RE­TURN to ZIM­BABWE

FOR TOO LONG IT SEEMED ONLY BAD NEWS CAME OUT OF ZIM. NOW, POST-MU­GABE, PEO­PLE HAVE REAL CAUSE FOR OP­TI­MISM – IN­CLUD­ING TRAV­ELLERS. CRICKET-WRITER NICK SADLEIR TOOK A DRIVE AROUND THE COUN­TRY TO SEE HOW THINGS HAVE CHANGED IN THE LAST YEAR

Getaway (South Africa) - - TRAVEL ZIMBABWE -

Back in the late 80s and 90s, Zim­babwe was just so ac­ces­si­ble, es­pe­cially for us Vaalies. My par­ents of­ten loaded eight of us into the Nis­san Sani, tow­ing a Ven­ter trailer, and headed north to see Vic­to­ria Falls and catch tiger fish on the Zam­bezi and camp in na­tional parks and count hun­dreds of shoot­ing stars.

Zim­babwe is a road­trip­pers’ par­adise: wide-open spa­ces, an in­cred­i­ble va­ri­ety of scenery, parks teem­ing with wildlife, bright and friendly peo­ple and very lit­tle crime. These are all char­ac­ter­is­tics that didn’t re­ally change in the worst of times, but any trip in the past two decades would have been plagued by fuel short­ages, empty shelves, un­nav­i­ga­ble roads and up­wards of 20 po­lice road blocks a day. I’ve been fined for car­ry­ing lug­gage and peo­ple in the same ve­hi­cle, or hav­ing a dirty car; re­peat­edly get­ting out to prove you had ser­viced your fire hy­drant and that your red tri­an­gle was the cor­rect size be­came a lit­tle tire­some, never mind slow and ex­pen­sive.

I re­cently drove 5 000 kilo­me­tres criss­cross­ing the coun­try over a few weeks and was stopped by the po­lice only twice – once to check that I was al­right and the other to ask for a lift to his shift in the next town. The busy Beit­bridge bor­der was straight­for­ward in both direc­tions, even on a long-week­end Mon­day. Masses of wa­ter flowed in the many sand rivers north of the bor­der – the drought some­how ended straight af­ter Mu­gabe re­signed – and ver­dant farm­land and forests passed by as I dodged don­keys and waved at chil­dren and found cold beer in ev­ery vil­lage. Peo­ple were friendly and wel­com­ing ev­ery­where.

Here are a few of my notes and high­lights from the road.

HARARE

The whole city is bustling with traf­fic night and day. I stayed for a week with friends in Bor­row­dale sub­urb, where shop­ping cen­tres and of­fice parks are mush­room­ing. There is no short­age of res­tau­rants and bars, many op­er­at­ing from res­i­den­tial prop­er­ties, and a lively so­cial cir­cuit to en­joy.

Re­splen­dent gar­dens and tree-lined av­enues, smart uni­forms and rub­ber­stamped pa­per­work re­main hall­marks of an African cap­i­tal that has a love-hate re­la­tion­ship with its colo­nial her­itage. Bor­der­ing both State House and the pres­ti­gious, im­mac­u­lately kept grounds of St Ge­orge’s Col­lege, the 60-hectare Harare Botan­i­cal Gar­dens are rather di­lap­i­dated, with mealie plan­ta­tions thriv­ing near the staff quar­ters, but – like much of the coun­try – it may not take much more than a lick of paint, some weed­ing and fer­tiliser to get things flour­ish­ing again.

BU­L­AWAYO

Bu­l­awayo is sleepy but neat and tidy. It’s a for­mer bustling in­dus­trial boom town with a fas­ci­nat­ing his­tory – be­gin­ning with King Loben­gula in 1840, af­ter the Nde­bele tribe was formed by a break­away fac­tion from Shaka Zulu’s king­dom.

‘I DODGED DON­KEYS AND WAVED AT CHIL­DREN AND FOUND COLD BEER IN EV­ERY VIL­LAGE’

OP­PO­SITE

TOP ROW Gi­raffes along the Zam­bezi be­tween Vic Falls and Kazun­gula (in Zam­bia); the Falls as seen from the ‘Flight of An­gels’; a thirsty warthog and el­lie near Hwange. MID­DLE ROW Ev­ery day ends like this – at Lake Kariba (left) and Dom­boshava (which means ‘red hill’) near Harare. BOT­TOM

ROW The ru­ins of Great Zim­babwe are en route to Harare, out­side Masvingo; twi­light in the cap­i­tal. BE­LOW Travers­ing Ma­tobo Na­tional Park, near Bu­l­awayo.

The Bu­l­awayo Club (a gen­tle­men’s club turned bou­tique ho­tel and restau­rant) is a su­perb place for a drink and a meal, and I thor­oughly en­joyed get­ting lost in ar­chives of won­der­ful old books. My favourite thing of all about Bu­l­awayo is the high con­cen­tra­tion of beau­ti­ful, bat­tered vin­tage cars, many of them held to­gether with duct tape and cable ties, that proudly shine as they roll down the wide av­enues of the ‘City of Kings’.

The Mato­pos, where Ce­cil John Rhodes is buried, are just an hour away – a col­lec­tion of kop­pies with ex­tra­or­di­nary rock for­ma­tions and count­less caves of well-pre­served rock paint­ings. I dis­cov­ered a re­mark­able rhino-con­ser­va­tion project in this World Her­itage Site, and shortly af­ter mak­ing friends with a gun-wield­ing anti-poach­ing ranger, we were walk­ing with a ma­jes­tic male white rhino in the bush in an up-close en­counter that had my heart rate at danger­ous lev­els.

HWANGE

I con­tin­ued north-east through Mata­bele­land, where there was hardly an­other car on the road to Vic Falls (most tourists fly in). I picked up friendly lo­cal hitch­hik­ers along the high­way, where ele­phants are more of a haz­ard than cars and small vil­lages are hid­den by hard­wood forests that line the road. Stay­ing at a lodge in the Sikumi For­est bor­der­ing Hwange, I dis­cov­ered an ex­cel­lent wild dog con­ser­va­tion cen­tre right next door. I also en­joyed ter­rific game and bird­ing drives, and was pre­car­i­ously trapped by a herd of noisy ele­phants in the type of ex­cit­ing mo­ment that keeps you go­ing back to the bush year af­ter year.

VIC­TO­RIA FALLS

The one tourism des­ti­na­tion that some­how main­tained its al­lure dur­ing the worst times, Vic Falls is run­ning com­pletely full, even out of sea­son. Tourist num­bers have over­taken the 1990s peak of more than 300000 peo­ple a year, and the new run­way at the air­port al­lows larger air­craft to land day and night. Shear­wa­ter con­tin­ues to lead the way on the ad­ven­ture front, of­fer­ing any­thing from bungee jumps and white-wa­ter raft­ing to a bridge zi­pline.

My favourite was eat­ing wasabi and crocodile-tem­pura wraps (aptly named ‘The Pres­i­dent’ by the Lit­tle Mon­key On the Go take­away), and hik­ing in the gorge as nearly 10-mil­lion litres of wa­ter rushed by ev­ery sec­ond. I’ve never felt the power of na­ture quite like this any­where else on the planet – vis­it­ing the Falls is some­thing I’ll never tire of.

‘MY FAVOURITE WAS EAT­ING WASABI AND CROCODILETEMPURA WRAPS (APTLY NAMED “THE PRES­I­DENT”)’

EAST­ERN HIGH­LANDS

My girl­friend’s in­ten­si­fy­ing FOMO saw her fly up from South Africa to get in on the Zim ac­tion. I’d heard count­less sto­ries about a mag­i­cal place in the East­ern High­lands, and was not dis­ap­pointed when we ar­rived at the mag­nif­i­cent, pink-hued Leop­ard Rock Ho­tel – rem­i­nis­cent of Cape Town’s Mount Nel­son, but in the re­mote Bvumba Moun­tains near the Mozam­bique bor­der. We wined and dined in a cave in­side the ho­tel, en­joyed the 400-hectare pri­vate game park, rode horses through glis­ten­ing green glades and had one of the most epic golf cour­ses in Africa to our­selves.

KARIBA

The road trip would not have been com­plete with­out the quin­tes­sen­tial Zim­bab­wean es­cape: a Kariba house­boat. It’s the largest man­made lake in the world and when you’re in the cen­tre, it feels like you’re in the mid­dle of the ocean. At this point, a group of my SA friends joined me and we rented an old metal tub called Karibeer, which made for a phe­nom­e­nal float­ing party-villa for our group of 12 as we got merry on gin and ton­ics, ate the fish we caught, were sun­burnt in a lit­tle hot tub and were spoilt rot­ten by the boat’s cap­tain, chef and deck­hand. We swam with fear of be­ing eaten by croc­o­diles, saw a lion kill up close on the banks and got lost in moltenred sun­sets with ele­phants all around us. The to­tal price was un­der $100 per per­son a night.

Later, back in the cap­i­tal, at a sold-out cricket match at the Harare Sports Club, I pulled into a stand of a few thou­sand peo­ple chant­ing at me: ‘We are ready for you, Mr In­vestor!’ I’ve rarely ex­pe­ri­enced a more tourist-em­brac­ing sit­u­a­tion, and there’s no doubt in my mind our neigh­bour is open for busi­ness.

ABOVE A stay at the Leop­ard Rock Ho­tel is like slip­ping back into an­other, more ro­man­tic era. There is even a ‘cas­tle’ in the grounds. OP­PO­SITE The good ship Karibeer on Lake Kariba, set­ting for many a cold Zam­bezi Lager.

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