Zimbabwe   Leave a comment

An immature martial eagle in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park stretches his wings.

Entering Zimbabwe was the second occasion during my recent travels through southern Africa where I took a “left turn”.  That is, I went somewhere outside of the original plan.  A couple days before leaving Maun, Botswana, I met yet another fellow-traveler who recommended “Zim” (as its often called), and so I shifted gears.  I had been planning to travel overland into Namibia from Botswana, but instead I went in the opposite direction, to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.  I did make it to Namibia eventually, but it had to wait until I revisited South Africa (posting to come).  It also required me to push my return flight to the U.S. back by a full 3 weeks!

A young lady who works near Zimbabwe’s border with Botswana, proved to be a delightfully mischievous companion for the several hours I had to wait for a ride.

Right away upon crossing the Zimbabwe’s western border with Botswana, I knew this country was going to be a little different.  I was questioned extensively about my pro-looking camera gear.  This was the first time I had been worried about losing my gear, but I can talk my way out of many things, so I got through okay.  I waited several hours for a ride into Bulawayo, in the requisite impromptu village set up by locals selling stuff.  All over Africa (and in other parts of the world too), near borders it is common for entrepeneurs to set up shop.  For the traveler stuck there, it provides prime people watching, much better than being stuck at a lonely spot with nothing but border guards for company.  During my wait, I met a young lady literally brimming with personality and warmth.  Her name was Queen, and she ended up offering me a free place to stay in Bulawayo, at her sister’s place of all things.  I almost took her up on it.

Bulawayo is a large town, modern and clean.  It was merely a stop-off point before I traveled north to Hwange National Park.  I walked around the town a bit, and found a nice coffee shop/bakery downtown.  It struck me as a place of haves and have-nots, but perhaps most cities are that way.  I caught a small bus north, and the trip took hours and hours, made even longer because I decided to go all the way up to Victoria Falls on the border with Zambia.  I wanted to get more info. on the park, and possibly join a tour, and the park turnoff was almost deserted.

This was actually my third visit to Victoria Falls.  The image of the Falls below was captured on the Zambian side looking toward the Zim side.  Note in the upper-right corner the bathers perched at the edge of infinity, in Devil’s Pool.  This is a can’t-miss experience, one only available during the dry season’s lower flows.  Dry season runs roughly from August through November.

There is definitely more going on over on the Zambian side, in the town of Livingstone.  Zimbabwe is not doing nearly as well as Zambia, economically.  For example, Zim does not even have its own currency.  Also, it is quite noticeable when you are traveling through a country with fewer individual freedoms, one run by a virtual dictator who does not appreciate people speaking their minds.  I experienced this to a degree in Venezuela and a few other places.

Here in Zim there was that same feeling, the same sort of atmosphere.  It is hard to explain or give concrete examples – it’s more of an impression you get from the people, a sort of oppressed vibe (but very subtle).  All of that said, if you find yourself at Victoria Falls someday, do yourself a favor and visit both the Zim and the Zam side.  There are unique things about both places; for example, you get more of an in-your-face view of the falls from the Zim side, and you can only access Devil’s Pool from the Zam side.

When people speak of the rise of Africa economically, I think of places like Zimbabwe, and know they are over-generalizing.  The media, and really most people who have never been there, seem to fall into the trap of treating all of Africa as a monolithic entity, as if it was not made up of many different & diverse countries and peoples.

Victoria Falls (which spans the border of Zambia & Zimbabwe) flows with more force on the Zimbabwe side than on the Zambian side during the dry season.

 

Hwange National Park is one of Africa’s richest preserved ecosystems.  It is famous for its enormous elephant herds, and also is one of the best places to see the sable, Africa’s most elegant and beautiful antelope, and also the wild dog.  Cheetahs are abundant as well.  I stayed at a wonderful little camp called the Ivory Lodge, where for not a ton of money I got my own safari tent.  A safari tent, if you don’t know, is a wall tent, normally with a floor and bathroom attached, that has everything a little cottage would have.  They do range enormously in comfort and degree of luxury.  This one was on the basic side, but it beat crawling into my little one-man tent any day.

A lovely Zimbabwean

The people at the Ivory were welcoming and easy to talk to.  A couple from England who had recently returned to Africa from London (they had been born in Zim) ran the place.  Their staff were gentle folk, the food scrumptious.   Best of all, I met a beautiful young woman.  She works for the hotel company who owns the Ivory, so she visits on occasion to assume the role of hospitality agent.  It was my good fortune to be there while she was visiting.  We continue a pen-pal correspondence; she’s my African connection.

The Ivory Lodge has a hide, a small low, covered building that is set up for wildlife watching.  It is located adjacent to a flood-lit waterhole.  I spent hours there one afternoon, writing poems, waiting for wildlife to show, doing pull-ups and push-ups, waiting some more.  The wet season had just arrived in southern Africa, and the rain put a damper on wildlife activity at Hwange.  The guided drive I took next morning was also pretty quiet, though I did see my first sable, plus a gorgeous martial eagle.  I did not like being kept from walking away from the camp, however.  This was for my own protection of course, but still, I am not made to stay within boundaries, of any kind.

And so I only spent two nights at the Ivory then moved up to the main campsite at park headquarters.  I was able to camp on my own, eating in the small restaurant attached to HQ.  Only one other camper was using the campsite, but there were plenty of birds in the area, including weaver birds building their nests, several owls, and hornbills.  Also, I got my first good look at beautiful sunbirds, who were feeding on the blooms of the outrageous blood lily (image below).  I also saw a cute baby zebra (bottom image) who eyed me while his mama brushed flies off his body with her tail.

Unfortunately I did not see wild dogs, and these remained the one species of animal I wanted to see in Africa but didn’t.  I don’t regret it though; one always need a reason to return.  In fact, I want to go back to Hwange one day, when the weather is better, to see what it can really offer.  It was the only park I visited in three months in Africa that was somewhat disappointing for animals, but that was, I’m certain, only because of the rainy weather.  The people I met,  however, more than made up for it, particularly one person.

Blood lilies in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe bloom at the start of the rains, attracting numerous sunbirds.

 

Zimbabwe seems to me to be missing out on the exciting growth throughout much of Africa.  But unlike another misfit (Malawi), it does have plenty of natural resources – copper, gold, platinum, even oil – and yet it still lags.  The abundant infrastructure built by the British years ago when it was Rhodesia is steadily falling apart.  Roads are crumbling, historic sites are falling into disrepair, and there is a general lack of enthusiasm amongst the people (with notable exceptions of course).  The contradictions present in Zimbabwe, the unfulfilled promise, can be laid squarely at the feet of Robert Mugabe, their dictator.  He is quite old now, so at least Zimbabweans will get the chance for a fresh start in the near future.  I have high hopes that they will make the most of it.  I would love to see the people of Zimbabwe finally spread their wings.

Mom uses her tail to swat flies from baby in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park.

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