Broke Zim govt charges $50 to see Victoria Falls

Donald Knowler
Mercury News

WHAT price the spectacle of one of the seven natural wonders of the world?

It’s $50, American, paid in cash on the spot.

The price tag has been placed on the Victoria Falls by a Zimbabwean Government desperate for foreign currency, especially precious greenbacks, to pay its bills.

President Robert Mugabe says his country is merely “maximising its natural assets”.

The Victoria Falls straddles the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia. It has been turned from nature’s showpiece into a theme park serving politicians, surrounded at least on the Zimbabwean side by a 3m-high, razor-wire fence to prevent gatecrashers seeing the falls for free.

For a little extra cash — actually quite a wad of greenbacks — there’s sightseeing helicopter rides to be had, bungy-jumping from the historic bridge that was once part of the proposed Cape-to-Cairo railway, or a white-water rafting trip.

And, after all this, there are “booze cruises” along the mighty Zambezi River beyond the reach of the green wire fence.

A trip to Victoria Falls after my last visit in 1979 came as a shock. I had an enduring memory of the world’s greatest sheet of falling water, and this I wanted to share with my family when I finally took them to southern Africa in September.

It was a trip I had long wanted to take to show them my old stamping grounds in South Africa and the former Rhodesia, where I had worked as a foreign correspondent.

When I first discovered the Victoria Falls, the country that would become Zimbabwe was still very much of part of Britain’s colonial empire, even if the white government had declared a unilateral declaration of independence to stave off black majority rule.

Victoria Falls village had not seen many changes since the tracks laid by empire-builder Cecil Rhodes reached the Zambezi.

The Victoria Falls Hotel was one of only a handful of “resorts” set well back from the falls, and its splendour reflected the heyday of the Victorian colonial era, starched napkins in a dining room adorned with a grand piano, and mosquito nets putting the harsh reality of untamed Africa at bay.

A taste of Africa, however, was presented by a meandering dusty trail that could be taken from the hotel to the falls themselves, a path free of the more dangerous and dramatic of African animals, save for a giant male baboon which I recall took exception one day to an American tourist wearing a T-shirt reading “eat your heart out I’m married” and chased him back to the hotel.

I’d sit on the hotel veranda drinking a cocktail of white rum and gin called a “David Livingstone’’ and listen for the whistle of the steam engine taking the night train down the line through the Wankie Park to Bulawayo in the south.

A few years later Victoria Falls township would find itself on the frontline of war because one of the two guerilla armies fighting the white Rhodesian government of prime minister Ian Smith was based just over the Zambezi in the Zambian bush.

And I’d find myself there again, this time not as a tourist but war correspondent.

Landmines had been laid around the entire township and at night, instead of listening to the whistle of the night train which had now stopped running, I heard explosions as animals triggered the mines, among them elephants.

The falls remained a tourist destination, however, for those brave enough to go, even though an Air Rhodesia aircraft flying from the local airport had been blasted from the skies by guerilla missiles.

On one assignment I reported from the Victoria Falls railway bridge, which had now been mined by the Rhodesia Army fearing invasion across the border from Zambia; and on another, I wrote of a horse used by the Selous Scouts special forces regiment being mauled by a lion.

All these stories, and more, I had told my family, but for them the Victoria Falls represented a far distant place from the one I had recounted when they arrived. Not that they were complaining.

They never knew it before the time of its high fence, the buzz of helicopters and the cries of exhilaration (or is it terror?) from people making the bungy jump.

And, unlike me, they never walked the track down to the falls, before an adjoining casino — resembling a set from an Indiana Jones movie — took away part of the mopane woodland.

I, though, came away bitterly disappointed. After war and politics, I always believed the Victoria Falls, the “smoke that thunders” (Mosi-oa-tun), to give the falls their African name, could once again return to nature’s world, and be celebrated merely for what they are — an awesome spectacle.

At nearly 2km in length, and 108m high, the Victoria Falls does not need the theme-park treatment, and the cost of admission.

I can say the same of all wild places, especially those recognised for their natural wonder beyond the countries in which they are situated.

Living in Tasmania I speak of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area in the South-West or my own passion, kunanyi/Mt Wellington, where I lose myself in nature once a week.

Do such places really need helicopter rides or cable cars to enhance the tourist experience?

The beauty of the untamed, natural world should be allowed to speak for itself.

Former Mercury subeditor Donald Knowler is a widely travelled journalist who has worked in Britain, the United States, South Africa and Australia. This article is taken from Mercury News.


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