The Great Zimbabwe Ruins and The Ruins of a Great Zimbabwe

Blog 31 by Tan: The Great Zimbabwe Ruins and The Ruins of a Great Zimbabwe

We found Doug and Tempe’s place in Chimanimani without a problem and settled in for another night of interesting conversation. Doug has a near complete collection of all the Zimbabwean currency released (minus two notes) and gave us a highly entertaining, chronological wrap-up of the currency crisis. Doug was highly knowledgeable in this area and I think he gets a kick out of the shocked and stupefied expressions on the faces of the foreigners he gives his talk to.


Enjoying great views of the mountains


Tempe runs a wonderful guesthouse in Chimanimani called The Farmhouse which we recommend highly. It is peaceful, comfortable and affordable.


Doug and Tempe have explored every nook and cranny of the mountains so will be able to help you out with advice for hiking


It is on a beautiful dairy plot and while you are there be sure to order some milk fresh from the cow.


The currency crisis basically started as the Zimbabwean government was simply printing money to fund their costly and unsuccessful war with the Democratic Republic of Congo, when Mugabe was trying to get his grubby little hands on DRC’s diamonds. In Mugabe’s defense, I admit that once I also truly believed that printing more money was the way to eradicate poverty. I was of course 10 years old and the time. When payments to the IMF were due, he printed more money. When cash in circulation reduced, he printed more money. Basically his answer to all fiscal issues was to print more money, much like my response would have been, when I was a child of 10.

Hyper-inflation became so pronounced that the Central Bank of Zimbabwe redenominated the currency (i.e. took a bunch of zeros off the end) on three separate occasions. In the beginning they were trying hard to avoid the embarrassment of having to print a one million dollar note, so in August 2006, the Central Bank slashed three zeros from the currency. They were released as “Bearer’s Cheques” with an expiry date as there was an expectation that inflation could be brought under control and proper legal tender re-released, but little did they know what was to come… Hyperinflation accelerated to the point that businesses were struggling to get together enough cash for everyday transactions, so in July 2008 they printed new “agro-cheques” (short for agriculture) this time with 10 zeros removed. Z$10 billion was therefore redenominated to be Z$1.


Mick looking suitably stupefied by what he was hearing


The problem was so extreme however that money simply could not be printed fast enough to keep up with inflation. By the time new notes were distributed they were essentially worthless. So in February 2009 a third redenomination occurred which dropped another 12 zeros off the currency. This was done by taking money that was stored as reserve currency in Zimbabwe’s central bank, and releasing it, but now with a new value. So money which was already printed and stored in the Reserve Bank, was released into circulation but with a value of 1000000000000 times more! That little factoid made Mick’s head spin to the point he just kept saying “hang on… what? They did what!?”

Its one thing to redenominate a currency by printing new money, but to redenominate money that is already printed and stored as reserve currency to underpin the value of the worthless currency in circulation that needs redenomination? And empty the currency reserve in the process? Whoever came up with that idea, to just say “oh, yeah I know its worthless reserve currency but just whip 12 zeros off the end and she’ll be apples”, I’m going to go out on a limb here but I don’t think they were acting in the best interests of the nation. Seriously, that would have to be one of the most inflationary fiscal actions in history, and all done in the aim of combating inflation!

So to recap some of these utterly bewildering figures, the total value of the 3 redenominations alone was thus worth 10 trillion trillion original dollars, as together they reduced the value of an original dollar by 103 × 1010 × 1012 = 1025. Seriously, try get your head around that!


Who wants to be a Quadrillionaire?


In another pre-school attempt at inflation control, the government introduced price ceilings on staple goods. The maximum prices for these goods were far below the cost of production, leaving vendors with 2 real options; operate illegally and sell the goods at market prices, or simply not stock these goods at all. Many went for option 2, shops emptied and food supply evaporated. Some tried option 1, and suffered the consequences. Government goon squads/police would find these stores, arrest the shop owner, drop the prices of goods to the regulated amount, buy it all and then immediately sell it on the black market for an enormous profit. An example might be a loaf of bread, which might be officially priced Z$550 million, but it was typically only available on the black market for a cost Z$10 billion.

Business simply couldn’t operate anymore, not legally anyway. Shops completely emptied of goods and closed. People camped out for days at petrol stations to buy fuel. Bartering became the norm and people increasingly dealt in USD despite the risks. In Zimbabwe the highest monthly inflation rate reached 79,600,000,000% in November 2008. Toilet paper became rare and expensive and Zimbabwean notes were soon used as a cost effective and rather symbolic alternative.

Government officials made millions of real dollars (not Zim dollars, proper ones) by rorting the various foreign exchange rates. Because there was a lack of physical cash, there was a cash exchange rate, a bank exchange rate, and then of course the black market. The cash rate was very low as banks couldn’t actually produce enough Zim money if someone was silly enough to buy some. The bank rate was a more realistic reflection of the Zim dollar value, however it didn’t mean much in real terms as banking laws meant it was basically impossible to withdraw your cash. You might have had quadrillions of dollars in the bank but you couldn’t access it. And then there was the black market which was somewhere in the middle. Connected and corrupt government types would then takes some Zim dollars, buy US currency on the blackmarket, deposit it into the bank at the significantly higher bank rate, then use their connections to withdraw the money (illegally) and take it back to the blackmarket, turn it back to USD and then do it all over again.   They would just transact round and round and round making money out of thin air. Funnily enough, the Zim dollar soon collapsed…


The big fella – 100 Trillion dollars the largest note printed – bear in mind it had already had 15 zeros taken off by this point. When this note was released on January 16, 2009, the fx rate to the USD was about a trillion to one, so this note was worth about USD100. By the start of February, less than 3 weeks later, the fx rate was 300 trillion to 1. The note was now worth about US 33c.


The affect of the currency crisis on the lives of everyday Zimbabweans was immense. People started paying wages in diesel and food, we heard stories of people paying for school fees with a cow, all because the money was worthless and people didn’t want it. However, trading in other currencies was illegal and employers like Doug were legally required to pay (at least occasionally) their employees in Zimbabwean currency, which they didn’t want, which was hard to get in significant amounts, hard to carry, and very swiftly became worthless. Doug would have to arrange permission from the government to withdraw such an enormous sum of money, pre-book with the bank so they had time to organize it, then take his pick up truck so he had the load carrying capacity to transport the piles and piles of money to pay his workers.

With the economy imploded, Doug and Tempe, like many others, were forced to become more self-sufficient than ever before as supermarket shelves were empty. They would go shopping for staples, like flour, sugar and salt etc, twice a year in South Africa towing a trailer. They got dairy cows and chickens, grew their own fruit and vegetables, baked bread, learned to make cheese and butcher and smoke their own pigs. People made do as best as they could and some even came out ahead in the game. Doug told us that there were exceedingly poor Zimbabweans with an innate ability to understand and navigate the constantly shifting sands of the currency game that went on to become rich as a result of the money madness. But obviously…. for the most part, everyone suffered.


Mick shocked…Doug amused. The calamity ended when a new finance minister legalised the use of foreign currencies. The blackmarket instantly became legal, overwhelmingly the USD, the Rand and to a lesser extent a few others like the Botswanan Pula, the British Pound and even the Chinese Yuan became the commonly transacted currencies and inflation stopped. The damage was done though, the economy was destroyed.


Saying goodbye to our excellent hosts


We went to bed with our minds swimming and in utter disbelief that the architect of such destruction is still in charge. Fair warning to anyone travelling to Zimbabwe: it is a great place, there is some fantastic riding to be had, the people are extremely friendly and so badly need your tourist dollars… but thoughts of politics is unavoidable. You will look around and see a place that looks to have everything going for it, fertile productive land, good (though aging) infrastructure, a generally cohesive and well educated populace but limited commercial activity of any consequence anywhere, no growth or activity, no nothing. It is like going on safari and coming across an elephant dressed in a bikini. You will not be able to stop thinking ‘wow, that is so out of the ordinary, it makes no sense for it to be this way, who is responsible for this?’


Regular maintenance time


Mick noticed his fork seals were leaking


So used the Seal Mate fork seal tool


Removed a lot of grit… see how it goes… but may be due for a rebuild


Doug and Tempe’s lovely house lady, Judy who looked out for us


We had some bike jobs and admin to take care of and Doug and Tempe kindly offered their place to us while they went on their annual week-long houseboat cruise on Lake Kariba with friends. It was just some general bike maintenance that needed doing. Worn rear tyres were changed out, chains and sprockets cleaned and we dealt with a regularly deflating tyre (fibres from the tyre goop stuck in the valve was the culprit) as well as cleaning out Mick’s leaking fork seals.


Hiking ‘Corner’


Some non-bike physical activity


Fun bit of rock scrambling… Mick twisted the camera a little for extra dramatic effect, it was steep but not this steep


Views into Mozambique


The compulsory swim that stopped our progress. It looked easy to get into , but difficult to get back with a bung shoulder. Looked cold too, which made the decision easier!


We had the place to ourselves


We thought a bit of non-biking physical activity was in order so we went for a hike to a part of the Chinmanimani mountains known as ‘Corner’. Following some directions from Doug, we found the place easy enough but struggled to find the start of the trail which was quite overgrown. From there we headed downstream in search of a waterfall in Mozambique, and it was an hour or so of hiking and scrambling over rocks until the GPS told us we had arrived at the border. It was pretty cool to visit a new country without having to go through the usual formalities. Another half hour or so we reached a section of the trail were it was necessary to swim though a steep sided ravine, which looked like fun but too much work for my still injured shoulder to attempt to scramble up on the return. So we turned around there and walked back to find the national park guy awaiting payment. Bummer. There was a $US10 fee per person to fork out but the young guy was really friendly and officious and seemed excited to have something to do. He said we were the first people there in two months.


Nice mountain roads back to town







The ride out was pretty rocky and I binned it, breaking my right hand mirror yet again. My shoulder was seriously deficient in strength at that time so I couldn’t maneuver the bike well on such rocky terrain. I was worried about hurting my shoulder attempting to keep the bike upright so it was more of a self-preservation drop than a proper binning. Nevertheless our shopping list now included a wing mirror. After working up a hunger on the hike we went to the local chicken and sadza (the local Shona name for millet pap) lady for a good and cost effective feed. For $1USD you get a piece of fried chicken, fresh vegies cut straight from the garden (ie she gets her scissors and goes and cuts it after you order, that’s how fresh), a huge helping of millet pap and a tomato relish type sauce. We lived on these meals through Zimbabwe.


Just by chance we found the best chicken and sadza lady in town.


We were told that she ran the place on her own, got up with the sun to buy and slaughter the chickens, worked all day and into the evening and maybe cleared $3 to $5 profit a day.


We lived on this food in Zimbabwe.


Cheap, plentiful and tasty


Our chicken and sadza lady appreciated our bikes and repeat business


Her lovely daughter


It was soon time to move on to our next destination, the Great Zimbabwe Ruins. Before leaving we had the chance to meet Doug and Tempe’s son Peter who is an engineer working in Tanzania and a fellow bike nut. We were very fortunate to find that Peter just so happened to have an old right hand wing mirror for a Suzuki that fitted perfectly. We discussed our plans to exit Zimbabwe and enter Mozambique by a very obscure border post that required us to travel through the Gonarezhou National Park. Peter wisely recommended that we should confirm with the National Parks authority that we would be able to ride through the park as it would be an awful way to go to be turned away at the gate. We tried to do this but no one could give us a straight answer. There was nothing left to do but go there and try our luck.


Decent quality roads like this were generally empty but for us


Mick admiring the views


Lunch at High Town Butchery T-Away. Beef and Sadza, USD1 per plate.


These guys told us you could buy a bottle of local millet beer for $1. I told him we’d settle with a coke.


Shooting the breeze with the boys. He convinced Mick to try out the local beer, which apparently didn’t smell to good and tasted pretty rough


So we headed off. When we informed people of where we were going they would joke that if we wanted to see the Great Zimbabwe Ruins we just needed to look around… we were in it. It was sadly amusing. The real Great Zimbabwe Ruins are a UNESCO World Heritage site located near the town of Masvingo. We managed to chart a route including some entertaining back roads. When we arrived we parked the bikes under a tree and rather stupidly opted to stay in our motorbike boots and pants for the tour of the ruins. It was hot and uncomfortable trudging up hillsides in Goretex motorbike apparel and motocross boots but probably made for some worthwhile beneficial exercise. The tour was interesting but rather unexpectedly came back to politics. We had been told previously that the Great Zimbabwe Ruins were built by Arab slave traders and knowing nothing of the history and being too naïve to understand the implications of the assertion, we took that to be the case. However on the tour of the ruins we were informed that they were constructed between 1100 and 1450AD by ancestors of the local Shona people. We were confused. So we looked into the reasons for the completely conflicting reports. We opened the can… and there were a great deal of worms.


Granite, granite everywhere. There is one of the many many massive batholiths in the background


The Great Zimbabwe Ruins


Once the capital of a major trading empire in the gold rich plateau of southern Africa


At its height (from 1300 to 1450AD) it was home to 10,000 to 18,000 people. This image was the one chosen by Zanu PF as their symbol, A tower of strength in the middle with 2 supporting trees. Something symbolising violence, incompetence and theft would be far more fitting.


It seems the controversy stemmed from incorrect assumptions of the origin based the young nature of the construction and the tendency for archaeologist of the day to relate things back to the known world. However, it also seems that the interpretation of the site was influenced by prejudice on the part of some European explorers and governments. Many simply could not believe the locals were capable of such workmanship and instead attributed it to foreign powers. What has followed has been more than a century of misinformation of the site where many explorers and archaeologists ignored, misinterpreted and in some cases intentionally destroyed evidence of Great Zimbabwe’s indigenous origin.

The opinions of some early explorers and archaeologists with decidedly racist attitudes seemed to prevail for a very long time. One such fellow was Carl Peters, a rather enthusiastic colonizer and the creator of German Tanganyika (present day Rwanda, Burundi and mainland Tanzania). Peters once described the people of Tanganyika as ‘sickly and useless rubbish’ and thought that they should be used by white settlers as slave labour or exterminated. It is not hard to believe that his attitude may have influenced his opinion as to who built the ruins. And despite never having visited the site, his idea that the local population could not have been responsible, gained traction.

In 1902 the Rhodesian government rather curiously appointed a journalist named Richard Nicklin Hall to oversee the Great Zimbabwe Ruins. Hall spent two years excavating and publishing his findings. He believed that Arabs were the people responsible for the site. To support this, Hall removed anything that he thought might link the site with an African heritage and destroyed countless artifacts in the process. Eventually he was sacked but his ideas had taken hold by that point. I suppose there was no reason to doubt him at the time.


There was considerable craftsmanship at play


With lots of narrow passages


Views up to the penthouse suite where the king lived


Weirdly, the popularity of the external Semitic Arab origin theory got a massive boost by the publishing of Henry Rider Haggard’s action-adventure novel King Solomon’s Mines in 1895. In fact it quickly became the most popular explanation for the ruins, despite the fact it was a fictional adventure novel.   In 1930, the German ethnologist Leo Viktor Frobenius presented the ruins as many thousands of years old and believed the builders to have been Sumerians from near the Caspian Sea. This became another popular theory. Incidentally Frobenius also claimed that the lost city of Atlantis could be found in Southern Africa. He also used to pillage antiquities like it was going out of style, justifying the theft with the following statement ‘I was moved to melancholy at the thought that this assembly of degenerate and feeble-minded posterity should be the legitimate guardians of so much loveliness’.


Where the mere mortal lived back in the day. Now it was a cultural village where people dance for you while you feel slightly uncomfortable


But they sure had rhythm


Further excavations by actual archaeologists who actually excavated the site were conducted and nearly nothing but African artifacts were unearthed. Heated arguments as to the origins of Great Zimbabwe continued for many more years and despite corroboration from yet more archaeologists, it did nothing to silence the proponents of the external origins theory. It wasn’t always a case of people having an agenda to push, however, sometimes it is simply difficult for many to abandon established ideas.

As African states were achieving independence, views on the indigenous origin of Great Zimbabwe Ruins brought people into direct conflict with the colonial administration. Archaeologists were coming under increasing pressure by the Rhodesian Government to deny its construction by a native African population. Information was censored, records changed and dissenting archaeologists removed from their posts. The debate became heavily politically charged as it seemed a point of legitimacy for white rule, to assert that Africans could not be able to build such a monument. So too for the leaders of those opposing colonial rule, who saw the grandeur of the ruins as proof of the ability of the native population to govern themselves.

It is no surprise that Mugabe’s Zanu PF took their symbol from the Great Zimbabwe Ruins as it was made into (and still remains) a potent symbol of African pride. The name Zimbabwe is actually derived from the Shona name for the ruins meaning ‘large houses of stone.’ The great irony of the whole thing is that Mugabe and ZANU-PF have gone on to politicise the Great Zimbabwe Ruins much like the leaders before them and this has undermined efforts to further understand the place. Many questions still remain as to the full economic and technical purpose and functioning of Great Zimbabwe. It is funny (and depressing) to think that were further excavations to reveal a greater external influence to the founding and functioning of Great Zimbabwe, that the current government would likely go to similar lengths as the previous one to undermine that knowledge. Politicians, hey… as useless as tits on a bull. We just wanted to see some historical ruins and we find ourselves in this shit…


Climbing up a hill in my bike gear…one of my more silly decisions


Up top in the King’s residence


They are not exactly sure what led the place to be abandoned but some suggests were famine, lack or water, exhaustion of the nearby gold mines and the rise of more important economic centres elsewhere


One thing we did know for sure was the way in which the ruins were constructed. Rocks don’t lie afterall. The ride to the ruins took us over and around huge granite batholiths (a fancy geologist word for a great, big hunk of igneous rock). It is these rocks that make up the bricks of the ruins. As people may recall from the geology tidbits mentioned in the Namibia blogs, granite has the tendency to break when it experiences large variations in temperature. The builders of Great Zimbabwe used this knowledge to their advantage and mined the granite by heating the surface of the rock with fire and then inducing thermal shock by pouring water over the surface to break the rocks apart. Clever and effective.

All in all, the visit to the ruins was interesting and worth the ride. We camped in the campground next to the ruins and settled in for our last night in Zim. The next morning we found a supermarket so were able to stock up on food. There were things to buy but I was the only one buying. I was taken aback when I got to the counter and saw a wall of glossy foreign gossip magazines for sale. Who on Earth in this tiny town in Zimbabwe is buying a magazine with one of the lesser known Kardashian sisters on it? We barely saw anyone buy food in that country. For the money we were spending on food for the two of us for a day you could by a magazine detailing just how it is some C-grade American reality tv non-entity got her baby body back. Unreal. After fuelling up we continued our way south toward Gonarezhou National Park. We were keen to do some dirt riding and, as ever, avoid the busy border posts so we had decided to try ride south through the National Park to what looked on the map to be a remote crossing at Sango/Chiqualaquala.


At the start of the road through Gonarezhou. That is an elephant skull in the background




It was hot and dusty riding in an area that I don’t think gets a lot of visitors. As we got closer to the Gonarezhou Park gates we became quite convinced we would be turned away. The road was empty and we were following a railway line, it made sense the border post was used for clearing trains and not much else. We didn’t much fancy having to turn around as our backup plan was to ride the 100 plus km of dirt back to the main highway and to enter South Africa again on our way to Mozambique. We were so close to the gates that we thought we might as well give it a shot. When we got to the gates, they were open so we rode through and hung around a few huts for a couple minutes until someone showed up. The guy seemed pretty surprised to see us and when we asked if we could go though he was like..yeah..sure..whatever. He didn’t really care. We were on our way!


What the road like most of the way. Simple, relaxing and fun.


We had heard that the animals in that area, particularly the elephants, were rather traumatised by years of veracious poaching and were therefore instantly aggressive at the sight of people. This information was a little unnerving. All the more so when I noticed about 1km from the gate that I had a bloody flat tyre. Mick did the honours this time while I acted as a lookout. Thankfully we didn’t see any angry, vengeance seeking wildlife. Soon enough we were on the road again, ripping up the dirt tracks and trying to cool off. We didn’t see much in terms of animals (we did spot a couple buck) but had a great run nonetheless. Before we knew it we were at the Sango border post and at the end of our time in Zimbabwe. We had enjoyed our time in Zim and long to return one day. Hopefully, when we do, we will witness a country fulfilling its potential and rewarding the patience and tenacity of its people.

But for now it was time to see what Mozambique has in store for us!

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