Epic Zimbabwe Road Trip!


By Elizabeth Willoughby

Signs of life have been sparse during these two hours of driving in northwestern Zimbabwe. Here and there a dirt path with no obvious destination slinks away from the road through dead grass, dried shrubs and leafless trees, and then a green tree stands out against the brownness. We pass the occasional homestead set upon an area of dirt surrounded by dried thicket. The tiny round dwellings, some brick, some adobe, with pointed, thatched roofs stand back from the road’s edge. Now and then, women in colorful clothing carrying buckets on their heads seem to come from nowhere and head to nowhere obvious. All life is waiting for the rains to begin, but those won’t start for another two weeks.

We left Binga at the south end of Lake Kariba at sunrise this morning in order to reach the opposite end before dark. That’s where we will board the Zambuka houseboat tomorrow morning. Although today’s drive is less than 500 kilometers, this road makes it slow going and I’m glad it’s not me at the wheel. We drive down the centre of the once-paved road that is now cracked, potholed and encroached upon by sand on either side, and then it’s just bumpy dirt. The 4×4 slips and slides through sections of road that are merely sand, and then lunges back out when harder dirt reappears. Behind us are our traveling companions in three more vehicles.

“What’s that noise?” says Gail, our navigator riding shotgun. We’ve all vaguely noticed it, despite that it’s no louder than the other squeaks, creaks and thumps. It’s probably cow dung in the wheel well scraping against the tire. Should fall off as we jostle along, staring out the windows looking for color.

But the unfamiliar noise persists and Neil, who is driving, pulls over – we have a flat. The men set to work detaching a spare from the truck’s underbelly in the pre-noon heat. The rest of us stand on the shaded side of the convoy.

A cart pulled buy two oxen and carrying children of various ages heads up the road towards us, with more kids running alongside it. Smiling, timid and curious, they watch and giggle until the flat tire has been replaced and we climb back into the trucks. Having not anticipated the flat or the influx of children, we regret not having food to distribute to all, so we leave them with only the memory.

Eight hours later we arrive, just before sunset, at Lomagundi Lake Chalets where we’re sleeping tonight. The chalets were built in the 1950s judging by the decor and atrophy. In a country with over 200% inflation, and where venders in Victoria Falls were flogging $20-billion Zim notes for a few USD, the reluctance to invest in Zimbabwe is unsurprising. Anyhow, we’re tired and the tenters among us are thankful not to have to set up tonight. The beer, bream fish and chips, and the chicken peri peri are salaciously gratifying. Served at our picnic table at the property’s restaurant that overlooks the port’s slip and wandering hippos, it’s exactly the slow-exhalation needed at the end of this long ‘day nine’ of our 21-day journey around the country.

Next morning, we head into a Kariba suburb to repair the flat and then to the Zambuka for a three-day cruise on one of the world’s largest manmade lakes. This one serves as a border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. The houseboat comes with everything you’d expect, plus Captain Stanley, Joe the cook, Wilson the deckhand and, if the engine is running, gorgeous A/C.

The Zambuka also has two tenders – platforms on floating steel barrels powered by outboards. Wilson takes the anglers out on one tender, which crocodiles tend to follow hoping for an easy meal. They say a croc can remove a finger in an instant, and if it manages to get a grip on two, woe to the body they’re attached to.

The other tender is manned by Stanley, who takes us around points where hippos doze, elephants forage and water buffalos graze. Crocs wiggle down banks and slip into the lake as we weave around dead tree trunks protruding above the glassy surface. We meander into inlets for intimate nature viewing. A leopard lays down under a tree on a grassy hill, while yellow-billed storks fish in the shallow water’s edge.  A sudden breeze blows Gail’s cap into the water beside me. I stare at it, wanting to grab it but I fear for my digits. One second, two seconds, three, in a flash I reach down, pluck the hat out by the exposed tip, and hand it to Gail. She looks at me in disbelief. I look at me in disbelief. 

There is a loud scrape under the boat and we jerk to a stop. We’re stuck on a submerged tree. Stanley tries to free us using the engine, unsuccessfully. He jumps into the water, pushes us free and climbs back aboard. We stare at him, gobsmacked. Dusk is our signal to return to the Zambuka. After dinner, we lounge in the boat’s submersible cage that serves as a refreshing plunge pool.

Our epic safari continues with game viewing in the remote northern Mana Pools park and the southeastern Great Zimbabwe ruins, and on day 19 we arrive at Gonarezhou bordering Mozambique – Gail reserved its best campsite for us months ago. We buy firewood at the reception hut and drive 28 kilometers through pristine wilderness. The day is waning when we reach Hilaro, only to find five Afrikaner families setting up camp on our site. “Too bad, we’re here,” says one. We reason with them and take pictures of faces and licence plates until they agree to leave, and we take our place.

With dinner cooking over a glowing fire and a glorious setting sun cast upon the red Chilojo cliffs, we toast our cross-country journey that is winding down, and watch as an elephant plods across the riverbed toward us.

Elizabeth WilloughbySince the late 90s, Elizabeth Willoughby has been writing professionally about travel, food and wine, maintaining home bases in North America, South America and Europe. Hopscotching across the globe to gather stories and photos, she designs the ultimate wine and cuisine road trips for www.WriteShots.com, and for nearly a decade was the author of “Tales from the Road”, the adventure travel page at WorldGuide.eu. She is a frequent contributor to insightLMU, Munich university’s quarterly ezine, and for the Look to the Stars blog on celebrities and their philanthropic activities. Elizabeth is Secretary and Officer of the International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association – www.IFWTWA.org.


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