Rhythmic drumming emanating from herds of migrating wildebeest as they beat their hooves to the ground, sun-downer drinks with delectable Biltong jerky while overlooking a landscape dipped in orange and scattered with baobab trees – a scene straight out of our African vacation dreams that may or may not be (heavily) inspired by The Lion King’s Circle of Life music video (hey, I don’t judge). There are a lot of expectations from your first ever African escapade. Though for most of us, our recreational visit to Africa will be limited to just that one time and due to it being an expensive affair with lots of planning, picking your destination country can be harrowing.
A trip to ‘Africa’ is rarely actually that. The African continent with about 54 countries has just as many varied languages, cultures, experiences, sights and sounds. More often than not, what you will be experiencing is the hospitality of a single country.
In August last year, I made one of the most memorable trips of my life – my first ever trip to Africa. We chose for our first glimpse of Africa to be through the landlocked country of Zimbabwe, on the banks of the great river Zambezi. Zimbabwe is often not the first, or even in the first few destinations, travellers will chalk up on their dream Africa trip. The experiences I gathered there, I put here as my first hand humble opinions for why more people should consider Zimbabwe as a potential destination.
- Underestimated and Undercrowded
For most people an African vacation is fuelled by the unmatchable wildlife experience. While there may be a higher probability of spotting some of Africa’s prime attractors in other countries, Zimbabwe boasts some of the most pristine and untouched national parks and remarkable populations of wildlife. Popular destinations are suffering from overtourismas governments try to reroute tourists to secondary destinations and relieve popular cities from the pressure. Lately the practice of second city travelhas picked up pace among conscious travellers. This trend has travellers skipping popular spots for lesser known, alternate destinations.
A ranger we met in Zimbabwe, who had worked at wildlife parks in Kenya previously, told us how seeing 6-8 jeeps crowded around and pointing cameras at a single lion was a common sight there. This was far from the case in Zimbabwe. At all three wildlife parks we were reminded of their ‘quality over quantity’ approach toward wildlife safaris.
On our first ever safari ride we were lucky to spot a mother Cheetah with her two playful cubs which led to my father exclaiming how he would be able to sleep peacefully that night having seen his first big cat in the wild after multiple failed safaris in India. Our guide took the decision to stay a little off from the animals despite the empty ground ahead of us. She explained how in more popular parks around the continent, guides will sometimes go very near animals to offer their tourists better angles for their photographs or compete with other safari companies over who can go closer. This can be very stressful for the animal. It is important to remember that you are in their territory and be grateful that you get to witness them in all their glory. Their comfort and your safety are paramount.
We noticed that most guests at the parks were not foreign. Mostly it was families from urban Zimbabwe and neighbouring countries along with working professionals that were in the capital city of Harare for business and were enjoying a relaxed weekend. Since there are usually fewer tourists at any given time, we had a lot more privacy during our sunset picnics and night-time safaris. The feeling ofsitting on a parked jeep hood in a vast expanse of open grassland with a setting sun, watching elephants bathe in the lake with a ginger ale in hand and having to share none of that with anybody else is unbeatable.
Extremely polite Zimbabweans personally expressed their delight in having us in their country and requested that we tell our friends and family about it and help them combat their unfavourable press image. I’m hoping this blog is my tiny way of giving back.
- The Zimbabwean Hospitality
Zimbabweans are known for and are proud of their warm hospitality and spirit of friendship. Having visited multiple countries around the world I can safely say that we had one of the warmest welcomes in Zimbabwe. We would be greeted by everyone from guides, bartenders, housekeeping, hosts and other guests to sometimes even adventurous deers and elephants that ventured close to our tents. For some this could be a tiny culture shock but tourists should be polite and candid as everyone there is incredibly openhearted and conversational.
A memory that stands out is when our host at Changa Safari Camp told us that we were only the second Indian family ever to come to their camp and that she was looking forward to hosting more of us. She gave us a ‘thank you’ note to see us off which was typed out in Hindi and while of course, it was the work of an online translator the gesture touched our hearts.
Food and language can often make or break travel decisions. Most locals in Zimbabwe will speak either of two languages between themselves but almost everyone from strangers at the airport to shop vendors, drivers, hosts, guides, and housekeeping staff spoke polished English.
- What About the Food?
Although we did not try many authentic Zimbabweans dishes, all of our accommodations offered a variety of delicious food that usually included white meat, red meat, seafood, and vegetarian options. All places accepted special food preferences like vegetarian as well as modified dishes if required.
My parents pre-requested vegetarian food at our first accommodation which had been overlooked by the chef on our first night there. Upon informing the staff about the slip-up, they immediately apologised and had a new dish prepared for them in about 10 minutes – an easy and delectable preparation of vegetables, spices, and rice – sort of like an African version of khichdi. Food was a major highlight for us, as we tried many new dishes and enjoyed almost all of them immensely. If you are one for a food adventure, Zimbabwe has a wide variety of game, freshwater meats and lip-smacking local delicacies.
At all our camps, we were awoken early each morning with flasks of hot chocolate and tea. Sleepily sipping on hot chocolate while still in bed and warming our chilly fingers on the mugshad me convinced that this was the best way to be waking up anytime, all the time. Late afternoons we would be offered a high tea. In true ex-colony style, Zimbabweans have picked up a British tradition and made it better with their cooling fruity teas to help beat the heat.
- The Highlights
Flying over the Mosi-Oa-Tunya or the Victoria Falls is not only a UNESCO World Heritage site, but a heavenly experience that should earn a solid spot on your bucket list. Catching the sunset on Lake Kariba, the largest man-made lake in the world is an unwordable experienceand offers a serenity unlike any I’ve ever experienced. Local markets near the cities had wonderful art and décor that we personally spent way too much money on. We also took out some time from our trip to visit a Painted Dog Conservation center which was an extremely informative glimpse into local conservation efforts.
My personal favourite highlight?
The many playful, baby elephants that we met. I’m a big-time supporter of all things desi, but I have to say the African elephant may just be my favourite of all elephant kinds, and I blame only their young for this prejudice. They are simultaneously majestic and also absolutely adorable. Let me just say I got an endorphin rush right now just writing about those darned elephants. Each time I saw one I turned into the heart-eyes emojis.
- What about Political Climate? And the actual Climate?
We travelled to Zimbabwe at the end of August which is a great time of year weather-wise, especially for safaris. Early mornings and nights would be chilly with not too much wind while it never got too hot even at the sunniest parts of the day. August is the onset of spring in this part of Africa so it is usually the most advisable, optimal time for travel.
A Zimbabwe specific concern and one that continues to give the country a bad rap in international media is their struggle against a fascist government and trying to stabilise their economy. Just like any other country, Zimbabwe has its own internal socio-political issues. Our first morning in Harare we were informed about a strike and protest that was about to take place in the city’s main square. There was no panic and we were calmly recommended by the hotel staff to leave an hour before the scheduled time to avoid getting stuck in the crowd and make it in time for our plane to Hwange. Just remember to read up on the news and make sure your travel agents are keeping an eye out for unruly situations.
Perhaps the most important point to remember would be the cash situation. Most places in Zimbabwe will accept only cash so make sure you have enough of it. Before we left for Zimbabwe, we were told that the main currency being used there was the US dollar which we stocked on. Upon arrival we realised that an internal mandate had shifted the country into the previous system of the Zimbabwean Bond. We did not have too much of an issue as we had prepaid for almost all of our services, and were able to exchange our dollar notes from local sources. So once again, make sure your travel experts are on top of the news and are able to arrange local help in case of any special requirements.
My only advice is to read up well so that you are well-informed and remember that every country has issues – even your own; that doesn’t always mean they are unfit for tourism. Most importantly, make sure you give the locally brewed Zambezi Beer a go while on this life-changing trip.
The guest writer of this blog is someone I have personally known since birth, as she happens to be my baby cousin sis – Michelle Patrick. Born in India, Michelle moved to Dubai at an early age and has done her schooling from there. After which she moved back to India for a degree in Marketing Communications at Symbiosis Centre for Media and Communication, Pune. After three incredible years of trying different food, making friendships to last a lifetime, and some on-the-side degree earning, she moved to Mumbai for her first ever job in Public Relations. Michelle is lucky to be from a family that values frequent vacationing and is grateful for all the places she has already ticked off her list at 22 namely India, UAE, Switzerland, Italy, France and Zimbabwe. From all the incredible food Michelle has tried in the very many places she has had the fortune to visit her favourite remains some good old roti and chai. Her hobbies include reading, excessive video-gaming, tweeting, and baking.
Currently unemployed and looking to restart her career from a different angle, Michelle is back home in Dubai looking up ways to kill quarantime, figure out her next move and engage in some professional-level relaxation
Travel tips :
- Read up about the culture, history, recent news, and political happenings of your destinations beforehand. This way you will have more meaningful conversations with locals and have a much more enriching trip.
- Reach out to friends and acquaintances and make sure you have a local resident contact at your destination. Super helpful in a pinch and almost a must-have. This tip has saved our arses on more than one occasion.
Book with the same airline. If you’re a frequent flier, it’s better to even pay little more to stick with your trusty airliner as they will make adjustments for you and offer upgrades way often. Your travel history can play a big role in your check-in counter negotiations.