By STEVE LINDE
These southern African countries offer a broad range of attractions to the visitor – from animal safaris to African drumming sessions..
Zambia and Zimbabwe probably feature at the end of the alphabet of places you’re planning to visit, but you might want to consider putting them higher up on the list.
A group of friends and I recently spent an immensely enjoyable 10-day trip to both of these southern African countries, which offer a broad range of attractions to the visitor – from animal safaris and African drumming sessions to whitewater rafting and bungee jumping from the Victoria Falls Bridge.
The top attraction is undoubtedly the spectacular Vic Falls (known locally as Mosi oa-Tunya – the Smoke that Thunders), one of the original seven natural wonders of the world, which you can see from both the Zambian and Zimbabwean sides.
We also did a helicopter tour of the falls, which was breathtaking.
At first, we stayed at a lovely backpackers’ lodge in the small town of Livingstone (named after the Scottish explorer who “discovered” the falls and named them for his queen) called Jollyboys, which has air-conditioned huts, a warm staff, a cool rock pool and a reasonable restaurant. (Board is $50 a night for a couple.) Not being one for heights, I chickened out when our group was taken by a local guide to the edge of the falls at Livingstone Island. Those in our group who braved it reported that the experience was simultaneously scary and exhilarating.
I did, however, enjoy a morning rafting on the Zambezi River – which was quite a challenge, especially when our raft tipped over in one of the rapids and we were left to fend for ourselves in the deep water.
More relaxing was a “booze cruise” on a proper boat on which we had a barbecue and drinks, watching a family of elephants cross the river at sunset, colorful birds nesting, and crocodiles peaking at us from the banks.
The hippos we passed freaked some people out, especially because an Israeli man had died there just a month before when a hippo rammed his family’s dinghy, and he dived into the water to save his child who fell in (his children made it safely back to shore, but he didn’t.) We had an enjoyable day at a local safari, driving through in an open ATV with a local guide who had an encyclopedic knowledge of every animal, bird and tree we encountered – and there were many.
I was enchanted by the giraffes, zebra and impala – all of which are fascinating animals to watch in the wild. The real thrill for most visitors, though, is to spot elephants and lions.
We spent a meaningful afternoon at an orphanage in Livingstone (the trip was organized by Jollyboys), playing soccer and other games with the children.
The rates of poverty, unemployment and AIDS are very high in Zambia and Zimbabwe, and the orphanage we visited was full of children desperate for love and attention.
While in Zambia, we witnessed a historic election in which opposition leader Michael Sata surprisingly beat incumbent Rupiah Banda.
There were celebrations and rioting in the streets on September 22, when the results were announced – but most people in Livingstone seemed to be happy with the results.
“The Banda regime was corrupt,” our driver told me. “Maybe now there will be change.”
The Zambian economy and tourist industry seem to have picked up at the expense of its neighbor, Zimbabwe, where street-sellers sell paper money to the tune of billions and even trillions of dollars as souvenirs to the few tourists brave enough to visit. (Following years of unbridled inflation, the country now runs on US dollars.) After spending a couple of nights at Victoria Falls on the Zimbabwe side of the border, at a lively backpackers’ camp called Shoestrings ($35 per couple), we took a 13-hour bus ride via Bulawayo to Harare.
And it was the city of my birth (then called Salisbury, Rhodesia) that turned out to be the highlight of my holiday.
Firstly, the city – whose streets are lined with lilac jacarandas and beautiful buildings – is unexpectedly pretty.
Secondly, the people – and we spent a couple of days just walking through town and talking to locals – were welcoming and delightful.
Finally, the hotel we stayed at in central Harare – the Bronte ($146 for a couple) – was superb, with luxurious rooms, gorgeous gardens and fantastic food.
We watched actors in a Harare outdoor theater rehearsing for a play that looks forward to a prosperous period in the future, titled “Ten Years From Now.”
If the play’s forecast is accurate, Zimbabwe could become a major travel spot by then. It possesses a fair share of the tourist attractions that its northern and southern neighbors, Zambia and South Africa, have in abundance.
And the view of the Victoria Falls is best from Zimbabwe!