 300km of night drive, to be accommodated to some of his Greek immigrant friends. However, evening driving over long distances, is not safe in Africa and especially in this country. This is where my own sense of logic and also the rest of the team woke up, based on our experience and the risk evaluation. The situation has grown into a stalemate and argument. T decided to travel by bus to the capital despite our requests. The 4 of us continued and by nightfall we discovered an oasis. On the shores of Lake Mutirikwi, in an scenic location we found a lovely lodge with us the sole visitors. The place was decorated with exceptional taste, full of musical instruments, vinyl albums and souvenirs from the full and interesting life of the owner, who unfortunately was not present at that time. We negotiated for the price with the caretaker and enjoyed our beers in the idyllic landscape until the next day.
By noon we took the road  back to Harare to rejoin with T and complete this trip with a few last days in urban Africa. We bought souvenirs and handicrafts in many open-air markets, we dined in fine restaurants and stood in queues at the liquor selling shops. The car was returned in a rather poor state. The exhaust had been completely detached, one shock absorber was dead, making a bad noise in each pothole and tilting to the rear left side. Fortunately the owner was very understanding and didn’t charge us for those “little” damages. The adventurous road trip comes to its end, leaving us full of beautiful images and powerful experiences. Africa, will always have a place win my heart.

©Alexandros Tsoutis

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