Zimbabwe Trains

At about 11am on a Tuesday I entered Zimbabwe. The sun was baking above me and I could feel its heat radiating from the cement at my feet. Other than the immigration people, the border post was deserted. I had walked from Botswana that morning, planning to catch a ride to Victoria Falls once across the border. It was a surreal introduction to a new country. I was literally the only person at both check points. I stamped out of Botswana in less than a minute, threw my pack on and trudged the one km no mans land to Zimbabwe immigration. I stamped into Zimbabwe almost as fast as I had left Botswana, however the slight formality of paying a $75USD visa did add a minute or two. Either way, the lack of people and the dull unimpressive landscape made me feel as if I had seemingly crossed into an uninhabited wasteland. Hot, dry, and deserted. This was my welcome to Zimbabwe.

Welcome!!
Welcome!!

I waited for about an hour (which felt like a lot longer) before a vehicle arrived at the border post, by this point I was happy to just see other people, let alone possible transport. It was a van carrying a small group of older looking tourists. Immediately I thought of hitchhiking and waited patiently as they all checked into Zim one by one, most likely each paying the same $75USD visa. After what felt like another hour, the van finally pulled out from the immigration parking lot and was headed into Zimbabwe, straight for me. I stuck out my thumb and they stopped. Nice, I thought, free ride. Wrong. The van had stopped so that one of the tourists could take a picture of the “Welcome to Zim” sign (which gave me the idea to do the same, once they had left). A women got out and physically ignored my presence. I was within two meters of her and got absolutely no reaction which would suggest I even existed. I stood by for a second while she took her photo and then figured I should make my presence known.

“Hi” I said, “any chance I could get a lift”. “Where are you going?” she replied. “Victoria Falls”. Vic Falls is about 100km from the border and I figured that’s where they were going. She sounded British and looked to be in her late sixties. “Let me ask the others in the van”. Sweet, I thought, still a chance. She disappeared into the van and I waited patiently at the door smiling in the hopes that the other tourists knew I was not a threat. I could see a few empty seats in the van and some very cold faces. She returned with a pathetic smile and said, “sorry we can’t give you a lift”. “That’s okay,” I said, and with my best attempt at kind sarcasm, “I’m Canadian, I’m sure I’ll find a way somehow.” Shit, I thought, and watched the back of their van as it drove off into the nothingness before me.

I turned back to the border post hoping to see some sign of traffic. There were a couple of giant trucks that had pulled up in the few minutes I had been distracted but no other sign of traffic. No taxis, no combis, not even the classic (and super dangerous) minivan African public transport, which of course seems to be everywhere when you don’t need it. Whatever, I sat on my bag and took out my book. Ten minutes later one of the trucks started to move and I looked up to see it crossing the border. I stood up to move out of its way and figured it was worth I try, I stuck out my thumb. The truck stopped beside me and the door swung open. I was greeted by a good looking young women, “where are you going?” she asked. “Victoria Falls.” “Cool”, she said, “let’s go”.

I jumped up into an 18 wheel transport truck manned by a married couple from Harare, Zimbabwe. Jerry the husband greeted me with a big smile and introduced himself and his wife, Shelly. I shook both their hands and thanked them for offering me a lift. Their English was great and right away we struck up an interesting conversation. Jerry and Shelly were heading to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (weirdly the wrong direction from that of which we were travelling at the time, but I never brought it up). They had been on the road for a month, picking up different transport contracts here and there. Jerry explained that they lived in South Africa, but were originally both from Zimbabwe, they had three young kids who were staying with his mother while they travelled around. This was the last leg they were doing before heading back home and both seemed keen to get back to their kids. Jerry and Shelly were incredibly nice and I found it funny that after being rudely shunned by the Brit tourists, I got picked up by local Africans with big welcoming smiles and no fear of the travelling muzungu.

 

hitchiking in Zimbabwe
hitchiking in Zimbabwe

After saying goodbye to Jerry and Shelly I headed straight to the Vic Falls train station. There is a daily departure of an old passenger train from Vic Falls to Bulawayo, 500km south. I wanted to get a ticket before they had sold out. Luckily, they had not, and I bought a first class ticket for $12USD. The train was leaving that evening and gave me the afternoon to visit the Zimbabwe side of Victoria Falls. The Zim side is known to have better angles on the falls and my two hour visit did not disappoint. I hope you like the photos.

Vic Falls
Vic Falls
Vic Falls Pano
Vic Falls Pano
Vic Falls B&W
Vic Falls B&W
Vic Falls
Vic Falls

After viewing the falls I decided to hit the grocery store before the train departure. Aimlessly roaming the aisles is something I have come to enjoy. Grocery stores have so much selection and the individual packaging is an interesting case study in local marketing techniques. I wandered for a good ten minutes before deciding it was time to find the only two things I was actually there to buy. Wine and cheese.

There is a good South African wine selection in Zimbabwe. I got a nice Merlot and some Gouda to go with it. On my way out, I saw another traveller who I happened to recognize. As I got closer I realized it was an Israeli girl named Shai who I had met months earlier in Zanzibar. We were mutual friends of a diver named Opaz who lived in Nungwi. I had met Shai at an Israeli religious holiday celebration Opaz had invited me to. We had gone diving the next day and got on well. She smiled as I approached and instantly recognized me. “Hey,” I said, “what’s up, how are you”? “Good,” she said and we greeted each other with a hug mid grocery store.

Small world situations are always fun and the inevitable conversation an interesting one. Where have you been? What have you been up to? How are your friends, family, etc, etc. Shai had been in Zimbabwe for a week and was headed for Botswana. In total she was still planning another few months in Southern Africa and had already been on the road for six. I explained that I was leaving on the train in about an hour and she decided to join me on my walk back to the station. Now get this, as we arrived, another traveller I had met earlier rocked up to the ticket window. This was a Dutch guy named Rinaldo I had met in South Luangwa a week earlier. He has travelled from Istanbul to Southern Africa over the last 8 months, stopping in Iraq and Somalia along the way. I introduced him to Shai and the three of us talked travel in Africa until the train was about to depart. Saying goodbye to Shai, Rinaldo and I got onto the train and found the four person sleeper berth we would be spending the next 15 hours in.

Vic Falls Train Station Zimbabwe
Vic Falls Train Station Zimbabwe

We were sharing the berth with a local Zimbabwean man named Albert. He was a construction worker who lived in Bulawayo and had just finished a two week contract in Vic Falls. He was a nice guy and again, great English. We started to speak of Zimbabwe, its history, economy, agriculture, highlights, etc. etc. He was seemingly educated and had a number of differing opinions about the country. Not that any of them were specifically grounded with hard evidence, but he liked to talk, so I listened. Now when in Zimbabwe, it is impossible to avoid the subject of the highly controversial president, Mr. Robert Mugabe. I unfortunately do not know much about Mugabe, but I will try to give you a quick overview anyway.

The current president of Zimbabwe has been the only president of Zimbabwe. The country gained independence in 1979 and in March, 1980 Mr. Mugabe was voted into office democratically with a majority government. Since then, and especially in the 90’s, Mugabe’s regime has focused on culling the opposition and creating a political culture of fear and repression. He has been threatened of losing power a few times and miraculously seems to escape each election with his presidency still intact. There are many people who believe the past two elections were rigged and the UN publically deemed both neither free nor fair. Mugabe is most famous internationally for initiating a chaotic land reform program that basically kicked out all white farmers from Zimbabwe (which was once known as Rhodesia). He is currently still in office and a couple of years ago created a coalition with the opposition, which most likely still renders them impotent. The situation screams dictator and there really doesn’t seem to be an end to his regime in the near future. Travelling in Zimbabwe did seem safe enough though. The people were extremely friendly and I never once felt a sense of danger. I think that the people are more concerned about feeding themselves and their families than they are about taking on the well-armed state in an act of revolution.

Albert spoke little about Mugabe, but it was obvious he believed the government needed to change and a new constitution written. We continued to speak of Zimbabwe and other countries in Africa for the next hour or so, before Albert decided to go to the diner car for his dinner. The train moved at about 50km per hour and the estimated journey was 10hours. I have learned through travel in Africa that you can add at least an hour or two to whatever the “estimated” travel time is. This was again the case with the train and our 500km journey ended up taking about 15hours in total.

Arriving in Bulawayo the next morning I parted ways with Rinaldo again and said goodbye to Albert. I made tentative plans to meet Rinaldo in Windhoek, Namibia in a couple of weeks. We are thinking about trying to recruit a few other travellers and rent a car in Namibia. It should work out and will make travelling around much easier. Anyway, on that same morning I decided to make the most of the day and actually continue travelling destined for Botswana and ultimately Francistown. Francistown is home to a friend’s parents who had agreed to put me up for a few nights on their farm. I spent the majority of that day in taxis, buses, immigration lines and more taxis, eventually making Francistown by sunset.

Unfortunately I did not have a lot of time to explore Zimbabwe. It is a country I am generally interested in and believe does have a lot to offer the tourist. However, with my current itinerary and time frame, I really do need to keep moving and sadly sacrifice some locations for others. I am currently writing from a farm house porch in south east Botswana. The sun is shining and I am going hunting on a private game reserve this afternoon.  I have only ever shot a gun once in my life, so this should be an interesting experience. Maybe I’ll actually hit something. Let’s hope it’s just a tree. Anyway, the journey continues.

Zim Trains!!
Zim Trains!!

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