I’VE swam with dolphins before, rode a sledge pulled by huskies and drunk tea in a café filled with cats. This is a first for me though: eating dinner in an open safari lodge while a herd of wild elephants and impala casually stroll by, then pause at a pool metres away to drink, either unaware or unperturbed by your presence.
I’m at Elephant Eye lodge in Hwange national park – Zimbabwe’s largest game reserve, covering a vast area of approximately 15,000 sq km, and home to more than 100 species of mammal and 400 species of bird. After your daytime safari spotting giraffe, zebra and wildebeest here from the comfort of an open jeep, the creatures are never far from you at night either, with elephants trudging past your tented lodge after dark and feeding from nearby acacia trees while you sleep.
It’s a wonderful feeling to be ensconced in their world like this, safe at all times with trained and armed park rangers always on hand. It makes you appreciate that these expanses of untouched wilderness are thankfully one aspect of Zimbabwe which wasn’t so affected by the country’s erstwhile troubles. Today it offers some of the best game-viewing spots in Southern Africa, with far fewer other jeeps driving around, giving you a much starker sense of seclusion.
Earlier in my 10-day trip I had enjoyed another kind of safari – a walking one – looking for black or white rhino in Matobo National Park, whose population of both has greatly increased in recent years due to diligent conservation efforts.
My walking party, led by local experts Norman and Norman (‘Norman Squared’ as they call themselves) and an armed ranger, eventually come within 20 yards of a small herd of young whites – three males and a female – who allow us to quietly take photos while they stand cautiously beneath a tree. Unfortunately a sudden movement from one of us spooks them and off they trundle, back into the enveloping foliage, however those previous minutes of standing in each other’s presence make for a truly special moment. And there are plenty more to follow throughout the trip.
The next arrives in the same national park: in the Matopos Hills, an epic landscape of smooth granite peaks that rise from the verdant terrain like giant thumbs. It is the final resting place of Cecil Rhodes, the contentious figure after whom the country was originally named (Rhodesia), and whose grave lies high up on a hill overlooking the park he cherished. As my party make our way up to the summit and gaze out over the dramatic panorama, it is immediately clear why.
Elsewhere in the park, on the subject of national history, are unspoiled examples of ancient rock art dating back at least two thousand years – the highest concentration of its kind in southern Africa. After encountering the rhinos and Rhodes’ grave, seeing some of these primeval daubings up close is another arresting moment. You really do get value for money in this particular national park.
Arguably the greatest historical jewel in the country’s crown, however, is the UNESCO World Heritage Site after which the country was named: the ruined city of Great Zimbabwe in Masvingo, 300km east of Matobo. Built and inhabited by the Bantu civilisation between the 11th and 15th centuries, the extraordinary extant site covers an area of almost 1,800 acres to meander around. With relatively few other tourists around you can wander in peace up its steep acropolis and around the ‘Great Enclosure’ with its enigmatic tower monument, as the resident baboons frolic alongside you.
The Great Zimbabwe experience continues on the accommodation front at the nearby Lodge at the Ancient City, which is actually built into the rock to mimic its constructional style. With large thatched lodges as your room for the night, and an outdoor pool overlooking the fertile surrounding parkland, the Ancient City is a truly atmospheric place to stay.
Away from the countryside, there are a couple of impressive higher-end hotels in bustling capital Harare which will surprise many first-time visitors, not least the 5-star Meikles which towers over the gardens of Africa Unity Square. A member of the prestigious ‘Leading Hotels of the World’ consortium, it is a big draw for international dignitaries, business executives and celebrities – funnily enough the Irish national cricket team were staying there during my visit, although checked out unhappily after being beaten in the World Cup by hosts Zimbabwe!
The final days of my journey in this underrated African country take place in what many visitors justifiably regard as one of the most spectacular natural sights they ever will see. Rightfully one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World along with Mt Everest and the Grand Canyon, Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River is the planet’s largest sheet of falling water, whose mist clouds and thunderous rumble can be seen and heard from miles away (it is fittingly known by locals as ‘Mosi-oa-Tunya (‘the Smoke that Thunders’).
At closer quarters the sight and sound of the falls are breathtaking – you can gaze upon it from the spray-clouded ‘rainforest’ on the opposite bank, or even inch along the girders beneath the famous Victoria Falls bridge which links Zimbabwe with neighbouring country Zambia, for some momentous river gorge views while safely harnessed. Other thrill-seeking options here include ziplining or bungee-jumping off the 130m-high bridge – certainly not for the fainthearted – or hovering over it all in a ‘Flight of Angels’ chopper ride operated by Zambezi Helicopters.
Victoria Falls unsurprisingly has been popular with tourists ever since the late nineteenth century when explorer David Livingstone was smitten by it, and the surrounding resort town accordingly offers a diverse range of accommodation options, from the charming mid-range Zambezi River Lodge situated on the river’s edge (watch out for the resident hippo ‘Sebastian’) to the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge overlooking an expanse of national park complete with a watering hole where you can watch elephants drink from your own bedroom balcony.
For a luxury experience of grand proportions, however, you won’t surpass the Victoria Falls Hotel – an icon of the Edwardian era and one of the oldest hotels on the continent. It is resplendant inside with painted portraits and framed photos from the age of empire, while outside its tropical gardens – regularly crossed by wild warthogs – lead down to Zambezi gorge, with Victoria Falls Bridge in the background enshrouded by mists from the falls. You won’t find many more dramatic views to gaze upon over a post-prandial drink or nightcap.
My final 24 hours here were spent gently cruising down the river on a two-tier boat in time for sunset, spotting hippos and crocs on the banks over a G&T from its free bar (operator Shearwater Cruises), and later dining at the high-spirited destination restaurant ‘Boma’ where you’re obliged to participate in a mass-bongo session between courses before a dance-off on the central floor after dessert. You also receive a certificate here for eating the national delicacy mopani caterpillar which, and while many fellow westerners typically recoil from chomping on the chewy black grubs I found them absolutely delicious!
The cumulative experience in Zimbabwe is culturally rewarding from start to finish, as you progressively discover what the rest of the world has been missing out on for too long. The people are amongst the most welcoming you’ll ever meet, their smiles a happy constant. And the hotels and lodges are of an extremely high standard, always giving you something to look forward to after you’ve had your daily fill of the natural and historical wonders on offer throughout the land. You would realistically need at least ten days here to see and feel the best of it (handily the cross-country roads are easy to navigate and not particularly busy).
On this evidence it is only a matter of time until the country returns to its 1990s boom years, so you will do well to be one of the first back through its doors before the stream becomes a deluge again. Zimbabwe is back, and well and truly open for business.
Words and photography by Kris Griffiths.
Trip organised by Zimbabwe Tourism Authority (ZTA).
Return flights to Harare via Kigali start from £576 on RwandAir, with cheaper deals to be found in low season. Wild Frontiers offers 10- and 12-day tours taking in all destinations covered in article. Prices from £2,675 per person incl accommodation, some if not all meals, guided excursions and private transfers.