THE inaugural KLM flight from Amsterdam to the Zimbabwean capital of Harare on the night of 29 October last year received a hero’s welcome.
Fire trucks lining the runway used hoses to form a triumphant arch of water in welcome, TV cameras filmed passengers disembarking, African dancers performed traditional routines and, in a glittering marquee on the edge of the runway, Government ministers from the ZANU-PF–MDC power-sharing agreement waited to give speeches. Their topic? The significance of the Dutch airline returning after an absence of 13 years.
As a Scotsman journalist invited to be on that first flight, which was aiming to attract tourists and business people back to Zimbabwe, I listened as one of the politicians finished his speech with the chant of “Long Live, Long Live, Long Live KLM” to resounding cheers.
It reminded me of the ZANU and ZAPU freedom fighters (terrorists to some) who were at Edinburgh University in the late 1970s when I studied for a politics degree, and the closed-fist salutes they gave at the end of impassioned speeches demanding the end of white rule and oppression.
But I was also wondering how much of “Zim”, brought to its knees by President Robert Mugabe, the group of KLM executives, tour operators and a few fellow journalists would be allowed to see.
That’s the thing. There can be no responsible mention of Zimbabwe and tourism without getting to the heart of the matter, which is Mugabe and his regime, infamous worldwide for brutality and the poverty he has inflicted on the vast majority of black Zimbabweans since taking office. With elections being talked about over the next few months there is an atmosphere of unease. Some bullishly maintain the country has politically matured and all will go smoothly, while others voice fears the youth militia will once more be sent out into the country to intimidate voters.
But there was no need to worry about our group of travellers only being allowed a sanitised version of “Zim”. The next morning saw us depart by minibus for a five-hour drive north through the heart of Zimbabwe towards our destination of Lake Kariba.
This gave unrestricted views of the abject poverty which appears within a few miles of Harare and its luxury hotels and malls. A common sight is people, usually women and youngsters, walking for miles along the roadside in the blazing heat carrying heavy containers of water to their small straw-roofed huts while others attempt to sell a handful of paltry produce from makeshift stalls.
However, while sadly, such scenes are commonplace in many countries – albeit this one is rich in diamonds and platinum – the trip also gave close-up views of the police road blocks where drivers are “fined” or pay “bribes” to continue their journey.
Our bus was stopped by police on seven occasions but allowed to continue after a brief word from a representative of the Zimbabwean Tourism Authority who was on our trip. But those without such a passenger face the possibility of having to pay on-the-spot fines ranging from 10-100 US dollars (Zimbabwe’s currency) for ad hoc misdemeanors such as an inappropriate tail light, not knowing the vehicle’s body mass or not having a licence for the car radio. No consistent reason was given by any official for the money-generating roadblocks. Refusal to pay can result in an invitation to accompany the police officers to the station – not a tempting prospect while on holiday in a fledgling presidential democracy.
But for those travellers seeking pastures new, Zimbabwe has some of the world’s most beautiful natural and manmade treasures on offer, including Victoria Falls, national parks such as Hwange, Matobo and Mana Pools, and the Eastern Highlands with its mountain forests.
Our destination was Bumi Hills Safari Lodge, located across another wonder – Lake Kariba. The biggest man-made lake in the world when it was built in the 1950s, it was created to provide electricity for Zimbabwe and Zambia. In the process more than 57,000 local Tonga people from the Zambezi Valley were displaced from their tribal land.
After a speedboat journey across the lake, which with its houseboats and small islands has become known as Zimbabwe’s Riviera, we set out on a lake safari. The animals appeared as if on cue – hippos grazing on the shore like sheep while their compatriots waggled their ears in the water and grunted, a crocodile or two surfaced, an elephant stood majestically on the shore, while in the foreground, perched on the branch of a tree was a Fish Eagle – a large bird whose evocative call is regarded as the “sound of Africa”.
Our accommodation at Bumi Hills overlooking the lake is a superb base for safaris, whether in a group or alone with a guide or two. It has its own aircraft and landing slip, 20 rooms all with lake views, an elephant hide for watching the animals at a nearby watering hole, a health spa, infinity pool, snooker table, library and a well-established wildlife protection unit.
Many staff are recruited from the nearby village of Chalala, which Nick Milne, the lodge’s general manager, encourages guests to visit. After an early morning safari it was a privilege to visit Chalala and be invited inside a villager’s home – the type of small, round, straw-roofed hut often glimpsed from the minibus. Then it was on to the local school where the children do their very best to learn in poorly equipped classrooms, with few textbooks to go round.
Nick encourages guests to donate to the school’s “wish list”, with the money going into a secure fund at the lodge. He then buys and presents the items to the school, so safeguarding their arrival. One of the targets for next year is to acquire enough building materials to fund a classroom block.
Bumi Hills also offer fishing trips for guests out on Lake Kariba, with tuition provided by one of the multi-talented safari guides. Our fishing expedition was followed by a surprise dinner – including the local staple of maize meal and spinach – out in the bush under the stars, the staff having lit a campfire and set tables with tablecloths and candles and lanterns so we could watch the moon rising, changing colour from red to golden yellow above us, while the sound of lions roaring not so far away drifted towards us.
For those wondering why choose Zimbabwe, with all its troubles, for a holiday instead of well-trodden destinations such as Kenya or South Africa, the answer most commonly given by those who know the country well is that while the others can offer safaris, Zimbabwe also has the magnificent cultural experience of the ruins of Great Zimbabwe.
The complex of walled ruins of the remains of an ancient civilisation, which many rank second only to the Egyptian pyramids in terms of archaeological importance, is a dry stone citadel which inspired adventurers attracted by legends of its riches beyond dreams.
Declared a World Heritage Site in 1986, the ruins, extending over 270 hectares, were a central focal point of the liberation struggle and gave their name to the country in 1980. This was after many years of colonial administrators refusing to believe such a structure could have been the work of Africans.
While a number of tour companies offer holidays to Zimbabwe, I asked some tour operators on the trip if they would recommend it as a destination. Their answer was “yes, but not yet. We’ll see what happens at the elections.”
THE FACTS KLM flies from Edinburgh to Harare three times per week via Amsterdam Airport Schiphol. Return fares start from £628, tel: 0871 222 7474, www.klm.com; African Bush Camps arranged the KLM land trip, www.africanbushcamps.com; Holidays and safaris to Zimbabwe can be tailor-made by a number of tour operators in the UK with prices ranging from around £3,200 for nine days to £4,700 for 12 days.