Thomas and I are incredulous. And it’s not because we are soaked through our clothes, from the spray of Victoria Falls. No, we are gobsmacked because we have just seen our first fifty trillion dollar note.
We are standing outside the Zambezi Blues River Cafe, a shady haven of a restaurant in the small town of Victoria Falls, having just strolled up into town from the falls. A very charming man is asking for R100 in exchange for a large wad of Zimbabwean dollar notes.
In his substantial pile are a couple of fifty trillion dollar notes, a few for five hundred million dollars and some for two hundred thousand dollars. My favourite is the pretty purple note for fifty million dollars.
”Will this money buy us a coke and a hamburger at the Wimpy?” I ask the man, thinking it’s worth a hundred bucks just to be able to touch such large denominations.
”Of course,” says Mr Charming and the deal is done.
”Here Tom, have fifty trillion dollars,” I say nonchalantly, tossing him a note as we make our way in the lunchtime heat to the local Wimpy.
I have come to Zimbabwe with Thomas, who is seven, because I wanted to be the one to show him Victoria Falls, to instill in him a spirit of adventure, a passion for the African bush and an enquiring mind. ”Will there be DSTV in the room?” is the main concern of this soccer mad boy.
Our plan is to spend three days seeing the falls and taking in the majestic 2700 km long Zambezi River, to see some wildlife and to bond.
On the way back, we are booked on to Rovos Rails’ train for a three-day journey from Vic Falls to Pretoria. The train, famous for its food and known as the most luxurious train in the world, will take us through the Hwange National Park in Botswana, through towns like Francistown and Gaborone and on to Pretoria.
My only real issue is whether we will be able to maintain the necessary table manners for such luxury, but we have been practising.
Apart from a rather vociferous spat over the use of my camera next to the imposing statue of David Livingstone and one violent altercation over manners during dinner at our hotel, we have, so far, survived quite well together on our African adventure.
I have fielded his questions about our trip to see one of the Seven Wonders of the World: ”Why is it called Victoria Falls?”
”They are named after a queen of England.” ”Oh, was her name Victoria Falls?”
And: ”Will Robert Mugabe be there?” ”I don’t think so.” ”How do you know?”
We are based at the gracious Stanley Livingstone Hotel, where we spent our first day unwinding on our verandah and keeping a running list of all the game that come to drink at the water holes, just outside our room. So far we have seen baboons, warthogs, zebras, kudi and impala and an endless array of birds, from storks to hornbills to nightjars.
We take our trillions and walk to the Vic Falls Wimpy, which has a smashed window but is still operating from a side kiosk. When I slap my fifty trillion dollar note on the counter, the woman serving us refuses to take it.
”We don’t use that money any more,” she says. ”Only US dollars and South African rands.”
The newspaper vendor won’t give me a copy of The Herald. No, not even for fifty trillion dollars. The men selling nyamanyamas and tigers’ teeth don’t want it either. They are far more interested in our rands – or Thomas’s Arsenal cap. Or any spare clothes we might happen to have.
I realise we have been duped by Mr Charming and that, quite simply, Zimbabwean money doesn’t work any more. I later learn that, not long after a 100 trillion note was introduced in January, and the currency became a laughing stock, the government decided that all business in Zimbabwe will be conducted in other currencies.
Our trip, since flying in from Johannesburg a few days ago, has been action-packed: We have spent a morning watching wild game from the back of elephants, and an evening watching the sun set from a boat on the Zambezi River.
Thomas has already seen a number of crocodiles and the gape of an angry hippo in the wild, beautiful Zambezi.
Friends and colleagues who visited Vic Falls a year or two ago painted a grim picture of dire poverty and need outside the fenced-off resorts. But the over-riding sense is that the worst is now over for Zimbabwe.
Take, for instance, the lobby at the Shearwater adventure company, where we bump into people from Jo’burg, Germany and Japan, signing up for the bungi jumping, river-rafting and game drives which the company offers. It’s hard to keep people away from the roar of the Zambezi.
We have experienced nothing but friendliness, humour – and indeed, optimism from the local people we have met so far – the hotel staff, the guides from Shearwater, the traders at the markets and the other locals. We have discovered, to Tom’s delight, that Zimbabwean men are as crazy about soccer as he is.
Like Tendai, the waiter at the Stanley-Livingstone. He might not be an Arsenal man like Thomas, but, in between placing white breadrolls on our plates with silver tongs, he has Thomas rivetted with his view on English soccer teams and a promise to kick a soccer ball in the hotel gardens. We later learn that Tendai is anxiously waiting for news of his baby daughter, who was one of a large group of infants who have become seriously ill because of a botched government innoculation drive. ”They gave the babies the wrong vaccination. Lots and lots of kids are sick,” he says.
He promises to keep us posted on her progress. ”That’s Zimbabwe,” he shrugs, walking off to fetch our next course.
We put away our wad of Zim dollars and I fork out some rands for a few newspapers, all of which have, as their main story, the news that one of Zimbabwe’s Zanu-PF vice-presidents, Joseph Msika, has died at the age of 85. Later, we see flags flying half-mast at police-stations and other government buildings.
We meet our guide, Ben at the Shearwater headquarters for our next adventure – a night game drive in the 6000 hectare Victoria Falls Private Game Reserve.
We are part of an interesting group: A Japanese vet, a young couple who work in banking in Harare and a glamourous Zimbabwean woman who works as a diplomat in an east Asian country.
Our driver, Mike, is a laugh a minute and full of bush anecdotes. Thomas joins Mike in the front seat of the vehicle and, before long, is acting like the main man, giggling helplessly at Mike’s banter.
Zebras, Mike tells us, are just donkeys in pajamas. When we see a warthog scuffling not far from a group of four buffalo, he says, ”there you go, you’ve seen the big five”. He stops the vehicle in the dark and whispers: ”There’s a lion on the road.” It turns out to be a telephone line. Thomas loves that.
He tells us that elephants, who eat an enormous every day, can grow to a weight of 7000 kilograms. Our jolly group erupts with joy when we drive past a group of elephants which includes two babies.
Mike tells us that elephant dung, mixed with water or burnt and inhaled, is a great pain reliever, especially for women in the throes of labour.
”I used it when I was in labour,” says the diplomat, from the back. ”It was wonderful. I hardly felt any pain.”
As it gets darker, Ben hands out some thick blanket jackets and we settle in to an evening in the bush.
More warthogs, elephants, buffalo, baboons, zebras. In the middle of the reserve, we almost drive into two men with guns slung over their shoulders. ”Poachers,” we gasp. ”No, they are members of the anti-poaching unit,” says Mike.
”When it comes to poachers, we shoot first and ask questions later,’ he adds – and Thomas, enthralled, gives a macho shudder. The Stanley & Livingstone Reserve is particularly proud and protective of their black rhino, particularly as they recently produced some babies. We are on high alert to spot the babies, but tonight we are out of luck.
We stop at a simple camp, where a bush supper of kudu stew has been prepared for us. We sit under the African moon, over a few beers and we talk.
”I don’t know how we survived 2008,” says Ben. ”There was a time when the governor-general was just printing money.
The people in our little village were all so confused, we did not know what to do. Shopkeepers were baffled. Businesses refused to take the money. We just gave up. For about four months, there was total confusion. People did not know how they were going to live.”
Then Ben and the Harare banking couple compare notes on the past few years in their country, its recent humanitarian crisis, the cholera outbreak which killed more than 3000 people, the hyperinflation and the desperate nationwide shortage of food.
”I wasn’t paid for seven months,” adds the ambassador, who is back in Zimbabwe for her annual leave. ”How do you survive like that? Luckily I have a child working in London. Without that help, I would not cope. I have a son at university and a girl still at school.”
But the Harare bankers believe that, since dollarification and the slow but steady political changes, things are turning around.
The death of Msiki – who succeeded the late Joshua Nkomo in 1999 and who famously called opposition supporters “imigodoyi” (useless dogs) is perceived as another small step towards wrestling power away from Mugabe.
”There are still big problems. Civil servants only earn a hundred dollars a month. That doesn’t even cover their costs. But business and economic activities are picking up in Harare. International companies are trickling back.
What will it take to pull Zimbabwe back to its rightful place in the world, I ask. ‘With our education and our natures, we will do it,” says the young banker.
”There is definitely a feeling of hope in the air,” he says. ”What I really hope is that Mr Mugabe lives to see what we are going to achieve after he’s gone.”
For more information on the Stanley and Livingstone Hotel, contact www.raniresorts.com.