A holiday – in Zimbabwe?

The canoeing trip above Victoria Falls is
not exactly strenuous. Your guide does all
the paddling, and there are no rapids.
(Image: Jennifer Stern)

You can get up close and personal with
an elephant at Victoria Falls.
(Image: Jennifer Stern)

The Batoka Gorge rafting is wet and wild,
and not for the faint-hearted.
(Image: Shearwater Adventures)

Fishing on Lake Kariba is hard work.
(Image: Jennifer Stern)

You can choose your level of pampering
on a Lake Kariba houseboat. Service in
the Zimbabwe tourism industry remains
(Image: Jennifer Stern)

Jennifer Stern

In the light of recent developments in Zimbabwe, there is a chance that this once fabulous tourist destination may soon regain some of its former glory. I’ve visited Zimbabwe so many times over the last couple of decades I’ve lost count, but I do know that I have never failed to be impressed by the place, the people, and the service. And that’s been the case as recently as just over a year ago.

My last visit showed me just how resilient the tourism industry is – surviving the multiple challenges of currency freefall, fuel crises, political gerrymandering, food shortages and widespread mayhem. It’s been the one consistent bright light in an otherwise bleak period. An estimated 100 000 Zimbabweans are employed in the tourism sector, managing to keep their jobs through the grim times. And considering that each employee probably supports a family, that’s a lot of people that would have been in pretty dire straits if Zim had not managed to hang on to its foreign visitors.

So now that things are looking up, it’s a good time to enjoy all that this awesome destination has to offer. Get in before the crowds, and while the prices are still competitive. Here are a few suggestions.

Victoria Falls

Victoria Falls has weathered the storm better than most other destinations, and it’s probably top of most people’s Zimbabwe wish list. But the political woes of the last few years have seen the town of Victoria Falls losing a fair number of its visitors, almost all of whom simply went across the river to Livingstone, in Zambia.

But it’s picking up pretty quickly and – even in the last year or two – a number of hotels have been spending money on refurbishment, certain that the wheel would turn. The Zim side of the falls offers a different view from the Zambian side. Some say a better view, but let’s just say it’s a complementary view, and you really should see both.

In fact, you can stay on one side and do a whole host of fun adventures, crossing the border almost daily. Activity-wise, it really doesn’t matter which side you stay on, but you’re likely to get some good accommodation deals on the Zim side. And, between the two, there is so much to do.

Adrenaline junkies will love the wild and wicked Batoka Gorge rafting, which has been described as the best one-day white water rafting trip in the world. Or you could do a tandem kayak trip on those same rapids, or even try your hand at river-boarding – not for wimps, as you negotiate those big and gnarly rapids on a boogie board.

Then there is the bungy jump. It’s not the world’s highest but it’s almost certainly the most scenic. There are gentle booze cruises and flat-water paddling trips for the less intrepid and, if you want an unbeatable view of the falls, you could fly over them in a microlight or a helicopter.

You can ride an elephant, cuddle a baby lion or do a horseback safari. You could even play golf, and gamble away at the casino – unfortunately, not in Zim dollars, so you miss the chance of telling your friends you lost a million dollars at the roulette wheel, and smile about it. You could spend days in Vic Falls and never get bored.

Hwange National Park

But there’s more to Zimbabwe than Vic Falls. Hwange National Park has definitely had a bit of a hard time of it, but it’s hanging in there. Some of the lodges have closed down but there are a few still running – against all odds.

On my recent visit it was clear they were trying hard to keep going. The curtains and other soft furnishings were getting a bit tatty around the edges, and it was obvious there was no money to spare, but everything was spotlessly clean and the service was great. Best of all, there was so much game to be seen and – a mixed blessing – so few people!

Kariba Dam

Another destination that seems to have weathered the storm is Kariba, which has continued to attract anglers, bird watchers and big game junkies. The banks of this huge artificial lake are truly wild, with many areas being virtually inaccessible by land.

A large flotilla of houseboats is tethered to the jetties of the somewhat run-down town of Kariba, eagerly awaiting passengers to pit their skills against the ferocious tiger fish or the eminently edible bream, or to just laze their days away on the deck while some of the best scenery in Africa glides by. Strangely, even though Kariba – the lake, not the town – spans the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia, the Zambian side has never really developed a good tourist infrastructure.

Mana Pools National Park

But that’s not the case further downstream. The Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe and the Lower Zambezi National Park in Zambia offer similar spectacular game viewing and spectacular paddling trips. I’ve done both, and I preferred the Zim side only because power boats are allowed on the Zambian side. At this point the river is wide enough with enough channels that the two sides really do seem to be different destinations, and a power boat in Zambia can’t be heard in Mana Pools.

You can choose between a rough-and-ready participatory camping trip, on which you load all your goods into a canoe and set up camp on deserted islands or in sheltered coves. Or you can do a luxury trip on which the canoe is relatively free of goods as backup crew drive your luggage round, set up comfortable en-suite tents, light the fire, cook the yummy meals and ensure you have an ice-cold drink when you disembark.

And the best part – you only paddle for a few hours and then take a walk to give your arms a rest, and then you paddle for a while to give your legs a rest … Pure bliss. A Mana Pools canoeing trip is one of the things you have to do before you die.

Doing your homework

The above are the most reliable and dependable destinations in Zimbabwe at the moment, but they are by no means the only accessible ones. You may just need to do a bit more homework to plan a trip to some of the other iconic spots, such as Matobo National Park, the cool, green Eastern Highlands, or the magnificent, mysterious and enigmatic Great Zimbabwe.

Quite a few independent travellers have visited a number of destinations, doing all their own driving and planning, or even taking public transport. But unless you are particularly adventurous, you’d be better off sticking to the tried and tested destinations and the established operators that have proved their resilience and commitment to the country by hanging in through the bad times. At least for the foreseeable future.

Don’t hold your breath, but if the agreement between Morgan Tsvangirai and Robert Mugabe holds, the chances are that the tourism industry will bounce back with a surprising alacrity. Here’s hoping.

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