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
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.
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 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’
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.
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.
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”)’
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.
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.