A holiday with Mugabe

Starvation, Aids, and Robert Mugabe . . . lately, Zimbabwe has hardly sounded like a great tourist destination.

Hindsight is an interesting thing.

At the time, the idea of being stuck in Zimbabwe for a week without any money was daunting, but on reflection it turned out to be the best week of my life.

Having wrapped up three weeks with a tour group travelling from Kenya to Zimbabwe, my friend Sarah and I were meant to have continued our travels with another organised tour through Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe.

However, unbeknown to us, this had been cancelled due to a lack of tourist bookings.

So, with our flight not due to leave Victoria Falls for another week, we were now looking at a week left to our own devices.

My bank, back in the UK, had blocked my debit card, though this was neither here nor there as I soon learned that there was absolutely no way of accessing cash in Zimbabwe.

ATM machines were everywhere but hadn't worked for more than seven years, and credit-card facilities were non-existent.

Fortunately, Sarah had withdrawn $US150 in neighbouring Zambia, which would now have to pay for both our accommodation and food in this inflation-ravaged country.

A fellow member of our tour, Ross, from Scotland, was also staying on for the week in Zimbabwe, so we joined together in making our time worthwhile.

We stayed three nights at a camp ground in the heart of Victoria Falls town.

It was obvious this had once been a bustling tourist haven, thriving on "the smoke that thunders", as the falls are known.

The derelict streets were now home to starving street kids and desperate black civilians trying to sell the naïve tourist stolen crafts.

They also had worthless trillion-dollar notes to swap for unwanted items or food from tourists. Many shops lay vacant and vandalised, and food stores were bare.

However, I was told there was more available than there had been the previous month.

With accommodation cutting into our budget, our daily food staple was a can of beans, at a cost of $US2 a can, crackers, and peanut butter.

This time last year basics such as bread and biscuits were not available in Zimbabwe, so locals were delighted to see their return at affordable prices.

Since the legalisation of foreign currency, Zimbabwe has seen a stabilisation in food prices.

Previously, a loaf of bread could have cost $5 in one store and $10 in another, but the Government is now enforcing set prices, which seems to be working.

There's only so much to do in Victoria Falls without any cash, even though it is a beautiful spot, so a few locals suggested catching the train down to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second-largest city.

I wasn't totally convinced about the safety of this idea, but with a sturdy Scot to chaperone, we girls were up for the adventure.

For $US4 we boarded our first-class cabin about 6pm - we wanted to be aboard before it got dark.

We immediately locked up the windows and doors, and began to settle in for the night.

We were the only tourists and the only white people.

At about 8pm, our train set off for the overnight journey.

This was a former Rhodesia Rail train and it was easy to imagine how luxurious it would have been in its day.

But the fittings were now rotting, cockroaches roamed freely and there was a slight odour in the air.

The train stopped frequently during the night, and I would often awake to the sound of people jumping aboard.

I preferred when the train was moving because I felt vulnerable in the middle of nowhere in the black of night.

At about 7am we were still making the 450km journey to Bulawayo.

For the first time we were able to see rural Zimbabwe and its beauty.

Under the rising sun, Africa seemed endless.

It was magical soaking it all in.

Soon, we began to enter industrial territory, which indicated we were finally reaching Bulawayo.

We were busting for the loo because we had been hesitant to leave our cabin during the night.

Besides, the state of the toilet wasn't all that appealing.

When we left the train station, I took at look at economy class.

Black Zimbabweans had crammed themselves in, there was no glass in the windows - the carriages were falling apart, just like Bulawayo, it would seem.

Rubbish filled the streets, grand hotels had lost their beauty, and there was a constant smell of urine.

It was easy to imagine that this had been a beautiful city once, but with no maintenance it had lost most of its charm.

The traffic lights didn't work and the roads were riddled with potholes.

Robert Mugabe propaganda was everywhere.

We couldn't see a single tourist and according to the tourist operators we met, we were the first in six months.

But without any cash, we couldn't do any of the activities on offer.

However, we did learn that many had opened offshore accounts to combat this problem.

We later found out that many Zimbabweans had done so because their accounts had been cleaned out by Robert Mugabe's government.

We never felt unsafe in Bulawayo: in fact the locals bent over backwards to help us.

They want the tourists back; they want to rebuild.

We dined and blew most of our budget that night at the Golden Spur restaurant.

It was owned by a white Zimbabwean couple, who were desperate to leave.

However, they were over 60 and did not qualify for visas for any other country.

Their hospitality was incredible.

They closed up shop, which meant locking up the gates on the windows and doors (there had been an armed hold-up next door, the night before), and let us help ourselves to the bar.

We sat and chatted about the old Zimbabwe into the night.

They weren't racist nor did they have any resentment towards what had happened to their country.

They accepted what had happened and chose to get on with life, because they had to.

Their biggest challenge was living without their children and grandchildren, who now live in Australia.

They still (over)employ the same staff they did 10 years ago, out of loyalty, and as a result struggle to make ends meet.

We thought we'd visit the museum, but at a charge of $US20 (this price was made up on the spot based on the nationality declared in our passport) we couldn't justify the cost.

On our way we passed a dead body, the result of a hit-and-run.

An hour later, when we passed again, there was still no sign of emergency services.

The art gallery also wanted $US20, another cost we couldn't justify.

With nothing to do, we took afternoon sleeps in our empty hostel, played cards, and caught up on reading in the sunshine.

A British guy came to check in, but on finding out that credit cards weren't accepted he decided to put his remaining cash towards a bus ticket to South Africa.

After two nights in Bulawayo, Sarah and I decided to head back to Victoria Falls.

Ross had booked a ticket to Johannesburg, leaving us girls to make the journey back on our own.

The thought of this made me extremely nervous.

As on the journey down, we were going to be travelling through the night.

We paid US$6 to ensure we got the best seats on the train.

We were to share a cabin with two black Zimbabwean women, who were surprised to see two young white females.

They were very curious to know why we were on the train and what we were doing.

They offered us bananas and hot chips - the only food they could afford.

Still quite nervous, I hid myself in my sleeping bag and tried to fall asleep.

About 30 minutes after leaving Bulawayo the train stopped in the middle of nowhere.

People walked along the train looking into our cabin.

One man caught a glimpse of me, which caused the two women to panic.

I'm not sure what was said, but the women quickly locked the door and shut the windows.

This caused me to panic even more, but thankfully the train began to move.

I once again buried myself in my sleeping bag and didn't look up for 14 hours, by which time we were approaching Victoria Falls.

I was relieved to see daylight.

The two women said a prayer for us and wished us a safe journey as they headed off by foot to Zambia for business - they wouldn't say what type of business.

We were relieved to be back and into the safety of our guarded campsite.

That night we were treated to a braai of crocodile and warthog, the first proper meal we had had in a week - a thank-you from the campsite manager for our custom. - Rebecca McLean.



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