Gazing through the window of the South African Airways carrier as it flew over Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe’s adventure capital, I saw what I thought was the smoke from a huge forest fire. The “smoke” was blue-white, with silvery hues. It rose high up into the air and seemed to roll along a winding path on the ground.
Later, standing before the roaring majesty of the waterfalls that gave the town its name, I realized that what I had seen was the spray of the falls tumbling 360 feet into the mighty Zambezi River. And amid the rainbows that arced through this stunning curtain of water, I saw why the falls, which Zimbabweans call Mosi-oa-Tunya (The Smoke that Thunders), count among the seven greatest natural wonders of the world. I saw, too, why Thokozile Mathuthu, governor of Matabeleland North, the home province of Victoria Falls, proclaimed as she opened the African Travel Association’s 37th Annual Congress that brought me to Zimbabwe, “Victoria Falls, where the pace is blissfully slow, the sky is huge and blue, and there is beauty that fills the eye and warms the heart. Go and tell them how beautiful it is here.”
Victoria Falls is located in a national park, and in the town and at the resorts all types of animals, except lions, roam freely — baboons, warthogs, even elephants. “One of the good things about Zimbabwe is, we don’t have zoos. Here, you have to go into the parks, which are natural and wild and you will see the animals. If you go to other countries, they will show you a group of animals in a place that looks like a zoo,” said Karikoga Kaseke, chief executive of the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority.
Zimbabwe officials say ATA’s decision to hold its annual Congress in Zimbabwe this year, and the U.N. World Tourism Organization’s choice of Zimbabwe as co-host with neighboring Zambia of the organization’s 2013 General Assembly affirm the country as a fast-growing destination for tourism and related investment. “The future, according to the World Tourism Council, which is the industry body, puts Zimbabwe second only to China as the fastest-growing tourism economy by GDP contribution for the next decade, growing at an annualized rate of 8.2 percent,” Walter Mzembi, Zimbabwe’s minister of tourism and hospitality industry, told the U.S. press corps attending the ATA congress.
On May 23, the day after ATA’s four-day congress ended, the press corps checked out of the sprawling four-star A’Zambezi River Lodge and embarked on a dizzying road trek under the patronage of ZTA and Arik Air Ltd., Nigeria’s largest commercial airline, for a firsthand look at Zimbabwe’s tourism splendor. We were accompanied by a former Miss Zimbabwe, Shuvai Murumbi-Mnangagwa, who worked as an international media relations executive for the ZTA. The agency typically employs local beauty pageant winners in international media, marketing and other external relations capacities. Robert Brunner, Arik Air’s vice president for the Americas, also accompanied us.
Our first stop was Hwange National Park in the northwest corner of the country, about an hour’s drive south of Victoria Falls. Hwange is Zimbabwe’s largest national park in Zimbabwe and home to Africa’s “big five” animals: buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion and rhinoceros. We lunched at Hwange Safari Lodge (www.hwangesafarilodge.com ) and watched a herd of elephants make its way to a shriveling waterhole out back. We dined at The Hide Safari Camp (www.thehide.com ) and spent the freezing night there after dessert and wine outdoors around a fire. May is the onset of the dry season, which is also winter in Zimbabwe. The temperature drops into the 40s at night and early in the morning. We left before sunrise the next morning, piled in two open jeeps, for the park. I had experienced the dry-season cold, with hail, years before when I taught in western Uganda — I even had a fireplace in my home then. Yet, wrapped in two thick wool blankets, I was never so cold for so long as I was in the back of that jeep. The wind seemed to bite through to my bones. Relief came only when our driver-guide stopped in the sun to let us view the animals.
Day two brought us to Bulawayo, City of Kings, the second-largest city in Zimbabwe and reputedly the country’s business capital. We checked in at the three-star Cresta Churchill Hotel (www.bulawayochurchillhotel.com ) whose Tudor architecture and mounted photographs recalled the long-gone colonial era. We made it to Matobo National Park, famous for the rare white rhinoceros, cave paintings, gigantic boulders and the grave of Cecil Rhodes, the South African businessman who founded the state of Rhodesia, present-day Zimbabwe. Our guide spotted a white rhino and we ran it down on foot, some of us capturing the chase on our iPad.
Day three put us in Masvingo province in the south east, next to Mozambique. It is home to Great Zimbabwe, with the architectural magnificence of its massive stone monuments and ruins of the grand medieval palace, and its real-life village that dates back to the old kingdom. Great Zimbabwe is a World Heritage site, one of the country’s more-than 150 documented dry-walled ruins. Zimbabweans say you have not been to Zimbabwe until you visit Great Zimbabwe. We explored it all and learned how Zimbabwe got its name: “Zi” is a prefix for “a big thing” in Shona; “mba” is a root word for “house”; “bwe” is a root word for “stone.” “So the word ‘Zimbabwe’ is the big houses of stones. This is derived from the stone structures we have in Zimbabwe,” a beaming site guide informed us.
We spent the night at the exquisite Lodge at the Ancient City (www.lodgeattheancientcity.com ), whose dry stonewalling and soaring thatch structures mimic the style of Great Zimbabwe. That night, for the first time, I heard the kingly roar of a lion in the wild. Arriving the next day in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital and largest city, we checked in at Rainbow Towers Hotel (www.rainbowtowershotel.com ), the country’s most luxurious five-star hotel and joined VIPs at the National Sports Stadium for a charity soccer match organized by the foundation of Benjani Mwaruwari, the Zimbabwe-born striker of Britain’s Manchester City fame. We partied at Klub Monako, a new, ultramodern nightclub catering to Harare’s elite youth, and shopped at the sprawling Mbara Market, where traditional African vending mingles with modern shops.
They say, “Laughter is a feature you will not miss on a Zimbabwe face.” Of all the wonders I experienced in Zimbabwe, it is that laughter, those faces, that I enjoyed the most.