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Great Zimbabwe – in any which way

Prof. Dr. Wolfgang H. Thome, eTN Africa Correspondent  Jun 17, 2016

Back in Zimbabwe for the first time in a year – scheduling conflicts made it impossible to attend the Harare International Carnival last September – I find myself faced with the same questions from readers: “Why Zimbabwe” or “What is so special about Zimbabwe” or “What on Earth do they have to offer to a tourist” or “How does one even get there?” Let me answer the last question first and then move on to cover the rest.

I flew with Kenya Airways (KQ) via Nairobi to Harare – the flight then returned to Kenya via Lilongwe/Malawi – one of up to three daily services by KQ, with others routing via the Zambian city of Livingstone or the Zambian capital Lusaka. Additional options exist out of East Africa, via Fastjet and Air Zimbabwe from Dar es Salaam, with South African Airways via Johannesburg or the rather more time-wasting and cumbersome transit further north of East Africa, no names named.

Internationally, Emirates flies daily from Dubai to Harare, offering easy connections from around the world to the Zimbabwean capital. British Airways, as they did in Lusaka, Dar es Salaam and Entebbe, pulled out of the route in a move never properly explained nor understood and with many a “good riddance” from these countries.

On to the first question now, why Zimbabwe? The Zimbabwe Tourism Authority (ZTA) every year hosts the Sanganai World Tourism Fair, the venue alternating between Harare and this year Bulawayo. Apart from attending key trade shows in Africa like Indaba, World Travel Market (WTM) Africa, and, of course, the Magical Kenya Tourism Expo, ZTA also exhibits in the main global tourism fairs like ITB Berlin and WTM in London. But it is here at home that the buyers find undivided attention as do the sellers, as it is destination Zimbabwe which is the focus of discussions and trade deals signed.

What is so special about Zimbabwe and what the country has to offer, of course, is a matter to be best experienced in person or else continuing to read my narrative about my own experiences of past and current visits to this country.

The arguably best-known attraction of Zimbabwe are the Victoria Falls of the mighty Zambezi river. A new airport terminal and an extended runway has put the required infrastructure in place for international flights to land and take off with full loads. This is something airlines in the past have cited as a reason why they cannot route their services via Victoria Falls, and now that the technical facilities are in place, it remains to be seen which of the big league carriers will be the first to fly passengers directly there.

Regional flights from for instance Johannesburg continue to bring tourists to see the falls, ranked and rated as among Africa’s top attractions together with the Pyramids of Egypt and their monuments along the Nile, the annual migration of the big herds between the Serengeti and the Masai Mara, the tracking of the highly-endangered mountain gorillas in both Uganda and Rwanda, and, of course, Mt. Kilimanjaro, aka the “Roof of Africa.”

Add to this the historical component of the ruins of ancient Great Zimbabwe and the kingdom which ruled this part of Africa. This kingdom had come, prevailed, and eventually made way to others at a time when North America still waited to be discovered by European seafarers. Combined there are now two major attractions of global renown to be visited in Zimbabwe. Great Zimbabwe is like the Victoria Falls a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1986. These remains of Great Zimbabwe are a window into the very distant past of Africa, a testament – as seen and amply explained in the museum on site – of how social and administrative structures existed on the continent long before the European powers divided Africa among them in the now infamous Berlin Conference. They entered their colonies to bring what was called “civilization” but what in effect turned out to be the suppression of existing power structures, followed by the introduction of competitive and often intolerant different religions. Those were, like it or not, forced upon the local population and, of course, paved the way for the exploitation and expatriation of natural resources, which in some parts of Africa continues up to today.

Now add at least ten major national parks across the country, many of them notably right on the borders with Zambia, Mozambique, and Botswana, and the question of what the country has to offer suddenly answers itself. Big names like Mana Pools, Hwange, Matobo, Gonarezhou, and Nyanga can be reached with ease from Harare by often excellent roads, or else one can fly to some smaller airfields inside or outside the parks, some owned by safari lodges and camps. And those lodges, camps, and resorts often are of such quality that they do not need to look in awe at the award-winning South African, Botswanan, Kenyan, or Tanzanian properties but scoop trophies themselves in their own right.

A glimpse of Amalinda Camp’s standards

Be it Aberfoyle, Troutbeck, Inn on Rupurara, Leopard Rock, La Rochelle or – one of the most charming places I ever saw – Amalinda, built into a bushmen’s refuge and overlooking the granite wilderness of Matobo Hills, not to forget Meikles in Harare or the Victoria Falls Hotel, Zimbabwe is home to some exceptional places where food and classic African hospitality blend in with the location to make a safari truly that trip of a lifetime.

That I hope answers those questions which were asked of me, and if not, there is always Google to help out as is the open line to me.

The city of Mutare in Eastern Zimbabwe, surrounded by mountains covered in clouds

Having arrived in Mutare after several days navigating my way across the Eastern Highlands, which I fell in love with for its stunning sights and charming lodges, it was the last I saw of those imposing mountains, often shrouded in mist and clouds but neither rain nor mist clouded the impressions or rained on them.

After leaving the highlands, following four days of intense discovery and plenty of footwork to climb hills, mountains, or explore golf courses and game sanctuaries, I was then heading towards Masvingo – described as the country’s oldest settlement – and the Great Zimbabwe ruins.

Along the way, I crossed the Save River over the famous Birchenough Bridge, which was built between 1931 and 1935. The river below meandered along, but the tell-tale signs were all there that it was quite capable, during the rainy season, to turn into a raging monster, impossible to cross unless by using the bridge.

Through the town of Masvingo, all tourist roads here lead to the ruins, of course, and like last year, I found the Great Zimbabwe Hotel fully booked, prompting a diversion to a little lodge overlooking Lake Mutirikwi and the national park surrounding it by the name of Norma Jean’s. And to answer the question, no, it has no connection to the late Marilyn Monroe, whose birth name Norma Jean was, as much as those in the know were hoping for as we arrived and began to explore in search of hidden hints.

The imposing Birchenough Bridge over the Save River, opened in 1935 – engineered to last for generations

The imposing hilltop fortress of the Kings of ancient Great Zimbabwe

The “Great Enclosure”- surrounded by several smaller such structures – located below the main fortress and home to the First Wife of the respective kings

Impressions of how massive the dry stone walls are, the ancient Zimbabweans built by hand with building blocks hewn from the rocks surrounding the site

If one bit of advice is permitted here, anyone coming to the ruins of Great Zimbabwe should aim to stay two nights as the changing sunlight, from sunrise to sunset, keep showing the great walls and intact cones made of stones in a different light. Least favored is the time when the sun sets and the so-called Great Enclosure descends into the shadows, so some planning is needed for visitors to fully enjoy the view from the hill-top fortress as well as the structures below.

Norma Jean’s dining room with the table set for a splendid dinner

The same goes in fact also for visits to Matobo National Park and other parks near Bulawayo, where for instance tracking for rhinos is available but requires the better part of a half day. Exploring the ancient rock painting sites should also not be rushed, nor should the visit to World’s End in the Matopos National Park, as the other name of the park goes. The magnificent imposing rock formations, in other parts of Africa called Kopjes, are truly spectacular, and seeing them in the changing light of day makes the experience extra special. Walking with guides is possible and gets tourists closer to the flora found in the park.

It is also in this park where Cecil Rhodes’ last resting place is found, together with monuments reminding of the sacrifices made during the two World Wars in which the then Rhodesians and now Zimbabweans fought on the side of the allies. Additional grave sites of several others like Allan Wilson and Leander Jameson are also found on the top of the hill known as “Malindidzimu.”

Cecil Rhodes’ last resting place on top of World’s View

The government of Zimbabwe has not joined into the hullaballoo witnessed last year in South Africa, where statues of Rhodes were removed in a clear denial of history, which, like it or not, does have the capacity to teach lessons to those who are willing to learn from it. Zimbabwe appears to have no issue with leaving the Rhodes’ grave site intact for the world to see, that there is no streak of vindictiveness as is so often wrongly projected in international media. This is then equally demonstrated in the many museums I visited where pre-independence events and times are given equal exposure and where history is not re-written as sections of South Africa’s society seem to clamor for.

Many roads in the cities, or names of locations across the country, still bear the old English names, again a sign that Zimbabwe deals with her history in a gracious manner, and why not - after all the liberation movement won the struggle and prevailed, allowing them to be magnanimous in victory.

My visit to Zimbabwe this time was again an eye opener - friendly people across the entire country, magnificent landscapes especially in the Eastern Highlands near the border with Mozambique, and during the closing days a very well-attended Sanganai Tourism Trade Fair, which showed once more that demand for tours and safaris to this country are on the up again, finally.

Great Zimbabwe – in any which way

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