After nearly ten years of devastation, it is easy again to visit Zimbabwe. For anybody with money, there is food and fuel and luxuries, and staple goods are there too. People were almost as friendly as ever - much more so once I began speaking Shona - but there was a wariness, a worldly wisdom and caution about open relationships that I don't remember from before.
What struck me most is that the land seems almost impervious to the chaos and depredations of human existence in Zimbabwe, perhaps breathing a sigh of relief at the cutbacks in human activity since crazy politics destroyed the human economy. There have been wonderful rains this summer and the lush green was everywhere we went, right from the border at Beitbridge to Harare.
Photos above and below show road scenes south of Masvingo.
We drove up for an extended Christmas weekend. The border post was a complete pain the day before Christmas Eve and took us three hours to negotiate. However there was no official extortion or harassment of us or anybody else I could see - just massive inefficiency and indifference on both sides of the border. No extra staff on duty! And on the way back it took us a total of 30 minutes from driving up to the post on the Zim side to driving off on the SA side. Making our average time through the Zim/SA border post about the same as our average time through Washington's Dulles airport....
Were we hit by corruption? No direct demands from officials. There is a food chain operating all round the border post, and we were approached - again on both sides of the border - by private agents offering to expedite our process for R200. As far as I can see they must have had scams going on with the actual officials, who turned a blind eye to these agents pushing in at the front of the queue. We refused politely and did our best to deploy the whole family as "queue managers" to stop people pushing in ahead of us. We got to the border early so it wasn't too hot, and the official costs are all we paid - R70 bridge toll, and R510 for temporary import permit and insurance on the car. All in all, a small price to pay for the delights of our visit.
Driving in Zimbabwe is OK. There are tolls to be paid, a total of US$5 from the border to Harare - hardly enough income for the work that needs to be done. There are also regular police checks every 300 km or so - no big deal but there was the usual kind of treatment for foreigners driving a luxury car - hassling us for not having the particular pattern of reflectors required in Zimbabwe. Again, no actual extortion and a few calm words left us free to continue our journey. The national road is mostly solid, there was not too much traffic as most of the border traffic seemed to be going to Bulawayo and/or riding on buses, and the most basic maintenance still seems to be happening - i.e. few open potholes, but in some cases sharp drop-offs and road encroachment from the shoulders. We were able to cruise at 120 pretty much all the way. In the cities it is different, lots of potholes, few traffic lights working, hardly any road signs and no street lights. Fortunately we could remember our way around as if by instinct and navigated quite easily in Harare, where at night everybody seemed to drive about 40 km/h which is about all you can safely do. After a while it is wearing though!
Our first big thrills - after the joy of clearing the border and simply soaking up the joy of being in such beautiful countryside - were at Great Zimbabwe, once the capital of a kingdom the size of France in the period 1300 - 1450. This was one of our favourite places to go in the 80s and it is still just as magical, and well preserved, now as it was then. You can stay there at the hotel or camping. We only had two hours and all of us were entranced.
Photos above and below taken from the wonderful hilltop complex, in the background you can see the Great Enclosure, part of the extensive valley complex down below where about 20 000 people were living 600 years ago.
Photo below - Temba repeating the pose of his Dad from about 1983 in the Great Enclosure.
Having spent quite a lot of time at Mapungubwe recently it was really interesting to put together the links between the chain of settlements and kingdoms in the area from the Limpopo/Shashe to Masvingo - early groups known as Zhizo from about 600 AD, the first big kingdom at Mapungubwe around 1200, then the even bigger empire based at Great Zimbabwe a couple of hundred years later. All trading as far as China! (For those interested, here's an external link to info about Mapungubwe)
From Great Zim we went on to Harare... see next page.