Facing Court in Zimbabwe

August 02, 2017

Narrated Audio Blog

We had honestly intended to spend more time in Botswana but looking at the map we noticed that we'd be crossing National Parks if we crossed too late. We thought it would be unlikely we'd be allowed to cross with dogs. We also felt that we weren't going to anything particularly new staying in Botswana and so we after only one night we decided to forited our 30 day vehicle tax and head for the border. We knew that there would be difficulties getting fuel in Zimbabwe so we filled all of our tanks, including the Touratech long range tanks which would mean that we'd easily make it to Zambia before needing fuel again.

Exiting Botswana went smoothly, cleared immigration and exited the bikes without issue. There was about 2km of road between the two border posts, not completely uncommon and not the furthest we'd travelled between landports but is always indicative of the cooperation between the countries.

Naively, we'd thought that because the Zimbabwe economy was failing and that they had now adopted the US as their legal tender, we'd be able to withdraw US dollars easily pretty much anywhere. How wrong we were! We arrived with only a £50 note as well as €10 and a few bits and pieces of cash in other currencies. The visa as an Australian would have cost US$30 each but as UK citizens the cost was US$55. Since we are both dual citizens and carry both passports, we figured we swap to using the Australian passport for this border and switch back later since usually the UK passport is a more travelable passport. We had done this before in Central America and not been an issue, and we'd certainly done it before when flying in and out of countries, so it was reasonable to think this would work. But the Zimbabwe officials were having none of it, they insisted that the passport you left your previous country on was the one you had to enter the next on. We initially argued that this was not the case at all and then simply pleaded with them, saying we'd have to return to Francistown in Botswana over 80km away just to withdraw money, but our plea fell on deaf ears.

Back to Botswana we went. Firstly we changed all our money into US dollars to see what we'd have, as expected it was enough for entry into Zimbabwe provided we were Australian. Next we tried to have the Botswana officials stamp us in on our Australian passports so we'd be exiting on the Australian passports in which case we would be able to head straight back to Zimbabwe and pick up where we left off. We almost pulled it off when the official, just before stamping the passports, decided to confirm with her manager if this was correct. The manager didn't really seem to know and so went with the safe option of saying NO! Again we tried to argue our case but we started to get the opinion that this doesn't work very well, once they make a decision they are unlikely to go back even when presented with a valid argument, it's better to appear like you never make mistakes.

This all meant another night in Botswana but luckily we knew a good campsite. Withdrawing money was easy enough and although we really didn't want additional Botswana Pula we thought it a good idea to withdraw a little extra just in case. We were pretty sure that credit cards would be accepted and so it really was just a little extra.

We again made sure to fill all tanks before leaving Botswana so if there was a fuel shortage we'd be fine. Our second attempt to enter Zimbabwe went flawlessly and rather quickly. Before we knew it we were all through the border and into Zimbabwe. Not long after we left the border we reached Bulawayo, being lunchtime we decided to look for somewhere to eat. Supermarkets were coming up in the Garmin which would do but were also often surrounded by restaurants. The supermarket was very central but nothing around popped out as an inviting place to have lunch, so we opted to get some wrap bread and salad and ride a little further. As predicted we were able to pay with credit card, hopefully this would continue.

We had a long standing commitment to meet friends John and Holly from Texas in South Africa, but as it worked out Victoria Falls was going to be the best place. We had planned to arrive days before them just in case something went wrong, and lucky we did since by the time we crossed the border it was the day before their arrival.

It would have been nice to get to Victoria Falls that day but it would have meant riding for an extended amount of time in the dark bordering the Hwange National Park where lions and other big cats were known to live. We identified a campsite using the iOverlander app and put the coordinates into the GPS.

The campsite was about 15km off the main road, right next to the main entrance to Hwange National Park but located outside so having dogs with us was not an issue. We turned off the main road just as the sun had set, it was good knowing that we should arrive before dark. We were in no rush so were taking it easy. As we came around a gentle bend in the road Stu noticed something large moving in the bush up ahead, he came to s stop and told Janell what he'd seen. Janell waited back a bit getting ready to make a move if needed. Then out of the bush walked an elephant, and then another and another. It was a huge herd consisting of countless adults and at least 15 babies. Stu grabbed his camera, he wasn't missing this opportunity, we'd been trying to see elephants in the wild ever since we entered Africa and come close a few times and we'd seen them in a controlled environment but this was the first time we'd actually seen them on the road outside any national park and truly wild. What a special experience.

Once the elephants had cleared the scene we continued on to the campsite. It was a lovely resort with restaurant and bar enclosed by a high wall, presumably to keep guests safe. However, the camping was a short walk away very much outside the compound. The staff gave us a quick briefed us to stay put if we were to see leopard or wild dog, basically if we were in the tent stay there, if in the toilet block then stay there and try not to be caught in between. We asked about lions and cheetahs but were told they shouldn't come into the campground, not overly reassuring. As for the elephants which we knew were around, we again were told to stay put, they would only walk around the tents and not through them. Great.

Even with the fear of the wildlife, we each slept like a log. In the morning Janell cautiously left the tent first and ran for the toilet block which was strategically no more than 20 meters away. But seeing staff members up and about was reassuring and we started to go about packing up ready to hit the road. We sat down to a lovely breakfast, it seemed that we had the place to ourselves, but we were assured other guests were staying but were up and out early to start their safari. When we checked out the receptionist asked if we'd seen or heard the elephants that morning. We'd not heard anything, but apparently the elephant herd had passed right by the campsite at around 5:30am, she was amazed that we didn't hear anything, she said they don't pass through quietly. Shows just how tired we were.

On our way to Victoria Falls we were stopped twice by police. Both times at checkpoints and both times something about our bikes were identified as being defective or insufficient. The first was the lack of a red reflective sticker on the back of the bikes, we did have reflectors above the brake lights as is standard with the bike but because they were described as round in the road manual that is what they wanted to see. It was only a $5 fine but we didn't have enough cash to cover both of us and didn't want to pay when technically we'd met the requirement and they were just trying to get money out of us. It took a bit of arguing but eventually they told us to leave. So quick as a flash we took off. The second stop was probably one we should have paid but again didn't have the money, this time though they were a little easier going. They first inspected Janell's bike and checked all the lights, brake lights, indicators etc with Janell passed she moved up the road. They then checked Stu's but one of his indicators wasn't working, Stu knew what it was and through the comms asked Janell to walk back the solenoid for one of her indicators. It was an ongoing problem and Janell knew exactly how to get to the solenoid and on both bikes we'd made them easily accessible so no tools were required. Stu explained that it sometimes played up but he could get it to work in no time and as soon as Janell arrived he swapped them over and hey presto it was working. The police officer in charge left the decision of whether to charge up to one of the juniors and he just smiled and said we were ok and could go.

We had told John and Holly that we would meet them at their hotel when they arrived, but secretly we hoped we'd be there in time to meet them at the hotel. The airport was about 20km before Victoria Falls and so we went directly there instead of checking into our campsite. We parked up the bikes and asked the airport security if we could take the dogs inside, they weren't too impressed but told us that as long as we held them that it would be alright.

The look on John and Holly's face as they walked out of the arrivals gate to not only the two of us but Weeti and Shadow too was absolutely priceless. We weren't going to be able to offer them a ride on the bikes but that was fine, the objective had been to surprise them and we certainly did that. We left them to ride with their hotel shuttle service and said we'd check in to our campsite and meet up later.

We got into the town of Victoria Falls and started to make our way to the campsite, at the last minute we missed the turn and had to continue over the railway line where we could turn around and come back. Simple, only issue was the police waiting on the other side of the line. As we approached the railway line we checked the trains and seeing it was safe continued on. The police immediately signaled for us to pull over. We were already frustrated that we'd missed our turn and we'd been stopped twice by police that morning. The officers informed us that we had not stopped at the crossing, we looked at the crossing and asked why we should have, there was no stop sign, they explained that the lights were flashing. We looked at the lights from the opposite direction and the lights did seem to be flashing but how did we miss that on the way down? Stu went for a walk to confirm, the lights were alternating but not in a fashion that you'd describe as flashing. The left would stay illuminated for about 5 seconds then the right would illuminate for a second before repeating, surely if this is supposed to be a safety system it failed to do its job. What was the definition of flashing? This time it was $20 each but Stu wasn't having it, we started with the excuse that we didn't have cash so then they escorted us to the police station.

Once we were there the offence was entered into the log and it seemed to be out of their hands as to whether or not they could just give us a telling off and be done with it as is so often the case. We continued to refuse admission of guilt but pressure was applied, we were told that we'd have to face court and that they would just find us guilty as the four police officers present would testify. We initially said we'd go to court, but when the fingerprint pad came out it all seemed like too much. We asked if we could pay with credit card which was no problem. We paid but refused to sign the admission of guilt and left the station with Janell now in tears from the duress that had been placed on us to pay up.

We checked into our campsite and met up with John and Holly, much later than we'd anticipated. We tried to forget what had happened and just enjoy the evening. John and Holly were staying at the Victoria Falls Hotel, a very prestigious hotel with a proud history. Before sitting down to eat we enjoyed a drink in the garden watching the warthogs graze on the lawn and the view which included the bridge we would later bungee jump off as well as the clearly visible spray from the falls although not the falls themselves. The evening dinner was a smorgasbord of local foods as well as dishes from all over the world. To top it all off the dinner included a show with traditional music and dance. John mentioned that they were doing a river sarafi the next day and insisted we join them. We had no concrete plans and had wanted to spend this time with them so agreed.

The next day we were still left feeling very hard done by with regards to the police treatment. We really should have just let it go but felt that they shouldn't be allowed to get away with such behaviour. So we walked back to the police station and demanded justice. It was now Saturday and the station was only manned by skeleton staff, but the constable on duty was very diligent and explained the process for appealing such decisions. He advised that we write a letter to the Chief Superintendent with all the evidence and that he would respond in writing.

We left the police station and conducted a little research. We downloaded a copy of the Zimbabwe Road Rules which had been revised in 2016, interestingly the only copy of the Road Rules that the police has access to was from 1974. However, the 2016 rules stated that signage had until 2025 to come in line with any changes. Our main dispute was the flashing lights but we could not find any reference to legal a definition for flashing in the rules or in any other Zimbabwe legal documents. We did however find a definition for flashing in British law, and given that Zimbabwe law developed from British rule and adopted for the most part its legal system, especially while under the Commonwealth, felt this definition would suffice in the absence of an alternative.

We delivered our letter and returned a few hours later for an answer. This was ambitious but we wanted to show we meant business. We were eventually told that we would hear something by Monday. There was plenty we wanted to do in Victoria Falls and so this wasn't an issue, the main thing was that we were enjoying our time and trying to forget the whole thing.

We joined up with John and Holly again for the river cruise which was another unforgettable experience. We saw more elephants, hippos and crocodiles but for us the main attraction was the food and just relaxing on the water. They told us that they were planning to do the helicopter flight over the falls and surrounding area and invited us to join them. At first we gratefully declined but John can be very insistent and before we knew it we were booked in for a flight.

The next day was Sunday, and John had booked the flight for mid afternoon. Janell was up and out early to grab some bread and eggs for a basic breakfast before we did a little sightseeing. On the walk back from the shops she was confronted by three aggressive baboons, her initial instinct was to yell at them but they kept running at her, a local lady watching yelled at her to throw her shopping to them and walk away. It worked, the baboons left Janell alone and concentrated on the food in the bag. They'd obviously done this plenty of times before because they knew exactly what to do with the eggs. Janell returned to the tent annoyed and told Stu what had happened. We decided that going out in numbers was the best bet and so walked back to the shops with Weeti and Shadow by our sides but this time the Baboons were nowhere to be seen.

After a successful breakfast we walked the scenic route past the falls. There are three high volume falls in the world, Foz do Iguazu, Niagara Falls and Victoria Falls. Seeing Victoria Falls had us complete the trifecta of visiting all three. Each was very different not only in how the falls were shaped but how you observed them. Interestingly each of them existed on the border between two countries and you had the option of which country to view from, again with advantages and disadvantages of either. We were always content with the view from the country we approached from. In any case they were all magnificent and each worth a visit.

On the way back from the falls we popped into one of the tourist offices and booked the bungee jump. It was actually something we wanted to do since first hearing about it watching The Long Way Down and we'd told everyone we spoke to that we'd be doing it so couldn't chicken out now. We decided on the whole package including a flying fox, swing bungee and free fall bungee and booked for Monday, the police could wait until we'd had our fun.

We arrived at the Victoria Falls Hotel with plenty of time, ready for a unique view of the falls and the wildlife within the surrounding parks. We were all very excited. Once we arrived we were briefed on how to approach the helicopter and before we knew it we were strapped in with our headsets ready to go. The helicopter really did provide a different and rare perspective of the falls, but its biggest advantage was seeing the wildlife since the pilots range of view was so much greater than on the ground and could fly directly to the herds. After about 20 minutes in the air and 2 sweeps past the falls and numerous herd flybys the helicopter touched back down. We were so grateful to have been invited and wanted to show our gratitude and so insisted on having John and Holly over for dinner that night at the Shoestring Backpackers where we had setup camp. They both very politely accepted.

Stu was on cooking duties for the evening, nothing fancy, just a typical overlanders dinner of pasta and sauce. But thanks to the onsite bar the drinks were many and varied. We were proud to show off a typical evening in the day of The Pack Track and John and Holly really seemed to appreciate it. We tried to convince them both to come and watch us jump off the bridge in the morning, but their flight out was late morning and it would be cutting it too fine to commit to anything beforehand. So knowing that we probably wouldn't see them in the morning we said our fond farewells before they started the short walk over to their hotel.

We got up bright and early ready for our day of adventure. It all started off nice and calm. We signed the liability waivers and were fully briefed on each activity. We decided to make our way to the flying fox first to ease into it. We were strapped to the slider and attached to the cable, we'd be going tandem with Janell in front. Depending on your fear threshold it could be a thrilling experience but it left us definitely wanting more and glad we had more to come. We wanted to do the swing bungee next and were told we could do each activity in the order we wished. But they called Janell up for the free fall, we said we were waiting for the swing first which angered the staff since they clearly wanted to get us through in the order that suited them. We were told we could be waiting all day and tried to pressure us into doing the free fall first but we held to our plan.

Eventually we were called up for the swing. Again we went through the safe instructions and again we were going tandem. The swing actually had you in free fall for a whole second longer than the free fall bungee but otherwise was a very different experience. This was an activity that we both found thrilling and could have stopped there and felt happy with what we'd done. And when we purchased the package we acknowledged this might happen but the difference was only another $10 but to purchase separately would have been much much more.

Janell was again called first for the free fall and they started to get her strapped up. This wasn't our first bungee, we'd done the Auckland Harbour Bridge bungee jump a few years earlier and so knew how it could be done. In New Zealand it was very professional, all the straps and equipment were purpose built, but here in Zimbabwe they wrapped a towel around each leg and then a strap over the top and between the legs. We were sure that when done properly it was just as safe as any other system but it didn't scream confidence. On top of this was a little story John had dropped the day before about the rope breaking during a bungee jump back in 2012, the woman had survived since the rope slowed her dramatically before breaking but it still would have been a massively frightful experience and one we weren't too keen to go through. As Janell's towels were being wrapped around her ankles and she started to think through what she was about to do, she panicked and asked to get out. Stu tried to assure her she'd love the experience and would regret not doing it but she was adamant that she wouldn't regret it and was happy to watch as he jumped.

Straight after Stu was called up. Now having tried so hard to not have Janell back out he was not in a position to back out himself. So regardless of what was going through his head he was going to jump. Stu just kept telling himself that it was just a high diving board, even if the rope wasn't there he'd land safely in the river below. Oh, and that crocodiles didn't live in those waters, it was too close to the base of the falls. He didn't clarify this, he didn't want to know if it wasn't the case. Right up to the jump Stu wanted to back out but knew that the thrill would be worth the mental barrier and that he just needed to step off the platform. He dived and as hard as he tried he just couldn't contain the scream. 111 meters in 3 seconds before being jerked back up again, phew, the rope had survived. His head was full of blood and throbbing, but nothing could match the feeling. The experience was on a whole other level to the swing, a rush like Stu had never felt before. A staff member descended to collect him and bring him back to bridge height. We were both so glad we did the activities that we did and could leave Zimbabwe doing what we always said we would with no regrets.

We returned to our campsite to find a letter waiting for us. This was very proactive and unexpected of the police but the response was not what we had hoped for. We would need to contest the fine in court.

The next morning would have been the day we'd leave, but we decided it was worth hanging around for the extra day to see if we could win our case and be reimbursed the $40 that had been taken from us. We attended the police station early to give us as much time as possible and insisted on seeing the Chief Superintendent. He assured us that we had every right to challenge but tried to convince us that it would not go in our favour and the result may very well be an increased fine. We felt we had a solid defence and so accepted the risk and demanded that the case be heard. The Superintendent handed us off to the Inspector who had previously dealt with us and then the waiting games started.

The Inspector told us that we would be going to the court where we would meet with the magistrate. We walked in and waited while the Inspector alone entered an office, after a short while we were asked to enter. A young man in a shirt and tie sat behind the desk, he asked us to explain our side of the story. We explained everything as we had in our letter to the Superintendent and we then asked to leave and wait outside again. The Inspector remained and they discussed for a while longer before asking us to enter the room again. The man, who we initially believed to be the magistrate, said that it was his opinion that an offence was made and that he could argue against our defence. It turned out that this man was actually the state lawyer and we were just there to give him everything we had to prepare him for court.

We were walked back to the police station and told that the magistrate was dealing with more important cases at that time and that we would be seen after lunch. We were asked to return at 2pm ready for court. We used the time to get some lunch and read over the paper we had prepared but feeling very confident. We also lodged a complaint at the tourism board so that their department was made aware of how people and tourists in particular were being treated.

At 2pm we returned to the station and were walked back over to the court. We were asked to wait in the jail house until called. It was basically just a shaded pen for people waiting to be called to court. We were not locked in but we were being watched. Just next to us however were prisoners awaiting trial that were very much locked up, they were left to their own devices inside an area no bigger than a tennis court and with no shading at all. We felt very grateful not to be in their situation.

After about 30 minutes of waiting the inspector came back, he told us to follow him as he walked back over to the police station. We followed as instructed. When we got back to his desk he told us that the magistrate was too busy to deal with us and that the case was being thrown out. We won! Now came the small issue of our refund. The inspector said he'd never processed a refund before and wasn't sure exactly how to do it, he'd have to call their technical support. Janell had had enough and decided to leave Stu to wait while she checked on the dogs.

Stu waited and waited but there was no sign of any tech support. While he waited the inspector started up some small talk and started going through his facebook feed on his phone, he asked Stu if he was on facebook and what his username was. After everything he'd put us through he wanted to be facebook friends, Stu told him The Pack Track rather than his personal page and he liked that.

The end of the day was nearing and the inspector said it was unlikely that tech support would arrive in time. Stu said he just wanted the money. The inspector said he could take it out of the officers social fund and then have them paid back, it didn't seem overly fair but Stu wanted to leave the next day and so was happy for the officers to work out the refund. The constable in charge of the social petty cash was called into the office and asked to produce $40 from the funds and it would be refunded later. The constable came back with a tin of money and had the inspector sign an "I owe you". Stu was finally handed $40 in rough looking $10 notes, he wasn't sure that they were not counterfeit but wasn't hanging around any longer, we'd just spend them quickly just in case.

Our Zimbabwe experience was different to that of the average tourist, the court involvement put a slight damper on things but in a way added to our adventure in a way that money just can't buy. We succeeded in not letting it get us down and during the whole experience we continued to enjoy our stay and make the most of the time.

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