WHEN I WAS ASKED TO SPEAK at the 37th World Congress of the African Travel Association, hosted this year in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, the preconceptions I had about the country began to run wildly through my mind. Here are a few that I was dead wrong about, and one that I wasn’t.
1. Zimbabwe is dangerous.
At Matador, we believe most travel advisories and American perceptions of overseas destinations being ‘dangerous’ are way overblown. I enjoy visiting places that some consider dangerous, so I was interested to see how Zimbabwe stacked up to others that struggle with this stigma — Brazil, Colombia, Iran.
The big cities are where most violent crime is concentrated. It wasn’t a surprise then that Victoria Falls, as well as the couple national parks we visited, felt just about as safe and friendly as a place can get. In fact, Vic Falls has such a small town feel that other journalists joked it had the vibe of a US National Park in the off-season.
2. Zimbabwe’s wildlife has all been wiped out.
This was a big one for me since I love seeing wildlife, and it was my strongest misconception going in. I’d read well-documented reporting that, following the fast-track land reform program Robert Mugabe instituted in 2000 targeting political opponents and white farmers, many of the well-protected wild areas and national parks had fallen victim to unchecked poaching, and that much of the country’s wildlife had been completely wiped out.
I was relieved to see troops of baboons and packs of warthogs trotting along the road from the airport after we flew in, but nothing could prepare me for getting woken out of a dead sleep at 3am on the first night in Victoria Falls, to the sound of four bull elephants destroying trees outside my hotel room at the A’Zambezi River Lodge. This herd of wild elephants wandered right into the garden of our hotel to gorge on all the tasty things planted there. The hotel manager wasn’t pleased the following day, but I was beyond stoked to spend over an hour that night following them (very cautiously) around the grounds and watching them destroy the hotel’s landscaping.
Keep in mind this encounter wasn’t even inside a nature reserve — once we made our way to protected areas like Hwange National Park, the numbers of elephants we saw increased dramatically, and we also spotted lions, hippo, water buffalo, hyena, kudu, zebra, and water buck. I was thrilled with the amount of wildlife we were able to see in a short period of time, and after speaking with different naturalists we ran into, it seems like the wildlife in most places is on the road to a full recovery.
3. Hyperinflation will make buying things a total hassle.
After seeing years of news coverage on the hyperinflation of Zimbabwe currency, I was expecting that money would be a pain in the ass and I’d have to carry around bricks of 10 billion dollar notes to buy a beer or some lunch.
But the currency of Zimbabwe has become so worthless they’ve retired it completely, and the country now operates on a mix of foreign currencies, including the South African rand, the GBP, the euro, and most commonly the US dollar. It’s difficult to assess how this transition has affected prices for ordinary Zimbabweans, and although some things are more expensive now, it’s nice not having to do insane math to convert currency. There are a couple ATMs in Vic Falls, but I’d recommend bringing a decent amount of US dollars to get you started. The only Zim dollars you’re likely to see are those sold by kids in the street as novelty souvenirs. They got me…I paid $5US for a stack of worthless old Zim notes. I just had to own a real 10 trillion dollar bill.
4. Beyond the wildlife, there’s not much to see/do in Zimbabwe.
If I were Zimbabwe, I’d brand my country as a destination for adventure travel in addition to safaris. Here are a few options that stand out:
- Rafting the Zambezi – Both above and below the 350ft-tall, 5,600ft-wide Victoria Falls, the Zambezi River flows through dozens of tight gorges that make for wild rapids. To get the best of the rafting season, make sure you go somewhere between August and December.
- Bungee jumping / Rope swinging / Zip-lining – All three of these activities can be done from the same place — the bridge spanning the gorge right below Vic Falls, which also marks the border with Zambia. My favorite was the rope swing, where you basically step off a 390ft bridge and “free fall” until you’re only about 30ft above the river and do a massive pendulum swing out across the gorge (way scarier than the bungee jump).
- Micro-lite flying over and around Victoria Falls – This can be done from the Zambia side of the gorge and is the best way to see Victoria Falls, even better than a helicopter, not only because it’s cheaper but because you can FEEL the falls in addition to seeing them.
- Fishing – If you’re into sport fishing there are some great day trips you can take up the Zambezi above Victoria Falls, with plenty of river monsters to be pulled out of the murky water up there.
- Swimming in Devil’s Pool – This is the one thing I was really hoping to do, but unfortunately the water was way too high to do it safely during our visit. What is Devil’s Pool? When most of the rainy season’s water has drained out of the jungle and passed over Victoria Falls, the water on the Zambia side of the gorge becomes low enough to hang out in a hot tub-sized swimming hole right on the edge of the plunge. The best time to do this is October to January.
5. Since tourism has been on the decline for years, Zimbabwe won’t have many high quality hotels and safari lodges.
From the A’Zambezi River Lodge, where wildlife mills around the garden 24 hours/day, and the more upscale, colonial-style Victoria Falls Hotel (great for evening cocktails), to the over-the-top luxury of a tented safari in the bush at The Hide in Hwange National Park — you’ve got a wide range of high-end resort and hotel options.
6. Given the repressive regime of Mugabe, border crossings will be difficult and expensive.
It always seems that the shadier a government is, the more difficult its country will be to pass in and out of — especially overland. I was pleasantly surprised to find how easy it was to cross the border to Zambia for the day and come back to Zimbabwe that afternoon.
When we did the bungee jump/rope swing off the bridge (the operation is technically in Zambia), we weren’t even required to buy a visa, and when we drove over the bridge later that week to spend a full day in Zambia, we were only in line for about 5 minutes at the crossing.
7. Robert Mugabe is still running a full-blown dictatorship.
This is the one thing I had correct going in. It’s great to see a country recovering, but very sad and disheartening to see one that’s a shadow of its former self, where political opponents die in “fires” and “car accidents” on a regular basis, or just disappear altogether.
As a tourist, you’ll be far from the crosshairs of Mugabe’s henchmen. But I felt really bad for all the amazingly friendly Zimbabweans I ran into, who were either ignorant of Mugabe’s ways or too scared to talk about it openly. At the end of the day, it’s easy to feel conflicted. Part of me wanted nothing to do with a country run by such a government, and part wanted to enjoy this amazing country and not punish its citizens for the mistakes of its government by avoiding travel there. I’d encourage you to pick the latter and go enjoy Zimbabwe.
[Editor’s note: This content was produced by Matador in partnership with Arik Airlines. Arik Airlines is the largest and fastest-growing airline in West Africa. Its fleet is one of the youngest of any airline in the world, with extensive legroom and baggage allowance. The ONLY airline to fly if you are headed to West Africa. Visit www.arikair.com or follow @ArikAir.]