Playing Buckaroo in Zimbabwe

“You better take these for Zim”, my father joked, thrusting a wad of US dollar bills into my hand as I left for the airport. Following the collapse of their own currency, the Benjamin Franklin is king in Zimbabwe. The spiralling decline of Zimbabwe from bread basket of Africa to the continent’s basket case has been widely reported. It was therefore unsurprising that my parents were more than a little wary of my escapades last summer.

As part of a trip from Nairobi to Cape Town for the World Cup, I had plotted my route to ensure I visited a country that had changed beyond recognition from its colonial heyday, giving way to, well, what? If the news reports were anything to go by, an absolute disaster zone.

Imagine my surprise when my plane touched down at Victoria Falls International Airport on a sun-scorched runway and I was greeted by a fully-built, fully-powered, air-conditioned terminal. Now, let me make it clear, this was no Terminal 5. However, wouldn’t it be easier if you could get off the plane, just walk in, pick-up your bag, fill in a little card with your details, pay your money and go? Well, yes it would – if only I had brought correct change.

Due to our past bad behaviour in Comrade Bob’s eyes, Brits pay more than anyone else for their visas – US $50 to be precise – and unsurpisingly, there was no change to be had. That is unless I accepted South African Rand as change, not much use in a country where the official curency is in US dollars. So instead, cue a half-hour pantomime routine with the immigration guard (who was far too busy playing Pac-Man to be processing visas) and eventually, dollars scrunched in my hands, I was off.

The first thing that struck me, considering we were entering one of the busiest tourist resorts in Southern Africa was, the lack of traffic. Perhaps this was a stupid question given the widely reported fuel crisis that has gripped the country. Sure enough, as you pass the sign welcoming you to Victoria Falls, a sign proclaims: “No Gas!”

As well as reports of no fuel, empty shelves in supermarkets and unimaginable levels of inflation are infamous. So, off to the supermarket it was. Contrary to reports, there was bread, there was fruit and veg (albeit rather dodgy-looking) and even more impressively, there was Gordon’s Export Gin. Looking back, I shouldn’t have been surprised.

The suffering isn’t immediately obvious. Walking through Victoria Falls, you are reminded of what is really important in life and what humanity really is. Zimbabweans have, in their own words, been to hell and are on their way back.  They seem unsure of when their next excursion will be, but they are loving and entertaining. The hospitality is the best I have ever experienced and they are more than willing to give you a true local experience. This was perhaps my downfall: US $1 for a double G&T was never going to end well!

Now, Victoria Falls, the clue is in the name, right? Well yes it is, but I didn’t actually get up close and wet with the Falls itself. There is just so much other cool stuff to do. We were there too early in the season to be able to raft the Zambezi, but believe me, canoeing can be just as much of a hair-raising experience (it involved a near hippo attack!). Alongside walking with lions, playing unintentional buckaroo on a skittish horse, and bungee jumping into one of the deepest gorges in the world, there really are no more life-affirming activities you could undertake, in my view.

It was also the only time that I will ever be able to call myself a multi, not just billionaire, but zillionaire. Yes, I invested US $10 in buying up some unwanted stock of Zimbabwean Dollars, much to the delight of the entrepreneurial kid that flogged it to me. I was tempted to go and gamble it on the table at Zimbabwe’s version of Las Vegas, but funnily enough there was no one else there.

Zimbabwe: it may not be for the faint-hearted, but it’s there, it’s functioning, so for those of you with a sense of adventure, go!


Images courtesy of Daniel S. Gandolfo, Scott Holcomb and Stephen Mawby and Martine Van Utterbeeck.