Friday, April 10, 2009

Victoria Falls Zimbabwe

They’re one of the most spectacular waterfalls you’ll ever see. The Victoria Falls, which tower more than 100 metres high, majestically dropping into a series of gorges and stretching for more than 1.7 kilometres wide, form the largest curtain of falling water in the world.

The Falls have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and straddle the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia along the mighty Zambezi river.

They were considered the crown in the jewel of Zimbabwe’s tourism industry. But these days, there are few international flights and plenty of empty seats.

Today, most tourists – frightened by reports inside Zimbabwe of political repression, food shortages and cholera - opt to see the magnificent waterfalls not in Zimbabwe but in Zambia, where new hotels and river lodges have sprung up. Many Zimbabwean traders and tour operators have also moved their operations across the border.

Small tourist companies in the Zimbabwean town of Victoria Falls, a short stroll from the actual falls, are struggling to survive. I appeared to be the only shopper as I strolled around the town’s open market where crafts, from stone sculptures to wooden bowls and masks, were being sold. Local traders and artists crowded around me, each urging me to look at their wares.

“Just five dollars” they pleaded as I glanced at some bowls. “Special rate. Please - we need to buy some bread today.”

The number of tourists visiting Zimbabwe began to fall nine years ago, when political tensions between supporters and opponents of President Robert Mugabe increased. Tour operators in Victoria Falls told me visitor numbers have dropped to less than 25% of their former levels.

Victoria Falls has some world class lodges and hotels. But there are few clients these days.

On my drive back from a game reserve about an hour and a half away in Botswana, Zimbabwean police stopped motorists at a checkpoint. A female officer asked my driver if he had any food to give her. It was late afternoon, but, she said, she’d been on duty since six in the morning and hadn’t eaten all day.

Across the road, I spotted some other police talking to other motorists who’d climbed out of their vehicle and were talking under the shade of a tree. A loaf of bread was pulled out of a bag and torn into two halves. One policeman walked away, carrying a chunk of bread under his arm.

The country’s political crisis, hyperinflation and a cholera epidema, which has spread across the entire country and killed nearly 4,000 people, has meant Zimbabwe has had a hard time selling itself as an ideal tourist destination.

There are serious food shortages and more than half of the population rely on food hand-outs.

Many of the country’s problems are also evident in this tourist town. The shops are better stocked than in most other towns in Zimbabwe and restaurants have extensive menus. But locals, paid in virtually worthless Zimbabwean currency, are struggling to buy their daily necessities which are mostly sold in South African rand or American dollars.

Children beg for money from the occasional tourist passing by on the streets. Few have been able to return to school. Classes were closed for most of last year when teachers stayed away in protest at their pitiful wages which had failed to keep up with sky-rocketing inflation.

The only bright spot in Victoria Falls, it seems, is that the town itself – unlike most other parts of the country - is cholera-free. For travelers wanting to enjoy spectacular sights with few other visitors as distractions, Victoria Falls is the ultimate place to get away from it all.

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