Tag Archives: Victoria Falls

The Train Trip

We promised you no more bus stories, so this is a story about the train trip that we took in the last 24 hours…

We wanted to travel from Victoria Falls to Bulawayo, both on the western side of Zimbabwe. The options were a five hour bus trip leaving at 4 AM from somewhere out of town, or an overnight train leaving at 7PM from the train station only five minutes walk from our guesthouse. We asked several local people about the train, and they confirmed that it was safe, despite our guidebook’s comment that accidents are common. We chose the train because of the ease of access, better departure time, avoidance of the cost of one night’s accommodation, and the positive experience we’d had on the overnight train in Tanzania. The train trip was scheduled to take 14 hours, and to arrive at 9 AM in Bulawayo.

We arrived at the train station just before dark, and waited until the list was posted showing which people were assigned to which saloon (i.e. car) and compartment. We were assigned to saloon 1121 compartment C, which a 1st class ‘coupe’, a sleeping compartment for two people only. It sounded wonderful.

When we boarded the train, we found that almost all the lights in the car were not functioning. The passageway was completely dark, making it difficult to find out compartment. Our compartment was one of only two that had lights, while the other 1st class passengers sat in complete darkness. Our compartment had an intermittent smell of smoke and urine. The lower bench, where we both sat and Diane slept, was missing much of its upholstery, so dirty foam was visible instead. Above the upper bunk was a small storage compartment which we closed after discovering that it contained bones, hopefully from a previous passenger’s dinner and not from a previous passenger. There was a small medicine cabinet above what was once a fold down sink, both of which we were afraid to open. Patrick opened them and looked anyway.

The two African men in coupe D had no lights, and we struck up a conversation with one of them. He was a businessman from Zambia, with good English and a laid back attitude. He was traveling in Zimbabwe as part of his work in import/export (i.e. smuggling). Apparently cooking oil is much cheaper in Zimbabwe than in Zambia due to the fact it can be obtained from South Africa duty-free. By purchasing it in bulk in Zimbabwe, and then smuggling it into Zambia without paying duties, he makes a tidy profit.

There were signs posted on the train like ‘Preserve your Heritage, Don’t Damage the Trains” and “No Smoking”. Our chain-smoking conductor came by to check our tickets. In 1st class, they normally provide sheets, blankets, and pillows to passengers, then rent any extra ones to those in second class for $1 US per person. On our trip, they had no sheets, but we were given two blankets and a pillow each. We used our own sleeping sheets and the blankets, which were just warm enough when the temperature dropped significantly at night.

You could tell that our National Railway of Zimbabwe (NRZ) train was, in colonial times, a beautiful thing, but it has seen better days. In 1st class, in addition to no lights and sparse upholstery, the cars were also lacking many pieces of window glass, all the door handles, and any form of maintenance or cleaning. Our compartment and the passageway were dirty. The toilets had no seats, no longer flushed, and like other trains in Africa, were basically just a hole opening down through the floor onto the tracks. There was no running water in the bathrooms, but there was a sign asking people not to occupy the bathroom for more than 10 minutes, which was not necessary in our case, as we tried to get out of there as quickly as possible, without touching anything.

In the morning, Patrick walked down a few cars to check out 3rd Class. Between the cars, all the doors were missing. In 1st class, the doors to the exterior did not shut (due to the missing door handles), but in 3rd class, they were completely gone. The ground rushed by outside, and the wind poured into the cars. In 3rd class, in addition to the missing doors, there were was no glass in any of the windows. The passengers were huddled on benches under blankets, wearing toques and gloves trying to stay warm as the wind blasted through the cars. This was definitely not a pleasant way to travel, especially when you’re not used to the cold. 3rd Class costs $5 US per person and 1st Class costs $8.

The train was running late, and we were expecting to arrive around 10 AM, when the train stopped unexpectedly on the outskirts of Bulawayo. The conductor wandered by to let us know that the train had run out of petrol. What? Lawnmowers run out of gas. Gas barbeques run out of gas. Occasionally, Patrick’s car runs out of gas. But trains do not run out of gas. Or at least they shouldn’t.


People started to disembark from the train, and stood beside the tracks in the tall grass. Patrick walked the length of the train, up one side and down the other, seeking information on what was happening. A group of male passengers were crowded around the engine at the front of the train. One said that another engine was being sent to retrieve us. Many of the passengers who could had already started to walk. We were apparently about 30 minutes hike from the second-to-last station before our destination. From there, it would likely be possible to get some form of transport to the end. When Patrick reported this to Diane, she was not pleased. We were getting ready to start hiking when we heard that the rescue engine would likely arrive in 15 more minutes. After about 90 minutes of waiting, the train started moving again, and we made it to Bulawayo at about 1 PM, only 4 hours late!

Zimbabwe, Continued.

We entered into Zimbabwe by walking across the bridge over the Zambezi River just downstream of Victoria Falls. We walked into the town of Victoria Falls, which seemed deserted relative to the bustle of activity on the Zambian side of the falls in Livingstone. All of the gas stations and many of the shops were closed. What remained open was a grocery store, a couple of restaurants, several tour booking agents, and some curio shops. Everything that remained open was there to serve the few remaining tourists, which were sparse. The guest house we stayed at, once a happening place for overland trucks and backpackers had only six guests including us. Most of the other hotels were either closed, or had a similar occupancy rate.

Despite this, the people were friendly, and we felt safe walking the streets. It was possible to see that this was once a thriving tourist town, and before that, a jewel in the prosperous British colony run by Cecil Rhodes (the ‘Rhodes’ in ‘Rhodes Scholar’), leader of the British South Africa Company.

We saw the rest of Victoria Falls from the Zimbabwean side. It was similarly spectacular, with water levels so high that it was difficult to see through the spray and mist.

We visited the Victoria Falls Hotel, once an opulent destination for wealthy Britains and royals. It is somehow still being maintained in its colonial splendour, despite the lack of tourists.


In Victoria Falls, Diane and I also went for a walk with the local lions.

Yes, they’re real lions, with fangs and claws intact. But no, they’re not wild. They are part of a program to breed and reintroduce lions to many parts of Africa. Walking with the lions is part of Stage 1 of a four stage process that, over many years, will be able to develop prides of truly wild lions that can successfully hunt, breed, and survive in the wild with other lions and predators. Having tourists interact with select lions brings in an essential source of money to fund the program, and is done in a respectful and humane way.

We walked with two lions, a brother and sister, aged 19 months. Although they’re only teenagers, they seemed pretty darn big to us. The whole event seemed very mellow, until they gave us the safety talk, and asked us to sign the waiver. They told us that lions were very inquisitive, and might be fascinated with anything that dangled from us, like camera bag. At this point, Diane took off her earrings and put her hair up.

We were told to walk in single file, and not fall behind. We were instructed to walk behind the lions, and not to touch them in front of the shoulder. If they rolled over, we were to step away. We were each given a small stick, completely inadequate to defend against a lion. If a lion came directly at us, we were to raise the stick, and firmly say “No cub”. They didn’t look like cubs to us.

We walked with the lions for one hour, and had the opportunity to stroll beside them, and touch them as they paced and as they rested. For the record, lions look relaxed, but they walk quickly. They were just like Doobie and Skyler, but one hundred times bigger and infinitely more dangerous.

Before we went to Zimbabwe, Diane was very nervous. Her thoughts now? Victoria Falls is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there. It was like an old west ghost town. You could tell that it once was a thriving community, but it’s lost its luster. It is still alive, and things are improving. Not only are more tourists required, but money and time will be necessary to restore it to its former glory.

Zim Baby

The largest part of Victoria Falls is located on the other side of the river from Livingstone, in the country of Zimbabwe. Few tourists go to Zimbabwe, because it is run by a dictator named Robert Mugabe, who is desperately holding on to power. Many people expect a coup d’état soon, as the country has been devastated over the last ten years. Zimbabwe is on a list of the top ten failed nations on the planet.

Zimbabwe once had one of the most successful economies in Africa. Due to its good climate, it was self-sufficient in food production, and exported crops including tobacco. It also has mineral resources including diamond mines. In 1990, after 10 very successful years of independence from Britain, the Zimbabwe dollar was still very strong against the world’s currencies.

Between the years 1997 and 2008, Zimbabwe suffered a complete economic collapse due to political instability and corruption, and policies that discouraged or inhibited economic activity. For example, in an effort to gain more support from blacks, Mugabe instituted a program of land reform in 2000, where he forcibly confiscated and transferred the best farm lands, which were previously in the hands of a small white minority, to black political and military friends of his. Many black farm workers and white farmers were killed. Of course, none of the new owners were famers, so agricultural production dropped drastically. Tobacco production is today less than one fifth of its previous level.

Mugabe stole millions from the Zimbabwe War Victim’s Compensation Fund, and when this was discovered, was forced to print more money to pay out the benefits. The Zimbabwe dollar quickly dropped by half. This started a cycle of hyper-inflation, with prices increasing out of control. The government responded by banning the use of foreign currencies, to try to force the people to use a currency that was rapidly losing value, and by printing yet more money. Prices were doubling every day, requiring stores to change their prices every few hours, and employees to renegotiate their salaries daily. The Zimbabwe dollar quickly descended into worthlessness and in January 2009, had to be abandoned. Today, Zimbabwe dollars are sold on the streets as souvenirs. I was given a 100 Trillion Zimbabwe dollar note as a gift. At one point, 100 Trillion Zim dollars would only buy a loaf of bread, but it’s worthless now.

Of course, during this period, foreign investment withdrew from Zimbabwe. Without a source of funds or foreign currency, the Zimbabwe government could not pay its debts, and no one could purchase foreign goods. Food shortages were widespread. The grocery stores that remained open had little to sell. Gasoline was rationed and unavailable in most parts of the country. Social institutions like education started to fail, because teachers and other civil servants were not being paid. People survived by converting all their money to hard assets, like equipment or non-perishable foodstuffs, that would hopefully retain some value, and by operating on a barter system. Barter, in addition to being tremendously inefficient (i.e. time consuming), even further reduced government tax revenues

Mugabe has remained in control through the use of intimidation and force. He rigged the last two elections, to remain in power. In the most recent election, in 2008, the election results were delayed by six weeks while Mugabe’s people tried to find a way to concoct a Mugabe win. Since his defeat was so complete, this wasn’t possible, yet he somehow negotiated a coalition with his opposition, with Mugabe remaining as President and the real winner becoming Prime Minister.

Due to the lack of foreign exchange, many of Zimbabwe’s infrastructure and other critical systems have broken down. A few months ago, about 3000 people died of cholera near the capital city of Harare, as the equipment to treat the water could no longer be maintained.

Despite this tale of woe, tourists to Zimbabwe haven’t been directly affected. In other words, no violence has been perpetrated against tourists by the government, and overall crime levels have remained about the same. However, as you can imagine, tourism rapidly declined to a trickle, and another key economic sector, and source of foreign currency, was devastated.

Media reports about Zimbabwe have been very negative. When we told people that we were going to Africa, they said, “You’re not going to Zimbabwe are you”? Some asked us, and some told us, not to go to Zimbabwe. We’ve met very few people in Africa who have been there recently. Those who had told us that the biggest problem is that the Zimbabwean banking system is not functioning, so it is impossible to get money in Zimbabwe. There are no bank machines, because they have no currency. Neither travelers’ cheques nor credit cards are accepted. Everything must be paid for with cash, using foreign currency brought into the country.

Knowing the history, and in careful consideration of all these factors, we decided to go to Zimbabwe anyhow…

Livingstone, I Presume

Livingstone is the city on the Zambian side of Victoria Falls, the largest and most famous waterfall in Africa. The falls are a major tourist attraction, and are a highlight of many people’s journey to ‘the dark continent’. Victoria Falls is about one kilometer across, where the entire Zambezi River drops into a gorge about 400 feet deep.

We arrived in Livingstone after crossing, from east to west, almost all of Zambia by bus in a single day. It was dark when we arrived, but our preferred guesthouse was only a couple of blocks from the bus stop. Unfortunately, it was full, so we found a local guesthouse (i.e. no tourists) where we got a room, with shower, for about 70,000 Kwacha (about $12 US). We switched rooms for each of the next two nights, eventually ending up in the ‘honeymoon suite’ at Jollyboys Backpackers, a thatched cottage with a double bed, a mosquito net, and a shared shower and toilet about 50 feet away in the main building. We either need to resign ourselves to getting up once or twice a night, or curtail all beer drinking by 6 PM!

There we met up with Mark and Chloe, the young couple who survived the hair-raising hitchhiking experience, and who only had a single day to spend in Victoria Falls. They were booked on the infamous Victoria Falls sunset river cruise that evening, so we agreed to join them. Later in the day, we met up with Bart and Evelyn (the Dutch not-really-a-couple who we’d spent time with in NKhata Bay, Malawi). They signed up for the all-you-can-eat-and-drink in two hours booze cruise also.

We first visited the falls around mid-day. The recent rainy season has had the highest rainfall in 40 years, so the falls are running more powerfully than they have in many decades. They are quite spectacular when viewed from the side of the falls, where the view isn’t masked by the spray that shoots up from the bottom of the gorge.

As you progress from the side to the edge of the gorge opposite the falls, it becomes progressively wetter. Many people rent a rain poncho. We decided on a different approach.

It quickly becomes very wet — more like swimming than walking in the rain. The water is so powerful that it ricochets more than 400 feet from where it impacts at the bottom of the gorge, and sends clouds of moisture an additional 200 feet into the air, above the level of the top of the falls. The water falls back to earth in a heavy, drenching rain, and as the trail gets close to the edge of the gorge, is augmented by sheets off spray blasting up from below. It’s the best shower we’ve had in Africa!


Later that day, on the sunset cruise, we met a group of four recently graduated British doctors who had just completed their residency in Zambia. The pontoon barge put in upstream of the falls, and was equipped with a single outboard motor. I briefly wondered what they do if the motor fails, but quickly washed that thought from my mind with a couple of gin and tonics. The body count was as follows. The names have been removed to protect the innocent, but none of them was Diane or Patrick, who had been warned by a man with a broken leg that had been on the cruise a few weeks earlier, and who sustained his injury while jumping from a moving vehicle after the event:
· one woman had to be sent home early, carried back to the bus by Patrick
· one British woman was taken back to our guesthouse bar by two of her three friends, where they needed to rescue her from the arms of two different men
· one British man was missing action. We knew that he’d made it to shore, but after several searches he couldn’t be located, and his friends went back to town without him. He made it back safely in the middle of the night after waking up alone in the darkened men’s bathroom of the outdoor beach club where our boat docked. He had the highest concentration of mosquito bites that we’ve ever seen, but only on the side of his face that wasn’t pressed against the wall as he slept.

The next day, we were surprisingly not hung over. Perhaps it was our regular training regime of afternoon and evening beers? So, we headed to the bridge over the Zambezi which forms the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, and exists in the no man’s land between the two border posts. It is possible to head out onto the bridge, without officially leaving Zambia, to enjoy the view and the activities available there.

Patrick started off the Bungee Jump. 111 meters (about 350 feet) from the bridge deck to the bottom of the gorge. The third highest in the world. Four seconds of freefall before the bungee comes tight, which feels about two seconds too long when you’re doing it.

Then the Gorge Swing. Similar to the bungee jump except that you are attached to a static rope, not an elastic bungee, that is anchored at bridge level over 300 feet away to a cable crossing the gorge. The drop is the same, but at the bottom, instead of springing back up, you swing out in an arc. It’s more frightening than the bungee because you don’t dive, but merely walk off the side of the bridge and fall over 300 feet.

In both cases, after you stop moving, a guy is lowered from the bridge to retrieve you, and then you’re winched back up to a catwalk below the bridge. You then walk to the end of the bridge, up the bank on the Zambian side, then back out to the center of the bridge. Bart and Evelyn also did the bungee, but Evelyn stopped after that.

The triple feature was completed was a zip line across the gorge, from the Zambia to the Zimbabwean sides. This was the tamest of the three, and a nice relaxing way to wind up.

Our timing in visiting the falls was perfect, because the next night was a full moon. On the night of the full moon, the falls open again after dark, to experience something very rare – a lunar rainbow. On full moons with clear skies, a rainbow is visible when the light from the moon hits the mist above the falls. It’s much fainter than a regular rainbow, and less colourful, but it is clearly visible with the naked eye. Here’s a photo taken with a 30-second exposure in the darkness.

We had a great two days in Livingstone experiencing part of what Victoria Falls has to offer. In our next posting, we’ll fill you in the rest of it.