Published: February 25th 2008February 25th 2008
This morning I walked over the border from Zimbabwe to Botswana, and then caught a local bus into Kasane. Over the river I can see Namibia, but it will be weeks yet before I set foot there.
I flew into Johannesburg last Tuesday, and stayed overnight at my favourite local hostel; Shoestrings. It's located close to the airport, in an area safe enough to walk about in, and the owners offer free pickups to and from the airport. There are a remarkable number of private rooms and dorm beds, plus a rather nice little pool in the back garden.
The owner of Shoestrings is English, and originally settled in Zimbabwe, opening a lodge come hostel there that he called also Shoestrings - it's still there now, albeit under new management, and it was to there that I headed the following day.
Zimbabwe immigration and customs were as routine as anywhere else, with a visa fee that's currently $55USD. The visa itself is the most impressive looking anywhere in my passport, featuring as it does a hologram of the Zim crest. A further $25USD covered the taxi fare into town - although they tried to charge me $50USD!
It's crucial to bring currency with you to Zimbabwe, as it's virtually impossible to get anymore once you're there. It's also illegal to pay for any 'tourist activity', i.e. accommodation, entry fees, etc., with the local currency - you have to use US dollars, UK pounds, Rand, or other 'hard currencies'. Some places will apparently overlook that law since the ruinous exchange rates charged by the local banks makes it work out better for them, but most daren't.
I did get myself some local currency and used it for drinks, and snacks from the local supermarket. Even knowing it was next to worthless, it still sent chills running down my back every time I read the text on the crisp new red notes: "Pay the bearer" (in small text, followed in much larger text by... "ten million dollars" !!! Yes folks, there are now 10,000,000 dollar notes in Zimbabwe, although I'm told that they are really ten billion dollar notes as three zeroes were dropped from everything a few years ago!
There are also 500,000 dollar notes, and very inconvenient 750,000 dollar notes, plus a great many 200,000 and 100,000 dollar notes. Just to further confuse the issue, prices in Zim dollars went up daily, with a litre of fanta rising from 12,000,000 to 12,800,000 overnight.
Shoestrings charged me $9USD per night for a dorm bed. It was effectively a private room though as I was their only guest. The bar is busy in the evenings though (and very noisy till midnight) as the place seems to be Victoria Falls' last remaining night spot and is popular with locals and tourists alike. Sometimes it felt like the last surviving bastion of light, although truth be told, many other hotels are also still around.
Victoria Falls is the richest region in Zimbabwe, supported as it is with a steady (although sadly decreasing) flow of tourists. Even so, the poverty is extreme with little difference between the curio sellers and the beggars. Tourist police keep their numbers down and are available to escort visitors through the more remote areas, but I still had people begging me first for one or two dollars, then for food, water, anything I could give. They wanted my shoes, my shirts, any scraps I had on me.
Despite that though, I urge you to come and visit. The falls alone are worth it, and there are far more besides them to see and do here. I saw Victoria Falls from the Zambian side a couple of years ago, but that couldn't prepare me for the raw power, majestic beauty and sheer impact of seeing them from Zimbabwe. You can hear the rumble of the falls right across the town and see the spray all the way to the horizon. It's possible to walk nearly 2km along the gorge facing the falls, although towards the middle the spray is so think you can see very little, and very soon get completely soaked. As wet as you'd be after swimming in the Zambezi in fact. It soon dries in the hot sun though, and if you really can't stand to get a little moist, then there are bright yellow macintosh's for hire.
On my last day I went elephant back riding, and having tied it in Nepal as well, I have to say that it's much better here! African elephants are bigger, but also the saddle design is different. Here instead of having three or four tourists mounted in a box like structure behind the driver, you ride astride the elephant's back right behind the driver. A bit like being the passenger on a very slow motorbike. We didn't see much other wildlife, but it was so much fun! :)
I can also highly recommend the aquarium. When built it was the biggest freshwater aquarium in Africa, and although the times have been hard, it is still worth seeing. I enjoyed a very pleasant half hour or so there and the entry fee is negligible. Personally I think they should charge a few dollars more, but maybe they'd get no visitors at all then.
There are also a whole host of pleasure flights available in helicopters, light aircraft and microlights. Abseiling, bungee jumping (and other rope and prayer type activities) into the Zambezi gorge, safaris into the Zambezi National Park, personal encounters with Lions, white water rafting and seemingly a hundred and one other activities.
Tonight I am camping. Botswana is far more expensive than Zim, and the infrastructure is as good as any I've seen in Africa. The safari lodge I'm in looks very rich and there are many guests, even now in the quiet season. I'm paying about the same for a patch of shady ground 100m from the shower block than for my private dorm in Zim. I suspect it will be a lot quieter though.