South Africa’s northern neighbour, Zimbabwe, is known for its stunning natural beauty, vibrant culture and rich history. Despite being more than worth a visit and its growing stature as a tourism destination, many people still have false perceptions about this country. These are often based on outdated stereotypes or negative media coverage, but GEORGE VAN DEVENTER of Trans Africa Self Drive Adventures and Tours is on a mission to change that.
As tour guide in Africa, I am often asked if and why Zimbabwe is worth visiting. And my answer is always yes, a thousand times yes! Zimbabwe is a country rich in history, culture, and natural beauty, making it an ideal destination for overlanding and 4×4 tourists. Despite its complex political history, the country has emerged as an incredible destination, famous for its unique landscapes, impressive wildlife reserves, vibrant cities, and friendly people. One of Zimbabwe’s best-known and most alluring destinations is Victoria Falls, one of the world’s most majestic natural wonders. Also known as Mosi-oa-Tunya (which translates to ‘the smoke that thunders’), this breathtaking waterfall is located on the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. While it is neither the widest nor the highest waterfall in the world, it is the largest sheet of falling water on earth (with a width of 1 708m and a height of 108m). The falls are surrounded by lush vegetation, offering a stunning and dramatic view that will captivate visitors. For birders, this is a paradise with over 450 species living in this region, and it is not uncommon for travellers to spot up to 25 species during a single visit!
Zimbabwe is also home to an incredible abundance of wildlife, with numerous national parks and game reserves, making it a popular destination for safari enthusiasts. Hwange National Park is the largest of Zimbabwe’s national parks, covering an area of around 14 650km², and visitors will find approximately 100 mammal species – including elephants, lions and cheetahs – here. Another gem, Mana Pools National Park, is located in the northernmost part of Zimbabwe and is recognised as one of Africa’s most beautiful game reserves. It’s now legendary elephant, called Boswell, is a particularly special treat to see – his uncanny ability to stand up fully on his hind legs to reach tasty branches in the trees above is delightful to watch!
However, Hwange and Mana Pools are only two of the many parks and reserves in this country – in fact, over 15 percent of Zimbabwe’s land is dedicated to national parks and game reserves (and that does not even include the many private game reserves). Other highlights include the Gonarezhou National Park, Matusadona National Park and Zambezi National Parks to name a few. Apart from the country’s natural beauty, Zimbabwe has a rich cultural heritage reflected in its museums, art galleries, and historical sites. The Great Zimbabwe National Monument is one such location, consisting of an impressive stone-walled complex that is believed to date back to the 11th century and serves as a testament of the ancient African civilisation’s incredible architecture and engineering skills. Furthermore, Zimbabwe’s cities are diverse and welcoming, providing visitors with a unique blend of traditional and modern lifestyles. Harare, the country’s capital city, is a bustling metropolis dotted with bustling markets, street vendors selling traditional crafts, and modern shopping malls. Additionally, the National Gallery of Zimbabwe (also in Harare) is home to some of the country’s most impressive works of art.
While it is true that Zimbabwe has had its share of political and economic challenges in the past, the country has made significant progress in recent years and is now considered to be a relatively safe travel destination. Zimbabwe’s government has also made great strides in improving its infrastructure and tourism industry, making it easier and more enjoyable for visitors to explore the country’s many attractions.
Another false perception that people have about Zimbabwe is that it is a poor and underdeveloped country. While Zimbabwe is certainly not immune to economic challenges, it has a thriving tourism industry and a growing middle class. Visitors can enjoy luxurious accommodations, world-class restaurants, and other amenities that rival those found in its neighbouring countries.
Finally, some still believe that Zimbabwe is dangerous and volatile, defined by political instability and social unrest. Yes – we cannot dispute that Zimbabwe was a melting hotpot of political unrest in the past, but the country has made significant progress in recent years towards greater stability. Travellers to Zimbabwe are likely to find a vibrant and diverse society that is proud of its heritage and eager to welcome visitors from all over the world.
Roadblocks and tolls
Under the leadership of former President Robert Mugabe, the country faced various challenges that led to increased corruption and bureaucratic roadblocks. We all remember the days when a $10 ‘fine’ was the norm. Bribery was widespread, which made it difficult and expensive to travel in Zimbabwe. After recently driving almost 5 000km through Zimbabwe, I am happy to report that this has all changed. You still find the drum in the road blockades, but the officers are friendly and happy to see foreigners. On the few occasions that we were stopped, it was only for a friendly chat.
The road conditions vary from beautiful newly built roads to roads strewn with massive potholes. The same goes for the gravel roads. We drove from well-maintained and graded roads to dirt roads that probably haven’t been maintained since the 1970s! That said, about 70 percent of the roads we drove were in good shape. Like many developing countries, Zimbabwe has struggled to maintain its road infrastructure. Just a word of warning – don’t trust the GPS on arrival time. On some roads, distance is not factored in kilometres but in hours!
The Zimbabwean government continuously strives to improve road conditions and has initiated various projects, such as the improvement and expansion of major highways and roads that connect to neighbouring countries. These efforts to improve the condition of the roads through funding and partnership with private entities show hope for improvement. The steps taken to enhance safety measures are commendable, and I am confident that the country will continue to work towards further road safety and maintenance improvements.
Note that, regardless of road condition or where you are, there is a $2 toll fee on all roads in Zimbabwe – make sure to always carry a few $1 bills for this since they don’t have change for big bills and make sure to get a receipt.
We all recall the days when the media reports showed shop upon shop with bare shelves in Zimbabwe. This was true, and we experienced it in the late 2000s. Today it is a whole different story, though. The shops are all well stocked, and most key retailers such as Food Lovers Market, OK and Shoprite are represented in the larger cities such as Bulawayo, Karoi, Masvingo, Harare and Mutare.
The quality of the meat and fresh produce is on par with our best shops back home, and upon comparing prices of a few popular grocery items, we found that prices are not much different from South African averages. Zimbabwe is a tad more expensive due to the current dollar/rand exchange rate, but it’s really nothing to write home about. Note, however, that the smaller local shops mostly do not have credit card facilities and prefer cash (US dollars). You can’t buy happiness, but you can buy local. And that’s kind of the same thing. Shopping local keeps small businesses healthy, and by doing that, your money stays in the community. Small businesses are a big part of African communities, providing jobs and supporting families. Always try to support local whenever you can – it really does make a difference!
Show me the money!
Zimbabwe has a complex monetary history, with its currency being subjected to significant fluctuations over the past few decades. The country has experienced hyperinflation rates that have made its currency practically worthless, leading to the adoption of foreign currencies. In 2009, Zimbabwe abandoned its currency, which was then known as the Zimbabwe dollar, and started using a multicurrency system. The government decided to adopt the US dollar and South African rand as a temporary measure to stabilise the economy.
Currently, the official currency is called RTGS, short for Real Time Gross Settlement. This is the currency used by Zimbabweans and is also the currency used on all shopping and commodity pricing. For example, a bread will have a price tag of 930 RTGS, which is equivalent to $1. This rate changes weekly. Beware of people in shops that offer to pay with their cards and then give you a better rate in dollars. Although tempting, it is illegal and can get you into trouble. Cash is king and make sure that you have enough small notes like ones, fives and tens since giving change is a common problem. If you prefer to pay in rands, you’ll most probably overpay due to the poor exchange rate they give you for rands. Everybody prefers US dollars, and all parks and reserves charge in dollars and only accept cash.
Time to fill up
Zimbabwe’s fuel sector has been facing significant challenges in recent years. One of the primary challenges was the shortage of foreign currency, making it difficult for the country to import fuel, resulting in fuel rationing and long queues at filling stations.
In Zimbabwe, petrol is known and sold as ‘blend’ because they blend petrol with locally made ethanol. The ratio is 80 percent petrol and 20 percent ethanol. Both blend (petrol) and diesel are readily available everywhere, and the long queues for fuel are a thing of the past. With diesel being sold between $1,62 and $1,75 and blend between $1,55 and $1,67 per litre – with the exchange rate at R18.42 to the dollar when we were there in March, this can become a bit expensive (so take as much fuel as you can carry across border). All the service stations we used only accepted cash, either dollars or rands.
Our neighbour often gets a raw deal, but it’s an incredible destination with an eclectic mix of natural beauty, wildlife, cultural sites, and friendly people. With its increasing tourism industry, visitors to Zimbabwe are bound to enjoy unforgettable experiences and make memories that will last a lifetime. Zimbabwe is my favourite country to visit and explore. It’s truly the diamond in the African travel and tourism crown, offering something for all types of travellers. So, why wait – start planning your next adventure to Zimbabwe or book one of our spectacular self-drive adventures to Zimbabwe in 2024.