DAY ONE (of three)
This morning we were up early once again to make the six hour drive north to Victoria Falls. The drive had been pretty uneventful when suddenly, after about three hours on the road, we came to a roadblock with five or six uniformed authorities manning it. As the truck came to a stop we could see one of these men approaching. He banged on the door of the truck's main cabin and we all started to expect the worst. Here we are in a third world country surrounded by government employees who probably haven't been paid for months and they all have guns. You could almost feel the shake down coming. The officer boarded the truck with a stern expression on his face and one hand on his belt and announced, "I have a question for you!"
Uh-oh. Here it comes. Is he going to want some sort of payoff? Food? Fuel?
"Are you having a good time in Zimbabwe?!"
What? You mean there's no problem with our truck's registration? Our visas weren't somehow prepared incorrectly, incurring a cash "fine" payable directly to you? I had heard enough horror stories about authorities in certain developing areas of the world that I (along with just about everybody else on the truck) expected some sort of delay or hassle. This guy just broke out in a toothy grin and acted as though he were the minister of tourism. After we all exhaled we told him that yes we were indeed enjoying his country and could not wait to get to Vic Falls. With that he jumped off the truck and let us continue on our way. Yet another example of the people of Zimbabwe remaining friendly in the face of growing poverty.
We finally arrived at the Victoria Falls Rest Camp in time for a late lunch. After checking into my room ($13/night upgrade for a basic "chalet" that was basically four concrete walls with a bed and table) I met the rest of my group at the pool bar to watch a video of the countless activities available. This was the first stop on the trip where we were completely on our own to do what we pleased for three straight days. Seeing as Vic Falls is the self-declared adrenaline capital of the world there were many things to do involving throwing oneself off/out of a perfectly good bridge/gorge/airplane. Those of you who know my feelings concerning heights know that you will not be seeing any helmet cam pics of me hurling towards the ground from any of those things mentioned above. Most of the group kept it simple and just signed up for a "sunset" (ie. "booze") cruise and for white water rafting on the Zambezi River, reportedly the best place in the world for this. After all, we wanted to squeeze in some time to walk over and view one of the natural wonders of the world.
Seeing as the booze cruie was tonight we left the bar and headed back to get cleaned up before being picked up. At 4:45 we were driven to the dock on the banks of the mighty Zambezi and were pleasantly sirprised to find that the eight of us were getting our own pontoon boat complete with captain and steward to pour drinks. Considering the privacy and the fact that it was open bar, we all agreed that this was the best $25 we had spent on the trip. For the next two and a half hours we floated on the Zambezi getting very close to its resident hippos and crocs and even stopped briefly at an island in the middle of the river that officially belonged to Zambia (the river is the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia) so I was even able to check another country off the list.
We got back to the camp for dinner at about 7:30 after killing a bottle of gin and more than a few bottles of beer. After wolfing down some steak we were raring to head out and continue our night of celebration. Our first stop was a nearby hostel called Shoestrings that seemed to be the popular backpacker bar in town. The place was pretty fun but was a pain in the butt because they would give you change for a beer in 100 and 500 Zim dollar notes. This sounds fine until you realize that $1 US is equal to approximately $15,000 Zim, which is what a beer cost, and the most common note was a $20,000 bill. So, when you handed the bartender a $20,000 note for your beer he would hand back your change in a wad of anywhere from 10-20 nearly worthless bills. The good thing was that after you buy a few beers you can buy the next with one huge wad of all the change they gave you. this was oddly satisfying. After a couple of hours there we headed to another popular bar called Croc Roc. This was more of a local bar and had cheap beer and a great band. It was also mostly outside which was great on this warm and starry night. While there we ran into our cook Benson, a native Zimbabwean, who knew the band and was actually able to play guitar with them. Good times.
Since most of us had began drinking mixed drinks at about 5:00, by 12:30 or so most of us were ready to head back and get some sleep. Little did I know at the time that it was going to be a long night.
I awoke at about 4:30 in the morning with shooting pains to my stomach and had to run for the bathroom. Unfortunately something I had eaten or drank had caught up with me and for the next 30 hours or so I was in the hurt locker with a stomach bug that Immodium couldn't cure. The bad news was that I had to miss the farewell dinner my group had planned at a local restaurant. The good (or "better") news was that this didn't hit me on a day when we were doing a lot of driving. I had a bed (thank God for that room upgrade!) to lie in and was close to the bathroom so if I had to pick a place to suffer, this was it.
This morning was the day I was supposed to go white water rafting but I was unfortunately still feeling the affects of my bug and had to back out. Thankfully, by around noontime I was feeling a bit better and was able to join a few people from my group who were heading over to see the falls. It would have been a shame had I gotten within earshot of them and couldn't muster the strength to actually see them. The falls were incredible. The force of the rapids dropping off to the river far below is so great that there is a constant mist hanging over the immediate area creating a small tropical rain forest. Baboons are everywhere around the falls and can be a little intimidating. When you enter the park you are told to have no food of any kind because if they detect it they will come after you until they get it. Despite the wild primates and the damp mist, the sights were fantastic. After walking around for a while we decided to head out and walk across a nearby bridge over to the Zambia side to get the view from there. We told the guy at the Zimbabwe border we were going out to watch a friend bunjee jump from the bridge so we didn't have to pay the $10 fee to be able to re-enter. The thing was that we couldn't leave the bridge so we only got to see it from a bit of a distance but it was a good view regardless and I got to hop into Zambia for the second time, making my visit to this beautiful country official.
Later that afternoon, I endured a trip to the local souvenir stands which was quite an adventure. With "Bad Bob's" recent Operation Murambatsvina that I alluded to earlier, there was now only one area of town where the licensed wood carvers and metal workers could sell their wares. These were located in a dusty part of town and consisted of three rows of consecutive stalls that formed a large "U" shape. As you approached the first stall, the guy running it would be right there waiting for you with his pitch. On this quiet Sunday afternoon with very few tourists out and about, these guys were pretty aggressive. As you walked by each successive stall, they would be waiting for you and stand roughly 2 inches from you as they gave their pitch while you proceeded. Once you passed, the next guy would be waiting right where his stall began and you would be handed off like a baton to listen to the same pitch from a different guy. With a few exceptions, much of the same wood and stone carvings were present in each stall.