A Travellerspoint blog

Zimbabwe

Rafting the Victoria Falls

White-water rafting below one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World

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Rafting the Zambezi

Rafting the Zambezi

I paused and looked around. Everything was a green mess of fast-flowing river water. I was pitted up against a corner of an underwater rock formation. Or more precisely in a corner underneath a rock formation as a rock above kept me below the waves despite the best efforts of my lifejacket. The water flow was too strong for me to make my way back out to the middle of the river. I was pretty well stuck. As I paused, I estimated that the one breath of air I’d gotten just before being sucked under, would last me another 30-40 seconds of hard work getting myself free.

The Zambezi Gorge

The Zambezi Gorge

Victoria Falls is not only one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. It’s also the adventure capital of Southern Africa. Helicopter rides, lion walks, crocodile cage diving, bungee jumping, white-water kayaking and a whole range of wilder-than-normal safaris. I opted for river rafting, one of the things on the list that I had yet to try. Particularly, as Vic Falls allegedly has some of the world’s best river rafting during the dry season. This might be a good time, to let everybody know that the raft doesn’t actually go over the falls – the rafting starts just below, in the Zambezi River Gorge.

Flipped

Flipped

Navigating 32 km of the Zambezi River, our raft would make it through 19 rapids. That is, we would make it through the first 17 without incidents. Throwing caution to the wind, I, despite my rookie-status, had picked one of the two front seats in the raft. Because why the hell not. It worked out perfectly well. I stayed upright, paddled when paddling was needed, and did rather well with all the massive waves rolling over the boat. Until rapid number 18, where our raft flipped 90 degrees, throwing just about all of us into the river. Everybody except an American girl, who was thrown straight up into the air, only to come straight back down into the raft, from where she laughingly asked what all the rest of us were doing down in the water.

Waves

Waves

I paid too much attention to the snarly remarks instead of making sure I stayed in the middle of the river. Thus I quickly was sucked into the fast-flowing water next to the rocks on the one side, sucked under, popped up again to get a single breath of air in before being sucked under some rather large rocks, bumping my helmet on them a few times. Fast-forward a few seconds, and we’re back where this blog entry started. I’m getting pushed into an underwater rock formation and trapped in a corner.

Having scuba dived a lot, including working for a short while as a divemaster, I’m pretty comfortable underwater. Back when doing my training we, the instructors and divemasters, would regularly turn off each other’s air at 30 metres depth as a kind of practical joke. So once I got stuck in the rocks, the most natural instinct was to pause and estimate the situation. 30 to 40 seconds of air might not sound like much, but try timing it. It’s possible to do quite a lot in 30 seconds.

Flying High

Flying High

Given that I couldn’t get back into the middle of the river with the open water, my best option seemed to backtrack by pushing myself off the rocks. This, I only had to do for about 30 centimetres before I was free from the worst overhanging rocks, and my lifejacket did its part and shot me to the surface. Gripping a couple of stones not to go down again, I could reasonably easy make it to a small side-pool where our rescue kayaker had parked himself looking for me. “I thought you went under,” he said. “I did,” I replied with a grin, “where did our boat go?”. He shook his head at me. All-in-all, I’d probably not spent more than 10-20 seconds underwater, most of them before having to been caught.

The raft, it turned out, was several hundred metres down the river, and we still had some pretty hairy part of the rapid to get through before we got there. I lodged myself on the front tip of the kayak and hoped that the guy wouldn’t crash into any big rocks on the way back to the boat, which he, luckily, didn’t do. Back with the group, it turned out that everybody else had simply been washed down to a quiet bit of the river and crawled back into the boat. Apparently, I was the only one who’d been sucked out to the side. Probably fair enough, given that I had been all cocky about us making it through the rapid as we approached it.

Also, the Victoria Falls are really pretty and should definitely be on most travellers’ bucket list.

Victoria Falls

Victoria Falls

Posted by askgudmundsen 08:49 Archived in Zimbabwe Tagged travel overland zambia rafting zimbabwe motorbike southern_africa victoria_falls zambezi white_water river_rafting Comments (0)

Among Hippos and Crocs; Canoeing the Zambezi River

Spending four days with just a small canoe separating me from some of the world’s most dangerous animals

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Posing hippos

Posing hippos

The hippo suddenly appeared about ten metres in front of our canoe. It lazily yawned and showed off its four big canine teeth. It looked like it could swallow the first half of the dugout in one gulp. That half of the canoe I was occupying. “Hippo, straight ahead!” I yelled, with me and our lead guide in the seat behind starting to paddle backwards frantically. We’d clearly awoken it, to a lot of discontents. Snorted angrily at us, water spraying from its nostrils like it was a small whale. We slowly took a wide bend around the morning grumpy animal, and it stayed put.

Giant crocodile

Giant crocodile

Following in the footsteps of Livingstone, a couple of other white silly explorers and generations of local fishers, my sister and I have decided to brave some of Africa’s wildlife in its element by booking a four-day canoeing adventure on Africa’s fourth-largest river. Probably mostly my idea, but by this point, borderline crazy ideas constitute a badge of honour I happily wear on my travels. It did feel full-on crazy when we stopped our canoes mid-river on a shallow spot to take a quick bath just minutes after being chased by a hippo. That, however, was the guides’ idea, not mine.
The crocodiles turned out to be surprisingly timid. They are sliding down into the water and under its surface before our canoes got close. They are opportunistic animals, so they don’t bother much with the big canoes. However, better watch the water closely when walking down to the shoreline from camp to wash hands or clothes. The last thing you want is a croc snapping out against you without warning. So we made sure to stay well away from the water’s edge after dark.

Hippo City

Hippo City

The hundreds of hippos we passed turned out to be a little trickier. Hippos are the animal in the world responsibly for killing the largest number of humans on an annual basis. They’re very territorial and short-tempered. Not only can they pop out the water without warning—they like to rest on the river button—they also rush around in the water at the sight of a canoe to get to the securest possible position. Hippos don’t like being exposed, standing on land or in shallow waters, but prefer the deeper bit of river, for a place to hide and defend. Knowing this, and which parts were the shallow river we could stick to, we could zigzag our way through the dozens of ‘hippo islands’ and lonely, aggressive singles that dot the entirety of the Zambezi.

Close encounter

Close encounter

But not everything on the river is so heart-in-mouth – through the adrenaline of being chased by an angry hippo is a rush of the wilder. Antelopes, elephants and buffaloes are relatively untroubled by the silent, slow-moving canoes make for close wildlife encounters that are more relaxing than those with the hippos. Granted, sitting in a canoe on the water’s surface, elephants look very big when they are standing towering over the dugout to get a sip of water. Such encounters are possibly as thrilling, and a lot nicer, than those with the hippos.

Stuck Buffalo, Waiting Vultures

Stuck Buffalo, Waiting Vultures

Nature being nature; not everything is rosy. We didn’t see any predators other than the crocs, though we heard plenty of rows from lions, hyenas and spotted dogs during the nights. It was making falling asleep somewhat of an exciting experience. The vultures, however, did still have a feast. Extremely high temperatures and droughts hit the area around the river. As our visit coincided with the end of the dry season, everything but the river was dry to its bones, and plenty of weaker animals had succumbed to the harsh conditions. The most notable sight on our trip was a buffalo that had gotten itself stuck in the mud on the river bank. Unable to get out of its sticky grave, it was left to die of thirst and hunger, just metres from the river. While it was still alive, a handful of vultures were already sitting above it, waiting for its demise and a feast — the situation straight out of the cartoons I used to read as a kid.
Such were just a few of the impressions after four highly recommendable days on the water, should you ever find yourself in this part of the world. There're more photos in the gallery on the right side for more inspiration.

Posted by askgudmundsen 22:06 Archived in Zimbabwe Tagged river adventure africa safari zambia zimbabwe travelling roadtrip canoe southern_africa zambezi Comments (0)

The Joy of Overlanding… and Breaking Down

Sweating over a bike for hours on end in a sizzling hot workshop isn’t exactly what people think of as the good of travel-life. Neither do I.

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Refueling

Refueling

I’d decided to push my glorified scooter to its limit. There weren’t any gas stations for a 185 km anyway before rolling into Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city. So despite having plenty of spare fuel, I wanted to figure out how far I could go on one tank of gas. Multiple sites online insisted that running out of fuel once in a while wouldn’t really hurt the engine.
To my surprise, I actually made it to the outskirts of Bulawayo, where the gas stations, of course, did not have any fuel because of the shortage. Instead, I ran out about 600 metres before another station a little closer to the backpackers I had planned to stay. They didn’t have any fuel either. Having now thoroughly run dry (I later figured that my four-litre tank does 183 km when full – which is pretty decent mileage), I took out my spare fuel and poured a couple of litres in the tank. That should get me going again. It didn’t.

As it should look

As it should look

Instead, my bike started to choke, splutter and spew heaps of smelly, white smoke. Not only from the exhaust, but from the engine too. Not good. Not good at all. About the only thing I know about engines is that white smoke is better than black. Normally. So I pressed on given that I was only a couple of kilometres from the guesthouse, where I planned to spend the next three or four days. Plenty of time to find a mechanic. Somehow my little scooter managed to get me all the way there. How? I don’t know. I decided to let it cool down for a few hours before trying to do anything else. Maybe it was merely some reaction to being driven dry. Better give it a rest…
Two hours later, there were no smoke, no splutter and no choking. Unfortunately, there was no other sound other than the electric ignition going chuk-chuk-chuk, without the engine actually starting. The kick-start didn’t work either. Nothing I could fix myself. Luckily, Adam, the helpful owner of the place, knew what allegedly was the best-equipped motorbike workshop between Jo’burg and Nairobi. The bike was swiftly put in the back of Adam’s pickup, so was I, and off we went.

Getting a ride

Getting a ride

We arrived at Bikes & Boats just fifteen minutes before they closed. Worse, this was Thursday afternoon, and the Zimbabwean government had decided to make Friday a public holiday in protest of sanctions imposed by the EU and USA. Shortly told, the EU and USA have imposed sanctions on a few of the previous regime’s leaders for being murders and thieves. We’re talking Mugabe’s henchmen here. Now, the current government blames these sanctions for the country’s dismal economic situation. Having worked for the EU just a few months ago, I know for a fact, that the EU sanctions are against only four persons after Mugabe himself recently died. Regardless, the government is forcing thousands of citizens to take to the streets in protest of sanctions against a few of government’s friends. While at the same time cracking down hard on opposition protests.
As it might be obvious, I have no patience for African politicians (any politicians, really) who are busy stealing the wealth and lives of their own citizens. However, with most local (as well as the EU and USA) knowing well that this holiday is a load of BS, it was difficult not to laugh about it. The workshop being closed down over the weekend; I couldn’t get my bike fixed until Monday. At least this protest holiday screwed over one EU employee…

Stripped bike

Stripped bike

Having suffered a bike-less weekend, Monday morning, I finally went back to the workshop. Me and two mechanics spent all morning taking the bike apart. Finding plenty of dirt where there wasn’t supposed to be dirt, plenty of airlocks where there wasn’t supposed to be airlocks, and a lot of other needed adjustments. Thinking we had solved the problem, we fixed a few other routine things that were due. “Chuk-chuk-chuk.” Still nothing. My initial thought was a very lough F-word, followed by a lot of different words that this blog’s moderators don’t allow me to write.

Bikes mostly

Bikes mostly

That until one of the guys working on the bike accidentally stuck his hand in a puddle under the bike. “Smells, like diesel,” he said, which is strange because it’s not a diesel bike. It turned out that the spare fuel that I had bought on the black market because of the fuel shortage wasn’t petrol. Whether maliciously or by accident, I had been given two litres of diesel. Which I had then, unknowingly, poured into an empty fuel tank — no surprise the engine didn’t like driving on that stuff. We emptied the tank, re-did all the cleaning excises from that morning and refuelled the bike with petrol. ”Chuk-chuk-vroom!” It started first try.

Back on the road

Back on the road

It probably had still needed the cleaning, but the chances are that had I been handed the right fuel, I would have had no problems running the engine dry. Nevertheless, I drove out of Bikes & Boats on my bike, which has probably never been riding more smoothly, but 150 dollars poorer — almost haft of my estimated fuel cost for this entire trip. But so are the risks when forced to deal with the black market. At least now, I can distinguish the smell between petrol and diesel…

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Posted by askgudmundsen 12:42 Archived in Zimbabwe Tagged travel overland zimbabwe motorbike broken southern_africa fuel repair break_down mechanic Comments (0)

The Ancient Civilisation of Great Zimbabwe

Too many associate Sub-Saharan African civilisations with primitive mud huts with straw roofs. That’s a misconception.

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The the Mountain Castle

The the Mountain Castle

Walking up the cliffside in 35 degrees’ heat, it wasn’t difficult for me to understand why the medieval kings of Great Zimbabwe only walked down into their capital city once a month to address their thousands of subjects. It was gruelling walking up to the castle, built on top of a giant monolith. It’s much easier to have the people come up to you than having to walk back up here all the time. After all, it’s supposed to be good to be king.

The Watchtower

The Watchtower

Everybody knows about the Pyramids and temples of Egypt. The biggest stone structures in Africa (and possibly in the world). What’s less known is that ancient and medieval stone cities were built all over the continent of Africa before European colonialists’ arrival. The biggest of these gave its name to the modern country of Zimbabwe.
I’m not trying to write an academic thesis here. But for me, having travelled through much of the African continent, the lack of knowledge and the idea as Africa as a civilisational backwater is disconcerting, to say the least. The idea of Africa as primitive stems from Western colonialists’ ignorance and lies, not from historical facts. Visiting the ruins of Great Zimbabwe thoroughly shatters such a perception, and standing below the eleven-metre-tall walls here is as impressive as visiting the medieval castles of Europe.

Loropéni Ruins, Burkina

Loropéni Ruins, Burkina

Remnants of a walled city, at least 2,500 years old, has been found in Chad, and even older ones in Ghana. Medieval civilisations build stone cities in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. Greek-like city-states flourished as well in both Western and Southern Africa at various points in time. Mud-buildings have been preferred for some civilisations, e.g. in Mali, and in rural areas because of its availability, costs and cooling effect. Not because the peoples inhabiting them didn’t know how to make stone buildings.

The Great Enclosure

The Great Enclosure

The biggest of these stone cities, in fact, the biggest stone structures in Africa outside Egypt, is Great Zimbabwe. Built a thousand years ago in the 11th century, it was the capital for the Shona people for four hundred years, housing almost 20,000 inhabitants. Despite the city falling into decline long before the first Europeans hearing about it, the white government of Rhodesia manipulated everything from museum displays to school books in the ’60s and ’70s in an attempt to hide the fact that a black civilisation had built Great Zimbabwe. No surprise that this name was chosen for the country as the black majority gained political power.

Khami Ruins

Khami Ruins

The word ‘Zimbabwe’ itself comes from the Shona dialect of the Bantu language meaning big ‘Zi’, house ‘mbab’ [of] stone ‘we’ – Zi-mbab-we. The denominator ‘Great’ comes from the fact that Great Zimbabwe is the largest of more than 200 hundred total Zimbabwes. That is, more than 200 cities or “Big Houses of Stone” were built throughout Southern Africa in South Africa, Botswana and Mozambique, though the most significant remnants are to be found in Zimbabwe. Not only Great Zimbabwe but also sites such as the Khami Ruins, which will be on my itinerary for the coming days.

Posted by askgudmundsen 08:51 Archived in Zimbabwe Tagged overland africa zambia medieval ancient zimbabwe motorcycle south_africa civilization southern_africa mozambique civilisation great_zimbabwe khami Comments (0)

A World of Perfect Vistas

Another corner of the African continent that no-one knew offered world-class hiking, fantastic views and a new exiting landscape at every bend of the road.

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Rough Road

Rough Road

By far the worst part of driving a motorbike through a national park is all the glorious sights, vistas and animals that you miss out on. Navigating the damn thing across the gravel roads, around potholes and sharp rocks, take away most of your concentration. There’s almost none left to enjoy the views. This is a particularly annoying problem in Zimbabwe’s eastern highlands, where everything looks fantastic no matter where I look. It’s also very dusty, muscles get sore, and under the African sun, I get absolutely cooked in the leather jacket. But all this I knew setting off, and your sympathies should be limited to missing out on the views, which is the real tragedy.

Hiking Bvumba

Hiking Bvumba

Three national parks, Nyanga, Bvumba and Chimanimani, compete for travellers’ attention in Eastern Zim. I ended up exploring the two former, mostly due to lack of time. In both, I quickly forgot I was in Southern Africa. Instead, the landscape reminded me of Scottish Lowlands with its rock formations and rolling hills; or Central Germany with its massive pine forests. The temperatures weren’t far off either, and especially the evenings and early mornings were cold. As a Dane, I might not be the one to make those comparisons, but fellow travellers from both places confirmed my suspicion.

Stories by the Fire

Stories by the Fire

The cold wasn’t a massive problem in Bvumba, where I headed up to an old lodge with two Scottish travellers I’d met the day before. The evenings were spent in front of the burning fireplace, sharing beers and travel stories. Plenty of both, you’d imagine. In Nyanga, however, I camped. Most people who know me will probably be surprised by that fact. I’m not exactly the camping prototype. And as expected, I didn’t particularly enjoy the cold mornings, the ants or the fact that I had to cook over the open fire. Somehow, though, I managed just fine. Somewhere back home, a lot of people will be shocked that I cooked over the open fire for three days straight – let alone managing to get the fire burning in the first place.

Exciting Walk

Exciting Walk

Camping, however, was out in Nyanga was definitely worth it. The park is home, not only to some lovely winding roads that make driving the bike a joy (though it’s still very slow going uphill), but also to Zimbabwe’s tallest mountain, Mount Nyangani, and tallest waterfall, Mtarazi Falls. The falls are allegedly 762 metres tall over a couple of drops. The wibbly-wobbly suspension bridge hanging 380 metres above where the falls’ largest drop crashes onto the rocks was just the adrenaline kick I needed. The 90 metres’ bridge felt well too short, but I could imagine many other people would rather stay as far from the edge as possible.

On the top of Zimbabwe

On the top of Zimbabwe

In general, the highland is full of fantastic views and vistas, that can’t be justified through mere photos. Hence my frustration at the beginning of the blog entry. Few of the views were better than from the top of Mount Nyangani. 360 degrees of the valleys and hilltops. At 2,592m it’s not the tallest mountain in the world, but it still took a good 1,5 hours to scramble to the top (and a couple of hours on terrible dirt roads getting there and back). Usually, it would be dead quite. However, I happened to climb the mountain on a Saturday. So I had to share the quite summit with weekend-visitors from Harare and 100+ churchgoers who were very busy shouting ‘hallelujah’ and ‘aaaaamen’ from the top of their lungs (pun intended). You can imagine my joy of sharing this otherwise moment of zen with these guys…
Regardless. Should you find yourself in the vicinity of Eastern Zim, I can’t recommend these places enough. But maybe go on a weekday ;)

Posted by askgudmundsen 08:56 Archived in Zimbabwe Tagged hiking travel mountain overland waterfall hike motorbike southern_africa zimbabe nyanga bvumba Comments (0)

Money in Zimbabwe

The country of hyper-inflation is embracing new technologies as a solution. And is running out of cash fast…

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50 US$ worth

50 US$ worth

No-one is allowed to withdraw more than 100 Zimbabwean Dollar Bonds per day – and that’s combined from foreign currency exchange and the ATMs. That’s the equivalent of 6 US$. You read that right: SIX US Dollars per day. And while I am very good at roughing it on a small budget, 6 dollars a day might be pushing it. The reason for this otherwise strange policy is simple. There is a shortage of cash in Zimbabwe.

Well-stocked

Well-stocked

Most people know at least one thing about Zimbabwe: the economy is going down the drain. To me, at least, stories about the country’s dire economic situation go back just about as far as I can remember. So let’s take the good news first. Supermarket shelves are well-stocked, though sometimes shortages to appear. The week I arrived in Zimbabwe, bread was in short supply. Regardless, life throttles along fairly normally from day to day, and there are no longer any of those 10 trillion dollar bills around.
The big hotels, fancy restaurants and some supermarkets will take international credit and debit cards, which is useful if these are the establishments that you frequent. That said, for the unknowing budget traveller entering the country, things are a little more difficult money-wise. Let’s take the most obvious thing first. How to get hold of those sweet Zimbabwean Dollar Bonds, so it’ll be possible for us non-millionaires to survive our stay in Zim.
The days of hyper-inflation are gone, and the government will no-longer print money indefinitely. As a result, there are not enough bills and coins to go around. To make matters worse, the highest denomination is the 5 Dollar Bond bill – worth roughly 33 US cents. That made sense, when Zimbabwe introduced the Dollar Bonds at the same value as the US Dollar, but the currency has slipped and not only is there a shortage of cash, that cash in now worth less than it used to when it got released, making the lack even worse.

Guesthouse view

Guesthouse view

So what do travellers do? The obvious solution would be to bring in enough US Dollars to cover one’s stay. That’s what I have done. However, the government has made it illegal to use US Dollars directly, and given the shortage of cash, it’s both difficult and expensive to exchange to US Dollars to Zim’s Dollar Bonds. No forex bureaux can operate in an environment like this and, as mentioned, banks will only give you six US Dollars’ worth per day. In tourist areas, most guesthouses will accept US Dollars regardless, and the black market is readily available, though their rates are far worse than the official rates. At the time of writing, official rates were 15 Dollar Bonds to 1 US Dollar, while the black market rate was 11. Not a fantastic deal by any stretch of the imagination.

Mobile money

Mobile money

A far better option is EcoCash, a mobile money service. Ques are long, though, but it’s relatively easy to get a local sim-card and set up an account. That way I can pay at the market, bus station and gas station with my phone. The best part is that (the first week I’ve been here) the rate has been 17 Dollar Bonds to the US Dollar, which makes for the best deal available. However, the rates change fast. At the border post, this week’s official rate was posted. As that suggests, the rate change weekly – sometimes dramatically. So I’m being careful about changing large amounts of money at once, whether on the black market or by phone. If the rate drops suddenly I could be stuck with unspent (eco)cash, that could quickly become very worthless.
It all results in extra hassle. Whether it’s queuing for an hour to get a loaf of bread or to recharge your mobile money account, or the fact that you are operating on the different exchange rates depending on whether you’re paying by cash, credit card or mobile money. For those of us who think hassle adds to the adventure, this isn’t too bad. But ask me again once I’ve been here a month – I might have changed my mind by then.

Posted by askgudmundsen 11:07 Archived in Zimbabwe Tagged travel overland zimbabwe motorbike money southern_africa dollars hassle Comments (1)

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