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Visiting Zimbabwe

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I wholly endorse the Aussies decision to pull out of the cricket tour and don't doubt that Mugabe would have used them as a propaganda tool if they had gone ahead with their visit.
I would however defend our moral decision to visit Zimbabwe - there is 80% unemployment because of the regime, people are suffering badly. Our booking of small, owner-managed camps kept at least 7 local people in work at each camp which meant they could support their families.
In Hwange, following very poor rains, the water supply for the animals comes from pumped boreholes maintained largely by the camps. No visitors = no camps = no water = dying animals !
Our visit is no great accolade for Mr. Mugabe, just a genuine desire to help local people and wildlife until the regime changes.

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    “MAKE A PLAN” TO VISIT ZIMBABWE
    Notes on a trip taken by Sam Nicholls and Judi Evans – 20/4/07 to 1/5/07

    “Making a plan” is a Zimbabwean expression that describes dealing with the current problems that arise while living, and running a safari camp, in the reality of today’s Zimbabwe – sourcing fuel and spare parts to keep vehicles running, tracking down food and drink supplies for the essential camp provisions and forever trying to stay ahead of the galloping inflation by making the foreign exchange rates work in your favour to allow payment of a decent working wage to the local staff.

    Two of us, both ladies of middling years, decided to plan a trip to Zimbabwe that would provide an income to small owner/managed camps which would in turn keep local people employed within these camps and also possibly contribute to the well-being of the wonderful wildlife in the areas that we visited. Our final itinerary included 3 nights at Vundu Camp in Mana Pools owned and managed by Nick and Desiree Murray, 3 nights at Rhino Island Safari Camp owned and managed by Jenny Tetlow and her family, 3 nights at the new Somalisa Camp in Hwange National Park owned by Beks and Sophia Ndlovu and ably managed by Humphrey and Constance Gumbo and a final 2 nights spent at Ilala Lodge at the awe-inspiring Victoria Falls.

    We trawled the internet for information, spoke to Craig at the Travel Africa stand at the Destinations Show and followed a rather elusive trail to our final rare find ; an informed tour operator with in depth knowledge of available camps and lodges in Zimbabwe. This meant that we could comply fully with the Foreign Office advice (low risk but travel with a registered tour operator so that there is someone to take care of you in case of any emergency) and travel with all contingencies catered for, leaving concerned husband and relatives with rather less worries.

    On our quest we were continually directed towards either Zambia or Botswana but we held our nerve and arrived at Ngoko Safaris who have the added attraction of an “on-the-ground” professional guide as a co-director. Benson Siyawareva is available as both an advisor and/or accompanying guide on any of the Ngoko Safari trips. We were able to explain our thoughts and wishes to Fiona Thompson, the co-director in the U.K., who turned them into the most spectacular success story and even managed to squeeze Benson into the equation !

    All Zimbabwean professional guides have been through the most highly regarded training and qualifying procedures, they are quite simply the best, and as such are highly sought-after on the safari circuits in other neighbouring countries so it comes as no surprise that many have defected during Zimbabwe’s fall from grace, but several still remain available within the country and can be tracked down if you look hard. We had the good fortune to spend time with no less than six members of this elite band during our stay; Benson Siyawareva for the duration, Nick and Desiree Murray at Vundu Camp, Foster Siyawareva (Benson’s oldest brother) while travelling within Hwange National Park, Humphrey at Somalisa Camp and James Varden of Natureways during a shared journey on our way to Victoria Falls.

    Benson was our guide throughout the trip and proved completely infallible, we had a mobile encyclopedia with us at all times during our canoeing, walking, boat excursions and game-drives – what more could you ask for ? Well, you get even more – a well educated, delightful companion with a great sense of humour who is totally dedicated to his work and clients, and a true passion to share his knowledge, what a package !! Nothing escaped his notice, from plant and tree species to finding a black widow spider and, of course, being able to spot animals however small or well disguised in dense bush and twilight at ridiculous distances, completely invisible to the untrained eye.
    Our trip began when we landed after an overnight British Airways flight to Harare. Following a half-hour queue whilst we obtained visas, we were whisked off by our pilot to our light aircraft for the transfer to Mana Pools. It became painfully obvious from the air how large tracts of previously productive farmland were now lying untended with just small examples of subsistence farming in areas around settlements of up to twenty dwellings. These strips of maize were the only sign of cultivated growth that were visible during our entire flight.

    Our time at Vundu Camp was spent walking, canoeing and game-driving with some wonderful sightings of lion, wild dogs and leopard as well as plentiful elephant, impala, waterbuck, zebra, baboons, crocodiles and hippos. The tented camp itself is nestled amongst a grove of beautiful riverine forest along the banks of the majestic Zambezi river, the open-air dining area is wonderfully atmospheric and many good stories were told either around the table or beside the camp-fire. It was also good to see that young Zimbabweans are still keen to remain employed in the country as two young people, Rick and Kirsty, were both in training with Nick and Des as prospective guides of the future. The camp was immaculately presented and ran without a hitch throughout, always a good sign as we were the first guests of the season.

    Mana Pools National Park is a place of great beauty with spectacular, dappled light as you drive or walk through splendid acacia woodland, past huge termite mounds or around natural water holes and pans with their proliferation of birdlife and larger mammalian or reptilian visitors. Identifying mahogany and sausage trees while watching a baby elephant dozing in the shade of his mother, the rest of the family browsing the surrounding area is a great way to enjoy a hot afternoon or trying your hand at the art of tiger-fishing from a canoe whilst paddling the Zambezi is a pretty good alternative – both were sampled and come highly recommended. We even witnessed the river being patrolled by the newly-repaired Parks Authority boat, so someone still cares about this wondrous environment.

    Our next destination was the Matusadona National Park and a few days spent at the outstanding Rhino Island Safari Camp on the mouth of the Ume river, reached by light aircraft from Mana Pools with great views of the Kariba Dam and flying to Kiplings airstrip, followed by an exhilarating 25 minute speedboat trip to the camp. If you arrive in this camp with any residual stress and strain, I guarantee it will be forgotten in a very short time – you are made wonderfully welcome by Jenny and all her staff, and then you are free to do anything you choose, we chose to track black rhino on foot and by vehicle in the mornings and play on Lake Kariba in the motorboat in the afternoons. A successful tiger-fishing exercise, a first for all of us but made possible by Funny Boy with his great knowledge of the lake, followed by large gin and tonics while watching and photographing the amazing sunset over the lake is always to be remembered, particularly when the elephant herds are grazing the shoreline and seem determined to help you take fabulous photos !!

    Our rhino tracking was very productive – we found lots of tracks…… rhino, hyena, hippo, snake, elephant, waterbuck, etc – we are now extremely proficient at tracking but not so good at finding rhino in particularly thick bush following good rains in this part of the country. The Zambezi Society vehicle was spotted on our travels which did at least mean that they were monitoring something. Finally, on our last night in camp following another mouth-watering meal prepared by Philamon and Stephen, and sitting around the inevitable camp-fire, we became a little concerned at the sound of the staff vehicle returning to camp at high speed at about 10.30 p.m. – a rhino around the staff quarters ! So much for tracking – all we had to do was issue an invitation to come calling. We leapt aboard the trusty Landrover and went to look, although the keenness of the staff caused us some worry as we were convinced they were going to drag this elusive animal out of the bush by it’s horn if necessary ! We even managed photographic evidence that this particular rhino was more than just a set of footprints….!
    The simplicity but outstanding comfort of Rhino Island Safari Camp is a tribute to all concerned – good luck to Jenny and all her staff – it may seem like an uphill struggle in today’s climate but the camp is simply wonderful and we will find a way to return soon. The camp, the setting, the lake, the bush, the elephants and the sunsets, the food – what a place ……and don’t forget the rhino and the tiger fish !

    Onwards by plane again to Somalisa Camp set in the south east of the huge Hwange National Park. On landing at the airfield we then drove to Kennedy 1, a waterhole supplied by pumped water from a borehole, and spent a delightful late lunch with a herd of 60+ elephants wading, frolicking, drinking and having a grand mud wallow as we munched our way through one of the many fine Somalisa culinary offerings. By the time we rolled into camp we had seen enough wildlife to fill up most peoples’ entire safari, suffice to say that Hwange is not lacking in the animal department. Giraffe, wildebeest, zebra, elephant and the delightfully handsome sable antelope seemed determined to line our route all the way to our luxurious destination. Benson along with the camp managers, Humphrey and Constance, had a major hand in helping to build this lovely creation in 2006 so had a very personal pride in showing it and the surrounding area off to two very receptive and privileged guests.

    We spent our time walking beside a herd of over 300 buffalo or sipping coffee with whichever animals chose to visit the waterholes in the area. Our cameras went into overtime when lionesses stalked us not long after leaving camp one morning in the Wilys Jeep that was our mode of transport around Hwange, then there was the lovely time spent with three young and very relaxed male lions on a ridge with just the bluest sky as the background of our photographs, need I go on ….. ?

    Elephants strolled through or around the camp many times every day on their way to the waterhole at the front of the camp, there is just one problem – they have also taken possession of the plunge pool that was supposed to be for the guests – well nobody told them ! The experience of being surrounded on three sides by 14 very thirsty ellies whilst sitting on a sun-lounger beside the pool is unbelievable – imagine 14 “hoovers” sucking up water, followed by a noise that closely resembles a toilet being flushed as they jet the water down their throats and you are somewhere close to the sound effects ! Much natural barricading of branches and rocks has been put in place to prevent the younger members falling in but it is still very much their pool, and I for one was very happy with the arrangement.

    Somalisa camp food deserves a special mention as their chef is worthy of the highest accolades, the quality and variety of every single meal was beyond belief – all the more amazing when you learn that it is all produced in a kitchen that only boasts a pizza oven ! Outstanding pastries, both sweet and savoury, cakes worthy of any specialist patisserie, fresh fruit and vegetables with real flavour and all produced with such regularity that you are in danger of waddling in a rather inelegant fashion by the end of each day.

    We journeyed by road to our final destination – Victoria Falls. We had both felt that we should see something of life on the ground rather than winging our way over the country casting a glance out of a plane window. The roads are in perfectly good condition and travelling distances by road is very comfortable, but the roads are deserted. We passed through small villages and past the town of Hwange but saw very little sign of real life. However, the overall impression is still of pride and care in the inhabited areas – it’s clean and tidy with minimal litter anywhere that you look, unusual in many African countries. You may feel that it is unnaturally quiet but there is no sense of threat of an imminent eruption, more of a feeling of waiting for the rains to bring forth new life and growth in a country waiting for a change for the better. Be sure that all Zimbabweans are ready to put in the effort to help restore the country’s deserved reputation of one of the top wildlife destinations in Africa. The animals, the Parks and the infrastructure is all still there, all waiting for this change.

    Of course the trip would have been incomplete without a visit to the might of the Victoria Falls, the Smoke that Thunders, and what a sight they are – the water level was at it’s highest for several years which meant that there was no white-water rafting but certainly no lack of other activities on offer. You do need to see their majesty from both the ground and the air – at their current level it is certainly not a dry experience when on foot. If you enjoy shopping there is plenty to tempt you on both sides of the Falls, bartering may not come easy to some but there is always a bargain to be had at the curio shops.

    Although we had the great good fortune of being the sole guests for 8 of our 9 nights in our assorted chosen safari camps, there was still evidence of many international tourists visiting the areas; we saw a high number of American tourists, as well as French, German and Asian visitors. The South Africans still self-drive around the country and enjoy all it has to offer, but there is a noticeable lack of British tourists; maybe because our press coverage is far greater than others as the former colonial power so involved in the Lancaster House agreement. Whatever the reason, please be assured that we never felt even remotely unsafe or looked down on as British citizens, the camps all thanked us for “going the extra mile” and all their local staff benefited directly from our visit – we felt that we had made the right decision and are only aware of our visa fees possibly going towards funding the current regime. Would we return – absolutely and tomorrow if possible, wonderful hospitality, great wildlife, comfort and luxury in camp, a lack of vehicles surrounding all the animals, and learning from the most wonderful guides in Africa; all add up to a fabulous time spent in Zimbabwe.

    The cost of our trip, excluding international flights was $5375 per person including all private plane and road transfers, and was fully inclusive at all the safari camps. Ilala Lodge at Victoria Falls was on a B & B basis. Benson’s guiding skills were also included throughout.

    Websites that we found invaluable and show some of our chosen options to best effect :

    www.ngoko.com

    www.africanbushcamps.com

    www.bushlifesafaris.com

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    You don't mean it as an accolade at all. Nor do most of the thousands who, with their hearts in the right place, still go to Zimbabwe. I didn't mean it as an accolade when I went in 2004. But Mugabe will use it as an accolade. And there's not going to be any 'coalition of the willing' involved, you can be sure of that, because there's no oil or any WMD pretext involved.

    Just being devil's advocate. Like many others, I find it difficult to know the best thing to do.

    John

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    I understand that a more economical way to travel Zim is via road vs flying from camp to camp as the fuel charges are very expensive. My TA talked to me about driving from Vic falls to Hwange for a possible future safari one of these years....

    Hari

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    Charter flights between camps are expensive, road transfers much cheaper. We chose to fly Harare - Mana Pools, Mana Pools - Matusadona and then Matusadona - Hwange because of the time it would have taken. It would have been less expensive with another 2 passengers so try to get a group of 4 people together.
    The road transfer from Hwange to Victoria Falls took 2 hours on good roads not in a 4x4.

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    Having arranged the Zimbabwe adventure for Sam and Judi I would like to add my comments to the debate about whether it is morally right (and also safe) to visit Zimbabwe.

    My business partner Benson is Zimbabwean (living in Victoria Falls) and as a consequence I am kept fully updated on the situation in Zimbabwe on a day to day basis. I also travelled around Zimbabwe late last year in order to get a first hand experience of the current situation. I returned to the UK with a passionate desire to get tourists out to Zimbabwe and to support the lodges and local people.

    I am familiar with all of the moral arguments against travel to Zimbabwe but I think Sam has made her point extremely well. It will make absolutely no difference to the political situation in Zimbabwe if you choose to stay away, but in doing so you risk that there will not be a tourism industry and wildlife to go back to in the future. A number of lodges have closed in recent years, and others are not fully operational. Life is tough for the camps/lodges - from a financial and operational perspective. Many of those that remain, and continue to offer excellent standards and superb food, do so from a total passion for Zimbabwe, its people and its wildlife. I have nothing but admiration for the owners and managers of these lodges.

    With over 80% unemployment in Zimbabwe, each breadwinner is not only responsible for their own welfare but also an extended family network. It is by no means an exaggeration to say that in many cases the income provided by employment of just one person in the tourist industry may make a difference between life and death. Food supplies and fuel are increasingly expensive, as are school fees - with many children now being withdrawn from school. More tragically, medical treatment is unaffordable to the vast majority and even the most basic of care is often not available locally.

    It is natural to take a moral stance, particularly with all we hear in the media, but my personal view is that we should be doing all we can to support the local communities and tourism industry at this time. The approach taken by Sam and Judi was absolutely right and I think they are an inspiration in the way they thought the issues through and then actually paid extra for their trip in order to stay at small owner run lodges where their support would be most valuable.

    In terms of safety issues, Zimbabwe has remained a safe destination for tourists throughout. As with almost all tourist destinations, you do have to be more safety-conscious in the towns due to petty crime but other than Victoria Falls you are likely to spend the rest of your time deep in the bush, where your main concern will be whether having a second slice of cake during sundowners will ruin your dinner!

    During my travels around Zim in Nov/Dec last year I drove up from Joburg in a new, shiny 4x4 hire vehicle with my husband. We didn't meet up with Benson for a few days and consequently were 2 white people driving around Great Zimbabwe, Bulawayo and Gonarezhou looking like rich tourists. I was astounded that despite the hardships we met nothing but friendly and welcoming people throughout and at no stage did we feel even slightly threatened. Due to erratic fuel supplies I wouldn't recommend a self-drive to anyone at the moment but other than that I would strongly encourage tourists to visit Zimbabwe. Apart from anything else, it is an incredibly special destination with excellent game viewing and true wilderness areas. With low tourist numbers you are likely to have a far more private safari experience - and also one which is great value!

    Please, please, please do rethink the issues involved and consider visiting Zimbabwe for your next African Adventure.

    As a postscript I would add that Travel Africa magazine is running a supplement on Zimbabwe in the next (summer) edition. They have compiled a special report entitled "Should you visit Zimbabwe?" and their conclusion is that "the benefits to the local populace of visiting Zimbabwe outweigh most objections to the current political climate. As such Travel Africa would be comfortable recommending the destination to travellers."

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    What Ngoko is correct but there is a little more that I think should be said. We visited Zim twice last year with no problems and traveled with local transportation. While those are the conditions currently, there is a fair probablity that at some point there will be a political upheavel in Zim. It may be peaceful, it may not. One should check the conditions just before departure to be sure nothing is brewing. Also I would make sure I had travel insurance that would cover cancellations due to political unrest.

    As for the moral aspects, I have a few Zim friends living outside the country and they encouraged me to visit.

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    You wrote a delightful trip report about some amazing experiences at a bargain price. Spectacular dappled light is a great description of Mana Pools and just how I remember it. How nice the rhinos were performing in the late show at Matusadona. Must have been exciting to finally see them. Somalisa seems to be a real winner. How sweet that branches and rocks were put up to keep the baby eles from falling into the pool. Now whenever you hear a toilet flush, you’ll be transported back to that special experience in Hwange. What an odd association. Thank you also for the waddle alert. Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful trip.

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    We have just returned from 12 days in Hwangwe /Mana Pools and confirm that it is marvellous. Much better than Zambia more wild, more game and NO TSTETSE, its just badly advertised.

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    OK a brief report flew into Victoria Falls on Comair plane full! Around 30 minutes to get VISA no problem even with UK passport $55. Road transfer to Hwange around 2 hours to Main Camp, again no problems and good roads, amazing amount of Baobabs to be seen. Picked up at Main Camp by guide from The Hide at first waterhole saw white rhino, very lucky as no more seen. The Hide is a very nice camp tremendous and enthusiastic people (Barry & Bridget), nice accomodation good food, and it has mains electric!Game drives a little boring as few roads in area and concession is quite small, the manager is expecting to receive permission to build new roads to allow for further adventures. As an offset the Hide has two hides at the waterhole these are great for photography as you can get very close up, to all of the animals coming down to drink. Spent 4 nights here only problem being proximity of railway line, the sound of a roaring lion and a train whistle at the same time is bizarre to say the least.
    Next on to Somalisa about one and a half hours south of the Hide, this is a "new" camp with a large concession. This has the distinct possibility of becoming the next must visit camp. Simple tented accomodation, bucket showers, no running water but don't panic there are flush toilets. Great food as previously reported cooked in pizza oven. There is a new management team headed by Terry Anders who are very enthusiastic and knowledgeable.New roads are being made and old waterholes are having pumps repaired so it can only get better. We had a private vehicle in each camp so were able to take lots of photos and video, one problem for video is the noise of the pumps at the waterholes, this can be easily removed in editing.

    The park has masses of Elephants, Zebras, Widebeeste and Impalla, plus occassional sighting of Sable, Roan and Eland. Not much in the way of predators but we did see a coalition of 4 male lions on two ocassions. Wild Dog were not seen by us but were encountered by other guests on a walk!
    We also had a good sighting of Caracal, unbelievably it did not run away.Plenty of birdlife as well.
    The park is massive and would take forever to see, many waterholes which mostly had working pumps, cheers to The Friends of Hwangwe for this! In eight days we saw only a few vehicles from the Hide and our vehicle from Somalisa, plus one self drive and what we presumed to be a Wilderness vehicle, as none of the passengers waved this was probably correct!
    The park is incredibly wild, the roads are passable but not in very good condition and best of all no TSETSE fly. It was a bit cold in mid May, so in June ,July or August warm clothing would be mandatory!!!
    Next stop 4 days in Mana Pools, in a private tented camp operated by Classic African Safaris just the two of us and seven staff. Basic tent but who needs more, once again a flush toilet! Game viewing not as good as Hwangwe but we did see Wild Dog on two occassions, the weather was much warmer.Even though I prefer Land Cruisers I have to say we had the best game viewing vehicle ever a cut down Land Rover Defender with rear doors not climbing into a vehicle took some getting use to! The flight from Hwange to Mana Pools is around 2hours 30 minutes.
    All in all a great trip, plus a free flight over Victoria Falls on our return from Mana Pools. You would be mad not to go, but do so before the elections (if they take place) early next year.
    We are going back to Hwange in late October.
    Visiting does not support Mugabe (OK the parks fees may not be spent on parks) but allows many people to make a little money and they need all the support we can give!

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