Welcome Mat Is Out in Zimbabwe

March 31, 1985|JACK FOISIE | Foisie is former Times bureau chief in Johannesburg.

While I was still based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and reporting on southern Africa for the Los Angeles Times, I received a call from a California resident wanting to take his four daughters on an African vacation. He had in mind, specifically, going to Zimbabwe.

He didn't ask about Zimbabwe's tourist attractions for he seemed to know already about them. How pleasant the climate in that African plateau country, how spectacular the scenery, including one of the world's greatest waterfalls, Victoria Falls. What the caller wanted to know was whether Zimbabwe is a safe place for tourists.

For the past two years, I told the caller, Zimbabwe authorities have been reassuring visitors that the unrest in the countryside, which included the killing of six foreign tourists in western Zimbabwe and three in eastern Zimbabwe during 1982, is a thing of the past. All the killings were attributed by police to anti-government rebels. While there is still political difficulty aggravated by tribalism, in my most recent visits I found Zimbabwe very calm--by African standards.

The Zimbabwe Tourist Board is making headway again to attract foreign tourists. There are remarkable travel bargains which have been worked out by Flame Lily Tours in connection with Air Zimbabwe, and the Zimbabwe dollar, like most other foreign currency, is softening under the impact of the strong American dollar and so making travel there cheaper for the American tourist.

Observation Post

Nowhere else in Africa is there a better opportunity to observe wildlife. There are distinctive historical sites such as the Zimbabwe ruins, the remnants of a stone-walled city built by black Africans before the 15th Century. Victoria Falls remains "the eighth wonder of the world," double the height of Niagara Falls and with a crest 1 1/2 times longer than Niagara. Easily accessible, its viewing areas and trails remain marvelously rustic, with thornbush barricades rather than iron bars to keep the adventuresome from getting too near the brink.

Perhaps Zimbabwe's most surprising attraction is Lake Kariba, a man-made lake created by the damming of southern Africa's mighty Zambezi River in 1961. The impounded water has created a body of water 175 miles long and up to 20 miles wide, the shoreline shared by Zimbabwe and neighboring Zambia.

Along the Zimbabwe side, remote but pleasant resorts are most feasibly reached by charter boats or small aircraft from the town of Kariba. The town has resort hotels which are conventional, while such outlying resorts as Bumi Hills (luxurious) or the island hideaways of Fothergill (thatched cottages) or Spurwing (tents) are close to game areas and the feeding grounds of the fighting tiger fish, with a Latin name meaning "striped water dog."

Newest Resorts

One of the newest resorts on the lake is called Tiger Bay, and is on an inlet 35 miles south of Kariba town. Tiger Bay, operated by Dave and Shayne Scott, is a marvel of the rustic and the comfortable. Guests stay in one-bedroom A-frame chalets, open at the front for an unobstructed view of the water and the conical hills beyond. During Zimbabwe's hot summer months (our winter months) the natural ventilation of the open front is appreciated, and so are the overhead fans.

Your morning coffee or tea is brought by a waiter who firmly and persistently utters, "Knock, knock," to warn the sleepers to wake up before he comes around the corner to your open-side bedroom.

Tiger Bay is immediately adjacent to the Matusadona Game Park where your viewing can be from a small boat. As you drift into the lagoons and creeks with the engine stilled, the game is not scared away. Seen across only yards of water, an elephant is a mighty animal. And you can tempt a fish eagle perched on the whitening limb of a dead tree (the lake abounds with skeleton forests drowned by the rising water while the dam was being built) into swooping close to your boat by tossing out a newly caught tiger fish. With a haunting, mocking call, the fish eagle, with a wing span of six feet, will snatch the offering almost before you can click your camera.

For the rugged tourist, the ultimate challenge is a canoeing safari out on the Mana Pools Game Reserve on the Zambezi River in northern Zimbabwe. Fiberglass Canadian-style canoes can be handled easily by persons without experience. The three-day or longer trips take you downstream, with camping ashore each night.

Word of Caution

A final word of caution: Although Zimbabwe is recovering from the insecurity situation of several years ago, experts suggest that it is best on the initial visit, at least, to be with a tour group. So consult a travel agent. Making your own travel arrangements in much of Africa can still be a problem, no matter how resilient you are.

Americans can obtain visas when they land in Zimbabwe. The country can be reached directly by Air Zimbabwe out of London, Frankfurt or Athens.

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