Zimbabwe is Back!

Zimbabwe is Back!

""Zimbabwe is back!"" says my guide Michael, with a huge grin. And his message was echoed just as brightly by every Zimbabwean I met on my 10 day trip of this beautiful country. And judging by all the visitors I saw, it seems it is indeed back. On the tourist map at least.


Zimbabwe is back...

And nowhere more obviously than Victoria Falls, where I began my tour. As is often the case, the local name paints a far better picture. Mosi oa Tunya, The Smoke That Thunders, is one of the seven natural wonders of the world and just as spectacular a sight as its status suggests. The experience will certainly stay with you long after your jeans (and everything above, below and underneath, depending on how sturdy your poncho is) have dried from the torrential spray.

It was only as I made my squelching entrance to The Victoria Falls Hotel, the epitome of colonial elegance, that I realised I should have checked in before visiting the falls. But to their credit, neither the smart doorman who tipped his pith helmet to me nor the lovely lady behind the reception even blinked at the drowned rat dripping before them. But that is typical of The Grand Old Lady, as the hotel is fondly known, exceptional service all round. Even to drowned rats.

Vic Falls is the beating heart of Zimbabwe tourism, with something for everyone. Adrenaline junkies can find their fix in all manner of activities: bungee jumping, gorge swinging, canoeing, white water rafting... I could go on but the list alone is exhausting. For those not so keen on the taste of adrenaline, there are plenty of calmer activities, from helicopter trips over the falls and sunset boat cruises to historical tours. And of course safaris. With all this activity it's easy to forget you are in fact surrounded by national parks, and never 10 minutes from an elephant. In fact, you can even ride one at Elephant Camp.


But for mind boggling elephant herds...

Head South East, to Hwange, Zimbabwe's largest park. Roughly the size of Switzerland, its sheer size means the variation of landscape, vegetation and animal species is fantastic. The park is famed for its huge elephant populations and sure enough, within an hour of arriving at Somalisa Camp I was sharing the pool deck with Max, an old bull. It turns out Max has a fondness for soap, which he scoops up from your open roofed bathroom if you give him half a chance. (I asked for a touch of fairy liquid to see if Max cared to blow bubbles for a change, but this went against the rules. Quite right too.)


Walking safaris...

Zimbabwe boasts some of the finest guides in Africa and walking safaris are a signature activity which are not to be missed. Nothing compares to the raw experiences of walking with wildlife on their own turf. Stripped of the game vehicle's security bubble and rattling engine your senses go into over drive. As does your imagination, I felt eyes all over me. I consider myself quite relaxed with elephants, I've seen thousands before, but the rate my heart was pounding as we tracked a huge bull took me right back to my first safari.

Walking is without a doubt the main activity in the remote and utterly beautiful Mana Pools National Park, which lies in the north of the country, on the Zambezi River. A combination of excellent guiding and the famously relaxed manner the animals have with people means a walking safari here is quite unique. The guides here know the game so well they're able to walk closer than would normally be considered safe. Their favourites even have names, like Boswell and Fred Astaire, two bull elephants so fond of the Albida fruit that they have taken to lifting themselves onto their back legs to reach the fruit higher up. Then there is Robinson, a baboon who jumped aboard a large piece of driftwood during the floods 2 years ago and landed on a small island on the Zambezi, where he has been stranded ever since with just passing elephant and hippos for company. (I put forward all sorts of noble Disney inspired rescue plans, but I am told National Parks are on the case.)


Or take to the water...

Canoeing safaris at Zambezi Lifestyles and Ruckomechi are another fantastic way to experience Mana Pools. Paddling down the Zambezi, alongside elephants and hippos swimming across the channel is a breath taking experience. Not literally, of course, it is all downstream and your guide does most of the work. In fact, for those with any safety concerns, these chaps have to have 1000 hours before they can qualify as a river guide. One thousand! (A pilot only needs 150!) Like I say, Zimbabwe takes guiding seriously.

This fabulous country is putting itself firmly back on the safari circuit with camps and wildlife to easily rival any of the other big African safari players. It packs a big punch with a very reasonable price tag, for now anyway...so get in there before everyone else realises too!