I have several regrets about places not visited while living in Africa, and not exploring more of Zimbabwe beyondVictoria Falls is one of those regrets. It’s a fascinating country with a rich history (read my review of When a Crocodile Eats the Sun to learn more.)
I’m grateful to Simon Massey for generously supplying the below guest post and pictures about the sites not to miss when traveling to Zimbabwe. Enjoy!
No trip to Southern Africa is complete without a visit to Victoria Falls. In the Shona language their name is Musi Oa Tunya, meaning “The Smoke That Thunders.”
The Falls and Hwange
While these spectacular falls on the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia on the great Zambezi river are a huge draw for the visitor, Zimbabwe is not about Victoria Falls alone. This small, land-locked country in Southern Africa offers an awful lot more spectacular and fascinating scenery as well as tourist adventure than just the incredible Falls, including almost limitless wildlife viewing opportunities offered at incredibly good value.
Around the Falls themselves lie numerous elephant, rhino, lion and leopard filled National Parks, the largest of which, Hwange, is a comfortable 1.5 hours drive south from the Falls. Hwange covers a huge area straddling both sides of the main Bulawayo-to-Victoria Falls Road where large herds of elephant are often seen crossing, as are large troops of baboon. Make sure you always drive with utmost care, do not speed, and be wary of potholes and other unexpected hazards at all times. Never drive at night in rural Africa.
Carry on down the road past Hwange and another 3.5 hours brings the traveller to Zimbabwe’s second city, Bulawayo. Bulwayo is about 5 hours from Victoria Falls and about 5 hours from Harare. Visiting Bulawayo is like stepping into history. No new buildings have been erected in the city since the 1980’s. As someone who spent time in Bulawayo often as a kid, I can tell you that this makes the city an amazing place to visit.
Although more crowded than it once was and considerably more Africanised, Bulawayo appears on the surface to have suffered much less than Harare through the years of financial collapse and western economic sanctions. These sanctions are still levied on the country today by the US and the UK. Bulawayo still retains its neat centre and its varied and well-stocked shops. Smartly dressed school kids both white and black can be seen strolling the shaded, covered sidewalks in the afternoons, while the blazing African sun bakes the parked cars.
Small restaurants, burger joints, pie shops, chip shops and lots of other food options exist in the city centre. The centre is crowded with colonial architecture. Nice hotels abound, but at a push the Municipal campsite offers cheap camping space and even solar hot water equipped Chalets with kitchenette and double beds. It’s worth spending time in Bulawayo simply to absorb the cross-cultural, white-mixing-with-black cosmopolitan vibe that unfortunately Harare’s city centre had lost by the 1990’s.
Matopos and the Ruins at Great Zimbabwe
From Bulawayo, the Matopos National Park is a mere one hour’s drive. The scenery around this incredible National Park is awesome. It’s characterised by kopjes, small hilly outcrops of granite boulders often producing the most amazing natural megalyths that tower over the terrain. The park is small and easily navigable in a few hours, and it contains many species including rhino (but it is too small to maintain any elephant). Camping and chalets are available in the park. Bring in your own food from Bulawayo’s well stocked supermarkets and butchers.
It’s a little less than 5 hours between Matopos and the Great Zimbabwe ruins near Masvingo in the South of Zimbabwe. Great Zimbabwe is a mysterious ancient city dating from a time when Africans controlled the entire region, building their capital on a gold based economy. It is believed that the city emerged inexplicably out of nowhere around 1,000 years ago, excavations of which showed trade with China and the East. Then it fell into disuse again just as suddenly, until it was discovered, entirely overgrown, by a Portuguese explorer in the 1600’s.
The site is rarely visited by tourists in larger numbers and therefore offers a beautifully peaceful experience when it’s deserted, as it usually is. Chalets and a campground immediately border the site and afford opportunities to explore it fully. There are also some nice hotels nearby. It is an incredibly beautiful and atmospheric place, even more so when the mysteries of its history are explored.
For example: If thousands upon thousands of people once lived and obviously died throughout Great Zimbabwe’s five hundred years as a thriving city, where were they all buried? No large burial grounds associated with the city have ever been uncovered. Where did those who built and lived in Great Zimbabwe go when they died or when they left? There is no evidence that ancient Africans burned their dead, and even if they had, evidence of funeral pyres would have been as easy to uncover as evidence of large burial sites. Nada. This is just one of the mysteries of Great Zimbabwe, and there are many more.
Gonarezhou National Park, the Eastern Highlands, and Chimanimani
From Great Zimbabwe, you might continue to Gonarezhou National Park. This is a long 8-hour drive. Unfortunately, Gonarezhou is one of the few places about which I cannot offer first-hand experience. This is a place of game viewing amongst the rugged cliffs and semi-arid desert that I am eager to see for the first time next time I am in Zimbabwe.
The Eastern Highlands are a 4-hour easy morning drive from Masvingo and Great Zimbabwe. Chimanimani should probably be your first stop. The local hotel will give advice on when the weather will make it possible to get into the mountains themselves, a tough four to five hour uphill hike that begins about 20 km from the hotel itself. But it’s worth it. Chimanimani offers an entirely otherworldly vision as well as views over Mozambique, the Indian Ocean, and all the way to a curved brown line on the horizon called Madagascar, nearly 2,000 km away. That curve will offer proof to the most skeptical that the planet is not flat. Chimanimani is one of the few places on earth where this fact of life is visible from the surface of our planet. Flat Earth? Pffft.
Mutare, Bvumba Mountains, and Nyanga
North of Chamanimani, once you’re back on the road, is Mutare, a smallish city beautifully situated in a valley surrounded by rolling hills and mountains a scenic 2.5 hours north of Chimanimani. Mutare is another great base to absorb some of Africa’s real life, her music, her food, etc. as well as being an easy hop into Mozambique and a drive to Sofala and the Indian Ocean coast. Near to Mutare the Bvumba Mountains offer the visitor an experience of the ancient jungle that once covered this entire area.
Two hours north of Mutare the mountainous area of Nyanga is another huge draw for the visitor. The driving is gorgeous around here. Waterfalls, rivers, green rolling hillsides, pine plantations and vast areas of scenic beauty abound. Trout fishing is a big attraction here, and you will find many fine hotels an eateries.
Lake Kariba and Harare
A morning’s drive back to Harare and then an afternoon in the car will bring you to Kariba, a huge man-made lake bordering Zambia. It’s hot here. Very hot. If you like it hot an you like to fish, you’ll love Kariba. The area of Matusadona on the Zambezi River down from the Lake is a great place to camp with the animals. You’ll have to sign a waiver as they do tend to wander through the open campsites pretty regularly, and once in awhile someone gets eaten by a lion or trampled by an elephant! The risk is all part of the adventure.
Greater Harare itself has not changed much over the decades, but the city centre has been badly affected by the catastrophic effects of international sanctions. It does not offer the hugely varied and cut-price tourist shopping extravaganza it once did. It still has several nice hotels. The whites who live around Harare’s suburbs rarely visit “town” the way they do in Bulawayo, and it’s clear that their decades-long lack of patronage has helped close down almost all the old shops and replaced them with those catering to a poverty stricken local African population base. As such, although still a lovely looking, compact and convenient city, Harare itself now offers little for the foreign visitor. I grew up in Harare and still love her beautiful Jacaranda lined avenues and her wide boulevards, but I’m biased. Harare is home.
Zimbabwe is a world in one country, a beautiful open expanse of deserts and jungle, mountains and rivers, lakes and everything in between. Almost all of it is very easily and conveniently reached, with perhaps Gonarezhou being the obvious exception.
If you can only see one thing in Zimbabwe, see the Falls. But if you have time to travel this lovely little country properly, don’t let the world’s media suggesting it’s too poor and scary to visit put you off. Zimbabwe is a beautiful country filled with kind and generous people who greatly benefit from every tourist dollar spent.
I hope you get to visit soon for a chance to love Zimbabwe as much as I do!