Road trip to remember

long_drive_to_zimEating caviar in a French caf and prawns on the beach isnt what I expected from a holiday in Zimbabwe, but thanks to the entrepreneurial spirit of local restaurateurs, there are lots of new places to eat in Bulawayo. (Pictured: A long drive from Pietermaritzburg to Bulawayo)

With the stabilisation of the economy, tourist spots nationwide are experiencing an increase in trade, from the watering holes of Hwange to the hotels of Harare.

Following the recommendations of friends, we decided to use our remaining 10 days of annual leave on a road trip to Zimbabwe to visit Bulawayo and the Matopus National Park. With our Izuzu KB loaded with groceries, camping equipment and extra fuel, we drove the 1400km from Pietermaritzburg to Zimbabwes second largest city in two days.

Despite the harrowing tales of queues and confusion at the Beitbridge border, we managed to make it through in an hour and a half. Thankfully we had done our research and attached all of the necessary stickers to our car and purchased our third party car insurance in advance. It was, however, our first encounter with the flexible exchange rates between the two accepted currencies in the country: the South African Rand and the US dollar. Most supermarkets, restaurants and shops use the rate R7.5 to US$1, but the majority of government departments use R10 to US$1, with the excuse that it is easier to calculate the exchange. Travelling on British passports meant that we had to pay US$55 each for a visa to enter the country. Because we only had Rand, it set us back R1100 for the two of us.

Police out in force

Once through the border we cruised the long, straight road to Bulawayo, stopping once or twice under the sparse shade of a Baobab Tree for coffee. Catching the end of the dry season meant that the landscape was painfully sun-scorched and barren. The rivers that we crossed had all dried up and charred grass at the roadside showed where fires had swept through the region. On the 320km stretch of road between Beitbridge and Bulawayo there were two toll booths, three police speed traps and two police road blocks. Although we found the police officers friendly, and were never travelling fast enough to get fined for speeding, we heard enough stories during our time in Zimbabwe to warrant caution when approaching the check points. There were tales of German tourists being fined US$200 for speeding, a local Zimbabwean woman accused of using a fake drivers license and travellers having their bolt cutters seized because they are commonly used by criminals.

The suburbs surrounding Bulawayo were quiet and lined with Jacaranda trees just starting to bloom, and the lack of cars on the road made it feel eerily unlived in. It was here that we found a squash court to while away a few hours and a couple of wonderful restaurants that we returned to more than once. With many of the huge suburban houses deserted by their owners, most of whom have moved overseas, we were able to stay in a four bed roomed house with a swimming pool and tennis court that belongs to a friend of a friend. From here we explored the eateries and tourist spots of Bulawayo for a few days before heading into the Matopos National Park.

Caviar to order


(Pictured: La Piazza caf that boasts an impressive deli counter and serves great food)

Beside the Matsheumhlope River that runs parallel to Twelfth Street into town, there are two restaurants: The River Caf and La Piazza. The latter was only recently opened by a French man who moved here to provide Bulawayos elite with a fine range of imported cheeses and meat. His deli is extensive and a note on the menu says that delicacies such as caviar can be ordered on request. The food was well priced and the atmosphere distinctly Parisian. A few blocks across the suburbs (the town is laid out using the American grid system) we came across 56 Park Road, a Victorian-styled house converted into a coffee shop-cum-caf. It is owned by three young Zimbabweans who trained as chefs outside of the country, but recently returned to ply their trade in their homeland. They are also responsible for the beach-styled bistro, Bombela, a Friday night hot spot inspired by a popular Mozambiquan restaurant. The food in both 56 Park Road and Bombela was exceptional and worth paying a bit extra for.

With the huge smoke stacks on the horizon of the town centre, we browsed the street stalls on Fife Street where expertly hand-made curios are sold. During the infamous Operation Murambatsvina (Operation Clean up the Rubbish), the vendors were chased from the street and forbidden to trade there. Five years later they are back, and it seems that their creativity is as impressive as ever. Animals carved out of teak sit next to stone Shona sculptures and hand-woven baskets, and the vendors haggle to get the most for their handiwork. A few blocks away is the National Gallery that showcases the work of local artists and often holds exhibitions. The building is a beautifully restored colonial house with its balconies over the street and roomy, cool interior. It also has a coffee shop that serves tasty cheesecake.

A few days in Bulawayo left us itching to get into the bush. Less than 40km outside town is the Matopos National Park, a region of the most spectacular granite scenery, the burial site of Cecil John Rhodes and a game park with two of the big five: rhino and leopard. Again we felt the pinch when charged national rates to enter the park, and an additional fee to see the burial ground and some of the caves, but an hour later perched on top of a huge granite kopje, we had forgotten all about it. We camped that night at Maleme Dam alongside another pair of South African tourists and a Canadian man who had been travelling for 14 months. A fish eagle cried above us and a sounder of warthog loitered near by as we set up camp and got the braai lit for dinner. As the sun set behind the precariously balanced boulders on the other side of the water, we sat round the fire and swapped stories about travelling in Zimbabwe.

4X4-ing on the back roads


(Pictured: Mtshelele Dam in the Matopus National Park)

The next morning with our differential lock engaged and a lot of enthusiasm we set off down the 4×4 only track to Mtshelele Dam. It was 26km of off road heaven as we slipped, skidded and swam the back roads of the National Park. By the time we got to the dam we were seriously weighing up the risk of swimming in the crocodile-infested water. With cold beers in hand we took refuge under a tree and looked out over the water where all of the beauty of the Matopos was mirrored on its surface.

We spent two nights at Big Cave Camp, a bush lodge further down the Matopos Road towards Kezi. Built around the natural landscape, the chalets are nestled against the rock and a massive boulder looks set to roll down the kopje into the main reception area if given the slightest push. The swimming pool, dining area and lodges all look out over a valley where black eagles spend their days soaring, and there are acres of land filled with kudu, wildebeest and leopard to explore by foot. The food is homely and the service friendly with a fire lit every night to enjoy before bed.

In spite of the bad press Zimbabwe receives, the little corner that we explored was rich with culture, beauty and character. Getting a snapshot of what the country has to offer has whet our appetite for a return visit, and the friendly reception we got from the locals made us feel that we would be welcome any time.

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