Laughter rang out over the grounds of the A’Zambezi River Lodge as we danced and giggled our way down the path toward the back of the property. It was past midnight and we were soaring in from a concert by Zimbabwean superstar Oliver Tuku Mtukudzi. Words could never describe his amazing music, so fans just call it “Tuku music,” a genre all to himself.
Sadly, we knew our evening was coming to an end as we picked our way down the steps to our rooms. Not so! Rounding the corner we found another party in progress: a group of elephants were munching on some bushes right outside our rooms.
“Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” someone warned, “Elephants!”
A huge bull looked mildly annoyed by our arrival, harrumphed and walked toward us. We scampered up the stairs and held on to one another, feeling like mice who just encountered a cat. The elephant must have decided our intrusion wasn’t a big deal, because he turned to lumber after his gang into the trees.
It’s hard to beat an evening of can’t-stop-dancing that ends with crashing an elephants’ after-hours party just outside your room. One of the few places to experience an evening like that would be Zimbabwe. It’s why Zimbabwe has always been one of my favorite destinations on earth.
Back to the Future
My last trips to Zimbabwe had been in the late 80’s, early 90’s, not long after independence, when times were hopeful and the economy thriving. Over the years I’d read with concern and sadness about the trials the Zimbabwean people were facing. I worried about the people I had befriended and wondered if conditions were as bad as the stories described. I was both excited and circumspect in anticipating a return trip.
As soon as I landed in Victoria Falls, I relaxed. It soon became clear to me that, from a visitor’s view, nothing much had changed. No huge buildings spoiled the view of the falls; the small town had not grown into a major tourist nightmare but neither was it in ruins. More importantly, the local people smiled warmly as I passed by and I still felt safe walking around on my own.
I am certain the denizens of Victoria Falls and other towns and villages in Zimbabwe could tell me personal stories of change in the past two decades, sad stories. But I never came across a lot of moaning and groaning. I interpreted this, not as suppression, but as a national strength of character. In fact, every person I spoke to focused on a brighter future. From Minister Walter Mzembi of the Zimbabwe Ministry of Tourism and Hospitality to the Dangwe Arts volunteers selling unique art work created by orphans and street children in a stand outside the Elephant Hills Hotel, everyone voiced optimism about tourists returning to Zimbabwe.
Maybe the citizens of Zimbabwe are optimistic about a resurgence of tourism simply because they are confident in the allure of their destination. This makes sense to me. This is one destination that lives up to its marketing tag: “A World of Wonders,” in my opinion.
Whether you’ve sold Zimbabwe in the past or have little knowledge, a short review of its wonders should put it at the top of any list for your adventure-craving clients.
Begin with Victoria Falls
It’s claimed to be the largest falls in the world and one of the Seven Wonders of the World; the fact is, this is one spectacular water fall (and the only other country that can claim it is Zambia). Victoria Falls divides the Zambezi River in half. Above the falls, the Zambezi is wide and calm, just the spot for sunset cruises, hippo spotting, and fishing trips. Below the falls, the rushing, narrow Zambezi offers some of the best white water rafting in the world!
The 100-year-old bridge that links Zimbabwe to Zambia and crosses the Zambezi high above the river is a man-made wonder in its own right. Intriguing to engineers and historians as a structure, the bridge now offers bungee jumping, a swing drop and zip line, all with amazing views of the falls and the river below.
Tour operators can arrange another wondrous experience near Victoria Falls: a visit to a “heritage village.” Villages like these have been preserved as traditional as possible. They are not Disneyesque places for tourists to take photos. Real people live in them, people who seemed genuinely happy to welcome us as we spent part of a day with them. We were treated to dancing and local cuisine cooked over a wood fire.
Some properties in Victoria Falls can be wondrous experiences in themselves. One example is the location of the amazing elephant encounter described above: the A’Zambezi River Lodge. This 87-room property is laid out in such a way that it seems even smaller, with a laid-back atmosphere. It is the only hotel right on the Zambezi River in Victoria Falls. Upgraded recently, the hotel offers flat screen TV, WiFi, a pool, river-side dining and bar, as well as resident monkeys, warthogs and elephant visitors. Rack rates range from $239 to over $300, including full breakfast, depending on room and season.
The Victoria Falls Hotel is a step back in time. It was built about the same time as the bridge, in 1907, and has been carefully preserved. Clients will feel like pampered colonists walking the rooms and grounds of this majestic property. Rack rates start at $339 per night.
If a gin and tonic at the club-like Victoria Falls Hotel bar seems a trifle dull, Victoria Falls offers more life it its nightlife. We danced the night away at an open-air bar at Shoestrings, a hostel and fun gathering place.
Hwange National Park
Though game drives can be arranged from Victoria Falls, the premier game preserve in Zimbabwe is probably Hwange. Among the park’s best features are the artificially conserved watering holes with pumps that bring water up from subterranean wells during the dry season. Since country borders obstruct natural seasonal migrations of herds of animals to water, these features not only save their lives but make game viewing a sure thing during the dry season (August to Novenber), which is also the high season for tourists.
Zimbabwe has always boasted that their guides are the best trained and must live up to the highest standards in Africa. I have no idea is that is absolutely true, but my experiences with the guides in Zimbabwe (comparing them to Botswana, Zambia, and South Africa) have all been amazing.
Hwange has a good range of properties, from inexpensive cottages with kitchens owned by the park to top-rated, unique properties like The Hide Safari Camp. The Hide is all-inclusive and exclusive, accommodating a maximum of 20 people in large permanent “tents” (or one luxurious “tree house”). Guests can view game from “hides” dug in close to the watering hole, on walking safaris, motor safaris, or they can simply observe game while sipping a glass of wine beside the nightly fire. Rates (which include all meals and activities) range from a little over $300 to $400 per person per night.
For a country that’s a little larger than the state of Montana, Zimbabwe offers an amazing number of “must see” wonders. Matobo National Park lies just south of Bulawayo, second largest city in the country. The Matobo hills would be a major tourist attraction all by themselves in the US west. House-sized boulders are strewn about like toys left by giants. There are stunning views, cave paintings and a rhino preserve where we got to chase a huge bull white rhino on foot (he was not amused, but we were thrilled by the experience). Cecil Rhodes, namesake of the Southern Rhodesia colony that was Zimbabwe, was so impressed by Matobo that he chose it as his final resting place.
Just down the road in Masvingo, we hiked to the top of The Great Zimbabwe, namesake of modern day Zimbabwe. This medieval castle/settlement/monument is a world heritage site left by the advanced civilization that flourished here between 1200 and 1400. Kings who ruled over most of Southern Africa lived here with their 200 wives. Like many ancient civilizations that left no written record, the story of The Great Zimbabwe’s rise and fall remains a mystery, but this monument rivals any Mayan or Inca ruin that tourists flock to in Central America.
Another property that becomes an experience in itself is the nearby Lodge at the Ancient City. We felt that we were living inside the Great Zimbabwe itself with the huge boulders that were incorporated into the massive dining room and individual chalet-like huts spread across the landscape. Rack rates for a standard room (that phrase has no meaning at this property) start at $172.
Tips on Travel in Zimbabwe
Planning a journey to this part of the world becomes a dilemma in what to leave out; we have only glanced at what Zimbabwe offers! Neighboring Zambia, Botswana and South Africa have their own unique attractions, so the choices become more difficult.
If you are an agent who has steered clear of Zimbabwe of late, I urge you to reconsider. A full 75% of trips to Africa are through travel agents and Zimbabwe offers a product that will attract return business. The Zimbabwe infrastructure remains strong with educated, hard working people who want to build a strong word-of-mouth reputation for their destination. The government of Zimbabwe understands how important safe, hassle-free tourism will be to the country’s economic recovery and supports that goal.
Here are a few trip-planning tips from my recent trip to Zimbabwe:
1. Zimbabwe now uses US currency, so there are no exchange worries.
2. Travel on the (generally good) roads in Zimbabwe will be interrupted periodically by police stops. This can be disconcerting at first for an American, but they are checking for non-compliant vehicles and drivers and these checks probably keep the roads safer.
3. Your digitally-addicted clients may be disappointed in some hotels’ WiFi connections. Those in the bush usually offer no WiFi.
4. Urge your clients to try the local cuisine; it is better, usually, than their version of “Western food.” Vegetarians can survive, but should be sure and let properties know ahead of time about their preferences.
5. There is a national shortage of small bills in US currency. Tell clients to take a lot of small bills for tips and incidentals.
6. Consider joining an association like the Africa Travel Association (ATA) to connect with African suppliers, governments, and marketing groups.