Tag Archives: Zimbabwe

Andrew Jackson in Zimbabwe

Bread worth millions (google images)

One of the most interesting aspects of our visit to Zimbabwe was that not only could we get diesel (!) but also American dollars – right out of the ATM!

Today, Zimbabwe uses the US dollar as its currency after the complete and total collapse of the Zimbabwean economy.

The rate of inflation shot up so much that Zimbabwean dollars became worthless.  At the height of the crisis, a man was pushing a wheel barrow chock full of millions of Zimbabwean dollars when he was attacked.  The thieves dumped all the money on the ground and stole the wheelbarrow.  Inflation happened so quickly that you would sit down at a restaurant and by the time you finished your meal and were ready to pay, the prices had already inflated.

To stabilize the economy, Zimbabwe switched to American dollars in 2009.  So there we were, in the middle of Zimbabwe, handing over bills with Andrew Jackson’s face on them.  This made our trip even more fun!  No challenging exchange rates to calculate in my head – well, actually, no turning to Sandy and asking how much something costs…  Even though I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t translate kwacha into dollars anymore, it was so refreshing to have everything in a familiar and relatable currency.  “What? That stone carving only costs one dollar?  Give me ten of ’em.”

Switching to US dollars seems to be working  and while the economy has stabilized, it’s not without its quirks.  While dollar bills were plentiful, there were no American coins.  So when you buy something that costs $1.25, the store or vendor won’t have quarters, dimes, nickels, pennies to give you your change.

Instead, Zimbabweans have gotten creative.  Many stores will issue coupons worth different denominations that will total the amount you’re owed.

Others use South African Rand coins.

The grocery store gave us our change in candy.  $0.60 equals three hard fruity candies.  I like that exchange rate.

And finally, there was the vendor who gave his change in small stone hippo carvings.

Inflation (google images)

Our stone hippo carving vendors


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The Bvumba Mountains

sunset over Leopard Rock

On our recent amazing trip to Zimbabwe, we spent three nights in the Bvumba (or Vumba) mountains in the Eastern Highlands.  It was such a lovely trip that I’ve actually had the post-awesome-vacation blues all week.

A group of six of us met in Bvumba where three of them ran a half marathon (basically up a mountain) and where Sandy would play roughly 4,891 holes of golf on a championship course.

We left Blantyre at 5:15 am and drove all day – only stopping for coffee and pastries in Tete (those Mozambicans really make good pastries) and a quick drink in Catandica.  AND, we  stopped for diesel!  They have diesel in Mozambique!  We pulled up to the pump and even though I expected the attendant to say “ahhh no” as they have for the past 9 months in Malawi because we’re in the depths of a fuel crisis, we got a full tank and Pierce (the Isuzu) was happy…

The border crossings were relatively painless – one immigration official told Amanda, our only English traveler, that she would have to pay more for her visa – because she’s short.  He was kidding – she did have to pay more, but because she’s English, not because she’s 5’1″.

We made it to Mutare in Zimbabwe and then followed the signs to Leopard Rock high in the Bvumba mountains.  The drive was beautiful; my ears popped as we ascended through hills, mountains, and finally up into the Mountains of the Mist (Bvumba means mist in Shona).  It was really incredible – seriously…

We had been traveling for twelve hours, we had crossed two borders, spoken (eh hem… tried to speak) four different languages, driven through wide dusty plains and endless dry-season scenery.  Bvumba was another world – it was green, cool, and the air was so clear and clean it actually tasted good.  We passed through dense forests more lush than the Blue Ridge, roads with overhanging branches forming a canopy like in low country South Carolina, groves of eucalyptus that felt like a rain forest, tall green grass like the English countryside and endless fields of blooming proteas like in Cape Town.

Our first night, we stayed at a cottage overlooking the mountains.  The travel agent had told us to go to the “Castle” to collect the keys.  I was excited, as I had heard from my former boss that deep in the Eastern Highlands is a castle hotel carved into the side of a mountain.

There was a sign at the end of the driveway twenty feet from Leopard Rock that read, “the Castle.”  We pulled into the long driveway around 5:30pm – my favorite time of day.  With dusk softly falling, the haze of the day melts away and the muted colors of the landscape become all the more beautiful.  The driveway took a slight turn and there we were, staring up at an actual Castle.  It’s not a huge castle, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in enchanting charm.  Perched high on the mountain, it blends in with the surroundings and offers spectacular views of the valley down below.

Driving up to the Castle

We wandered around, looking for Alex, who had our keys to the cottage and were directed to a room at the bottom of the stairs.  As we opened the door, it was like being transported to a medieval castle deep in the English countryside.  The room was a large square with thirty foot ceilings and a fire roaring in the giant fireplace.  Alex, the owner and operator of the castle, welcomed us, offered us a seat and then a small glass of port.  We sat, sipping our port and listening to our host spin stories of Zimbabwean history and gossip about diplomats in Harare.

The Castle exterior

We asked the history of this Castle that looked as if it had been standing sentinel over the valley for centuries.  We learned that the Castle and Leopard Rock hotel had been built during World War II by Italian prisoners.

A wee dram of sherry

The Castle’s charm is enhanced by the fact that it is a relatively well kept secret.  Alex not only refuses to advertise his lodge, but seems picky about who can stay in the four guest rooms.  We were excited that we seemed to pass some kind of test and he gave us his business card, saying we would be welcome the next time we were in Bvumba.  We made it to the cottage in time for sundowners and had a lovely night sitting by the fire.

The next morning, three of the boys got up early early and casually ran a half marathon – because they’re amazing.  Sandy, Amanda, and I didn’t run, but we worked very hard waiting for them at the finish line at Leopard Rock and cheering when they crossed it.

Leopard Rock is a grand old hotel, complete with large fire places, crystal chandeliers, wide terraces, championship golf, horseback riding, and photos of Princess Diana from her visit.  It has a feel of luxury and history that adds to the hotel’s spectacular setting.  During our stay, I enjoyed talking with Zimbabweans who were all well versed in Malawian politics – they wanted to know what was happening after the big protests in July.  Each person we met was extremely warm, friendly, and interested.

In celebration of the Bvumba Run, the hotel had a disco (yep, they really called it a disco – like we were 13 year olds on a cruise ship) which ended up being really great – very much like an awkward wedding that you decide to make fun with your awkward dance moves.  The disco entertainment was enhanced by the DJ, a 68ish year old woman who went by the name DJ Spectrum and took her job very seriously.

So I spent the weekend enjoying the excellent hotel; Sandy spent the weekend enjoying the excellent fairways.

We walked with the boys as they played 18 holes, which was entertaining, both because Kevin (who doesn’t have a driver’s license) was driving the golf cart and because the course is so beautiful.  We got caught in a sudden thunderstorm – which of course did not deter Sandy – “should we play though? yeah, I think we should – the rain is letting up…”  he said as we stood drenched in a downpour.

All in all, it was such an amazing weekend and I loved everything: the friends we were with, the setting, the golf, the food, the hotel itself, and the people… and I can’t wait to go back!

at Pine Cone cottage

Mike's decided to write his memoirs here

Leopard Rock

Lobby of Leopard Rock

Golf course


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