We journey off the beaten path next, to Bulawayo, Matobo National Park, and Harare. Few tourists venture to these destinations. Most, checking off one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, visit Victoria Falls and then head to Botswana for safaris. We are headed in an unexpected direction, and even Zimbabweans are surprised (though happy) to hear of our upcoming journey. Though I had considered renting a car and driving it myself to Matobo, we hire a driver due to the numerous police roadblocks we know we must pass through. A local will be better able to navigate those.
We pass through at least 15 roadblocks on the 6 1/2 hour drive. At two, we are stopped and our driver, John, asked to produce a license, a registration, a fire extinguisher (because if your car is on fire after an accident, of course you would risk your life to extinguish the fire), safety triangles, evidence of medical insurance, and proof that all lights work. John tells us several years ago, a high-ranking government official made a deal with the Chinese for blue fire extinguishers. Suddenly, Zimbabwe regulations required every driver to carry a blue fire extinguisher. At a third roadblock, the police harass John in earnest, arguing his license expired four years ago and his medical insurance expired two years ago. John, upset but firm, argues politely and shows him the cards, which are not expired. He does not pay a bribe – every “t” is crossed and every “i” is dotted – but as we drive away, complains the police are driving away tourists. I wonder if our white faces attract more attention, and John shakes his head. “They harass everyone,” he says. “I am most sorry for the combi drivers, whose vehicles are in bad shape. Those guys don’t know what to do and just end up paying the bribe at every roadblock.” Our hosts at our guesthouse in Matobo National Park complain of the same problem. A few weeks ago, a group of South African tourists gave up on a 3 week Zimbabwean driving vacation after driving just 200 kilometers into the country, fed up with the police roadblocks.
I wonder if this is one of the reasons the roads are so empty – we often drive long distances without seeing other cars, trucks, or buses. We occasionally see pedestrians, sometimes carrying nothing, sometimes carrying enormous packages, usually women balancing large parcels on their heads. We see a group of men carrying barbed wire on a pipe between them and children driving a cart drawn by 4 donkeys. The occasional bicycle. Villages or towns are 50 to 100 kilometers apart – where are these people walking from or to? How about the dapper gentleman, sitting on a bench by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, dressed in a suit and holding a worn briefcase in his lap? Buses do drive this way, but they are often several hours late, so he must be timely or risk missing the bus, even if it means several hours of waiting.
Waiting is a constant of Zimbabwean life. The country’s economy is in crisis mode, and there are shortages of nearly everything. In Bulawayo, we see 100 people waiting in line at an ATM, another 75 waiting in line outside a bank. The country has a shortage of cash, purportedly because the 93 year old President, Robert Mugabe, has been withdrawing it from the banks and spending it – most recently, he is said to have withdrawn $9,000,000 cash for his four week February vacation. When we leave the country, we cannot leave with more than $1,000 cash, even if we brought it in from abroad. One of our hosts at our guesthouse has been waiting for weeks to have her car fixed – the mechanic can’t fix the car because he doesn’t have cash to buy the part. Hyperinflation was so bad that before the U.S. dollar became accepted as currency in Zimbabwe, a $500 trillion bill was reportedly printed by the government (though apparently never placed into circulation). On our way to Khami ruins, our guide Humperdinck is late because he can’t find petrol. He drives to a station selling petrol from Botswana. This petrol is illegal to sell, and those selling it risk jail time for selling it instead of the watered down Zimbabwean petrol. Humperdinck shrugs his shoulders. It it what they all expect now. Zimbabweans know things will not change until there is a change in power, and there will not be a change in power until Mugabe dies.
I had always imagined all of modern Africa as over-crowded, but the area around Matobo National Park is sparsely populated. The bush is the same, mile after mile. The green leaves of the trees are fading into yellow and the baobab trees have already dropped their leaves. Brown grass blows in the wind around ubiquitous 6 feet tall termite hills, and ochre brown dirt and dust permeate the air.
Matobo, sitting on a huge batholith, a land of kopjes with layers of granite peeling off every 10,000 years like layers of an onion and enormous boulders precariously perched atop other enormous boulders, has its own peculiar beauty. Tracking a female white rhino and her baby, I am surprised when the cool wind reminds me of Colorado in November, transcending both geography and time. One evening, we climb the kopje behind our hotel and witness the setting sun paint the sky, the clouds, and the balancing boulders yellow, orange, pink and purple. We climb another kopje the following day and see more paintings, this time the 10,000 year old Silorzwi cave paintings by the Khoisan people, who used paint made from bush seeds, animal blood and gall bladder bile, and cactus milk. Paintings of elongated women and men, giraffes, lions, and snakes, baobab trees and distant rain clouds with legs, and hunters with short spears tipped with poison from the scadoxus multifloris flower bulb, also known as the blood lily, able to fell a grown zebra 15 minutes after being hit. We hear the Ndebele creation story: a bee flying over Matobo picked up the egg of a preying mantis and laid it in a lily flower, which then hatched a man and a woman. A story so beautiful it is both unexpected and exactly expected. A thorn from the wait-a-minute acacia bush catches Alex on the way down, and our guide, Walter, laughs. These thorns are difficult to pull out of clothing; hence the nickname. When we arrive back at the jeep, local Ndebele people have unexpectedly appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, and set up their wares to sell. We buy hand-carved wooden forks and spoons and black and red necklaces made from the pods of a tree.
At the guesthouse that evening (we are the only guests), we discover our hosts Barry and Linda had to chase away a spitting cobra from their office earlier. They seem pretty cavalier about it, which mystifies me. Before bed, we meet Castor, the spotted hyena they raised after his mother was killed. Extremely shy, we see him only from a distance and only at night. I suppose Barry’s expectations of the wildlife he will see on a daily basis, and his feelings about the wildlife that makes its way into his home, are tempered by the fact that he is a former wildlife official and pilot for the Zimbabwean wildlife department.
Our guides have been eager to share Zimbabwean history and the current political situation with us, and we hear the same stories told by Walter, a third generation Zimbabwean, and Humperdinck, an ethnic Shona. We learn of the South African king Shaka Zulu who sent chiefs to conquer other lands, of the chief who took land and never returned it to Shaka Zulu, and of Lobengula, that chief’s son who eventually became king of those new lands but was then tricked into selling his country to the white men. We learn of Cecil Rhodes, founder of Rhodesia (renamed Zimbabwe at independence), now buried in Matobo. A group of preschool children, dressed in red and blue uniforms, are visiting his grave at the same time as us, having their annual pictures taken upon his grave. Not surprisingly, Humperdinck spends more time on the African history and Walter spends more time on the colonial history, but both stories are surprisingly similar. Both white/black conflicts and black/black conflicts have been devastating in Zimbabwe, and one thing most citizens seem to be united in is their opposition to corruption and their dislike of Robert Mugabe and what he has done to the country economically and socially.
Zimbabweans have greeted us with smiles everywhere we have gone. Life is not easy here, and has not been easy for a long time. Yet the welcome we receive is warm, helpful, and hopeful. Our last guide gives us a 30 minute tour of Harare; it’s rushed, but our time is limited. When I tell him how much we have enjoyed our journey, he smiles. “Thank you,” he says, “for being brave. So many people think of this as a war zone, as a hard place to visit. We do have problems, yes, but it is a beautiful country and I’m glad you have visited. We all hope and expect those problems to improve. Maybe next year.” He shrugs his shoulders. “We know it will get better.” He has been visibly proud of everything he showed us in Harare. “Thank you,” he says. “Thank you so much for visiting Zimbabwe.”
This week exceeded my expectations in every way possible, and consequently, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the concept of expectations. As humans, we are driven by our expectations, both positive and negative. Disappointment, fear, and even biases and prejudices can arise from expectations. But expectations also create satisfaction, hope, excitement, and gratitude.
Sometimes life experiences match our expectations. I was terrified of jumping off the edge of the Zambezi Gorge, and rightly so. It was terrifying. Alex, who knows me well, thought I would be happy once I had done it, and rightly so. I wasn’t just happy, I was euphoric. But sometimes our life experiences do not match our expectations. Zimbabwe’s people and places have exceeded our expectations in almost every way, but not every minute of every day was perfect. We met some unexpected roadblocks: we drank tap water by mistake, had spitting cobras in our guesthouse, and of course, ran into actual police roadblocks. For me, acknowledging in advance of my trip that I didn’t know what to expect was important. Expecting the unexpected has meant delighting in the unexpected: warm smiles, history lessons, hidden beauty, unexplored corners, baby rhinos and adopted spotted hyenas named Castor. Perhaps that is a lesson I should carry with me beyond this trip.
And anyway, the spitting cobra makes a good story.