Zimbabwe and Victoria Falls
Ben, August 25, 2010

Getting to Zimbabwe

On Sunday we had our flight to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. We landed at an extremely small airport, complete with baboons roaming the grounds, and spent a while getting through immigration. We got transferred to our hotel, the Victoria Falls Hotel, which also had monkeys in the trees, and tried to walk down to the Falls. On our way, we were stopped by a member of  the Zimbabwe Tourism Police, who told us that there was a charging bull elephant near the path. We ended up going around, but were still able to see the elephant about 200 yards away. We also passed by some warthogs before making it to the entrance of the park. Once we got there, we found out that it costs $30US to get into the park, so we decided to save it for a later day. We were both pretty exhausted from traveling, so we had an early dinner at the hotel, where we saw some tribal dancing and music. Overall, the hotel was very nice and beautiful, but very, very old. We felt like we had stepped back in time during our stay. The hotel has housed many notable people, including Hillary Clinton during Bill's presidency. The son of the Libyan president was also staying there while we were there.

Village Tour, Helicopter Ride, and Elephant-back Safari

Monday turned out to be one of the most memorable days that we have ever had. We were picked up at 8:00am for a tour of a traditional African village. We were greeted and shown around by the head of the household, Mpisi. He was a very interesting man and we talked about their households, communal living, religion, medicine, and development in the area. He had very interesting opinions on many things, especially about how development in Africa should take place. There, a great deal of emphasis is put on the community, not the individual or economics. Therefore, he feels that development in Africa should take place, but should be done so according to the customs and traditions of the people. One example we discussed was that if a cell phone company wants to put a tower on the community's land, it should be done so only if the community so desires, and any laborers involved should come from the community.

After the village tour, we went for a helicopter ride around Victoria Falls. It was the first time in a helicopter for both Pam and I, and it was extremely cool. It was a bit short (15 minutes or so), but well worth it and I'm excited to see the pictures and video from it. After the helicopter ride, we had a quick lunch at the hotel, before heading back out for an elephant-back safari. We spent about an hour riding through the bush on the back of Emily, our elephant for the afternoon. We spent the time looking for animals (though we didn't see many) and talking to our groom, who rode the elephant with us and directed her around, about both elephants and life in Zimbabwe. We learned quite a bit about elephants. They have the longest gestation period of any land mammal (close to two years) and are very smart (the elephants we rode know 27 different commands). We were also very impressed when Emily would rip off tree branches with her trunk to eat while we ambled through the bush. The ride was definitely one of my favorite parts of the trip so far.

Seeing Victoria Falls and the Zambezi River

The next day we spent the morning seeing Victoria Falls up close. We spent over an hour walking through the park, getting some amazing views of the Falls. It is over a mile wide and quite different from Niagra Falls, as it is more of a cut into the earth than a large falls with a pool at the bottom. A bit hard to explain, but check out these pictures to see what I mean. Because of this, you have to walk along a path to different viewing points to see different portions of the falls, instead of seeing it all at once. The 'cut' in the earth also causes a huge amount of spray to flow up into the air. The natives originally gave it a name meaning 'the smoke that thunders.' Right now, the water level of the falls is in between the heavy and dry seasons. This ended up being a pretty good thing for us, because the extra spray makes it hard to see the falls during heavy water times, and the water flow decreases dramatically during the dry season.

Later, we took a sunset cruise on the Zambezi River. This ended up being the best wildlife viewing we've had so far. We saw a young crocodile, a couple wild elephants, and numerous hippos. Some of the hippos were either playing or fighting (I'm not sure which), but we got some awesome pictures and videos of them. We also met an Italian family on the cruise, who had a 14 year old son who spoke pretty good English. We enjoyed talking with him/them, and heard good things about Kruger National Park, where we are headed for our safari. The father had an extremely nice digital SLR camera and was showing us some awesome pictures he was getting, which I think has Pam convinced that she wants one.

Thoughts on Zimbabwe

Overall, we really enjoyed Zimbabwe and Victoria Falls. Being there definitely gave me a new perspective and better understanding of the hardships the country has gone through over the past couple years. After enduring something like 12 billion percent inflation (at one point prices were apparently doubling every couple hours), they discontinued the Zimbabwean currency in 2009. They now deal exclusively in foreign currency, and it seemed as if no one ever had change for larger bills (including the hotel). Part of me thought that people were just trying to get you to give them the remainder, but when we insisted on change they would legitimately go looking for change. Unemployment is also unbelievable. We heard numbers between 65 and 80% unemployment in the country. Most children are also no longer in school, as the government has raised school fees to levels beyond the means of most families. On top of all this, the turmoil surrounding the country crippled the tourism industry (one of the nation's three largest industries) and a drought has crushed the agriculture industry (another of the 3, with mineral exports being the last). It definitely makes you feel for the people there, especially since they are all so nice and friendly, despite having gone through so much.
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