The wheels deal

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Mike Unwin takes his family on a road trip in Zimbabwe. Starting at Victoria Falls, he travels south through Hwange National Park to Bulawayo, explores the otherworldly Matobo Hills, then continues east to the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, and ends his journey in Harare

It’s there as we round the corner: a roadblock, just as we’d been warned. My wife is at the wheel. “Leave it running,” I hiss, while we slide to a halt and I race through our mental checklist of dos and don’ts. “Don’t do anything provocative.”

This time, the figure barring our way is not in uniform. Nonetheless, his authority is unquestionable — especially as he weighs five tonnes and could flip us like a tortoise. We hold our breath as he gives us the once-over. Thankfully, he seems more concerned with demolishing a roadside mopane tree than checking our licences and with a flap of his ears he waves us through.

Before I set out with my wife and 14-year-old daughter, Flo, on our self-drive tour of Zimbabwe, roadblocks had topped the ‘reasons against’ list cited by concerned family and friends. But four days into our trip and this bull elephant blocking a dusty back road in Hwange National Park has been our first serious obstacle. And it’s just the kind we were hoping for.

Concerns are understandable. There’s no denying that Zimbabwe’s once-proud tourist reputation has taken a hit. The economic meltdown of 2008 that brought such hardship to locals also made the simple expediencies of travel — currency, food and fuel — more challenging for visitors. While tourism increasingly focused on exclusive fly-in safari retreats, exploring with your own wheels slipped quietly down the agenda.

But then I’d also heard that things have lately been improving; that the country continues to welcome tourists — after all, the opening of a new airport at Victoria Falls must say something; and that with a little planning and common sense, a family self-drive holiday is still viable.

And so it was with cautious optimism that we collected our rented Land Cruiser in Victoria Falls. Ahead lay a 2000km, two-week expedition, taking in some of the country’s top attractions. “You’re going to love it,” enthused Patience Washoma, from Zimbabwe Car Hire, as she completed the paperwork and pointed out everything that might interest a traffic cop: warning triangle, fire extinguisher and so on.

“I wish I was coming with you.”

Where better to start than with one of the seven natural wonders of the world? Even from our base at Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, 4km upstream, the ‘Smoke that Thunders’ provided a constant bass undertone to the birdsong that filtered through the wooded grounds. Unable to resist the call, we set off on our first afternoon to see the spectacle for ourselves. It didn’t disappoint: recent record-breaking rains had left the cascade in full spate, awesome in its scale and power, and enhanced by a perfect double rainbow. We tramped between viewpoints, drenched by the drifting curtains of spray, until at Danger Point — where all panoramas dissolved into wet, roaring chaos — we gave up and scuttled back to the park entrance, trumpeter hornbills braying their derision.

Next, we explored the Zambezi. First the lazy way: a sunset cruise aboard the Ra-Ikane, a replica of Livingstone’s original boat now lovingly maintained by Ilala Lodge. Then, the next morning, a more strenuous approach: driving 20km upstream then paddling back downriver on a Wild Horizons canoe safari. “The hippos are the rulers of the river,” warned our guide Obed, during his rigorous safety briefing. In the event, the hippo hugged the banks while we negotiated the rapids. It was an experience of largely blissful serenity punctuated by brief passages of white-knuckle panic. Flo, paired with Obed, took it in her stride.

The following day our focus turned to history. On Shearwater’s Historic Bridge Tour, we met celebrated French engineer Georges Imbault — in reality, Capetonian Peter Royston — who, seated in Victorian apparel at his drawing board, gave us an entertaining history lesson on this miraculous feat of engineering.

Things took a more nerve-jangling turn when we strapped ourselves into harnesses, clipped our karabiners to a safety line and descended to a narrow metal walkway suspended beneath the main bridge. Peter pointed out intriguing details as we crossed above the churning abyss, including the bearings at the base that gave the whole structure enough flexibility to withstand the unique rigours of its location. “The bungee crew make more money by throwing people off my bridge these days,” he lamented, as another body hurtled past from above.

The bustle of Victoria Falls town gave little sense that Zimbabwe’s tide of tourism had ever ebbed. Cafes and curio stalls thrummed with life, while minibuses ferried excited visitors between daredevil helicopter rides and the more sedate charms of high tea at The Victoria Falls Hotel. In town, it was easy to forget that we were surrounded by wilderness — until we spotted the roadside elephant dung or met a baboon swaggering down the high street. At the Safari Lodge, however, a constant procession of wildlife to the waterhole below the terrace, plus the whoops of hyenas after dark, brought home this reality. All this wildlife was whetting our appetite for safari. Next stop: Hwange.

“How much for your car?” asked the traffic cop the next morning as we exited Victoria Falls on our way south. He grinned when I explained that it was not ours to sell. Then, in a more serious tone, advised us to drive carefully and watch out for livestock on the road.

Hwange National Park was once a haven for the self-drive safari-goer. Entering at Sinamatella Camp in the north, however, it was clear from the empty chalets and neglected visitors’ book that such traffic is today thin on the ground. Indeed, not another vehicle passed us on our three-hour drive east to Kapula — a private, self-catering camp in the heart of the reserve where we had booked to stay two nights.

With the dense bush and plentiful water of the late rainy season, it was soon clear that we’d need to work for our big game. But travelling in our own vehicle gave us ample opportunity to enjoy the smaller stuff, whether butterflies festooning fresh dung piles or dwarf mongooses peeping from their termite-mound citadel. And, at Kapula, we found we had the place to ourselves. For lovers of no-frills simplicity, this camp is a delight. Camp attendant Taurai Rigara left us to our own devices, keeping the kitchen spick and span and providing a blazing fire each evening. Over breakfast, he recounted spine-chilling tales of dry season action in and around the camp. “This is lion territory,” he explained. “What, around the Kapula concession?” I asked. “No,” he grinned. “Around tent number three.”

No lion visited during our stay but their distant moans punctuated the chorus of owls — scops, barred, white-faced and pearl-spotted — that kept time through the small hours. And next morning, at nearby Masuma Dam, the urgent alarm calls of impala and baboons betrayed what must have been a leopard slinking past somewhere close. Clearly, the predators were out there — but the magic of Kapula was about more than notching up the Big Five.

Lion came a day later at Makwa Pan: two females and four youngsters padding away through a sea of golden grassheads in the early evening light. It was a thrilling sighting — especially for Flo who, while taking nothing for granted, had secretly been holding out for the king of the jungle.

By now, we had decamped half a day’s journey east to Elephant’s Eye, one of several lodges on private concessions along Hwange’s eastern boundary. Here we had put the self-drive on hold, entrusting our game viewing to the safari jeep and expertise of our guide Shepherd Misomali. The following morning, we combed the concession for a large buffalo herd that, judging by the flattened grass and trampled droppings, had passed by during the night. They stayed hidden. Not so a flap-necked chameleon, which I rudely awakened from its camouflaged slumber and deposited on my daughter’s outstretched hand, its eyes revolving in alarm.

At Elephant’s Eye, where these lumbering giants often drink from the guests’ pool, sustainability is the watchword and the lodge prides itself on its involvement with the local community — working with nearby Dingani School, for example, on female hygiene projects that allow more girls access to education. Just down the road, we found the excellent Painted Dog Conservation Centre, dedicated to the protection of this highly endangered carnivore. With lively murals telling the stories of dogs rescued by the organisation and a couple of captive individuals to visit, my teenager was enthralled.

It was thus fitting that our standout Hwange wildlife encounter was with wild dogs. By now, we had driven south through the park to The Hide, another private camp, and it was with our guide Sean Hind that we sat out a heavy shower surrounded by a pack of sixteen. For an hour, we watched these beguiling canines as they emerged from the sodden grass, shook themselves dry and renewed their bonds in a ritual of play and greetings — occasionally approaching to eye us quizzically, Mickey Mouse ears cocked, before scampering off again. By the time the fading light had forced us back to camp, Flo had a new favourite animal.

Over the next two days, Sean ferried us around this attractively open region of the park in search of its wildlife. Every turn brought something new: elephant trooping down to waterholes from the fringing woodland, secretary birds and kori bustards stalking the long grass on long legs; a hyena slaking its thirst in a puddle.

Downtime back in camp was equally delightful. The Hide is named for its innovative, sunken game-viewing shelter overlooking the waterhole in front of the camp, where visitors can eyeball drinking elephant at kneecap level. At this season, with the bush still saturated, it was still too early for serious waterhole action. But bushbuck tiptoed along the shaded walkways between restaurant, bar and our gorgeous chalet, and one lunchtime a pearl-spotted owlet flew in beneath the thatch, glared at us from a beam, then flew out again.

“Bulawayo does not mean ‘place of slaughter’,” explained local history buff Rob Burrett, as he led us on a walking tour of Zimbabwe’s second city. We had arrived the previous afternoon after a three-hour drive south from Hwange. “And the wide streets were not designed for the turning of a full span of oxen,” he added, “although that is perfectly possible.”

Thus scotching the town’s two principal myths, Rob proceeded to explain how Bulawayo grew from the first Ndebele capital KoBulawayo, built by Lobengula in 1881, and was pivotal in shaping the nation’s early history. Indeed, the Art Deco city hall, in whose shade we now stood, was in 1896 the location of a defensive laager in which besieged European pioneers held out against the Ndebele during the second Matabele War. “Both white Rhodesian and black Zimbabwean nationalism can find their roots here,” he explained.

In recent years, Bulawayo has struggled: never having enjoyed the investment lavished upon post-independence Harare, the recent economic crisis plunged its industrial sector into further decline. For the visitor, however, it remains an attractive, open town around which to stroll.

The wide, jacaranda-lined streets are littered with evidence of a fascinating past, while beauty spots such as Hillside Dams Conservancy bring a breath of the surrounding bush to the city. It is also home to one of Africa’s most impressive museums, where Rob showed us everything from the world’s second-largest mounted elephant to the funeral carriage that towed Cecil Rhodes to his final resting place in the Matobo Hills.

“But don’t people mind him being here?” asked Flo, still wrestling with the complexities of Zimbabwe’s past, as the next day we stood beside the grave in question. World’s View in Matobo Hills World Heritage Site, some 30km south of Bulawayo, is an undeniably glorious spot. Siting his grave here, on a vast granite whaleback surrounded by a disciple-like cluster of boulders, seemed a fittingly self-glorifying finale for a man happy to have named a whole country after himself. Yet John Nyathi, the park warden to whom we chatted, displayed an admirably philosophical attitude. “If you destruct his grave,” he told her, “you destruct our history.”

Politics aside, the Matobo Hills (or plain Matopos to many) is a very special place: a treasure trove of history and nature smuggled into an otherworldly landscape of wind-sculpted granite. Already that day we’d seen 3000-year-old rock art depicting hunter-gatherers pursuing their quarry. And, in the company of an armed ranger, we’d tracked down on foot one of the species depicted in that ancient mural — a small group of white rhino that had huffed through the thorn bush, printing their ace-of-spade tracks across a sandy riverbed.

Other wildlife came thick and fast: klipspringers perched on granite lookouts; Verreaux’s eagles soaring high overhead; and, at World’s View, a diminutive rock elephant-shrew snatching our picnic crumbs from a swarm of rainbow-coloured flat lizards. Back at Amalinda Lodge that evening, our host Jaimie-Lee Holtzhausen described how one recent guest had looked up from his outdoor shower to find a leopard observing him from atop a boulder, just metres away.

Amalinda made for the perfect Matopos bolthole, its architecture smuggled ingeniously into the cliffs and boulders. Clambering from chalet to restaurant terrace along stone steps and swing bridges, we could almost have been prehistoric hunter-gatherers — canapés and crisp bed linen notwithstanding. First light brought the barking of baboons and a chorus of birdsong, while sunset led us onto a nearby hill with a view that had us feeling like the only people on the planet.

So, two days and two cities to go… From Bulawayo, we headed east to Masvingo, gateway to yet another World Heritage Site — indeed, the very one from which the nation draws its name. Here our home was Norma Jeane’s Lakeview Resort, a historic guesthouse overlooking the gleaming expanse of nearby Lake Mutirikwi. Sunbirds zipped across the breakfast terrace next morning, dashing from bloom to bloom in gorgeous gardens that were another blast from the colonial past.

There is nothing of colonial interest about Great Zimbabwe, however, except perhaps the fiction once spread by the Rhodesian authorities to discredit any notion of an African civilisation having flourished centuries before their arrival. By 9am, we were standing among the 600-year-old ruins absorbing a history lesson from our irrepressible guide Champion Ndigunei. “They worked with nature, rather than dominating or destroying it,” he explained, caressing the intricate brickwork that hugged the contours of the hillside. He revealed hidden passageways, sentry posts and royal chambers — and from the summit of the Hill Complex, swept his hand across the panorama to indicate the vast walls of the Great Enclosure far below. “Walls were built to express power and authority,” he explained — then quickly dismissed any idea that this once great city, home to some 20,000 people, had been founded on force. “You can’t have these kind of projects if you are always fighting somebody.”

That evening, our trusty Land Cruiser negotiated its final and perhaps stiffest challenge: Harare in rush hour. We inched through the swarm of street traders and commuter traffic, peering up at the looming high-rises of a new Zimbabwe. Luckily, Meikles Hotel — the city’s oldest — was easy to find. After checking in, we climbed to our lofty eighth-floor eyrie to watch the sun set over Africa Unity Square. Tomorrow we would return our vehicle, dusty and exhausted, to Patience at the airport — then, no less dusty and exhausted ourselves, would board our flight home.

So, had our Zimbabwe experience answered the doubters? We knew it had been a fleeting and privileged glimpse; that we had not been exposed to the struggles that many must confront daily. And yet, as visitors, we had enjoyed a fabulous and hassle-free holiday, met some wonderful people and been welcomed with nothing but smiles. The country has many needs — not the least of which is friends. Meanwhile, its unique treasury of history, nature and culture is still there. And it seems there is no better way to explore it than with your own wheels.

So why wouldn’t you?

Safari Planner
• Getting there Among others, Kenya Airways flies from London to Zimbabwe via Nairobi. The airline also flies to Livingstone and Harare and has launched a new direct flight to Victoria Falls. The new Victoria Falls International Airport is a hub for exploring Zimbabwe, Botswana and Zambia.
• How to book The easiest way to arrange a Zimbabwean road trip is to book through a company that can arrange your international flights, a 4WD, all-inclusive accommodation, national park permits and all activities.
• Where to stay There are plenty of good options in Zimbabwe. The writer stayed at the following properties and would recommend them to anyone embarking on a family self-drive adventure. In Victoria Falls: Africa Albida Tourism’s Victoria Falls Safari Lodge and Lokuthula Lodge. In Hwange: Kapula Private Camp; Hideaways’ Elephant’s Eye; The Hide. In Matobo Hills: Camp Amalinda. In Great Zimbabwe: Norma Jeane’s Lakeview Resort. And in Harare: Meikles Hotel.
• Vehicle hire There are several respectable rental companies to choose from. The writer booked a Land Cruiser Prado for his trip through Zimbabwe Car Hire, which allows you to pick up the vehicle in Victoria Falls and return it in Harare.
• When to go The rainy season lasts from November to April. Victoria Falls is in peak flow from February to May, when whitewater-rafting availability varies with conditions. Peak safari time in most regions is the end of the dry season (August to October), when migratory herds return to rivers and waterholes. From October to November can be very hot in low-lying regions, including Hwange and the Zambezi Valley.
• Health Be sure to check with your GP or local travel clinic which vaccinations you need and buy your antimalarials well in advance of your trip.
• Further reading Zimbabwe: The Bradt Travel Guide (3rd edition) by Paul Murray.

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