Zimbabwe’s last resort- an interview with bestselling author Douglas Rogers

After a decade of political unrest, seizures of white-owned farms and record hyperinflation that forced the government to print 100 billion dollar banknotes, Zimbabwe is finally starting to inch back onto the tourism radar, thanks to a power sharing agreement and a move to use U.S. dollars as the de-facto currency of the country.

But Zimbabwe’s long-dormant tourism sector has also received a small boost from the popularity of The Last Resort, Zimbabwe native Douglas Rogers‘ bestselling account of life at Drifters, his parents’ backpacker lodge turned brothel near Mutare, in eastern Zimbabwe. The book won the British Travel Writers’ Guild Book of the year in 2010 and BBC recently bought the film rights. Gadling caught up with Rogers near his new home in Loudoun County, Virginia last week.

People loved this book so much that some decided to visit your parents’ lodge in Zimbabwe?

The book came out at the end of 2009 and within a few months, people started turning up. The first visitor was the Swedish Ambassador. He hugged my mother and said he felt like he knew her. Now they keep coming, at least a few hundred so far. They bring books and want the staff to sign them.

This is very personal memoir where you talk about how your parents’ lodge sort of morphed into a brothel and explain how your parents tried to grow marijuana in the yard as the tourists disappeared. Were you nervous about how your family or the staff at the lodge would perceive the book?

I was more nervous about the politics of it. That there would be negative repercussions for my family there, but so far there haven’t been.

Has Mugabe’s regime banned the book?

No, it’s available in Harare but there are so few bookshops left it’s hard to find. I wanted to change the names of people I wrote about in the book, but the staff at my parents’ lodge were dead set against that. The 2008 election violence was terrifying and, at that point, the book was about to come out. But they wanted their named in the book- they’re very proud and brave.

So many other white owned farms in Zimbabwe have been seized, and your parents had some close calls which you describe in the book, but how is it that they’ve been allowed to keep their property and the lodge?

Legally, they aren’t supposed to lose the place, because it isn’t an agricultural farm. But that doesn’t really matter anymore; people can lose their land for any reason. Officially though, the government owns their property and someone could show up and take it at any time.

When did the backpacking scene at Drifters hit its peak?

It was going strong in the 90’s and really peaked just months before the land invasions started in February 2000. We had lots of South Africans, overland travelers, Americans, backpackers and gap-year students from the U.K. and around Europe.

And then tourism dried up, but it started again after your book came out?

Yes, my parents were quite amazed when visitors started showing up again. During the land seizures, they rented the backpacker lodge out to guys who turned it into a brothel, so they haven’t been managing it on a day to day basis for awhile.

What does it cost to stay there?

It’s very cheap. I think it’s $10 per night. It’s not high-end accommodation, so a lot of people just come to see the place and don’t stay the night. They have a Last Resort guestbook which people like to sign, have a beer and a look around.

You led a small group of travelers on a trip to Zimbabwe last year?

I partnered with a safari company called Aardvaark, and we advertised the trip. we brought a small group of four American travelers to see the place last May. We had interest from a few dozen people but we ended up with just four Americans and we went in May 2011. They were really adventurous. Two friends, one from Kansas and another from San Francisco, who went to college together and a couple from Annapolis, Maryland.

Where did you take them?

It was a two week trip. They had one week in Harare and eastern Zimbabwe where the book is set. And then they did a safari and toured Victoria Falls. Drifters is somewhat run down, so they had an option to stay there or at another place a half hour away. There was no power or electricity when I showed them around, so they ended up at the other hotel. But that ended up being worse I think. Still, it was authentic!

Is Zimbabwe a good place to visit right now?

You can have a great safari in Zimbabwe. And in the Victoria Falls and Kariba areas there are some sophisticated, very nice places. In the last few years, the tourist trade has picked up- new places are being built. You have investors who are anticipating that when the politics in Zimbabwe changes, it’ll take off and they want to be on the ground floor.

2011 was a bad year for dictators, but Mugabe survived.

Right and a lot of them were old comrades of Mugabe. Gaddafi. The Dear Leader in Korea. When I was in high school, we used to get state visits from Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi, Ceausescu, Kim Il Sung. Those were the kinds of people who visited Zimbabwe.

So once Mugabe (who is 87) departs the scene, tourism is likely to pick back up in Zimbabwe?

If there’s a stable transition and someone worse doesn’t take his place. Tourism has already picked up in the last year or two. If you watched news reports, you’d think Zimbabwe was Mogadishu or the Congo, but it’s not like that. It’s safe unless you’re involved in opposition politics or you’re a white farmer on a list. It’s completely safe in terms of day-to-day security. The economy has improved; you can buy what you need. The dollar is the currency used. Parts of Harare look like a first world city.

Your parents are part of a very small community of whites there that never left. Is there a movement of whites moving back to Zimbabwe?

I know people who have moved back. I have a cousin who lived in London and has now decided to move back because it’s an easier way of life than in Europe and much healthier for her young kids. Amazing, but true. The weather is good, the schools in Harare are great.

What other areas of the country do you recommend to travelers?

I’d love for people to see eastern Zimbabwe, but that might be more for people who have already spent time in the country before. Northern Zimbabwe where the Zambezi River splits Zimbabwe and Zambia, there’s an area called Mana Pools which is quite beautiful. A lot of safari operators in Zimbabwe are telling people to come now, because it’s cheaper and you can still see all the animals you’d see in other parts of Africa. Hwange reserve is the main game reserve. Kariba is another great place. It’s where Nick Price the golf pro would take Greg Norman on his houseboat. If you live in Zimbabwe, that’s where you go.

Are there still marijuana plants and prostitutes at Drifters these days?

My mother made my father dig up his weed. It’s against the law and she thought they’d be caught. It might have been profitable but she was paranoid, and didn’t want to draw any extra attention. When I returned home and saw that the place had turned into a brothel and my parents had all these refugees (who’d been kicked off their farms) living there, I knew I had to write a book about it.

Was it an actual brothel?

It was an informal knock shop. A place where men would bring prostitutes or a mistress or second or third wife. It’s pretty secluded so it’s perfect for that.

So who frequents the Drifters bar these days?

The occasional hooker, I suspect, but mostly passing salesman, adventurous backpackers, and the new class of foreigner who lives in Zimbabwe: missionaries, aid workers and diplomats.

Zimbabwe is still a really troubled country but it sounds like the people are resilient and ready to welcome visitors again?

You wouldn’t expect it but people are going on holiday to Zimbabwe now. You hear the stories of the people who run small hotels and lodges staying open all these years. Some of them without seeing a single guest for six months. They didn’t have electricity and had to use gas cookers and when the gas went out, they had to cook with wood fires to make meals for their guests. They’d make trips to Botswana and South Africa to find food to feed their guests and smuggle it back in so as not to lose it all at customs. Now, having come through that, these guys are starting to see some business again. They deserve it.

Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, M.K. Boersema via Flickr, and Douglas Rogers.