Ian Harmer and rhino, Matobo, Zimbabwe (Photo: Mark Stratton)
Article Words : Mark Stratton | 25 May

Falling for Zimbabwe

Despite a decade of notorious misrule, Zimbabwe remains one of Africa's great wildlife and adventure destinations

Zimbabwe’s endangered species come in various shapes and sizes.

Squatting beside me was Ian Harmer, who’d clung on to survival as a wildlife guide despite the collapse of tourism in his native country. But just a few metres away was a very much larger and more intimidating endangered beastie – a wild white rhino. This three-tonne juggernaut had moseyed out from the waist-high veldt and stood breathtakingly close.  “Let’s back off a little… slowly… slowly, behind this thorn-bush,” Ian whispered calmly, “we need a clear exit just in case he gets upset.”

The male rhinoceros appeared while we observed a female and her calf in Whovi Game Park, and the thorn-bush seemed meagre protection against any potential rhino temper tantrums. Ian, however, had read the male’s amorous intentions. “Don’t worry,” he reassured, “he’s only interested in the female.”

The lost decade

Such edgy wildlife experiences have long been a trademark of Zimbabwe. This rhino encounter brought memories flooding back from my last visit in the 1990s. Then the country overflowed with tourists enjoying dramatic landscapes and spectacularly adventurous national parks. In my diary during that visit I described being transfixed by a cheetah hunt that courted disaster when it ran into a phalanx of lions; witnessing rainbows materialising across Victoria Falls’ roaring cascades; seeing black eagles soar high above Matobo’s prehistoric hills.

At that time Zimbabwe warranted such purple prose. But then the country imploded. The writing was on the wall even before Zimbabwe reached its peak of popularity in 1999. With his plans for greater autocracy being thwarted, Robert Mugabe unleashed a ‘populist’ policy of land invasions, triggering a decade of political murder and violence, mass unemployment and starvation as agricultural output collapsed.

By 2008 Zimbabwe had hit rock bottom, with cholera outbreaks, empty shops and businesses wrecked by hyperinflation. Tourism was a distant memory.  Fast forward to 2009. I’d been hearing of improvements throughout the year. The US dollar’s replacement of Zimbabwe’s own worthless currency was stabilising the economy. Shop shelves were filling again and people’s money no longer disappeared on a daily basis into a hyperinflationary black hole. Meanwhile, a power-sharing agreement between Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party and Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change was offering a measure of political stability – though abuses of power still continued with Mugabe at the helm.

With Foreign Office advice softening, I travelled back to find out what remained of this once wonderful destination. Would it be safe? Would much wildlife remain after reported widespread poaching? And what about the infrastructure, once the envy of Africa?

Victoria Falls revisited

Flying into Harare, I transferred to Zimbabwe’s far north-west corner, to Victoria Falls. Tourism never completely dried up in this modest little town surrounding the famous waterfalls, partly because it exists geographically far enough away from Harare’s political hotbed and close enough to the Zambian border to feel reassuringly safe. Even so, I was still surprised to  see so many tour parties, particularly elderly American and French groups, enjoying the waterfalls and filling the hotels.

The town centre was rundown, with many travel agencies defunct and curio-sellers peddling the latest must-have souvenir – 100,000,000,000,000 Zimbabwean dollar banknotes: legal currency until a few months before. “Not worth a sweet,” said the man who sold me one. Africa’s most celebrated colonial hotel answered some of my concerns over what condition accommodation might be in. Refurbished since my last visit, the century-old Victoria Falls Hotel has sailed serenely through stormy waters; its anachronistic décor heavy with nostalgia: chequerboard mezzanine floors, teak sideboards, mounted blunderbuss rifles, clawfoot bathtubs. During high tea, punctiliously served from 3pm with cucumber sandwiches’ (crusts removed), I sipped Earl Grey amused by a melodramatic rendition of ‘Killing Me Softly’ by the house pianist.

From the hotel a footpath led to the mighty waterfalls through the ilala palm-peppered rainforest of Victoria Falls National Park. Even as a second-time visitor the waterfalls induce both  a sensory and superlative overload. The cacophonous roar, mesmerising creamy cascades, clouds of misty spray sparkling like diamonds… my purple prose reignited in gushing torrents.  With Vic Falls functioning nicely within its own little bubble, I was eager to move on and gauge the situation elsewhere.

So with a hire car – not possible during 2008, when petrol stations dried-up – I set off by myself down the western flank of Zimbabwe. I was 50km south of Vic Falls when an officer in khaki waved me to slow down at my first police checkpoint. Having read of harassment at roadblocks, and given the frequent anti-British rhetoric uttered by Mugabe, I was mildly apprehensive.

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“I’m British and on holiday.”

“Oh, welcome! Welcome! We don’t  get many British here these days,” he beamed.

We chatted amiably before he wished me on my way like an old friend. The encounter was indicative of the reception I’d receive during my three-week stay. Never a jot of hostility; just openhearted warmness and delight that I’d chosen to visit Zimbabwe.

Wildlife galore at Hwangwe

By the time I reached Hwange National Park several hours later, teak forests, acacia and butterfly-leaved mopane savannah masked otherwise arid Kalahari sands. Yet Hwange’s vlei (pans), fed by pumped borehole water, support one of Africa’s greatest concentrations of game.  It was quickly obvious that I’d have 14,600 sq km of national park almost  to myself. Thinking back, I remembered busy evenings at Hwange’s Main Camp: the smell of braais (barbecues) and conversation about the day’s wildlife encounters. Now the camp was eerily empty bar a handful of self-drive South Africans and holidaying Zimbabweans.

Driving deeper into the national park, any concerns that Hwange’s wildlife had been decimated were assuaged. As all Zimbabwe’s national parks are accessible by self-drive, I was soon watching a herd of 20 elephants (a fraction of the 40,000 estimated to roam Hwange) from my hire car. Alone, I subconsciously wound my window up – but would this really make much difference if they turned shirty? By the time I reached Kennedy Pan I’d seen more giraffes than ever in one location, halted for a zebra crossing, and marvelled at sable, kudu, impala and warthogs, all concentrating around waterholes as the dry season took hold.

I learned poaching has been heavy across Zimbabwe, but largely on private estates and farms. Mugabe’s invasions of white farms not only failed to deliver equitable land reform (instead leaving millions of black Zimbabweans landless and jobless) but left swathes of Zimbabwe’s wildlife-rich countryside unmanaged and vulnerable to poachers. But somehow, Zimbabwe’s much-lauded national parks system has struggled by.

“Until recently Australian Foreign Office advice had Zimbabwe on an equal threat level with Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s bloody ridiculous,” voiced Aussie tourist Eammon. Indeed, Baghdad’s woes seemed a long way away that evening as we sipped sundowners at The Hide lodge’s restaurant, overlooking muddy elephants wallowing in a floodlit waterhole. Hwange’s bushcamps have dwindled, but The Hide is one of the longest-standing and loveliest remaining. Its ten permanent tents with their safariana décor (I slept under a mounted pith-helmet) nestle beneath camelthorn trees and face a waterhole chock-a-block with game. One night lying in bed, my hairs stood on end listening to a bloodcurdling ding-dong between a lion and elephants that sounded as if  it was being enacted in my en-suite.

There had also been a new addition at Hwange since my last visit. At the impressive new Painted Dog Conservation centre I achieved an ambition to see these African wild dogs outside a zoo. The centre has an impressive new educational and interpretation hall as well as a rehabilitation enclosure for orphaned or injured painted dogs. Four adorably boisterous pups, motherless after a lion attack, were sharpening up their hunting skills by mauling a suspended carcass. They are now an IUCN Red List Endangered species and particularly prone to poacher’s snares. Packs roam huge ranges, but if they stray outside Hwange onto private land they may run into the traps. The centre’s anti-poaching unit clears thousands of wire snares each year. “We need visitors to come back,” the centre’s Esther van der Meer explained. “It lessens the need for poaching if people get jobs in tourism.”

Bulawayo & rhinos

Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second city, lay 230km further south in Matebeleland. Its low-rise early-to-mid-20th-century architecture is arranged along grid-patterned streets historically broad enough to turn a wagon team of 16 horses; the city remains quaintly old-fashioned. Bulawayo has experienced harsh recent times with desperately high unemployment, but blooming jacarandas and bougainvilleas daub the city with irrepressible colour.

A slice of irony (given Mugabe’s other pet hate – neo-colonialism) was served with my Zimbabwean beef sandwich during lunch in the Bulawayo Club. The club is packed with memorabilia from the era of Zimbabwe’s controversial founder Cecil Rhodes and has remained a beacon of the old order for 75 years.

“In the early days,” explained new owner Sharon Stead, “the club had a reputation for being anti-Jewish, anti-black and anti-women.” Mercifully these days, nobody is barred. Well, nearly. “The stuffy old members still don’t permit women to use the bar on weekdays,” she rankled.

Bulawayo is the gateway to one of the most evocatively ancient landscapes in Africa, the Matobo Hills. In the Ndebele language, ‘Matobo’ roughly translates as ‘bald head’, referencing the nude outcrops of scorched and fractured granite kopje boulders, baked bronze and weathered over two billions years. Sometimes the kopje balance precariously like giant marbles on smooth whaleback plateaus, as if waiting for a shove to send them spinning downhill.

Joining me in Matobo was local guide Ian Harmer. Zimbabwean wildlife guides have long been recognised as some of Africa’s best and, remarkably given the country has so few visitors, Ian was a nominee in Wanderlust’s 2009 Paul Morrison Guide Awards. “In 1999 I had 200 clients per week, but two years later not one during the first four months,” said bushman Ian, a turbocharged Ray Mears who spoke Ndebele with exaggerated clicks.  Cecil Rhodes loved the Matobo Hills and was buried here in 1902 at a scenic hilltop grave known as Malindidzimu – ‘place of celestial spirits’. “I think Rhodes was ahead of his time, but the whole relationship between white settlers and locals was blighted by misunderstanding,” Ian reflected.

The hills also host thousands of fabulous prehistoric rock-art sites. My favourite was Bambata Cave, where I was transfixed by the clarity and colours used to depict buffalo, giraffe, leopard and Lowry-esque spear-carrying warriors 10,000-20,000 years old. At White Rhino Cave, prehistoric doodles feature rhinos. Ian explained that this cave art encouraged the decision to relocate rhinos back to the Matobo Hills in the 1960s, away from the Zambezi Valley where they were vulnerable to poachers from Zambia.

A thrilling encounter at Whovi

Ian’s passion for rhinos is so fervent he relates to them personally. Organised poaching had accounted for 150 rhinos in the 18 months before my visit, and he became emotional relating the death of one 25-year-old: “I’d grown up knowing Umzingwane like a friend. I cried when I heard he’d been shot, deep within this reserve.” Walking with Ian to meet these creatures is a close-encounter adrenalin buzz I would personally put on a par with visiting East Africa’s mountain gorillas.

Whovi Game Reserve now hosts 114 black and white rhinos, although they still take some tracking. Ian does this partly by examining the dung in rhino midden piles, which act like rhino message boards: ‘Come and Get Me, Baby’ or ‘Keep Off My Patch’.  After following the spoor of a female white rhino and her calf we located them, then edged closer until we were just metres away. Ian knows their behaviour; slow, careful movements were needed. His rapport with 45-year-old Swaziland IV, who joined the female suddenly, has developed over years. We were unbelievably close to what Ian whimsically called “the world’s largest lawnmower”, but Swazi ignored us and sniffed after the female – who in turn ignored him. Hadn’t he read her dung?  It clearly read: ‘Not Tonight, Darling’.

We passed a magical hour with the three rhinos and, as the daylight faded, their leathery hides began resembling the surrounding weather-beaten hills.  During two further weeks in Zimbabwe, I would canoe along the Zambezi at Mana Pools amid the densest concentrations of hippos in Africa. I would experience a lion charge while on foot at Matusadona. Within Gonarezhou National Park, I’d discover scenery with Grand Canyon pretensions. My whole journey would be trouble-free and inspiring.

I’d left the UK with concerns as to whether it was the right time to visit Zimbabwe, with so many people there suffering hardships. Would my visit financially benefit Mugabe’s still-tyrannical regime? A tour operator I consulted before travelling, who had stuck with Zimbabwe through thick and thin, Fiona Thompson of Ngoko Safaris, explained her position: “Its nonsense to say travelling to Zimbabwe supports Mugabe. People have struggled and starved, but if tourists go it keeps somebody in a job and feeds their family. His government may benefit from visa and air-tax money but it’s a small price to pay for supporting local communities and Zimbabwe’s wildlife.”

When I was there, I knew she was absolutely right. Ordinary Zimbabweans are desperate for the jobs our presence will bring. And they’re ready, with open arms, to welcome us back.

Safari guide Ian Harmer (+263 9 72736, wanderer@yoafrica.com; www.african-wanderer.com) was shortlisted for Wanderlust’s World Guide Awards, and works freelance in Bulawayo and Matobo

Ngoko Safaris is a UK tour operator specialising in Zimbabwe