Our writer Sandra Brind is a big fan of Zimbabwe as a tourist destination, and thinks it will it will soon become a holiday hotspot again now that President Mugabe has been replaced. Here, Sandra and her son, Simon Scotting, recall their last visit there – and yearn to return.
Now is the time to holiday in Zimbabwe, before the prices go up to match those in Botswana or South Africa, writes Sandra Brind. Book your trip now and you will find a country unspoilt by mass tourism and largely safe, with welcoming people and a desperate need for foreign currency.
True, a lot of the hotels and safari lodges are looking tired, but tourism has been low in recent years so that is not surprising. But the remaining wildlife is accessible, and you will find some of the most knowledgeable guides in Africa.
With direct flights to Victoria Falls increasing it is best to start your trip there. The falls are spectacular and are not called the ‘smoke that thunders’ for nothing. The roar of the water grows louder as you walk nearer through the tropical rainforest. You will get wet, but there is rainwear on hire. Make sure you protect your phone or camera from the spray and you will be rewarded with magnificent photos.
There are plenty of adventure options available on site for adrenalin junkie: bungee jumps, the Gorge swing zip wire, white water rafting, canoeing, helicopter rides, sunset cruises, and – at certain times of the year – even a walk across the wet stones to the edge of the falls (definitely not for the faint-hearted and only with a trusted guide).
Victoria Falls has a number of hotels in different price ranges. The magnificent colonial Victoria Falls Hotel is the luxurious option; its sister hotel, The Kingdom, is cheaper and has good value packages. It has its own casino, pool bar, swimming pools and restaurants, and luxurious rooms. You can walk to the Falls from the back of the hotel as well as to the many nearby restaurants and shops. You may even spy warthogs walking along the road as you browse. There is also an option to cross the border into Zambia.
It might pay to hire a car, but if not then take a coach or light aircraft to Hwange National Park. There are a number of safari lodges and camps to stay in, with different price options for hotels, tents, lodges, etc. The camping versions are often the cheapest. However, the Hwange Safari Lodge is my favourite. It is in the middle of the national park area for game spotting and has a large waterhole at the back where the animals can be seen from the comfort of your lounger or on the viewing platform –with a glass of something cold on hand to refresh you.
On the way there we had to stop the car when an elephant crossed the road in front of us. It’s unusual to find just one, so we patiently sat quietly until the rest of the elephant family lumbered across the road, tearing branches from the trees in their wake. Once they disappeared we were able to continue our drive to the Safari Lodge and check into our rooms. Monkeys could be heard playing in the trees outside as the sun went down, and the cries of different animals could be heard in the distance.
Breakfast was taken outside, but some mornings when we collected our food from the breakfast bars we had to run the gauntlet of trying to get back to our table before a monkey dropped down from the trees to steal the best bits.
We went on a guided game drive in an open-sided jeep one evening and saw more elephant, zebra and a huge herd of buffalo: a magnificent sight outlined against the setting sun. Next morning we decided to drive through the National Park ourselves. Along the almost deserted narrow pathways we spotted, ostrich, giraffe, zebras, impala, warthog, kudu, bushbuck, cranes, antelopes and monkeys.
We stopped by a waterhole and watched from the car as hippos bobbed up and down in the water with their large mouths opening and closing as they were talking to each other in their funny grunting sounds. We stopped at one of the hides overlooking a pan and climbed up in silence to watch zebra drink lazily at the edge. Then we spotted what looked like the carcass of an elephant, which made us realise how poaching still goes on here.
We felt a little disappointed that we had seen only four live elephants. However, when we returned to the Safari Lodge for a late swim before dinner there was a sudden shout and everyone rushed to see what was happening at the waterhole. There we saw a troupe of elephants heading for the waterhole and their own evening drink.
The number of elephants increased with every few minutes. There seemed to be a hierarchy as some went into the water first while others stood aside to wait their turn, then the first few left and the next few scampered into the water. This carried on until everyone had enjoyed rolling in the water and mud. Baby elephants dashed alongside their elders and slipped into the water, enjoying learning how to squirt water over themselves.
This went on for about an hour and it seemed that there had been hundreds of elephants coming and going into the water. Then, almost as suddenly as it all started, almost as if one of them gave a signal, they disappeared into the trees one after the other and all was quiet. It had been a magical end to a wonderful day of game spotting. We enjoyed our BBQ dinner even more that evening.
One interesting sight had been to watch crocodiles slip quietly into the waterhole when all the elephants had gone away. Presumably they leave the water when they see the elephants approaching.
There are many other places to spot game in the country, including Antelope Park, Bumi and Mana Pools and particularly Lake Kariba. We did not venture into Kariba on this trip, though I’ll never forget going out on the lake with our guide on a previous visit, fishing for tiger fish and others that we cooked for our supper. Then mooring the boat at a safe distance and listening to the magical sounds of hippos ‘talking’ to each other.
Let’s hope that the new regime in Zimbabwe will realise the country’s tourism potential in the country and ensure that the wildlife remains safe and protected.
Simon Scotting adds: Going on a walking safari at Hwange Safari Lodge was an incredible experience. We began before dawn, with barely enough light to see any lurking predators, and trekked out into the open plain towards the nearby water hole. There, my guide warned me of the crocodile hiding just below the water’s surface as we were walking round the water’s edge. We watched him travel silently alongside us, no doubt eager for an opportune breakfast.
Walking up into the bush my guide started explaining the different tracks and paths that had been made the night before, and we isolated and followed some lion tracks deeper into the bush.
We knew that cheetahs had been sighted the day before, so when my guide came across fresh tracks we immediately switched trails, and as the sun came over the horizon we came out into a clearing and in the distance saw a cheetah staking his claim to a sunny rock.
After watching him for a while we continued back into the thicker bush, following the lion tracks from the night before. Sadly we didn’t catch up with the pride, though on foot I don’t think I minded too much about this, even with the security of my guide’s slung rifle!
The feeling of being on foot tracking animals, rather than safe in a safari jeep, is definitely one to be experienced.