With its extraordinary landscapes, quiet national parks and diverse wildlife, Zimbabwe is the perfect African destination. Here's why now is the time to explore the continent's most under-appreciated gem
Zimbabwe’s history is a patchwork of ethnicities, complex characters, colonialists, nationalists and messy politics. From a land of indigenous kingdoms to the creation of Rhodesia (the vanity project of Cecil John Rhodes), the establishment of Zimbabwe and everything in between, this country has a captivating tale to tell.
And now, post-Mugabe – even with the current wrangling of domestic politics – is the time to go. The people are warm, friendly, genuinely happy to see you enjoying their country, keen to share experiences they have not been able to openly discuss for decades, and to tell you at every turn “Zimbabwe is open for business!”
With 11 national parks and countless more special reserves, it should be no great surprise that Zimbabwe is also home to the continent’s most beguiling creatures. As well as the Big Five – inimitable elephants, leopards, rhinos (black and white), buffalos and lions – there’s a host of other beasts (some common, some incredibly rare) from wild dogs and hyenas to giraffes, zebras, wildebeests, crocodiles and formidable hippos, not to mention birds of all sizes, to look out for.
Politics and safety concerns may have put a halt to the mass development of Zimbabwe’s safari scene (for the good, some might say) but it’s getting going again, and with gusto. For now, you can forget the Jeep-jams found in South Africa or Botswana, as the parks remain relatively quiet, although this is changing slowly.
Go at the right time of year, ideally in the dry southern hemisphere winter months when the scrub isn’t so dense and the animals are easily spotted congregating around watering holes, and a safari in Zimbabwe can be unsurpassable.
Top tip: For an experience like no other, book a walking tour with Black Rhino Safaris in the Matobo National Park near Bulawayo. You’ll head into the bush on foot in search of the threatened white rhino. If you’re very lucky, you may even spot the elusive and, sadly, critically endangered, black rhino as well.
Whether you’re a keen history buff or not, you won’t be able to resist becoming enthralled in Zimbabwe’s past. From pre and post-colonial tales to the collection of medieval ruins, the more time you spend exploring this country, the more you’ll want to know about it.
The best place to start is at its namesake, the UNESCO site of Great Zimbabwe. Built between the 5th and 11th centuries, the expansive Iron Age ruins of this ancient city are believed to have housed as many as 18,000 people at one time. The giant dry stone walls of the Great Enclosure are the main attractions today, however a hike up to the Hill Complex is well worth it for the perched granite boulders and a sense of perspective.
The Khami Ruins, another UNESCO title holder, is similar to Great Zimbabwe in many ways. It, too, is the site of a former Iron Age capital that was seemingly constructed without any mortar, and housed a royal family and residents for around 200 years. Once again, the reason for its downfall is unknown but there is a suggestion the people were pushed from the land by a rival kingdom.
Matobo Hills is different again, owing to its role as a national park as well as a place of historic and geological significance. You’ll find everything here: fabulous balancing rocks and granite formations sit atop caves with millennia-old rock paintings; archaeological finds rub shoulders with local baboons, rhinos, giraffes, and hippos (among many others), not to mention the peak of World’s View and the resting place of Cecil John Rhodes.
Zimbabwe has some excellent collections for museum-dwellers to while away the hours. In Harare you’ll find the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, where the country's heritage is carefully charted, and the Zimbabwe Museum of Human Sciences, home to the oldest wooden artefact discovered in sub-Saharan Africa, no less.
Then there's the country's second city, Bulawayo, which is, in part, a living museum itself. Take a wander to see the remaining, albeit slightly crumbling, colonial architecture before heading to the Natural History Museum. For steam enthusiasts, the Bulawayo Railway Museum, with its selection of locomotives, carriages and potted history of the city’s role at the heart of Zimbabwe’s once burgeoning railway network, is a must.
The Victoria Falls Hotel is another piece of living history. Built in 1904 to lavishly accommodate big wigs behind the famed bridge of the same name, you don’t have to stay at the grand residence to get a feel for it. Pop in, have an eye-wateringly expensive G&T at the bar, and soak in that old colonial vibe.
Go for the warthogs scampering across the lawn, the splendid view of the Victoria Falls Bridge and to examine the impressive collection of paintings, prints and photographs depicting everything from the founding of the town to regal portraits.
You can’t come to Zimbabwe without setting eyes on the mighty Victoria Falls, the world’s largest sheet of falling water.
Here, the Zambezi River plunges 108 metres into a succession of zigzagging gorges creating the most dazzling spectacle of rushing water and rainbows. It’s unmissable, whether you’re there in the dry season when the flow is at its lowest or at the height of the wet season, when you soon realise why it became known as “The Smoke That Thunders”. There are lots of ways to experience Victoria Falls but you can’t beat a simple walk through the mist at the Victoria Falls National Park.
Zimbabwe proves that magnificent waterfalls come in all shapes and sizes however, and Mtarazi Falls is a great example. By far Zimbabwe’s highest waterfall, dropping a whopping 772 metres, this ribbon of water drapes over two-tiers in the Eastern Highlands. Add to this the nearby Nyangombe Falls, a wider collection of cascading falls that gather forming natural swimming pools, and you see how there’s a waterfall for everyone in Zimbabwe.
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