Zimbabwe has a generous sampling of the Africa that many people hope to see: exotic scenery, interesting cultures and a good variety of game parks. It also has a few things you might not expect to see, including Great Zimbabwe, the most extensive ruins in sub-Saharan Africa. Without a doubt, the highlight of Zimbabwe is the dramatic Victoria Falls, which the country shares with neighboring Zambia. There, the mighty Zambezi River crashes into the Bakota Gorge and is deservedly one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World.
Zimbabwe has been populated since the Stone Age, and the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, dating back to the ancient African kingdom of Munhumatapa, testify to the advanced level of civilization that existed before European contact. Long home to Shona speakers, the area was invaded by the Ndebele in the early 19th century. Hard on their heels came the British South Africa Company, headed by Cecil Rhodes. A man of ruthless ambition (or, as Evelyn Waugh put it, “a visionary, and almost all he saw was a hallucination”), Rhodes dreamed of linking Cape Town to Cairo. Although his great railroad failed, the region he colonized for Great Britain became known as Rhodesia.
President Robert Mugabe has been in power since the 1980 independence elections and is today the leader of the ruling Zanu PF party. In recent years, the government has adopted increasingly radical and controversial policies. Black war veterans have seized more than 1,000 white-owned farms, of which many have been redistributed to black residents. In reality, very few people have benefited from the land reform and many of the farms have ended up in the hands of government ministers and their families. Since the takeover, farms have not been managed to their full potential, which has led to crop failure and a shortage of fresh produce. The economy has also been affected by a decline in domestic and foreign investment, and the infrastructure has suffered considerably. There have been sporadic fuel and food shortages, rampant inflation, an increase in crime and an unemployment rate that hovers around 70%. Zimbabwe was once a reasonably prosperous African country, but since this fairly recent decline.
A two-hour flight from Harare (via Bulawyo) will take you to one of the most stirring sights in Africa: Victoria Falls, known locally by the Kololo people as Mosi-Oa-Tunyaa (Smoke That Thunders), because of the cloud of spray that rises over the falls. The falls are also a World Heritage Site and one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World. The mile-/kilometer-wide Zambezi River suddenly plunges 30 stories into the Bakota Gorge, at times spilling water at a volume of more than 2 million gallons/7.6 million liters per second. Rainbows, mist and the tremendous roar of the water stir the senses—few other natural wonders match the raw power of Victoria Falls. First-time visitors to the falls are often surprised to find that it can’t all be taken in from one vantage point on land; rather, it’s seen from several viewing points along a paved, winding path on the opposite side of a narrow gorge, and there’s no sweeping perspective. But seeing it one piece at a time has its own rewards—each viewing point isolates and reveals another aspect of this spectacular place.
Victoria Falls actually consists of several falls separated by islands in the river: The most impressive are Rainbow Falls, Devil’s Cataract and Main Falls. The best time to see the falls is during July or August, midway through dry season. The volume of water over the falls is at its peak just after the rains end (March to May), but this is a poor time to go—the force of the falling water at the base sends a mist shooting up to a height of more than 500 ft/150 m, which obscures some views of the falls. Even during the dry season, you can get plenty wet from the mist and you will need a raincoat and a covering to keep your camera and binoculars waterproof. Indeed, it’s strong enough to support a lush forest of ebony and mahogany on the opposite side of the gorge, even when the rest of the countryside is parched.) At the apex of the dry season—around the end of October—the water flow at Victoria Falls has diminished considerably, and although it’s nice, it’s just simply not as impressive as in July or August.