Zimbabwe is back on the tourist map. But should you go? Rough Guides Managing Editor Keith Drew explains why this is one country that deserves another chance.
Zimbabwe's fall from grace has been spectacular. Once the pride of the Southern Africa safari circuit, the country has become better known in recent years for its controversial politics and disastrous economy. But things are looking up.
The hosting of the UN World Tourism Organization’s general assembly in Victoria Falls in 2013 kick-started tourism to the region. The opening of the new Victoria Falls International Airport late last year has pushed things even further forward. More and more tour operators are showing confidence in the country by adding Zimbabwe to their itineraries, and visitor numbers are on the rise.
So, should you be joining them? Visiting Zimbabwe is not a decision to be taken lightly. But decide to go, and it’s one that you will never regret. This is a country whose cultural history takes in ancient rock art and huge palaces made of stone. In Hwange, it boasts one of Africa's great game parks; in the Matobo Hills, it can lay claim to some of the region's most striking landscapes.
But above all, Zimbabwe is home to a welcoming, friendly, downtrodden but determined people that are desperate to show you what their country is really like.
Zimbabwe’s notorious president, 93-year-old Robert Mugabe, is one of the most controversial figures in African politics. In power for 37 years and counting, his leadership has taken what was once one of Africa's most diversified economies to the edge of oblivion.
Severe droughts, the effects of a catastrophic land-reform programme (the infamous farm invasions) and gross economic mismanagement have all taken their toll along the way. Zimbabwe is currently in debt to a tune of $11 billion.
Latest figures put the unemployment rate at around 95 percent. The majority of villagers get by on subsistence farming, and in some rural areas a staggering 96 percent of people live below the poverty line.
But the times are (slowly) changing. The new constitution that came into effect in 2013 curbed the president's powers, set a two-term limit for his office and established a number of groundbreaking national and provincial bodies, including the independent Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission.
Political dissent is alive and well. Pastor Evan Mawarire's #ThisFlag campaign sparked nationwide protests when it was launched last year and opposition to the ruling ZANU-PF party is stronger than it has been for years, with MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai and former vice-president Joice Mujuru recently forming an alliance to contest next year’s general election.
As a tourist, you won't really experience the daily difficulties of life in Zimbabwe, but you will, however, be very aware of the country’s current cash crisis.
Take enough money with you (in US dollars) for the duration of your stay. Very few businesses accept credit cards, even in popular tourist centres like Victoria Falls. And even if you're lucky enough to find an ATM with cash in it (or a bank without a lengthy queue outside), it’s not currently possible to make withdrawals with an international bank card anyway.
Zimbabwe is very safe, so long as you avoid any political discussions or protests – and refrain from making derogatory remarks about the president.
Given the number of people living in poverty, theft and pick-pocketing are understandably not uncommon, particularly in Harare. But crime levels are much lower here than in neighbouring South Africa – take the same precautions as you would travelling independently in any big city in the world and you’ll be fine.
Many potential tourists stay away in the belief that visiting Zimbabwe would lend legitimacy to Mugabe’s government, and help to fund it in the process. But Zimbabwe is not like the Myanmar of Aung San Suu Kyi’s boycott period, when it could be difficult to visit the country without lining the regime’s coffers.
The Zimbabwean government benefits from visa fees and tourism taxes, but plan your trip carefully and it’s the Zimbabwean people who will benefit from everything else you spend.
There's a ripple effect from visiting somewhere like Victoria Falls Town, where everyone from taxi drivers to rafting guides can potentially benefit from your stay. And the money you spend at many of the country’s game lodges and safari camps goes into supporting the parks they operate in (maintaining water pumps during the dry season, for example) or on local community initiatives such as training women’s craft co-operatives.
So do go – your visit will make a real difference to people's lives. And go now.
The awesome Victoria Falls is the country’s number one attraction. Picture half a billion litres of water plunging over the ledge of a rocky gorge every minute and a cloud of spray that rises 1650 feet into the air. Then imagine the noise that this creates.
Add white-water rafting, microlight flights and the two-dozen or so other activities that have made Vic Falls the continent’s de-facto adventure capital and you can begin to see why hundreds of thousands of visitors are drawn here every year.
Where to stay:Gorges Lodge, 25km east of Vic Falls Town, is the most memorable place to stay in the region. Ten tastefully furnished stone chalets, topped with thatch, cling onto the rim of the Batoka Gorge and offer breathtaking views down to the Zambezi and along the chasm it’s carved. Look out for the resident pair of black eagles that glide past your balcony on late-afternoon thermals.
The largest national park in Zimbabwe, Hwange is half the size of Belgium and boasts the highest density of elephants in Africa – up to an incredible 45,000 in the dry season.
Game viewing throughout its palm-fringed plains, acacia woodlands and Kalahari sandveld is superb, with large herds of Cape buffalo, giraffe and antelope, as well as lion, leopard and spotted hyena. And with only 13 semi-permanent camps within the entire park, you’ll often have these exciting sightings all to yourself.
Where to stay: Super-chic Linkwasha Camp, set in its own concession in the southeast corner of the park, near the game-rich Ngamo Plains, has nine luxurious en-suite tents and a central infinity pool. The pan in front of camp attracts plenty of wildlife, and it’s not unusual to have elephants and lions tiptoeing around your tent at night. Twice-daily activities include game drives, night drives and visits to a local primary school.
There’s nothing quite like Great Zimbabwe in any country south of the Sahara. This granite palace-complex was the ruling seat for the region’s kings for more than four hundred years and gave rise to the country’s name: Zimbabwe means “large houses of stone” in the Shona language. Several individual compounds occupy the sprawling site, the most impressive of which is the Great Enclosure; it allegedly took more than a million “bricks” just to build its walls.
Where to stay: Designed in the same style as the ruins it overlooks from a distance, the Lodge at the Ancient City is the most distinctive place to stay near Great Zimbabwe. The rooms, individual thatched rondavels, are huge, and there’s a small pool and a funky bar sandwiched between boulders.
Mana Pools is one of the most beautiful parks in the country, an attractive blend of mahogany trees and mopane woodland that’s bordered by the languid Zambezi River. This is one of the best places in Africa to see wild dogs, particularly in the dry season, when animals congregate along the river and around the park’s main pools.
Keep an eye out, too, for Mana’s elephants, some of which have learned to stand on their hind legs and use their trunks to forage for the albida seedpods that grow high up in the trees.
Where to stay: Idyllic Ruckomechi Camp enjoys a sublime setting overlooking the Zambezi, with the Rift Valley escarpment providing a dramatic backdrop on the Zambian side. All the spacious tents have their own verandas, with wonderful river views; twice-daily camp include walking safaris, sunset cruises and the chance to spend an unforgettable (and wakeful) night in a sleepout overlooking a waterhole.
A bewitching landscape of granite domes and weirdly stacked kopjes, the Matobo Hills are home to the highest concentration of rock art in southern Africa, a staggering profusion of ancient San paintings that depict rhinos, oversized humans, and strange patterns known as formlings.
Don’t miss the spectacular panorama from the so-called View of the World, named by Cecil Rhodes, the controversial British imperialist who is interred in the rock here.
Where to stay: Camp Amalinda is quite unique, built amidst boulders and with nine beautifully furnished thatched chalets that are set right into the rock face. As well as employing the area’s most respected historical guides, the lodge offers cycling tours of nearby Ndebele villages and the chance to track rhino on foot.
South African Airways fly daily from London Heathrow via Johannesburg to Victoria Falls, Harare and Bulawayo. Return flights cost from around £725 to Harare and £1095 to Vic Falls. For more on Zimbabwe, see zimbabwetourism.net. Header image: Wilderness Safaris
Top image © paula french/Shutterstock