Almost nobody is at the airport of the capital Harare, in Zimbabwe, just to symbolize a country isolation, as a pearl in its precious case spreading its light to anyone willing to explore it. Pictured as anti-western country along with the international embargo due to political events over the last decade, Zimbabwe is still an unknown destination.
However, you have to land and go around here to realize everyday life is completely different from the stories told in the media. Here, wild nature goes hand in hand with modernity and an extraordinary citizen awareness, which makes your trip unique and pleasant. In Harare downtown, we can see, unexpectedly, skyscrapers getting higher in great purple clouds, jaracanda trees flowers along the streets while locals welcome us with their unique African friend spirit together with their British reserve.
The education level is one of the highest in Africa. Before race riots broke out under the controversial “black power” of the President Robert Mugabe, local universities had professors coming from Oxford. Lead by the white minority’s know-how until the national independence in the 80s, Zimbabwe was the most developed country in the continent. It has still today its potential in spite of the commercial blockade imposed by Europe and the U.S. against the alleged repressive regime of Mugabe.
In the hall of our hotel, we met some young managers, black and white people, working in technologies, energy and food companies, whose products are re-sold in great malls in Hollywood style. Not to mention our trip by tour bus crossing “real” roads and bridges, nothing to do with most African dirty roads or walking into marshes, which was the case when we travelled by car in other African countries. Roads and bridges lead us to the East to discover the “great house of stone”. This is the literal meaning of “Zim-ba-bwe,” a word invented in Bantu language spoken by Shona community, the largest in the country.
The name, however, perfectly fits since the national geography, history, economy and culture are all carved in stone. We crossed villages where people still live in mud huts and leaves roofs, but with dignity. No one asked us money during our breaks. Then, we visited the Nyanga National Park, dominated by Mount Nyangami (2592 m), a paradise for hiking and countryside lovers. Waterfalls and wonderful flowers enrich valleys and gentle slopes where we can enjoy an unprecedented view.
We travelled to south to get to Great Zimbabwe, the largest archaeological site in Black Africa. It is a granite fortification twisted around a mountain of giant boulders used as natural cornerstones. Awarded world heritage site, the ruins of the capital of the ancient kingdom founded by Shona stretch over 7 square kilometers and this giant stone building, built in the 7th and abandoned in the 15th century, gave the name to the country. Driving to the West, we arrived in Matopo National Park, a labyrinth of huge volcanic lapilli covering the whole savannah, shelter for the rare white rhinos. Poachers are used to hunt them in order to sell their precious horn, considered a traditional cure-all.
We were so impressed by stones and boulders in strange positions shaped by water and wind, while we enter the park. It is one of the first African lands to be emerged from oceans, shaped by prehistoric eruptions and inhabited by humankind. Canyons’ caves are covered with cave paintings, made by Bushmen hunters and gatherers. Exterminated by Bantu farmers coming from Central Africa during the white colonization, Bushmen people are now reduced to a few hundred individuals hidden in the forest. Hunting and old animals’ pictures were painted on the walls by animal blood fixed by a glue extracted from a native plant.
On the most panoramic viewpoint in Matopo lies the grave and the museum dedicated to the English Cecil Rhodes, the legendary colonizer and former owner of Rhodesia, which is Zimbabwe’s name during the British Empire. The man who, in the late nineteenth century, was the richest in the world will be forever associated with the most precious stone in Zimbabwe: diamond. Rhodes founded the Beers, today a South African company, which is a world leader in the diamond industry making Zimbabwe the biggest diamond industry worldwide. Our tour ended in the north-west discovering the most attracting site of the country: Victoria Falls.
Created by the Zambezi River, the fourth longest river of Africa, the biggest continent’s waterfalls were discovered by the British David Livingston in 1855, who gave them the name Victoria, the Queen of England. In front of the famous explorer statue, a steamy water wall, about two km long, plummets from a 100 meter edge opening the rocky plateau as a deep wound.
Upstream, river cruises allow you to see elephants, hippos and crocodiles, or encounter lions in the reintegration program in Zambezi Park. Downstream, the river flows impetuously in a winding canyon where people can play extreme sports in water or on ropes: kayaking, rafting, bungee jumping, flying fox and gorge swing.
Once back to Harare, we had still time to go to the capital outskirts and have a look to the very impressive Balancing Rocks (rocks suspended) and the art works in the Chapungo Sculptures Park, the biggest open-air museum of the famous Shona sculpture. Giant and small statues portraying men, women, animals, fairy creatures, symbols and customs of tribal folklore surround us on the 8 hectares occupied by pieces from the Shona collection. While modeling hard basalt by chasing, Shona sculptors free the hidden art form out of the stone. This is what they believe.
We go back home, inspired by a new belief: you have to go to Zimbabwe and experience the country by your senses to seize its hidden wonders.