Zimbabwe: Politics, bad – Vacation, good

If you’re planning a vacation, and this year you’ve decided to visit Africa for the first time, chances are, the last place on your list, if indeed it is on your list at all, is Zimbabwe. With a decade-long history of political instability, and the economic meltdown of the late mid to late 2000s, this country, which was once considered the jewel of Africa, has disappeared from most travelers’ radar screens.

For the visitor to Africa, whether a first-time tourist or a veteran traveler, this is unfortunate. Despite the fact that the political situation remains uncertain, Zimbabwe is probably one of Africa’s best tourist destinations.

What are the attractions that justify such a far-reaching assertion, you might ask? Let’s start with getting there. Despite being a landlocked country, bordered by South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, and Mozambique, getting to Zimbabwe is easier than to even some of Africa’s coastal countries. Daily flights from Johannesburg to Harare and Victoria Falls on South African Airways, as well as regional flights from Nairobi and Addis Ababa, make it imminently accessible. In addition to South African Airways, Zimbabwe is served by British Airways, Kenya Airways.

The official languages of Zimbabwe are English, Shona, and Ndebele. Almost everyone a visitor might meet, though, speaks English, and all signs are in English alongside in many cases one or more of the local languages.

The hyperinflation of 2002 to 2009, which nearly wrecked the economy, was brought under control by introduction of a multi-currency system, with the US Dollar now being the official currency. While US coins are not in general circulation, when small change is needed, the South African Rand is used. This might sound complicated, but the locals have adapted to it quite well.

In the foreign press, most of the stories about Zimbabwe focus on the political violence, which was serious in 2008 during the contested elections that resulted in a coalition government. But, visitors are often amazed when they discover that in fact Zimbabweans are among the most peaceful people in all of Africa. During the period of hyperinflation, when people saw their bank account reduced to zero, they endured it patiently. A West African diplomat remarked, “I saw members of my embassy staff wait in line for four hours to get the equivalent of five US Dollars, which was worth even less a few hours later, go home and eat lunch, and then go back and wait for four more hours for the same amount of worthless paper. If this had been in Nigeria, on the second trip they would have burned the bank down.” In addition, despite anti-US and anti-Western rhetoric of some of Zimbabwe’s politicians, there has been no history of violence against American or other tourists, and in fact, during the most serious political violence, tours to Victoria Falls continued with only minimal interruption.

The sights to see and things to do in Zimbabwe are many. Historic Victoria Falls, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a must, as is Old Zimbabwe, an ancient structure in the south of the country, that is believed to date from the time of the San Bushmen who once were the main inhabitants of the area. In Zimbabwe’s southwest Matabeleland South province is Matoko National Park, home to most of the country’s remaining rhino population, and site of World View, where Cecil Rhodes, the first Western settler, is buried. The amazing rock formations, and roaming bands of baboons and warthogs that can be seen from the highway, are alone worth the trip.

For the traveling sportsman, Zimbabwe also has a lot to offer. Conservancies offer hunting expeditions, where controlled hunts enable hunters to go after some of the less threatened game, and photographers to get shots of some of the variety of wildlife, including elephant, giraffe, crocodile, hippos, and rhino. Zimbabwe has some 50 golf courses, including world class courses like Royal Harare and Chapman in Harare, Leopard Rock near the Mozambique border, and Elephant Hills in Victoria Falls. It has first class hotels and lodges, with many bordering game preserves, allowing guests to sit on the comfort of their balcony or the hotel bar and view all manner of wildlife. At Victoria Falls’ Safari Lodge, for instance, troops of monkeys often invade the balconies looking for an unlocked door so they can wreak havoc in the unwary guest’s room.

While the national food of Zimbabwe is sadza, a dish with the consistency of thickened library paste made from ground maize, there is also a wide variety of international cuisine available. From Portuguese to Chinese, in the major cities, one can find a restaurant that serves something wonderful.

If you’re up for an unforgettable vacation, forget about politics and pack your bags.