Zimbabwe, Southern Africa’s Comeback Kid

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Deck outlook at Ruckomechi Camp.
Deck outlook at Ruckomechi Camp.

The economy turned overnight when the U.S. dollar replaced the Zimbabwean dollar in 2009; travel warnings were lifted that same year; visa policies are being reworked; private sector investments over the last two years have resulted in upgrades and stylish new lodges; and tourism minister Walter Mzembi reports that during the first half of 2013, arrivals into Zimbabwe increased by 12 percent.

What’s bringing people to discover and rediscover the country is one of the world’s greatest natural wonders, Victoria Falls, plus the big five of the animal kingdom strutting their stuff in many of Africa’s finest national parks—home to more than 700 species of birds and huge big game concentrations.

Way back in 1984, Mana Pools became the first national park in Zimbabwe to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage site; it has since been joined by four other sites, including Victoria Falls, the Great Zimbabwe Ruins, the Khami Ruins and Matobo Hills National Park.

Supported by expanding safari options from U.S. travel companies, Zimbabwe’s big five attractions have become the smart new choice for Africa-bound travelers:

Zimbabwe's wildlife viewing is tops in Southern Africa.
Zimbabwe’s wildlife viewing is tops in Southern Africa.

#1. Great Zimbabwe: The greatest medieval city in sub-Saharan Africa and a UNESCO World Heritage site, Great Zimbabwe is one of the nation’s most treasured sights. Indeed, these 11th century mysterious ruins lend the nation its name and provide evidence that ancient Africa reached a level of civilization not suspected by earlier scholars. As a religious and political capital, this city of 10,000 to 20,000 dominated a realm that stretched across eastern Zimbabwe and into modern-day Botswana, Mozambique and South Africa. The site is divided into three main areas: the Hill Complex, a maze of royal and ritual enclosures; the Valley, a series of 13th century walls and daga (traditional African round house) platforms; and the Great Enclosure, thought to have served as a royal compound.

#2. Victoria Falls—Wet & Wild: Considered the greatest waterfall in the world, officially “Vic Falls” ranks as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World in addition to being a UNESCO World Heritage site. And there’s good reason for that, for this mile-wide curtain of white-water cascades along a narrow gorge of the Zambezi River and plunges some 400 ft. over a huge cliff between two countries: Zambia and Zimbabwe. Walk through the misty rainforests that flank the falls, stopping to marvel at the principal cascades: Horseshoe Falls, Rainbow Falls, the Boiling Pot, Cataract and Livingston Islands. In addition to marveling at the waterfalls, there are many adventurous activities on offer such as sightseeing flights over the falls by helicopter, microlight or ultralight; sunset river cruises; bungee-jumping and gorge-swinging across the mighty Zambezi; canoeing among the hippos and crocodiles; and rafting down one of the world’s toughest stretches of white-water.

Most U.S. travelers visiting the country fly right into Victoria Falls Airport from either Johannesburg or from the capital city of Harare. They may stay at the classic Victoria Falls Hotel, actually the oldest hotel in Zimbabwe—as this writer, who stayed there in its more modest days 40 years ago, can attest to. Nowadays, the property is elegant, surrounded by gardens with perfect views of the falls spray called locally mosi-oa-tunya or the “smoke that thunders.” Newest to the area, and one of the stars of the upgraded Zimbabwe product, is the Victoria Falls River Lodge, the first luxury lodge to open in several years and the first private game lodge to be set in the 150,000-acre Zambezi National Park on the banks of the mighty Zambezi River. Its seven luxury tents have uninterrupted views of African sunsets and from their private decks, guests can spot one or more of the 415 bird species recorded in the park and observe game grazing on the lawn, and elephants passing during their evening promenades.

#3. Mana Pools National Park: Located in Northern Zimbabwe, Mana Pools is one of two beautiful national parks that straddle the Zambezi River, facing the Lower Zambezi National Park on the Zambian side; both have spectacular views of the mountains and the Rift Valley escarpment, and the larger animals have no trouble in swimming between the two countries, with equally good game viewing in both parks. With light undergrowth, the land is perfect for walking safaris, while on water, canoe safaris are one of Zimbabwe’s ultimate big game adventures. While lodges close during the rains, from January to March, in April they reopen as the pools in the bush dry up, and increasingly large herds of elephant and buffalo are seen, as well as kudu, eland, waterbuck, crocodiles, zebra, impala, many antelope, wild (painted) dogs, and a wide variety of birds. Mana Pools is most easily accessed by light aircraft.

Lion World Tours’ 11-day Zimbabwe Safari in Style ($7,699 pp dbl, including land, international and regional air) spends three nights at Ruckomechi Camp, flying in and out by light aircraft. The camp sits just outside Mana Pools National Park’s western boundary, accommodating guests in 10 large reed and thatch chalets with en-suite facilities and treating them to great views of both national parks on either side of the Zambezi River. Guests head out daily on walking trips and game drives, as well as on canoeing and fishing trips on the river.

#4. Hwange National Park: A 2-hour drive south of Victoria Falls, Hwange (pronounced Wang-ee) is one of the 10 largest parks in Africa and largest in Zimbabwe. It has a ridiculous amount of wildlife: 400 species of birds and 107 different animals, including lions, giraffes, leopards, rhinos, cheetahs, hyenas and wild dogs. Above all, Hwange is home to Africa’s biggest elephant population, and the best time for viewing is July to October, when animals congregate around the 60 waterholes and the forest is stripped of greenery. All safari camps here offer day and night game drives, while most also offer walking safaris.

Goway’s 5-day Johannesburg to Victoria Falls package spends two nights in Hwange, staying at Hide Safari Camp, one of the country’s best. Guests tuck into luxury tents with an en-suite shower, hand basin and toilet; and tent decks overlook the waterhole. Named after the underground hiding points built to view elephants close up, the camp is known for its great guides and candlelit dinners. Rates are $1,890 pp dbl and include two nights at Victoria Falls Safari Lodge and two nights at Hide Safari Camp.

African Travel, Inc. takes guests on the 10-day Luxury Southern Africa Wildlife ($7,995 pp dbl), visiting South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana, and check-in to Hwange’s Little Makalolo Camp. Set among the teak trees overlooking a watering hole, the camp has six tented rooms with en-suite facilities as well as indoor and outdoor showers; the main area has a plunge pool and open fire for fireside evening chats, and a log-pile hide. Makalolo is a top area for impressive herds of buffalo and elephant, as well as apex predators such as lion, leopard, wild dog and cheetah.

#5. Matobo Hills National Park: Located in western Zimbabwe and just a half-hour drive south of Bulawayo, this park contains some of the region’s most arrestingly beautiful scenery—landscapes littered with huge piles of red-tinged granite boulders, interspersed with wooded valleys. Bushmen lived in this area 2,000 years ago, and left behind a splendid assemblage of sacred rock art hidden in caves. Matobo Hills is one of the best places to see white rhino and Africa’s largest concentration of leopard, black eagles and other birds of prey. With no lion or elephant on location, this is a park one can freely explore among the hills on one’s own. Adjoining the main national park is a smaller, intensively protected game park, containing Zimbabwe’s highest concentrations of black and white rhino.

Victoria Falls is one of the country's most alluring sites.
Victoria Falls is one of the country’s most alluring sites.

did you know

  • Though you are farther from the falls on the Zimbabwe side, the overall views are better. July to September is optimum falls-viewing time.
  • Bomba restaurant at the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge offers a taste of Africa buffet serving up smoked guinea-fowl as a starter, followed by impala-knuckle terrine or spit-roast warthog or goat. Roasted vegetables are served with sadza (maize porridge).
  • Excavations of the ruins of Great Zimbabwe unearthed eight carvings of soapstone birds (believed to be fishing eagles), which now serve as the emblem of Zimbabwe and are on the national flag.
  • Matusadona National Park on the southern shore of Lake Kariba (one of the world’s greatest man-made lakes) is another big five habitat, including the endangered black rhino.
  • Pre-2000, Zimbabwe had a conservation record second to none in Southern Africa, and its professional guides, products of superior guide training, still place regularly in the top-10 lists in Southern Africa.
  • At the UN World Tourism Organization general assembly gathering in “Vic Falls” last August, the tourism minister enthusiastically reported plans for a $300 million “Disneyland in Africa,” to occupy 1,200 acres of land the government acquired adjacent to the Falls.
    The pushback from the tourism and conservation industries was immediate and unified: The idea is inappropriate and crazy!

tour operator intel

cox & kings

Great Herds of Zimbabwe is Cox & Kings’ lead tour for the destination, one that Rob Veden, the company’s director for Africa, points out has been passed over in recent years, but for the last couple of years has been up and ready to go, particularly appealing to the repeat traveler to Africa. “Not only are the top experiences away from the kinds of crowds that now gather at other African destinations, but Zimbabwe is full of its own unique experiences. Take Mana Pools, for instance, which not only offers walking tours, but because of the preponderance of water, canoe safaris offer a very special viewpoint on wildlife as you float past hippos and elephants.” Veden also points to Hwange National Park where there are huge concentrations of big game animals, not lost in thickets but in wide open spaces. “The two parks are a magic combination, plus Zimbabwe has quality, experienced guides.” Great Herds of Zimbabwe is a 9-day program spending the first three nights in Mana Pools National Park at Ruckomechi Camp and viewing hippo, lion, leopard and rare wild dog in open 4×4 vehicles, on motorized pontoon boats, on foot, and in canoes. Guests continue by scenic flight over Lake Kariba en-route to three nights in Hwange National Park at Little Makalolo Camp, with twice-daily game drives to see great elephant, buffalo and sable herds. They’ll fly on for two nights at Victoria Falls at the Victoria Falls Hotel, enjoying an elephant-back safari and a sunset cruise on the Zambezi River. Priced from $5,835 pp dbl land-only.
(800) 999-1758; coxandkingsusa.com/content/travel-advisor-portal-login

SITA world tours

Covering Zimbabwe from its capital of Harare to Victoria Falls, SITA World Tours capitalizes on both the country’s cultural and natural attractions in its Great Zimbabwe itinerary. According to Natalie Lee, product manager for Africa and the Middle East, “Last year, this 9-day tour was two days longer, covering the Eastern Highlands more in-depth. This is a beautiful corner of the country, but this year we are concentrating on its major attractions, the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, whose grandeur on the African continent is matched only by the Egyptian pyramids.” She points out that SITA also highlights the Matopo Hills National Park, which is not only scenically beautiful but has a scattered treasury of cave paintings. “Zimbabwe is definitely a pick for repeat travelers to Africa, and this tour is designed to showcase a country rich in history and wildlife.”

Offered monthly except July, the Great Zimbabwe adventure starts in the capital, Harare, and continues to Masvingo to visit the Great Zimbabwe ruins from a base at the Lodge at the Ancient City. Victorian Bulawayo, with its excellent museum, is the next stop and the base for exploring Matopo Hills National Park. Travelers then head to Hwange National Park for a 2-night stay at Davidsons Camp and daily game drives in the company of herds of elephant, and during a 2-night stay at the Victoria Falls Hotel, guests visit the Painted Dog Conservation Centre and a traditional medicine healer in a small village, as well as tour the mighty falls (priced from $4,325 pp dbl). SITA also offers a Zimbabwe Express featuring two nights at Victoria Falls and three in Hwange National Park, plus packages to add on to Matusadona National Park at Lake Kariba and Mana Pools National Park.
(800) 421-5643; sitatours.com/AgentServices/index.php

Archived related articles (available on recommend.com/magazine/issue-archive):
From Zambia to Zimbabwe (March 2012)

contact information
African Travel, Inc: (800) 421-8907; africantravelinc.com or africantravelinc.com/agents
Goway Travel: (800) 557-2841; goway.com or gowayagent.com
Lion World Tours: (800) 387-2706; lionworldtours.com
Victoria Falls Hotel: victoria-falls-hotels.net
Victoria Falls River Lodge: victoriafallsriverlodge.com
Zimbabwe Tourism Authority: zimbabwetourism.net