Zimbabwe’s reputation has long been beset by its politics; yet beneath the headlines lies a richly rewarding travel destination, where coveted wildlife sightings are frequent, the landscape is dotted with some of Africa’s most important historic sites, and the people are renowned for their hospitality. Red Savannah’s Albee Yeend explains why Zimbabwe should be firmly on the travel agenda.
Over the years I’ve seen various African countries move in and out of vogue. I remember visiting Zimbabwe for the first time in my twenties and being mesmerised by her historic sites. Sitting on the steps at Great Zimbabwe I wrote in my diary that it was a great shame the ruins were so busy with tourists; and yet nowadays those very same sites lie relatively deserted.
Zimbabwean safaris are up there with the very best. The country supports a wide variety of wildlife and has some of the best-trained guides in Africa. Given the diversity of safaris – by jeep, wonderful hiking and various boat journeys – excellent guide training is paramount; and whatever your interest there will be an expert guide to suit – whether birding, fishing on Lake Kariba, tracking rhino on foot or learning about cheetah or wild dog conservation.
Zimbabwe’s parks are known for different species: Gonarezhou for large elephant herds; Matopos for rhino, black eagles and leopard; Hwange for wild dogs. Mana Pools offers fantastic boating and canoeing safaris with sightings of hippo and waterbuck, big cats, buffalo and elephant; while the new Linkwasha Camp opening in May 2015 in Hwange looks out over an active water hole. Hwange National Park itself is home to over 100 mammal and 400 bird species – including each of Zimbabwe’s specially protected animals – and is the only place in Zimbabwe where brown hyena and gemsbok survive in numbers.
Aside from safari holidays, Zimbabwe is a great option for indelible culture and history. Heritage sites include the greatest medieval city on the continent – Great Zimbabwe, capital of the Queen of Sheba – as well as Khami Ruins National Monument – capital of the Torwa dynasty between 1450 and 1650. At Matobo Hills, mesmerising rock paintings document the relationship between man and environment over 100,000 years. The hills are also home to the grave of Cecil Rhodes, founder of Rhodesia, and the area still acts a sacred place for Zimbabweans to this day.
‘The Smoke That Thunders’ provides yet another facet to this remarkable country. A stunning natural spectacle, the thundering Victoria Falls are considered among the largest in the world emitting a plume of spray which can be seen for hundreds of miles. The area is known for wildlife-rich plains and adrenalin-fuelled activities such as bungee jumping, zip-lining and dramatic helicopter flights. Victoria Falls also has a reputation for sophisticated dining, with many of its best restaurants strategically located for jaw-dropping views. Some of the cruise boats, such as Zambezi Explorer and Zambezi Reflections, offer wonderful sunset dinners by candle-light; and if you want to escape everyone else, the Picnic on the Edge experience whisks you away by helicopter to dine overlooking the Zambezi River rapids 100m beneath.
The reinstatement of the KAZA visa has made it possible for visitors to experience the Falls from both the Zimbabwean and Zambian side of the river as well as making it easier for visitors to extend their safari holiday into Zambia to explore the Luangwa Valley or Kafue National Park.
To me Zimbabwe’s appeal is timeless, and whilst it’s falling out of vogue was a plus for those exploring crowd-free game rich plains and historic sites, I am delighted to see its people starting to benefit from its gradual return to popularity.
Red Savannah’s Culture, Conservation and Community itinerary travels through three different parks, revealing varied wildlife habitats, ancient sites and visits to rural villages before ending with two days at Victoria Falls.
Albee Yeend is Red Savannah’s African safari expert and a Safari Awards judge. Her career in travel began accidentally after she fell in love with Africa on safari in Zambia. Since then she has travelled extensively in Africa, running luxury safari camps in Zambia and Botswana before returning to the UK.