Within hours of landing in Zimbabwe I found myself standing round the back of the Bulawayo Museum next to Cecil John Rhodes. Well, actually the John Tweed statue of Rhodes that for nearly 80 years stood on a plinth in the centre of Bulawayo proudly surveying the pretty, civilised city he was instrumental in founding.
These days colonialism is a dirty word. Indeed, the minute Robert Mugabe was sworn in in 1980 and Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, that statue was torn off the plinth and dumped out of sight – and so to show any attachment to Rhodes, his vision or indeed his statue is dramatically politically incorrect. But that is just what I was doing.
Pioneers such as Rhodes, Selous and Coghlan carved these cities out of raw bushveld. Within four years of its founding in 1894 Bulawayo had a railway, a civil administration, postal and telegraph services, reticulated water and electricity supplies, shops, churches and even a public library, the last being the recipient of many books from Rudyard Kipling as well as advice from the great man on how to protect them against white ants and dust.
Now, the colonial yoke has been lifted, the indigenous people have been freed from white rule... and Bulawayo looks a little shabbier than it did when I grew up there in the colonial heyday. I looked across from the Rhodes statue and there was another one, covered in a black shroud: the statue of Joshua Nkomo, porcine father of the Matabele people and Robert Mugabe’s opposite number in the early years of Zimbabwe.
This statue was intended to replace the one of Rhodes on the plinth on Eighth Avenue. However, the government commissioned Koreans to do the work, and when the statue was unveiled assembled dignitaries and family members were mortified to see that the representation, far from being large and portly and African as it should have been, was Korean-slim, not very tall and had narrow Asian eyes. So it was whipped off the plinth and dumped round the back of the museum with the other unsavoury statues.
I left the grounds of the museum, with the ghosts of its complicated past, mildly amused but also bewildered that so much time and executive energy had been spent on these trivial, symbolic matters when the country and this city really require some inspired economic and political leadership.
This was the first time I’d been back to Zimbabwe since the bloody and brutal election campaign of 2008. In the interim an uneasy political coalition of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF and Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has ruled the country, and some semblance of economic stability has prevailed, not least because the hyper-inflated Zimbabwe dollar has been abandoned in favour of the US currency, and tourists are trickling back.
However, it is rare to hear a British accent these days. There are plenty of Americans, some Europeans, an increasing number of Chinese tour groups, but we, as a nation, have stayed away. One reason is that British tour operators specialising in Africa have for some time left Zimbabwe out of their brochures; another is that we have clearly decided it is not right to visit while Mugabe is still in power.
Those who do choose to go will find the basic infrastructure, for which Zimbabwe was rightly famous, still there, although slightly more dilapidated. The roads are fine if somewhat potholed, the telephones all work, Wi-Fi and all the other modern aspects of connectivity operate quite efficiently. This is a safe and secure country to travel in, and the only major drawback is that the collapse of Air Zimbabwe makes getting around a little more difficult. But, as Zimbabeans always do, visitors make a plan.
My trip took me through some of Zimbabwe’s most beautiful assets, places that, were it not for the politics of the country, would be teeming with tourists. Through the Matopos, the mystical granite outcrop where Rhodes is buried; to Hwange National Park, the national wildlife reserve that is the size of Switzerland and home to 100 mammal and 400 bird species; to the Victoria Falls, which is one of the world’s natural wonders and continues to astonish after countless visits over the years; to Lake Kariba, the largest artificial lake on earth and one of my colonial peer group’s most extraordinary achievements; and, finally, on a long drive through the farming districts of Mangula and Banket, which were once at the heart of Zimbabwe’s farming industry but now stand ragged and unproductive.
As I travelled through a country that was my boyhood home – and over the years in print I have expressed my distaste for both the pre-independence Smith regime and equally vociferously for the excesses of the current government – I asked myself whether this trip was in any way validating Mugabe and his regime. I was in the country for more than two weeks and, with every day I travelled and with every Zimbabwean black and white I met, I realised that this interface between foreign visitors and the local tourism people had no connection at all with the political wrangling that was taking place at conference tables in Harare, Pretoria or wherever. This was about ordinary people who have been dealt a terrible hand by a violent autocratic government and who are trying to make a living just as you and I are in Britain.
To gauge the chasm that exists between Mugabe’s ruling elite and the people on the ground, you have only to note the howls of outrage from Zimbabweans that followed reports that the United Nations World Tourism Organisation had appointed Mugabe an international tourism ambassador. The reports turned out to be exaggerated – the WTO is holding its conference in Victoria Falls next year, and a low-level document concerning it was signed off by Mugabe – but they gave Zimbabweans the opportunity to rail against a man who is banned from travelling by both the EU and the US because of widespread and sustained human-rights abuses he has visited on his own people.
As I made my way through the country in what I hoped was the last days of this terrible regime’s rule, I had no trouble arguing that my trip was in no way propping up Mugabe and his cohorts; if anything, it was a show of support for their victims. For example, two of the lodges I stayed at are operated by white farmers whose families turned to tourism after their farms were taken from them by howling mobs of so-called “war veterans”. One of these farmers is Cedric Wilde, whose 25,000-acre game farm just outside Bulawayo was a model ranch, richly stocked with rare and beautiful beasts such as sable antelope, gemsbok (imported from Namibia) and leopard. Since the farm’s “liberation”, many of these have fled and been poached and the place is now in ruins.
On the shores of Lake Kariba, Tommy Miller, a farmer who is still clinging on to parts of his dairy-and-tobacco farm, has created with his wife, Jackie, a charming eight-bed lodge called Hornbill on the promontory overlooking the lake. They have this as their “alternative plan” in case the war veterans who are occupying large parts of his farm eventually throw them off.
“The mobs are still living on my land,” Tommy said. “If they need something, they call me Mr Miller; if they don’t, I’m just ‘You, Miller’. Hornbill Lodge is a pleasant escape from all of that.”
And then there is Beks Ndlovu...
I had been in Zimbabwe for almost a week when I met him. I arrived at his camp, Somalisa, in Hwange National Park in mid-morning, and he led me to the swimming pool for a quiet chat. We sat beside it, about 10 feet from a herd of elephants, all drinking from the pool as if it were the local waterhole. Which indeed it was.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the African bushveld, and I have to say that sitting among wild elephant as we did that morning is up there with the best wildlife experiences. As Beks said at the outset, provided we made no sudden moves, kept a low profile and made no loud impulsive exclamations the elephants would regard us as a non-threatening, integral part of the natural habitat. We watched in awe as they went about their business as if we weren’t there.
Beks is one of southern Africa’s top guides and the owner of one of the best wildlife camps in the country. As the dominant bull nudged aside a pair of high-spirited teenagers at the water, Beks made the case for tourists to visit Zimbabwe. “Leaders of countries come and go,” he said, “but the wilderness areas are here to stay, provided we look after them. We’ve had endless opportunities to leave this country and set up elsewhere, but we know we have a part to play as the good custodians and look after what we’ve inherited. And the only way we can do that is through tourism.”
He said he understood why British travellers had stayed away. But he went on: “We say to everyone out there that Zimbabwe in these desperate times is the people on the ground, and they need the support because it is the people on the ground who are keeping the country going. Sanctions or travel stay-aways are going to hurt the average person much more than they would hurt any political leader. Also, our presence here and the presence of tourists provides significant security for the wildlife. It deters poaching.”
The price Zimbabwe has paid for the past 12 years of political chaos is heavy. Garth Thompson, the wildlife guide who is one of the country’s most famous men of the bushveld, calls them “the lost years”. Although he still guides his rich and famous clients through Zimbabwe, more and more he has been using other African countries such as Botswana, Zambia and Rwanda as his African theatres. He, like Beks Ndlovu, thinks it is time international tourism came back.
British tour operators such as Cox & Kings, Africa Travel and Cazenove & Loyd are now featuring the country in their brochures again and Emirates has recently started direct flights into Harare. Jean-Luc Grillet, who is in charge of Emirates’ commercial operations in Africa, told me: “Nobody wanted to fly to Africa. The problem is that the image of many African countries is dictated by the image of the dictators. In fact, when we arrived in Zimbabwe we were surprised to find the infrastructure was in good condition compared with the rest of Africa.”
That international airlines such as Emirates are prepared to invest in Zimbabwe, and that Mugabe’s reign must surely be drawing to a close – he is 88 and reported to be suffering from prostate cancer – may be the first green shoots of this lovely country’s recovery. It has wonderful natural assets, the nicest, friendliest people of the continent and for the time being at least it is not overcrowded with tourists. This may be the right time to take another look at Zimbabwe
Africa Travel (020 7843 3500; www.africatravel.co.uk) arranges tailor-made holidays to Zimbabwe. A sample nine-night holiday, staying for three nights with breakfast at the Victoria Falls Hotel, three nights with all meals and activities at Somalisa Camp, and three nights with all meals and activities at Bumi Hills Safari Lodge in Kariba costs from £3,695 per person, including return British Airways flight from London via Johannesburg and local transfers.
Emirates ( ; www.emirates.com) flies to Harare and Lusaka, via Dubai, five times a week and will start daily services from October. British Airways ( ; www.ba.com) operates daily flights to Johannesburg and there are daily connections to Harare, Bulawayo and Victoria Falls.
Since Air Zimbabwe suspended operations early in the year, getting around has become rather difficult. Charter light aircraft flights are expensive but comfortable, air-conditioned buses operate between the major cities such as Bulawayo and Harare, and there are private vehicle transfers between Hwange and Victoria Falls. A private-sector consortium has plans for a regular light aircraft service between Harare and Kariba.
In the Matopos, Camp Amalinda ( ;campamalinda.com), 20 minutes’ drive from Bulawayo, is set in the granite hills and has the best archaeological/historic/socio-political guide in the country in Paul Hubbard. At Victoria Falls one really should stay at the Victoria Falls Hotel ( ; reservations:email@example.com) because of its rich colonial history and its proximity to the Falls.
When to go
Autumn (March to May) is climatically the most pleasant as the country has come off the blistering hot summers and the nights are still balmy, but for game viewing winter (June to early September) is best. In November, you will witness spectacular late-afternoon thunderstorms followed by evenings of calm and clear light.
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Zimbabwe by Paul Murray (Bradt), published in 2010, is probably the best around, but the time is right for a new up-to-date guidebook. Douglas Rogers’s The Last Resort: A Zimbabwe Memoir (Short Books) provides an insight into the country under Mugabe. Graham Boynton’s own Last Days In Cloud Cuckooland (Random House) describes the end of colonial rule and the transition to democracy.
Emergency services and hospital resources are limited and potentially hazardous in their own right – there is no screened blood supply for transfusion, for example – so the best approach is to do all you can to avoid needing medical help. Travellers should be up to date with routine vaccine protection, should be vaccinated against hepatitis A and typhoid, and should also consider vaccination against rabies, hepatitis B, and possibly cholera, depending on their plans. Malaria is present in parts of the country, particularly Hwange and the Zambezi Valley. For more information, contact the Fleet Street Clinic ( ;www.fleetstreetclinic.com).
British citizens require a visa, which costs US$50 and is obtained at the airport on arrival.