Running Zimbabwe Marathon
Victoria Falls Marathon
Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
Sun, Jun 28, 2015
Marathon # 376
Country # 125
I wanted to run this race for a number of reasons:
1) Seeing Victoria Falls was on my bucket list
2) Completing an 8th country in Africa was an important goal since it is the continent with my lowest number of races/countries
3) Completing country #125 was an even more important goal
After the past few marathons earlier this year I was not sure how many more marathons were left in the ‘old’ bod? I wanted to at least round out my total countries and World Record to 125! Since I figured it might be my last trip to Africa I decided to do it properly. Nicole and I would visit Victoria Falls, run the marathon and then enjoy a few weeks in Africa. We wanted to do another safari, and also visit the Namib Desert. By the time I prepaid the flights and all the excursions, it was already the 2nd most expensive marathon trip we ever made! We would finish in grand style if this was my last race?
We departed on a Wed to allow a few days in Zimbabwe to recover from jetlag and to have a few days to explore Zimbabwe & Zambia. However Delta and Mother Nature wrecked those plans! Our first flight to Atlanta was diverted to TN because of thunderstorms in Atlanta and we missed our flight to Johannesburg (JNB), South Africa. And Delta didn’t care that we had to spend an extra day in Atlanta, pay for a hotel at the Atlanta airport, lose the prepaid hotel in JNB, lose the prepaid flights the next day from JNB to Victoria Falls, and buy new air tickets at triple the cost for one day later! In total, that storm cost me more than $800 and Delta didn’t care – because the delay was caused by weather!
I was hoping that our trip insurance would cover those costs but I have been informed that our claims are limited to a max of $150/day for trip delays – hence we might recover $300! Oh well! Shit happens!
With lots of anxiety and last-minute scrambling we re-arranged our travel logistics and arrived in Victoria Falls on Sat afternoon. We realized that any plans/hopes of visiting Zambia had gone out the window with the weather & flight delay. After checking into our hotel we met up with friends (Edson & Dieter) from the Country Club and strolled around VF looking for souvenirs. VF was much smaller than imagined so it did not take long to explore, and enjoy a few (Zambezi) beers. I had read that the economy was in shambles in Zimbabwe, and that hyperinflation had destroyed their currency and the $US was the de-facto currency. Street hawkers were selling packages of Zimbabwe currency worth $500 BILLION for $10 US- and that price was negotiable! Sadly the street vendors and hawkers had not adjusted to reality and were demanding ridiculous prices for crafts. One shop demanded $75 for a souvenir teaspoon? Granted it was sterling silver but when I pointed out that it contained less than $10 worth of silver he wouldn’t lower his price! It was worth maybe $30 tops! I walked away!
That evening Edson joined Nicole & me to walk into town for pasta dinner. The first restaurant had run out of pasta but we did find another to get our carbo fix.
Sun was ‘M’-day! The race started at 6:45am. Five members of the Country Club met at the race start for a photo. Unfortunately, Dieter had broken his toe in the bathroom the night before the race, and could not participate. Several $$thousands down the drain! But he was at the start line to cheer us on. The weather was cool – so cool that most runners wore a throw-away top.
The first few Km of the course ran across a bridge between Zimbabwe & Zambia and provided spectacular views of Victoria Falls at sunrise! Many of us stopped for a few Kodak moments before continuing across the border into Zambia. The course continued for about 500m into Zambia before we had to turn around and return across the bridge.
Around 5Km the course turned into Hwange National Park for two loops in the Park and around VF. Around 8Km, two friends, Peter, Yen & I encountered a family of baboons. I cautioned them to walk on the far side of the road so as NOT to threaten their territory! At the same time we heard gunshots? A Park Ranger had fired his rifle a few Km ahead of us to scare away a bull elephant that was threatening other runners. Yes- we were running in a Game Park and trespassing on game territory. But no runners were harmed!
When I passed 8Km in 1:00:18 and a split of 7:37 min/Km I was on pace but my legs were already tired? There were plenty of water stations –about every 3Km – so I started walking through them to rest my legs. By the time I passed 16Km in 2:00:15 and a split of 7:23 I knew it was going to be a long day! My legs were tired & sore! I wanted to walk the rest of the race? I figured it had to be the hills – the course was a never-ending series of rolling hills! I never even considered the altitude (3,000 ft)? I just figured that my only option to finish – and I HAD to finish – was to run and walk. And I would walk the whole damn race if necessary!
I passed the Half in 2:42 but my splits had slowed to 8:00/km. It was going to be a long day! And it was getting very warm now that the sun was up. The 2nd half was not fun! I think I walked as much as I ran?
With the 2 loops I got to see Edson and a few other runners I knew a few times on the course which helped to keep me motivated. Only when I passed 32Km in 4:11:27 and a split of 8:28, did I have confidence that I would finish. I could walk the final 10Km if I needed to! At 40Km (5:26:21), my splits had slowed to 10:17/Km as I reached the main street of VF and had to climb a long gradual hill to the stadium. I crossed the finish line in 5:47:43 just as they were starting the awards ceremony. The Sports Manager, aka, Nicole was waiting for me. I posed for a mandatory finish line photo, collected a ‘small’ T-shirt (they had run out of L & M shirts?), and went straight back to the hotel for a long, hot soak in the tub. I can’t remember the last time my legs were so sore at the end of a race?
Later, when I learned the elevation, I realized that the combination of altitude & hills had just been too much for my old bod and weak heart! I had once again pushed the old bod beyond its limits. But the good news was that I had mentally decided during the race NOT to run any more races if it was going to be that difficult & painful. However, now understanding the reasons, I believe that I can run more races if I choose my races and courses more wisely! And more good news was that I had finished marathon #376 and country #125 – the new World Record!
It was time to celebrate. Our marathon package included a sunset cruise on the Zambezi River so we did not have much time to accomplish other tasks. Nicole still had not seen Victoria Falls. While she walked over to, and across the bridge to view the Falls I scampered (well- limped is a better term) into town to negotiate the purchase of the mandatory souvenirs. We both accomplished our tasks and were ready for the shuttle at 3:30 pm.
The cruise was pleasant and a nice rest. We were treated to as much booze as wanted and plenty of hot snacks such as crocodile skewers while we watched animal life along the Zambezi River – crocodiles, elephants, hippos and giraffes. Then we enjoyed a magnificent sunset over the river before disembarking for a buffet dinner and dance/party on the river bank.
On Mon we were to be transported to a safari camp in Hwange Park. After breakfast, we walked over to the Victoria Falls Hotel (over 100 years old) for spectacular views of the bridge and the Falls.
Then it was a long drive to the SE entrance of the Park about 100 miles from VF. It was made longer by the fact that our shuttle and driver were stopped about every 10 miles by police to check the vehicle & papers. This vigilant police work is just a cover for bribes and corruption for drivers to continue the journey. I found it very annoying but the locals have learned to accept and live with it?
Our camp – the Miombo Safari Camp – was located close to the Park entrance. But it was not as described in the brochure! Our private thatched cabin was nice and had a beautiful four-post bed complete with mosquito netting – BUT – the toilet and shower were outside the cabin? It was very inconvenient and damn COLD to take care of duties after the sun set & temps dropped into the mid-30s!
I won’t go into more detail but we didn’t use the shower during our 2-day stay!
There were 13 guests – a group of Germans, a couple from South Africa and us. All had arrived that day shortly after Noon so they served us a light snack and then we departed for our first safari drive. It was a 20-min drive to the Park entrance where we had to buy a pass each day to enter the Park ($20/person).
The SA couple & we had our own safari guide & vehicle – a 4WD truck with open-air seating. No protection from animals? We saw a lot of animals on that afternoon safari – elephants, springbok, hippos and a den of lions feeding on an elephant carcass. The lions were either too busy gorging themselves or too fat & happy to be concerned about us! The safari usually ended at a water hole & platform where many animals came to drink at the end of the day.
We returned back to camp in the dark and sadly/painfully realized that we had under-dressed for the temps that dropped quickly after sunset. It was a COLD drive! Dinner was not too exciting – a basic, set meal washed down with free booze. It was a cold walk to our cabin in the dark. And even colder when I had to make frequent potty breaks during the night! Since the morning safari left the camp at 6am we didn’t bother to take a shower in our rugged/outdoor shower in the dark with temps hovering around the low 30s. This time we dressed more appropriately with 3 layers – and still almost froze to death on the drive to the Park in the back of the truck. If our guide hadn’t provided blankets to wrap ourselves in I doubt we would have survived? We saw more animals – we requested zebras & giraffes – and our guide came though. However, I am not sure the views and animals were worth suffering with that friggin COLD!
The afternoon safari was much better. Warmer and the final stop at the water hole provided more wild animals in their natural environment than I had ever seen in one place before! There were hundreds & hundreds of animals of different varieties sharing the water hole. Quite spectacular! After another cold drive back to camp in the dark we enjoyed a BBQ dinner followed with entertainment by a group of Zulu warriors performing traditional songs & dances.
The next morning we had to leave early to go back to the airport in VF. Once again it was too COLD to take a shower. After 2 hours of running the same police gauntlet we arrived safely at the airport. After checking in and going through customs/security, etc we visited a small bar/restaurant in the departure lounge for a snack. We ordered a plate of ‘chips’ and a couple of Zambezi beers. Oh what luck & joy! The chips were hand-cut and fried while we waited. It was the best meal we enjoyed in Zimbabwe!
Then we were off to Namibia for the next stage of our journey
Our flight arrived about 1 hour late and then we lost another hour in the airport going through immigration, etc. and waiting for a rental car. I was concerned about the police tactics in Zimbabwe so I asked the Avis rep if we would encounter such problems in Namibia and he (falsely) stated ‘No’! Then I encountered a bigger problem. The ATMs in the airport would not accept my ATM card? I figured it was simply a problem with those machines so I exchanged $120 US at a currency exchange with the expectation of getting more money as needed from ATMs in the city. Our guide book indicated that only Namibian $$ and South African Rand were accepted as currency.
Thus it was almost 4pm when we left the airport and I was forced to take a quick refresher course on driving a right-hand drive car with a stick shift on the wrong side of the road! The first 100Km through Windhoek, and then south toward South Africa on a two-lane paved hwy went OK – except for one police road block on the outskirts of the city. However, the police just looked at the rental car sticker and waived us on. At Rehoboth I stopped to purchase water and a few cokes before we turned off the paved road on to dirt roads. All we had to navigate with was a tourist map of Namibia provided by Avis that indicated another 200Km of dirt road through the Namib Desert. The map was correct! Oh Boy! Was it ever correct! As we turned on to a dirt road the sun set and we still had 200 Km to drive on dirt roads – basically just desert sand and dirt that had been graded – in total darkness. There were no homes, lights, service or cars for the next 200Km! There were few road signs or directions. A few times I would go screaming over a hill to find a 90 degree turn? After fishtailing in the sand for a few hundred meters and listening to Nicole’s screams I would get the car back under control and continue on. I figured that if we went off the road or broke down we would be stuck in the car all night until traffic came by in the morning? There was no place to stop and overnight even if we wanted to! We missed a few turns and had to go back and find the right road but eventually – after 3 hours of hellish driving – we arrived in Solitaire. Solitaire had a gas station (closed) and a motel and restaurant. I stopped at the motel to ask for directions to our lodge. Thankfully it was only another 27Km farther down the Hellish dirt road.
We found the gates/entrance to the Namib Desert Lodge but there was a wee problem. The gates were closed and locked! I figured we had 3 options: 1) drive back to the motel in Solitaire to ask them to phone our lodge 2) walk around the gates and walk about 3Km to the lodge to ask them to open the gates and 3) break the lock and open the gates! I decided on option #3. Luckily as I started to force the gate and lock, I discovered that the lock was not really locked, and I was able to force the gate open and drive the final 3Km to the lodge. When we arrived at the front entrance, the desk staff were outside to greet us. They were shocked to see a guest arrive at 8:45 pm! Nobody is crazy enough to drive the desert roads in the dark! They informed us that the resort closed down at 9pm so they escorted us directly to the restaurant so that we could eat dinner, and enjoy a few much-needed drinks to relax and unwind. The bar stayed open so we could enjoy a few more drinks after dinner – I needed a lot of unwinding!
We slept late the next day and finally after a late breakfast decided it was time to visit Namib Desert Park. We drove another 35Km into Sesriem where there was another gas station, the Park entrance, a restaurant and a motel – the closest motel to the Park. To our surprise, there is a paved road from the Park entrance that runs 60Km to a parking lot where all 2WD cars have to be parked. Red sand dunes and mountains run along both sides of the entire paved road.
There are a few viewpoints such as Dune 45 (at KM 45) where many visitors stop and some climb the dunes. Surprisingly, there was a lot of wildlife- oryx, zebra & ostrich – along the road? We parked our car and hired a 4WD shuttle to take us the final 5Km into Sossusvlei. This 5Km path is across the red sand and requires a ‘real’ 4WD vehicle with bull-low to navigate! We saw a lot of ‘fake’ 4WD (only AWD) trucks stuck in the sand. We visited Deadvlei (Dead Lake) on our way to the base of ‘Big Daddy’ – the highest sand dune in the Park at 350m/1050ft. We didn’t try to climb the dune because it is a 3-hour trip. This section of the Park is the most rugged and the scenery is awesome!
We returned to the Park entrance and enjoyed a cold beer at the restaurant before making a quick trip to Sesriem Canyon in the Naukluft Mountains. And then we returned to our resort to enjoy some of the amenities –especially the bar and the Internet in the lobby. The Namib Desert Lodge is quite luxurious and the food and service is excellent!
On our last day we decided not to make the long drive back into the Park. There was no point unless we were going to hike or climb some of the dunes? Instead we stayed at the resort, and enjoyed a 4Km hike around the fossilized red sand dune behind the resort. It was quite interesting and would have been enjoyable except for the desert flies! We quickly learned the ‘African wave’ to keep them away from our face. That evening we enjoyed a 4WD tour through the 3,000 acres owned by the resort that took us through the desert and up into the mountains overlooking the fossilized sand dune. The sand dune was quite spectacular in the light of the sunset!
Fortunately, we were able to charge everything to our room and pay with a credit card to preserve our limited cash. But I had to use most of that cash to fill the gas tank in Solitaire before we departed early Sat morning for Swakopmund – a 360Km drive! And yes – 360Km through the desert on dirt roads- although we had to climb through two mountain passes. But the dirt roads are much easier and less hectic to drive in the day time!
We arrived in Swakopmund around 1 pm to discover that the town closed down and rolled up the sidewalks at Noon on Sat and didn’t open again until Mon! After checking into our hotel overlooking the Atlantic Ocean we walked downtown to try the ATMs. We needed cash! No luck! Four different banks rejected my ATM card (I learned after returning home that our bank had blocked the ATM card after the initial failures at the airport – I am still extremely pissed off at our bank since I notified them in advance of our trip so that such problems would not happen). But what to do? All the shops & businesses, including the currency exchanges, were closed! Our ‘luxury’ (?) hotel refused to exchange currency in spite of my pleas. We needed cash to get back to the airport! Finally a porter guided me to a few ‘unofficial’ exchanges and the 3rd one agreed to exchange $120 US for 33% commission! I had no choice!
I agreed to be raped or we wouldn’t have any money for gas!
Now that we had cash and a credit card that worked we could enjoy the rest of our stay. We explored the city that was established by Germans, and looks like a small German town. The majority of the white population (and tourists) are Germans and German is a common language in Namibia. We even found a few souvenir shops ignoring the ‘closed down’ trend and were able to buy our mandatory souvenirs. Our hotel warned us that it was necessary to make a reservation for dinner since all restaurants in town are booked for Sat & Sun dinners. The Hotel restaurant was closed for the weekend? We wanted to eat at the best seafood restaurant in town – it was already booked! However, we later walked over to the Tug restaurant and sat at the bar during happy hour and they agreed to serve us dinner at the bar? We enjoyed a great seafood dinner with drinks and a bottle of wine for less than $50 US!
On Sun it was foggy and cold in the morning so we drove north along the coast for about 50Km. It was boring – only desert and ocean so we turned around and drove south to Walvis Bay where we saw a colony of flamingos. We asked our hotel to book dinner at a restaurant that specialized in Namibian game. Smart/lucky because the restaurant was completely booked and they turned away dozens of people while we were enjoying Springbok fillet. I was amazed at their business strategy? The restaurants are only open from 6pm to 9pm and only take one reservation per table for the entire evening? Tables sit empty until the party shows up and stay empty after a party leaves? I guess they never heard of flipping a table two or three times per meal? Prices in Africa are really good for restaurant meals & booze- a wild game dinner for two with a good bottle of SA wine costs $50 including tip!
We left early Mon to make sure we arrived at the airport in Windhoek in plenty of time for our flight to JoBurg. The entire route had paved roads! We stopped in Windhoek to fill the gas tank – the station would only accept cash! We got stopped twice by police road blocks but both times they waved us on.
The service at Avis and the airline was terrible but eventually we made it through immigration to the departure lounge. We spent our few remaining Namibian $$ on beers and soon departed for JoBurg!
A friend, Gillian, who lives in JoBurg met us in the arrivals lounge in JoBurg. Once again my ATM card was rejected and I was forced to exchange our last remaining US $ for SA Rand so we would have pocket money in JoBurg. Gillian invited us to join her and her daughter Chana and a few (running) friends at an ‘African’ restaurant to enjoy some wild game. It was a fun evening and the food –and company- was great!
On Tue morning – our final day in Africa – Gillian asked a friend who is a tour guide to guide us around some of the important tourist and cultural sites of JoBurg. We stopped in Soweto to visit the Hector Pieterson Museum and Mandela’s House/Museum. Then we stopped for a snack and tour at the Voortrekker Monument. Our final stop in our short and quick tour was the Union Buildings and the new statue of Mandela. Gillian was such a gracious host! We truly enjoyed the short visit we had with her and her family and friends!
Now we are back home and the painful memory of the marathon is starting to fade and I am starting to look at another race and a new country. The problem is that if I run another race – country #126 – then I will want to round out the total to 130 countries? What should I do? What will I do?