After spending the morning on my cycling tour, I was ready to go to Zimbabwe. Although I had seen Victoria Falls from afar, this was my opportunity to get up close.
Getting across the border is an interesting process. I had made sure to get a multiple entry visa when I entered Zambia so I was not concerned about my return. But I would have to pay a fee to get into Zimbabwe.
My first taxi was able to take me to the border and helped me to negotiate the fare for the small portion of the ride that is in "no man's land" - essentially, this is the area over the Zambezi river and is not technically part of either country. I got my passport stamped for my departure and thought " this is pretty easy!" Not really true.
My $2 taxi (Zimbabwe uses US dollars as their primary currency because their own currency became worthless not very long ago) took me across the bridge where I could see the bungee jumpers waiting to launch. Not happening!
As I drove across the bridge, it was interesting to see the HUGE line of trucks waiting on both sides of the border! My taxi driver explained to me that it can take 3-7 days to get through border control in a truck. What a waste of time! I am not sure what causes the delay, but I was told that you can "buy" your way to a better place in the line. So much for the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act that we embrace in many Western countries. If you want to operate in this area, you either pay individuals to move you up the line (we call these "bribes") or you waste your time sitting at the border.
My taxi dropped me off at the Zimbabwe border and I was impressed that the line was not very long. Sadly, this was deceptive. The local tour operators skip the lines completely and step to the front of the line to have their guests expedited. The patrons don't even get out of the cars.
I was stuck with all the regular folks waiting to be processed. It was interesting to see that one of the women who was working in the customs office had a shirt with the embroidered logo "I am not corrupt". It was a bold statement but it made me wonder about those not wearing the shirt.
I submitted my paperwork and waited as many, many tour guides ignored the lines to get their guests approved. My recommendation to anyone who is not traveling to this region on a budget is to get a guide, if only to expedite your process in the lines.
After about 90 minutes, my name was called! They returned my passport and I was finally able to get into another taxi for the last 3 kilometers between me and my hotel.
I arrived at Shearwater Adventures and went to check in. My hotel room had been booked far in advance as I knew that I would want some luxuries after my volunteer work in Zambia. I remembered seeing photos of the infinity pool when I looked online....
As I checked in, the clerk asked me if I was staying in the "dome tents". I said no, remembering the photos I had seen on Hotels.com. The clerk looked up my reservation and stated that I was in the domed tents. Perhaps I should have paid a bit more attention as I was booking.
The tents were not bad. I actually had a cot and a bit of space. No lights, and certainly no air conditioning. Good thing it was winter. The bathrooms are communal, which is not fun for someone who just cannot make it through the night without a break. I think I was now ready to go home.
The primary reason that you come to Victoria Falls is all of the outdoor activities. I went to the lobby and started reviewing the brochures to figure out my options. Bungee jumping was definitely out. I wasn't even that thrilled about whitewater rafting. I had done this before and it might have been fun if I was not traveling alone. But I did sign up for an early morning hike into the Zambezi gorge and for a sunset cruise on the Zambezi for the next night.
Since my activities were now set, I found a place for dinner and decided to read for a while. It was going to be an early morning and it actually got cold at night. By the time I went to bed, I was too tired to be bothered by sleeping in a tent.
I woke early the next morning and went to find my guide. We were going to start out hiking with the whitewater rafters and then split off when they entered the river. It was pretty cold as we started out, but I knew that it would warm up as we hiked.
The first part of our climb involved going down VERY steep steps. I took my time as I could easily see that it would be a terrible fall if I missed my step. Rafting guides were passing me with deflated rafts on their backs and carrying paddles. It made me nervous - so I guess I really am getting old.
We made it into the gorge and found a great spot to watch the rafters take off. Several of the rafts overturned on the first rapid so I was glad to be on the shore. We did get a chance to get into the Zambezi but it was not really a swim. The coolest part is that we ended up under the bridge where the bungee jumpers were leaping. I got to see two people take part, and my perspective was really amazing. But it did not give me any motivation to try it...
We hiked out of the gorge and our guides rewarded us with beers. A nice way to start the morning.
After returning to our lodge, I showered and decided to explore the town. It's not much - lots of places selling tourist trinkets, and aggressive salespeople explaining that my purchase would be the first sale in weeks! Yep- I have a few souvenirs.
I spent a good part of the afternoon at a restaurant on the edge of the Zambezi, watching people do zip lines and something called a "gorge swing". This actually looked intriguing, but also terrifying. As I listened in on groups who had friends and families participating, I started to think that maybe I could give it a try. But I was sure that it would be expensive and that would give me an easy way out. After almost 7 weeks of travel, I was confident that I was already over budget.
But before I left to meet my sunset cruise, I inquired about the cost. $90 didn't seem so bad, so perhaps I would consider this for the next day.
The sunset cruise was really nice. I sat at a table with a local and his two teenage children. The children study in England because the education in Zimbabwe is so poor. The father lives in Victoria Falls and runs a lodge. It was nice to get a local's perspective on the country.
We were in a fairly small boat - it probably held about 40-50 people. They served us snacks and unlimited cocktails while we sailed along the river. We came upon a herd of elephants - easily 20 in all - who were drinking along the shore. We passed a "bloat" of hippos, one of which made sure that we saw all of its teeth.
Seeing the hippos reminded me of a story that I had just heard. My sister had visited Zimbabwe some years ago and raved about taking a canoe trip down the Zambezi. So I looked into one of these for my trip, but I didn't really have the time to make this worthwhile. In discussing this option with one of the guides in Zambia, he shared a story with me.
Two weeks before my visit, two women had been doing a canoe trip on the Zambezi with a guide. The canoe was capsized by a hippo (they are VERY territorial) and the hippo bit off one of the women's legs! She had to be airlifted out. My guide in Zimbabwe confirmed the story, but explained that these types of stories never make the news. The two primary sources of income in Zimbabwe are diamonds and tourism. If stories of incidents on tours get out, fewer people will visit.
Note to self - avoid hippos.
As we were heading back to the docks, we saw a "tower" of giraffe. It was pretty cool to watch them along the river as the sun set behind them. This boat trip was definitely a highlight.
The next morning, I decided that I was going to try the gorge swing. My seatmates from the sunset cruise had told me that they had really enjoyed it (one had also done bungee jumping and he did not like that!). I wished that I had friends along to give me a bit of encouragement, but I was confident that I would step off the platform!
I went back to the restaurant where I had spend the previous afternoon. It was odd to see warthogs grazing in the front yard of the restaurant, but this is Africa, after all.
I paid my fee before I could chicken out, then headed over to the starting point. It was really, really high!
The company offered a video of the event, which I declined, but I had to have pictures, didn't I? So I gave them $35 for emailed photos to commemorate the event.
They strapped me into several different harnesses, and I could feel my heart racing! I was hooked in from the moment I approached the platform, and they moved me from one set of hooks to the next until I reached the edge. Holy smoke - was I really going to do this?
The guide said "1, 2, 3..." and I stepped off! For the first few seconds, you are truly free-falling (thank you, Tom Petty!). And then the ropes catch, and you are really swinging. It was such a cool feeling, and I really did cry. I couldn't help it - I was so proud of myself for actually doing this! Maybe I am not that old after all...
The guides pulled me back to the side, and I rappelled up to the platform. I think I was still crying when I was finally unhooked. It was awesome!
I had an adrenaline rush and I was thinking about other activities that I might do for my last day in Zimbabwe, but I needed some money. So I went to the ATM. The nice guard smiled at me and told me that all the banks were out of money. Seriously! And since this was a bank holiday, as was the next day, they would not get money until Wednesday (today was Monday). It is pretty scary to be in a foreign country with NO ACCESS TO MONEY! I had been traveling for 6 1/2 weeks so my US dollars were mostly gone. I had $11 to my name. I realized that I had enough money to get to the border, but not enough money to do anything.
I went back to my hotel to pick up my bags and asked if perhaps the hotel would give me money on my credit card. The clerk told me that anything I needed could be obtained with a VIsa. I countered with the fact that the taxis don't take visa, and the guides rely on tips (the tour companies are all owned by Western companies who pay the guides poorly, so tips are their primary source of income), but the clerk had no sympathy. I was really glad to be getting out of this country.
I found a cab to take me to the border, and then decided to walk across so that I could stop and watch the bungee jumpers. It was really cool to see the jumpers go off the platform, especially now that I had seen them from below.
One of the vendors offered to trade me for a t-shirt, so I gave him a Peachtree Road Race shirt in return for a bowl (sure, I needed this!). And then I went to a restaurant on the Zambian side of the border to watch more of the adventurers. It was nice to have lunch (they took Visa), but I forgot to pay attention to the wild monkeys. One of them stole my French fries!
I had one day left on my adventure, so it was time to head to my last hotel. Last stop - Botswana!