Zimbabwe

I’ve just spent two months exploring Zimbabwe by bicycle. Two months really wasn’t enough time. There are too many nice things to see and nice people to spend time with.

I arrived in Zimbabwe at Victoria Falls in the country’s far north west corner, crossing the Zambezi river from Zambia. The falls are the country’s number one tourist destination. With good reason. The epic mass of rainbow-crossed crashing white water, thundering into a narrow gorge is impressive to say the least.

The town of Victoria Falls can clearly cater for scores of tourists, with its nice hotels along the Zambezi river and tourist gadget shops. But there weren’t many tourists in town when I was there, maybe in part because the much anticipated presidential election was only a few days away – Zimbabwe’s first election in 37 years without Robert Mugabe as a candidate.

At Vic Falls, you can buy plenty of souvenirs from persistent roadside sellers, like wooden elephants, Shona stone sculptures and…banknotes. For a few bucks you can buy a souvenir Zimbabwe Dollar trillion dollar note, left over from when inflation spiralled out of control in 2008/2009 (Zimbabwe printed a $100 trillion dollar banknote back then).

Another thing you can buy off the street is the Zimbabwe Bond.

Zimbabwe is in the midst of a cash crisis. In 2009, after the mega-inflation period, Zimbabwe adopted the USD, but the country today finds itself with a serious cash shortage. The ATMs are empty. Luckily I’d been warned about this before arriving so brought all my cash in with me. If you want cash in Zimbabwe, you’ve got to line up at the bank in the morning (or you can sleep outside the bank overnight too - see photo of the queue below) and you’ll get a maximum of $50 a day (if that bank even has cash). But the bank won’t give you 50 US dollars. It will give you “50 Bonds”. The Bond, created by the government as a solution to the USD cash crisis, is in theory pinned to the USD. In practice it isn’t. Everyone is trying to swap their Bonds for USD, maybe because the Government could scrap the bond at any minute, and because it isn’t accepted anywhere else in the world (so many issues. How does Zimbabwe buy petrol, or anything else from overseas? How does a Zimbabwean buy a Qantas airline ticket?). So at Victoria Falls, I buy bonds off the street, changing all the USD I took out of the ATM in Zambia into Bond notes at a higher rate. I’m left with huge wad of cash – I get most in change in 2 Bond notes (5 Bonds is the highest denomination).

If I run out of cash during my stay in Zim, I can sign up to “Ecocash”, another government solution to the cash crisis. Ecocash is a virtual currency used via the mobile phone network. Same issues as the bond, but also a few others, like the phone system failing every now and then.

After a few days at Victoria Falls, I head off towards Bulawayo, Zim’s second biggest city in the mid-west of the country. I’d planned to ride my bike but decided to take public transport to avoid the main tar road. The bus to Bulawayo takes 6 hours. The train takes 16 hours. So I take the train of course: for 12$ you get a nice sleeper cabin on an ancient train, with your own vanity and sink. On the way out of Victoria Falls, the train honks loudly. I hang my head out the window to take a look and hear an angry elephant trumpeting next to the train tracks.

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From Bulawayo, I get off the train and ride directly to the Khami Ruins (beautiful drystone walls and ruins of an ancient city) and Matobo National Park, where the tar road weaves through big granite boulders and dry bush (rhino land but I don’t see any). I spend a few days exploring caves with beautiful, well preserved rock art. Silozwana Cave is a short walk up a giant granite mountain and overlooks a green valley. Nanke Cave is a half day hike away through high grass, thick bush and over lichen covered granite boulders.  I’ve been staying in a nearby village with Felix and his family, and am glad to have him as my guide or would have ended up lost in the bush. Nanke cave is huge, with layers of rock paintings: giraffe, kudu, people fighting, dancing, brewing beer.

From Matobo I make my way east towards the Great Zimbabwe ruins. I have a paper map of Zimbabwe but it’s not detailed enough to properly get around so instead I use the GPS app Maps.Me to plan my route. I avoid any tar road and only take dirt roads through rolling hills with interesting granite outcrops. I now only carry 3.5L of water with me (unlike 8L in Namibia), a jar of peanut butter, bread and a fruit or two. There are plenty of tiny shops along the way to top up on food.

Because there are homes scattered everywhere, it’s hard to secretly pitch a tent. I end up sleeping in villages every night instead. Around 4pm every afternoon I ride up to a house and ask for permission to camp nearby and I’m almost always immediately invited to spend the evening with the family (or if not, I’m taken to the village chief, who then invites me to spend the night with his family). Though I insist I’m happy to sleep in my tent, no one lets me (“guests must sleep inside”). So I end up sleeping in lounge rooms, spare rooms, and many kitchen huts. I share the kitchen space with the chickens, turkeys and their little chicks that all sleep by the fire to keep warm at night.

I have dinner with my hosts every night and almost every night, in front of a boiling pot of maize meal porridge (sadza), they ask “what’s the staple food in Australia?”. Maize meal is definitely the staple here. The more solid sadza for dinner and the liquid “porridge” for breakfast.  

I eat all sorts of different things. For breakfast, porridge, with peanut butter or lemon juice and sugar, or bread with tomatoes and onions. For lunch, sweet potatoes and sugary tea. For dinner sadza with beans, Chinese rape, chicken, dried meat, boiled kudu. No spices, just the plain ingredients cooked in a big black pot. “African chewing-gum”. And I eat peanuts. And peanut butter. Heaps and heaps of it. Every day I help a different family shell buckets and buckets and buckets of peanuts. Peanuts everywhere. Then it’s avocados at 25c a pop. Spread over white bread and sprinkled with sugar, I almost feel I’m eating fairy bread.

Families in the parts I bike through are subsistence farmers. Everyone has a “garden”, growing maize (which is milled at a communal mill), tomatoes, rape, beans, bananas... Fish comes from dams and canals. Everyone has home grown meat. Goats, turkeys, free ranging village chickens or “road runners”, which live for a few months scrounging around for food in the yard, or the more pampered broilers, fattened up quickly with grain and slaughtered after a few weeks. In life, remember to “have the hassle of the village chicken.” See motivational newspaper article below. “Do not wait for things to be brought to your mouth, get out and make things happen.”

As soon as I get off my bike (or sometimes while I’m still riding), I’m bombarded with the same questions.  How old are you? Are you married? Do you have children? Where are you going? Is that your real hair? Do you believe in God? Do you eat sadza? How is Australia? Where is Australia?

One morning I find a big group of kids in the yard. They’ve come to have a look at the “white person”. They haven’t seen a “murungu” before.

I make good use of my travel companion “Mindi” the pumpkin puppet. I made Mindi in Namibia after getting the idea from my travel buddy Killian (and he got the idea from a guy who makes them in Burkina Faso).

30 July 2018 is election day. The villages are buzzing. The dirt roads are busy with people walking to and from the polling stations that have been set up in schools. Everyone is wearing their Sunday best. A ute occasionally drives past, the tray full of old “grannies” in big hats on their way to cast their vote. To keep track of who has voted, poll booth supervisors paint voters’ pinky nails with ultra sticky paint, very hard to scratch off even days afterwards.

I don’t hear much about the election in the next week, only bits and pieces that drift in from solar-charged radios in villages. People are sometimes confused to see me riding my bike through the Tribal Trust Lands, far away from any tourist destination. I’m asked a couple of times whether I’m an “observer” (I learn this way that the European Union sent a mission over to observe the election). When Zanu PF (Mugabe’s party) is announced as the winner of the election, a brief bout of violence in Harare leaves six unarmed opposition supporters dead. The opposition party MDC challenges the election result in the constitutional court, which ultimately upholds Zanu PF’s election win.  Case closed.

I make my way to the Great Zimbabwe ruins. Spectacular. These 14th century ruins gave the name to the country at independence in 1980 (“Zimbabwe” means “house of stones”). A couple of other tourists also explore the maze of drystone walls perched up on the very top of a granite-boulder mountain, They are the remnants of the king’s fortress, and down in the valley below, of the “Great Enclosure”, a huge drystone walled enclosure and some surrounding smaller ones.

Next stop, Birchenough Bridge. Massive baobab trees start popping up in the landscape. These “upside down trees” (their leafless branches look like roots) are huge, thousands of years old, with huge thick trunks.

Birchenough Bridge is a surprise. My first thought – what is this infrastructure anomaly? It looks shiny new, probably built by the Chinese in the last few years. Wrong. Turns out the bridge was built in the 1930s and was designed by the same person who designed the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Makes sense right?

I follow the Save River valley south for a few days, into commercial scale sugar cane plantations. It’s very hot and humid and I come across two huge snakes while resting in some shady bushland. Snakes make me uneasy. A few days before, while staying with a family, someone came over to the house to announce that a neighbour had just died. She’d been bitten by a snake that morning. She’d died in the afternoon. I am extra careful with snakes now.

Next stop, east towards the Mozambique border and Mt Selinda border post for a 30 day visa extension. This means riding from the valley up up up into the mountains and into completely different landscape. It’s cooler, there are pine trees, eucalyptus, grassy mountains. Up at Mt Selinda (more up up up) it’s a cold, humid rainforest. The road winds through a eucalyptus plantation and looks and smells very much like Australia. It then opens out into mango, avocado, tea and coffee plantations. I stop by to see “the big tree”, a thousand year old redwood hidden away in the rainforest.

Then come the rolling hills of the electric green tea estates around Junction Gate and the extremely steep roads through banana plantations near Russitu towards Chimanimani. It’s extremely tough riding. One day I ride (and push) 22km uphill on a rocky dirt road (in the wrong direction – that’s another story).

Chimanimani is a nature wonderland, where you can hike for days along trails that take you right over to the Mozambique border. I spend 4 nights camping at the Zimbabwe Outward Bound camp at the foot of the mountains. Every day there’s a new waterhole to swim in, a new hiking path to explore. The msasa trees are out: it’s spring time and the new leaves come out red, not green.

After the quiet Chimanimani mountains, I spend a whirlwind 10 days in Mutare. Mutare is a small town with wide jacaranda-lined streets, some big houses with big gardens, a hectic produce and second-hand clothes market (most of the clothes seem to come from Australia. They cost more second-hand in Zim than they would in an op shop back home), a bowls club, a golf club (where I have a great night’s sleep) the Legion bar.

It’s a good place to have a rest before heading to the even wider streets of Harare. It’s getting hot in Zimbabwe and I’m thinking I might swap the hot rain season here for mushroom season in France. So I put my biking Africa chapter on hold for a while and book a flight to Paris.