Breadbasket to Basketcase

Blog 30 by Tan: Breadbasket to Basketcase

The crossing into Zimbabwe was relatively efficient and mostly painless. As per our usual method, we opted to use a lesser used border post to the avoid delays and bad attitudes that seem to fester at the principal border posts. Crossing at Kariba Dam gave us the added bonus of allowing us to see the lake and the dam wall which, by all accounts, is very much structurally unsound. A plethora of engineers are united in the opinion that without urgent repairs the dam will fail within three years, the fall out of which would be a level of destruction unseen outside a B-grade Hollywood disaster film. The World Bank reports that a catastrophic dam wall failure would cause billions of dollars worth of damage, the loss of 40% of southern Africa’s electricity capacity and put millions of lives at risk.


kariba dam pic
The damned dam – We didn’t take this photo as photos are forbidden, we whipped it off the net instead. We have heard they have been even more strict with this as a way to stop photos of the cracks in the dam wall getting out into the public. The cracks from the view point were pretty spectacular.


What’s going wrong – once again, not our diagram, this we shamelessly stole from the inter webs. Nerdy engineering types might find their plan of attack interesting. They will be blasting to expand the size of the plunge pool in order to dissipate more energy and turbulence from the spillway discharge.


You see the dam is at risk on two different fronts. The biggest problem is that water from the spillways has eroded 10 times past the original design specification (to 90m!) and is beginning to undercut the 128m high wall. And if that isn’t sufficiently terrifying, a slow chemical reaction is causing concrete swelling, affecting the operation of the spillway gates some of which are completely jammed and can’t be opened or closed. Fortunately the world is sufficiently informed as to the priorities of the Mugabe government and are therefore not waiting for him to do anything about it. The European Union, World Bank, African Development Bank and the ever-generous Swedish government have come to the rescue and repair efforts are underway. Thank goodness.


A good start to our time in Zimbabwe. Who’s ever seen a full rainbow in a perfect sunny blue sky before?


Us and Willem


Thankfully the visa, insurance and road tax in Zimbabwe were nowhere near as expensive as Zambia so things were already looking up. With the formalities complete we headed towards the town of Kiroi. Doug from Sable farms in Zambia had recommended that we catch up with his friend Willem who ran an artisanal gold processing plant. Being mining types we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see what sounded like an interesting little operation. Willem had no problem accepting some total strangers into his house with little notice and put on a fantastic braai for us with his friends and family.

They were an interesting crowd for sure and we couldn’t get enough of their stories of Zimbabwe’s former glory days and the present trials and tribulations. Willem is 5th generation Zimbabwean originating from the first Afrikaaners that made the long trek north. They told us incredible stories of the life o’ plenty, fun and freedom growing up on commercial Zimbabwean farms. Farmers made money hand over fist; everyone had cars and boats and often planes and helicopters and houses and holidays and domestic staff like you would not believe. However things changed dramatically for them with the rise of Mugabe and they, like many others, lost their farms and their livelihoods in the process.

Mugabe’s land “reform” policies led to the economy imploding in the most swift and spectacular of fashions. The utter calamity of the land seizures demonstrates the perils of disregarding property rights and the rule of law. Kicking white farmers off land to which they had legal ownership led to the loss of investor trust, land equity, expertise and effectively kissed goodbye any chance of economic growth. In fact, growth became a distant memory as the country slipped rapidly into the economic oblivion. It is pretty simple; if you destroy the thing that is responsible for 60% of your GDP, as agriculture was to Zimbabwe, you are toast. Pretty soon after hyper-inflation caused the currency to become worthless, joblessness sky rocketed and life expectancy went from 57 years in 1994 to 34 years in 2007. Goodbye Zimbabwe.


Tobacco leaves freshly harvested and ready for drying


The final product – all dried and nicotine-rich, just looking for some lungs to riddle with disease


Fortunately Willem’s family saw the writing on the wall ahead of time and made some clever decisions, which included investing in houses and the gold processing operation that Willem now runs. They considered immigrating to England/Australia/New Zealand etc like many Zimbo’s did, but ever the optimists they wanted to stick it out because “it had to get better eventually”; Mugabe can’t live forever. I had so much respect for them admitting that the dramatic change in circumstances was probably good for them. Willem said that the family, like most commercial farmers, had had it too good, they lived like kings for so long, they were flying too high and they needed to be bought down to Earth. They said it had bought them closer to each other and to God and they were thankful… however they thought the lesson has been well and truly learned and it was high time things got better again.

It was clear they were dying to get back to living on the land. Their properties, like all of them, were confiscated and “redistributed” to army veterans and political cronies who lacked the farming and logistical skills to operate a large commercial farm. Riding down the highway you can see formerly productive land as far as the eye can see left to grasslands, not even pasture for cattle, just grass for…. grasshoppers I assume? But with the economy laying dead on its back with legs in the air, they now have the opportunity to lease back the land they once owned as their old highly successful farms are now completely derelict, and their new owners need some sort of income. Some of these guys are begging Willem’s family to come and work the land, saying they will take any deal they name – such is the desperation on their side.


Tiaan showing us some of the good stuff


Tobacco leaves sorted and awaiting packing


Fellas doing the pressing


Ladies doing the sorting


We visited Willem’s brother Tiaan’s tobacco farm where he was leasing some land back that the family used to own. When arriving on the farm we drove past a farmhouse which we assumed was abandoned until we saw a tiny maize crop off maybe 200m2 in the back garden, which was for years the sole agricultural output of a 400 hectare commercial farm, until Tiaan recently leased some land back. Sadly this story is exceedingly common country wide – hugely productive farms, which employed hundreds and even thousands of people are now reduced to a tiny subsistence plot of the new ‘army veteran’ owner, and a lot of grasshoppers.








Due to the selectivity of harvesting and sorting by hand, the tobacco of Zimbabwe, like Zambia, is high quality and much sought after. The vast majority of tobacco farmed in Zimbabwe is exported and quickly finds its way into the long-suffering lungs of the Chinese tobacco consumer. It was great watching the sorting process where the leaves are graded one-by-one by a small army of women. All the leaves looked the same to me but apparently varied quite a lot in terms of colour and thickness and ummm other attributes I don’t recall. It looked like detailed, tedious, time-consuming work but the workers on the farm were grateful to have a job unlike 80% of their fellow countrymen.










We then went and checked out Willem’s gold processing operation. Willem was getting frustrated by what he saw as the gambling nature of mining, and he longed for the familiarity and comparative predictability of farming. We were impressed by his operation and quite intrigued by its possibilities, and came up with a variety of suggestions which could help alleviate a couple issues he is experiencing. Sure it was a simple operation but it had enormous potential and indeed had been highly lucrative in the past. What Willem was struggling with now was decreasing grade predictability.


Mick getting the lay of the land


Under his arrangement, local artisanal miners bring loads of gold ore for processing, usually in 5t units. The miners pay a fixed rate (actually slightly less then cost) to mill the ore; they keep whatever gold they can recover from a small gravity circuit and panning, and Willem keeps the tails (the waste rock after processing). As not all gold is recovered by gravity separation, Willem gets his payday when the tails are placed in a cyanide leaching circuit. Lately he has been getting a lot of coarse gold ore to process, which responds excellently to gravity separation (which is great for the miner) but leaves little gold to leach; so Willem is not only absorbing some of the processing costs, he is receiving little in terms of gold in tails. In addition to this, some miners are so desperate for a payday they will mine anything and get it milled in the hope that something comes out. This works for them as Willem, by processing for less than cost, is assuming more than his fair share of the economic risk. Mining, it is an interesting game.


Ancient technology, but it works. These mills are 15 years old even though that look ten times that. A battery mill is the only suitable set up for batch processing on this small scale.


The cams that drives the battering rams


Regrinding some tailings before leaching


For us it seemed clear that he could benefit from a greater understanding of the different lithologies and mineralisation styles he was dealing with. In mining, it all comes down to understanding the rocks, and ensuring predictability is the most effective way to minimise risk and make money. In particular he needed to differentiate the fine gold ore that was more advantageous for him, and the coarse gold ore that are more advantageous to the miners, and of course the rocks which were barren and no good to anyone. With this information he could then incentivise the miners providing him with high-grade fine gold material, where he makes his money, by reducing their processing costs, and discourage those with low-grade and/or coarse gold material by increasing their processing costs.


The assay machine in action


Willem was worried that if he increased the costs of some of his miners, who a generally very poor (and often owe him money), they will suffer and then go to one of his competitor’s processing plants and he’d lose the throughput. We argued that it is better to not process than process at a loss, or even break-even. And it would be all the better to stop subsidising low-grade and/or coarse gold miners and have them take their loss-making material to competitors’ mills. Ideally, once everyone was familiar with his strategy, miners would bring their good ore to him and receive favourable rates, and take their bad ore to competitors to avoid unfavourable rates.


Mick with a 5t batch awaiting processing. Mick’s succinct thoughts on this particular pile? “Looks like shit”


We were rather disappointed we couldn’t spare the time to spend a couple of weeks there to characterise the rock and ore types… or even go mapping, and put in place some good strategies. It was an excellent little operation that’s potential could be maximized with some additional technical input. However Willem’s heart was obviously in farming and the high risk nature of mining has worn him out. Mining – she is indeed a fickle mistress but there is a science to learning her ways. We loved the visit and found it excellent brain food for us. We would have loved to have sunk our teeth into the place and had a lot of respect for the family’s business nous in acquiring and running the show. It had sustained them during the lowest points of the economic crisis and took guts to pull off. Impressive stuff.


Willem’s cash cow, the leach ponds


Mick assuming the classic mine manager stance and not even knowing it


That night we went for dinner at Willem’s parents house and had a great night eating, drinking and hearing some crazy stories about Zimbabwe. Seriously it was utterly fascinating, mind bending and overall better than TV. The experiences of the Zimbabweans during the economic apocalypse of the late 1990’s and 2000’s was nearly unimaginable to those from countries with an even mildly competent government. They told us that in 1980 when the Zim dollar floated it was 1 to 1 with the USD. In 2009 when it finally collapsed it was 1 to 1×10^57. That’s one billion trillion trillion trillion trillion, or numerically, 1000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000. So friends take solace in the fact that you have never stuffed up anything in your entire life as badly Mugube has stuffed up the running of his country.

They told us how once the currency was worthless and stopped circulating, and there was no work to do, the army and police let locals mine gold and diamonds illegally to avoid massive civil unrest, and that it was possible to buy diamonds for next to nothing. They said if you went to the diamond mining districts you could buy a bucket full (literally a 10 litre bucket full) of uncut diamonds for $US10,000. People in those areas were buying a coca-cola with a rough diamond. Willem and his friend Ben thought about selling a car for as much US currency as they could get, and just going and buying diamonds, but the country was so crazy at the time they didn’t go through with it. It was probably a wise move. Indeed bad things were going on in those diamond mining districts including mass murders by the military who were assuming the role of diamond magnates.


Boozing it up in the impressive family bar


Willem’s brother Tiaan was trying to operate their family butchery in the last days of the money crisis and was doubling the price of everything twice a day. He ended up spending a night in prison for trading in USD, which was illegal at the time. They paid their workers in food as the money was worthless. So what the family had to do when any Zim dollars came in was to spend it IMMEDIATELY. The best things to buy were non-perishable goods. And that is how we found ourselves drinking all night from the very well stocked bar in Willem’s parents house. We were drinking booze that they had stockpiled during the final days of the Zim dollar 7 years previous.


Expert storytelling and fun company


After a highly insightful and entertaining visit we said our goodbyes, serviced the bikes and hit the road on our way to Marondera where we had another contact to visit. We took the ring road around Harare and were pretty delighted to have avoided the chaos of yet another capital city. After an exciting ride along a rabbit warren of unmarked farming back roads following about 40km worth of directions including “at the hut turn left” and “go over the exposed bed rock and veer right” and “turn left at the fragrant flowering trees” we rolled into Helen’s place in the dark (rural types are generally very good at giving directions) and were greeted with friendly smiles and served a fantastic dinner in Helen’s huge colonial era farm house. We spent the night discussing life since the collapse of the economy and how that has affected those who made the decision to stay. It was another case of being endlessly impressed by the resilience of the Zimbabweans.

Helen’s farm was wonderfully productive farming land and we were surprised that she hadn’t been kicked off her land yet. She informed us that they had once been evicted but no one moved in so eventually they just moved back in again themselves. And that was that. Yet she very calmly acknowledged that at any point it could happen all over again. They were just taking it one day at a time.

Before we came to Zimbabwe we were not aware that farmers are still getting violently kicked off their farms. We rather naively assumed that the link between taking skilled commercial farmers off the farms and having them replaced with political cronies led to… well… no agricultural production and no economy. Zimbabwe, formerly Africa’s bread basket, was the second biggest economy on the continent exporting vast amounts of agricultural produce, yet now can’t even produce enough to feed itself. Maize, the continents staple, is imported in bulk from Zambia at huge cost.

That night we met some people who just a few months ago had been forcibly evicted from their farm and watched it be given to a 23 yr old political crony with no farming knowledge; he was the current leader of the youth chapter of Zanu PF, essentially the “Mugabe Youth”. To this day the farm seizures generally happen like this… a couple bus loads of disenfranchised local people are intimidated and whipped into a frenzy by a political cadre. They brandish and threaten with simple weapons like machetes and drums are beaten as a form of intimidation. In this particular case the farmer was home and told that he had a day to leave the farm. Fortunately for him, he had a truck so filled it with anything of value. He was told that he could return the next day to get the remainder of his farm equipment and belongings but sure enough when he returned the place had been stripped bare.

We found the complete lack of commercial activity really shocking. Like many from outside I guess we thought things would have improved since the difficult times of the late 1990’s and 2000’s. The failure of the land redistribution policy was blatantly obvious as we rode through the country. We saw countless commercial farms and other agricultural infrastructure like enormous silo’s and train loading systems completely derelict and overgrown. It was the weirdest thing to be traveling along old, yet still good quality roads that were constructed 40 years ago by the English, yet on either side it looked like what you would have expected to have seen 100 years ago. Prime, fertile, bountiful agricultural land completely given over to nature and entirely unutilised. It was surreal, like the scene from one of those post-apocalypse movies. In fact that was our most lasting impression of Zimbabwe; wasted opportunity.

Because of this you could not help but get involved in the politics of the place; the effect of it was everywhere to see, or “not see” in this case. Mugube and his kletpocracy have truly bled the place dry, like mutant, soulless, economic vampires. But fortunately what remains are a well-educated (the schooling system left by the British is regarded as the best on the continent), kind and resilient population patiently waiting for an opportunity to make something of the place again. Everyone has the sense to not even try until there is someone else in charge; its just a waiting game. All we could offer in sympathy was to tell people that ‘umm…he can’t live forever’. To which many emphatically replied, ‘but he IS, he IS living forever’. Mugabe is 91 and his grip on power is iron clad.

Anyways next blog will be last one so politically charged… promise…

The next day we were spoilt for choice of what to do with ourselves. On one side we could hang out with Helen on her beautiful farm or take another friend up on the opportunity to stay in their century old, hand built cottage in the Bvumba, an area of mountainous jungle on the border with Mozambique. We would have loved to have stayed longer in Marondera but couldn’t pass up the opportunity to stay in a century old cottage in the mountains.


Views of the Bvumba


We actually took these photos on the way out and managed to offload some luggage for the trip. But the view was the same on the way up…


On the way to the Bvumba we were stopped many times at police checkpoints. In fact the police stops had been extremely frequent since the moment we entered the country. We had heard many a story of outrageous corruption aimed at foreigners so each time we were stopped we put on smiles yet braced ourselves for make believe traffic infractions, yet they never came. This time however, after riding 25000km in Africa, we met our first cop who seemed to be trying to get some coin from us. We’d been stopped a dozen or so times in Zimbabwe and the police had always been kind, professional and more often than not they just wanted to talk about our bikes, where we were going, and the Cricket World Cup when they learned we were Australians.


Nice mountain tracks


This fella was setting us up from a bribe from the moment he waved us off the road. We were carrying spare tyres on the bikes and he looked at them gravely, telling us a number of times it looked very unsafe and we couldn’t go on like this. We kept our cool and politely told him it was very secure and demonstrated the strength of the straps and waited for the “fine” to be issued. But it never came. It was odd. He laid all the groundwork but then never followed through, and soon enough there were other police around us and they got curious about the bikes and then Mick got them talking about the cricket so all thoughts of unsafe tyre carrying were abandoned. After 5 minutes of back and forth discussion about the straps and the load, and then a couple minutes of distracting chat about cricket, he waved us on. We were relieved but more confused to be honest. So that was the closest we’ve come to any corruption. 10000km on from this and that is still the case.




The plains in the distance are Mozambique


I’ll drink to that


Views of the Zimbabwe Mozambique border


We had some fabulous riding to arrive at the Doug and Tempe’s cottage in the Bvumba. The Bvumba/Vumba mountains lie on the Zimbabwe-Mozambique border and are known as the mountains of the mist. They are vast and spectacular and fantastic to explore on a motorbike. We were so impressed by Doug and Tempe’s family cottage that was about 100 years old. It was very rugged with no electricity and was slightly dilapidated in parts, which made it all the more attractive. The place had so much character and family history and I must say we were jealous not to have such a place ourselves. We had a braai and spent the evening sharing stories by the fireplace.


The family cottage


Doug manning the braai while some coals burn down


Now I thought we Aussies were tough but we have nothing on the Zimbos. Doug and Tempe told us jaw dropping tales of their annual canoe trip down the hippo and crocodile infested Zambezi River….. like it is a normal thing! Every year they do a week-long canoe safari and they have had some insanely hairy encounters. They have avoided large crocs (one of which they suspected ate a Canadian tourist out of her canoe), and had violent hippo strikes where two people were thrown up in the air, landing in the water but near enough to the bank to escape. After plugging the hole where the hippo tooth penetrated the canoe, they continued on their merry way. Another trip saw them being hounded by elephants for days who for some reason had it in for them. Bugger that!


Clear skies


Me knocking back Amarula like a crazy woman


It was time to leave the Bvumba, and we took Doug and Tempe upon their offer to return with them to Chinmanimani where they lived, a place known to be incredibly scenic. We were advised to go to Tony’s Coffee Shop on the way to try his famous chocolate whisky cake. It was a big decision to spend $11 USD (yeah, big decision…) on a single slice of cake but Tony’s Café is a bit of a local institution, so we went for it. My Lord, was that cake extraordinary. I am quite the accomplished connoisseur of cakely goods but I was completely bested by this one. Between us, Mick and I only got two-thirds of the way through it before going into some kind of sugar-cocao catatonic state. It was basically pure dark chocolate. When you spend a good portion of your daily food budget on a single piece of cake you don’t waste a crumb, which was probably our error. We pushed way past our comfort zone and I was shaking on the inside for the next 2 hours. But on the plus side it made us sufficiently energised for the following ride along the scenic, winding roads to the small town of Chimanimani in Zimbabwe’s famed Eastern Highlands.


THE Chocolate whisky cake


Bested by the thing


Shortcuts… our favourite.


Rolling green hills of the Eastern highlands as far as the eye could see. Very scenic and great riding.

5 Comments on “Breadbasket to Basketcase

  1. I love this blog entry. I was there this time last year with my son who had the same dream to do what you two are doing.I lived in Zimbabwe until I was almost 18, parents were Tobacco farmers we immigrated to Australia in 83.

    • Hi Ursula, so glad you enjoyed the post. We really tried to not make the post 100% politics but it’s hard to not get involved when modern Zimbabwe is 100% a result of poor politics. It’s such a shame, as we really loved how friendly and polite and well educated even the most poor Zimbabwean is. Such a great place being trampled by an utter physchopath.

  2. I saw that you are well and to give us good information about the countries around us. Thank you. I wish you both the best and good health.
    Have a good continuation….
    Kind regards.
    Elsa(Egypt Embassy- Maputo)

  3. Hry guys loving the stories.Like the geology lesson.Cant take the miner out of the bike rider ,even on The Trip.Must be his other love ‘-].Ride Safe …but not to much

    • Hey Rob, glad you enjoyed it! Hope all is good back in chilly perth!

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