2014: Zimbabwe

1 – 14 November 2014

We’d heard a few horror stories about the border process for entering Zimbabwe – especially if you hold a British passport – so we were fully prepared on approaching the border with our list of digital equipment complete with serial numbers and a potentially lengthy wait. However, as with every other border crossing and encounter with authorities on our travels, we were going to take things as they came and not go in with preconceptions on how we were likely to be treated. And, as we’ve found in pretty much all cases, we were treated with nothing but respect, with friendly greetings and didn’t even need the list of devices and serial numbers. We don’t doubt that this might not always be the case, and I’m sure there are a few jobs-worths out there, but aren’t there everywhere? We’ve always found that if you go in with a smile, ask how the person’s day is going and be patient, you will generally walk away having had a pleasant encounter.

From the border we headed straight for Mana Pools National Park. The guide books generally say that you need to book in advance through the office in Harare, but we’d also read reports that you can still go as a “walk-in”, which is what we did. We didn’t have any problems getting the park permit or a camp for the night, however (at least for us), we weren’t able to get a reduced last-minute.com rate for any of the “exclusive camps” or even the river-front spots at the main Nyamepi Camp. We still had a nice view of the river though and there were very few other campers around us, so it was nice and quiet.

Mana Pools’ USP (unique selling point in case that doesn’t mean anything to anyone) is that you’re allowed to get out of your vehicle and walk around the park at your leisure … and own risk. We decided against utilising this new-found freedom when we were told of some lions down by the river and to “just park over there and walk in”. However, we did book ourselves on a guided bush walk for our second day.

On the way back from our first morning’s game drive we were driving past a couple of vehicles and Marcello commended them on their matching outfits. On closer inspection to the truck closest to us, he was more impressed by the fact that they were all enjoying a beer at 8.30am! They immediately offered us a couple to enjoy with them and we found out that they were a group of friends, mostly from Tzaneen in South Africa, who camp together regularly and come up to Mana Pools every year. They had one camp and their 20s-something kids plus friends had another (at a respectful distance away from them!). We agreed to call in on them later and, before we knew it, we had an offer of brunch with them the following day.

When we arrived, we couldn’t believe their set-up: they were certainly doing it in style! There was a three-tonne truck complete with several fridges, crates of beer, cider, vodka, gin, a water-filtration system to filter water from the river, a gas-powered shower, not to mention their own cook. We were blown away. But we weren’t just blown away by their set-up, we were also struck by their generosity and great banter. It was so nice to see a group of friends away with their kids, having such a great time together, clearly with a shared love of the bush. As soon as we arrived around 11.30am, they plied us with booze and good stories, not forgetting a delicious cottage pie for lunch. We had such a great laugh with them and left several hours later, encouraged that we’d still be enjoying such adventures in the years to come.

As well as new friends, Mana Pools also gave us close encounters with two of their three packs of wild dogs – which we did brave on foot. It was wonderful to see them all playing like ordinary dogs, the pups play-fighting to determine the pecking order amongst them. We also had some up-close experiences with kudu, ellies and hyenas wandering through our camp, as well as getting as close as we dared to a bull elephant on our bush walk (no lions unfortunately).

We certainly enjoyed our time at Mana Pools, and the option to walk in the park is fantastic, but I did feel it was all about the exclusive camps: very little of the waterfront is available to you unless you’re staying in one of them. At $150-200 a night, you really need to go as a group to make it affordable, but if you can get them, the views are stunning. So for the most part, it was the people we met that made our time there so enjoyable. As well as the group from Tzaneen, we also met a great couple of friends in our camp who’d come away with their respective mothers, who we had a good laugh with over drinks around the fire.

After three nights in the park, we set off for Harare. Here we did the usual capital city thing: catching up on chores and grocery-buying before heading somewhere else. Whilst we didn’t go into the city-centre, we could see from the shops and shopping centres how far behind Zimbabwe is in terms of investment. It seemed worlds apart from Lusaka, despite it being so close.

Our next destination was Great Zimbabwe. I must admit to never having heard of these ruins until very recently. Perhaps I’m not the only one? We’ve all heard of the pyramids in Egypt, Machu Picchu in Peru, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, but did you know there was an ancient city in the middle of Africa? The city is the largest stone structure to be built south of the Sahara. The first structures were built in 1100AD and the city was the base for kings, their wives and advisers for four centuries. It’s the city that eventually gave Zimbabwe its name. It wasn’t until 1906 that it was proven that the city had been built by Africans – before then, Europeans couldn’t believe that Africans could have built something of such complexity! Even then, the findings were dismissed for some time afterwards.

The city is made up of three main areas: the Hill Complex, the Valley Complex and the Great Enclosure. The Hill Complex is where the kings spent most of their time, with access cleverly restricted by steep hills on most sides and with increasingly narrow steps leading up to the main entrance. From here, the kings would have had a magnificent view over the surrounding area, as well as of the Great Enclosure, where his wives resided. The walls were built in a similar way to dry stone walling in the UK, with stones carefully placed on top of one another, with no binding materials to hold them in place. In the Great Enclosure, the outer walls are up to six metres wide at its base. It was quite something. We had a guide to show us around and explain the history to us – very worthwhile – and I was particularly impressed when we met him as I saw he was wearing a Wisconsin t-shirt (where my US family is from)!

From here we drove to the Matopos hills, just south of Bulawayo. It’s here that Cecil Rhodes’ grave is (notably one of those who dismissed the findings that Great Zimbabwe had been built by Africans). We can see why he fell in love with the landscape here, calling it the “View of the World”: the hills are made up of huge granite boulders, varying in size and balanced on top of one another. It reminded us of a larger scale Giant’s Playground (Namibia). Stunning.

After a night in the hills we set off for Hwange National Park. By this time, we’d spent a lot of time in National Parks, so we were curious about what this particular park would have to offer. One thing it certainly had a lot of was bugs, but more on that later. Here, we did manage to benefit from the walk-in discount on the picnic sites. Usually these are a minimum of $150, but if they don’t have a booking for that night, you only pay $25 per person: great if there are just two of you.

The first night, the only picnic site available was Jambili. I’d read that this was in the main wilderness area, so that all sounded good. However, we saw absolutely nothing on the way over there, not even an impala. We didn’t let it cloud our opinion though and set off in the evening for a short game drive before we had to be back at camp. This time we saw three kudu – an improvement! We decided to go as far as the next waterhole before turning back to camp and we were very glad that we did: as we turned the corner we saw around 20 elephants all drinking and bathing there. They were having a whale of a time. Then, as I was looking around, I spotted another herd on their way through the bush. We couldn’t believe how excited they were when they saw the water – running, ears flapping, with the youngsters giving a little trumpet – it was lovely to see.

After a fairly quiet night, we set off the next morning around the rest of the looped drive towards Main Camp. Again, there wasn’t much activity. It was only really when we got to the Ngweshla loop that we started to see a few zebra and then wildebeest and a few buffalo. Then, we spotted a lone lioness well hidden under a bush. When we got to the Ngweshla picnic site, the people staying there had seen two male lions walk past their camp and there were also another three lionesses out there as well. This site has been voted the top site to stay at and they said they were leaving that day, so we may have a chance to stay there for that night. Luckily, when we got to Main Camp, it was indeed free, so we made the booking quick-smart.

Unfortunately we couldn’t find the lions again on that evening’s game drive, but we did see hundreds of very excited ellies. In the Ngweshla loop there are various waterholes, especially as they’d had some rain a few days before, so each herd was going from waterhole to waterhole like they were on a pub crawl. We’d never seen so many excited runs and heard so many trumpets before, it was really comical. Apparently they hadn’t been around for about a week, so this was probably the first time they’d been back to water since.

That evening we’d invited the site custodian, Mandla, to join us for dinner. The day before we’d been plagued by small mopane flies (which apparently are actually bees) that make a bee-line (ha ha) for your eyes and nose. They are the most irritating things and we were glad when Mandala said that they didn’t have them there. What he did warn us about though, were butterflies. Seeing as he said they came at night, we figured he meant moths. And boy were there moths – they were huge! Not only were there moths, but there were also flying ants, so we had to switch off our head torches and try to do everything in the dark.

While we were braai-ing Mandla suddenly jumped up and said something had bitten him: he’d been sitting on a table and had slightly squashed something when he put his hand down on his leg. We searched around with the torch and soon found it was a huge spider. We’d first seen these spiders in Mana Pools, when I’d given Marcello the fright of his life asking “is that a scorpion?” whilst looking close to his feet. We’ve since Googled them and think they’re camel spiders: they have huge fangs, a big beige body and particularly long front legs (and are also known as wind scorpions). Anyway, despite sources saying they’re harmless, Mandla got a gradual pain all the way up his arm and struggled to move the two fingers close to where he’d been bitten. We didn’t know at the time what it was, so were really worried about him. Anyway, from this point on we were all very jumpy, checking around our feet and getting a fright when various beetles, grasshoppers and cicadas flew into us. After seeing another of these spiders, as well as a poisonous millipede, we ate up as quickly as possible and headed to the safety of our respective beds!

The following morning we were relieved when we saw Mandla surface. He was still in pain, but it hadn’t got any worse. After a quick chat with a passing researcher, we were even more relieved when he confirmed that there aren’t any seriously venomous spiders in Zim, so he would be fine.

For our last night in the park we managed to get a camp at Detema Dam. This turned out to be a real gem, although we were a little put out when we first arrived in the area. We first went to the picnic site and there was no water, the loos were disgusting and no one was in sight: not what we’d come to expect from these camps where, there are showers, flush loos and firewood. Luckily we didn’t high-tail it out of there, as we were tempted to do, but drove a bit further around to the actual Dam, where we found a very nice temporary camp with a hide. We found out the next day that they’re waiting for funding to do up the picnic site, at which point they’ll move camping back there. A big shame if you ask us, as it was a lovely spot by the water and we were able to watch the impala, kudu, zebra and various birds come to drink whilst eating our supper. We were also left to our own devices for the night, as the custodian and ranger’s digs were back near the picnic site 1km away.

All that night, and the following morning, we heard the lions calling very close to the camp. Then, when packing up, we saw a lone male walk past us about 200 metres away (we’d obviously missed the others as the calls got further and further away). It was a very cool morning greeting and goodbye from Hwange. Although on leaving the park we realised that we’d actually seen quite a range of animals: ellies, lions, giraffe, buffalo, wildebeest, zebra, sable, roan, reedbuck, impala, tortoises, a European roller, lilac-breasted rollers, blue and red waxbills; we were surprised by how few in number the animals were, other than the ellies. We’d been told it was likely to be down to the rains, so the animals weren’t as reliant on the waterholes as they might otherwise be. So, whilst we had a nice time there, it wouldn’t be a park we would prioritise over others.

From here we headed to our last stop in Zimbabwe: Vic Falls. Marcello’s friend, and former boss from his waiting days at Andy’s Bistro, Andy Falk, had moved there several months beforehand, so we were looking forward to catching up with him. He’d also very kindly offered to put us up at his pad for a few nights. Even better for me, he’d opened up a Thai restaurant, Nam Took, with some friends, so I was going to be able to satisfy my Thai craving!

We had a great few days with Andy, Marcello catching up on what he and some of the old crowd had been up to over a whisky or two, and me hearing some of the stories from the Andy’s Bistro days. We had some delicious meals at the restaurant – I could have easily eaten there for every meal! Marcello was pleased to have the opportunity to cook for Andy for a change on one of the evenings though, conjuring up his fab paella potjie. We also really enjoyed sitting in Andy’s garden and watching the wonderful birds that come to peck on the offerings he leaves for them – the paradise flycatcher and the grey-headed bush-shrike being two of the many (yes, we’ve quite got into birds!).

Of course we couldn’t be in Vic Falls without visiting the Falls themselves. It had also been some years since Andy had visited them, so it was great to have him along with us. To say we were shocked is an understatement. The difference seeing them at low water (now) to what they were like at high water when we were in Zambia on our main trip was incredible: a huge section of the Falls were completely dry. It was fascinating to have seen them in such contrasting conditions, but we’d definitely like to come back to the Zim side when they’re at full flood, as you do get to see a much larger section from this side.

All too soon it was time to move on. We’re very grateful to Andy for his wonderful hospitality and will definitely be visiting again before too long. From here we winded our merry way back to Botswana.

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