Impressions of Zimbabwe 2013

Harare in a mess

My trip to Zimbabwe over the 2012/13 holidays was fairly limited in scope, and was focused on the Reels in Motion Fly Fishing tour of Southern Africa. From a general travel perspective Zimbabwe is still behind the curve and is probably a few years shy of returning to the status of the premier African travel destination that it once was. The country is still in the midst of an ongoing political crisis, all the symptoms of which are still evident everywhere. Arrival at Harare International Airport was surprisingly easy. A tourist visa cost 40US$ and is available without additional procedure at the airport, which is also usually the case at any port of entry.

Harare International Airport was sunk in gloom consequent to another of many power cuts that plague the capital, and the airport appeared grubby, airport staff disinterested and a general sense of malaise very apparent. Leaving the airport the feeling of social collapse was even stronger. Having grown up here, and known it in much happier times, the infrastructural breakdown and the utter chaos evident on the streets was nothing if not depressing. It is true that the airport road plies through some of the more depressed suburbs of Harare, and that as soon as we entered the northern suburbs things improved, but the fact remains that the rapid decay of the urban structure of Harare has become the new normal, and it is unlikely that it will ever be rehabilitated to the level that it stood only a decade or so ago.

Wealth Distribution

There is, however, also clear evidence of a significant amount of wealth in circulation, but very little if any of this money is directed towards public services, and certainly it is concentrated in the hands of a very few. The odd sight of late model S Class Mercedes Benz, and other luxury brand cars sharing the broken down streets with destitute street children, and horribly ostentatious urban mansions walled off against trash strewn streets, with generator power and borehole water insulating the inhabitants against the horrors and difficulties of life on the outside for the masses.

But such is modern Africa in many ways, and certainly such is urban Africa. A little of that stress and depression was eased a few days later as I left the city heading towards Kariba, an inland sea created by the damming of the Zambezi River in the 1950s, and where many wealthy Zimbabweans retreat for their annual holidays. The lake covers some five thousand square kilometers of prime fish and wildlife habitat that is a uniquely beautiful Zimbabwean destination. The south shore is dominated by the Matusadona National Park, a thriving wildlife destination that is among four key preserves countrywide. These are Mana Pools, Hwange National Park, Gonarezhou National Park and of course Matusadona itself.

Kariba Houseboat

My particular trip was on a corporate houseboat which offered all the facilities necessary to enjoy this destination in superb comfort. Few people have that opportunity though, although it is possible to hire a houseboat during the off season, an a number of tour operators offer the facility.

In general Zimbabwe still offers fantastic potential for eco-tourism. Mana Pools, a World Heritage Site situated on the south bank of the Zambezi River, and arguably one of the most sought after wildlife destinations in Africa, is intact, well managed and well protected. There are also many opportunities for cultural outreach, both in the cities and the rural areas, and although politically sensitive, the country on the whole is peaceful and safe for overland travel.

Matusadona National Park

Perhaps the greatest advantage of considering Zimbabwe as a travel destination at the moment is that there are great deals to be had, and of course you might often find yourself with an entire national park to yourself. The country is struggling to drag itself out of the difficulties it has experienced of late, and these, being mainly political, require a great human effort to put right. There is a great sense of optimisim within the country that within a few years the nationa might begin to grope its way back to normality, although my personal sense is that this is optimistic. The fact is,however, that signs of change are there, and investment in the future of travel and tourism are being made, and I think we can all look forward to better times in the near future, because Zimbabwe has been, and will be again, a superb destination to visit.