For the larger part of the past month, I have travelled around Zimbabwe by myself. People sometimes react with surprise: is that safe? The short answer is: yes, very safe. But much more than that, it is a hugely rewarding experience. Of course, it can be scary to head out by yourself to a country that is politically isolated and in perpetual economic crisis. Hoping it might make it a bit easier to take the leap, here is what I’ve learned.
Transport can be a bit of a challenge in Zim, especially if you don’t have your own vehicle. Renting cars in Zimbabwe is ridiculously expensive (65 dollars a day and up), but it pays off to ask around a bit and see if you can arrange a private rental (about 35-40 dollars a day – make sure you are well ensured!). If you want your own transport, a good option is to fly in to Johannesburg, rent a car there and enter Zimbabwe at Beitbridge. Downsides to traveling by car in Zimbabwe are the border control and roadblocks. You must be prepared to be hassled for money and given fines for ridiculous “transgressions” like having a loaf of bread in your back seat which is not “secured”. So be sure to pack your patience.
If you don’t mind the inconveniences generally associated with traveling by public transport, you can get among daily life a lot more than when you’re cooped up in your car. Between the bigger cities, there are many reliable bus-lines (see Great Zimbabwe Guide for more information). As the roads in Zim are lined with potholes and there have been a few major accidents, try not to travel by night (unless you are driving up from Johannesburg – these roads are quite good). It also pays off to opt for slightly more expensive but infinitely more luxurious bus-operators, like Inter-cape or Greyhound. There are some cities and sites that are harder to reach with big bus-operators, like Masvingo/Great Zimbabwe or Kariba. In that case, you could check local bus companies or go to one of the bigger combi-stations where you will be shoved in a white mini-van and made to wait until it is full enough to leave – see it as part of the charm. I would recommend combining the inter-city buses with renting a car for several days at a time to check out the cities’ surroundings.
Within cities, the distances are such that you cannot just rely on your own two legs to take you around. You can try walking up to a main road and waving down cars or vans headed in the direction where you want to go. Many Zimbabweans can’t afford their own car and this has inspired a system of carpooling/informal taxi rides, where almost anyone will give you a lift for a few dollars, depending on the distance. It felt a bit counter-intuitive to me at first, to get into cars with total strangers who are not in any way licensed as taxi-drivers. Yet, I didn’t have a single bad experience. You can also choose to focus only on the white combi-taxi’s, in which case you always share the ride with other passengers. They will take you practically anywhere for 50 cents, but the system can be a bit hard to figure out. Also, don’t be surprised if an already over-full combi-driver finds a way to cram you in with 20 other people, with only half of your buttocks resting on something resembling a chair and having 2 or 3 standing passengers looming over you and regarding your every move with great interest. You can ask the combi’s to stop anywhere that is convenient for you or travel along to a bus station and ask around for a connecting line.
Let’s be clear: don’t come to Zim alone expecting the shared travel experience that you find in popular backpacking destinations like Thailand or India, where you often meet up with other travelers in multiple places along the same travel-route and can choose to spend several days/weeks together before parting ways again. Given the low numbers of tourists that visit Zimbabwe at the moment, you will find very few fellow-backpackers on a similar route. Outside the tourist-hub of Victoria Falls, most travelers are either visiting family or on organized group-tours.
On the reverse side of the coin, locals will be very interested in getting to know you. Communities in Zim have been shrinking, as many (mostly young) people leave the country to find a better life abroad. This means that when someone new and interesting comes along to shake things up, they are welcomed into local communities with open arms. I have often been given lifts, taken on day-trips or offered to stay with new friends free of charge. On the other hand, you may sometimes also be expected to pay for your friends’ drinks, food and entrance fees depending on their affluence. So, decide how much you want to spend on this, be clear about your boundaries and make sure the friendship is benefitting both parties equally. It’s a careful balance, but in my experience a very enriching one.
Meeting locals also means you are quickly introduced to local activities. If you like, you can immerse yourself completely in Zimbabwe’s many cultural activities. I was surprised to find out that in bigger cities, like Bulawayo or Harare, there is a festival on almost every other weekend. On Friday nights, you will probably have to choose between an invitation to join for a free movie-screening in the park or jazz-concert in a club.
Throughout my travels, my new-found friends have stayed in touch, making sure I was safe and regularly asking me if I needed their help with anything. I have made several lasting friendships this way, for which I am ever so grateful!
Of course, traveling alone, especially as a woman, means you are somewhat more vulnerable than when you are with others. Generally speaking, Zimbabweans are patient and peaceful people. There are few weapons about, especially fire-arms, and there is much less of a risk of violence in Zimbabwe than for example in it’s neighbor-state South Africa. Nevertheless, the economic deprivation means that people can be driven to robberies and you must keep your wits about. If you are driving by yourself, don’t give lifts to strangers. When driving through busy areas, keep your windows shut and doors locked. Ask around if there are unsafe areas to walk around in cities and mind your belongings. But besides the occasional cat-call or over-persistent souvenir salesman, I have felt very safe, respected and welcomed.
In short: not only is Zimbabwe a wonderful country to visit in general, you can certainly manoeuvre it alone. Bring an open-mind, a dose of humor and you will have a trip to never forget! And a bunch of new Zimbabwean friends on top of that.