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May 06, 2009

Zimbabwe Needs Your Tourist Dollars

Matetsi
A typical game drive scene at the Matetsi Private Game Reserve in Zimbabwe: When the big game's scarce, check out the tiny ant lion's traps.

by Brook Wilkinson

At this time a week ago, I was waking up for a game drive in the Zambezi National Park, on the Zimbabwean side of that great central African river. My home base for this e-mail-free vacation was the Matetsi Water Lodge, a luxurious safari camp owned by &Beyond Africa (formerly known as CCAfrica). I'm usually trying to pinch pennies when not on assignment for Condé Nast Traveler--indeed, I spent the second half of my trip at the Fawlty Towers hostel (no, not that one!) in nearby Livingstone, Zambia, for $25 per night--but Matetsi was hardly a splurge. Zimbabwe has had a hard time attracting tourists for years (something about political unrest and astronomical inflation seemed to turn people off from this once-popular tourist destination), and the recent economic slump certainly hasn't helped. But that's good news for travelers: Rates at Matetsi are as low as $255 per person per night, including all safari activities and full board (which turns out to be roughly seven meals a day, by my calculations: tea and coffee before sunrise, more hot beverages and biscuits on the morning game drive, a full hot breakfast and lunch back at the lodge, tea and cake before the afternoon game drive, sundowners midway through, and a three-course dinner back at camp). And if you travel before June 30, you can get six nights for the price of four--that's less than $350 per night for all your activities, meals, and accommodations.

And there's no better place to spend your travel dollars right now. "Don't go to Zimbabwe," I heard from family and friends before I left. I'd be propping up Robert Mugabe's dictatorship; camps are known to run out of food, all of which is shipped in from South Africa; cholera was racing through the country. I talked about the issues with Nina Wennersten of Hippo Creek Safaris, one of Wendy Perrin's Top Travel Specialists, who booked my trip for me. She assured me that most of my money would be going straight into the pockets of local people who needed it desperately; that the northwest of the country had always been a stronghold of the opposition political party; that the cholera outbreak had happened hundreds of miles from Matetsi; that she thought it safe enough to send her own son there a few months ago; and that it was the best safari experience I'd get for my meager budget.

How right she was. Even in the low season, when the foliage was still dense from the summer rains, we saw elephants, giraffes, baboons, two lions enjoying a breakfast of freshly killed warthog, even the rare serval and sable antelope, thanks to the top-notch skills of our ranger, Ophious, and tracker, Vusa. They were also eager to share their views on politics, and tell us what Mugabe's policies have meant for the people of Zimbabwe--until recently, Matetsi had been paying its staff in food, since the Zimbabwean dollar was losing value at such an alarming pace. Now that the country has moved to the U.S. dollar, tourists are snapping up the old Zim $100,000,000,000,000 notes for U.S. $1--a better exchange rate than when they were still in circulation. But hard currency is still tough to come by, so the bills I handed out as tips were sorely needed.

&Beyond is one of the few safari companies that has stuck it out in Zimbabwe, and it hasn't been easy. The national park rangers are so underfunded that Matetsi has been fixing their broken vehicles and supplying gas so that they can patrol the park. &Beyond supplies antiretroviral drugs to its HIV-positive staff (AIDS is a huge problem in Zimbabwe) and has convinced a drug maker to do the same for the local villages. It was also bringing in food for the local people--until the government decided that only licensed importers could do so and put an end to this charity.

There's a feeling of optimism in Zimbabwe right now. The power-sharing agreement between Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai seems to be pushing the country in the right direction. As soon as the U.S. dollar and South African rand became the official currency, food reappeared on the shelves of the local markets, which had been barren for so long. The recent car accident that killed Tsvangirai's wife might have derailed the progress, but the people I spoke to believe that it was in fact an accident--not an assassination attempt as suggested by some international press. 

I've never felt so good about spending money as I did in Zimbabwe, never met a more gracious and grateful staff as I did at Matetsi, and never come home wanting so much to send everyone I know to the place I just visited. That's what the Matetsi Water Lodge, and Zimbabwe in general, will do to you. We who fall into a deep depression over a 20 percent drop in our stock portfolios could learn a lot from people who can make a joke out of the now-worthless trillions of dollars in their billfolds. If you're thinking about a safari this year, do consider Zimbabwe. (And stay tuned for next week's post, when I'll talk about the good works taking place next door in peaceful but poor Zambia.)

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