A visitors concern – 1999
The Makololo had been calling it ‘Musi au Tunya ’, the smoke that thunders, way before David _ Livingstone equitably romanticised that ‘Scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their ﬂight’. I wonder what good old Dave would have to say about Zimbabwe’s premier tourist attraction these days.
There is of course some dispute as to when the settlement of Victoria Falls was founded. Some books will tell you that the first store and (the aptly named Victoria Falls Hotel) were constructed in the early 1900s. Other books will tell you that # the first visitors arrived in the early 1900’s and the facilities in the village were so poor that they ended up having to sleep on the train. It is howeyer safe to assume that the first official “tourists” may have begun filtering in after the completion of the railway line which was laid between 1902 and 1904. Thankfully today there is no need to sleep on the train, which is probably a good thing as there is no way that all the people who populate this over-utilised tourist mecca would even ﬁt on the railway line’ let alone on the train.
The Victoria Falls Hotel is still standing, even if it has been modified quite substantially, and is now the most prestigious and tasteful hotel in the Falls, a price tag to match. Other hotels, lodges, and camp-sites have sprung up all over the town, so theory has it that there will always be somewhere to lay your weary head, and, with the way the Falls is always buzzing, many a weary head there be.
When I first visited the Falls, which wasn’t that long ago, the town painted a more genial picture than today. There was only one rafting company, which was based on the Zambian side and if you wanted to see the Falls from the air then the Zimbabwean side offered a ﬁfteen-minute ‘Flight of the Angels’. There was an evening sunset cruise on the river, (which without fail brought every one back sloshed) and of course there were game drives and walks in the National Park. If you wanted to go out in the evening you could have a meal and some drinks at one of the hotels. If you wanted a few bevies later on in the evening the camp-site bar stayed open till 10.60pm – if not, then self-made entertainment was not too challenging a task.
The town had that lazy laid-back atmosphere that you get from hot, sunny, and relaxed holiday resorts. People watched the steam trains come and go, admired the Jacarandas and took afternoon tea in one of the hotels.
Today, the Falls is very different and tourists are bombarded with choices of activities. There are several different rafting companies, eight different ways to see the Falls from the air and that doesn’t include the game walks, drives, cruises, bungie jumps, and all the different ways to get paralytic. There are new buildings, companies and restaurants popping‘ up all over the place but so far they are thankfully not into ‘neon’. The touts, souvenir sellers, drug pushers and money changers are as prolific as the mosquitoes and just as frustrating. Taking a relaxing stroll along the shopping mall is a thing of the past as it is now more like an assault course.
Prices have also gone up quite substantially. In hard currency terms the “traditional dancing”is now about 35% more expensive than when I ﬁrst visited. The camp-site is up about 30% and a meal at one of the hotels is up 12%, which makes the rafting a real bargain at only double the price. A visit to the curio village left me sniggering as one cunning souvy seller quoted me Z$ 14,000 for a giraffe. I had recently paid Z$300 for a similar one, l00km out of town. By the time I had made it 100m down the road, his price had dropped to Z$2,000 and I hadn’t even opened my mouth. It would be funny if it wasn’t so sad. However, you can’t blame these ingenious businessmen. If a tourist were willing to pay over ten times the market value, you’d be slightly stupid not to try and get that out of them. Since when has any salesman said, “Oh no, you can’t possibly pay that price, its much to high, why not give me half!”
On the other hand, the new ‘Elephant Walk’ has curios that are of excellent quality and are more likely to actually be worth the high price tags, which are hanging on them. This complex incorporates shops, a bar, restaurant, and a coffee shop, that has delicious chocolate brownies which are exceedingly high in calories and deﬁnitely worth going back twice for. The tenants within Elephant Walk have attempted to warn their customers of the dangers of the street touts, for as one sits on the loo, there is a very informative sign which states, (this is an approximation as I had lost my notebook again): “Please be aware that it is illegal to change money or to buy drugs. There are touts operating in this town who will offer you good exchange rates but be warned, you will lose out on the transaction and they will take off with both yours and their money. It is also illegal to buy or use drugs. Should you see any of these people in the Elephant Walk complex please do no hesitate to report them to the security guard. ”
The sign was refreshing in its concern and as evidence to the fact that someone is trying to do something about the obvious problem. A friend of mine who runs a travel centre gave a good example of the problem to me. One of her clients decided to buy Zimbabwe Dollars on the street and thought he had got them at a very favourable rate. He only discovered later that he was trying to pay for everything with Zambian Kwacha, which at the time was 20 times less than the Zimbabwean Dollar.
The fact that these touts are a frustration to tourists and a hindrance to the industry is beyond doubt. As you walk along the tree- lined streets and enter one of the many agencies you are greeted by a polite, well dressed, smiling rep who asks “Can I help you?”
You stand there feeling harassed, stressed and bothered and wanting to say, “Yes. You can get rid of those touts and drug pushers who are standing a mere three-meters away from your door, have been hassling me constantly for the last 48 hours and get me a stiff drink please. ” Only you don’t. Of course you don’t. Instead you smile and say weakly, “Yes, I’d like to pay you lots of money to throw myself off the bridge please! ”
Come on guys. We all know the police are under-staffed and under-funded but can’t you lot up there get something organised so that tourists can enjoy their holiday a little more? Bring back the days of being able to sit in the shade for ten minutes whilst devouring an ice-cream without having to say ‘no thank you’ at least a half a dozen times. Allow us to share what inspired the Makololo, Dave and those that followed, the overwhelming presence of the Victoria Falls. Quietly.
This article was written in 1999. Since then Zimbabwe has gone through a multitude of changes and challenges of every level of society. Tourism has been negatively affected but since we changed our currency to the United States dollar in 2009 things have changed across the country. There are no longer money changers ploughing the streets of Victoria Falls as we now have a stable currency and ATM machines. There are tourist police to protect innocent visitors from unscrupulous people. It was desperate times financially from 2000 to 2009 and the money touts were only trying to generate an income. Well that’s what I try and tell myself. And even though the country is much more financially stable, the tourists are thankfully coming back, and Zimbabwe is putting itself back on the World map in a positive way I do wonder how the money, drug and curio touts are making a living.