If you like art, food, shopping and nature, you’ll find the buzzing Zimbabwean capital to be a great starting point for your trip or a destination in its own right. Words and photographs by Christopher Scott
Business is low and slow but we now have high hopes for our future,” beams Leon Suragi, a stone and metal craftsman plying his trade at a popular curio market along Enterprise Road, one of Harare’s main arteries. Sporting a clean but frayed shirt emblazoned with ‘I am Zimbo’ and exuding an air of determined confidence, Suragi neatly encapsulates the prevalent atmosphere in Zimbabwe’s capital: one of cautious optimism.
“Things have definitely improved this year, people are spending more money because they are happier with the current situation. This is the way it must be for the future to get better,” says Moses Sigauke, who sells his handmade teak frames, chopping boards and jewellery boxes at a farmers’ market frequented by diplomats and tourists. Although the ‘new dispensation’ seems to be making all the right strides in the direction of a positive future for Zimbabwe its citizens have seen it all before and so some are reluctant to be drawn into possibly more false hope. However, there is no doubting that Zimbabwe in a post-Mugabe era has the potential to reinstate itself as not only the breadbasket of Africa but one of its tourism hubs.
Regardless of the country’s political landscape, Harare has myriad experiences on offer that will appeal to the varied tastes of any visitor and is the perfect springboard to launch a foray into the more remote and wilder areas of the country. The adrenaline capital of Victoria Falls can be accessed from Harare by daily flights and from there a road transfer of a few hours will get you into the wilds of Hwange National Park. The lost Eden of Mana Pools is only a five-hour journey from Harare for the more adventurous self-drive travellers and can also be accessed through several air charter companies. You can hop to the south of the country and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Matobo Hills via Zimbabwe’s second city, Bulawayo — the City of Kings — on regular flights from Harare.
However, it would be foolhardy to ignore the plentiful activities on offer in the capital and I would urge any traveller passing through to linger a few days and have a nose around.
• Enjoy the city’s fine dining and then try some traditional grub at Gava’s
As a dynamic modern city, Harare boasts a high quantity of buzzing, cosmopolitan restaurants, meaning that visitors are spoilt for choice and can dine out on a variety of cuisines, whatever your budget and taste.
But to try traditional Zimbabwean fare, go to Gava’s. It offers a great range of food to suit anyone’s taste buds, from succulent goat stew served with the local staple, sadza, to road runner chicken grilled on an open fire. It is open every day until 11pm and on Sunday afternoons you can munch your food and tap your feet to the tunes of upcoming musicians. Situated on the old bowling green of Belgravia sports club, Gava’s is perfectly located to make the most of Harare’s sunny weather.
Meals range from US$6 to US$12; all local alcohol is available as well as craft beers and a selection of wine and spirits.
• Savour the sunset over the funky geology of Domboshawa
If you have overindulged in Harare’s restaurants, a visit to Domboshawa on the outskirts of the city will set you right. An easy walk to the top of a granite kopje that has been worn by running water over millennia into a ruffled blanket will get your blood pumping enough to justify the sundowners at the top (pack your preferred refreshment). The panoramic view of the surrounding Chinamora community is well worth the effort, but have a quick breather in the shade of the balancing rocks on the way to the top! You’ll need decent walking shoes and a small day pack to carry your drinks, snacks and water. The cost for international visitors is US$10 per adult and US$5 per child.
• Learn to be a sculptor at the Chitungwiza Arts Centre
There is no doubting the skill and patience involved in turning a lump of red cobalt stone or green opal into a 2m fish eagle or a fat hippo, and Zimbabweans are renowned for their carving the world over. One of the nexuses for this art form is the Chitungwiza Arts Centre (CAC) where around 200 artists spend their days turning geology into alluring art.
“Business has certainly started to pick up since November (when ‘the coup that is not a coup’ occurred), with traders and art dealers coming from all over the world and as far afield as Australia and New Zealand,” CAC’s young chairman Taurai Tigere tells me as we stroll past massive buffalo to the omnipresent sound of hammering, chiselling and whining power tools. The centre provides an easily accessible platform for buyers to visit. It has proven so successful for some of the artists that they have been invited on lecture circuits in Europe and the Americas.
The CAC is in Harare’s sister city Chitungwiza, about a 30-minute drive from the CBD. Contact Taurai Tigere on +263 772 598 060 for precise directions and to organise for him to show you around.
• Get your art on at the National Gallery
“We are very privileged to be one of the few galleries on the continent that has such a varied collection of artwork,” chief curator Raphael Chikukwa tells me. “We have been very lucky, historically, to have had many generous benefactors, and in fact this gallery was purpose built to store all the art.”
The National Gallery showcases its 6000-strong permanent collection on a regular basis, which includes originals by Rembrandt and other notable European masters. It regularly hosts exhibitions by a variety of Zimbabwean artists and artisans. The Zimbabwe Annual Exhibition was on show when I visited and featured a diverse range of paintings, metal and wire sculptures as well as abstract forms under the umbrella of ‘Zimbabwean Heritage’. My favourite pieces were colourful old electric kettles adorned with sunglasses. Afterwards, exit via the gift shop, which offers many pieces for sale — from stone carvings to painted local scenes. The Sanctuary Café also offers hot and cold drinks, snacks and cakes.
The gallery, located in the Harare CBD at 20 Julius Nyerere Way, is open from Tuesday to Sunday (8am–5pm); entrance is US$1 per person.
• Rhinos and rock art at Lake Chivero Recreational Park
If you are like me and the call of the wild has you scratching itchy feet keen to get into the bush, an easy fix would be Lake Chivero Recreational Park, which is just 35km or roughly an hour’s journey from the centre of Harare. Home to a healthy population of white rhino as well as a host of plains game such as giraffe, sable, zebra, wildebeest, waterbuck, eland and tsessebe, you are almost guaranteed to see something interesting on your game drive. The small size of the park and the regular habits of the white rhino make spotting them an almost certainty, but be sure to ask the park’s staff on arrival where the gentle giants’ favourite hangouts are.
Stock up on provisions at one of Harare’s farmers’ markets for a feast at one of the scenic picnic sites after you have marvelled at some of the area’s San rock art sites.
A high clearance vehicle would be advisable but the park is easily accessible in the dry season and open daily 6.30am–6pm. Daily entrance fees are US$10 per person for international visitors.
• Wild is life
Mirabelle is the biggest five-year-old I’ve ever fed by hand. Craning down from above me, she wraps a long, blue tongue around the leaves bunched in my fist. “If you see the animals up close,” says my host Alex Norman, “you have a whole new appreciation when you go into the wild.” And animals don’t come much closer than this giraffe.
Mirabelle is one of many waifs and strays now being cared for at Wild is Life. This inspiring animal orphanage and rescue centre, five minutes from Harare Airport, was established in 1998 on a family farm. Initially caring for the likes of duiker, mongoose and other smaller creatures, today there are pangolins, cheetahs, lions and even an elephant nursery, where six ‘severely traumatised’ orphans are being carefully rehabilitated. Where possible, Alex explains, animals are returned to the wild. But some, such as Noodle the wildebeest and Sweetpea the kudu, are permanent residents.
Today, visitor contributions help fund the centre’s vital work — both in caring for the animals and in educating the public about Zimbabwe’s wildlife heritage. Visits can be arranged for weekday afternoons (Tuesday–Friday) and Saturday mornings, with Champagne and canapés — and the roaring of lions — for sundowners.
By Mike Unwin
• Brush up on your history at the National Archives of Zimbabwe
If you are a history buff and are excited by the musty smell of old books and colonial maps, then a visit to the National Archives will not only whet your appetite but leave you well educated about Zimbabwe’s history. Items on display in the Alfred Beit gallery include the original Union Jack that was hoisted above the young Salisbury settlement and papers from the Zimbabwean Constitution drafted soon after independence.
“We also have over 50,000 historical pictures and a host of old films that we are digitising and that will be available for public viewing,” explains the director, Ivan Murambiwa. “Another exciting development will be a display of original Thomas Baines paintings entrusted to the care of the National Gallery, probably towards the end of 2018.”
The National Archives are open from Monday to Friday (8am-5pm; closed between 12pm and 1pm) and entrance is US$2 per person. They can be found on Borrowdale Road, just after the Gun Hill traffic lights.
• Shop for silver and gold or crafts in Harare’s Green Haven
A tall frame stoops over a seemingly obscure silver leaf, scrutinising every detail with the shrewd eye of a master craftsman. He looks up with a beaming smile before resuming his inspection. This is Patrick Mavros, Zimbabwe’s foremost purveyor of some of the continent’s finest silver creations, who, for 35 years, has been creating remarkable silver and gold items that have adorned the necks and desks of royalty, and countless lesser mortals too. Set against the inspiring backdrop of the rolling Umwinsidale hills, Mavros, his family and their team employ the ancient art of lost wax casting to make their unique sterling silver sculptures that range from the tiniest Zozo elephant earrings to large, walking pangolins.
If silver and gold are not your style, pop into the neighbouring Kiki’s gallery where owner Esther Ilsink-Steijn will help you choose from an eclectic gathering of art, artefacts, crafts and even furniture. “Zimbabwean artists are known for the variety of items they produce,” Esther enthuses, “from basket weaving to pottery, stone sculpture to metalwork, teak furniture to printed textiles, beadwork to woodcarving… It is overwhelming when you realise that every piece you see here is handmade, you can actually feel the heart and soul of the artists in their work, the creativity is tangible.”
Kiki’s Gallery is open from Monday to Friday (9am–5pm) and on Saturday (9am–1pm) and Patrick Mavros’s studio from Monday to Friday (8am–5pm) and Saturday (8am–1pm) on Haslemere Lane, Umwinsidale.
• How to explore Harare The best way to really get under the skin of the city is to book yourself onto a tour. The writer was hosted by Explore Zimbabwe, which arranges varied and enlightening day trips in the capital.
• Where to stay There are plenty of options to suit all tastes. Amanzi Lodge’s verdant gardens, traditional thatched roof and comfortable suites provide a warm African welcome; there is even a gym and spa. Family owned and charming Ballantynes Lodge and the stylish Highlands House are good high-end hotels; plus, both are close to restaurants and shopping. The iconic Meikles Hotel and The Bronte Hotel, in the heart of the city, can accommodate a range of budgets.
• When to go April to August are the best months to visit when there is least chance of rain. The city’s sights are easy to access year-round, though, so timing is less critical than elsewhere in the country. If you visit from mid-September through to October (the hottest time), you will witness the streets buried under ‘purple snow’ as the jacaranda trees blossom and drop their petals. From the end of October the flamboyant trees take over with their glorious red flowers around Harare.
• Health While there is low risk of malaria in Harare, if you are travelling beyond the city, seek medical advice before arrival and make sure you have all the necessary immunisations and antimalarials.
• Further reading The Bradt Guide to Zimbabwe (3rd edition) by Paul Murray; The Hairdresser of Harare by Tendai Huchu.