Mention to the chattering classes in leafy Surrey that your holiday destination is Zimbabwe and a stunned silence ensues. The Cote D’Azure? The Costa del Sol? Sure. Zimbabwe? Really? But with a husband working in Southern Africa and a 4×4 on standby, I found myself at London’s Heathrow Airport, thirteen and nine year old sons in tow, contemplating a two week budget self-drive itinerary through Mana Pools, Lake Kariba, Victoria Falls, Hwange and Matopos.
It began badly. The main road north from Harare was severely potholed and subject to numerous tollgates. Large trucks thundered through but struggled on the hills, shedding their loads on the bends. Police checkpoints needed negotiation, fuel points were scarce and along the way we saw abandoned farms, empty grain silos and charred wasteland. We broke the journey at Jecha Fishing Lodge, a beautiful spot on the banks of the Zambezi, casting our lines until an elephant exerted rights over the best fishing pitch.
The road to Mana was worse. Potholes, rutted gravel ending at an impoverished chalet unloved since the seventies. A tyre blowout and flooded toilet compounded the misery whilst a broken window allowed thieving monkeys to steal the kitchen items. We needed a miracle. It arrived in the form of a Zimbabwean family returning from New Zealand to restart their African life and, more importantly, our car. By way of thanks we traded a baboon catapult and ice-cold sauvignon from the car-fridge. Later at their riverside campsite we realised our mistake. Go, but go camping and with complete self-sufficiency. It is truly wonderful there.
Next stop: Kariba and the ferry to take us to Mlibizi. An early morning departure meant an overnight stop in Charara, where a pool and trampoline amused the boys and beers around the braai brought a better perspective. But in the morning the sight of the ferry caused trepidation as four 4x4s drove across the rocks to board. Yet as we cast off onto the lake, with gentle breeze and spectacular scenery, optimism returned. Again we were saved by the kindness of ten strangers, swapping overland stories and joining us to view elephants and hippos on the shoreline. Dusk fell and the ferry chugged on. To my surprise, there were hot showers, comfy mattresses and great food. Perhaps it was the gin and tonic served on the deck, but the night sky seemed to sparkle and the lights from hundreds of kapenta fishing boats lit the way. In twenty five years visiting Africa had never felt so magical.
Morning came too quickly. After fond farewells we departed for Victoria Falls in fine spirits, save for the unexpected “lake useage fee” an unofficial official insisted we pay.
The Falls did not disappoint and left us gasping. Our jaws dropped at the international visitor fee. Seriously… if the cost increases much more, tourists will stay away. That said we saved enough for afternoon tea at the “Grand Dame” Victoria Falls Hotel, spending a delightfully serenaded afternoon in colonial delusion before slinking back to our more rustic but clean and comfortable self-catering chalet at Lokathuli. Lokathuli was terrific on three counts. Firstly our washing was done for $2/load. Secondly, there was entertainment and relaxation from the pool and trampoline. Thirdly, the sundowners at the main hotel complex where the bar overlooked a stunning, oft-visited waterhole…
The absence of game in the Zambezi National Park pained us so we set off to Hwange. There was none; Sinamantella was beautifully perched on an escarpment but overlooked a completely empty plain. We appeared to be the only ones there but enjoyed the seclusion. The facilities, though basic, were comfortable. Our last day, however, we saw several herds of elephant drinking at the dam and a cheetah provided a fleeting but stunning photo opportunity in the fading evening light.
The drive to Main Camp was uneventful. Where was all the wildlife? We were more perturbed by the condition of the site. To be fair, we were paying for and received a working toilet, beds and a very good fridge but our humour deteriorated in the face of a prolonged power cut, no hot water and the sight of honey badgers rummaging in an open rubbish tip five metres from the chalet. Yes to the honey badgers but please – not like this. It would take very little to make things good; a lick of paint, a quick rewire, some generators and a smile or two from the staff. We needed another miracle.
And then Hwange delivered.
We’d seen kudu, zebra, impala and even sable but little else until we reached Nyamandlovu Pan. Sitting in the viewing platform, sipping gin and tonics, (some standards must not slip), some twenty different herds of elephant arrived, rolling joyously in the water, rumbling deeply and trumpeting. Big bulls in musth, tiny babies shielded by watchful mothers and youngsters mock-charging crocodiles that slid off rapidly from the side. The herds patiently waited their turn. It was a wonderful lesson; they had learned to share. We lost count at the one hundred mark but estimated over 350 elephants. For the second time in one holiday, Africa had never felt so special. The next night, joined by a busload of excited Zimbabwean children, the elephants did it all over again.
Hwange wasn’t finished. On the last day, we encountered two lions in the scrub next to the road. One, a sub-adult male, was trying to sleep. The other, a small cub no more than six months old, energetically pulled on his brother’s ear, standing on his face and chewing long pieces of grass. After taking many photographs I glanced into the back of the car. My teenage son was quietly trying to observe the action whilst our youngest was fidgeting and completely unable to keep still. Some things never change!
The road to Matopos was good, apart from an ‘airborne’ moment. We made smooth, quick and scenic progress to Bulawayo, where we were able to restock. Matopos’ magnificent rock formations enchanted us. Another miracle in the form of a booking error and accommodation upgrade resulted in an unfortunate incident with the bath tap… and large, comfortable beds, a lovely lounge, working kitchen and an electric kettle. Hurrah!
We visited Rhodes’ grave and the MOTH shrine. Our most special moment came after a rather tortuous 4×4 drive to Nswatugi cave, where a short, steep climb revealed an incredible frieze of bushman paintings of kudu, elephant, zebra and stick people in hunting poses. For the third time Africa had never felt so wonderful. An afternoon game drive revealed absolutely nothing, but by then we were done. It was time to go home.
So can you do a terrific budget holiday in Zimbabwe? Yes. Was it worth it? Yes; the challenges made us stronger as a family. My recommendations: provision well, roll with the punches (there are a few) and enjoy the inevitable miracles. As for Zimbabwe as an English summer holiday destination… well, at least I have more than enough stories to get the Surrey set chattering again.
Text and Photography by Deirdre Mills
Born in Scotland and currently based in Zimbabwe and the UK, Deirdre Mills has spent the last 25 years travelling to remote parts of Southern Africa. Married with two children, she has a particular interest in family travel, believing that the inclusion of youngsters encourages a wider perspective as well as respect for the environment. Whilst writing about her experiences, Deirdre has become a passionate photographer and advocate of wildlife conservation.