From : Dailymail.co.uk
27 January 2013
There’s a surge of cautious optimism about Zimbabwe these days.
After what locals call ‘the lost decade’ when nobody came, there are foreign visitors in the wildlife lodges and there’s talk of a tourism renaissance.
And not all the visitors are Americans who can’t tell the difference between Zimbabwe, Zambia and Zanzibar. There are French, Germans, Swiss and, well, a smattering of Brits.
International airlines are beginning to fly in again – Emirates started going there for the first time early in 2012 and last November KLM flew its inaugural service into Harare. Both fly three times a week to Zimbabwe’s capital and there is talk of other international airlines following suit.
However, there is no sign of British Airways resuming the route it abandoned in 2007. This year, several British tour operators will be featuring Zimbabwe in their brochures. Yet it seems that we, the former colonial rulers, are the most reluctant to dip our toes back in the water.
As everyone who has read a newspaper knows, this formerly prosperous colony has suffered social, political and economic misfortune in recent times and has fallen to 176th out of 184 countries in terms of economic performance.
A political power-sharing arrangement and the abandonment of the hyper-inflated Zim dollar in 2009 has help spark a renaissance, but there remain significant economic issues to resolve – last year the national airline, Air Zimbabwe, went bust. It still operates infrequent internal flights, but basically you have to catch a bus between the major cities, even if it is a luxury, air-conditioned one.
For all that, this is a country populated by friendly, hospitable people and blessed with a spectacularly varied landscape. So from the Matopos Hills, where Cecil John Rhodes, the creator of colonial Rhodesia, is buried, through to the Hwange National Park, one of the greatest on the continent for wildlife, through to Mana Pools on the shores of the mighty Zambezi, and Gonarezhou, the remote game-rich reserve in the lowveld, this country has everything for wildlife tourists.
I must, however, declare an interest. I grew up in this lovely, beleaguered place in the days when it was called Rhodesia. It was – and still is – a country with extraordinary potential, potential that could easily have been fulfilled if only generations of politicians had let the ordinary people get on with their lives.
Those politicians certainly recognised the potential: soon after Robert Mugabe took control from the colonial leader Ian Smith in 1980, he said he was fully aware that he had inherited the jewel of Africa and undertook to take care of it. History will judge whether he kept his word.
Despite the dearth of internal air links, the potholed roads, the creaking infrastructure and the down-at-heel feel of the main cities, it remains one of the best countries in Africa for a Western tourist. The wilderness areas have been least affected by the turmoil and remain unspoilt expanses of real Africa.
I spent two days in Hwange watching huge herds of elephant passing across the horizon – trekking, as Out Of Africa author Karen Blixen said, ‘towards the sunset as if they had an appointment at the end of the Earth’.
From dramatic reports about elephant poaching and the illegal ivory trade, you might think that these great creatures are heading for extinction. This may be the case in east and central Africa, but certainly not in the south.
In fact, Zimbabwe, like neighbouring Botswana and South Africa, has a surfeit of elephants (more than scientists believe current levels of vegetation can sustain), and in my short time in Hwange I counted more than 700 in herds of up to 80.
If you are looking to see species that are endangered – rhino, lion, cheetah and wild dog fall into this category – then Zimbabwe is also a good starting point. In Hwange, I watched a family of wild dogs, or painted wolves as they are now called, hunting impala in an exhilarating and terrifying chase.
They hunt in large family units, and once they have cornered their prey they tear it apart piece by piece to the accompaniment of awful squeals. That may sound appallingly graphic, but this is wild Africa, red in tooth and claw, and it is an extraordinary privilege to witness it.
A few days later, 700 miles away at a water hole near Pamushana, Zimbabwe’s most luxurious wildlife lodge, I sat drinking G&Ts at sunset while eight white rhinos appeared out of the bush and walked past me, untroubled by my presence. Earlier in the day I’d watched a family of cheetahs lolling about after a kill, again quite relaxed in the company of humans.
Out here, hundreds of miles from the urban sprawls, from the grim toil of modern African life, there is an ancient order at play, a slow majestic rhythm of life (and death) with which we so-called civilised humans have lost contact.
Ask any travellers to the African wilderness and they will tell you that after a few days, their senses become sharper, their pulses slow down and they begin to feel more in tune with the planet.
So, for all its man-made troubles Zimbabwe has managed to visit on itself, it has also been able to preserve some of its wilderness and thus its wildness. Because of the lack of tourist development in recent years, you won’t find convoys of vehicles following animals as you do in Kenya’s Masai Mara.
And because of the absence of development since independence in 1980, you will not be delivered to these wild places on tarmac super-highways as you are in South Africa. Providing this year’s electoral processes go off smoothly (there is supposed to be a new constitution, a referendum and then an election) and it maintains its slow economic recovery, Zimbabwe will once again become a major African safari destination.
The alternative is too terrible to contemplate.
KLM (0871 222 7474, www.klm.com) offers flights to Harare via Amsterdam from 17 UK departure points. Return fares from London start at £642. Expert Africa (020 8232 9777, www.expertafrica.com) offers a range of holidays to Zimbabwe. Prices start at £4,409 for an 11-night itinerary with four nights in Mana Pools, three in Hwange and three in Matobo Hills, plus a night in Zambia’s capital Lusaka. It includes international flights with KLM from Heathrow, all internal transfers, full board, almost all drinks and all activities.