Zimbabwe Rediscovered

Liz Gill explores the natural wonders, rich cultural heritage and abundant wildlife of this beautiful country

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When Zimbabwe gained its hard won independence in 1980 there was apparently only one undisputed choice for its name. The word, a combination of Zi (big) , mba (house) and bwe (stone) , did not just refer to the 250 or so ‘big stone houses’ scattered around the country. It referred in particular to Great Zimbabwe, the extraordinary city created by the Bantu civilisation between the 11th and 15th centuries, and a source of great national pride.

The ruins, near Masvingo in the South East, were once home to kings, their numerous wives and up to 20,000 of their subjects. Zimbabweans says their scale -the site covers 200 acres – and the architectural achievements – the valley enclosure has 11 metre high walls of 15,000 tons of stone all built without mortar – should rank it only a little lower than other stone structures like the Pyramids and Angkor Wat. The difference is that although this too is a UNESCO World Heritage Site it is relatively unknown outside the country, a situation they hope to change.

Meanwhile visitors like us have the place to ourselves, able to squeeze between the giant rocks to get in (the narrow passages only allowed through one person at a time and boulders could soon be rolled down on unwelcome guests), to test the megaphone qualities of the king’s cave and to stride across the highest rock which would have been his throne and judgement seat.

In the valley enclosure we learn that all constructions were curved because corners were more vulnerable to wind and could house evil spirits and in the little museum we see the carved stone birds which were the symbol of the king and are now the symbol of the country and a feature of its flag.

There are wonderful real birds here, of course: nearly 700 species as well as 200 species of mammals and over 6,000 species of flora. We see dozens on our game drives including eagles, vultures, cranes, storks, weavers and guinea fowl as well as the delightful secretary bird, so named because it appears to be walking on high heels and have a feather pen tucked behind its ear.

We also see elephant, giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, buffalo, hippo, crocodile, several types of deer and a cheetah. Some were gone in a flash, others were quite a distance away but one has to remind oneself that this is no close-up nature on tv but the real thing with all the attendant smells and sounds.

We learn fascinating new things such as how to tell a lion’s paw print from that of a hyena, for example, that infusions of elephant dung can speed up labour, that wild basil is a mosquito repellent and that the leaves of the devil’s thorn plant can lather up into a gentle shampoo. We also learn that there are the ‘Small Five’, so called because they mimic in miniature some characteristic of the ‘Big Five’: the lion ant, the leopard tortoise, the buffalo weaver bird, the elephant shrew and the rhino beetle.

We have seen the latter’s big brother a few days before on a special rhino trek in the Matopo National Park where science and technology are combining with traditional knowledge not only to protect the creatures but to enable visitors to get close to them on foot. There, however, ‘rules of engagement’ as our guide Norman tells us before we start.

The important thing is not to make any sudden or fast movements. These big beasts might weigh a couple of tons but they can go from nought to 35 miles per hour in seconds. “Be slow and be respectful,” he says. “Basically we are knocking on their door. If you show good manners that’s when you get results.” And can we please turn our phones to airplane mode. Poachers greedy for rhino horn – at $100,000 a kilo worth twice as much as gold – are always on the alert for GPS giveaways.

We manage in the early morning light to find and walk to within 20 metres of a ‘bachelor’ herd of three young males and a younger female who eye us cautiously but not with any apparent hostility. It feels a magical and privileged moment.

Then, perhaps inevitably, someone stumbles or steps on a twig and the herd takes off, but fortunately not in our direction. We have the obligatory armed ranger alongside us but no-one wants to put his skills to the test.

Back at the vehicle Norman tells us more about the preservation projects including a de-horning programme, a shoot-to-kill policy to tackle poaching and the involvement of the local community. Guest donations, for example, are given to the village every month but not if any animals have ‘disappeared’ in the meantime.

Our other guide, also called Norman, gives us some historical background. These hills are where Baden-Powell learnt his scouting skills and where Cecil Rhodes wished to be buried. We drive to his grave past hundreds of spectacular rock formations typical of the area known as dwalas or whalebacks, great granite boulders which one could imagine as slumbering stone beasts.

Rhodes’s grave is on top of a hill called View of the World and it’s a simple enough slab for a self-made multi-millionaire, mining magnate, politician and founder of a country. And it is interesting that although Rhodes is now frequently denounced as an imperialist exploiter, many Zimbabweans seem coolly neutral about him. Certainly there are coach parties of school children visiting the site every day. “He’s just part of our history and we need to learn about him,” says our escort Felicia.

She, and her colleagues in our group, seem similarly unfazed by the unabashedly colonial themes in the Victoria Falls Hotel where we stay overnight with its posters of Empire, walls lined with photos of royal visits and the mural in the foyer commemorating the old BOAC sea plane journey from London.

The fact is that most Zimbabweans are now more interested in the future than in the past. With the once high hopes of independence turning over the decades to economic disaster, political oppression and human rights abuses, the dream today, following the removal of Mugabe, is for a new start under a new president. “Zimbabwe is open for business” is a slogan repeated throughout our trip.

The country wants not just financial investment and the return of its diaspora – a third of the population, an estimated seven million people, black and white, have left over the years – but also to see substantial growth in tourism.

Our trip culminated in Victoria Falls for which no tv or any other medium can properly prepare you. Known to the locals as Mosi oa Tunya , ‘the smoke that thunders’, the sound and the spray can be seen and heard even as you drive into the village. Close up the sight is staggering. At the end of the wet season in March and April an unimaginable 500 million litres of the Zambezi river cascade over the rocks every minute along six differently named sections.

One is called Livingstone after the Scottish missionary and explorer who became the first European to see them in 1855 and who said “Scenes so wonderful must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.”

At some points along the two kilometre trail opposite the Falls the spray which can rise to over 1600 ft is so voluminous you can barely see through it. Even the full length hooded raincoats you’re provided with cannot stop you getting soaking wet. An unexpected enchantment were all the rainbows which suddenly appear and as suddenly vanish.

Victoria Falls have become an activities hotspot. You can bungee jump off the bridge which spans the river and links Zimbabwe to Zambia or zipwire across it or swing out over it or edge along the walkway which runs underneath. Or you can just be there – for me the place was more than enough of an adrenalin rush though I did splurge on a 13 minute helicopter flight for another dazzling perspective.

We covered nearly 700 miles in a week over roads that were generally straight and reasonably smooth, stopping en route to buy roasted corn on the cob and honey at road side stalls or beer and other provisions at well-stocked supermarkets during the day and staying in accommodation ranging from smart hotels to charming safari lodges with thatched roofs and baboons scampering across the lawns.

We ate hearty buffet breakfasts and dined on typically international dishes but also on warthog steaks, eland meatballs, crocodile tails, impala stew, maize meal porridge called sadza and vegetables like blackjack which is similar to spinach. I even ate my first – and last – mopane caterpillar.

In most places ours were the only white faces but we were greeted throughout by welcoming smiles and the friendliness for which Zimbabweans are renown. Even the names suggest warmth: we met a Blessing, a Wisdom, a Givemore and a Lovemore. It is early days, of course, for the new regime – as one shopkeeper told me “we’ve smelled change but we haven’t actually seen it yet” – and most residents recognise recovery will take time. But the country undoubtedly has plenty to offer, the signs are auspicious and the sense of optimism is almost tangible. Zimbabwe really does seem to be “open for business”

Fact Box

Wild Frontiers offers 12- day trips to Zimbabwe which include Victoria Falls, Harare, Bulawayo, Hwange and Matobo National Parks and Great Zimbabwe. Prices from £3,800 per person including accommodation with breakfast, guided excursions, game activities and private transfers, excluding international flights. More details www.wildfrontierstravel.com 020 8741 7390. RwandAir return fares to Harare via Kigali start from £576 with cheaper deals in low season. www.rwandair.com 020 3770 8787