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Digital Subscriptions > Travel Africa > July-September 2017 (79) > The wheels deal

The wheels deal

Mike Unwin takes his family on a road trip in Zimbabwe. Starting at Victoria Falls, he travels south through Hwange National Park to Bulawayo, explores the otherworldly Matobo Hills, then continues east to the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, and ends his journey in Harare
The writer’s wife, Kathy, and his daughter, Flo, beside their rented Land Cruiser Prado
The ‘Smoke That Thunders’ in all its glory, taken from the air

It’s there as we round the corner: a roadblock, just as we’d been warned. My wife is at the wheel. “Leave it running,” I hiss, while we slide to a halt and I race through our mental checklist of dos and don’ts. “Don’t do anything provocative.” This time, the figure barring our way is not in uniform. Nonetheless, his authority is unquestionable — especially as he weighs five tonnes and could flip us like a tortoise. We hold our breath as he gives us the once-over. Thankfully, he seems more concerned with demolishing a roadside mopane than checking our licences and with a flap of his ears he waves us through.

Before I set out with my wife and 14-year-old daughter, Flo, on our self-drive tour of Zimbabwe, roadblocks had topped the ‘reasons against’ list cited by concerned family and friends. But four days into our trip and this bull elephant blocking a dusty back road in Hwange National Park has been our first serious obstacle. And it’s just the kind we were hoping for.

Concerns are understandable. There’s no denying that Zimbabwe’s once-proud tourist reputation has taken a hit. The economic meltdown of 2008 that brought such hardship to locals also made the simple expediencies of travel — currency, food and fuel — more challenging for visitors. While tourism increasingly focused on exclusive fly-in safari retreats, exploring with your own wheels slipped quietly down the agenda.

But then I’d also heard that things have lately been improving; that the country continues to welcome tourists — after all, the opening of a new airport at Victoria Falls must say something; and that with a little planning and common sense, a family self-drive holiday is still viable.

And so it was with cautious optimism that we collected our rented Land Cruiser in Victoria Falls. Ahead lay a 2000km, two-week expedition, taking in some of the country’s top attractions. “You’re going to love it,” enthused Patience Washoma, from Zimbabwe Car Hire, as she completed the paperwork and pointed out everything that might interest a traff c cop: warning triangle, fire extinguisher and so on. “I wish I was coming with you.”

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About Travel Africa

Life as a chimp - everything you need to know about this great ape • Kafue National Park's natural attraction • Driving around Zimbabwe • The Waterberg and Madikwe, South Africa • Tarangire on foot • Stunning leopard portfolio • Learning to guide in the Mara • Taking tea in Malawi • The Himba today... and much more!