HARARE – From the vortex of a gruelling battle to save hundreds of villagers stranded on islands and marooned on hilltops in Zimbabwe’s grief-stricken Chimanimani district in the aftermath of the angry Cyclone Idai, two unlikely heroes have emerged.
They are not Zimbabwean or citizens of that region, which has plunged into a sombre mood.
They are South African tourists who were luxuriating in the tranquil reforests of eastern Zimbabwe when the vicious storms raged with unrelenting intensity across landscapes, overturning houses and ripping open massive galleys.
Breath-taking landscapes and a mix of exotic and indigenous trees hug scenic mountain ranges as you descend into the region, known for its cool temperatures and hospitable Ndau people.
For close to two decades after the devastation caused by Cyclone Eline, another disastrous storm that rattled landscapes in 2000 destroying infrastructure and leaving scores dead, one wouldn’t imagine that the peace that traverses the landscapes could easily be displaced by rage and anger in a split.
But this unlikely occurrence turned into a reality as Idai made landfall Thursday last week, toppling centuries-old colossal trees, devastating schools, swamping villages and killing unsuspecting villagers.
Vital infrastructure including telecommunications and powerlines, where among the key assets razed, isolating thousands of people from the rest of the country after bridges gave in to marauding waters and buckled.
It added salt to injury to already impoverished communities that are trying to make out their future after a disastrous rainfall season.
This was after powerful winds pushed torrential rains and flash floods across the border into Zimbabwe from the Mozambican coast, as storms tore through wildlife estates and cities, ripping through Zimbabwe’s calamity-prone eastern districts, only recently hit by a powerful earthquake.
Again, it left a trail of destruction, which stretched far north into Malawi, a frequent victim of natural disasters in South Africa that has also been struggling to stabilise a volatile economy.
As of Tuesday, authorities had reported almost 100 deaths, 217 missing and hundreds of injured villagers in Zimbabwe.
In Mozambique, the death toll was fast approaching 1 000, according to a statement by President Filipe Nyusi on Tuesday.
Idai left a cluster of devastation, and grief on both sides of the border.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa cut short a tour of the Middle East to be “with my people” on Sunday, hours after it became clear that poorly resourced Zimbabwe would fell short of the capabilities required to face off the scale of the force that the storms exerted.
But as soldiers and other Zimbabwean disaster relief agencies battled to open up routes into Chimanimani, Chipinge, Birchnough Bridge and other districts which lied on the path of the fiery storms, the strongest to batter the region in 57 years, the South African couple, whose names were still withheld by authorities Tuesday, joined the fray.
In Harare, authorities were stunned by news of the heroic tourists, who turned Zimbabwe’s grief into a South African problem, in an extraordinary show of solidarity.
“There were two South African tourists in Chimanimani, and they are safe,” said Rita Likukuma, acting chief executive officer at Zimbabwe Tourism Authority (ZTA).
She spoke at a press conference Tuesday.
Her statement could be taken to mean the usual assurances of the safety of tourists extended by any government during natural disasters.
But Likukuma said the South Africans were not just safe; they had swapped their forks and knives to carry out vital relief expeditions.
“They are actually participating in rescuer efforts,” she told reports.
“We have been in touch with out ZTA representative in Chimanimani. There were also local tourists at Leopard Rock Hotel and they are also safe,” said the ZTA boss.
Relief efforts in Zimbabwe’s strife torn eastern region, known for its rich diamond reserves than frustrating cyclones, have not only brought a few heroes.
The Chimanimani Hotel has been at the centre of extensive relief efforts after it was spared by the gruelling floods.
On social media, the hotel was seen inviting people to flee hotspots and take shelter in its rooms, probably sharing with paid up patrons.
It was another strong show of solidarity with those stranded in bushes and hilltops after watching their relatives swept away by rumbling waves, before disappearing under rivers.
For Chimanimani Hotel, over 500 kilometres south east of Harare, profits come second fiddle during those trying times.
And it attracted goodwill from authorities.
“Our hearts goes to the affected, and we are pleased with Chimanimani Hotel, who have been the focal point of rescuer operations in the past week,” Likukuma said Tuesday.
“We are already on the case for the Chimanimani disaster. We are encouraging people to donate to relatives and friends who have found themselves in dire need. Bring whatever you have in your house,” she told reporters.
Cyclone Idai-induced foods could turn out to be the costliest natural disaster to affect the country, 25 years after a 1992 drought decimated millions of livestock and destroyed the economy.
The devastations will overstretch the purses of an already weak insurance industry, which has been battling to return to stability following the hyper-inflationary crisis that ended in 2008.
The insurance industry lurched into viability problems after massive policy cancellations triggered using the Zimbabwe dollar in 2007 and 2008.
At the introduction of multi-currencies in 2009, the industry continued to suffer from an array of negative fundamentals, among them lack disposable incomes and a weak industry that has continued to focus on reviving output at the expense of services like insurance.