Monday, 29 June 2015

Victoria Falls and Bob's Birthday

If there are only a few things you see during time spent in southern Africa, the Victoria Falls has to be one of them. I can honestly, hand on my heart, say that this is one of the most spectacular natural wonders I have ever seen in my life. If you are in Joburg, this is a totally doable (if a little expensive) weekend away.
We left Joburg on a Friday afternoon by the region's newest low-cost airline flyafrica. Note that this really is a budget airline so there are the hidden costs, the delayed flights and a general lack of fanfare. But still as far as budget airlines go, it wasn't too bad – a perfectly comfortable flight, half empty plane and this amazing view as you circle the falls before landing. Not bad at all.

The Victoria Falls airport is tiny (but will be pretty large in a few years time when they finish extending it), so there are only two or three passport control desks and most foreigners from outside Africa need a visa, so be prepared to queue. A so-called UNIVISA costs $50, is multiple-entry, lasts 30 days and allows you to enter Zambia too. You need to pay for it in cash and there's no cash machine before you cross immigration – so it is essential that you BRING DOLLARS! In fact general rule about visiting Zimbabwe – bring dollars. I don't think I saw a cash machine the whole time we were there....

Our home for the weekend was the Victoria Falls Backpackers, a great budget option run with relaxed expertise by the wonderful Jay, a fountain of knowledge on interesting things to do in the area. From the backpackers it was a short taxi ride ($5) to the falls.


The Victoria Falls park is very well-maintained with an easy to follow path and for a terrified-of-heights type such as me was a magical experience. Even though I was close to the edge of a huge thundering chasm, I felt almost no pangs of 'OMG don't go near the edge!' for the most part The Edge is carefully fenced off and the beauty and sheer wonder of it all somehow puts you at ease.

We walked back and forth along the edge of the falls for a few hours, admiring the rainbows, marvelling at the immense flow of water, revelling in the lush greenery and occasionally getting  completely soaked. As you get closer to the centre of the falls (ominously called Danger Point) the spray covers you from all sides. With the heat being in the early 30s many of the visitors, even those dressed in their finest clothes, couldn't get enough of the soaking – it is really something quite special to be enveloped in the spray of the world's biggest waterfall.

From here we headed off to the Zambian side of the falls to watch the sun set from the terrace of one of Africa's most luxurious hotels, The Royal Livingstone. Even though the cocktails cost $15 and rooms can go for $700 per night, they were quite happy to let bedraggled riff raff such as us shlep in for sundowners, and boy was it worth it – this was a really magical Friday night sunset on the Zambezi.

Once the sun had gone down we rushed off back across the border for dinner on the main drag of the town of Victoria Falls before drinks and dancing at the other backpackers Shoestrings, evidently also one of the most popular bars in town. Supposedly it's not usually as busy as it was that night, but as we found out this was a special weekend in Vic Falls – Robert Mugabe's birthday.....


I don't think I need to go into too much detail about Robert Mugabe's biography, suffice to say, the President is 91 years old and has been ruling Zimbabwe for 35 years. During that time a lot has happened, but significantly in the last decade the economy and the currency has collapsed. All transactions in Zimbabwe are now made in US dollars – in cash - and Zimbabwean dollar notes are sold on the streets as novelty souvenirs. 

A select few Zimbabweans have become rich taking advantage of the discrepancies in prices between their country and their neighbour South Africa by selling all kinds of things on the black market, but for most ordinary Zimbabweans the last few years have been dire. Life is expensive in Zimbabwe, many things are in short supply and for those working abroad and sending money home the dollar exchange often means they still come up short.

On the Saturday of our trip Mr Mugabe arrived with a huge entourage of loyal supporters (literally thousands of them) for an extravagant birthday party that is rumoured to have cost $1 million. It is said that the celebratory buffet included lion, buffalo and elephant meat. Meanwhile a massive rally with performances by a wealth of major Zimbabwean musicians took place at the town's stadium.  Despite being invited many times by an array of businessmen, generals and hangers-on to come along and see what the fuss was about, we didn't attend either event.

Everywhere we went in the town, the streets were thronged with people dressed in Happy Birthday T-shirts or traditional dresses and shirts bearing the face of Mugabe. Every hotel, guesthouse, lodge and empty building in the town was filled with guests of the party. It was a difficult event to avoid and it set a rather rather strange vibe on the town.

At one point we even met a 'secret service officer' who didn't say much at all. She may or may not have been a girlfriend of one of the guests and I still have no idea what her job involved, or if indeed she was even a secret service officer at all. It seemed she didn't understand much English..... but she may have also been bluffing so as to be able to eavesdrop on our conversations....who knows? Like I say, at times in the town things were a bit unusual.


We spent Saturday leisurely avoiding all birthday festivities. From the backpackers we took a short stroll, passing by families of mongoose scuttling over the path to a nearby lodge, which overlooks its own nature reserve. The main wildlife highlight is its vulture colony who are fed scraps every day from a restaurant overlooking the reserve. In addition to the vultures there were also hoards of marabous – if you can believe it marabous are even uglier than vultures – hideous gangly creatures! 

From here we hopped on the free shuttle bus to town. This time we skipped the entrance of the falls and continued over the border to look at the Victorian bridge which forms the Zim-Zam border – a incredible piece of ambitious colonial engineering. John insisted on taking the zipline over the gorge that the bridge spans, I stayed in the bar and tried to avoid the massive baboons who stroll around the border area like hooligans, rummaging through the bins and following traders who studiously avoid them. 


Back at the backpackers that evening Jay had put on a braai for us all and a fire. We enjoyed mountains of pap and veg and perfectly braaied meat and sausages and had the chance to gossip around the boma with the Zimbabweans who had been at the birthday party.

Of course when I say gossip I mean pester them with questions about the elephant meat. In all honesty they didn't have a lot to say about it all, everyone in Zimbabwe is very guarded about discussing anything that is anywhere near politics, especially on such an auspicious day as this.  The one thing that everyone was vocal about though was their insistence that we should still take the chance to visit the concert at the stadium – or at least go to one of the many after-parties. 

Instead we stayed and drank our Duty Free booze around the fire while listening to the far away sounds of parties and sniffing the air for the faint scent of marijuana smoke which seemed to be drifting around everywhere. Having talked our way around Bob and his birthday, the conversation instead took an about-turn to religion. I told the guys I felt myself to be agnostic – I don't know was it the right or wrong answer, or whether there was just a lot of smoke in the air, but my response elicited initial confusion, followed by a very sincere discussion. 

I conclude from this that when in Zim you simply can't talk Bob. But Zimbabweans seem to be those deep thoughtful types and so any other topic that isn't frivolous will be met with the utmost seriousness.
That or they thought I was speaking in some kind of code.
With the topic of religion then put to bed we played some chess before the Zimbabweans left to party, flirt and not talk politics through the night. They were after all a long way away from celebrating their 91st birthdays.

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