After an incredible experience in Kruger National Park in South Africa (Kruger recap is posted with our South Africa post,) we headed for Zimbabwe. This was the country we were most worried about on this safari trek because we've heard about the decline of the Zimbabwean economy and government over the last ten years.
Crossing into Zimbabwe is a tedious experience. The Beit Bridge border crossing is one of the busiest in Africa and the busiest in Southern Africa. Our guides, Justin and Kumbu, had prepared us for a long time at the crossing. Best case: we'd make it through in around three hours. Worst case: it could take up to six hours.
We snaked through the line, in, out and around buildings with thousands of people. The Zimbabwean currency became so inflated that they started using US dollars a few years ago. People cross the border daily to South Africa to get more bang for their buck as the conversion rate is 12.50 Rand to $1. We saw people carrying everything from African cheetos to televisions and more. This prompted a new game called "I'm going to the border and I'm bringing..." where we called out the most outrageous thing we had seen.
Once inside the office, we were quickly stamped out and we boarded the bus to the Zimbabwe side. There are hundreds of people everywhere, just milling about. It's strange to witness, and the unemployment is hovering near 80% so hanging out at the border is a favorite past time.
Our agent had to handwrite each of our visas to be attached in our passport as well as handwrite a receipt including serial numbers on bills $20 USD or higher. This took nearly as much time as waiting in line on the South Africa side.
Three hours later, thankful to have that time consuming task behind us, we headed for a night of camping before another early morning to Gweru Lion & Antelope Park.
Gweru Lion & Antelope Park
Gweru is a bit of a controversial conservation park. Lions have steadily been declining in Africa from nearly 200,000 about 10 years ago, to 15,000 today. Gweru is trying different ways of rehabbing lions and releasing them back into the wild. It's a tough science to get right.
Our stay at the park offered many activities with some of the lions who are very young or unable to be released back into the wild. We chose to see the lions feeding and to walk with two 12-month old male lions.
The lion feeding was crazy to watch. The meat is laid out in the form of an animal and the lions are released to find the kill. The male lions struggle for dominance over who will actually get to eat the animal. I was worried I would be grossed out, but to actually see it in person seemed so simple and natural.
The opportunity to walk with lions was one of the more nerve-wracking decisions to make. We would be with trainers, of course, but still, it's a lion!
We walked with two male lions named Amani and Arusha. We were given guide sticks to increase our personal space when they walked by us, but we really didn't need them.
We were also briefed on the serious rules of unprotected lion encounters:
1. Do not turn your back.
2. Do not crouch down.
3. Do not run - ever.
4. Do not touch their heads, ears, or bellies.
5. If they threaten you, raise your stick high and yell "NO!"
We ratcheted up our courage and opened the gate to the wild life park and met the two lions. The first thing one lion did was walk straight up to Brian and lick his hand. Like giant house cats, they then spent time playing with each other, running off into the woods to stalk something and simply lazing around, unfazed by us humans with them. It was an incredible experience.
Hwange National Park
We were off again the next morning to make it to Hwange National Park by lunchtime.
Our accommodations were new and modern. It turns out the site, Gwango Lodge, is owned by two Americans, one who is originally from Zimbabwe. We enjoyed our time talking with Elisabeth and Danny, the owners, as well as discussing baseball with Danny's sister.
We met our guide, Jordan, who turned out to be quite the character. He's like the safari version of a surfer dude: cavalier attitude, flip flops and talks like he unfazed by most things in life. He took us tracking to find lions, showing us how to tell the difference in paw prints as well as traditional uses for some plants.
We didn't find any lions on our tour, but we did see a rare Serval. Servals are cats, similar to a cheetah or leopard, but slightly smaller in size with very distinct pointy ears. We followed it along the road, hoping for it to hunt something, but it unfortunately ventured too far from the road. We left the park just as the sun was setting.
Not many people realize 80% of these famous falls is located on the Zimbabwe side of the border. So while we did head into Zambia, it turned out to just be a two-day pass through for us as we opted not to spend money on the Zambian side.
Victoria Falls is truly incredible. We rented long raincoats before entering the park, but you could do fine with a regular raincoat, water shoes and some shorts you don't mind getting wet.
The falls are so powerful and tall, that the mist feels like it is raining heavily. As the water falls down, the power forces nearly an equal amount of water back up. We wandered along the path, each lookout a new and stunning perspective.
While Zimbabwe is extremely poor, we always felt safe there. In fact, safer than in eastern South Africa. People are extremely friendly and are actually surprised to see white people.
All minorities had their farmland stripped from them and were forced out of the country around 20 years ago, which led to a big economic decline. The country is still governed by an "elected" president, Robert Mugabe. Once a very wealthy country, whose dollar was worth 5 sterling pounds, serious inflation took hold. At one point the country had a trillion dollar bill until converting to the US dollar. Quality of life has steadily declined but many people are secretly holding out hope for the next election or the death of the leader.
Zimbabwe's roads are the worst we've seen on this trip so far, little more than crumbling asphalt. Every road is lined with tons of litter. Police checkpoints are about every 20 kilometers, so you never get anywhere fast. The police we encountered don't collect bribes at these stops, simply check registration and customs receipts, however, I wouldn't be surprised if some of them levy a personal "road tax". No guns are permitted to be owned and crime in general is very low, as there is a resolute unity among friends and families to take care of one another through this time.
We were overall impressed by the natural beauty and hospitality in Zimbabwe. We would return there without hesitation and look forward to seeing it sometime in the future as it continues to develop its economy.