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Trip Report 3 weeks in Zimbabwe with a rented Jeep - our experience

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After travelling 5.700 kilometers in three weeks in cars, boats and even a canoe, we got a bit of a feel what Zimbabwe is like, at least from a tourist’s perspective… Nevertheless, this country is so large and has so much to offer, on and off the beaten tracks that we actually feel we only scratched the surface!
More information: http://www.oneyearoff.net/countries-visited/africa/zimbabwe/report/article/3-weeks-in-zimbabwe-summary/

What makes it special?
We had the touristic highlights pretty much to ourselves. Even the relatively touristy Victoria Falls was quite relaxed…
The game viewing is unique and so different to safaris in other countries! We explored the national parks driving ourselves, we walked with a ranger and canoed. We put up our tent next at sites littered with elephant dung and hippo tracks. We were right in the middle of all the wildlife. We need to repeat this: mostly it was just us, no caravans of camera yielding visitors!
Zimbabwe’s highlights are not only crowd-free, they are also very diverse: fine national parks, historical sites, such as Great Zimbabwe & the incredible cave paintings in Matobo National Park. Add the long time favorite, Victoria Falls with its adrenaline pumping activities under, around & over the Falls and you have a great itinerary. Even Victoria Falls is actually not overrun by tourists.

Our itinerary?
* Starting in Johannesburg in a rented car, driving straight to Beitbridge & crossing into Zimbabwe,
* Bulawayo & Matobo National Park,
* Hwange National Park (Main Camp & Sinamatella Camp),
* Victoria Falls (only Zimbabwe),
* Ferry from Mlibizi to Kariba on Lake Kariba,
* Canoe Safari in Mana Pools National Park,
* Harare (as a stop-over),
* Gweru & Antelope Park,
* Masvingo & Great Zimbabwe,
* Gonarezhou National Park (Chilojo Cliffs),
* And last but not least driving up north to Mutare to drop Heidi & Jason at the Mozambique Border,
* Back to Johannesburg via Beitbridge.

Is it easy to travel?
This really depends on whether you have a car or not. Visiting Zimbabwe by car is extremely easy and truly rewarding. There is a downside of course, you are somehow cut off from the country and the local population. So we have surely missed part of this experience…
On the one hand, we met a few travelers who moved around on public transport and they were truly limited. Most of the real highlights are simply out of reach without a car. Renting a 4WD in Zimbabwe seemed difficult and even more expensive than in South Africa.

How expensive is it to travel?
Zimbabwe is an expensive destination, at least if you want to make the most out of the unique highlights. These are perks like a 4 day canoe safari in Mana Pools, a helicopter ride above Victoria Falls, a walk with lions and then of course the car (with rooftop tent and camping gears 150 USD per day).
It can be done quite reasonably if you can share the costs for the car, stick to camping & cooking and avoid some of the extras. Entry fees for the national park are actually quite cheap, compared to other African countries!
How locals cope with African salaries and often European or American prices for food, we really don’t know!

Is it dangerous?
Not unless you get too close to a hippo… All we can say is that we never for a moment felt in a dodgy situation. The closest we came to nuisance and corruption was going through customs at Beitbridge.
Yes, there are many road blocks but the police there was very friendly and professional. Take off your sun glasses, smile and be polite, and what you will most likely experience are people eager to give the best image possible of their country.

So many Highlights!
* The 4 day / 3 night Canoe Safari with Sunpath Safaris in Mana Pools National Park, such a thrilling way to be close to game day and night.
* Being the only car in the whole of Gonarezhou National Park, and having it all to ourselves, the sun painted Chilojo Cliffs, the remote camp site and the many elephants.
Hundreds of elephants gathering around Masuma Dam (Sinamatella Area) in Hwange National Park in the late afternoon, drinking up the storm.
* Walking with lion cubs in Antelope Park… Touching, petting and being so close to these creatures felt like a true privilege!
* The mighty Victoria Falls, actually the most expensive shower we ever had! Gilles even took to the sky to get the whole picture…
* Great Zimbabwe: the hilltop complex and the parallel walls of the Great Enclosure brought us close a glory long past.
* The amazing rock formations and the impressive cave paintings in Matobo National Park.
* Crossing Lake Kariba on a ferry and exchanging stories with our fellow passengers.

What will always stay in our memory?
* Police conduct at road blocks: most of the time they just waved us through; often you could see their mind racing: “What can I possibly ask this tourist?” before finally inquiring how we liked Zimbabwe, and then flashing a huge smile when we said how much we loved it.
* Very relaxed cities, without traffic jam and the usual commotion typical for many big cities in Africa. And actually an extremely thinly populated country.
* The omnipresent all-in-one fast food “Chicken Inn / Pizza Inn / Cream Inn”
* Afrikaaners dominating Zimbabwe’s most splendid campsites. The few tourists were mostly from South Africa and we were always mistaken for neighbors from the south. Every time we explained that we came from three different countries in Europe, and after Jason joined us, even the USA, people were just struck.

What would we do differently?
* Not wasting time and energy on booking accommodation ahead… except in Mana Pools!
* Take more time! The loop we did was hardly doable in 3 weeks. The trip involved a lot (too much) of driving, since the highlights are far from each other.
* Trying to get more than a glimpse of the Eastern Highlands
* Extend the canoe safari
* And maybe invest more in the adventurous, crazy activities offered in Victoria Falls…

As a conclusion?
Zimbabwe was actually a lot easier to travel than it seemed when we started preparing the trip: there was so little current information on the web!
Yes, we are glad we visited in 2012: to have most of the tourist destinations to ourselves made this a very special trip. Soon, Zimbabwe will again be the popular tourist destination it deservedly once was.
To a tourist, the country looked politically stable with Zimbabweans simply waiting for Mugabe to disappear and for things starting to improve further. In the last few years Zimbabwe has lifted itself up with incredible speed and we truly hope this continues. The country has tremendous potential, well-educated people, natural resources, fertile soil, an impressive infrastructure and lots to offer to tourists.
So go NOW, when Zimbabwe is still a “hidden gem”!

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