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With more than a passing resemblance to a National Geo best-of issue, Zimbabwe is a beautiful and relatively safe country to visit. The cities are bright and well-organised havens, perfect for shaking the dust from your safari suit, and the hinterlands are positively bursting with gorgeousness, both four-legged and furry, wild and winged, spiky and splashy. The joy of Zimbabwe is that, apart from the adventure playground which is Victoria Falls, the country is pristine and not overly-touristed. Whether you're lying in a tent listening to hippo snuffle in the river nearby or shaking your booty at an all night percussion jam, there's enough elbow room to raise a bucket of chibuku to your lips and toast your good luck in being there.
Politically, however, Zimbabwe is in a state of turmoil. With President Mugabe's grip on power looking more and more shaky, he is flexing his muscles through a conflict with the Democratic Republic of Congo and a crackdown on the country's free press. The trend towards outright dictatorship is seemingly inexorable. The question being asked now is whether popular anger or old age get Mugabe first. It is a depressingly familiar scenario being played out against the backdrop of modern Africa.
Facts At A Glance
Full country name: Republic of Zimbabwe
Area: 390,580 sq km
Population: 11.2 million
Capital city: Harare (population 1.6 million)
People: Shona (76%), Ndebele (18%), Batonka (2%), Shangaan (1%), Venda (1%), European, Asian
Languages: Shona, Ndebele, English
Religion: Christian, Mwari
Government: Parliamentary democracy
President: Robert Gabriel Mugabe
Visas: Most visitors only need a valid passport to travel to Zimbabwe for visits up to 90 days.
Health risks: Bilharzia, cholera, malaria, rabies, yellow fever.
Time: GMT/UTC plus two hours
Weights & measures: Metric
Tourism: About 500,000 visitors per year
Artists are highly esteemed in Zimbabwean society and a greater percentage of artists make a viable living from their trade than in most other countries. Even the most humble ceramic pot or basket created in a remote village displays evidence of artistic sensitivity and attention to detail. In fact, Zimbabweans seem to take a measure of artistic talent for granted. Traditional arts, most of which are still practised, include pottery, basketry, textiles, jewellery and carving. Perhaps most notable for their quality and beauty are the symmetrically patterned woven baskets and stools carved from a single piece of wood. Shona sculpture, a melding of African folklore with European artistic training, has been evolving over the past few decades. One recurring theme is the metamorphosis of man into beast, the prescribed punishment for violations such as making a meal of one's totem animal. Most of the work is superb and a few Zimbabwean sculptors are recognised among the world's best.
Zimbabwean's mesmerising music has always been an important part of its cultural life. African legends are punctuated by musical choruses in which the audience participates, and social events (such as weddings, funerals, harvest and births) are each accompanied by unique songs. Traditional musical instruments include the marimba, a richly-toned wooden xylophone and the mbira, a cute plinky-plonky device more commonly known as a thumb piano. The oddest percussion instrument used in Zimbabwe are the mujejeje ('stone bells'). Many stones in granite outcrops around the country have exfoliated in such a way that when struck, they resound with a lovely bell-like tone (Zimbabwe's first rock music? - ow). Harare is one of Africa's great musical centres, attracting South African exiles and indigenous musicians performing variations on Chimurenga music, inspired by the wars of independence.
Between 40% and 50% of Zimbabweans belong to Christian churches, but their belief system is characterised more by a hybrid of Christian and traditional beliefs than by dogmatic Christianity. The Mwari cult, a monotheistic animist belief system which entails ancestor worship, and spiritual proxy and intercession, is the dominant non-Christian religion. Mwari, the unknowable supreme being, speaks to his human subjects through The Voice of Mwari, a cave-dwelling oracle who is most often female. The oracle serves as an intercessionary between the spirits, the god and the people, especially in cases of natural disaster or outside aggression. It was the oracle, in fact, who received the go-ahead to begin the First Chimurenga (rebellion) in 1896.
English is the official language of Zimbabwe, but it is a first language for only about 2% of the population. The rest of the people are native speakers of some Bantu language, the two most prominent of which are Shona, spoken by 76% of the population, and Sindebele, spoken by 18%. Although most urban Zimbabweans have at least a little knowledge of English, once you're out in the sticks, a few words of Shona or Sindebele will go a long way. Annoying co-travellers can be swiftly despatched by dedicated practising of the Sindebele 'clicks', made by drawing the tongue away from the front teeth, slapping it on the roof of the mouth, or drawing it quickly sideways from the right upper gum.
Zimbabwean cuisine is mostly the legacy of bland British fare combined with normally stodgy African dishes. The dietary staple is sadza - the white maize meal porridge upon which most local meals are built. The second component is nyama - meat, usually beef or chicken, but also crocodile, kudu and impala. Fruit and vegetables are limited, but don't miss gem squash, a delicious type of marrow. The alcoholic tipple of the masses is chibuku, 'the beer of good cheer'. Served up in buckets which are passed between partakers, it has the appearance of hot cocoa, the consistency of thin gruel and a deceptively mellow build up to the knockout punch. It's not at all tasty. Chibuku is drunk mainly in high-density township beer halls - a distinctly male social scene. Coffee addicts who want to kick the habit should think about a holiday in Zimbabwe. Although coffee is grown in the Eastern Highlands, it's mostly for export and there's not a Gaggia in sight. Most of what passes for coffee is an abomination known as Daybreak, a revolting blend of 10% instant coffee and 90% chicory.
Zimbabwe, a landlocked blob with a western spike, is roughly the same size as the UK with an extra Scotland thrown in. It's in south-east Africa, bordered by Mozambique to the east and north-east, Zambia over the thrashing Zambezi River to the north-west, Botswana to the south-west, and South Africa over the mighty Limpopo to the south. Four countries - Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia - meet at a single point at the country's westernmost pointy extreme. The north-west consists mostly of plateaux, characterised by bushveld dotted with small rocky outcrops and bald knob-like domes of slickrock, making for an acne-writ-large landscape. The hot dry lowveld of southern Zimbabwe is comprised mainly of level savanna, sloping almost imperceptibly towards the Limpopo River. The Eastern Highlands, straddling the Mozambique border, are Zimbabwe's main mountainous region. The highest peak is Nyangani, which rises 2592m near the northern end of the range.
The critters, crawlies and crops in Zimbabwe are mind-boggling. Elephant, buffalo, lion, cheetah, hyena, jackal, monkey and antelope are amongst the wildlife grazing, gobbling, louching and lounging around the national parks. Species which are unique to Zimbabwe or found only in limited ranges elsewhere, include the rare nyala, the king cheetah and the samango monkey. Zimbabwe is also one of Africa's last rhinoceros ranges, and both black and white rhino are present, albeit in small numbers. Zimbabwe's cutest strapling is the sausage tree, which takes its name from the immense sausage-shaped brown fruits which grow to a barbecue-busting 1m in length and 18cm in diameter. The fruit is a favourite antelope nibbly, but is also dried and turned into a paste by humans to use as an ointment. Sausage-tree cream is gaining international recognition as a cure for basal-cell carcinoma, a form of skin cancer associated with aging and prolonged exposure to the sun. Look out for it in pharmacies if you're feeling a bit spotty.
Because Zimbabwe stretches over a high plateau averaging 900m above sea level, it's not as hot as the latitude would suggest. Winter (May to October) is similar to the Mediterranean summer with warm, sunny days and cool, clear nights. It never snows, not even in the Eastern Highlands, but overnight frosts and freezing temperatures are not uncommon on the plateaux. The lowveld and the Zambezi Valley experience hotter and more humid temperatures, but in winter there's still very little rainfall. Most of Zimbabwe's rain falls in brief afternoon deluges and electrical storms in the relatively humid summer months (November to April).
Southern Africa's human history extends back through the millennia to the first rumblings of humanity on the planet. The first upright-walking 'hominids' established themselves in the savannas of southern and eastern Africa nearly 4 million years ago. These human-like creatures slowly developed into persons-as-we-know-'em as more sophisticated tools were produced and climatic conditions became more favourable. By the middle Stone Age, which lasted until 20,000 years ago, organised hunting and gathering societies had been established, and by 8000BC, late Stone Age people occupied rock shelters and caves all over southern Africa. The first inhabitants of Zimbabwe were probably nomadic, adaptable San groups, gradually absorbed by Khoi-Khoi grazier tribes, and slowly transmuting into a culture known as Khoisan.
Bantu-speaking farmers, either Khoisan settlers or Iron Age migrants from the north, were the first occupants of the Great Zimbabwe site in the south of the country. Between 500 and 1000AD, the Gokomere (a Bantu group into gold-mining and cattle ranching) enslaved and absorbed San groups in the area. As early as the 11th century, some foundations and stonework were in place at Great Zimbabwe and the settlement, generally regarded as the nascent Shona society, became the trading capital of the wealthiest and most powerful society in south-eastern Africa. The hilltop acropolis at Great Zimbabwe came to serve not only as a fortress but as a shrine for the worship of Mwari, the pre-eminent Shona deity. By the 15th century, Great Zimbabwe's infuence had begun to decline, due to a heady cocktail of overpopulation, overgrazing, popular uprisings and political fragmentation.
The Shona dynasties fractured into autonomous states, many of which later formed the Rozwi state, which encompassed over half of present-day Zimbabwe well into the 19th century. In 1834, Ndebele raiders invaded from the south, assassinated the Rozwi leader and established a Ndebele state with the capital at Bulawayo. Meanwhile, European gold seekers and ivory hunters from the Cape were moving into Shona and Ndebele territory. The best known of these was Cecil John Rhodes who envisioned a corridor of British-style 'civilisation' stretching all the way from the Cape to Cairo. Sanctioned by Queen Victoria, white settlers swarmed in, led by the heavy-handed Rhodes. By 1895, the new country was being referred to as Rhodesia and a white legislature was set up. By 1911 there were some 24,000 settlers.
Amazingly, the Ndebele and Shona natives weren't overly delighted about the colonists coming in and telling them what was what, even though the Brits were ever so reasonable about everything and had jolly nice safari suits. Jihad-like revolts, raids and razzing in the last years of the 19th century became known as Chimurenga, the War for Liberation, but the fight stalled in 1897 when the crusade leaders were captured and hanged. Conflicts between black and white came into sharp focus during the 1920s and 30s through referenda and legislation which excluded black Africans from ownership of the best farmland and from skilled trades and professions. The effect was to force Africans to work on white farms and in mines and factories. Poor wages and conditions led to rebellion and African political parties emerged.
Ian Smith became Rhodesian president in 1964 and began pressing for independence. When he realised that Britain's conditions for cutting the tether wouldn't be accepted by Rhodesia's whites, he made a Unilateral Declaration of Independence. The Declaration was declared illegal by Britain, and the UN imposed sanctions (mostly ignored) in 1968. The African parties opted for increasingly fierce guerilla warfare (known as the Second Chimurenga) and whites began to abandon their homes and farms. Smith tried ceasefires, amnesties, secret talks and sneaky assassinations, all of which failed to curb the fighting. Finally, he was forced to call a general non-racial election and hand over leadership to Abel Muzorewa, an African National Congress member. Internationally, Muzorewa was taken about as seriously as the Spice Girls, and when Margaret Thatcher became British PM in 1979, she applied steely fix-it attention to the situation. A constitution was painfully thrashed out between Smith, Muzorewa, and other high-ranking nationalists such as Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe. In the carefully monitored election of March 1980, Mugabe prevailed by a wide margin and Zimbabwe joined the ranks of Africa's independent nations.
Mugabe, a committed Marxist, has hung onto power to the present day. He's survived resurgent rivalry and guerilla activity through a canny combination of dirty government, gerrymander and intimidation. It seems unlikely that Mugabe will ever get his one-party state - especially after the collapse of the USSR, the landslide defeat of Kaunda (a very mixed-up Marxist) in neighbouring Zambia and the increasingly strident demands by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and aid donors for the introduction of greater democratic measures in return for loan or aid. On a positive note, the Zimbabwean economy is strengthening and the country is recovering from the catastrophic drought of the early 1990s. The 1995-96 season brought the best rainfall in decades and things began looking cheerier for both people and wildlife.
Currency: Zimbabwe dollar (Z$)
Exchange rate: US$1 = Z$12.1
Budget meal: US$1
Restaurant meal: US$7-12
Budget hotel: US$5-15
Mid-range hotel: US$25-45
Although foreigners are forced to pay considerably more for goods and services than locals, Zimbabwe is still not expensive for foreigners. Inexpensive hostels are springing up around the country, national parks are still good value and food is reasonably priced. Due to a shortage of foreign exchange, imported items are expensive, but consumer goods produced in Zimbabwe, although rarely of optimum quality, are quite affordable. It's possible to travel on less than US$15 a day if you stay in hostels or camping grounds and eat in cheap local establishments or self-cater. It's quite a financial leap to hotel accommodation: count on spending up to US$50 a day for a reasonable room with private facilities and a couple of restaurant meals.
Banks are open Monday to Saturday (closed Wednesday and Saturday afternoons). All brands of travellers' cheques in US dollars or UK pounds may be easily exchanged for Zimbabwe dollars at any bank. Major international currencies are also accepted, but due to rampant counterfeiting, no-one in Zimbabwe is currently accepting US$100 notes. Informal currency exchange is illegal and not worth the risks - you're almost certainly dealing with a scammer. Credit cards are accepted by establishments catering to tourists and business people. There are some Barclays Bank ATMs, compatible with Visa cards, but you shouldn't rely on plastic to get cash in Zimbabwe.
Tips of around 10% are expected by taxi drivers and in tourist-class hotels and restaurants. Some establishments automatically add a 10% service charge to the bill, which replaces the gratuity.
GDP: US$18.1 billion
GDP per head: US$1,620
Major industries: Mining, agriculture, clothing, tourism
Major trading partners: South Africa, UK, Argentina, US, Japan
If you're already in southern Africa, there are frequent services between Johannesburg, South Africa, and Harare and Bulawayo in Zimbabwe. The cheapest flights between Europe and Harare are with Balkan Airways, which flies via Sofia, but there are also competitively priced flights from London. Qantas flies from Sydney and Perth, Australia, to Harare once a week. North American visitors will probably have to connect through Jo'burg. Popular land borders include the Victoria Falls/Kazungala crossing between Zimbabwe and Botswana (from where you can continue through Chobe National Park to Namibia), the Victoria Falls/Livingstone crossing to Zambia, and the road and rail links to South Africa via Beitbridge. To Mozambique (and Malawi), the route is from Harare to Blantyre via the Nyamapanda and Mwanza border crossings. Daily buses run this route.
Air Zimbabwe connects Harare and Bulawayo with Victoria Falls and Hwange National Park, amongst other places. Sometimes, combined flight and accommodation deals are available for the price of the air ticket, so it's worth making enquiries. There are two types of buses - express and local. Most foreigners use scheduled express coaches to travel between major tourist spots, but the local buses are often just as quick, and will almost always be cheaper. There aren't any schedules for local buses and they run only from early morning to late afternoon, departing from the 'African township' bus stations, which are never in the centre. It's also quite common to strike a deal with a truck driver for intercity transport. Car rental in Zimbabwe is expensive, especially 4WD, and the vehicles are not generally well-maintained.
Cyclists will be happy to know that most roads are surfaced and in fair repair, and winds are rarely strong enough to make cycling difficult. Although distances between towns are long by European standards, they're generally only a day's ride apart and there are plenty of small stores between towns where you can stop for a drink and a chat. Zimbabwe has a good network of railways which connect Harare, Bulawayo, Mutare and Victoria Falls, and in economy class they're cheaper than the express buses. Most trains travel at night. There are two scheduled ferries on Lake Kariba, connecting Kariba with Binga and Mlibizi, which is handy if you want to do a circular tour of Zimbabwe without retracing your steps between Victoria Falls and Bulawayo.
If you're anything like the average visitor to Zimbabwe, you're planning at least one foray into the bush to encounter the endearing faces you've come to know through years of nature docos. Safaris range from heading off into the wilderness with stout boots and a long lens to swanky light plane and 4WD combos. But animal-spotting is only the first and most obvious of the adrenalin hits possible in Zimbabwe.
In the Victoria Falls area alone you can go white-water rafting, kayaking, microlighting, parachuting, horse-riding, cycling and even do the world's highest bungee jump. And that's before lunch. The Mavuradonha Wilderness and the national parks of the Eastern Highlands offer superb hiking, the Kariba area offers sailing, house-boating and other water activities and the middle Zambezi is ideal for long-distance canoeing. Zimbabwe is one of the world's least expensive and least crowded golfing venues, and if you're interested in such novelties as warthogs rooting around on the fairways and crocodiles in the water hazards, it's ideal. The two most renowned courses are the 18-hole Royal Harare golf club and the lovely nine-hole Leopard Rock course in the Vumba region of the Eastern Highlands.
Harare, with a population of over 1.6 million, is the capital and heart of the nation in nearly every respect. The city was bequeathed a distinctly European flavour by its colonisers, and it continues as Zimbabwe's showpiece city and centre of commerce, with high-rise buildings, traffic and all their attendant bustle. The National Gallery of Zimbabwe is the final word on African art and material culture. Its displays range from earthy African art to colonial and post-colonial painting and sculpture. Harare Gardens, the city's largest park, has music at the bandstand on weekends, and an island-like stand of rainforest which contains a miniature model of Victoria Falls and the Zambezi Gorges. Much of Harare's activity focuses on Mbare musika, 5km south of the centre, Zimbabwe's largest market and busiest bus terminal. The Kopje, a granite hill rising above the south-west corner of central Harare, is a great place to go for views of the city.
Central Harare is compact, making it a breeze to get around on foot. Cheaper shops and hotels and much of Harare's nightlife is concentrated just west of the trendy central shopping area. The Kopje area is the best place to look for a pungwe, an all night drinking and dancing performance by top musicians.
The city has countered an alarming increase in violent crime by drastically increasing its police force and posting officers on virtally every street corner. There are still problems - especially in quieter areas - but things have vastly improved. However, never walk around the city alone, keep off the streets altogether at night and only use official taxis. Also be aware that Chancellor Ave (a short stretch of the street known in the city as Seventh St and further out as Borrowdale Rd) is the site of the Executive President's residence and the State House. It's off limits and barricaded between 6 pm and 6 am. Don't wander in there between these hours; the guards are under orders to fire without questioning.
World-famous Victoria Falls, 1.7km wide, drops between 90m and 107m into the Zambezi Gorge. An average of 550,000 cubic metres of water plummet over the edge every minute, but during the flood stage from March to May, up to 5 million cubic metres per minute pass over the falls. It's Zimbabwe's contribution to the world's great attractions, and miles and miles of film and videotape are gobbled through cameras every year here. Victoria Falls town was built on tourism and has now developed into an archetypal tourist trap. Fortunately, the star attraction is safely cordoned off by a real jungle of its own creation. To walk along the paths through the spray-generated rainforests that flank the gorge, you'd never suspect the existence of anything other than the monumental waterfall that's giving you such a good soaking. For something really special, time your visit to coincide with the rising of the full moon when the park stays open later to allow you to witness the magical lunar rainbow over the falls.
Victoria Falls is quickly becoming the greatest adrenalin capital-cum-tourist playground west of New Zealand. Heartstoppers include scenic flights, white-water rafting, the world's highest bungee jump and parachuting. If the batteries in your pacemaker are on the tired side, the walk along the Zambezi above the falls is excellent and is packed with wildlife. Don't take this walk too lightly; you may see warthog, crocodile, hippo, and even elephant, buffalo and lion. Avoid walking too close to the shore - the crocs are thick along the riverbank and can appear without warning.
Great Zimbabwe National Monument
Great Zimbabwe, the greatest medieval city in sub-Saharan Africa, provides evidence that ancient Africa reached a level of civilisation not suspected by early scholars. As a religious and secular capital, this city of 10,000 to 20,000 people dominated a realm which stretched across eastern Zimbabwe and into Botswana, Mozambique and South Africa between the 13th and 15th centuries. The structure best identified with the site is the elliptical Great Enclosure. Nearly 100m across and 255m in circumference, it's the largest ancient structure in sub-Saharan Africa. The mortarless walls rise 11m and, in places, are 5m thick. The most accepted theory is that it was used as a royal compound. The greatest source of speculation is the 10m-high Conical Tower, a solid and apparently ceremonial structure which probably has phallic significance.
Hwange National Park
During the 19th century, the area now known as Hwange National Park served as a hunting reserve for the Ndebele kings. When Europeans arrived on the scene, they realised the area's richness in wildlife and set about overhunting it. Hwange was accorded national park status in 1929, settlers created artificial water holes fed by underground water, and by the 1970s, Hwange had one of the densest concentrations of wildlife in Africa. Animals you can expect to see include elephant, monkey, baboon, impala, lion, giraffe and zebra.
Although Hwange is Zimbabwe's most accessible and most wildlife-packed national park, it's not overcrowded and most vehicles stick to short loop drives within 10km of Main Camp. The best time to visit is the dry season (September and October) when animals congregate around the water holes (most of which are artificially filled with petrol-powered pumps). When the rains come and rivers are flowing, successful wildlife viewing requires more diligence because the animals spread out across the park's 14,650 sq km for a bit of trunk and antler room.
Matobo National Park
You need not be a woman who runs with the wolves to sense that the Matobo Hills are one of the world's power places. Dotted around the park are a wealth of ancient San paintings and old grain bins, where warriors once stored their provisions. Some hidden niches still shelter clay ovens which were used as iron smelters in making spears to be used against the colonial hordes. Some peaks, such as Shumba, Shaba and Shumba Sham are considered sacred and locals believe that even to point at them will bring misfortune. Hidden in a rock cleft is the Ndebele's sacred rain shrine, where people still pray to Mwali and petition for rain. During the drought of the early 1990s, even government officials came here to pull some strings.
With the history comes a superb array of wildlife. You may see the African hawk eagle or the rare Cape eagle owl. Matobo is also home to the world's greatest concentration of the black eagle. The Whovi Game Park portion of Matobo is best known for its zealously guarded population of both black and white rhino, but its inhabitants also include antelope, zebra and giraffe. What's more, the scenery, with Matobo's most precarious and imaginative pinnacles and boulder stacks, is as good as the animals.
Off the Beaten Path
Although it's well off the trampled route, Tengenenge Farm, a remote sculptors' community at the foot of the Great Dyke near Guruve in Northern Zimbabwe, makes a worthwhile visit. The farm is the realised vision of tobacco farmer Tom Blomefield who earned enough money from chrome mining to abandon farming and concentrate on his consuming interest in art. Today, the farm is supported by the sale of artists' works as well as outside sponsorship, and is always on the lookout for new talent. Some of the original artists maintain farms at the community while others have established studios nearer their market. Visitors may stroll through the extensive sculpture gardens, which contain around 17,000 original pieces. Room and board is expensive at the farm but you can bring your own food and you can always camp in the bush. There's no public transport to Tengenenge; the nearest bus passes a turn-off 19km west of the farm, and, unless you're lucky with a lift, you'll probably have to hoof it from there.
In 1988, the Zimbabwe government set aside a 500-sq-km chunk of the Mavuradonha Range above the Zambezi Escarpment as a wilderness area and game reserve. Characterised by rugged, mountainous uplands, the wild landscape is simultaneously beautiful and daunting. Its protected status has lured several species of antelope, as well as baboon and even a few elephant. Leopard have always been present and even lion are occasionally seen. Birdlife is also profuse. Mavuradonha is one of Zimbabwe's finest hiking venues. Although tracks have been established, they aren't always easy to follow. If you're doubtful and heading off into the wilderness unguided, there are week-long horseback safaris available. Mavuradonha is only about 60km north of Harare; occasional buses will drop you near park headquarters.
Mana Pools National Park
Mana Pools is magnificent. Its magic stems from a pervading sense of the wild and natural, aspects which are somewhat lacking at Hwange with its artificial dams and petrol-generated water holes. It also lies in the park's relative remoteness, as well as the licence to wander around on foot from 6 am to 6 pm according to the dictates of individual courage. The word 'Mana' means four, in reference to the four pools around the park headquarters: Main, Chine, Long and Chisambik.
Except in the heat of the middle of the day, Long Pool is a busy spot. You're almost guaranteed to see hippo and crocodile, as well as zebra, antelope and elephant. For campers, the most memorable moments will come at night, while lying sleeplessly listening to elephant splash and trumpet beside the river and hippo grunt nearby. The almost incessant roaring of lions reverberates through the camp (don't freak: hungry lions don't roar lest they scare away their prey; roaring lions are normally fat and satisfied). Hyena yelp with their odd crescendos, stealthy footfalls approach and retreat outside the tent and unidentified raucous cacophanies erupt and subside in the bush. Don't count on a slumbrous first night. Mana Pools is accessible by canoe along the Zambezi River from Chirundu, or by car (May to October only) via Marongora along the Zambezi Escarpment.
The village of Mt Selinda sits in a hollow above the Chipinge district coffee plantations in the Eastern Highlands. The main attraction is the Chirinda Forest Reserve, a 949-hectare slice of hardwood forest, and in fact the southernmost tropical rainforest in Africa. Chirinda is crisscrossed with paths, but most people choose the Big Tree route, which leads to - you guessed it - Zimbabwe's biggest tree. This 1000-year-old, 66m-high and 15m-round behemoth belongs to the red mahogany species. Frequent buses do the 30km run between Chipinge, a sizeable town in the southern portion of the highlands, and Mt Selinda.
WHEN TO GO
The dry winter months (May to October) are the most comfortable for travelling, but you'll miss the green landscapes that characterise the hotter and wetter summer season (November to April). In winter, night-time temperatures can fall below freezing but the days are best for wildlife viewing because animals tend to concentrate close to water holes and are therefore easily observed. National parks are most crowded during South African school holidays, so to avoid the throngs, avoid mid-April to mid-May and mid-July to mid-September. There's a secondary rush around the Namibian school holidays in December and early January.
The most pleasant cultural events will be those you run across incidentally: a rural fair, a primary school theatre production, a traditional wedding or a town anniversary. You'll almost certainly be welcomed to share in local festivities. There are also several fixed events. On 18 April, Independence Day festivities are celebrated around the country, and in late May, Africa Day commemorates past independence struggles. On 11 and 12 August, the Zimbabwean military forces are feted and heroes of the independence movement are honoured. There's also the enormous Zimbabwe Agricultural Society Show, held at the Harare showgrounds around the end of August and the Houses of Stone Music Festival in Harare, a celebration of traditional Zimbabwean music, the date of which varies each year.
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