Sometimes it’s a good idea to look back and reflect, unless of course, you’re driving. When it comes to travel, those glances into the rear-view mirror can do more than show you where you’ve been, they can bring back the feelings you experienced while you were there. In this first installment of my Bite-Size Destination Throwback series, I’ll be spotlighting my epic trip to Zimbabwe and Southern Africa in the summer of 2014. In it, I will follow a simple formula: what brought me there, what I loved, and what I would do if I ever went back. So let’s get started.
What Brought Me There
The primary reason for my visit was to attend an international convention being held in the capital, Harare. But there was no way I was going to miss out on seeing one of the seven natural wonders of the world (Victoria Falls) while I was in the ‘neighborhood’. As my plans solidified, after a week in and around Harare for the convention, we were off to Victoria Falls with excursions into Zambia, Botswana, and even just barely into Namibia’s Caprivi Strip.
What I Loved
Foremost among the things I loved were the people. Despite abject poverty, political insecurity and little prospect for improvement, the Zimbabweans I met were welcoming, courteous and even outright generous. I’d be willing to say that most were actually happier than your average person in a developed land, which is saying a lot in view of the obstacles they face on a daily basis.
I also loved the African landscape, with its abundant wildlife, rugged interior and breathtaking sunsets evening after evening. Africa has an entrancing effect on me, and memories of sipping a sundowner while the sun sinks in a blazing orange sky to a symphony of insects while the stately silhouettes of elephants graze in the distance is truly a mental ‘happy place’ for me.
What I Would Do If I Went Back
My limited timeframe forced me to fly directly to Victoria Falls from Harare. Given another visit to the country, I would rather take the rails down to the Motobo Hills to enjoy the unique landscape of stacked boulders that characterize this corner of the world. I would then make my way back toward Victoria Falls via Hwange National Park, with its healthy elephant populations in full display.
Have you been to Zimbabwe? Share your thoughts by commenting. And if you want a great Zimbabwe souvenir, check out the Zimbabwe Rugged Country Code Collection unisex t-shirt by clicking here.
All Zimbabwe really needs is a chance – and some shoeshine. First, let me address the latter. In the dry season, the red soil of Africa, while lovely to look at, gets everywhere, creating spectacular sunsets and the unwanted side effect of dirty shoes. But that is easily fixed. What takes a bit longer is the economic and political stagnation the country has dealt with for a few decades now, which has masked the fact that this is a wonderful place with among the friendliest people on earth.
This landlocked country in Southern Africa was once an agricultural powerhouse and favorite among tourists seeking game parks, near-perfect weather, and of course, the splendor of Victoria Falls. But a combination of radical land reform and subsequent internal unrest blew its economy to pieces and left it with a black eye and negative stigma in the international community (as well as reams of now-defunct Zimbabwean dollars in handy denominations of millions, billions and trillions that street vendors will surely be offering you). This is a shame, because the land and people are ready for business and eager to welcome visitors back.
The capital city, Harare, is rather compact, with a bustling downtown and a mix of modern and colonial-era buildings (it was once known as Salisbury, capital of Southern Rhodesia). On the outskirts are quiet streets lined with graceful jacaranda trees mixed in with shopping malls of varying sizes that cater to the (relatively) well-to-do. Though official jobs are scarce, Zimbabweans seem a resourceful people, and despite a very low per capita income, most had cell phones and tablets. Crime therefore is surprisingly low, and walking the streets of Harare in the evening, while still requiring caution, felt a lot more secure than doing so in affluent Johannesburg.
Surrounding the city are various game parks and wildlife centers, but one needs not leave the city to see non-lethal game up close. Mukuvisi Woodlands is a private reserve where for about $6 you can walk its acres (along with a guide) of grassy plains and woodland to view eland, zebra, impala and giraffe on foot. Horseback rides are also available for slightly more, making this an inexpensive experience that the relatively few visitors to Harare shouldn’t miss.
Just outside of the city – and really throughout the country – are interesting formations of rounded boulders piled in stacks of varying shapes called balancing rocks. Most famous are the ones in the Matobo Hills area, not far from Zimbabwe’s second city Bulawayo. Also in the general area are the stone ruins of the Great Zimbabwe – a World Heritage Site from which the country derives its name, and model for the tower at Harare Airport.
Of course, Victoria Falls is, and will continue to be, the greatest draw for visitors to Zimbabwe – and for good reason. This mile-long sheet of falling water cannot be entirely viewed from one location (unless you’re in a helicopter) and easily surpass Niagara in height and length. The town of Victoria Falls is geared toward tourism with a range of accommodations as well as a gamut of activities that could rival anywhere else on the planet: game drives in nearby Zambezi National Park or farther afield, Hwange National Park; bungee jumping off the famous Victoria falls Bridge, whitewater rafting on the Zambezi through Bakota Gorge, and for the less-adventurous a sunset cruise on the placid waters of the upper Zambezi (open bar included! – for more info see the post Zim or Zam: If you Understand the Question, you can Appreciate the Answer ). From there you can also venture into the surrounding countries of Zambia, Botswana and Namibia that converge national borders not far away. Day trips are available to Livingstone, Zambia and the animal encounters offered there, as well as Chobe National Park, Botswana with its world-famous elephant population (For more info on the awesomeness of Chobe, see the post The Chobe Riverfront: Botswana’s Got Game).
It is here that the people of Zimbabwe receive the most visitors (and subsequently, the most economic opportunity) so shopping venues abound. It seems the shopkeepers understand that Westerners in particular don’t wish to be hassled while browsing, and have a policy of letting you look around without pressing you for a sale. Behind the upscale shops in a dilapidated tin-roof structure is a craft market in which all such niceties are dropped. Sure it can be annoying to fend off persistent (though respectful) vendors who often are the very ones who produce the amazing carvings and wood figurines they’re selling, but prices are better here, the opportunity for a deal greater, and most of all, your money goes to the people who need it the most. And if you pay a dollar or two more than you originally intended you can take comfort in knowing its going to someone who likely needs it more than you do.
Yes, Zimbabwe is a wonderful place that sadly has gotten a lot of bad press. But I wholeheartedly recommend it as a destination for those looking for authentic Africa and some of the kindest, friendliest people I’ve ever met. As a case in point, one vendor in the Avondale Flea market in Harare, after failing to lure me to view his wares, noticed my travel hat, of which I have adorned with pins from many of the countries I have visited. He made it a point to give me one for free, and asked if would serve as an ambassador of a sorts and tell others that Zimbabwe is a safe place to visit where people who do so would be welcome. So, Mister Vendor-Man, that’s what I’m doing right now. Come to Zimbabwe. Give the country – and more importantly – the people a chance. Bring your spending money, camera, & sense of adventure. And yeah, it wouldn’t hurt to bring a little shoeshine as well.
As a final note, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a landmark event that took place during my stay in Harare. Between August 22-24, 2014 there was an International Convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses held in the National Stadium. About 3,600 delegates from some 30 countries converged to worship together with their Zimbabwean brethren who number some 40,000 countrywide. The amazing thing was that the Sunday program was attended by well over 82, 000 – most of which were non-Witnesses – and was the greatest display of true brotherhood I’ve seen anywhere in the world. I know many have misconceptions or outright hostility toward the Witnesses, but for three days the country seemed to be united in peace, harmony and joy, and nobody can argue that that’s not the way it should be. After my visit, it came as no surprise to me that a country of such loving, humble people would make such a perfect backdrop for the most elusive of human endeavors – genuine peace and love.