With interest in Zimbabwe growing once again, we sent Emma Gregg on a return visit to see what it is really like to travel around the country right now. She embarks on a whistle-stop roadtrip to explore some of its many and diverse attractions, to assess the mood for those now considering a visit.
At stalls loaded with sisal hats, two-tone baskets, soapstone carvings and avocado-sized cones of snuff tobacco, my eyes keep lingering on the beads – some made from glass or seeds, others made from tight rolls of paper, snipped from magazines.
I’m exploring the curio market in Mbare, the oldest and largest township in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare. It’s a maze of dusty stalls, crammed into a shed the size of a barn. Many of the goods seem well-made – Zimbabwean crafts populate curio stalls all over southern Africa – but the lighting is so poor, it’s hard to tell. The dazzling sunlight falling through the open doors makes the darkness within seem all the more intense.
I run my fingers through a bowl of beads and a trader puts down the handmade mbira he’s playing to give me a wide smile. “One dollar,” he says.
“For how many?”
“How many do you want?”
When Zimbabwe ditched its currency in 2009, US dollar bills were already in common use. Coins failed to filter into the system, but traders, unabashed, simply switched tactics, persuading customers to buy goods to the value of a whole number of US dollars, or to accept sweets, foreign coins or IOUs as change. Others simply became more adept at bartering. Later, as the dollar bills, unbanked, got grubbier and grubbier, another skill emerged – money laundering. Literally. People learned to restore indeciperable notes by washing them with soap and water and hanging them up to dry.
Resourcefulness is a quality the Zimbabweans have in spades. They have a proverb, ‘If you can walk, you can dance; if you can talk, you can sing’. It’s thanks to this cheerful resilience that Mbare Musika, the enormous bus terminus and trading place beside the curio market, stayed afloat through the dark days of the mid- 2000s, when Mugabe’s regime started bulldozing the city’s slums. It even survived the early 2010s, when reports of politically-motivated violence within the township emerged and the terminus grew increasingly ramshackle.
Throughout these troubled years, tourists avoided Mbare. But it wasn’t always like that. In happier times, independent, curious-minded travellers – the type of people who want more from Zimbabwe than a few days on safari and a quick visit to Victoria Falls – used to love the place. In the 1990s, the authors of The Rough Guide to Zimbabwe devoted a page and a half to its vibrant, “distinctly African” market and art centre, opening with the words: “If Harare has a heart, Mbare must be it – it’s a quarter that should on no account be missed.” With talk of a tourist renaissance in Zimbabwe now growing from a whisper to a hum, there are high hopes that the backpackers might soon return.
On the day I visit, the general market is buzzing, its motley stalls stacked with everything from mealies and mopane worms to mobile phone covers and car spares. The flea market, Mupedzanhamo (Shona for ‘the finisher of all financial problems’), is just as busy, piled high with second-hand clothing, towels and trainers. The curio market is well stocked, too, but is clearly struggling. A plan to launch township tours in Mbare emerged recently, but has yet to take hold. “It could make a big difference,” says the bead seller, as I hand over my limp and grimy one-dollar note. “We’d like tourists to come back.”
This is my first visit to Zimbabwe since dollarisation and it feels slightly illicit to be paying for low-value, local goods in foreign currency. In the days when this was illegal, hyperinflation famously peaked at over 231,000,000 per cent, with prices doubling daily in 2008. Dollarisation has brought the kind of stability the tourist industry so desperately needs. But inevitably, there are downsides. In a nation where many people can’t afford leather shoes, let alone leather wallets, banknotes are crumpled into pockets, shoved into waistbands or clutched in sweaty palms. When eventually they fall apart – an outcome even the launderers can’t fix – they can’t be replaced. More fundamental is the fact that without a currency of its own, no Zimbabwean government can be fully in control of its own economy.
It’s not fully understood to what degree Mugabe’s indigenisation policy, which requires foreign-owned firms to hand over a stake worth at least 51 per cent to black Zimbabweans, hampers capital investment in tourism, or what the long-term consequences of the collapse of the main parties’ power-sharing agreement are likely to be. But despite these threads of uncertainty, there’s optimism in the air. Now that the EU has eased its sanctions against Zimbabwe, the arguments for staying away on political grounds are paper thin.
Little by little, the carpet is being rolled out – and not just for backpackers. There’s a growing choice of good places to stay. In Harare, the swish Meikles Hotel is looking well-groomed and expectant after a US$8m facelift, while Hwange National Park and Victoria Falls boast several new or expanded lodges. With these promising developments, plus the expansion of Victoria Falls’ international airport, it’s no wonder that the number of tour operators featuring Zimbabwe in their brochures is increasing for the first time in over ten years.
With landmark appeal, Hwange and Victoria Falls never dropped off the travel radar completely, even in the early 2000s when violent land grabs and economic turmoil prompted many British and European holiday companies to cut Zimbabwe adrift. But what of the other parts of the country, such as the east and south?
To find out, all you need to do is hit the road. While supermarkets tend to cater solely for those well above the poverty line, they are fully stocked, fuel is readily available and most highways have been repaired in the last few years, making an overland trip a straightforward proposition.
Leaving Harare’s rush hour traffic behind, we head southeast to the Eastern Highlands, a belt of heath-covered, hiker-friendly hills that made the first British settlers so nostalgic for Scotland, they sculpted the valleys into trout lakes, edging them with pines. Around Nyanga National Park, we discover once-grand country club hotels which seem to be treading water, their decor and atmosphere stuck in a timewarp. But we’re charmed by the Inn on Rupurara, a cluster of stone cottages with striking views of a bald granite hill that was once a tribal stronghold. We climb it the following morning, drinking in the glorious, wraparound views.
In the far southeast, a long, bumpy drive through a region dotted with ancient baobabs and Shangaan villages rewards us with an inspiring stay at Chilo Gorge Safari Lodge. Its founder, Clive Stockil, a modest-mannered conservationist and guide, was recently honoured with the inaugural Prince William Award for Conservation in Africa for his lifelong commitment to community-led environmental and wildlife protection. As we gaze down from the lodge onto the broad ribbon of the Save River and the densely forested Gonarezhou National Park beyond, my head pounds with exhilaration that we’re the only visitors for miles. Gonarezhou, Zimbabwe’s second largest national park, is one of its wildest, with around 400 bird species. It also has 11,000 elephants. Those we encounter on our afternoon drive aren’t content to gaze mildly as we pass – thrillingly, they stare us down, their eyes and ears alert.
We loop north to Great Zimbabwe, a world-class monument that feels so deserted it’s as if we’ve sneaked in after hours. As we clamber around the splendid ruins of the Hill Complex – a natural fortress of granite boulders enhanced, with ancient masonry, into a royal seat – I’m as excited as a child exploring a medieval castle. Our guide, Lovemore, leads us under an overhang into a cave-like space and tells us to give a mighty yell. The sound bounces back from the Great Enclosure far below, like an echo from the past.
Strolling along Bulawayo’s broad, jacaranda-lined avenues, I feel like a pioneer. Architecturally, it’s a hotpotch, but its elegant colonial facades and colonnades are intact; behind them are shops where the staff are relaxed and delighted to chat. At the Exchange Bar, a dimly lit, teak-panelled bolthole hung with hunting trophies and vintage photos, businessmen converse over lunchtime drinks, just as Cecil Rhodes did in the late 19th century. The modest National Gallery opposite has elegant Victorian rooms with polished floors and even the Natural History Museum is an oasis of retro calm, its cases filled with immaculate wildlife dioramas, free from modern distractions. South of the city there’s peace of a different sort among the natural granite monuments and delicate rock art of the Matobo Hills, surely one of the most inspiring landscapes in Africa.
As we head north again for Hwange and Victoria Falls, where our trip will end, I reflect on how Zimbabwe, with its natural grace, gentle manner and easy, welcoming smiles, has quietly put me entirely at ease. While a decade’s worth of design trends and food fads may have largely passed it by, some might argue that’s not such a bad thing. Its wide open spaces are empty of tourists for now, but they can’t remain so for long.
Emma’s tips from the road
• Crime rates in Zimbabwe are low and I experienced no harassment during my visit. However, it’s wise to take routine precautions and seek local advice before setting out alone after dark.
• Driving is relatively hassle-free but distances are long and regular police roadblocks will slow you down. Uniformed officers may check that you have the correct documentation, your vehicle is road-safe and you’re not carrying anything illegal. Patience and politeness are the best policy.
• Bring US dollars in small denomination banknotes. South African rand (notes and coins) are also accepted and may be offered as change. Fuel stations and shops rarely accept credit cards – only cash. ATMs may only offer US $100 banknotes which are difficult to change.
• Hotels and restaurants aimed at tourists typically offer reliable but old-fashioned, British-style fare. Game meat is a speciality. Vegetarian options are available, but often only on request. Power cuts are commonplace, so bring a head torch.
• Time zone GMT+1
• Visas Visas are required by nationals of most countries and are easily obtained at the port of entry. Payment required in cash. Single entry is US$55 and multiple entry is US$70.
• Health Malaria is present throughout the country so prophylactics should be taken by all visitors. Bottled water is widely available.
• More information Bradt Guide to Zimbabwe, by Paul Murray (bradtguides.com)
Emma Gregg flew to Zimbabwe with South African Airways, who are an active airline partner excited about promoting Zimbabwe as a regional destination.