I don’t know what we expected of Zimbabwe, but we found it a fascinating and beautiful place. The decision to visit Zimbabwe did not come easily. I struggled with tacitly supporting the violent dictatorial regime of Robert Mugabe and his supporters, yet desirous to see the natural beauty of the countryside. Ultimately, we decided that our visit would do more good for locals than it would for Bob, as one disaffected Zimbabwean youth called him. Still, we weren’t sure what to expect, would we find endless police stops where they demanded bribes for false infractions? Was the economy so depressed that we would find no lodging nor food for sale? How would we, as American travelers be received? While in Botswana we prepared our vehicle as best we could by placing the required reflective stickers where Zimbabwean law required them and ensuring we had the necessary reflective warning triangles and fire extinguishers (actually packed and installed at home) and making sure all our lights, including the rear license plate light, worked properly. As we had heard that Zimbabwe was suffering a cash crunch, we stocked up on $1, $5, $10, and $20 bills in Botswana. Yes, Zimbabwe uses American currency, having abandon their own a few years ago due to exorbitant inflation (they actually printed trillion Zimbabwean dollar notes). With the Jeep and trailer as fully compliant as we knew how to make them, and fully stocked with safety devices and cash, we stepped into the unknown at the Zimbabwean border post at Plumtree.
The Immigration and Customs officials were incredibly helpful, and even open to conversation about what we should see and do in their country. Our visas were issued, road tax paid, and Temporary Import Permit for the Jeep completed in about an hour. Yet another border crossing without as much as a cursory glance at the Jeep and trailer, let alone the thorough inspection we are prepared for. The first police checkpoint was only about 10 minutes down the road from the border. In what would become readily familiar, one officer from a group of police in neon green vests standing by the side of the road steps into the road as we approach with his hand up, signaling us to stop. We stop and I shut off the engine, so the officer and I can hear each other, as he approaches. In this case, he wanted to know where we came from, where we were going, and why we were headed there. After a few words, he wished us a safe journey and we fired up the Jeep and headed down the road. These stops were frequent on the main roads of Zimbabwe. Sometimes, they would wave us through without even talking to us, other times they just wanted to comment on the Jeep or thank us for visiting Zimbabwe, and other times, they wanted to make sure our lights and blinkers worked, or see our fire extinguisher or warning triangles. One officer wanted to see our spare tire. While I think that a couple of times they were looking for things other foreign travelers don’t have so they could write a ticket, or get a bribe for not writing that ticket, no one ever hinted at a bribe. Many South Africans warned us that bribes would be necessary and asked for often, though we heard from some other travelers, none from South Africa, that they were never asked for a bribe. While the frequency of the stops was annoying, I did appreciate that the drivers, especially taxi, bus, and truck drivers were less crazy than those found in Namibia and Botswana.
Total Checkpoint Stops: 41
Flagged through: 16
Just chatted: 12
Checked documents: 2
Checked vehicle: 9
In preparation for a longer border crossing, we had found spot to camp only about an hour and a half into Zimbabwe. It is close enough to Bulawayo that we could run into the city for supplies. Following the signs to the place took us down smaller and smaller roads, tracks really. Homesteads got closer and closer to the track, culminating in a gate just outside one such home. Flagging someone down to ask if we were on the right track was easy enough, and they opened the gate for us, though it was unlocked. Another couple of miles and we found ourselves at another gate, this one locked. Luckily enough, the caretaker saw us arrive and came down to see what we wanted. This “lodge” was part of a working cattle and goat ranch, and since we hadn’t booked in advance, he was a bit surprised when we asked to camp. He took us to the campsite, equipped with a cold shower and overlooking a large pond. When we asked if they got any monkeys or baboons in camp, he assured us that the baboons stay up on the hill overnight and leave to the other side of the hill during the day, never coming into camp. It was good to hear that we wouldn’t be at risk of a repeat of The Great Baboon Break-In! The caretaker even brought us wood for a fire, free of charge.
The next couple of days were spent running to Bulawayo to restock on groceries and look for an 1/2 inch nut to replace one that had vibrated off the Jeep. This seemed all but impossible, but the bolt supply shop said “No problem!” I bought four, just in case we had another vibrate loose later, and it cost less than 50 cents! We even found a good butcher shop and bought steak, lamb, and ground pork, all of which were delicious. Bulawayo is a little crazy, with parking down the middle of some of the streets, drivers not really following lanes through intersections, and pedestrians everywhere. Driving through this chaos takes easily twice the concentration it takes to drive through most cities. And we are betting this was but a hint of what is to come the further into Africa we get.
Near Bulawayo is Matobo National Park, which includes the grave of Cecil John Rhodes. Rhodes was the man that bought up all the diamond claims in South Africa in the late 1800s, starting de Beer’s Diamond Company. He then turned his attentions north, eventually founding the nation of Rhodesia, now called Zimbabwe. Rhodes was ambitious, wanting to see one united colony, or even nation, south of the Zambezi river, as well as a rail line from Cape Town to Cairo. Prior to his death, he organized a scholarship for Oxford University, hence Rhodes Scholars. We made it a point to go to Matobo, and to Rhode’s grave, mostly because the area is so beautiful. These were the first hills we had seen since Namibia, and we were loving the rocky outcrops and shady bottomlands. The last few hundred yards to the gravesite were up and across a big rock slope. We enjoyed climbing the hill to see the view of “The End of the World” as they call it. We could see for miles, beautiful hills and rock outcroppings as far as we could see.
Our next stop was Victoria Falls. Zimbabwe sits on the side of the river with the best view of the falls, so we thought it best to see them while in the country. It is far enough from Bulawayo to Vic Falls that we found a camp site for the night, just outside Hwange National Park. Hwange is known for fantastic game viewing, and the camp said they get lions and elephants in camp sometimes. While we didn’t get animals in camp, we did decide to swing back through after we visited Vic Falls. As we pulled into the town of Victoria Falls, we were surprised to see big international jets at the airport. This prepared us for what town might be like. After checking in at the camp ground right in town, we walked over to the historic Victoria Falls Hotel for high tea. Jen had heard about this and it has been a “must do” ever since. It was fun to sit on the veranda of the hotel, overlooking the river, though not the falls, and sip coffee or tea and snack on little sandwiches, scones and cream, and cakes. As we were finishing, a warthog ambled across the lawn, and the security guard, there to run off baboons, said they thought she was pregnant. She left people alone, though she showed no concern about any of us. I asked how often he had to run off baboons, and if he ever shot them. He answered “daily” to one question, and just laughed at the other!
That night, we had dinner in the restaurant at the campground, splitting a grilled warthog steak. It was surprisingly not like pork at all, but rather like extremely tender beef. The next day, we packed up camp and headed to go see the falls. I must not have stopped fully enough, because a police officer stepped into the street and flagged me down a side street. He gave me a $20 ticket for not fully stopping at the stop sign. Unimpressed with my laps of attention, we were glad for Zimbabwean pricing, as opposed to what I would have paired in The USA for such an infraction. We were less impressed with the $30 apiece they charged to get into the Victoria Falls National Park. With only one Victoria Falls, they can set the price. We made the most of the Falls, which are stunning up close. Due to the geology of the area, the water cuts a new waterfall every few thousand years. The falls drop into a narrow gorge, and we got to walk along the opposite edge of the gorge to see the entire width of the falls. We even saw people swimming in The Devil’s Pool, a pool right on the edge of the falls in a slow flowing part of the river. I definitely want to try that when we come though Zambia! After taking in the whole of the falls, and watching someone bungee jump off the bridge across the river to Zambia, we headed back south to Gwango Heritage Resort, the camp spot we stayed at on the way from Bulawayo.
At this point, our route was in question. Should we turn across the north of the country, along Lake Kariba, and take some rough, remote roads to the eastern side of the country and then work our way south, or should we head back to Bulawayo and work our way up the eastern highlands then cross into Mozambique? Gwango, the camp we had stayed at on our way to Victoria Falls, seemed like a great place to make that decision. While there, Jen got to step into the kitchen and learn a local speciality, the gobelo pot, a stew made with tomato and butternut squash as the base. She shared with them her recipes for guacamole and fresh salsa. The kitchen staff was super excited that she wanted to learn from them, and even more excited when she showed them how to make her recipes. On our last night, we met Elizabeth and Danny, the couple that owns Gwango, and found out about their community outreach programs. As it happens, one of the programs involves teaching local school kids about science by having them keep goats, milk them, and make cheese from the milk. I told her about my work in dairy processing and they invited us over to their lodge, where we stayed and had dinner with them, to discuss how to safely handle and process goat milk. It turns out that she and Danny met in college in California, and moved to her native Zimbabwe to open the lodge as a sanctuary for elephants. Their other project is anti-poaching, which they use as a corporate team building exercise. They also have German Shepherds, including a litter of nine 3 month old pups that they are going to train as anti-poaching dogs. We really enjoyed all the dogs, and that many puppies is alway fun to see. While at the lodge, we also saw the last of The Big 5, the Cape Buffalo. We had seen the rest, elephant, rhino, lion, and leopard, earlier on our trip, so this was quite a moment for us. It is our hope to swing back through Zimbabwe to see them, and their projects, later in our trip.
As we looked at the maps, we could see where travelers go, and where they don’t, and that made the decision for us. We headed south for a night in Bulawayo before heading on to see The Great Zimbabwe. The Great Zimbabwe is a collections of ruins occupied between the 11th and 15th centuries. It was a palace complex for the local king and his wives (over 200!). All structures in the complex are made of stone and contain no mortar. It has stood over 1000 years with nothing holding it together but the shape the masons gave the stones, and gravity. While here, we enjoyed a couple of nights with other travelers, a pair of German couples. One is retired and driving through Southern Africa in their 4×4 motor home. The other still works, but he has a contract that gives him 4 months off a year, and they drive around Africa in that off time, in a Citroen 2CV, essentially a french version of the VW Beatle. They even sleep inside the car! It was fun to talk with them, learning about what we might find on the road ahead of us, and sharing our experiences as well.
As we parted ways, our new German friends heading to Botswana and South Africa, we headed north, towards Mutare and the scenic eastern highlands. We pulled through Zimbabwe’s third largest city and up Christmas Pass. While the road up the pass is a wonderful divided highway, two lanes each way, it is crazy steep. We found a couple of steep spots that required 2nd gear, and didn’t get into 4th gear until it flattened out near the top. We found a camp we could base ourselves from while we explored some north of the city. First, we visited La Rochelle, a once private residence that the family donated to the Heritage Trust. The botanical gardens are impressively large, and full of exotic trees and flowers. For lunch at their restaurant, we split the best hamburger we have had in Africa. The next day, we drove north to Nyanga National Park, and Mutarazi Falls. We got to drive 20 miles of logging roads into the park as the area surrounding it is all timber plantations. We saw pine trees in nice, orderly rows, as well as eucalyptus and wattle. They grow this wood for building materials. The park was nice enough, and the falls are the second highest in Africa. The weather was cold that night, and it even rained a little during the night. After one day, we headed back towards Mutare, and the warmer temperatures lower elevations bring. The next night saw us head into the Bvumba Mountains. We found a beautiful camp spot where we could see across the mountains into Mozambique. This seemed like a good place to explore from, so we stayed a few days. Further into the Bvumba is Leopard Rock Hotel and Golf Course. The swanky hotel was built during WWII using Italian POWs as labor.
After a couple of days spent enjoying the view, we headed south again. On the outskirts of Mutare, another police stop flagged us to the side. Apparently, our off-road lights are illegal because they are mounted above the headlights. I tried to talk my way out of this ticket, but he was steadfast, even showing me the regulation in the book. Another $20 and we were down the road, ready to get away from the police road checks. Our route took us on back roads for the rest of the trip, and we were pretty sure we wouldn’t see many more road blocks. Another traveler had let us know about the Cashel Valley Scenic Route, 40 miles of dirt road between the tiny lumber mill village of Cashel and the scenic town of Chimanimani. We had been warned about the road getting so narrow brush would scratch the paint on the car, but they also spoke of the beautiful scenic vistas along the road. A few locals raised eyebrows as we turned down the dirt track, but we found it a pleasant country road, even if it did cling to some steep slopes along the way. Pulling into Chimanimani, we looked for a camp site. The Chimanimani Hotel offered camping in the front lawn, so we pulled in for the night. The hotel was built in the 1950s, for the heyday of the Chimanimani National Park. The area looked like the Zimbabwean Alps. In it’s day, Chimanimani was the second biggest tourist destination in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), behind Victoria Fallls. Tourism has fallen off, but the area hasn’t lost any of it’s charm nor its beauty. The area is also known for growing coffee, and the hotel manager was able to help us get a couple of pounds of locally grown beans, right from the grower.
After a few cold nights in the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe, the tropical Mozambique coast started to sound better and better. It was time we headed for the border. As we got closer though, we could see that it would be best for us to spend one last night in Zimbabwe, to ensure we could get to a camp spot on the beach in one day. Mozambique doesn’t have much tourist infrastructure off the coast. Luckily for us, the Zimbabwe Department of Forestry runs a site on Mount Selinda, and it came highly recommended. We drove a couple of miles off the main road on a trail right out of an Indiana Jones movie to get to the delightful little camp. The camp is more of a forestry research camp that rents spaces to travelers. It was a beautiful setting, even the monkeys were quiet. It even got cell service, so we used the last little bit of money we put on our Zimbabwean number to get data and catch up on Emails and a few YouTube videos. This was also a great opportunity to cook the last raw meat we had, some delicious beef, as Mozambique has a ban on importing any raw meat due to bird flu and hoof and mouth outbreaks in South Africa. The next morning we hit the road early, driving the last three and a half miles to the border with Mozambique. Checking out of Zimbabwe was easy and straightforward, and checking into Mozambique was nearly as easy. As expected, the customs officer did ask about meat, but believed us when we said all our meat was cooked due to the ban. He was a bit surprised we knew of the ban, but glad we had done our homework. The visa process was the most modern yet, they even took our photos and digital copies of our fingerprints! That border crossing was my first chance to dust off my Spanish language skills, though I am sure we’ll get more chances to practice in Portuguese speaking Mozambique.
While we didn’t know what to expect from Zimbabwe, we did know that tourism has taken a major hit under the current regime (in power since 1979). I had read stories of farmers forcibly removed from their homes so war vets could take them over, only to have the once productive farming economy of Rhodesia die due to lack of knowledge from these “new farmers.” What surprised me the most was the cheerful inquisitiveness of everyone we met. A lot of this comes from the incredibly strong education system set up by the Mugabe regime. Everyone we met wanted to know how we liked Zimbabwe, and then continued to engage us in further conversation. And I mean everyone, from the lodge owners to the guys that pumped fuel into the Jeep. They wanted to know about our trip, or about America, or what our lives were like back home. I also found their upbeat outlook surprising. After hearing about how the country had been run down so badly, I must have expected more hopelessness and terror stricken citizens, but found that people were positive and excited about the future of Zimbabwe. They’re ready for change, as soon as it can come. And I think, given the amount of building we saw and the outlook of Zimbabweans in general, that the future will look bright indeed for Zimbabwe. We debated about going, and are glad we chose to go. Zimbabwe has been one of the highlights of the trip so far, a country we look forward to returning to.
Another traveler has written about the struggle to decide on visiting Zimbabwe here.
Zimbabwe by the Numbers
Miles Driven: 1,674
Days in Zimbabwe : 23
Nights Spent in Hotels: 1
UNESCO World Heritage Sites visited: 2
Traffic Fines Paid: 2 for $40