Expert Reviews – Zimbabwe
Sue is an award-winning writer who specializes in African travel and conservation. She writes for national newspapers, magazines, Rough Guides and Lonely Planet.
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Zimbabwe: A country on the cusp…
If I had only one chance to go back to Africa and could choose only one country, it would be Zimbabwe. I first visited, going to Victoria Falls, in the height of the country’s toughest times back in 2004 when a trillion-dollar note wouldn’t buy a loaf of bread. I admit the desperate state it was in back then put me off returning. But I’m so glad I did.
Over the past 10 years, I’ve seen a very different country to the one so often portrayed in the press. Yes, it still has tough times and its politics and economy are still troubled post–Robert Mugabe. But it is one of the safest places I’ve been to, it’s scenically beautiful with fabulous wildlife, its guides are the best on the continent, the lodges and camps are second to none and you’ll be hard pushed to find a friendlier nation anywhere. Right now, Zimbabwe needs tourists to return more than ever and if you’ve ever thought you’d like to go but have been put off by all the negativity, pack an open mind and a smile and discover all that this diverse country has to offer.
For safaris, Hwange with its huge herds of elephants and Mana Pools on the mighty Zambezi are the first destinations that spring to mind. Mana, in particular, offers a rare freedom in the bush – you can even walk there without a guide, although unless you’re really bush-savvy, I wouldn’t recommend it. But it’s a magical park with huge albidas and mahoganies (native trees) panning out from the river and wild residents that include several packs of wild dogs/painted wolves. Other parks meriting exploration include Zambezi National Park to the west, Matusadona on the shores of Lake Kariba, and the gorgeous Gonarezhou with the dramatic Chilojo Cliffs that seem to glow gold at sunset. What you’ll discover aside from the varied wildlife is that so many lodges, local operators and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) here are deeply involved in conservation and community projects, perhaps filling the void from Mugabe’s legacy – and that’s why visiting is so important.
Away from the typical safari destinations, try hiking in the Eastern Highlands or climbing Mt Nyangani, Zimbabwe’s highest mountain, but beware – local folklore suggests it’s haunted and people have disappeared. The Great Zimbabwe Ruins, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is an ancient city dating back to the 11th century, once home to around 20,000 people. And there’s the incredible balancing rock boulders of Matobo Hills. Personally, I love being by the Zambezi, whether it’s getting drenched at Victoria Falls (yet again – I’ve been several times now and still love it), tracking painted wolves at Mana Pools or being mesmerized by the surreal sunrises bouncing off Lake Kariba.
To make the most of Zimbabwe, choose a specialist operator who really knows the country. If you’re self-driving, it is trickier to get around because of the fuel crisis that dominated when I last visited, so keep an eye on latest news.
Emma is an award-winning travel writer for Rough Guides, National Geographic Traveller, Travel Africa magazine and The Independent.
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Classic safari zone on a slow road to recovery
Zimbabwe’s once-thriving safari industry crashed during the 2000s, and recovery remains painfully slow. For several years, safari companies, lodge owners and tourism officials have done their best to reassure would-be visitors that Zimbabwe’s parks are as safe and beautiful as ever, but many holidaymakers still avoid the country altogether in favour of Zambia, Botswana and Tanzania.
On my recent visits, I was greeted extremely warmly, but was struck by the ghost-town atmosphere in some parks and lodges. Europeans and Australians were notably absent; almost all the tourists I encountered were from Zimbabwe, South Africa, the United States or Asia.
Inevitably, the tourism downturn has affected levels of investment, with knock-on effects on facilities, environmental conservation and wildlife welfare, but the cost of safaris hasn’t really dropped to match. Nonetheless, some parts of Zimbabwe remain upbeat. The busy springboard town of Victoria Falls is a shadow of its former self, but it still offers some great places to stay and things to do, with pristine bush and riverscapes within easy reach. Here, the crowd-free conditions are a bonus, and I’ve never felt unsafe.
Despite various setbacks, wildlife continues to thrive in Zimbabwe’s flagship parks, Mana Pools and Hwange, and the stunning scenery is, of course, as beguiling as ever. But to me Zimbabwe’s greatest strength is the quality of its guides and the authenticity of the safari experience at its small, independent camps and lodges. It remains an excellent place for traditional Big Five safaris of the type where your tent really is a tent, not a hotel room pretending to be a tent, bushwalks figure large on the agenda and you feel totally immersed in the bush.