Country #97. I visited Zimbabwe in 2017, as part of an overlanding trip from South Africa to Zanzibar. Crossing the border from beautiful Botswana, I felt a little nervous. Botswana is one of Africa’s economic success stories. It’s been governed democratically since independence in 1966, has an annual GDP of around US$17,000 per capita (which makes it an upper middle-income country), and regularly surpasses countries like Spain and Italy on corruption indices. The same, sadly, cannot be said about Zimbabwe. The average person here earns just US$2,000 per annum.
When I visited Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe was still president. As he had been since 1987. He presided over a series of economic crises. Hyperinflation – which afflicted Germany and ultimately led to the rise of the Nazis – was a huge problem for Zimbabwe between 2008 and 2009. Inflation peaked at 89.7 sextillion percent in November 2008 (who knew that sextillion was a number?). That’s a number with 21 zeroes after it. It effectively made everyone’s life savings immediately worthless. It meant that people didn’t have enough money to buy food and pay for basic services. In 2008, it pushed Zimbabwe to the brink of famine.
Aware that Mugabe was generally perceived to be a bit of a chump, I wondered what life would be like in Zimbabwe a decade after the crisis. The effects of hyperinflation could still be seen. Whenever we got off our bus, locals would try and sell us defunct banknotes. They had absurd values like 100 billion Zimbabwe dollars, which at peak hyperinflation were still too small to purchase anything. Zimbabwe has since switched to the US dollar. Although there aren’t enough US dollars in the country. So they also use something called bond notes (a sort of worthless parallel currency).
Show Me The Money!
All of these efforts at stabilising the currency clearly weren’t doing the trick. As tourists, the Dragoman overlanding group and I may as well have had signs on our heads saying, “We’re all carrying lots of lovely US dollars on us, please take as many as you like!” This wasn’t the locals, mind, who were all friendly and happy to see tourists. This was the police, who had clearly been instructed to fleece tourists for all of the US dollars they had. There were roadblocks every 20 minutes or so driving on the country’s roads. The police found new and imaginative ways of demanding money from our drivers at each checkpoint.
Our visit coincided with the start of Zimbabwe’s latest economic crisis. Cashpoints (and some shops) were becoming mostly empty. The dusty and dilapidated streets of Bulawayo were a far cry from what we had seen in our last stops in both Namibia and Botswana.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa took over from Mugabe in 2017. Hyperinflation and famine were back with a vengeance in 2020, and Mnangagwa has responded with a brutal crackdown on dissent and freedom of press. As is so often the case in many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, any hope surrounding regime change has quickly dissipated.
Beauty Beneath The Beastly Leadership
So, Zimbabwe clearly has its fair share of problems, many of which I witnessed firsthand. But beneath the tragic economic and political chaos lies the country’s truly majestic natural core. It’s a stunning country. You can spot the Big Five in its national parks, discover World Heritage listed archaeological sites, and have close encounters with the natural world unlike anywhere else. Nowhere more so than in Matobo National Park, on the outskirts of Bulawayo. Here, we were led deep into the undergrowth by the country’s infamous ‘Rhino Man’. Part man, part rhino, the strange creature was one of the most peculiar sights I’ve ever witnessed.
Not really, he’s just a man who really likes rhinos. His name is Ian Harmer (doesn’t sound quite so exciting now). He is a living legend. I’ve never met anyone who is so passionate about the natural world. And of course, rhinos, which he describes as “his children”. I laughed at first, thinking this was for comedic effect, but he was being deadly serious. He felt connected to and protective of them. To the extent that he felt comfortable “introducing” us to them.
When I look back at these pictures, I’m instantly struck by how tanned I am in them, having been stuck in chilly England for the longest period for many years amidst Covid-19. And also, how damn close we were allowed to get to the rhinos. Shortly after this photo was taken, the rhinos started to charge (walk slowly) towards us. We were told to not move quickly and act in a “deferential” way to the rhinos. It reminded me of similar advice when trekking with gorillas in Rwanda later that year: “If a huge thing which could easily kill a human tries to attack you, just remain calm and don’t panic.” Easier said than done.
To be fair, we did feel safe with the Rhino Man at our side (Ian). If anyone gets the chance to go to Zimbabwe, I can’t recommend him highly enough. He made our trip. He then showed us some of Zimbabwe’s other jewels. Also in the Matobo National Park, you have one of the largest collections of rock art in Africa, dating back over 13,000 years. These primitive drawings give a full picture of the lives of foraging societies in the Stone Age and depict how agricultural societies came to replace them in the Iron Age. And to make this even more astounding, the images were drawn on spectacular rocks and boulders which stretched out into the horizon.
Rhodesia: A Challenging History
In a darker part of the park’s history, we also visited the grave of Cecil Rhodes. When he scaled a granite peak in what was then Matopos in 1896, he chose it as his resting place. For those who don’t know, Zimbabwe used to be called Rhodesia (and also included Zambia). The name gives you clues of his influence. Rhodes set up the British South Africa Company, which colonised much of the region. He famously pushed for the construction of a railway through British territory from Cape Town to Cairo, which was only ever partially completed.
Like most people involved in colonialism, Rhodes is ‘controversial’ (i.e. not a popular historical figure to say the least). He’s mostly famous now for the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaigns to remove statues of him from universities across the world. There’s now a movement to remove his grave from Matobo National Park, which is facing some domestic opposition given its importance to the tourism industry. Mugabe once said that Rhodes was paying taxes through tourism while lying there.
The echoes of Britain’s colonial past are hard to avoid in this part of the world. None more so than at our next destination and one of the true natural wonders of the world: Victoria Falls. They’re the largest falls on the continent. Guess what the largest lake on the continent is called? Yes, Lake Victoria. Just like the over 150 towns worldwide also named after Britain’s second longest-serving monarch. The falls were obviously well known to local tribes before the British arrived. They called them ‘Mosi-oa-Tunya’, which means “the smoke that thunders”. It’s probably far more relevant than naming it after a chubby old woman, but there you go.
The falls are the largest in the world. The smoke that thunders is accurate. For miles around, the steam rises elegantly into the bright blue sky. And as you walk closer to the vertiginous drop of the Zambezi River, the sheer scale and power of them is hard to comprehend. You’re likely to get soaked, wherever you stand. A welcome relief from the blistering heat. In my view, it narrowly pips Iguazu Falls (on the border of Brazil and Argentina) to be the most spectacular the world has to offer. A fitting last sight to see before heading over the border into Zambia. And to say goodbye to this beautiful country, with such a troubled past and present.