Day 94 - Wed Jul 6 Savuti Camp, to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
(Chris) What a strange day. We decided to skip the morning game drive and sleep in, in part so I would get more well - and I do feel about 80-90% healthy. I am tired of being sick on this trip. It's sort of like being back in college, when I would get numerous colds (no doubt from not sleeping enough and drinking).
The baboons visited us again in the night, peeing and pooing on our tent. Two elephants also came by in the night to have midnight salad buffet. In the morning more baboons ran across our deck, and a big one sat on a branch and looked at me for awhile. So I looked at him.
(Jen) At lunch one of the guests explained how he got up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night and found a leopard drinking from their sink (their bathroom was outside on their deck, separate from their tent, not like ours which was in our tent). He said he just went back to the tent quietly and went back to sleep. Pretty crazy.
(Chris) Anyway, we said goodbye to the nice people at Savuti, and got on yet another small plane. This time Jen did fine. When we landed at a real airport (with an asphalt runway, no kidding), we caught a 1.5 hour van ride across the border to Zimbabwe. However, we didn't know that there is an entry fee of $30 US per US citizen to get in. We have some US currency, but we're running low and need some to get into Vic Falls Park, and possibly more to leave the country. This country is pretty messed up, you'd have to look on the web to get details, but it just feels sketchy. They do whatever they can to get US currency. We can't get Zimbabwe cash here and are expected to pay for everything with foreign currency. Botswana feels poor but legitimate and starting to prosper. Zimbabwe feels poor and desperate.
When we arrived in Vic Falls, we were met by Floyd from Elephant Camp (where we were scheduled to spend 3 days riding elephants), who told us they were unfortunately having an "Industrial Action," aka a strike. Apparently the folks who work directly with the elephants wanted more than they were getting, and they went on strike starting this morning. The rep told us we could go to a different camp of theirs, a traditional safari camp, and that it was a 45 min drive back to the Botswana border (where we just came from) to get there. He also said he thought (hoped?) the strike would be over in a day. We were a little steamed that they didn't contact us earlier in the day. What we decided to do was stay in Vic Falls in a hotel instead, and see the falls today, and hopefully go to Elephant Camp tomorrow.
Victoria Falls itself is really cool, and very wide (although per above, they charge $20US per US citizen to see it which is too much). The river opens up maybe ¼ mile where it empties off a giant cliff. It's probably as tall as Snoqualmie Falls, too. I'm sure on the web you could get the stats, but in person you can feel a little bit of the thunder and a LOT of the mist. In places it felt like it was raining hard. Our photos won't do it justice because it is so darned wide it won't fit in a single shot. Oh, also, there were these 500 foot drop-offs with no guard rails - you wouldn't see that back home!!! The park was pretty run down. Another weird thing, this is one of the 7 wonders of the world, and it's peak tourist season, but there was almost no-one here. We probably saw 30 other people total in the park. There were more monkeys than people. Vic Falls is a ghost town.
Later we had dinner in the hotel restaurant, which was pretty good. It cost 770,000.00 Zimbabwe monetary units. I left a 77,000.00 tip. J
Day 95 - Thu Jul 7 Victoria Falls to Imbabala
(Jen) Well the Zimbabwe Fiasco continues today. The Elephant Camp is still having their dispute so Floyd drove us to their traditional safari camp, Imbabala, an hour away. This place is an absolute dive and nothing like the other camps we've stayed in. It feels sort of like a Motel 6 in the woods. There are 6 thatched "chalets" about 10 feet from each other which overlook the Zambezi River. They are pretty run down and in serious need of a spring cleaning. The camp brochure states the major wildlife to see is Elephants and Situaga, a type of antelope. I guess they do river trips and game drives. Chris is sick of game drives so maybe tomorrow we can do the river trip instead.
All in all I'm totally peeved about this situation. If we would have known what a dive Imbabala was going to be before we arrived, we would have opted to stay in Vic Falls and do some excursions there or insisted on staying in a different camp our travel agent recommended by email when we contacted her last night. Instead, the brochure stated it was a "Premiere" camp and Floyd said it was one of the nicest in the area so I feel we've been led astray a bit. Since we've arrived in Zimbabwe, every single transaction seems to be shady in some way. I'll be glad to get out of here and back in Joburg. I guess there is a possibility Elephant Camp will be open tomorrow, but given it's owned by the same people as this camp, I'm not hopeful that it's going to be much different. We've had such a great time in Botswana, it's really a shame that this whole thing happened to end our safari on a poor note.
(Chris: one cool and distracting thing about this camp is the hosts' 2 Jack Russell terriers. They are endlessly amusing, and one is extremely good dribbling a soccer ball.)
The other 5 guests were on the river in the pontoon boat so we read on the veranda for about a couple of hours and then joined them for a late lunch when they returned. There is a couple from S. Africa, a couple from Germany, and a single woman from Madrid. After lunch we had siesta for a couple more hours and read some more (thank god for books!). Around 4 PM we went out on the pontoon boat for a ride up the river to where the 4 countries (Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia, and Botswana) meet. We saw a handful of hippos who stuck their snouts out of the water but we steered clear of them as they can be dangerous. The river is the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia and the guide explained that the hippos stay on the Zimbabwe side because the Zambians poach them from their side of the river. Aside from the hippos there was essentially no wildife to be seen besides birds (Chris: there were Cape Buffalo too but it was pretty dark when we went by them). The guide stated that the Situaga antelope hadn't been seen in 13 months since the Zambians poached all 16 that resided on this particular island.
Back at camp we had a particularly tasty dinner - stir fry. They had it all laid out very similar to Mongolian Grill so you got to pick all your ingredients and then Ron and Stuey fried it up for us. Their "woks" were made out of blades from a plow, with the center hole welded closed and two handles welded on each side. They were then placed over gas burners. Pretty ingenious and it tasted fantastic. (Chris: given how good dinner was, and the good conversation, I didn't hate this place, but Jen is right that the game was scarce, at least on that day compared to what we have become accustomed to seeing. Also the room was in a state of disrepair - the floor needed a mopping quite badly, there was a permanent trail of ants in the bathroom, and the toilet leaked badly. So I was looking forward to getting out of there, but Jen was really at wit's end.)
After dinner everyone gathered around the fire pit and the storytelling began. Ron and Tish manage the camp, are native Caucasian Zimbabweans and are about 60. Tish is clearly the brains and camp mother, Ron is a bit crotchety, swears at the guests, and generally harasses everyone in good fun. He started telling stories about a "Cheeky Hippo" who likes to graze on grass right in front of hut # 4 (that would be our hut) and "someday he's going to kill a guest". One day he chased one of the guides up the lawn onto the veranda of hut # 5. After a few stories about shooting rifles at elephants, chasing baboons and monkeys, and hitting a hippo at 30 kmph on the lawn with a pickup truck to teach it a lesson ("but it probably died") it became clear that their wildlife philosophy is much different than the camps in Botswana. At our other camps, it was expected wildlife would wander through the camps and the guests were told to go around the animal, back away, avoid it, etc. The camps were built in such a way that wildlife could move freely but humans could mostly still get around (such as raised walkways). Here, they treat camp as more of a homestead and they expect the animals to respect their space and stay away, and if they don't, then there are consequences. Given that these camps are in wildlife parks and private concessions (where animals are expected to be and protected), it's seems bizarre to me to chase them away.
Our hosts also explained that Zimbabwe as a country is 100% out of petrol ... and the only way to get it is to drive to Botswana and fill up your car and any containers you might have. If you bring back more than 50 liters though, you also have to pay import taxes. The more we talk to native folks here, the sadder the story becomes.
(Chris) Our hosts told us about the England subway/bus bombs today. Very sad and scary. And selfishly, we're flying British Air from Zimbabwe to JoBurg in 2 days, so hope there are no related problems.
Day 96 - Fri Jul 8 Imbabala to Elephant Camp
(Chris) Okay, at day 96, if you made me boil my international travel advice down to a mere 3 things, here is what I'd tell you:
1. Pack light, preferably putting everything in a Reeck backpack.
2. Meet as many friendly foreigners as you can and talk to them about life. Learn about them and prove that Americans are not all robotic introverts.
3. Don't go to Zimbabwe. Unless you are looking for an uneasy, educational adventure, it is just too sketch and not worth it. Vic Falls is nice but not worth it. Any wildlife viewing you want to do can be done better (yes it will cost more) in Botswana, or perhaps Namibia or South Africa. The people there are nice and I feel bad for them, but that doesn't mean you should spend your hard-fought holiday resources there.
Alright, on with our day. We were woken with news that Elephant Camp was open for business again, and we were driven there after breakfast. I have never eaten bacon on so many contiguous days, and honestly I'm sick of it. I think I've had maple syrup only twice in the last 96 days though, so I have an idea of what I might gorge on at home for breakfast.
(Jen) On our way to Elephant Camp, we passed a group of maybe 50 people standing on the side of the road. Chris asked if that was a bus stop and the driver explained that no, it was just where people hang out hoping to get rides / hitchhike. He said that because the country did not have any more petrol, public transportation had stopped. I don't know how these people do it...
(Chris) Elephant Camp is nicer than Imbabala, but not as nice as Botswana. The camp accommodates 8 guests, but we are the only 2. It's a little weird, but consistent with the rest of Zimbabwe. After a brief tour, we were taken to the elephants and were allowed to feed them treats for a few minutes, which was fun. They are all about 20 years old, and kind of medium-sized. When we fed the 4 of them, they got pretty insistent for more food and all 4 trunks started madly reaching for Jen and me, which was kind of creepy. But it was fun.
(Jen) After meeting the elephants we were taken back to the camp (the camp and elephants are a 15 minute drive apart). We had an hour to relax and read before lunch. We had lunch with Gavin and his wife Shay (they manage the camp) and their sister-in-law (Let's call her Jane as I can't seem to remember her name!). Jane explained how she just sent her two teenage sons to boarding school in S. Africa because the school system in Zimbabwe has deteriorated to such a horrible state. She said all the young professional people including teachers and doctors have left the country and all that is left is older folks who are tired of their jobs and out-of-date.
We had another couple of hours to read and shower. Chris got a hot shower and I got a cold one. The water tank is heated by a small fire underneath and I guess it just doesn't heat very quickly. At 4 PM we were driven back out to the elephants where we were *shocked* to see 15 tourists who had been carted in from town for an afternoon ride with the elephants. We were under the impression that staying at a small camp with a maximum of 8 guests gave us a type of exclusive access to the elephants. (Chris) Quite the contrary, we got a mass-produced elephant ride, 1 hour along a well-worn route, with guides on each elephant, and 1-2 tourists each, followed by them trying to sell us merchandise and a video of the event. The riding itself was sort of fun, though my elephant (Joque) only wanted to eat, and had to be constantly prodded to walk.
At dinner we met a couple of college kids from Cal Poly Obispo who were spending 7 weeks at Elephant Camp on sort of an internship. They were nice and braver than me! After dinner the lead guide, Zenso, took just Jen and I up to the stables (in the dark, remember it's winter down here) to visit with the Elephants, which was the best part of our stay I think. They do have personality above and beyond just being hungry. And their skin is so rough, like 40-grit sandpaper. They demonstrate amazing dexterity with their trunks, which almost have 2 little fingers on the end, and are able to smell where treats might be on your clothes extremely well!
The camp also has 3 resident dogs, including a friendly 3-legged German Shepherd, and a tame impala doe, although the doe chased Jen around a bit... a killer impala! She may be a cat whisperer, but certainly not an impala whisperer!
Day 97 - Sat Jul 9 Elephant Camp to Jo'burg
(Chris) In the morning Jen and I got a private 2-hour elephant ride, though by the end, this may sound callous, I was bored. There was very little game to see, and being a passenger on an elephant only has allure for so long. Jen complained about being saddle sore. We were just looking forward to leaving Zimbabwe.
We left some unneeded clothes behind, and our camera-steadying beanbag, and headed to the airport. We met David and Paki there, who were at 2 of our other camps. David tried to go buy a Coke - there are Coke advertisements everywhere - but apparently the entire airport had no Coke anymore. Thank you Mr. Mugabe. I suppose they need gas more than Coke anyway.
In Jo'burg we went back to the luxurious Grace Hotel which was just what we needed. We took long showers, and had some laundry done. We checked the internet. We went to the mall for ribs again. And we slept.
(Jen) Aside from all our complaining about Zimbabwe, and the fact that it was not what we expected at all, we are glad we had the experience. It was educational to see how desperate the people and country are, and has driven both Chris and I to want to learn more. It's amazing to me that one person (Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe) can kill people, steal money, and generally destroy the country and get away with it. One of the folks at Elephant Camp suggested a book called "The Great Betrayal" by Ian Smith so we ordered it from Amazon to read when we get home.