Return to Zimbabwe

The ruins of Great Zimbabwe.
(Image: Wikipedia)

Bridget Hilton-Barber

The word on my street is that we should start making plans to travel to Zimbabwe again. Travel writers like me are not exactly famed for donning flak jackets and going under fire – we tend to come more from the postcards and sundowners school of journalism – so it’s interesting when the softer circles start chattering about Zimbabwe.

It means the hospitality and alcohol must be flowing again (but don’t count on there always being ice), it’s presumably reasonably safe, and you can probably get some of the best deals of your life.

“Hey, we’re doing our first recce into Zim,” a fellow traveller called to say the other day. Zim, huh? We had a good nostalgic banter about Zimbabwe. Remember Hwange National Park, Mana Pools, Chimanimani and the eastern highlands? What a beautiful country, we said.

Remember glorious Lake Kariba and the magnificent Victoria Falls? And Vic Falls Hotel, surely one of the grande dames of southern Africa. Remember Bob Marley playing in Harare at independence, we laughed, and later Peter Gabriel? Or was it the other way around?

By contrast, my last trip to Zimbabwe was sad and desolate. It was about four years ago and I was the only person in a huge hotel at Vic Falls. My footsteps echoed loudly as I traipsed around in search of bonhomie. I found none. The wine was warm and the waiters were sad. All the fun was now on the Zambian side, they said, thanks to Robert Mugabe’s crazy policies. The sunset cruise wasn’t running and even the wildlife was gone.

I felt like a lost sock in the laundromat of oblivion.

I paid in South African rands, but there was no change available, not even Zim dollars. The manager suggested I make a free call as a barter, but the phone lines were down, so I left for the airport. I ordered my customary departure bloody mary, but the tomato juice was rancid.   

My fellow traveller’s first recce, funnily enough, will be back to the Victoria Falls area, but he is having none of this sadness stuff. Zimbabwe is just too beautiful to stay away from, he said encouragingly. He offered, in return, an entertaining tale about dancing alongside Cecil John Rhodes’ grave in the Matopos to the sounds of Zimabwean band Oliver and the Black Spirits.  Zimbabwe! Let’s not give up on Zimbabwe, he urged.

I don’t like being left out of a party, so I started planning my own Zim adventure. This one isn’t as grand as the Vic Falls but, living in Limpopo province, Zimbabwe is pretty close. We’ve come up with a self-drive budget excursion called the Tour of the Ancients. It will be a soulful peace-keeping mission that takes us back to two interconnected ancient African civilizations – Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe. We aim to coincide with the full moon.

Mapungubwe was South Africa’s first city of gold. Built along the banks of the proverbially mighty Limpopo River, it was a vast African civilization based on gold and trading.

Today it is a World Heritage Site, a landscape studded with baobabs and traversed by elephants since time immemorial. It is part of Vhembe National Park and you can chose from a range of rustic and eco-friendly accommodation. There are San Bushman paintings, ancient settlements and walks and game drives alongside the river.

Mapungubwe was a powerful trade capital from around the 12th century, when Bantu-speaking Nguni people moved down from Zimbabwe and settled on the Limpopo, Levuvu, Shashe and Shingwedzi rivers.  There was vigorous trade with Arab seaports, like Sofala in today’s eastern Mozambique. Ivory, gold, bronze, copper, iron was exchanged for beads, cloths and ceramics from as far afield as China, Persia and Egypt.

After 1200 AD Great Zimbabwe later succeeded Mapungubwe as the inland trade capital, and it is there we’re heading for the second leg. Details are kind of sketchy but we hope to stay in a self-catering spot in nearby Masvingo, and spend a day or two wandering in the playground of the ancients. We will take bottled water and other essential provisions, fill up with petrol at the border, then head for Masvingo, which is about two hours east.  

Last time I visited Great Zimbabwe, its structure and stonework were still remarkably intact and one got an eerie sense of life thousands of years ago within this stone-walled citadel, with its royal palace and outlying villages. We will spend some time here, I think, considering the past and the present, and debating why Mugabe missed his true calling as the campest fashion designer in Africa and became a dictator instead.

I will bury my lucky hundred trillion Zimbabwe dollar note that someone recently gave me as a souvenir. It was the biggest denomination ever printed in the world – just out of circulation – and you needed 10 of them to buy a Coke.  

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