For us, Zimbabwe was an afterthought, really. We hadn’t planned to tour through, but we had to travel south somehow to complete our grand loop of Southern Africa from Cape Town to Jo’Burg. Because public transport through Botswana is basically nonexistent aside from the treacherous mini buses, we headed through Zimbabwe. We were bussing through anyway, so we figured we should explore. After all, we aren’t likely to be back.
Not surprisingly, travel here is much more difficult than in South Africa, or Namibia, or Botswana. Those countries seemed like a well-running dream compared to Zimbabwe, rocked by years of war, recent famine, and decaying infrastructure. It is clear that every building, hotel, etc was built in the 1950s or 60s and remains as it was without much upkeep, like a society locked in time, but trudging on. Everything is relatively very expensive here as well; I have no idea how the people here can afford anything. Somehow though, the Zimbabwean people are the warmest and gentlest that we’ve come across in Southern Africa. How they maintain their sunny demeanor in the face of hardship is truly amazing.
It was our first country we’ve visited where criticism of the government is illegal. ‘Stay away from political subjects altogether,’ says our guidebook. Quietly, we wondered how Robert Mugabe feels about Zimbabwe’s use of the US dollar in its (almost) all cash economy.
Victoria Falls area is more accommodating to tourists, being a tourist destination since the early 1900s, aside from the periods when travel here wasn’t really possible. Travel outside of Vic Falls was more trying, but we did manage to see some impressive sites.
Great Zimbabwe is a World Heritage Site and a fascinating site of ruins, built around the 13th century. The hill complex is a maze of old steps and tiny passageways, set between giant boulders. There is also the “Great Enclosure,” thought to be the royal compound, with huge walls and a conical tower. The ruins are not well known, but suggest an advanced society not attributed to this area by earlier scholars. Unfortunately, years of looting, suggestions that the society couldn’t have been African, and lack of government funding have resulted in limited information about the life of the 10-20,000 people who lived here between the 11th and 15th centuries. The country was named after this area after imperial Rhodesia was no more.
The travel to and from Great Zimbabwe required two 5-hour bus trips on “chicken buses,” or local buses. After we jumped on the first bus with our backpacks, we were told the packed bus was too full, but as we turned around to exit, the bus pulled away suddenly to our surprise. Somehow, the locals on the bus made room for us and weren’t too annoyed with our giant packs. We did get to meet some nice locals on the bus, but the bumps, lack of room, and smells on the bus made for a long 5 hours.
We also camped in Matobo National Park, the “spiritual heart” of Zimbabwe, where we enjoyed views of balancing boulders and 60,000 year old cave paintings. We made friends with our drivers, who opened up to us about their life in Zimbabwe and the struggles they face.
Our guest house in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe – we loved it there!