Beyond wildlife

There is more to Zimbabwe than its national parks and game reserves

April 05, 2014 04:56 pm | Updated May 21, 2016 08:47 am IST

At Hwange National Park. Photo: Sonia Nazareth

At Hwange National Park. Photo: Sonia Nazareth

If Sanganai 2013, the annual world travel-and-tourism fair organised by the Zimbabwe tourism authority, told me anything, it was that Zimbabwe is pulling out all the stops. The further I travelled post-convention into this landlocked country, the more my cerebral furniture was re-arranged to embrace a diverse cultural experience that turned wildlife into a fragment of the page on which the rest of the adventure is written.

Book Café, Harare: Zimbabwe’s capital city has a deep abiding rhythm. People dance rather than stand in queues. I’m completely unsurprised when, in the throes of conversation, the person I’m talking to does a little shimmy around the omni-present Jacaranda tree. But to get under the skin of the exuberance of the music, Book Café hosts an assortment of live music acts from African jazz to jazz fusion to spoken word nights that will have you singing for more.

Doon Estate, Harare: These restored railway workers’ houses are a triumph of artisanal markets. Labour intensive manufacture is evident in the range of fabric, ceramics and furniture. Much of the craft emphasises the use of sustainable material (dead wood for carving, recycled plastic bottles for lamps and ornaments, local vines to make baskets). The pleasant garden setting with its cafes is as seductive as the folk-art vitality inside the stores.

Botanic Gardens, Harare: Home to more than 900 species of wild trees and shrubs, this relatively less-visited garden is evidently the perfect place for a Me-Tarzan-You-Jane bonding session. My lust however remains firmly wreathed on the indigenous plant species and unusual cacti found here.

Mbare, Harare: This high-density township was established when urban areas were off limits to colonised Africans. The attraction of this frenetic and vibrant market lies as much in the traditional medicine and curios sold here, as in the throb and hum of its population. Don’t expect a big welcome. But in many ways it’s a blessed relief to be with people who don’t like you just because they have something to sell and before they have a chance to know you.

Great Zimbabwe: This UNESCO World Heritage Site of 11th century stone ruins that lies at the head of the Mutirikiwi has some of the oldest and largest stone structures in Southern Africa. They tick off all the boxes — from grandeur to depth — with the remarkable effort that went into cutting the stone and assembling the structures in mostly geometrical forms, using the most basic of tools and technology to create the labyrinth. That the stone ruins are set in a lush and flourishing valley only adds colour to this path.

Natural History Museum, Bulawayo: There are many reasons to stop in Bulawayo, The National Gallery and extensive crafts stores are among them, but if you have time for just one, it has to be the Natural History Museum. In these hallowed portals lies the context to any Zimbabwe odyssey. The treasures it holds range from Great Zimbabwe Matobo Rock Paintings by C.K. Cook to soapstone objects excavated from the ruins at Great Zimbabwe to displays of taxidermied mammals, fish, insects and birds totalling around 75,000 species. The feather in this elaborate cap is the ethnographic collection that covers all aspects of Zimbabwe’s history — from Shona chiefs to colonial figures like Cecil Rhodes.

Matobo National Park: In scale and surreal imagination, Matobo National Park is hard to rival. What makes the granite boulders — that balance on top of each other to form figures and objects out of some deep subconscious — remarkable is that they end up being nature’s own version of a Rosharch inkblot test. Everyone has their own interpretation on what they’re seeing. But whatever way you look at them, they’re too important to just leave for viewing on the old Zimbabwean banknotes they once graced.

Victoria Falls: Everybody who’s ever been to the world heritage Vic Falls — called aptly in these parts “ the smoke that thunders” — carries a vision of it away in their heads. Any tourist activity you can think of has been constructed or highlighted around the falls — daytime walks, moonlight strolls, bungee jumps, gorge swings, elephant rides and lion walks. There’s even a giant baobab tree in the area that’s on every traveller’s photographic agenda. But despite, or perhaps because of, all the activities that surround Victoria in an unabashedly touristy way, the falls succeed brilliantly in ramming a rather large lump down your throat.

Hwange National Park : There is distinct pleasure in sharing an experience of wildlife with people who know a great deal more about it than you do. The wildlife expert at Hwange can contextualise animal behaviour in a manner that adds precision to your eyesight and clarity to your hearing. Herds of elephants converging at watering holes, fearful giraffes on a solitary ramble, painted dogs on the hunt are just the tip of this experience in the bush.

Cruising down the Zambezi: The trip on The Zambezi Explorer is anything but relaxing. When you’re not scouting the waters for hippopotamus, eliciting local stories from the very knowledgeable staff, sampling the excellent crocodile mousse on the topmost deck, you’re setting the exposure on your camera to capture, as accurately as possible, the shamelessly beguiling sunset and moonrise on the waters.

Quick Facts

Getting There:There are several one-stop flights between Mumbai and Harare. From all other metro cities there are several two-stop flight options. You can then drive from Harare, with overnight stops at Great Zimbabwe, Matobo/Bulawayo, until you finally end up at Victoria Falls. There are also direct flight options between Harare and Victoria Falls on Air Zimbabwe.

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