It is a ghost town. The shops are closed, the windows shuttered and the interiors gutted.
But it is not an abandoned ghost town. People do still live here. Their livelihoods, however, do not.
This is the town of Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.
FINALIST 2010 YOUNG TRAVEL WRITERS SCHOLARSHIP
When you enter Zim be prepared to encounter the most aggressive and desperate haggling. Anything and everything is for sale, your shirts, your socks, your shoes, your hairbands, your food, but most importantly, your US Dollars. And don’t go to them, they will come to you. In Vic Falls we found ourselves walking around with a veritable harem of hagglers. It was like a game of hot potato as we tried to convince them that we did not want anything. Also, make sure you don’t show anything of value, like your camera–that’s a recipe to drag lots of attention to you.
We arrived to Zim from Lusaka, Zambia through the town of Livingstone, Zambia. We are three Americans studying for a semester at the University of Cape Town.
In Zim the first thing you’ll notice are Zimbabwean dollars, everywhere, which are utterly useless (A truckload couldn’t buy you a loaf of bread in 2009). Not anymore!
Ever want a 100 Trillion Dollar bank note? In Zimbabwe, you can get one for about one or two US dollars! Yes, the currency actually has value, if only to trade with the few tourists.
And tourists are what Zim is starved of. You can see the infrastructure is there. Throughout the country there are backpackers. In Vic Falls, there’s an extremely helpful Backpacker information center. In Bulawayo there’s a very helpful Black Rhino safari group. There are vibrant (well, used to be vibrant) shops and markets throughout.
At a glimpse, Zimbabwe is a country with great potential. Its people are friendly peaceful and innovative, its cities have decent infrastructure for both business and tourism, and some of its public utilities work (debatable), surprisingly. There is a very posh, and I mean posh in the imperial British sense, hotel at Vic Falls. Banks and ATMs are everywhere (more on that later), the road system isn’t a total disaster, and you can actually take a train from Vic falls to Bulawayo, cockroaches and all.
But statistical indicators, and actual life, are more ominous. According to the Fund for Peace, Zimbabwe is number two in the world on the Failed State Index, as of 2009, right after Somalia. That is, the government is so ineffective and weak it exerts little or no effective control. The central ZANU-PF (Mugabe’s political party) has limited authority over the outlying areas. Unlike Somalia, however, the country is actually quite safe to travel in and to walk around in, even at night, which is a pleasant surprise. It’s been said that if the Zimbabweans were not as easy going, they would have overthrown Mugabe years ago.
That’s not to say Zimbabwe’s government doesn’t exert any influence. It’s perceived tentacles seem to infiltrate daily life. People within the country will not speak about Mugabe in public. The consequences are too great.
And Zim is poor. It has the lowest measured GDP (PPP) of every country in the entire world at something like $200 per year per capita. Poverty is everywhere.
We went to a restaurant in Vic Falls. My meal of steak, vegetables and sadza was $1.50, and that included wait service and dishes. We were given a very informal township tour by a local who we met a supermarket. I also had the delight of arm wrestling a Zim guy after convincing him that I did not have any old shirts to give him.
Crossing the border from Zambia to Zim we met a Brit and recent Uni grad, Chris Lynch. He’s doing the incredible Cairo to Cape and has been on the road since November. He’s been to the most hair raising places, from Sudan to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and I can only say that I am fantastically jealous! I am, however, not at all jealous of that monstrous backpack of his.
The train from Vic Falls to Bulawayo leaves maybe everyday at 6:30ish and is anywhere from a 12 to 18 hr ride (by minibus: 6hrs).. There are many instances where you actually roll backwards on the tracks (a ‘wonderful’ feeling) or stop for long periods of time in the bush.
We entered Bulawayo and were picked up at the train station by Christine, an old white (surprising) lady who runs a hostel with her husband and we scheduled a safari for the next day, at $70 USD per person for a full private catered day out with a professional hunter at Matobo National Park. Although we did not see any Black Rhinos (what the park is famous for. That and Cecil Rhodes’ grave) we saw a rather curious hippo, some fleeting Giraffe and some truly incredible San/Bushmen Rock art.
ATMs do not work for foreigners in Zimbabwe, not just for Mastercard, like in Zambia. Rumor has it that Mugabe’s government put a block on ATMs just for Bulawayo, but I find that hard to believe. I asked our guide how they saved their money. The answer: They don’t. So we spent our time in the city futilely ATM hopping–conveniently an excellent way to see the city.
Bulawayo is a beautiful city, full of wide avenues originally designed for a horse and buggy to do a u-turn in. The buildings are quite nice too.
Since we could not withdraw cash we nearly failed to exit the country. Things became so hectic that our guide began contacting his personal friends to ask if they could loan us money. Hayley considered kicking a police officer so that she could get deported. Finally, Christine, our hostel owner, convinced Greyhound to let us on the bus and we could pay once we got to the South African side. We got on just as the bus driver started the bus! We’re also $60 in debt to Chris, who paid for the backpacker.
Next a 14-15hr bus ride and 3hrs at South African customs.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.