Landlocked in southern Africa between the Zambezi and Limpopo Rivers, Zimbabwe’s recent history has created an extremely negative image with adverse consequences for tourism. However, in spite of the economic and political turmoil, the former ‘breadbasket of Africa’ is an attractive and surprisingly safe place for visitors.
Archaeological evidence suggests that there has been human life on the site of Zimbabwe since the Stone Age, but the first truly significant civilisation was the Munhumupata Empire, a medieval kingdom which lasted between 1450 and 1629. Modern Zimbabwe takes its name from the Empire’s former capital of Great Zimbabwe (meaning ‘houses of stone’).
The settlement’s relations with Europe have been acrimonious to say the least. The first visit by the Portuguese in the 16th century inaugurated a series of wars that finally ended in success for the Rozwi Empire, formed during the conflict and composed of the Shona people (who today make up 80% of Zimbabwe’s population). Taken over by the British in the 1890s after internal problems ended the Rozwi, local groups were quickly defeated and followed by an influx of settlers seeking to exploit the settlement’s natural resources. Despite the provision of self-government in 1923, the-then country of Rhodesia grappled with the issue of independence thereafter, manifesting itself in racial tension. Finally declared the Republic of Zimbabwe in 1980 under Robert Mugabe’s ZANU party, this tension continues to dominate the country’s modern history, culminating in the invasion of white-owned farms.
This should not put off visitors though. As long as you are vigilant, Zimbabwe is a relatively safe way to see the best of Africa with its fabulous parks, safaris and sights.
English is the official language of Zimbabwe, but is only really used by the white minority. The vast majority of the population use Bantu languages like Shona and Ndebele.
One tip to remember is that clapping twice is considered an acceptable way of saying ‘thank you’.
The Zimbabwe Dollar (ZWD or Z$) is the currency of Zimbabwe. Due to hyperinflation, the exchange rates are highly variable. The following exchange rates are accurate as of August 2006:
1 USD : 250 Z$1 GBP : 466 Z$1 Euro : 318 Z$
Zimbabwe enjoys a tropical climate, but parts are affected by the altitude. Temperatures average 24 degrees in the summer with highs of 38 degrees, but it can plummet to below zero at night. Expect roughly 7-12 degrees during winter.
The rainy season takes place between November and March.
30 km from Masvingo, you can see the main ruins site of Great Zimbabwe. Some 150 stone-based structures can be found across the country, built between 1250 and 1450 AD and a fascinating reminder of Zimbabwe’s pre-colonial past.
A number of museums can be found in the major cities. The National Gallery in the capital city of Harare exhibits the best in Zimbabwean and Shona art, as well as guest hosting international exhibitions. Harare also has the National Archives, containing a collection of Africana and Rhodesiana monuments. As well as another National Gallery, Bulawayo also has a major Natural History Museum, which is well worth a visit.
For a pleasant walk, the huge National Botanical Garden in Harare is the place to go. If you’re looking for slightly different scenery though, the 200 km long Lake Kariba on the northern border is a prime spot for watching the wildlife.
Zimbabwe naturally has plenty of fabulous national parks, each with something unique about them. The Mana Pools National Park has the highest concentration of wildlife in the country at certain times of the year, while the Hwange National Park enjoys a huge range of wild animals. Located outside of Bulawayo, the Matobo National Park is of particular interest because of the ancient San paintings within.
Outside of the Victoria Falls Town, Victoria Falls itself (also known as Mosi-oa-Tunya or ‘the smoke that thunders’) is one of the most incredible sights in the world. Twice as tall as Niagara Falls and offering the world’s premier bungee jump, it has to be seen to be believed.
A number of festivals are held in Zimbabwe, the most reputable being the Harare International Festival of Arts in April.
Zimbabwe’s national sport is cricket and the major venues can be found in Harare and Bulawayo.
The centre of Bulawayo is the main modern shopping centre in Zimbabwe with a great selection of stores. Borrowdare Shopping Plaza in Harare is also very good.
Although the government has recently steamrollered the flea markets, the Miramba Market near Victoria Falls is excellent for local crafts and clothing.
Some of the safest places for a drink are the bars found at hotels. However, you can find bars catering to tourists at Victoria Falls in particular, as well as British-style pubs.
The major cities all have a decent range of nightclubs and even casinos.
The drink driving limit in Zimbabwe is 0.08% BAC (roughly two pints of beer for the average sized man, and even less for women). Zimbabwe has a good road network, particularly in the major cities.
Food and Drink
Expect to find a mixture of British cuisine and African influences. The main local dishes are bota (cornmeal and water flavoured with peanut butter, jam or milk), sadza (cornmeal, meat and greens) and gem squash (type of marrow).
The national drink is the Whawha maize beer, and some types of tea and coffee (although not the best quality).