Road to recovery ... a herd of elephants in Hwange National Park. Road to recovery .... Photo: Getty Images

From :

By : Sam Vincent

18 March 2012

The last time I visited Zimbabwe I was knee-high to a hyena – a precarious position in the African food chain, as anyone who has seen The Gods Must Be Crazy II will know. In that film a young Kalahari bushman, threatened by a hyena, holds a piece of wood above his head to fool the animal into thinking it is smaller than him. “He remembered his father had said: ‘If you’re taller than the hyena, it will keep its distance,”‘ the narrator says, David Attenborough-like. I could have done with a stump on that childhood trip to Zimbabwe. My family was in a game park, where we were shown an enclosure containing three hyenas. As the shortest member of the group, I was the sole object of the hyenas’ attention; wherever I walked, they would follow, a flimsy fence the only thing preventing me becoming their lunch. My three older sisters thought it was hilarious, as did the hyenas. I did not. We were visiting my father, who spent much of the late 1980s and early ’90s working in Zimbabwe. After each trip he would return with enchanting tales of the world’s biggest waterfall, burping hippos and night skies brighter even than those at the farm where we lived. Finally, my mother, sisters and I followed him there. Like many in the West, my father admired the man who turned Rhodesia into Zimbabwe, once considered a model of post-colonial transition; the man whose government my dad served as a consultant. His name? Robert Mugabe. His 32-year dictatorship has been synonymous with violence, rigged elections, land seizures and economic mismanagement on a farcical scale (so rampant was inflation that by 2008 Zimbabwean $100 trillion notes were in circulation). Mirroring the economic and political implosion has been the collapse of a once-thriving tourism industry. Its national parks and game reserves were looted by poachers and illegal miners; the game lodges were expropriated by drunk and stoned “war veterans”. But things are slowly improving in Zimbabwe. In 2009, a year after another stolen election and the inevitable collapse of the economy, Mugabe agreed to form a power-sharing government with arch-rival Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), an arrangement that remains intact despite efforts by hardliners to destroy it. In the years since, the US dollar has been adopted as the national currency, inflation reined in and life has improved for many Zimbabweans. Supermarket shelves are full, as are bowsers. Zimbabwe’s recent stability has prompted the cautious return of tour operators and a trickle of tourists; Emirates began a regular service from Dubai to Harare (via Lusaka, Zambia) last month. Buoyed by rumours of game parks, lodges and galleries open for business but bereft of tourists, I board a flight to Harare for the first time since that childhood adventure. Harare is a city of ’80s skyscrapers, purple jacarandas and a surprisingly vibrant arts scene, best known for the Harare International Festival of the Arts, a celebration of music, dance, theatre and fine arts held yearly in the last week of April. Traditional Zimbabwean art takes the form of stone sculpture, but from the 1990s the country’s painters and installation artists gained international recognition for politically charged works critical of the Mugabe regime. The Zimbabwean pavilion at last year’s Venice Biennale, for example, had a distinctly anti-Mugabe theme. Within Zimbabwe, however, the intimidation of dissidents continues and censorship prevents the mainstream exhibition of political art. For an uncensored glimpse of Zimbabwean artistic expression, I head to the small, independent Gallery Delta, housed in a handsome red-roofed bungalow that once belonged to Rhodesian landscape painter Robert Paul. Over tea in the gallery’s sculpture garden, “friend of the gallery” Shingai Masakadza (not her real name) explains the cat-and-mouse game. “When someone comes who we don’t trust and asks what a certain painting means,” she says, “we tell them it’s a pretty picture, even if it is full of political symbolism.” Masakadza shows me such works. Some are oblique: dreamy oil abstracts of human figures with animal heads representing the clan totems of certain politicians; others are overtly political. One painting depicts a black Christ on a cross, blood oozing from his wounds and a Zimbabwean flag covering his torso. In the background an apathetic family watches television on the couch, one figure resting a stubby on his gut. Masakadza is the first of many Zimbabweans I meet whose opposition to the dictatorship at great personal risk is profoundly inspiring. “It’s a revolution we’re supporting here,” she says. “A revolution with paintbrushes.” From Harare I fly to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe’s most famous landmark. As my plane is about to land I see a herd of elephants. Beyond them a plume of mist rises with a rumble, evoking the local name for the falls: Mosi-oa-Tunya, the Smoke That Thunders. The town of Victoria Falls was once the centre of Zimbabwe’s tourism industry, but in the past decade visitors have abandoned it for Livingstone, its cross-border Zambian rival. As the Zimbabwean tourism sector recovers, however, this side of the falls is once more at the forefront, with cyber cafes, pubs and youth hostels reopening. This is where I join an Intrepid Travel group exploring Zimbabwe. The Australian-based company halted tours in 2008 but resumed last year. All 15 members of our party are awed by the majesty of the falls, with its perpetual rainbow. I smile when I remember my father’s explanation for the falls’ amber colour to his gullible young son: hippos peeing upstream in the Zambezi. It’s a short drive south to our next stop, Hwange National Park, and as we approach the reserve I see signs of the 30,000 elephants that live here: half-chewed branches, flattened trees and traffic-hazard scats. As an animal-obsessed farm boy, the highlight of my childhood trip was Hwange’s wildlife. Apart from elephants I was fascinated by giraffes, warthogs and the submerged waterhole boulders that would reveal themselves to be hippos. Zimbabwe’s wildlife has suffered greatly in the past decade from increased poaching and hunting for food; rhinos, especially, now face extinction in this country. Those who work in the field hope that conservation efforts can be improved now tourism is picking up. We spend an afternoon and a night tracking wildlife by jeep with Andy and Norman, two Zimbabwean safari guides. We see plenty of “blotchy poles” (giraffes) and “disco donkeys” (zebras) as well as antelopes and elephants. For me, more impressive are the people guiding us; Andy and Norman are passionate conservationists. “If our politicians ever get their shit together,” Andy tells me, “this country will boom. I am so damn proud to show this place to visitors.” The history of Matabeleland, the western province that is my final destination, shatters the myth that Mugabe was a good politician who turned bad. In 1983, three years after assuming the presidency, Mugabe’s Fifth Brigade commando unit murdered up to 20,000 Ndebele, a people who had not supported his Shona-dominated ZANU-PF party at independence. Matabeleland has been neglected since; its residents are poor even by Zimbabwean standards. The tragedy of Matabeleland is magnified by the fact that this is one of Zimbabwe’s most beautiful regions: big skies, boulder-strewn hills and distinctive baobabs. This part of the country is forever associated with Rhodesia’s founder, Cecil Rhodes; it was here that he persuaded the Ndebele to lay down their arms against the British and where he would later choose to be buried. As we enter Bulawayo, the region’s principal city, I’m immediately reminded of Rhodes, such is the time-warp feel of the place. There’s a Victorian-era city hall, regal clock towers and a public library where a sign declares: “A-level textbooks may be borrowed here.” I remember Bulawayo as the place where our train derailed, leaving our family stranded for hours on the city’s outskirts and preventing us visiting the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Matobo Hills nearby. We arrive at “Land’s End”, as Rhodes’s tomb site is known, with the sun setting over the Matobos, illuminating the orange boulders scattered across the hills among acacias, their distinctive canopies squashed flat like clouds. As our guide, Ian, describes Rhodes’s divisive legacy, I find myself listening instead to the sounds of the bush, quickening with the onset of night. I recognise the hooting of hornbills and the shrieks of baboons. But it is the bark of a hyena that makes me smile. Matobo Hills has plenty of tree stumps, so if an unusually tall hyena comes my way, this time I’ll know what to do. Sam Vincent travelled courtesy of Singapore Airlines, South African Airways and Intrepid Travel. FAST FACTS Getting there Singapore Airlines has a fare to Johannesburg from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1810, low-season return including tax. Fly to Singapore (about 8hr), then to Johannesburg (10hr 35min); see South African Airways flies from Johannesburg to Harare (1hr 40min); see Australians require a visa for stays of up to 30 days, which can be bought on arrival for $US30 ($28.35). Touring there Intrepid Travel’s eight-day Taste of Zimbabwe tour takes in Victoria Falls, Hwange and Matobo national parks and the ancient ruined city of Great Zimbabwe. It costs $2935 a person, departing from Victoria Falls. Phone 1300 364 512; see For animal lovers, the Classic Safari Company has a nine-day trip to Zimbabwe centred on the Save Valley Conservancy. Priced at $5625 person, the next departure is in September; see Stay or go? A tourism boycott of Zimbabwe is well meaning but, in my view, naive. As MDC senator David Coltart tells me: “Boycotts and sanctions serve no practical purpose other than to stigmatise the perpetrators. They haven’t stopped a single murder, beating or land seizure; they haven’t stopped the looting of our natural resources or even stopped them [Mugabe’s associates] from travelling.” By carefully planning a trip to Zimbabwe, it is possible to direct your money not to the ruling regime but to the people who need it desperately: the guides, hoteliers, game wardens, musicians, waiters and artists whose livelihoods have been crippled by the collapse of tourism. The Australian government continues to maintain its highest warning, advising travellers to “reconsider your need to travel”