Welcome to this week’s Postcard From – the feature where I chat to some lucky explorer about their recent travels.
This week, I’m really excited to welcome back incredible photographer Gilles – who wowed me last year with an amazing Postcard From the Pantanal. Gilles, a French photographer who’s been travelling intensively for over 15 years. These journeys – some short, others longer like a round the world trip in 2007 and in 2015, have taken him to more than 40 countries on all continents except Antarctica.
Gilles has never been a budget backpacker travelling the toughest and cheapest possible way, but he is rather an experienced rucksack traveller who appreciates a minimum level of comfort. Yes, he is a ‘Flashpacker’. You can follow his trips on his blog Grand Escapades, on Twitter, or on Facebook.
Welcome Back Gilles! So, last time you were on a safari of the Pantanal. Where else have you been wildlife spotting?
Going on an African Safari almost always means that you are part of a tour, with a guide, and that someone is taking decisions for you. This time, I wanted to enjoy maximum flexibility, so I decided to rent a Jeep with rooftop tent and to go on a Self-Drive Safari.
For this expedition, I chose a country I had wanted to visit in years and where there is basically no tourism industry: Zimbabwe.
Wow, I bet that was an amazing experience! Zimbabwe was once a very popular destination – what happened?
Once the bread-basket of southern Africa and a country with a flourishing tourism industry, the economy of Zimbabwe collapsed between 1998 and 2009. Hyperinflation forced people to shop for bread with 100 Trillion Zimbabwean Dollar bills! Reasons for this disaster were manifold, but the widest international media coverage received Mugabe expelling white farmers and distributing the land to his cronies. Local farmers gained next to nothing from so these called “land reforms”, and actually the country’s black population suffered the most. When agricultural production dropped at an alarming pace and tourism came to a standstill, Mugabe started the printing press.
Ironically, prior to the dark years, Zimbabwe used to be major tourist destination, with more than two million visitors a year. Now only a few South Africans go there camping in the National Park, else you will meet very few foreign visitors except in Victoria Falls and maybe Mana Pools National Park.
Such a shame. Hopefully that will start to change soon. How was the weather while you were there?
I was there in the European summer, and hence in the Zimbabwean winter. Temperatures are very pleasant during the day, and can get slightly chilly at night, as a major part of the country is on the African highlands (approx. 1.200 to 1.600 meters above sea level).
Where did you stay?
It depends where I actually was… One of the attractions of Zimbabwe is that you can camp in “Wilderness Camp Sites”. The very isolated sites have just long-drop toilets and a spot reserved for a camp fire. No fence, nothing! And around you the vastness of the African Savannah!
I had rented a Jeep with rooftop tent and fully equipped for camping, so part of the time I camped in the National Parks when I had access to one of those stunning “Wilderness Camp Sites”. A unique, but also slightly scary experience!
Sounds very cool! Driving around the wilderness, wildlife spotting… what an adventure! What else did you get up to in Zimbabwe?
Of course you go to Zimbabwe for its stunning National Parks, but not only…
- Hwange National Park, home to 80.000 elephants. To support wildlife at the edge of the Kalahari Desert, 60 waterholes have been drilled in the 1930s. At times there were 200 elephants around one waterhole… Breathtaking!
- Mana Pools National Park. There, I enjoyed a new kind of Safari: canoeing down the Zambezi River during 4 days… An opportunity to gain another perspective on wildlife, and to go with a guide on walking safaris through the bushes! We had the chance to spot Painted Dogs, right after they had killed an Impala.
- Gonarezhou – Alone under the cliff. Have you ever been alone in a National Park? There, under Chilojo Cliffs, my car was the only one in this huge National Park… An exhilarating (but slightly frightening) experience…
- Victoria Falls. “Mosi Oa Tunya” or “The Smoke That Thunders”, as the locals call it, is the largest waterfall in the world. In July, when I visited, it was still going so strong and the spray was so massive that I was very soon completely wet, freezing and shivering. Even worse, at some view points taking photos was simply out of question, unless you had an underwater camera, which I hadn’t.
- Great Zimbabwe. Great Zimbabwe is the largest stone structure ever built south of the Sahara. In its heydays (between the 11th and 14th Century) it served as the royal residence of an empire that reached from Botswana to the coast. The mighty stone walls may easily be mistaken for fortifications, but they were not. Scientist came to believe that the high (11 meters) and thick (6 meters) walls served as a status symbol for a long succession of kings trying to outshine each other by building higher and more elaborate structures.
- Doing mistakes… Yes, I went “Walking With Lions”. I hadn’t read anything about it and found it fun… Only afterwards did I understand that those cubs were accustomed to human beings, to be taken to hunting farms and shot once grown up… This was simply a big mistake!
Oh no – what a horrible lesson learned there. At least you were able to enjoy the rest of your time in Zimbabwe. What was your highlight?
Actually, the people: Zimbabweans are extremely friendly, warm-hearted and open people, so glad to see that some tourists are coming back, and hoping that it means an improvement of their lot.
That’s always lovely to see – I’ve had similar experiences in places like Colombia. Did you uncover any great “off the beaten track” things to do in Zimbabwe?
As soon as you leave Victoria Falls & Mana Pools National Park, you are already completely Off The Beaten Track! But maybe the two highlights of the trip were the Canoe Safari on the Zambezi in Mana Pools National Park and staying at “Wilderness Camp Sites” in several National Parks.
Good point – so few tourists are going to Zimbabwe now that the whole place might be considered off the beaten track! Do you have any tips or advice for anyone planning a trip to Zimbabwe?
A Self-Drive Safari is no budget undertaking! The Jeep is a major expense, so try at any cost to find fellow travellers, as it is more fun and somewhat cheaper (and maybe reassuring at night in the wilderness…)
Beware of driving rules in Zimbabwe, and be sure that your car respects all specific regulations of the country, else you will end up paying fines at every road block (if things are in order, you will have no problems, and I did not have any).
Last but not least, try not to enter the country through Beitbridge, as officials will make your life miserable if you don’t pay a bribe to a “middle man”. If you can, enter the country through Botswana, or be ready for a few hours lost at the border…
And now for some questions about you! Did you read any new books on your trip?
Ouch, wrong question! Unfortunately, when I travel, I hardly read, as my days discovering the places I visit are long, and evenings are spent sorting my pictures and writing down the most important impressions & pieces of information for my blog. During Safaris, I took in average 500 pictures (!) a day, so I had no time whatsoever to read…
Well when you’re taking photos as good as these, who cares! Finally, what do you love most about travelling?
What I love most about travelling is diversity… The diversity of people I meet, of ways of life I discover, of sceneries I see, of wildlife I photograph, of food I enjoy (or not)… and most important of experiences that get me so much richer! This is why my focuses on travelling, and hence on photographing, are so diverse. A good trip is not a trip focused on one aspect (wildlife or people or landscapes, or whatever) but on various kinds of experiences.
This is also why, for me, the true highlights of a trip aren’t generally the ones I expected, but those that just happen: a local festival, an invitation, a chat in a park, some food stall where I seat with locals…
NB – all images are owned by Gilles.