Some people cannot resist Mountains. All over the world people pit their fitness and climbing skills ‘against’ the great crags and slopes of our most famous Mountains. Many die doing it. Some get lost or survive by sheer luck. But the lure of these giants just gets stronger. Africa has her share of these massive natural wonders and unknown to many, the highest in Zimbabwe and the highest in Mozambique have both claimed their share of lives.
In the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe stand Mount Nyangani and Mount Binga and in between them runs a startling mountain range containing immense and valuable secrets. Secrets that are only recently being revealed and documented for a new generation of Zimbabweans. The process of finding, documenting and then teaching these secrets was activated in January 2018 – the result is the Zimbabwe Mountain Guide Training Scheme.
1. How long is the mountain guide course?
The Zimbabwe Mountain guide training course is two and half years of theory and practical training. The final 6 months includes guiding work and attachments with Tourism operators. Once they have amassed the minimum guiding experience and completed their log books the candidates can sit their final exams.
2. What qualifications does one need to apply, if any?
In terms of required qualifications the main thing is that candidates have good language skills, both spoken and written. We are not specifically looking for any A’ Levels or O’ Levels. We will search for people who are passionate about nature. He or she should enjoy being out of doors and working with people. Enthusiasm to learn as much as possible about their own area, from history to geology will be vital. It’s much more about the character of the student than his present academic qualifications. Training to be a guide can be the first and most important step in a long, diverse career in the Tourism Industry.
3. Which type of personnel make the best mountain guides?
The kind of person who makes a good guide varies, people are different and the guests that you work for are different. Groups may request or prefer a female guide, especially female clients. They usually like someone who is friendly, confident without being dominant and they should be experienced, hence the course being two and a half years, with a great proportion of that carried out in the mountains. Customers need to feel confident that their guide will not make mistakes. Obviously guides need to be energetic people. Physical fitness is important as is the ability to converse well – these are the minimum traits we will require.
4. What are the benefits of employing local guides?
It is essential to link surrounding communities with the benefits brought by Tourism. Safety of visitors is paramount and only a welcoming local community can make sure of this. Local people value these areas as a natural heritage when they are the first beneficiaries of any potential employment. They are the real caretakers. If they feel that protecting the flora and fauna of the Eastern Highlands is a good thing for the community because it provides jobs, they are likely to be vigilant – stopping damage to trees, preventing the shooting of their birds, that sort of thing. Local people employed as Cultural and Mountain Guides are also naturally interested in their own heritage and local culture. Tourism creates gender friendly jobs in these rural areas and particularly in the areas which still have intact ecosystems. People surrounding those natural areas are the future custodians and it is obvious that they should be the ones that benefit.
5. As tourism increases in the area, how do u expect to reduce their ecological footprint?
Let me give you an actual example – In 1994 through to 1997 there were so many visitors coming through the Chimanimani Mountains National Park that residents ended up creating the Chimanimani Tourist Association in response to that very problem. Litter being left in the mountain, much firewood being collected and even branches being broken off living trees, paths becoming eroded etc. Complaints about some visitors not following Parks rules resulted in responsible Operators creating the Chimanimani Tourist Association to educate all who went hiking. Lodges took information and made sure that they spoke to anybody going up the mountain about bringing down everything they took up and how best to avoid damaging the Park. In general people who enjoy hiking respect nature and simply need the information on how best to reduce their ecological footprint. We pushed a Zero tolerance for litter. All of this experience will be built into the training of Zimbabwe Mountain Guides. They are going to be trained to ensure minimum impact from their clients on our mountains.
6. What size is the Chimanimani mountain range?
Roughly 50km long with four parallel ranges of mountains and one and a half of them occurs in Zimbabwe and the rest are in Mozambique. The Zimbabwean side is one of our smallest National Parks but it has the highest density of endemic species of all of them. It is known as a Biodiversity Hotspot. This is a trans-frontier park so the opportunity we have here is for guides take clients in Mozambique as well. However the Mountain Guide Training course is not just limited to the Chimanimani’s – it is going to be for the Bvumba and also Nyanga – this is a spectacular and varied part of Zimbabwe to work in.
7. How many visitors do you receive each year? And predominantly from which countries?
At the moment the Eastern Highlands is only receiving around 8% of the number of visitors coming to Zimbabwe. Most are going to Vic Falls – it’s easier to fly in and fly out. The problems we have had with our economy and the negative perception of Zimbabwe created by our politics has effectively destroyed the once vibrant tourism sector here. Visitors have taken their custom to Botswana, South Africa and lately to Namibia. Self-drive tourism is the big one for Eastern Highlands and that was completely destroyed by the roadblock situation that we had. Destroying an Industry is the easy part…rebuilding it is arduous and requires a whole change of mind set by our Government. We are also still too expensive and time consuming for start-up businesses in Zimbabwe. Take the vehicle car hire people for example – they are suffering from the same situation as we are, to start your business you have to process upwards of a dozen different types of licenses, paying various government bodies just to get up and running. Imagine that is actually cheaper and less complicated for a client to hire a car in Johannesburg to tour Zimbabwe! This is even with the big challenge of driving through Beit Bridge with those cars. Zimbabwe has recently put up yet another obstacle – our Customs at port of entry now treat private but hired 4x4s as “Commercial,” so now the visitors coming into Zimbabwe have to pay commercial vehicle license fees. The response is predictable – Self-drive visitors are simply avoiding us. Namibia and Botswana are enjoying an absolute boom in self-drive while the Eastern Highlands languishes. Our policy makers need to wake up and realise we are in a very tough competition for business – our neighbours are just loving our mistakes. We are creating jobs for Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia and at the same time sending our own Industry into a tail spin! We hope that is going to change, we have all been engaging with government over
In terms of which countries they come from, Germany tops the list at the moment and then British, quite a few from the Scandinavian countries, France is also there, we do get some Americans, but the few remaining self-drive tourists are predominately from South Africa and Namibia. Germans are bringing vehicles in at Windhoek, using that route coming in from there. With the correct approach we should see a larger group coming in from the Diaspora and our own hire car companies flourishing.
8. What fascinating wildlife can one expect to come across?
The flora and fauna is quite different from the rest of the country and much of it is in the form of endemic species of plants. These special plants give rise to a range of insects and birds which are limited to the Eastern Highlands. This incredible diversity is yet to be exploited by the Tourist Industry in terms of marketing. Almost every southern African country can offer you the big five mammals but endemic species of plants, like orchids, ferns, lichens and aloes along with small but gorgeous butterflies, moths or frogs are of tremendous interest to naturalists. Birding is especially rewarding. Rare birds such as the Taita Falcon in the mountains and threatened species such as the Blue Swallow. Miombo woodlands are important with specialised species that birding clients are looking for such as the Miombo Rock Thrush and the Cinnamon Breasted Tit, both are Miombo specials. In the highlands they are looking for Gurney’s sugarbird, Bronzy sunbird and Malachite sunbird. Such birds are limited to the Eastern Highlands.
For those who are interested in flora, Chimanimani has 40 endemic species of plants and small creatures such as dragonflies and frogs. Those people who have done a lot of traveling who now not so keen on sitting in the back of a vehicle looking at Big 5, are much more interested in the smaller things that are unique, they are the of people we find coming. When you walk you can notice the extraordinary details such as lichens and orchids on Msasa trees, or delicate ferns in the shelter of a rock covered in moss. These areas of the Eastern Highlands are currently of great interest to scientists because there are many undiscovered species. Just last year we had moth scientists from Belgium, UK and France. Prior to that we had the Fern scientists and the Mushroom scientists. We regularly receive the frog scientists. Frogs, lichens, dragon flies are indicators of a healthy environment (clean air and water). Bulawayo Natural History Museum is now collating this information on the Eastern Highlands. These protected areas are crucial to world science because endemic species avail information about evolution around the specialized flora of an area. Scientists are still working out the relationships between endemic creatures and their food plants.
9. On top of hiking what other activities are available to tourists?
In Nyanga there is white water rafting and the Sky walk as well as the Turaco Trail, in Chimanimani there is mountain biking and horse riding as well. For young or fit people, “Bouldering” and “Canyoning” are taking off. The relatively new sport known as Bouldering is a type of free climbing on huge boulders. It is done without ropes simply your fingers, toes, body strength and flexibility. With help from experts in South Africa we plan to include Bouldering skills in the training of Zimbabwe Mountain Guides. Let’s not forget that in the Eastern highlands it is safe to swim because there are no crocodiles or bilharzia. People use it as a great time to spend with their friends or family putting together a delicious picnic, cooler box and off they go. This is the place for spending quality time in beautiful nature, away from technology. Something that a lot of families are missing these days.
10. How much can a tourist expect to pay?
In general the Eastern Highlands is affordable for locals and overseas visitors. Our guides are not yet qualified so they obviously also charge a lot less than the average fee for a trained Professional Guide. Presently in Chimanimani the fee is around USD20 per day and you can expect to pay someone who is more experienced in the region of USD35 per person
11. What do you think can be done (especially by government) to promote the Eastern Highlands to compete with other major tourist attractions like Kariba and Victoria Falls.
First and foremost is the protection of our mountains. I am delighted to see Permanent Secretary for Tourism Dr. Chitepo, just last week signed the Kinshasa Declaration. This is the Convention on Tourism and Biodiversity Protection. We made the big mistake of separating the Ministry of Tourism and Environment and placing our National Parks under Environment. This has been a disastrous move for both Tourism and for our National Parks. It is Tourism dollars which should fund our National Parks. I hope this will be corrected by any government coming in after the July elections.
I think a new approach is in order. Partly the problem has been a lack of understanding of the product and of the potential market – the actual potential Customer, who and where they are. The Eastern Highlands is a specialized destination so you looking at marketing it in a different way to say, Vic Falls. You have got to sell directly to people who enjoy walking. Walking, hiking, trekking has a huge world-wide following, it is big culture overseas. It’s quite easy to get to them because those walking people do the usual thing which is they form clubs. They belong to mountain, orienteering or adventure groups and they also read. There are publications all over the world that are specifically for walking and hiking. We need to have a presence there and explain to these folks that Zimbabwe HAS mountains. That walking is one of the best things to do here because we have wonderful weather. They can bring their families and they can have a holiday where they are walking in mountains with no chance of avalanches and freezing cold
Our Ministries didn’t understand just how reliant the Eastern Highlands is on self-drive customers. From Finance to Environment, to Home Affairs, Ministries make policies which have devastating effects on the Tourism Industry, without even knowing it. There is a thriving “4x4 Community” driving all over the Region. They have organized forums which map out great routes throughout Africa, good places to go with your 4x4. Our government policies have simply caused these groups to drive around us and yet they are the very people who stay for weeks in a country, spending money as they go.
I believe government has been reluctant to engage with private industry and individuals who are experienced in the tourism industry. We are hampered by a lingering perception that this Industry is a “white man’s preserve” Dialogue and mutual trust has been slow in coming. Businesses have had to fight tooth and nail to stop going out of business because of a plethora predatory government policies. That is one of the problems that we need to overcome – this lack of trust between private industry and government. Policy makers have just seen entrepreneurs as the goose from which to extract maximum number of eggs. But endless paperwork, levies and taxes slow down the egg laying! It has become just been a question of whether private industry survives under these circumstances. With all due respect most people have had to become informal traders to avoid the circling predators. For instance in Chimanimani our Rural District Council wants an annual USD$800 “Lodge Fee”, so somebody who has three rooms and offering a basic bed and breakfast will have to pay council US800 every year for the right to work! If they don’t do that they cannot register with Zimbabwe Tourism Authority (ZTA). By law they have to have this license. The smallest operator, having now found his $800 to hand over to a Council, which these days provides him with almost nothing, he must cough up another USD300 to join ZTA. So that he can then collect bed levies for ZTA itself. Three different license fees are required if you want to put a TV in a Hotel room. So even famous and up-market Hotels such a Leopard Rock are forced to remove televisions so that they can keep their prices somewhere near competitive. Once you add 15%VAT and 2% ZTA Levies the Hotelier is left with an overpriced product and no money for refurbishing, maintenance or upgrades. It is this approach by Government which has been a major factor in the decline of tourism and we need to sit down and solve those problems together. We are competing with the rest of the world for the customer called a Tourist and we need to cut down on time wasting and costly licensing procedures and admin. Every extraneous cost must be removed. In particular we need to build trust between our government and our private industry. Governments are supposed to make it easier for people to make a living – ours has done the opposite. I look forward to a clear turn around on ease of doing business. Stop talking about it and do it.
Look out for Part 2 in the June Issue!