Monthly Archives: March 2011

Mozambique, again (ZW)

We have a long driving day today, trying to get as far as we can so we can relax at a nice beach campsite a bit longer. Last night I slept in a dorm room with 4 others, regretting it the minute I set up my mosquito net. Not because of the others, they were perfectly fine, but because the bed had two soft foam pieces instead of mattresses and because next door in the common room another group was having a really loud party with horrendous music blasting until late. I didn’t sleep well and the only consolation was that I didn’t have to take a tent down at 4.30am this morning.

We are on our way to Malawi, to get there we have to go through Mozambique. We heard stories of long border crossings so we set out early and arrived at the border at 11 am. I was the only person with a visa so I saved myself $30 although that was an error on their behalf. My visa is for single entry only and I already came to Mozambique in February. The immigration guy was sidetracked by my two passports and the few empty pages in the old one so he probably missed my entry and exit stamp from last month and he simply let me through. While he was going through my paperwork he lectured my tour guide about single and multiple entry visas but I didn’t mention that I had already used the visa, why would I? We then had two wait until the same guy manually filled out the remaining 13 visas, stuck them into all passports and copied every move into a big log book. None of this ever happens fast but we were lucky with only a 90 minute wait time in the end.

Mozambique instantly looked different from Zimbabwe. It’s still very green but now it’s also hilly. Kids come running towards the truck to say hi. We get a whole lot more curious stares here. And the police seems stricter. In Tete where we once again crossed the Zambezi River over a very modern suspension bridge we had to register with the police. Our driver said the last time the guys simply refused and demanded to be bought some drinks instead. It’s that sort of thing that derails any itinerary but for now we seem to be lucky. If we can make it to the Malawi border before 6pm we will continue driving further in the evening, if not we may have to bushcamp on someone’s property (with their permission and for a couple of dollars obviously).

Advertisements

Harare (ZW)

We moved on to the capital of Zimbabwe today; Harare. It’s a typical big city, nothing special. I have no pictures of it as apparently it is prohibited to take any in cities.

I lied, I have one picture

We arrived at lunchtime and only had about 4 hours here so obviously the first thing we did was find food… Four of us ended up inside a big bank complex that had shops at the bottom and we had mediocre sandwiches at a coffee shop. Weird prices – $4 for chicken with chips and also $4 for just chips. Iced coffee (which turned out to be a huge milk shake) was $1 and tea $3 (still just luke warm water with a bag).
Afterwards Eddie and I set out to find a pharmacy as I needed a band-aid and not in the evening when I could get to my bag. The first couple of places we tried (supermarket, corner stores) acted as if band-aids are the rarest item to come by and pharmacies even more so. However when we moved closer towards the actual shopping area of town we came across pharmacy row. Literally every shop was a pharmacy, there must have been at least 15. Most of them were of the kind that has four confused employees randomly standing around and all the items were behind the counter and needed specific calling out and pointing at as the pharmacist didn’t seem to realize that this particular store was selling them. Again, people were very polite but not especially interested in helping me or selling anything at all. In two pharmacies you could buy hairdryers, chocolate bars and cleaning utensils for your car but the question for band-aids raised eyebrows like I had asked for medical marijuana. The third pharmacy sold a strip of 10 band-aids for $1 or an entire box for $8. Two pharmacies later I finally had the option of three different varieties, all German brands and packaging, and I bought an industrial strength type for $3 while five pharmacists curiously oversaw my transaction. This now brings my band-aid count to 140… if only I had them with me when I actually need them…

After the pharmacy errand we concentrated on a head torch for Eddie. Again we found a row of shops that sold random equipment, none of them outdoor stuff though. Just for fun I asked everybody where I could find this lamp and three different places pointed me to “the Chinese” as if this was a famous superchain. “The Chinese” turned out to be a 99cent type of store with not one Asian person in sight. We did indeed find a headlamp there, the size of a coffee mug and with Chinese to English translation of the battery instructions that are worth a picture.

Fast forward to another mall with brand name clothes and higher end shops. Until then every mall or shop had been a larger equivalent to the stalls on Canal Street but this was the real deal. We had a coffee and some overly sweet cake and a croissant the size of a brick. The portion sizes were out of control and I wondered who these people were that could hang around a food court at 3 pm on a Wednesday, clearly able to afford the food prices, clearly wearing regular clothes, none of them overweight. The entire group of us is wondering where these ‘poor’ people of Zimbabwe are, nowhere we looked did we get the impression that this is a poor country. Maybe here they mastered the art of being thankful for what they got? Everyone seems happy, not one grumpy person anywhere. At the gate to the camp ground we passed a security guard or policeman, he was heavily armed but he was waving at us and smiling like a madman. The smile was pretty counteractive to the gun… The entire police force seems to have a ball; yesterday two policemen offered to trade one of theirs for a girl from our group and invited us into the car for a ride. The unemployment rate is extremely high here, yet the people with jobs seem to be bored.

Although Harare is not a tourist destination and we were clearly the only white people walking around we did not feel out of place, we were not hassled or stared at. The sea did not part for us nor were people standing or walking too closely as they often do in South Africa. Nobody begged for anything, only once did someone try to sell me air freshener but he laughed when I said that I smell good by default and he left me alone after that. We simply ‘blended in’. I liked that, it’s definitely a way of experiencing a city. As far as I know there is not much here to do but I could stay a while without feeling out of place. We bought a bunch of snacks and once again got the green-brownish rags back that the Zimbabweans call money. These are in fact US dollars and none older than 6 years, but because the government doesn’t print new money or replace it the bills look they’ve been washed a few times and then dragged through the mud. Which they probably have.
Coins do not exist so if you must pay an uneven amount you will get South African Rand coins back. I have yet to figure out how to use them for odd amounts. The bigger problem is change for big bills. Pretty much nobody can break a $10 bill or more. Last night I had a beer for $3 and the waiter practically talked me into having two more and giving $1 tip as he could not give me change. This happens wherever we go. At the place in Vic Falls the restaurant gave me vouchers instead of money. My guess is that uneven prices are only there so that the shop can automatically round up to the next even amount.
But the state of this money is fascinating. Every night I must watch out that I don’t accidentally bin the green cloth along with the other clutter in my pocket.

The Great Zimbabwe (ZW)

The last two nights were a bit colder which meant for once I actually slept inside my thin sleeping bag and not on top of it. I even almost slept through which is a first, despite the constant traveling and sightseeing I never seem to be too tired and when everyone goes to bed at 9pm I’m usually far from ready for bed. I do have the nightly visit to the bathroom or nearest tree down though; step over spiders and other critters (whose eyes briefly get illuminated by my head torch) and high-five a baboon on the way while I’m at it. Last night a gnu relieved itself not too far from my tent entrance, where are the manners I ask you?

 

We are now in Masvingo, another nice looking town that I didn’t see much of, and home to the “Great Zimbabwe” ruins, a world heritage site since 1987 which has given this country its name. Zimbabwe means big (“zim”) stone (“bwe”) house (“ba”) and there were a few of these Zimbabwes in their time – approx. in the 11th century. This one is obviously the biggest. The king lived here with his 200 wives, 20 of which he served each night. The ruins consist of wide and high stone walls which were built without any type of glue used for bricks, they are simply stones piled on top of stones. The complex has three areas; one high up on natural rocks where the king resided, another enclosure for the wives and a third one in the valley area. I could bore you with details here but again, that’s what Wikipedia is for…

 

Photo
At the end of our 3 hour tour we were once again treated to a singing and dancing performance, this time without volunteers as our group was pretty lethargic in the midday heat.

Matabo National Park (ZW)

Andy was back, filling in for another guy. In fact this area is his home turf but he goes where people book him. Today the mission was a walk with the rhinos; reading tracks and finding them on foot. Before we did that we checked out more bushman paintings, tried to visit the village of the local Ndebele tribe (no luck because the main guy was not around and Andy didn’t want to disturb them) and did a whole lot of bird and crocodile watching from the jeep.

At lunchtime we discussed Zimbabwean politics and much like the old lady Andy feels no need to escape the country despite all the problems. Nobody in the country has any high regard for Mugabe yet “the Africans are lazy” and would not topple the government because of that. Also, they “have no guts” which is why you can’t publicly criticize the government (we were sworn to secrecy as he could get into real trouble for saying this) and which is why you might win any kind of argument as well- if there is a problem and you consider a bribe simply stand up to it and it may go away as nobody expects this reaction.

Andy has lost lots of money when the local currency was converted to US$ and like everyone else he’s trying to survive but he says he was born here and although he also has a European passport he would never think of leaving as he wouldn’t even know where to go and what to do there. He said he spent a week in Italy where he inherited a house by his grandfather and he hated every minute of it. He grew up like a modern version of Crocodile Dundee, he has a full hunting and rangers license and he walks around barefoot with a bush knife and a rifle on his tours. He lives in the city for business but prefers to be in the bush with wild animals and that really shows.

Needless to say that we learned a whole lot about hunting and tracking wild animals. By the shape of a footprint we could not only see which animal just waltzed by but also when (color, depth) and its intent (smell, wind direction, etc.). He was spot on. At one spot he declared that a giraffe had slipped here and sure enough a few minutes later we saw a giraffe with a baby, the mother had mud on her hooves.

However the mission was to find a rhino and after an hour of following tracks I spotted two white ones (before him!) not 100 yards from us. This was truly amazing, all we did was follow this barefoot guy who smelled the air, looked at prints and successfully fooled baboons and other animals with his bird impressions. I don’t think we took it too seriously until these two huge rhinos were suddenly facing us and he indicated that we should duck and shut the hell up. So from then on the mission was not to piss the rhinos off as they are seriously dangerous when they charge, and our survival rate solely depended on his rifle. We followed the rhinos for about 15 minutes while trying to be as quiet as possible which is not an easy task in nature at all. The rhinos were nervous and often interrupted their grazing but luckily they never came for us.

Photo

We also hung out with some hippos, the other seriously dangerous species you don’t want to meet up too closely. Hippos make this really funny “ho ho ho” sound, like a sarcastic laugh but really deep, which apparently is their first warning. The second warning supposedly is them defecating into water while wagging their tails to spread the goods, this marks their territory. We never got to see that though. The third warning is the yawn, the mouth wide open shot everyone with a camera is always waiting for. If you’re still too close and you ignored all of this hippos will eventually come for you.

Andy’s part of the day was long over but he worked overtime again just to show us “his world”. We got the full package, sunset, birds, more animals in the dark, stars on rocks… If anyone ever comes this way they should definitely book him, the guy is a trip.

Hwange and Buyawalo (ZW)

Before sunrise we were back in Andy’s jeep for another game drive. It is quite fascinating how quickly time passes when all you do is drive around on the lookout for animals. We were on the jeep for 6 hours and it never got boring. Andy’s enthusiasm and knowledge had to do with it and of course I never get tired of watching elephants. We almost got charged by one.
Andy is the sort of person who can smell animals a mile away and quite often he predicted exactly what we would see in a few minutes by footprints or the temperature of animal poop. At one point he stuck his finger in fresh elephant poop and then put it in his mouth. Later on it turned out that he had used the index finger for the temperature check but he had licked his middle finger. But with announcements like “I love fresh animal poop” it wouldn’t have surprised me if that was the actual joke.

 

In the afternoon we drove to Buyawalo in the pouring rain. Luckily so far it has only rained when we were inside somewhere, or at night. However Andy took two people in his jeep because they needed to get to the bus station faster than we could have taken them and all three of them must have gotten soaked as there was no rain cover on it. I was glad I had already sorted out the visas the two guys needed – the reason they had to leave the group for two days.

 

Buyawalo is the second biggest city in Zimbabwe, over a million people supposedly. Since it was Sunday it was fairly empty but we got a good impression of it regardless. It seemed really nice actually, with wide avenues and some pompous buildings, even a city center with large shops. We went to a smallish supermarket which was well stocked and nothing like the sorry place in Victoria Falls. The supermarket was crowded but everyone was incredibly friendly without giving us the tourist treatment. In general we noticed how friendly and happy people seem to be here. Considering that the unemployment rate is at 90% you don’t get the impression that people are suffering though I’m sure they are.

 

The campside belongs to a huge lodge that is built into rock. Some of the rocks have bushman paintings from 4,000 years ago. An older lady from Liverpool manages the place and told us a little about life in Zimbabwe. Obviously under Mugabe nobody is doing so well but overall everyone is really proud of their country and wouldn’t think of leaving (though that’s certainly not true for the younger generation). People with jobs hold on to them and make between $100 and $400 per month depending on the job. Tourism has really tanked here since the last elections though as a tourist you obviously don’t see the problems, nor do they affect you.


We drank red wine, waited for leopards (highest leopard concentration in Africa, but none showed up) and looked at the stars…it was perfect, and I can see what the lady meant.

Hwange (ZW)

Two minutes into driving I was already loving the new truck. We have so much more space regardless of how few people we are. Everyone sits down and stays seated, nobody lies in the aisle and nobody needs to go to the coolerbox every minute or do “emergency charging” of their electronics via the truck battery at all times. There is no trash lying around and we don’t stop at gas stations to go to bathrooms (we use nature, this also means there is less opportunity to buy high calorie snacks every two hours). A huge difference to the last Gap tour!

An hour into driving we got stopped by the police for a random check. They were trying to find something to fine us for and they claimed it was the fact that we didn’t have a white reflector stripe at the front of the truck or something silly like that. Our two guides/drivers are determined not to fall for bullshit claims or bribe their way out of them so they took the names of the policemen down and had them show their IDs. One policeman didn’t have ID and was not so keen on our guides to have himself checked out at the police station all of a sudden but we drove there anyway and after much discussion the fine disappeared and we were free to carry on.

We did a quick visit at the Spotted Dogs sanctuary. It was raining heavily when we arrived so we didn’t walk around to look for any live dogs but we checked out the informational center and it was pretty interesting. The Spotted Dogs have huge ears and cool patterns and a fascinating social behavior but they are endangered, mostly because of traps that are set for bigger animals.

A bit further on at Hwange National Park we embarked once again on a game drive with a local ranger; a white burly guy from Zimbabwe named Andy. He said he used to be a hunter and he explained the reasoning and methods behind hunting and how the current politics affect the country and him specifically.

The game parks like Hwange actually depend on rich American or Russian guys to pay their minimum fee of $25,000 to shoot an elephant, plus a minimum stay of 21 days with a nightly lodge charge of $2,500 per person. It’s not the safari tourists like us that keep the parks in business. Luckily the hunters need to accompany the pompous asses who need to shoot an animal in order to feel like a man so they will select animals that are older and that would have had to be shot anyway to maintain a good balance in the park. Also, if the rich guy misses with his first shot the hunter will put the animal out of his misery. Every part of the animal will be used. The ivory goes to the rich guy (who needs a license in advance), the skin often does as well, the meat goes to the locals.

However elephants or other animals that die of natural causes in game parks will not be touched, only the ivory will be removed so that poachers can’t grab it. We passed a massive elephant skeleton on the way and even got out of the jeep to touch the bones.

Aside from my usual game drive animals I saw a cheetah for the first time today. They are the world’s fastest animals at 110km/h, however they often eat last as they completely exhaust themselves on a kill which then leaves enough time for other animals to help themselves first. Cheetahs even become prey to other cats sometimes.

Our 28 year old cook from Kenya is completely into country music and Celine Dion. Not even any of the middle aged people in the group can relate to that. It’s rather bizarre to listen to this crap while eating kudu stew with pap or another traditional dish…

Victoria Falls (ZW)

Yesterday afternoon we had High Tea at the uberfancy Victoria Falls Hotel. At $25 for two people it wasn’t even overly expensive. We had a view of the bridge and a huge platter of sandwiches, scones and tarts in front of us. It was much too much food but it was worth it.

This morning I checked out Victoria Falls. Good thing that I waited because my $30 ticket was included in my tour (it wasn’t with Gap) and the views from the Zimbabwe side are much better as here you are looking at the Falls as opposed to only getting a corner of crashing water.
It was wet. So wet in fact that I brought absolutely nothing with me, not even my rain coat. It was like taking a shower with my clothes still on. Within seconds I was soaked. The view was amazing despite all the mist the water brought up. I have no pictures of it but Google will have plenty.
We saw an elephant playing in the mud in a distance as well. Every day I need at least one.

 

This afternoon, just like in the night, we have thunderstorms galore. I had just put my soaked clothes out to dry but I guess I will have no luck. It cooled down a bit as well, we’ll see how long that’ll last.

 

….

 

10.25 pm now and I spent the last hour trying to connect to the internet to put some money in my checking account. There was a power outage in the village earlier and the internet went with it. All good now, enough to send an email and be frustrated about my bank’s customer service.

 

We had dinner at another fancy place, a lodge, I felt a bit like in an old movie where slaves were still “employed” to be nice to me. All very nice but completely fake and out of place and catered to rich white folks. The food was good, I had warthog. Another meat without a specific flavor but still very tasty. Tomorrow it’s back on the truck…a new one at least and with less people and much more space (overhead and under seat bins, hooray!!).

 

My clothes are still not dry.