The world’s largest waterfalls, ancient cultural treasures and game parks with many adventurous off-road trails make Zimbabwe an absolute must visit. But hurry up… and be sure to bring a winch.
We stare at our Land Rover Defender as it slowly sinks into the narrow river, the water level creeping up the sides of the SUV. We didn’t expect the riverbed to consist of this sort of quicksand, especially since a man carrying a bike on his shoulders crossed the stream without a problem a few minutes before. The more we attempt to dig out the wheels, the deeper the vehicle’s bottom plate sinks into the sand. Inspecting the area, none of the surrounding trees appear to be big or strong enough to be used for winching. Just as we’re about to give up, bystanders tell us that someone nearby has a tractor. Finding its owners becomes the next challenge. After two hours, he shows up, only to admit that the tractor tyres are flat. Jeroen sighs, kicks off his flip-flops, walks into the stream, jumps into our Landy, grabs our compressor and after some negotiation, takes off with the tractor owner.
After another hour, the old-fashioned, rumbling tractor comes wobbling through the bushes. It almost gets stuck, too, but is saved when dozens of villagers jump into the stream and push it out of a hole. It turns out that the tractor isn’t strong enough to pull out our Landy, but we decide to connect our car’s winch to the tractor. We instruct the driver to accelerate, as otherwise he’ll end up in the river, too. We start winching, the tractor driver steps on the gas while big black clouds of smoke billow from the exhaust. Slowly but steadily, we manage to winch our Landy out the river. The bystanders cheer, while we anxiously inspect the bottom of our Defender, which is clogged with sand. We fill our cooking pots with river water to rinse off the brake discs, but it clearly needs a more thorough wash.
The prison carwash
When asking around for the nearest carwash in the little town of Plumtree two hours later, everyone comes up with the same surprising answer: The prison. We follow their directions and, sure enough, soon arrive at the local jail, where guards immediately open the gate when we enquire about a carwash. “Remove all valuable items from your car, as the inmates might steal them,” the female guard warns us. Totally stunned, we park our Landy in the inner courtyard, while a guard yells “carwash!” over the intercom. A few minutes later, five prisoners in khaki T-shirts, shorts and blue slippers show up with buckets and a hose and get to work. Thirty minutes later, our Defender looks almost brand new. The wash costs just $2, and we even receive a receipt with an official logo saying Plumtree Prison Car Wash.
That night, we sleep in the Omadu Lodge in Plumtree, which was probably once a beautiful lodge, but is now past its best. We had been planning to camp in the garden, but because we’re the only guests, the owner offers to let us stay in a room for the same price, which after a little bargaining, is only $5 per person. After inspecting the rooms, we understand why the place is deserted: in the first room the toilet is clogged. In the second room the toilet is leaking and the bathroom floods when you flush it. In the third room, the shaky bed seems ready to collapse. We choose to sleep in the first room and use the third room’s toilet. The lodge appears to be representative of the state of most accommodation in the country.
The next day we drive to one of the unsung highlights of Zimbabwe: the Matobo National Park. This Unesco World Heritage Site contains a stunning landscape of stacked rocks – giant boulders unfeasibly teetering on top of one another – and some of the most majestic granite scenes in the world. It’s easy to understand why Matobo is considered the spiritual home of Zimbabwe. The park is home to one-third of the world’s species of eagle, it has a large population of black and white rhino, and has the highest density of leopard in Zimbabwe, although you’ll be extremely lucky to spot one. Matobo also has numerous spectacular caves with some well-preserved bushman paintings. In the so-called White Rhino Shelter, it takes some effort to discover the painting of the white rhino behind the rusty fence. The Ntswatugi Cave is more impressive, having a wall covered with red paintings of galloping giraffe, zebra and elephant, which is estimated to be 13 000 years old.
Reaching the cave is an adventure in itself, thanks to an off-road route full of river crossings, mud puddles and rocky climbs. As dusk sets in, we drive to Maleme Dam, where we admire the gigantic boulders that look like they have been dropped by an enormous giant. According to information we had gathered beforehand, this should be the busiest part of the reserve with a campsite and a lodge being located over here as well. To our surprise, there isn’t a single soul to be found, the lodge has been closed and we can’t even find a campsite. We do find plenty of garbage in the high grass, though, and conclude that the old tables and a broken-down ablution block are probably the remains of the campsite. We find a small clean spot and decide to open our rooftop tent. To our surprise, another car shows up 30 minutes after sunset. It turns out to be an Australian overlander who asks us where the campsite is. We smile and point to the wilderness around us.
The impressive ruins of Great Zimbabwe, close to the city of Masvingo, are another major attraction. This ancient city – which has been recognised as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO – was once the capital of a great empire stretching into what are now the modern states of Zimbabwe and Mozambique. The city was an important trade centre and housed no less than18 000 inhabitants between the 13th and 17th centuries. Its most formidable edifice, the Great Enclosure, has walls as high as 11 metres, and extends approximately 250 metres, making it the largest ancient structure south of the Sahara Desert. Dzimba dza mabwe in Shona means large houses of stone and as the ruins of Great Zimbabwe became an important symbol of African achievement for black nationalist groups in the 1970s, new leaders changed the name Rhodesia into Zimbabwe when independence came in 1980. The famous soapstone bird sculptures that were recovered from the site became the national symbol and were depicted in the new Zimbabwean flag.
Chewing the antenna
Back at the parking area, we find two vervet monkeys that have settled down on our car. One has just pooped on our solar panel and is now peeking through our windshield, looking for something to eat. The other is chewing our antenna. When we try to chase them away, they start hissing at us, revealing their sharp little teeth. The campsite next to the ruins is overpopulated by hundreds of these furry little thieves, so we decide to find another place to sleep. The previous night, we had camped at Panyanda Lodge, 11km south of the nearby town of Masvingo. It was a nice and peaceful campground, although a bit basic due to dilapidated toilets and the absence of hot showers. We return there, but this night peace is hard to find. Deafening keyboard music welcomes us, and somebody continuously shouts ‘Hallelujah’ through a crackling microphone.
It is Good Friday, and the campground has suddenly turned into a massive church camp. The noise lasts for many more hours and the next morning the first church service starts at 5:30 with out-of-tune guitars, earsplitting keyboards and endless preaching. At the other end of the lodge, a wedding with over 300 guests starts three hours later. More religious music is blasted. Don’t visit Africa during the Easter holidays if you are looking for peace and quiet.
We decide to leave a day early because of the noise and get to meet the ultra-corrupt police on our way to the Zimbabwean capital of Harare. They stop us at almost every checkpoint and tell us to turn each of our lights on and off to prove that they are working. The officers also ask for non-essential (read non-existent) vehicle paperwork and claim that our car reflectors are not the correct ones, all to squeeze some money out of us. It feels as if we’ve travelled back in time as we reach Harare. In First Street, one of the best shopping streets in town, we visit Barbours Department Store. Its old-fashioned interior reminds us of the 1960s. A liftboy welcomes us into the elevator that takes us to the top floor. On the roof terrace, we enjoy a spectacular view of the city. Back downstairs, remarkably groovy music is played and we are totally flabbergasted when we see the poor condition of the musical instruments the virtuosic duo are playing. A young boy uses twigs as drumsticks and his drum kit is nothing more than a worn-down bass drum and some rusty cymbals. His father plays a chipped electric guitar.
Oh so blue silent pool
Two hours north of Harare, we visit the caves of Chinhoyi, famous for its bright blue lake. Having parked the car, we gradually descend through a cathedral-like natural tunnel going right through the rocks. After about 10 minutes, we suddenly spot the azure blue Silent Pool. Enormous fish swim in the bright water, and for $100 per person you can scuba dive in the 90m-deep pool. The water turns even bluer when the first rays of sunshine hit the water around midday. To reach the higher Dark Cave, we climb through a much narrower tunnel where you have to turn sideways to be able to pass through. Looking through narrow slits in this cave, you can see the blue water of the lower Silent Pool, where terracotta rocks, stalagmites, stalactites and the azure blue water form a mysterious spectacle.
A Mecca for off-road enthusiasts
Our Land Rover is put to the test once more when we visit Hwange National Park north-west of Zimbabwe. This is the largest reserve in Zimbabwe, occupying roughly 14 650 square kilometres, and it is famous for more than its immense elephant herds. The park also appears to be a Mecca for off-road enthusiasts who love damaged roads, overgrown tracks and bridges that have been washed away. When we turn onto a dirt road where a signboard says ‘road open’ at the beginning of the track, we are quite surprised to encounter a washed-away bridge after 20 minutes. Just before we turn back, we see a path going right through the dry riverbed. After some hesitation, we decide to drive our car down. Getting up the steep bank on the other side turns out to be the real challenge. The wheels of our fully loaded Landy spin madly. Rocks and sand fly in all directions. Luckily, we see a big, sturdy tree close by. After only a few minutes, we successfully winch our car up the bank and continue our journey.
Due to the dense bush, there’s not a single animal to be seen for hours. Where could those renowned herds of elephant be? As the road gets bumpier, we’re almost rocked to sleep until we’re forced to hit the brakes because a huge male elephant is standing in the middle of the road in front of us. He flaps his ears, trumpets and stamps his feet. After we have come to a halt with brakes screeching, we back up a little and stare at the enormous animal which then disappears back into the bush. So there are elephants here after all… As dusk sets in, we head towards Sinamatella Camp, a lodge and campsite located on a steep cliff in the north of the reserve. We open our rooftop tent and enjoy the amazing 360-degree views over the surrounding bush. This spectacular view comes with a matching price tag: camping here costs a whopping $17 per person, despite no electricity and the ablutions having no flushing water.
“I’m going to kill it”
A female guard greets us as she passes by the next morning. She picks up a big rock and we curiously follow her with our eyes. We see her walking in the direction of a grey snake. “I’m going to kill it. It looks very dangerous”, she shouts. Before we can try to stop her, she throws the rock on the head of the reptile, which writhes briefly and then remains still. Bewildered, we stare at the dead snake that didn’t harm anyone, and that had almost disappeared into the bushes again. “Are you also going to kill lion? They look pretty dangerous, too?” I ask. The guard looks puzzled. She apparently thinks it’s quite normal to kill a wild animal in a game park. Right before we leave the reserve in the afternoon, we finally encounter one of those famous elephant herds in one of the muddy rivers. More than 15 of the giant beasts are enjoying a bath while filling their trunks with mud and spraying it onto their backs and bellies. Some calves gambol through the muddy water and two adults watch us closely. We switch off the engine and enjoy the scene.
Wetter than a shower
We end our Zimbabwe trip at Victoria Falls. We can hear the roaring sound of this curtain of water in the distance when we lie down in our rooftop tent at a campsite a few kilometres from the Falls. The next morning it’s time for the actual experience. Dressed in ponchos – a necessity at this time of the year – we enter the gate and walk through a mini rainforest. A sprinkling shower slowly transforms into a real downpour. However, this isn’t actual rain. As we visit the Falls at the end of the wet season, the Zambezi River is at its peak and roughly 625 million litres of water flow over the edge every minute. This produces a spray that rises over 500 metres into the air, leaving you drenched. When the mist lifts a little, probably thanks to a breeze, the world’s largest sheet of falling water becomes visible. The view takes our breath away. There are 16 viewpoints, and if they’re not spectacular enough for you, you can paraglide over the falls, view them from a helicopter, bungee jump above them, or even swim in the so-called Devil’s Pool, a natural swimming pool right above the falls (on the Zambian side).
We return to the campsite after a few hours and take a dip in the pool. When we walk back to the SUV, we spot three monkeys on top of it with something green in their mouths. We hadn’t left stuff lying around the campsite or left any windows open, but being pregnant, I had bought a child seat in South Africa. It had been stored on the roofrack in its original packaging. The monkeys apparently ripped the plastic bag open with their teeth and took a few big bites out of the green foam. With tears in my eyes I stare at this destroyed chair. I tramp furiously to reception, but the receptionist doesn’t show any mercy. No refunds will be offered. After a few calls with the owner, we are offered a free dinner at the In-Da-Belly restaurant. A few hours later, our eyes wander over the rather exotic menu and we eventually opt for a warthog schnitzel. I would have preferred a monkey schnitzel, though.
Zimbabwe’s beauty and bounty have been overshadowed by political unrest, hyperinflation and rising prices over the last few decades. But today, the overinflated Zimbabwean dollar is gone, you can pay everywhere with the US dollar, prices are relatively low and the political situation is stable-ish. Question is, for how long, because nobody knows what will happen when the 93-year-old president Robert Mugabe passes on. The more reason to go now, before it’s too late.
Text: Andrea Dijkstra Photography: Jeroen van Loon