Geographically, Zimbabwe is landlocked and sandwiched between the Limpopo River in the north and the Zambezi River in the south. The Limpopo serves as the border between South Africa and Zimbabwe, while the Zambezi River and the breathtaking Victoria Falls provide a natural boundary between Zimbabwe and Zambia. To the east is Mozambique and to the west is Botswana.
Zimbabwe has some of the best natural attractions in Africa. Chief among them is Victoria Falls, no doubt one of the world’s most incredible natural spectacles. The waterfalls have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and lays claim to being the widest waterfall in the world with a width of one mile. It plunges more than 550 million liters of water each minute with sprays that can be seen 20 miles away. Victoria Falls features seven principal gorges, averaging 400 feet high, that were formed by the falls receding upstream and eroding the sandstones. Archaeological sites around the falls have uncovered Homo Habilis artifacts that date from 3 million years ago, as well as several Stone Age weapons and tools. The best way to see the falls is to take a plane ride called the “Flight of the Angels” over it, or to take a cruise along the Zambezi river.
The Victoria Falls Bridge at Victoria Falls is a 250 meter bridge that crosses the Zambezi River and connects Zambia with Zimbabwe. It is built over the second gorge of the falls and is listed as a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. For more than 50 years in the first half of the 20th century, the bridge was the principal transport route for people traveling from the north to southern Africa. It was designed so that trains would cross the bridge during which passengers would be purposely sprayed with water. Today, the bridge offers the world’s highest bungee jumps, with drops of more than 360 feet.
The Zambezi Gorge of the Victoria Falls also offers some of the most scenic and breathtaking white-water rafting enjoyed anywhere in the world. Some of the tamer river stretches around the falls are better suited for canoeing and kayaking.
Zimbabwe features several other national parks, including its largest, the Hwange National Park. This is a habitat for various birds and wildlife. With an estimated 40,000 elephants, it is home to the last great elephant sanctuaries still left in Africa. The Mana Pools National Park is another great place to view wildlife. Its beautiful forests are streamed by the Zambezi River and serves as a habitat for hippos, buffalos, elephants, antelopes, and rhinos. There are also innumerable different bird species, as well as unique fishes like the giant vundu, tigerfish, and the bream. More exotic animals can be viewed as well at the Zambezi National Park, known for its sable antelopes.
Other national parks in Zimbabwe are less about game viewing than natural beauty. The Nyanga National Park is set in a mountain range that is decorated by evergreen forests, dramatic cliffs, high grasslands, cascading waterfalls, and lakeside cottages. It offers visitors some of the best trout fishing in Africa. Another park gem is the Matobo National Park near Bulawayo. It has incredible granite rock formations that feature ancient paintings and prehistoric caves such as Pomongwe and Nswatugi.
Outside of the national parks, you’ll still find myriad lakes, mountains, and rivers. Lake Kariba in the northwest is home to several safari camps. Game such as elephants, buffalos, and rhinos can be viewed by taking cruise vessels or canoe rides. The lake and its one million gallons of water offer great freshwater fishing. Mountain climbers will enjoy the Eastern Highlands, as will hikers and trekkers. It takes about 1.5 hours to climb Mount Nyangani, which is the country’s highest mountain. At the top, you’ll get spectacular views of northern Zimbabwe. There is also a footpath that leads to the village of Nyanga, a charming village with a church and English gardens. The Eastern Highlands is also home to the highest concentration of golf courses and hosts the annual Zimbabwe Open, which attracts some of the world’s best players.
Perhaps one of Zimbabwe’s greatest gems is the Great Zimbabwe National Monument, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a complex of ruins that includes a temple with hand-trimmed walls over 30 feet tall and 14 feet thick. The remains are from the Empire of Great Zimbabwe, otherwise known as the Monomotapa Kingdom, which flourished between the 13th and 15th centuries by trading gold and ivory to the Muslims.
Zimbabwe has three distinct regions: the high veld, Eastern Highlands, and the river valleys. Much of Zimbabwe is dominated by plateaus vegetated by velds, which are grasslands. The high veld consists of elevated plateaus that look like soft rolling green lands during the lush wintry season, but turn into a rippling sea of gold during the dry summer and autumn months when the green grass turns to brownish-yellow. The high velds average elevations between 4,000 to 6,000 feet above sea level and enjoy a more temperate climate (as opposed to tropical in the rest of the country). They make up 25% of the land in Zimbabwe and cuts through the heart of the country, stretching northeast to southwest.
The Eastern Highlands near the Mozambique border, on the other hand, features several mountains and even higher plateaus that are characterized by outcrops of granite rock called kopjes. Some of the mountains in the Eastern Highlands include the Manica, Inyanga, Chimanimani, and the Vumba.
The river valleys of the Limpopo and Zambezi, sometimes called the middle and low veld region, consists of vast floodplains in the southeast and plateau elevations between 2,000 and 4,000 feet above sea level. The climate in this region is much hotter, and the land suffers much more from erosion.
Zimbabwe has more extreme weather than its neighbors. It is a rather dry and hot during the day, but frosty and cool at night. The hottest months are between September and April while the coolest months are between May and August. Rain usually kicks in around November and continues until March.
Most of the people in Zimbabwe are black Africans descended from the Bantu natives. The Mashona and the Matabele are the main Bantu groups. The Mashona live in the north and east and are the larger of the two groups. They arrived some time between 1000 and 1400 AD. The Matabele live in the south and west and entered the country in 1837. Only about 2% of the population are currently Europeans, mostly English and Dutch.
The lifestyle of Zimbabweans vary between those who live in the urban cities, where they enjoy the comforts of Western-style amenities, and those who live in the rural villages where traditional ways are upheld. A typical Bantu village is made up of about 50 small huts built out of mud, clay, and grass and topped with thatched roofs shaped like cones. The villagers are very family and community oriented. They raise cattle, grow corn, and practice ancestral worship. The boys are taught to tend cattle and sheep, while the girls are taught how to make pots and jugs and carry them on their heads.
Zimbabwe was first inhabited by Stone Age hunters related to the Khoisan people about 5,000 years ago. They were gradually absorbed by the Bantu who came some time between 500 and 1000 AD. During the Middle Ages between 1000 and 1400 AD, the Bantu established the Empire of Great Zimbabwe (or Monomotapa Kingdom) whose ruins can be visited today. The kingdom grew prosperous from trading ivory, glass, gold, and other valuables to Muslim merchants who set up posts along the coast of the Indian Ocean. However, the kingdom was defeated by the Rozi in the late 17th century who were themselves conquered by the Matabele in 1837.
The Matabele dominated Zimbabwe until the English arrived in the late 1880s. The British South Africa Company “obtained” the mineral rights to Zimbabwe and began setting up camps and forts to claim its rights. British settlers also began moving in to farm the land. This triggered a series of wars between the Bantu and British settlers from 1893 to 1896, ending in the colonization of the country.
Zimbabwe remained a British colony until it was granted independence in 1979. In the 1980 election, Robert Mugabe won in a landslide and has ruled as President ever since. He has been widely criticized by the international community for his human rights abuses. He allegedly engaged in the ethnic cleansing of thousands of Ndebele civilians during the 1980s. He has also redistributed arable lands owned mostly by white people to loyal deputies of his. This has resulted in a decline in the country’s agricultural exports and an economic and food crisis that still persists. Moreover, 5.5 million Zimbabweans currently live with HIV, a number that is growing and has become an epidemic. Today, Zimbabwe faces one of its worst humanitarian crises since its independence.