Our Little Blue Dot: Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe has a generous sampling of the Africa that many people hope to see: exotic scenery, interesting cultures and a good variety of game parks. It also has a few things you might not expect to see, including Great Zimbabwe, the most extensive ruins in sub-Saharan Africa.

Without a doubt, the highlight of Zimbabwe is the dramatic Victoria Falls, which the country shares with neighboring Zambia. There, the mighty Zambezi River crashes into the Batoka Gorge and is deservedly one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World.

African landscape with a beautiful Acacia tree (Acacia erioloba), Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe, southern Africa.
Photo: © Can Stock Photo / EcoPicture

Great Zimbabwe National Monument

Great Zimbabwe is, quite simply, the most extensive and best-preserved ruins anywhere in Africa south of the Sahara Desert. The ancient African kingdom of Munhumatapa built the series of stone complexes. The 10,000 people who prospered there in the 13th-15th centuries had impressive skills: They built three distinct complexes, using very basic tools and no mortar. Great Zimbabwe is all curved stone walls, huge enclosures and cylindrical structures. The ruins were once inhabited by ancestors of the Karanga subgroup of the Shona people, and what remains was once part of a fortified capital. Walls as thick as 18 ft/6 m at the base and as high as 24 ft/8 m are in almost perfect condition. We strongly recommend hiring a local guide, which can be done at the on-site office, to put it all into proper perspective. Without knowing about the civilization and the purposes of the various areas, it’s easy to overlook important details of the construction—there’s little left in the way of ornamentation.

Great Zimbabwe.
Photo: © Can Stock Photo / 2630ben

We suggest that you start your tour with the Hill Complex while you still have the enthusiasm and vigor for the climb—begin before the day gets too hot. End with the most impressive area, the Great Enclosure (be sure to walk behind it to see the design along the top of the outside wall). Don’t forget to visit the on-site museum—it helps put everything together. Highlights of the museum include pottery from China and India (suggesting trade with coastal Arabs and Portuguese) and marvelous green soapstone carvings of birds, which have become the symbol of Zimbabwe (the images are on everything from the flag to the currency). If time permits, visit the adjacent Karanga Village exhibit, which features a full-scale replica of a 19th-century tribal settlement. Some local craftspeople work there and sell their wares. The closest town is Masvingo, about 18 mi/30 km away. The ruins are 180 mi/290 km south of Harare.

Hwange National Park

Pronounced h’WAN-gay, this huge game park was established in 1929 and is the largest in Zimbabwe—8,760 sq mi/22,690 sq km. The landscape comprises grasslands, granite outcrops, savanna, scrubland and scattered woodland. The abundance of game guarantees sightings, so you’ll see more than enough to be satisfied. The majority of tourists can be found in the most accessible areas—especially near the main camp entrance and the Nyamandhlovu Pan, where most of the safari lodges are located. To experience the wilderness at its best, it is possible to visit one of the more remote camps, which generally have only a tap, toilet and sleeping rondaval (thatched hut).

Anywhere in the park, visitors are likely to encounter huge herds of elephants—an estimated 35,000 live there, and it’s one of the few parks on the continent where they sometimes have to be culled to prevent overpopulation and excessive damage to the environment. Other resident animals include white rhinos, lions (more likely seen in the mountainous, western areas), great kudu (a kind of antelope), giraffes, wildebeests, zebras, impala, baboons, sable (another gorgeous antelope), warthogs, more than 400 species of birds, and more than 1,000 species of trees and scrubs. The animals tend to congregate around man-made borehole wells, particularly in the dry season (August-October), and game-viewing platforms have been constructed at many of these water holes. The Hwange Safari Lodge, the most popular property in the park, has its own flood-lit water hole where guests can watch animals all night.

Male Sable Antelope on the plains of Hwange National Park.
Photo: © Can Stock Photo / Curioso_Travel_Photo

The main activity in the park is a safari, on foot and by vehicle, and weeks could be spent exploring the backcountry. However, most visitors will be happy with two nights, if they’re staying near the perimeter, or three or four nights, if they’re going into an interior camp. The main gate is less than two hours’ drive southeast of Victoria Falls and makes a popular add-on safari to a visit there. Travelers making their way from Bulawayo to Victoria Falls (on the A8 road) will pass the main gate. The park is 107 mi/172 km southeast of Victoria Falls and 165 mi/265 km northwest of Bulawayo.

Victoria Falls

One of the most stirring sights in Africa, the Victoria Falls is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World. It is where the mile-/kilometer-wide Zambezi River suddenly plunges 30 stories into the Bakota Gorge, at times spilling water at a volume of more than 2 million gallons/7.6 million liters per second. Rainbows, mist and the tremendous roar of the water stir the senses—few other natural wonders match the raw power of the Victoria Falls.

The first European to see them was David Livingstone on 17 November 1855, during his 1852-56 journey from the upper Zambezi to the mouth of the river. The falls were already well known to the local people and the Matabele named them Mosi-au-Tunya, “the smoke that thunders,” because of the cloud of spray that rises above them. Livingstone named them in honor of Queen Victoria.

Livingstone’s fantastic stories attracted many European adventurers and travelers, and the town of Victoria Falls quickly grew. The famous Victoria Falls Bridge and Victoria Falls Hotel were both built in 1905. Today there are numerous hotels, attractions and activities around town and no shortage of operators to organize it all.

Victoria Falls Bridge.
Photo: © Can Stock Photo / demerzel21

The falls themselves can be seen within the Victoria Falls National Park, where there are many viewpoints. There’s another major viewing point from the Victoria Falls Bridge that connects Zimbabwe to Zambia. It can be crossed on foot and the border guards will issue you a day pass to access the bridge, which serves as no-man’s-land between the two country’s borders. We highly recommend this view, as the angle up the gorge of the Zambezi to the center of the falls is spectacular. If you are feeling daredevilish, you can bungee jump—a 360-ft/110-m plunge—off the bridge.

Apart from the falls themselves, there are few sights, but there are lots of activities below and above the falls and on the Zambezi River. During most of the year, you can go whitewater rafting (the rapids are world-class), canoeing, elephant and horseback riding in the surrounding bush, and for the very active, rappeling or gorge-swinging (flying fox and rap jumping) in the Batoka Gorge.

Suggested Itinerary

Two weeks could easily be spent in Zimbabwe, but because many people don’t have that much time and travel to destinations away from the major tourist centers could be hampered by a poor infrastructure, we’ve prepared what we consider a bare-minimum itinerary:

Day 1—Arrive Harare.

Day 2—Transfer to Antelope Park near Gweru for a variety of game activities.

Day 3—Drive to Great Zimbabwe and visit the ruins, Kyle Recreational Park and Lake Mutirikwi Dam. Overnight Great Zimbabwe.

Day 4—Drive to Bulawayo and visit Matobo National Park, famous for its rhino population and cave paintings.

Day 5—Drive to Hwange National Park.

Day 6—After an early-morning game drive, travel to Victoria Falls.

Day 7Victoria Falls.

Day 8—Fly directly from Victoria Falls or return to Harare and depart Zimbabwe.

If time permits, spend another day or two at Victoria Falls to do some of the adventure activities on offer, visit Livingstone in Zambia across the Victoria Falls Bridge, or take an overnight safari to Chobe National Park in Botswana. Other options include spending a couple of nights on a houseboat on Lake Kariba or in a country hotel in the Eastern Highlands.

How would you like to explore Zimbabwe?

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[Cover Photo: Victoria Falls waterfall in Africa, between Zambia and Zimbabwe, one of the seven wonders of the world. © Can Stock Photo / THP]

[SOURCE: Pocket Travel Guide App]

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