Zimbabwe — the great safari country

The awesome power and beauty of Victoria Falls, the majestic wild life of Hwange, the cathedral-like formations of the Matobo Hills, the ancient mystery of Great Zimbabwe, the peace and tranquility of the Eastern Highlands, the incredible bird life of Kariba make for a kaleidoscope of tourism unrivalled in Africa let alone many other parts of the world.

No wonder the desert kingdom of Kuwait gave us the vote, following on from a similar award by China in praise of the “most luxurious destination in Africa”. So it’s good to stop and think and then get on the road or into the air to see what our glorious country has to offer. One thing is certain, the hotels and lodges will not let you down. Every resort has a spectacular welcome for you.

A good starting point is, of course, the Victoria Falls itself. The missionary- explorer David Livingstone, used breathtaking prose to describe it when he first sighted the Falls in 1855: “Scenes so lovely must have been gazed on by angels in their flight”. Pioneers and princesses have been echoing that sentiment over the past hundred years or so at the Victoria Falls Hotel which has always been conscious of its historical relationship with the world’s most spectacular waterfall.

From its terrace the view is of a bridge across one of the eight gorges through which the Zambezi River plunges and at certain times of the year when the river is high and full of spray its windows vibrate to the cascade of millions of gallons of water.

The difficult thing, when you are at Victoria Falls, is to tear yourself away from its fierce – and sometimes gentle – splendour. Staying just a couple of days is an act of cultural barbarity. The tourism moguls have come through with a lot of imagination in recent years. Is there anything lovelier than a sunset cruise on the Zambezi after riding an African elephant or walking with young lions?

The overlanders, coming far from the Cape or Nairobi, know what the Falls has to offer in terms of adventure, challenging the great white water in rafts or throwing themselves off the famous bridge in an adrenalin-pumping bunji flight. Then there are crocodiles to see down the road on the ranch and Eastern cuisine to taste at the Rainbow kraal, ultralites in the sky and jet boats face to face with the supreme white curtain of the Falls.

Truly the Falls is becoming more exotic, reminding me of when the “big birds” – the Sunderland sea planes – used to land on the water en route from Southampton to the Vaal Dam in South Africa. In those luxurious times, passengers used to disembark at a jetty called Jungle Junction and stay at the Edwardian masterpiece of the Victoria Falls Hotel. The jetty is still pointed out by guides on the river cruises.

Ask anyone why they should travel so far to Zimbabwe and the answer is always the “safari”. And that means the wild life of Hwange National Park, just two hours’ drive from Victoria Falls.

This is elephant and lion country, an unspoilt wilderness studded by game platforms and underground “hides” close to waterholes where the big jumbos and their playful offspring wallow in the mud and where a wide variety of species come to drink.

The 5,000 square-mile Hwange park, one of the largest regions in Africa to provide a wild life eco-system, has a great reputation for the protection of game. Of course, it is also the “killing fields” for a broad spectrum of predators – cheetah upon warthog, lion upon zebra, leopard upon baboon or bat-eared fox – and that extends to action by the birds of prey such as the martial eagle and the giant eagle owl which are a protected species.

The whole area, which is a paradise for zoologists, botanists and ornithologists, as well as the good old-fashioned tourist, is hauntingly beautiful with lodges and bush camps dotted here and there to capture the heart of a safari. Many have their own game trails and professional guides with specially adapted land cruisers patrolling the park itself or in a private domain. Miss out Hwange and you miss the paradise of Africa.

On to Bulawayo, the “City of Kings”, reflecting the pioneer history of Zimbabwe, and you are on the threshold of the Matobo Hills, a catalyst of rock art plunging back millions of years. This is Zimbabwe’s answer to Arizona, a wind-sculpted vista of citadel formations and whale domes of massive granite rock. Cecil Rhodes, the Victorian diamond magnate who endowed the world with his scholarships, has his grave here in a boulder-surrounded rock that he called “World’s View”.

History’s monumental role in the country’s tourism is further exemplified in the mythical “lost city” of Great Zimbabwe, once the centre of a medieval empire that gave the modern nation its name and now a World Heritage site. Built of a million stones, it has everything to interest both the antiquarian and the romantic – a brooding past, a vanished society and the enigma of its mysterious decline. As the greatest ancient monument in sub-Saharan Africa, this powerful kingdom was known for its trade with the Arab and Eastern world and continues to remain a subject of archeological value.

Great Zimbabwe, near the town of Masvingo, is also a good launching point along baobab-studded roads for the ethereal world of the Eastern Highlands, resplendent in peaks and crags within an panoramic arena of blue-grey rock. The tourist will find a great natural beauty in the formidable mountain barrier that separates Zimbabwe from Mozambique.

Once a place of refuge for African tribes, who left a legacy of settlements and forts and rain-making ceremonies, the terrain provides a natural attraction for the outdoor enthusiast, the fisherman and the explorer.

The area which embraces the Chimanimani – which the pioneers described as the “promised land” – the Vumba with its exquisite flora and fauna and Nyanga with its breathtaking views offer scenes that make Zimbabwe a very special country. All can be reached along spiralling roads from the beautiful city of Mutare

Back to the Zambezi and the water wilderness of Kariba, still echoing through its heritage of petrified trees the rescue of wild life trapped by rising floodwaters when the famous dam was built. There is no better way to reflect on this than by a cruise at sunset. Launching out from Kariba to probe the shorelines of the blue Matusadona Mountains with its wonderful animal and bird life is perhaps the greatest of all memories that tourists will take home with them.

Here is the prehistoric rhino and the fish eagles, lily trotters, kingfishers and herons in their natural environment. Stay in a houseboat, as I once did, and canoe your way to supper, lighting your way among the lake-bound trees by flashlight. And listen to the professional guide imitating bird calls and describing his adventures as a crocodile hunter.

No wonder Kuwait or China or any other nation will vote for Zimbabwe, with all its treasures, as the best tourist destination in the world. For any journey is a personal experience that can never be repeated anywhere.

July 2006
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