How to travel Africa like the billionaire you are not!
My first impression of Zimbabwe was Kenya in early 2000. Unrealistically expensive airtime and data, numbingly slow internet, dysfunctional systems (we still have those though) and a people that are unbelievably insouciant about it all. When I bought my local Econet line at the Victoria Falls airport, it took almost half an hour to have it registered as the system kept hanging. The internet speed was painfully slow and the data ridiculously expensive. I paid USD 10 for 650 MB (a weekly package they said, but I consumed it in two days haha), an amount that would have earned me 5GB of Safaricom data in Kenya. I had arranged for airport pickup with my hotel but sadly, none of the placards in the possession of the taxi drivers spelt out my name.
I asked the pleasant lady manning the Econet counter to call the hotel for me as we waited for the sim card registration process to pick momentum. Sadly, their lines were not going through owing to network issues. This was truly Kenya twenty years ago. Do you remember how there’s a time you had to hike up the highest point in your shagz (upcountry) to get Kencell reception, or how if you grew up in Donholm, Nairobi (I think all cool guys grew up in Doni) you would only get good reception if you stood outside your 10th floor apartment’s balcony? That was the level of frustration I was undergoing, hardly the welcome I had envisaged. But, I refused to let it kill my spirit. I was here to reflect and review the first half of the year, plan for the next half and most importantly participate in the stunning Vic Falls Marathon. So, I summoned that elusive patience trait and I asked it to stay with me for as long as I was in Zim.
Armed with my Zim phone line, I managed to finally get through to the hotel. They apologized and offered me meals and drinks worth the equivalent of what I would pay for an airport taxi, which was USD 20. My trip was finally off to a good start. I hopped into a tiny red van. It was sizzling hot and the AC was a welcome relief. The driver, a thin dark guy with glistening white teeth smiled at me cheerfully as I settled into the front seat. If I had teeth like that I would also smile so hard my jaws would hurt. We drove at moderate pace through impeccably tarmacked road that cut through a national park. He casually informed me that it was not unusual to encounter an elephant crossing the road and I dismissed it as hogwash. Turned out he was not joking as I later experienced on day three!
Through Boolking.com, I had booked myself into three different hotels for my four-night stay in Victoria Falls, something that was unintentional but worked out perfectly. Owing to the marathon, there was high demand for rooms and I was not able to get accommodation in my initially preferred hotel Cresta Sprayview, so I booked it for Day 1 and 3. It was a three-star hotel that would set me off USD 82.50 a night excluding breakfast which was USD 20. Cresta in a nutshell-large swimming pool, no gym, basic toiletries, spacious but freezing rooms. At Cresta, you can’t afford to sleep with your head or even nose peeking out of the duvet. You tuck in everything as any exposed part might freeze and lose its function, and no, the AC was not on! The breakfast was worth the twenty dollars which the hotel paid for anyway.
I had booked two excursions in advance through Trip Advisor-a dinner cruise on my first night on Thursday and white-water rafting on Friday. On Saturday, I planned to just kick it at the hotel, read a book, hydrate, swim, hydrate, reflect, hydrate, write, hydrate..you know the yacht life haha. And on Sunday, I was going to run that marathon like I was Kipchoge Keino, much as I was only doing 21kms. But you know how it is with life, right? You make your grand plans, but God in his big leather reclining seat up there watches you stressing and planning everything to the letter, lets out this thunderous laugh that emanates from his belly and says to angel Gabriel “Doesn’t she ever learn? She’ll know who’s the master planner!”
Just as I was settling into bed after a hot shower, the hotel room’s phone rang with a piercing sound, startling me.
“Madam Joy, how’s your stay so far?”
“I only just got here. Will you at least give me a few more hours so that I can have something substantial to report? Your showers are awesome though!” I teased. She chuckled.
“Alright, maam. You will be picked up at sixteen thirty hours for your diner cruise. Please be at the reception then.”
Interestingly, as I came to learn, almost everyone in Zimbabwe reports time using the 24-hour system.
The dinner cruise was magical, making it worth the USD 68 it cost. If you go to Zim, you must do it. A ten-minute drive in a comfortable shuttle led us to the Zambezi river where we paid USD 10 for the park fees, gulped a refreshingly tasty welcome drink of iced tea and walked across a lush lawn to the boat which was set up like a terrace restaurant. There were hippos and numerous birds along the river as we sailed by. There were the incredible views of the sunset which was an orange fiery ball that dipped into the river and later, a massively gorgeous full moon with orange-red hues refracting light from the sun that had just set. And then there were the meals-a delightful four-course dinner that would put a three star Michelin restaurant to shame. Also, the drinks both soft and alcoholic were on the house. The starter was exciting, and the soup was tasteful and satiating. By the time the entrée of fish and mash potatoes was served, I was stuffed. The sky was starlit and full of promises.
On the second day, after a rather filling breakfast, I was picked up at 7:20am for white water rafting, something I signed up for without much thought. I imagined it was like going swimming in the river, so I had my swimming costume underneath my shorts and t-shirt and some delicate sandals to complete the look. Boy was I in shock when I read the disclaimer. The Zambezi River was classified as a Grade Five River, with the definition of a Grade Five river being “Extremely difficult, long and violent rapids, steep gradients, big drops and pressure areas!” Worse still, it involved walking down and up a steep gorge on slippery ground with shaky rocks and lose sand to access and exit the river. There was no way my sandals were going to see me through that trip unharmed, so I dashed back to the hotel and switched them for my trainers.
We were about 14 of us out of which only three were female. I was the only black person which made me question my decision repeatedly. We drove in an open tourist van for about half an hour mostly in the woods through rough terrain and then assembled at the top of the gorge, changed into thermal vests and started our descent, our paddles in hand. I toyed with the possibility of slipping and rolling down and crushing on the rocky river bank but luckily, all of us handled that trek like the pros we hoped to be. I was totally unprepared for the view that awaited us at the bottom of the gorge; a turbulent river surging through a barely 40m wide gorge. It was arrestingly scenic. Finally, we settled in the raft, 8 of us plus Captain Frank, our guide who had such corny jokes to tame our fears. Crushing against violent rapids over a 15km stretch with our boat almost capsizing was the true definition of a death ride, one I would happily get on again! It was scary but exhilarating. Should you find yourself in Vic Falls, don’t think twice. It will set you off USD 120. I used Sheawater Victoria Falls and I would rate them 10/10.
Afterwards, I checked out of my hotel and moved to the second one, Mawuya Lodge. It was half the price of Cresta but also half as good. It was a ten-room lodge that felt deserted. A pond size pool that looked like it had been last used in the last world cup sat desolately in one corner. There was some construction going on but luckily from inside my room I couldn’t hear the noise. I settled into my room, showered then stepped out to take a walk thinking how sad it would have been if I had booked my entire stay at Mawuya. But just as I was beginning to run a countdown to checkout, I heard some familiar voices in the next room, familiar in the language they spoke and their accents. I froze, then listened some more. They were Kenyans, no doubt! Isn’t it funny how when you meet your country mates in a foreign country you immediately hit it off? There was Eddah, Carol, Daisy and Kim, all there for the marathon.
Immediately my reading, reflection and hydrating plan was thrown out of the window and I joined them for a trip to Livingstone, Zambia which was about half an hour away. We sported several elephants by the roadside along the way on the right side. On the left, the Zambezi sparkled as the sunset cast its rays over it. Going by the recommendation of the cab guy, we ended up at Limpos Pub & Grill in Livingstone where we had crocodile meat and danced till 9pm when we had to leave as the border offices would close at 10.00pm. I slept like a baby, probably because I was bushed from the rafting and the dancing, but also because the room was warm, and cozy and I didn’t have to worry about suffocating while trying to fully cover up. The breakfast which was only five dollars was unbelievably good. I had totally underestimated Mawuya Lodge and suddenly, I wished I was staying there for the remainder of the trip. I had unfortunately paid for my third night at Cresta Sprayview so I packed my bag and kept it at the reception. Over breakfast, a plan was hatched to take a road trip to Botswana which was 70km away. This was Saturday and the race was scheduled for the following morning. I thought it was unwise, maybe even irresponsible, but because of FOMO, I joined the bandwagon. It was the best decision, in retrospect.
We drove through an immaculately tarmacked road cutting through dry shrubs. Kim was quick to mention that if her granny was on our trip, she would be impressed by how much firewood was available in Zim haha. Several trucks carrying blocks of copper drove past us. After a while, one chic asked to pee by the roadside and the driver’s face went ashen. We were smack in the middle of a National Park and elephants, even lions, were just lurking behind the shrubs. At the border, just before entering Botswana, we were forced to dip our feet on this small rusty tray that held murky water to ensure we did not carry Foot and Mouth disease with us to Bots. I found it ridiculous.
We got to Kasane town in Botswana at around quarter to three. The first stop was a tours and travel office that advised us to do a three-hour game drive on a boat, something that piqued our curiosity. At a cost of 25 dollars per person, we sailed along Chobe River in a simple, open boat that felt like a bus only without the body and wheels. On one side of the river was Botswana, and the other, Namibia. There were plenty of elephants that looked darker than our Sudanese neighbors, Hippos and Buffaloes that seemed oblivious to our presence, crocodiles basking on the bank, deer and impalas running around in the park and lots of birds including the Yellow Billed Stork. We learnt that the female ones change their beak color from white to pink when they are ready for mating, something I was glad doesn’t happen to women! Maybe the men would have loved that though. On our journey back, the sun set was ever so beautiful, changing from a massive yellow globe to a small fiery ball that dipped into the river in a fraction of a second. As we drove back to the border, there was a bit of a traffic situation as a herd of buffaloes was crossing the road.
When I checked into Cresta at 9.00pm after picking my bag from Mawuya, the night manager looked at me like he had seen a ghost.
“I am sorry maam, we released your room.”
“It is company policy to release rooms after six pm.”
“But I confirmed I was coming so right now, your policies hold no water.”
He frantically phoned several hotels. I thought of the many ways I would scream and curse and haul expletives at those greedy guys (obviously they gave up my room because there was high demand and I booked way in advance but they would fetch more from a walk in) but I decided to breathe and stay calm. I just told them to fix it and that all I wanted was to be as close as possible to The Kingdom Hotel, a five-star hotel where the race was starting from. To my surprise, they booked me in at The Kingdom Hotel at their own expense (USD 250 a night)! That meant that I could sleep till 6am as opposed to waking up earlier to catch a cab to the race. It meant I could have five-star breakfast and not worry about the cost. It also meant that I would get the rest I badly needed. And I did. After breakfast, I walked outside the hotel to a mass of runners gearing up for the race ahead.
At some point in life, you must run the Vic Falls marathon. And I say this not for fitness or supporting a cause, not even the spectacular views or anything else weighty. You need to participate in this marathon to see the diversity of human beings and their different degrees of madness. There was a black dinky guy in checked boxers and a t-shirt and a short haired lady in a beige skirt that went just below the knee and long socks pulled up to the knees. There were several people running with their music on full blast not giving a toss about the rest of us who wanted to be one with nature. There was a tall black guy wrapped in a huge Zimbabwe flag from neck to feet and my all-time favorite? A short burly guy with a small Indian flag attached to a thin post that he had slipped underneath his shirt and tucked into his shorts. I imagined that post scrapping his butt crack with every step he made. If that’s not patriotism I don’t know what is. We went across the bridge overlooking the waterfall then ran through the park to the sound of trumpeting elephants that the guards kept shooting at. The terrain was quite decent with surprise ascents from 15 to 18 kilometers. I completed 21 kms in 2hours, 1 minute.
Zimbabwe, Victoria Falls, is elephants trumpeting randomly. I heard it all the time from the last hotel I stayed in, Sheawater Explorers Village which had these chalets with makuti thatched roofs that reminded me of Manda Bay in Lamu. The elephants trumpeted every so often. First you think it’s a Gor Mahia game about to happen and rowdy fans are heckling and blowing vuvuzelas. Then the noise gets louder and prolonged and you realize no one has the energy to blow a vuvuzela for that long, unless they are Incredible Hulk. You know the way cows moo all the time in shagz or the way donkeys bleat incessantly in Ndunduri? Elephants and their trumpeting rule Vic Falls. And then there’s the people. They are warm and they smile all the time, which is ironical given the hardships most of them have had to endure in the face of a reckless government. I spoke to one guard at the hotel and asked him if there’s one thing he wished the new government (they have elections in a month’s time) would make possible;
“Jobs. I long for the day real jobs that pay on time will be a reality. Almost 90% of the population is unemployed (his stats). Our mines are shut down and most people have part time jobs.”
He said this with a smile by the way.