After two weeks exploring beautiful Botswana (see previous post), Mathieu and I crossed the border into Zimbabwe!
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Zimbabwe (a British colony until gaining independence in 1980) has been in economic decline since the 1990s, experiencing several crashes and hyperinflation, attributed mainly to government mismanagement and corruption.
Since 2009, the government had allowed of use of US dollars (USD) and other foreign currencies as legal tender. However, in February 2019, the government introduced the RTGS dollar, or bonds. With the introduction of this new currency, the use of USD and other foreign currencies became illegal, nearly overnight. Also in early 2019, the government, attempting to normalize fuel prices and deal with fuel shortages, raised petrol prices by 100%, causing widespread protests, some of which were deadly. Then in May 2019, just before we arrived, the government raised prices again[2,3].
Given these recent economic issues in Zimbabwe, we made sure to research the logistics of traveling there before entering. We read about the experiences of fellow travelers on the Overlanding Africa Facebook group (an amazing resource we’d been using since arriving to Africa), read recent blogs, and read Zimbabwe’s news sources. We read stories of long gas lines and no money at ATMs. We took the advice of a Swiss couple who’d recently visited Zimbabwe and filled our gas tank and jerrycans and stocked up on groceries. Feeling prepared, we exchanged Botswanan pula for USD (we’d read USD was still unofficially accepted), and crossed the border. We felt confident that we could pay our major anticipated expenses (i.e., fees to enter the country for us and for Wily, fuel, and national park entrance fees) using a credit card and that we’d have enough USD to pay other expenses (e.g., road tolls, veggies at local markets, souvenirs, etc…).
So, how’d we do during our two weeks exploring the country? Nothing went to plan but it all worked out and we had a wonderful time.
We had to pay USD at the border because the card machine was out of order (unexpected). Gas stations with fuel were hard to find (expected) and few of the ones that had fuel accepted USD and NONE accepted credit cards (totally unexpected). We paid entry to Victoria Falls National Park with a credit card (expected) but could not pay with credit card at ANY other national parks because either the card machine was out of order and/or there was no electricity (totally unexpected).
As a result, during our nearly 750-mi (1200-km) counterclockwise route from Vic Falls, to Bulawayo, Mashvingo, and Mutare, we had to hold on to our precious USD and could NOT visit a few attractions we’d hoped to see (i.e., Matobo National Park or Great Zimbabwe Ruins National Park). And to conserve gas, we could not wander too far off the main highway as we normally liked to do. We knew we had enough fuel to get to Mutare, a large city where we hoped to get more USD, so we decided to just relax and enjoy the scenery along the way. Instead of visiting the ruins, we enjoyed a beautiful scenic drive along nearby Lake Mutirikwi where the locals walking along the dirt road smiled and waved to us. And we enjoyed the scenery as we drove across the Save River Bridge, the biggest and most modern bridge we’d seen in a few countries, where we stopped to join the locals cooling off in the wide, shallow (crocodile-free) river.
By the time we reached Mutare on the eastern side of the country, we were very low on USD. So, we would either have to use our remaining fuel to leave Zimbabwe (earlier than planned) and cross into Mozambique or get more cash. We went to the Holiday Inn and called our families for money. The hotel staff were so nice and even offered us free coffee and sandwiches during the three days we were parked in their lobby. In the evenings, we left the hotel and bush camped at a viewpoint overlooking the city. It was a really nice spot, especially at sunrise and sunset. And we got to met the artist who displayed his hand-carved stone sculptures there. Finally, after a few hiccups, we picked up the USD Mathieu’s sister, Celine, sent at the Western Union, exchanged some of it for bonds, said farewell to our friends at the hotel, and hit the road again.
Now with bonds, we bought fuel (nearly half the price than when paying in USD), fresh fruit and veg, a few beers, a celebratory bottle of whiskey, and drove south to return to Chimanimani National Park (NP), a park we’d had to pass due to our cash shortage. Chimanimani NP is located along the Zimbabwe/Mozambique border and encompasses some of the highest peaks in Zimbabwe. The area was devastated by the March 2019 cyclone that ripped through Mozambique but thankfully the road to reach the remote village of Chimanimani, the gateway to the park, had been quickly repaired. We enjoyed a wonderful day hike to Skeleton Pass on the Zim-Moz border, stopping at a small waterfall for a refreshing swim along the way. We climbed up the rocky mountain then through a wide, rocky valley to get to the pass. The views of the mountains and valleys around us were stunning, and we had the entire area to ourselves.
From the park, we drove north to the Pungwe Falls Viewpoint in the southern part of Nyanga National Park. The view over the large fall and the deep, thickly forested valley downstream was stunning. We had the viewpoint to ourselves so Mathieu put up his hammock and I did yoga. We ended up bush camping at the viewpoint for two nights, hoping that the thick fog that descended upon us the first night would clear and allow us to hike down to the falls and beyond. It didn’t but it was a lovely spot regardless, and we again had the area to ourselves.
We then continued north to Worlds View, a small national heritage site with a nice view over the valley. After hiking up to the rocky overlook and enjoying lunch on the beautiful kept grounds, we drove to the capital city of Harare. However, to get there, we took the dirt road less traveled, going through small mountain villages where we again passed locals along the road who returned our waves of hello and smiled. It was nice to be exploring off the main road again.
In Harare, we spent two nights enjoying the pleasure of a room at a hostel. It was a nice place to relax, give Wily a deep cleaning (thanks Mathieu!), chat with new friends, and figure out our next destination. We’d hoped to use the wifi but due to national load shedding, there was no electricity most of the day and night which meant no wifi (expected). Oh well.
We then drove north to Kariba Lake, a large lake formed by a huge dam on the Zambezi River. Finally, we saw animals! We’d gotten spoiled in Botswana and Namibia seeing wild animals along the roads but had seen none in Zimbabwe. At the lake, we saw zebra, crocodiles, and my favorite, hippos, lots of them! We found a great bush camp not far from the lake shore and enjoyed a wonderful night. While sipping beer and listening to hippos grunting nearby, we toasted our two-week adventure in Zimbabwe. We recounted our trials and tribulations getting money and fuel, praised Celine for sending us money, and patted ourselves on the back for figuring it all out. We counted our lucky stars for only having to wait two hours to get gas and, on one occasion, to be first in line at the gas station as the fuel truck filled the underground tanks. Yeah!
We also reminisced about the beautiful landscapes we’d seen. Victoria Falls, called Mosi-oa-Tunya (“smoke that thunders”) by locals, was stunning. Despite low water levels, we could appreciate the magnificence of the world’s largest falls (and one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World). And hiking through the gorgeous rocky mountains and wide valleys of Chimanimani NP was a particular highlight for us both, as was exploring the roads less traveled in the beautiful eastern highlands.
But what made Zimbabwe special was the people. Despite the ever changing economic situation, the long lines for fuel (sometimes up to 4-5 hours), and the lack of money at their banks, people were very friendly and helpful. And they were empathetic to and even apologetic for OUR hardships even though they endured these same hardships and many more everyday. Extraordinary.
*NOTE: We had no troubles with Wily, making Zimbabwe the first country we didn’t have to visit a mechanic. Yeah!
I’ll let the pictures and videos illustrate the beauty of this amazing country. Enjoy!