We chose Zimbabwe because the transfer from the Chobe Safari Lodge was a lot cheaper. When we still had Grover, the since deceased Land Rover, several people told us we should not drive over to Victoria Falls, as the red tape for getting a vehicle across the border into either Zambia or Zimbabwe is a nightmare. After Grover died, we were relying on transfers anyway.
I’d pondered which side of the Zambezi River to visit the falls. Many people opt to visit from the north bank, staying in Livingston, Zambia, rather than Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe on the southern bank. I have to admit, the long term presence of Mugabe’s government on the UN’s top five failed states list had me a little spooked. On the other hand, 75% of the falls are accessible from Zimbabwe rather than Zambia. And, the historic Victoria Falls Hotel is in Zimbabwe.
The falls themselves are not what I pictured. Yes, I knew that the river dumped off a cliff into a chasm, I guess I did not realize the chasm was a narrow canyon that runs perpendicular to the river. I had pictured a huge horseshoe falls, like Niagra or Angel. Here, the Zambezi fans out and plunges off the cliff, while we visitors stand on the other side of the narrow canyon surrounded by spray, sometimes drenching, looking at the water a few yards away. This is a bird’s eye view, an angle you’d only get from a helicopter at other falls. It also means that, other than the spray that lifts like a column high into the air during the wet season, you can’t really see the falls themselves away from the lookout points along the facing cliff.
As we sat in the activities directors office and chose, we opted to go to the Zimbabwe side, trusting that the government would protect the tourism in Victoria Falls, at least, as an asset. And, we decided to spring for the hotel rooms that cost as much as what we’ve paid in downtown Tokyo to spend two nights at the grand old Victoria Falls Hotel.
Both John and I have a fondness for old, traditional hotels. The kind where we picture the gentry sitting on chairs set up on the lawn, drinking tea or in a bar paneled with dark wood, sipping scotch. They feel like history to me in much the same way that an old church or castle might. Except we can actually stay there and live it, too.
During our visit, we peeked into the famous Livingston dining room set with white linen, awaiting the evening’s diners. Sadly, our light travel did not include the right stuff to pass the dress code still enforced; a remnant from keeping the riff raff away from those scotch drinking men and gown donning women from our figments. As we sat at dinner in Jungle Junction where no such dress code is enforced, we laughed at our semi-feral-family state.
Everyone we met in Zimbabwe was glad we were there. They’ve suffered more than I can imagine, and the income from tourism, although a trickle compared to what it once was, is a thread of hope. The downside to being the lone tourists in a town of hunger is that venturing out is combat. We don’t really have room to carry extra pieces of carved wood for the next few months, but trying to convince the hawkers was akin to pulling wild dogs off of their prey.
We did want to see the open craft market, and made the walk from the hotel. As we arrived in town, our shuttle driver pointed out the tourist police who are there to escort tourists and theoretically keep them from being overly harassed on the streets. Sadly, not one was to be found on the afternoon we ventured the few blocks to the market. We were followed by a cloud of desperation: men with bits of carved wood hoping for a few dollars to take home at the end of the day. We did our best to just keep walking, I make it a point to not buy from people who accost me.
As we arrived, finally, at the craft market, the frenzy became an out and out storm. Months before, when we were in Cape Town, I saw a small, carved chess set I really liked but didn’t want to carry. I’d regretted passing it up since. As we arrived at the open craft market, I found one I loved. Along with a pair of John’s jeans, a couple of old t-shirts, and a few Botswana Pula, I picked it up. Unfortunately, it turned out to be the first shark to bite, and we were almost trapped in the stalls as the feeding frenzy began. Hawkers blocked us in and barred our path. We pushed our way out having only seen about 10% of the market, followed up the street by a trail of hawkers who knew the girls were interested in elephant hair bracelets.
We arrived back in Botswana safely. Thankful for the kind hearted people we’ve become so fond of during our month in their country. And sad, too, for Zimbabwe. Artisans made desperate by lack and want, and lingering images and traditions handed down from a colonial past that would cause a semi feral family from the US to spend less on their less-than-formal dinner.