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khaleej times (dubai)

Africa’s best kept secrets hide in Zimbabwe

A rainbow arcs over Victoria Falls from the Zimbabwe side from three every afternoon if the sun is shining. ‘Smoke’ or rather spray – billows up from the gorge some 108 metres below as the Zambezi River cascades over the 1,7 km wide lip so forming the largest curtain of falling water in the world.

Both Zambia and Zimbabwe have a stake in one of the seven natural wonders of the world, but it is only from the Zimbabwean side that you get a full-frontal spectacular view of the main falls made famous by explorer Dr David Livingstone, who upon seeing them for the first time said “scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight”.

Zimbabwe’s chequered history has not been at all good for tourism, but recently the trickle of visitors that continued to visit here despite all the country’s short comings has started to develop into a stream as the destination is strengthened by the expectation of stability following the formation of a unity government last year, as well as February’s legalisation of the US dollar, entirely replacing the volatile Zimbabwe dollar.

The scenic paths leading tourists to good viewpoints of the famous falls remain as they were in the 1970s, no kiosks selling tacky souvenirs like in other parts of the world. A craft market in the village bursting at the seams with wood, stone, bead and metal work from skilled local craftspeople handles this aspect instead, the most popular item for sale being the defunct Zimbabwean currency which reached the trillion mark at one stage.

Tourism providers are still here, welcoming visitors with open arms and wide smiles. Victoria Falls Hotel, complete with its button-festooned concierge, remains the grand old lady when it comes to providing a glimpse of the country’s colonial history, its recently refurbished rooms and lounges oozing the luxury and elegance of a by-gone era. Summing her up is an entry in the visitors’ book of the hotel, which says words to the effect of “I visited here 40 years ago. Whilst I have aged, the Victoria Falls Hotel has simply matured”.

Vulture restaurant
On the other hand, the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge with its waterhole in front gives guests a continued feeling of being on safari. Especially so at lunchtime, for at 1 pm every day vultures, marabou stork and other birds of prey drop for a spot of lunch given to them by hotel staff, on the ground just below the open-air dining terrace and swimming pool. It’s a frenetic sight of feathers, swirling dust, meaty bones and hungry birds. Africa is ingrained in this lodge’s veins - featuring tiered wooden stairways, drums and baskets on the walls and rooms in thatched chalets.

Old Ursula Camp is the newest luxury accommodation in the area – it opened it opened in May this year in the Victoria Falls Private Game Reserve as a self-catering option. Ideal for a maximum of 10 guests, the camp overlooks the reserve which houses the Big Five including five black rhinocerous, a view shared by the sophisticated and classically colonial Stanley and Livingstone Hotel nearby. Both are owned by Rani Resorts of Saudi Arabia origin. The latter hotel is unobtrusive refined luxury built in harmony with its surroundings. Victoriana is everywhere – from the elephant tusks hanging on a passage wall to the faded 1877 newspaper clipping featuring Henry Morton Stanley, journalist and explorer of Africa, who is best remembered for his casual greeting to a man he had spent months searching for: “Dr Livingstone, I presume?” The busts of both explorers perch on pedestals in the lounge.

Two hours drive from Victoria Falls is Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe’s largest game reserve spanning 14,651 sq km. Parts of it are teeming with wildlife according to Chris Worden, professional guide and a director of UK based tour operators The Zambezi Safari and Travel Company, “I’ve never seen so much game in so much concentration anywhere in my life.” In August he led a photographic team in the Wilderness Safaris concession area within the park. “My clients were extremely pleased and even I’m taken aback. I’ve been in most parts of Africa and never witnessed numbers like this.”

Musango, Lake Kariba
Just a short hop on a charter flight away from here is a safari camp offering rustic luxury on an island in Lake Kariba. Surrounded by bush, animals and water, Musango Safari Camp, built by owner Steve Edwards in 1990, is a must for all bona fide Africa lovers seeking top game viewing experiences by boat, vehicle or on foot, fishing, bird watching, peace, quiet and good food in a safe environment.

An invaluable asset here for guests unfamiliar with Africa is that Edwards has been in the area for longer than he cares to remember – he worked for the Department of National Parks and Wild Life Management for 18 years, three of which he spent as warden of Matusadona National Park, and has an ingrained knowledge of the bush and all its residents. He continues the conservation thread today – the biggest burden in this area being snares implanted by local poachers with little alternative sources of food, at least until recently. While the last few years have been difficult to say the least, Edwards is optimistic that by working together with the local community “things can only get better”.

Nothing can beat the sunsets at this man-made Lake Kariba, 82% full in August, the same month the refurbished Bumi Hills Safari Lodge opened to include a spa, infinity pool, 20 rooms and a state-of-the-art conference room. Managed by Africa Albida Tourism (AAT), the lodge will soon be linked to Victoria Falls and Hwange via a daily air service. "This circuit was an absolute winner in the 80s and 90s, and so it will be again," said Ross Kennedy, CEO of the AAT.

By around December this year the Kariba ferry service between Kariba town and Mlibizi on the western end of the lake should be doing a weekly run again after a few years absence. The Sea Lion, operated by Kariba Ferries, is capable of carrying up to 70 people and 15 vehicles.

Pamushana
Further afield in the south eastern corner of the country is another hidden gem aimed at the high-end luxury traveller. Accessible best by light aircraft to Buffalo Range near Chiredzi or the lodge’s dedicated gravel airstrip or helipad, Pamushana is simply magnificent. Perched on a kopjie (small rocky hill) the lodge’s theme is based on Great Zimbabwe, the 16th century stone ruins and now UNESCO World Heritage Site about 200 kilometres north of here. It has six spacious suites and one villa, with views of the lake down below to die for. All feature a double-sided fireplace, private lounge, an en-suite bathroom and two showers - one outside on the suite’s own game viewing deck complete with game spotting telescope and private infinity pool.

The lodge lies within the private Malilangwe Reserve owned by the Malilangwe Conservation Trust, a non-profit organisation which channels back revenue generated by tourism into the reserve and the surrounding communities. The trust is currently supplementing a feeding programme for 23,000 children, and has completed many projects for the community including the building of schools, micro-financing of small businesses, supporting agricultural initiatives as well as training people in the conservation and hospitality sectors.

So is Zimbabwe safe? Is Africa safe? The only sure way is to judge for yourself. It will take some time before the country’s infrastructure is up to handling large numbers of visitors, but it has the potential to be great again. For the people that work in the hospitality industry here, the sooner this happens the better.

For me, I’d almost prefer to keep the status quo. I don’t want to share it with anyone else.

Ways and means:
Daily flights on Emirates from Dubai to Johannesburg, Nairobi or Dar-es-Salaam
Etihad and Qatar Airways from Dubai, Abu Dhabi or Doha to Johannesburg
Sometimes weekly Air Zimbabwe flights from Dubai to Harare
SAA or BA ComAir to Victoria Falls or Harare
Safari operators for tailor-made packages throughout Africa:
The Zambezi Safari and Travel Company, www.zambezi.com or email: info@zambezi.com

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