As we crossed over the border from Zambia to Zimbabwe, a word of advice – don’t hire the vulture taxi drivers waiting outside the Victoria Falls entrance for they will rip you off. Walk past the border control and just over the gate in the no-man’s land between the two countries you can find a cab for 1/3 the price to take you the 1.5km journey to the Zimbabwean border.
No man’s land includes the iconic bridge overlooking Victoria Falls, in which bungee jumping is available. Not for me, though…
After paying $35 for a visa and filling up one of the last open pages of my passport with another large visa sticker, we were into Robert Mugabe’s land…more on that in a moment. There were many taxis nearby and we negotiated an $8 rate to take us the 2km to the hotel with a stop at the grocery store on the way for water.
With hyperinflation having virtually destroyed the Zimbabwean economy, the defacto currency is the dollar – Zimbabwean pounds are now worthless.
Immediately, we saw (at least what we thought) was a repeat of the Zambian problem. A bottle of water that runs 0.40 in a US or German grocery store was $2.00. Our lodge that night was extremely modest (after having three Air BnB hosts say they did not feel like renting for just one night), called the Adventure Lodge, but still ran us $85 for bed and breakfast in a room without air conditioning.
Folks, this was like staying at a private room in a youth hostel and would be hard-pressed for two stars if AAA was rating it.
We had lunch in the hotel restaurant, where we met Caleb, the cook who would show us the other side of Zimbabwe the following day. But first lunch…a hamburger…for $14 with a side of French Fries. If only it was as good as a small hamburger at McDonald’s. The gristly hamburger patty and lightly toasted bun was not terrible, it was just what you would except to pay $10 for 100-pack at Costco. My wife’s salad was not much better.
It was now later afternoon and I had work to do – at least the internet worked at the property…intermitedly. Heidi ventured into town to check on dinner options and came back 90 minutes later with a horrified look on her face. Grocery store prices were even worse here than in Livingstone, she stated. She had brought dinner – two hamburgers for me (only $6 each in the grocery stores) and another salad for herself. I wish she had brought back two salads…the hamburgers were simply terrible. I hate waste and am a cheap person, almost always eating all food put before me whether I like it or not, but I could not finish the first hamburger…the meat must have been all the leftover parts without the flavor of sasuage, for it was just nasty.
We decided that we had had enough of Victoria Falls and would travel over the border to Botswana a day early, skipping Victoria Falls (or Mugabe Falls as the Zumbabweans call it) and saving $35 each. We did not sleep well and the room was crawling with insects…definitely should have paid the extra for an air-conditioned room (the lodge has only a handful of a/c rooms).
That night we wanted to take a walk, but were warned by several people not to venture out – apparently wild animals roam free at night and can sense the smell of a foreigner. Or something like that. Victoria Falls is, after all, in the middle of a larger animal reserve and so we heeded the instructions of others and remained in the room.
The next morning, we met Caleb the cook again at breakfast. The restaurant was empty so after he made us some eggs – scrambled for my wife and an ometle for me – he pulled up a chair so we could chat.
Is this the real Zimabwe? Could it really be this expensive with quality this bad?
No, of course not said Caleb – you are in a tourist city and this is not indicative of the country or even the area.
We talked politics and history and I was surprised to find out that he was a big supporter of President Robert Mugabe, whose leadership most blame for the decrepit state of Zimbabwean economy. “Mugable is a misunderstood man,” Caleb reasoned, “His opponent [referring to Morgan Zevingali] is an uneducated conman who has no experience in leadership.”
“Read his writings,” he continued, “Mugabe is not a racist; he wants everyone to be treated equally and his policies have reflected that. The people who attack him haven’t really sought to understand him.”
That was certainly a different interpretation of Robert Mugabe than what I am used to, and perhaps there is a bit of truth to it…but only a bit. Mugabe’s leadership after British-controlled Rhodesia became independent Zimbabwe has been a case study of corruption and mismanagement.
Caleb also scoffed at our incredulity over the higher prices, inviting us to his neighborhood as soon as his shift was up in a few hours. We readily agreed.
We met Caleb at about 11am and began walking with him, in the scorching heat, toward his home…it was only about a quarter mile up the road from the lodge. Caleb is not just the Adventure Lodge Cook, but runs his own culinary school, teaching others how to cook, and is also heavily involved in the life of his children, of which he has four. He tinkers around in different ventures when they come, living a modest but comfortable life. His house was also modest, but had satellite television…
Down the street from his house was a local meeting place and finally we saw a picture of the real Zimbabwe. There were no tourists here – though the courtyard unforatunately featured many underemployed men and women just lounging around on benches and chairs. Caleb seemed to know everyone and all were exceedingly friendly.
And though we saw finally a place to buy reasonable food and drink (at least commensurate with income), there was a sad element as well. Cigarettes were $1.00 pack. Beer was .50/bottle and hard dinks not that much more. Caleb himself may not have been a chain smoker, but he certainly had a lit cigarette in hand more often than not. Laying under a tree, eating wild game meat, playing checkers, or just lying around all day with cheap booze may sound like an idyllic lifestyle, but it is not a fulfilling lifestyle when one desires work and the ability to put their talents to good use.
We continued down the road to a local market, where the fruits, vegetables, cereals, nuts, and grains were just a fraction of the price of the grocery stores in town and much fresher in both eye appeal and taste. We stocked up on groceries, filling up several bags and spending less than $5.
Next door was a swap meet under a large corrugated steel structure, trading mostly clothes, but also all kinds of knick-knacks and curios. It looked like most of the clothes were used clothes from western countries and some appeared quite aged. But like a thrift shop, my wife quickly found several fitness clothes she liked—paying $4 for four tops. Out back was a little dress shop and I bought my wife a paisley-styled dress that looked great on her for $6.
I had to return to the lodge to get some work done before our journey to Botswana, but Heidi stayed behind to put together lunch. Back at the lodge, we had already checked out but I took a seat in a chair outside of our room and was elated when Caleb’s cousin and Heidi arrived with lunch…freshly prepared warthog and wild antelope with pub and vegetables. Pub is hard to describe…a hybrid of bread, potato, and rice with not much flavor, but a good combination with the game meat.
I was so grateful that Caleb had been so friendly, allowing us to see a very different picture of Victoria Falls then had we just remained at the lodge and not ventured out.
By most signs and indicators, Zimbabwe is exhibit A of a failed state, yet even a failed state finds a way to function and if you venture beyond the tourist zone, you will see a very different country.
Read More of My Month in Africa Trip Report
Introduction: A Month in Africa
Review: Houston to Lagos in United Airlines 787 Business
Transit in Lagos: Bribing My Way Out
Review: Oasis Lounge Lagos (LOS)
Review: Gabfol Lounge Lagos (LOS)
Lagos to Johannesburg in South African Airways Economy Class
Setting Up Shop in Pretoria
How to Obtain a South African Police Report
A Safari in Kruger National Park
Review: Nkambeni Safari Camp
Driving Through Swaziland
Review: Mountain Inn Mbabane, Swaziland
Review: Johannesburg to Livingstone, Zambia in British Airways Comair Economy Class
Our Humble Abode in Zambia
Victoria Falls from the Zambian Side