Why Not Zimbabwe? Tourism Returns to Victoria Falls

Though most visitors still stay in Zambia, a steady stream of the curious is venturing back over the bridge into Zimbabwe and rediscovering why the eastern bank of the Zambezi was always considered superior

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Taking a holiday in other people’s misery, to paraphrase the Sex Pistols, isn’t always as reprehensible as it sounds. As visitors to Burma, Cuba, Iran – and even the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia – can tell you, things can be very different on the ground. The vast majority of your cash turns out to go not to generals but to private guesthouses, restaurants and even airlines who desperately need it. And having seen hardship firsthand, most likely you’ll come away informed, empathetic and able to enlighten others.

So perhaps it’s time to take a second look at Zimbabwe and one of Africa’s great attractions, Victoria Falls. Tourism withered a few years ago as President Robert Mugabe’s repression of Zimbabwe’s opposition gathered pace: his security forces killed more than a hundred of his opponents and imprisoned, beaten and tortured thousands more. Not surprisingly, tourist numbers dwindled, then all but dried up. Those operators who could migrate across the Zambezi to Zambia – microlight and helicopter operators, white-water rafting groups – did so. But the hoteliers, restaurateurs and wildlife wardens were stuck. “Vic Falls became a ghost town,” I was told on a recent trip. “Everybody was empty.”

(MORE: In the Twilight of His Rule, Mugabe Wants All the Marbles Back)

In the past two or three years, however, some business has returned. Though most visitors still stay in Zambia, a steady stream of the curious is venturing back over the bridge into Zimbabwe and rediscovering why the eastern bank of the Zambezi was always considered superior. The view of the falls is better, as are the sunsets. The town is smaller, more manageable and closer to the river. And the hotels are just as good, with none of the outrageous prices of the far bank. Take the Victoria Falls Hotel itself. This is one of Africa’s colonial jewels – a colossal wedding cake affair at the end of the railway line from Bulawayo with a direct view of the Zambezi canyon, a giant terrace, huge pool, glorious state rooms, impeccable food and drinkincluding the best high tea on the continent, hundreds of recently upgradedrooms, a chorus of frogs in the courtyards and warthogs in the garden. Rooms start at $258, though many travel agents offer discounts.

Smaller, often more expensive but also more exclusive is the Ilala Lodge, which is even closer to the falls and claims to outmatch the Victoria Falls Hotel for service and food. For those who cannot get enough of sleeping under canvas in Africa, or who like to cook their own, the Rest Camp has tented chalets from $25.

(PHOTOS: Zimbabwe Youth Escaping to South Africa)

Victoria Falls is an adventure sports mecca and you’ll find the same endless range of activities in Zimbabwe as in Zambia. For anyone under 50, white-water rafting is a must – hard work, thrilling, but surprisingly safe. For the insatiable thrill-seeker, there are bungee jumps, zip-line rides and walking with lions. For those who prefer a slower pace, an unbeatable trip is being paddled by a guide in a canoe at sunset, wine glass in hand, through the upper backwater of the Zambezi, where you might spot crocodiles, hippos or even a line of elephants swimming, trunk to tail, from one bank to another. The biggest, most comprehensive and often most reasonable operator on both sides of the river, and in nearby Botswana too, is Wild Horizons.

Whatever your appetite for adrenalin, the highlight of any trip will be the falls themselves. At once immense and deafening and yet intricate and calming, there is no sight in Africa to compare. And unlike on the Zambian side, if venture out at dawn on the Zimbabwean riverbank you’ll have one of the world’s most majestic natural wonders almost entirely to yourself.

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