Zimbabwe's tourism revival lies in Victoria Falls paradise
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I was entering Victoria Falls, described with pride by a local guide as one of the seven natural wonders of the world. It wasn't a letdown. Standing on the cliff top, I beheld a curtain of water turned foaming monster, an awesome force of nature on the scale of gods and giants.
The torrents rage down more than a hundred metres into the Zambezi Gorge, generating furious mists that swirl and soar so high they can be seen from up to 30 miles away. The smoke that thunders, as it is known locally, slices the sunlight into the perfect arc of a rainbow.
A Zimbabwean turned to me and said: "You've come to a country with constant power cuts, and which can't feed water to its own people. Yet look. We have so much."
On my way out, I saw a herd of seven elephants making the hoovering up of water look stately and majestic, impervious to a surrounding flock of white birds. Men in yellow bibs watched anxiously from afar, wondering if these monumental creatures would encroach on the railway tracks. Zimbabwe's train operators have been known to apologise for delays due to elephants on the line.
With farming still a comatose industry, tourism is an economic plank being grabbed at by the unity government like a drowning man. Accordingly, Zimbabwe is now trying to muster a facade of normality. Harare has just hosted a jazz festival, Mamma Mia! has opened at in one of the theatres â€“ though few can afford the $20 ticket â€“ and the newspapers carry headlines such as: "Deputy Prime Minister single and not searching!"
The country hopes to bask in the reflected glory of the football World Cup, starting a year from now in neighbouring South Africa. The World Cup trophy itself is heading here in November, when Fifa must be praying President Robert Mugabe doesn't hold it aloft before the world's cameras. Mugabe has even invited the Brazilian national team to base its training camp here. Perhaps he realised Harare's shopping markets would not meet the needs of the players' wealthy spouses and partners.
But the Zimbabwe tourist board â€“ which still uses that slogan, "Africa's paradise" â€“ has one of the hardest sells in the world. In the last year it has endured a lot of "bad PR": politically motivated beatings and murders, the worst national cholera outbreak since the 30s and economic catastrophe driving people to poverty and starvation.
If there is to be revival, it will begin at Victoria Falls, the country's star attraction. Just as Canada has the better view of Niagara Falls than America, so Zimbabwe has the lion's share of this spectacle at the expense of Zambia. Last weekend, a steady trickle of tourists â€“ Americans, Europeans, Japanese with their interpreter â€“ had decided that, despite what they'd heard about Zimbabwe, it was worth the risk.
They posed for photographs beside a giant statue of David Livingstone, who discovered the falls, or rather, ensured they'd be named after his queen. The plinth is engraved with the words "explorer" and "liberator". The people who erected the statue, for the centenary in 1955, pledged to "carry on the high Christian aims and ideals that inspired David Livingstone in his mission here".
The hotel where I stayed continued the theme of deference to the old colonial masters. There might have been the requisite portrait of Mugabe above the front desk, but otherwise the walls were festooned with hunting rifles, pictures of Henry Stanley and his prey, Livingstone, and lithographs of thick-lipped "Africans" with titles such as: "Livingstone reveals the Dark Continent." Perhaps the idea is to reassure white guests that nothing has really changed since the 19th century after all.
As in so many holiday destinations, Victoria Falls exists in a cosy self-contained bubble, away from the perils ravaging the land, making it hard to imagine anything bad happening there. There are safaris, river cruises, helicopter flights, twee arts and crafts shops and posh lodges serving warthog tenderloin.
Yet you don't have to travel far for the mask to slip. Holidaymakers find to their frustration that cashpoints are out of order and credit cards not accepted. Drive towards Bulawayo and you are assailed by a billboard that warns: "Cholera alert! Wash your hands with soap or ash under running water." In every town there are long queues of people standing at the side of the road, raising a forlorn hand in the hope of hitching a lift.
So, why would anyone come here when they could be playing safe in the first world cities of South Africa? I asked a taxi driver if, like many other Zimbabweans, he had considered emigrating to the big country south. "No way," he said. "South Africa is a very violent place. Someone I knew went to a bar there, knocked over a beer and got stabbed to death. Killed for a one dollar beer! It doesn't go with me."
He added: "Zimbabweans don't do that. Zimbabweans are quieter and more gentle people."
And from my experience, it was hard to disagree. If judged by the generous spirit of its people alone, Zimbabwe would be a tourism magnet. But of course it won't come down to that alone. "The notion of some infinitely gentle/ infinitely suffering thing," wrote TS Eliot. Much gentleness, but much suffering too.
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