It’s been a tragedy for the people of Zimbabwe that the country has garnered so much unfavourable publicity over the last ten years, with headlines ranging from its controversial land redistribution programme to the ensuing collapsed economy.
In the last few years, however, it has made a steady recovery following a new currency, a fairer power-sharing government, international airlines returning to its capital and the EU having long lifted its travel warnings. This upturn has helped sow the seeds of a tourist renaissance, with travellers now returning in increasing numbers to this reborn destination, rejuvenating Zimbabwe’s tourism industry. Here are five reasons why you should join them.
Take a wildlife safari
One feature of the country less affected by any of the previous strife is, thankfully, its vast expanses of pristine remote wilderness, which remain some of the greatest game-viewing locations in Southern Africa. Following the paucity of tourist development throughout the noughties, they’re as untouched and secluded as you could hope for – you won’t see an entire convoy of jeeps following animals as you might in other African parks.
Hwange, Zimbabwe's largest game reserve (roughly 15,000 square kilometres), is home to more than 400 bird species and a hundred species of mammal, including thousands of elephants who trudge a migratory route from here to neighbouring Botswana every year. Meanwhile, the second-largest reserve Gonarezhou (meaning “elephant's tusk” in the local Shona language) forms part of the even bigger Greater Limpopo ecosystem incorporating Kruger in South Africa and Mozambique's Limpopo, between which animals can move freely.
Between the two reserves you are virtually guaranteed intimate game-drive encounters with zebra, giraffe, buffalo, baboons and elephants by the hundred. Only the sneakier big cats may elude your camera lens if you’re unlucky.
Explore an old ruined City
Alongside the country’s rich wildlife is an equally rich historical culture, epitomised by its greatest architectural treasure: the ruined city of Great Zimbabwe in Masvingo.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site, after which the nation was named, was the royal capital of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries and has been inhabited for over a thousand years. Covering an area of nearly 2000 acres it offers photography opportunities that could fill a whole memory card, particularly its lofty monolithic acropolis which can be seen for miles, and the elliptical Great Enclosure with its unique conical tower monument.
You can spend a whole day wandering amid its ruins, climbing the acropolis and hanging out with the resident baboons. And again, with few tourists on the scene (compared to Zimbabwe’s 90s boom years) you can pretty much have the run of the place on quieter days.
See ancient art in the Matobo Hills
A millennium of human history extends far beyond Great Zimbabwe; in the case of Matobo – the country’s oldest national park – it’s many millennia of human history. Here is Southern Africa's highest concentration of ancient rock art: 3500 sites dating back at least 13,000 years.
The sea of hills themselves are a profusion of distinctive granite landforms long exerting a powerful influence over the region. Their huge boulders and caves provide abundant natural shelters, occupied by humans since the Stone Age, and artistically inspiring a large number of them to draw upon the rocks.
The rear wall of Nswatugi, one of its most famous caves, is emblazoned with a gallery of animals dexterously painted around 2000 years ago, and upon a nearby hill lies the grave of Cecil Rhodes, the founder of Rhodesia before it became Zimbabwe, who chose to be buried here so he could eternally overlook the national park he cherished. You really have to visit the arresting landscape yourself to understand why.
Chill out in Bulawayo
The city of Bulawayo is to Zimbabwe what Melbourne is to Australia: a second city with a more laid-back and elegant pace of life, with culture and history pervading it.
Its wide tree-lined avenues are skirted by numerous examples of early Victorian buildings which the city council maintains as heritage sites. Their faded colonial facades lend Bulawayo the feel of a frontier town, while the interior of the largely unchanged Exchange Bar – Zimbabwe's oldest licensed pub – completes the effect. It’s where Rhodes conducted his business deals, inside its panelled walls still lined with taxidermied animal heads and sepia photographs – perfect for an evocative beer stop.
The nation’s best museum is also here – the Natural History Museum of Zimbabwe - offering a compelling visual digest of the country’s natural and political history. Bulawayo is in fact the nearest big city to Hwange National Park, the Matobo Hills and Victoria Falls, making it one of the best places to stay as a base or central itinerary stop.
Get active at Victoria Falls
At twice the height of Canada’s Niagara, Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River is one of Africa’s, if not the Earth’s, most spectacular natural wonders as the world’s largest sheet of falling water. Called "Mosi-oa-Tunya" (“the Smoke that Thunders”) by local people, its epic rumbling and iridescent mist clouds can be seen from 50km away, and are truly awe-inspiring in closer quarters.
If you want to get properly involved, its waters and steep gorge are a perennial playground for thrill-seekers, with activities encompassing abseiling, white-water rafting, bungee jumping or soaring over it all in a chopper or microlight.
This World Heritage Site captivates visitors as much today as it did explorer David Livingstone in the nineteenth century, and its surrounding area has been declared a National Park to protect against excessive commercialisation.
Over the last ten years many visitors have limited their Zimbabwe experience to Victoria Falls alone, but hopefully now, as the tourism industry expands, they will continue to branch out to witness Zimbabwe’s full array of natural and historical wonders, and breathe life into its healing economy. It’s nothing less than its people deserve.