Amazing wildlife, unlimited adrenaline activities, not to mention the best views of the world's largest waterfalls. Why not give Zimbabwe a chance?
Let's face it: in terms of a tourist destination, Zimbabwe is currently towards the bottom of most people's lists - just above Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet spend a few weeks exploring the country that in recent years has seen the most dramatic decline in tourism and you will begin to see just how much travellers are missing out. Yes, the money situation is as bad as people think. Yes, the political instability is as evident as ever. But, if you're sensible then Zimbabwe does feel safe and it is still an amazing country to visit.
The smoke that thunders
One of the highlights of our trip was obviously the unmistakable Victoria Falls, known locally as Mosi-oa-Tunya: the smoke that thunders. A walk through the national park (entry US$20) provides ample viewpoints for stunning photographs. Even a visit at the end of the dry season (April – October) leaves you in awe of the noise, the power, the spray and the beauty of this natural wonder and the world’s largest falls. In Zimbabwe there are always plentiful opportunities for animal sightings: klipspringers, baboons, warthogs and various falcons and eagles can all be seen along the walk. And the views from the Zimbabwean side of the gorge really are better than from Zambia.
Admittedly, the atmosphere in Victoria Falls town isn’t what it used to be. Many of the 5* hotels are nowhere near full and the sellers at the curio markets will offer you a ridiculous number of items simply to get their hands on a US dollar – or your shoes, or even your socks. But the locals are super friendly and the area still has much to offer.
When choosing a place to stay, the Safari Lodge is difficult to beat. All 72 luxurious rooms come with private balcony overlooking the Zambezi national park and start at $210 per person. Even if you don’t stay here, it is definitely worth a visit simply to choose from their impressive wine and cocktail list and watch elephants, kudu and wildebeest at the watering hole as the giant orange sun goes down. For cheaper accommodation and drinking, Shoestrings Backpackers to the north of the town is a great choice with fun staff and good entertainment in relaxed surroundings.
Throughout our Zimbabwean travels, food had proved plentiful, but the choice was often limited. From other travellers we met, we would repeatedly hear the same recommendation: “You have to go to The Boma!” The Boma (www.thebomarestaurantvictoriafalls.com) describes itself as a ‘dining and cultural experience’. And it doesn’t disappoint. For $40 per head you are treated to three traditional African courses. The main buffet of a braii (African barbecue) offers crocodile, buffalo, kudu, ostrich and more. Vegetarians are by no means overlooked either, with fantastic fish, pasta, cheeses and salads, not to mention the sumptuous buffet desert of pavlova, mousse, profiteroles, fresh fruit, cakes…they seriously know how to lay on a feast. Dining – in borrowed traditional dress – is accompanied by singing, dancing, and what can prove to be a fantastic new hobby: drumming. This all provides a lovely authentic atmosphere and, despite Zimbabwe’s tourist numbers dwindling, The Boma continues to fill its seats and it is advisable to book in advance.
The list of adrenaline activities on offer in Victoria Falls is seemingly endless. White-water rafting, Big Five (leopard, lion, buffalo, elephant, rhino) safaris, skydives and helicopter trips all prove popular. These can all be booked online at Afrizim.com (www.afrizim.com/Activities). Alternatively, there are plenty of agents in the town and booking upon arrival is not a problem. For value for money, the half-day high wire activity ($90) is well worth it. Spectacularly located high above the Batoka Gorge are three different wires: a flying fox, gorge slide and gorge swing. The slide is great fun and the swing is a once-in-a-lifetime thrill. From a platform above the gorge you are given a ‘Three… two… one…’ and pushed off for a 70m freefall and further 90m swing across the gorge! Initially I have to admit: I thought that I might just continue falling. But the moment you realise that you are still attached to something at the other end, exhilaration really kicks in! Hanging mid-air, with white-water rafters below and skydivers above makes for a memorable moment.
For those who find the idea of plunging headfirst towards the Zambezi river appealing, an 111m bungee jump ($110) beckons. Psyche yourself up to be registered and weighed in a small wooden hut between Zimbabwe and Zambia, which is known, somewhat unreassuringly as ‘No man’s land’ before falling - and falling some more...and then waiting for the welcome jerk of the bounce!
Beyond the falls
Should you decide to explore further, Zimbabwe has far more to offer than its spectacular falls. Hwange National Park offers a fantastic chance of seeing the elusive Big Five while amidst the beautiful granite rock formations of Matobo National Park you can go rhino tracking and get within 10 metres of a fully-grown white – or the extremely rare black – rhino. Black Rhino Safaris (09-241662) are extremely knowledgeable and will not let you leave until you find one!
Antelope Park game reserve (www.antelopepark.co.zw) in Gweru is another must-visit. Bush horse rides, elephant swims and game viewing are all incredible, but the real highlight is the park’s lion conservation project: a four-stage programme run by the charity ALERT, with the aim of increasing the lion population in the wild. Emulate a pride by walking with lions of four to twenty months old or wrap up warm for a night encounter to witness the older lions learning to hunt.
It will probably take Zimbabwe a very long time to attract the number of tourists it used to enjoy – some wonder if it ever will. But Victoria Falls is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World and with so much else to offer, it would be a shame if this beautiful country was left largely unappreciated by the rest of the world.