Zimbabwe No Small Wonder

Article excerpt

Sinem Bilen-Onabanjo went on a 10-day media trip to Zimbabwe recently, and what surprises awaited her. Not wanting to keep all the good news to herself, she says: "It's time to ignore ominous travel advice, your family fussing about safety, and storms stirred in teacups. Pack your bag and experience a world of wonders, in the land that was once part of the Munhumutapa Empire."

A 10-DAY ROAD TRIP AROUND this small landlocked African state is all it takes, I can vouchsafe, to overthrow any long-established prejudices encouraged by the mainstream media in their portrayal of doom and gloom in Zimbabwe.

For, on the endless smooth highways linking the major cities to smaller townships and world-famous heritage sites, there is little sign of impoverished locals or rampant sperm-snatchers, but lines and lines of impeccably dressed school children on their way home from school, roadside vendors decorating the highway--like nowhere else in the world--with beautifully crafted statues and hand woven rugs, and the occasional vagrant animal which gives your vehicle a withering look before shuffling its behind off the road.

And let's not forget the incredible wonders of nature you will come across en route from seeing the Big Five (that is, the lion, elephant, the buffalo, rhinoceros and leopard) in the seemingly endless African wilderness to the thunderous waters of Victoria Falls. No wonder then, the tag line used by the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority (ZTA) describes the country as "A World of Wonders".

Wonders begin at the gateway into Zimbabwe--Harare International Airport--a pristine, light and spacious modern structure which apparently--according to our host Felicia Munjaidi from the ZTA London office--throws the intrepid explorer off the scent. "Are we connecting here for Harare?" many have been heard asking. Fortunately, I know better.

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My copy of Skyhost, Air Zimbabwe's in-flight magazine suggests, "Harare is not a city to rush in and out of", but alas, I only have 48 hours to spend in Zimbabwe's capital and Africa's Sunshine City--not long enough for a nomad like me, but long enough to get in a little sightseeing from my residence for the next two days, the prestigious Rainbow Towers.

Formerly The Sheraton Harare, the 5-star hotel boasts 304 en-suite rooms, 67 Towers rooms, and the ultimate piece de resistance that is the exhibition centre and the colossal 4,500-seat auditorium.

The rooms, offering all the luxuries you would expect from 5-star accommodation, are admittedly in need of some work, but with a comprehensive refurbishment underway, they should be resurrected to their former glory in no time.

The city's name is supposed to have come from the Shona chieftain Neharawa. It is also said to have derived from the European corruption of "Haarari", meaning "he does not sleep"--the epithet of the chief whose citadel was located in the city's highest part, known today as the Kopje.

It was said that no enemy could ever launch a sneak attack on him. It is on the summit of Kopje, the city's highest vantage point, that you discover how apt the name is as you are granted unrestricted vistas across the Harare skyline.

Harare is a truly beautiful capital and as far as capitals go, it seems safe. Even in the oldest township, Mbare, where we are told to mind our wallets and cameras, the worst of our worries is to haggle a good price for the wooden ornaments and marble sculptures we lay our eyes on.

There is no unruly thug ready to relieve us of our valuables or irate street vendor asking for a ridiculous sum of money for a quick photo. It's smiles all around--and not just the fake, plastic kind one is so used to seeing day-to-day, but genuine, ear-to-ear grins that wrinkle the cheeks and reach the eyes. And soon, I discover, these smiles never fade as we travel the length and width of the country.

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The first stop on our 10-day road trip is the small town of Rusape, en route to the lush green mountainous region of Eastern Highlands, comprising the Vumba, Chimanimani, and Nyanga. …