No country has had so much bad press as Zimbabwe in recent years. No country's leadership deserves any less to be frank. In the last few days I had the opportunity to visit this country of destruction and beauty. In the process we had a few very positive and very negative surprises.
"From Zambezi to Limpopo
Our purpose was to visit Chimanimani National Park, a piece of paradise in the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe. It is a rugged and pristine wilderness area catered for the self sufficient hiker. It was 19 years since we have been there and little has changed. The views are stunning, the waterfalls crystal clear and the air so pure that it cures an otherwise chronic sinusitis in a few days.
"Oh lovely Zimbabwe, so wondrously adorned
The serenity of this place stands in stark contrast to the course the country has taken in the last decade or so. The disastrous consequences of Zimbabwe's land reform process is evident everywhere. Production of foreign exchange earning commodities such as sugar cane and tobacco have fallen drastically, while maize production has also more than halved over the period 2000-2007 (see FAO Stats). My own information is that an estimated 200 white farmers are left in Zimbabwe. This compares to 280 white farmers in June 2008 as reported in the Daily Telegraph. Despite these disastrous developments, according to the FAO undernourishment in Zimbabwe remained relatively constant at around 40% of the population. We have witnessed many fields planted with maize and other crops in the rural areas and saw trucks delivering bags of food to remote areas. The question is how sustainable this situation is and whether these rural households are able to withstand any further shocks to their already frail economy.
"May rain abound, and fertile fields;
In Africa one can expect anything. We did experience a few surprises ourselves.
The border post at Beitbridge is a cocktail of diesel, dust and queues. It takes anything between 1.5 and 8 hours for a car to pass the border and it is worse coming back into South Africa. The sheer volume of trucks and people passing into Zimbabwe bodes well to the economy of this beleaguered nation, but do not jump to conclusions before one has seen the queue of Zimbabweans joining the estimated 3 million refugees in South Africa already. The situation may be improving slightly, but it seems as if many Zimbabweans are still choosing a xenophobic South Africa above their own country. For us the place has a new Afrikaans name: "Vasbytbrug", or roughly translated: a bridge where one has to really hang on tightly.
The feared police roadblocks is one of those popular travel myths. We have encountered 20 odd of these roadblocks, but in most cases the Zimbabwean police were friendly and professional. The only two attempts at bribery were easily thwarted by steering the conversation towards more desirable goals, such as the soccer World Cup 2010 or the country's exceptional beauty.
The roads are generally in reasonable condition, that is if one is not too fussy about road markings, road shoulders, cat's eyes and some potholes. It is not a good idea to drive at night though. We have tried it in a dark 100km/h rush towards Beitbridge competing with trucks, taxis, and overloaded bakkies for a slim piece of tar. Not a good idea.
Money remains a challenge though. The country's economy runs on Rands and US dollars, but it gets a bit tough when R/$ conversions come into play. Zimbabwe National Parks, at least in Chimanimani, is still working on a rate of R10 = 1USD (official rate is closer to R7.50/1$). That puts a handsome R2.50 to the dollar into some pocket somewhere!
Safety remains an issue. Despite assurances that Zimbabwe is safer then South Africa, we were the victims of opportunistic theft while hiking in the mountains. According to the authorities, this was the first ever incidence of this nature in the Park. We were quite positively surprised by the response of the authorities. The incidence was treated as a serious transgression and a well-armed search party of National Park rangers, supported by the local police, were on their way in a matter of hours. It is clear that Zimbabwe wants to benefit from the 2010 World Cup and no crimes on visitors will be tolerated.
Note: Lyrics from the national anthem of Zimbabwe