I’m the first to admit that I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from our trip to Zimbabwe after 11 years away. Since 2000 it’s pretty much been one of the most hellish periods of this landlocked African country’s recent history, with reports of election rigging, then widespread violence against political opposition members (and frankly anyone who voted against President Mugabe), followed by a time when there was simply no fuel and no food in the shops, coupled with a Zimbabwean dollar that wasn’t even worth using as toilet paper. It’s been heart breaking to witness what was once the bread basket of Africa literally crumbling under the weight of this dictatorship.
If you’re like me, judging by the last lot of awful media reports we all saw coming out of Zimbabwe, you’d think things were pretty rough over there and it would probably be the last place you’d want to go on holiday. My friends living in Zim were telling me it was fine, but was it really? It was hard to know if I’d been back in Australia too long (therefore wrapped in cotton wool) or if my Zimbo mates were shell-shocked by long term stress…
What a shock for me – and a huge relief – to return there and find that things are really okay. It was true what they were saying – it was not just okay, but pumping! In Harare, the capital city, the shopping centres are open and full of stock, the pubs and cafes are great, there’s no longer any fuel shortages, and the Zim dollar has been replaced by the US dollar, which means the economy has pretty much stabilised. There is an air of hope, dare I say it, since the unity government came in a few years ago, making Morgan Tsvangarai Prime Minister (Mugabe remains President, but there is a power sharing arrangement which has really changed things for the better).
I returned to my old haunt, Humani in the Save Valley Conservancy with my hubby, Andy and toddler, Solo expecting to find widespread destruction of game fences and the annihilation of the wildlife for which it was famous. After all, we’d been told that almost half of the conservancy had been taken over by war vets and settlers and much of the fences around the conservancy stolen to make snares. And that was true. The poaching has been severe in this part of the world and maintaining an active anti-poaching team as well as repairing fences is a massive and ongoing job. But what surprised me was just how much game we did see. At night I would lie in bed in our cottage on the Turgwe River listening to the impalas rutting and lions roaring in the distance. By day we saw everything from warthogs with trios of babies to hippos in the Turgwe and wildebeest on the Bedford plains.
What we were seeing in the bush is reflected in the scientific data. Recent aerial game counts in the conservancy over the last few years have shown that several species are bouncing back after the severe poaching of the mid 2000s, including buffalo, eland, giraffe, impala, kudu, sable and warthog. What has been harder to control is the rhino poaching, driven by the demand for horn in Asia and the Middle East. This is an ongoing fight.
Zimbabweans, like my friends the Whittalls at Humani, did seem worn down after years of instability and at times downright threats to their lives. Some have lost their farms and are struggling to make a new existence for themselves. Many white farmers have left. The Shona people I spoke to have also suffered incredibly, battling just to survive through waves of famine and political oppression. But from what we saw, Zimbabweans of all ethnic groups have an incredible resilience about them, and above all, a sense of humour that has probably kept their sanity from disappearing altogether. And they need people to start coming back to Zimbabwe to start building this country’s economy again. So that’s what I’m here to say. Go to Zimbabwe!
I have to ask, now that I’ve been, the real question is: why wouldn’t you visit Zimbabwe? Zimbabwe is probably the best value for money safari you can get at the moment. Going back reminded me just how special this part of Africa is, not only because it still has some of the best wildlife areas you’re ever likely to see (Hwange, Kariba, Victoria Falls), plus one of the most ancient ruins of African culture (Great Zimbabwe Ruins), but above all because the people are just so damned friendly, you feel like part of the family by the time you leave. That hasn’t changed. And I doubt it ever will, because if the last decade hasn’t dimmed their ability to smile and make visitors feel genuinely welcome, then nothing will.
Zimbabwe remains one of the best places to go on safari, and what you’ll get at the moment is something particularly special, because the secret is this – Zim is just as fantastic as ever and a visit there now, before everyone else works this out, means you’ll be treated like royalty. It’s perfectly safe for tourists, so safe in fact that we never once worried about the fact that we were there with our 18 month old son, who we would never put at risk. So if Zimbabwe sounds like your cup of tea, drop me a line for some tips on where to go and what to do. If you can overcome perceptions of the bad press of a few years ago and realise that that really is old news, you’re in for a real treat.