Looking across a busy junction at a colonial-era building that now houses the Bulawayo Art Gallery.

A visit to bustling Bulawayo, Zimbabwe

In Africa, En-Route, Our Journeys, Trip-Types, World Travel, Zimbabwe by Janis15 Comments

A blast from the colonial past

Arriving in Bulawayo at 3:30pm on Friday afternoon is perhaps not the cleverest thing we have done; boy it was busy. Commuter buses everywhere, people were pushing carts laden down with goods, ladies carrying huge bags on their heads. Folk diving out in front of us to cross the road and others trying to sell you things through the car window. This was full on, I felt like I was in the middle of a James Bond movie.
A green & white colonial building against a deep blue sky.
A colonial survivor

Locals were jumping on and off buses and coaches, street sellers trying to catch your eye. It was manic, all the time we were trying to get to our hotel.

However, what was undoubtedly hindering the whole situation was that the road the Bulawayo Club (our hotel) was on, was having new tarmac laid and was closed.

Quick Links

I had visions of us trying to park up in this mayhem and walking a block or two to try and get to our hotel. We managed to get closer and pulled into our road, only to be faced with the back of a huge lorry. Then it decided to start reversing, and narrowly missed the bonnet (hood) of our vehicle. Bizarrely, suddenly out of nowhere the road cleared, and we got to the hotel entrance, I jumped out, we found the car park, and after 6 hours of continuous driving (other than stopping for police roadblocks), we fell into our room.
The upper portion of a building with a sign that states Cairo 3,500 miles with an arrow pointing to the left.
Cairo 3500 miles that way
If our first introduction to Bulawayo was anything to go by, this was going to be hectic.

Heading out

We’re staying for a couple of days in Bulawayo, one of which we’ll be heading out to Matobo National Park and the other we’re spending around town and visiting a couple of the local museums.

So, what was in store for us on the streets of Bulawayo on a Saturday morning. We head up to the Bulawayo Railway Museum, a place that has so often popped up when we have mentioned to people where we were heading.

The view of one end of the Bulawayo Art Gallery housed in a historic building that needs a little attention.
Just a little TLC needed
I can’t lie, I was slightly apprehensive of walking the streets, as driving around the day before and witnessing the mayhem out and about, it was going to be interesting.
A bustling street corner in Bulawayo where a few stalls have been set up on plastic creates selling fruit and vegetables.
On the corner of Plumtree Border
But hey, we went for a wander, there was no mistaking that not only were you in a different country, the buzz and chatter of the locals left you under no illusions that you were on a different continent too. Street sellers, offering everything from, corn on the cob, telephone charges, melons and CDs to roll-on deodorants. 
An old neon sign above the pavement that reads B&S Trucks - Anything in Truck
Anything in Trucks

Zimbabwe certainly isn’t a wealthy country, so the mixture of shops and people’s needs was eye-opening to see and quite humbling.

We did stick out like the preverbal sore thumb; however, no one bothered us, we just received smiles and an occasional hello.

Commuter buses are a big thing in the towns and cities in Zimbabwe, and they’re not like the comfortable buses we get at home. The transport for commuters here is ‘people carriers’ (MPV’s), with no rules.

A street scene of a wide road and shops that have seen better days.
Barons Motor Spares, Fort Street
Roof racks stacked high with everything from vegetables to sofas, guys balancing on the back bumpers hanging on with the bounce of every pothole. But, the aim of the game for these appears to be to get to your destination as quickly as possible, without using your mirrors and indicators. But hey TIA, “This is Africa”. 

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A step back in time

We arrived at the ‘National Railways of Zimbabwe Museum’, which we’d heard so much about. Now, we had a mixture of expectations of what we thought it may be like, as you always conjure up ideas in your mind. But on arriving at the museum, which was within a small industrial estate, the initial thought that sprung to my mind, was that this was undoubtedly run by enthusiasts. 
The ticket office with various bits of railway paraphernalia strewn around.
The Ticket Office

The ticket office was literally an old railway ticket office, and it was like an Aladdin’s cave inside, paper and books piled high, steam train memorabilia and chaos that could only be referred to as ‘organised’.

We had a quick chat with the guy running the place, he was so keen to share his knowledge and love of the museum and the beloved engines within it.

A small steam locomotive, a little weathered, called the Rhodesia.
The 'Rhodesia'

Momentous time

If the urge took you, you were even able to climb up upon the engines, many of which originated from the UK and were imported during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

There was a historical timeline to follow of the railways and the development over the years, of how Zimbabwe evolved with these significant changes.

A restored small steam locomotive, predominately green with yellow trim, called the Jack Tar.
The Jack Tar locomotive
Within the museum was also the rail carriage used by Cecil Rhodes, who as you may know not only made a huge impact on Zimbabwe (Rhodesia) in the late 19th century but also was the main instigator in the introduction of railways in the country.

Mechanical workhorses

Out the back of the museum is what I can only describe as a steam train graveyard. Some of the old engines and carriages were immense in size and must have looked quite a sight pulling materials, passengers and livestock across the countryside. 
Two diesel locomotive in tracks rusty and weathered.
These mean business
It was an interesting museum, and if you are a train enthusiast, this is certainly a fascinating place to visit.  For an entrance fee of only around 50p (2 Zimbabwean Bond), you can’t go wrong. 
A massive Garratt steam locomotive, extensively rusted.
A Garratt 4-6-4+4-6-4 locomotive

Motobo Hills

Just a short drive from Bulawayo (25 miles/40km) is the beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Site of Matobo National Park. Within this incredible landscape is the last resting place of Cecil Rhodes, “World’s View’.

For more check out our post - 'A visit to Matobo National Park, Zimbabwe'

Colonial past

We headed back through town, and it was getting hot now, so we stopped back at our hotel for a freshen up, next it was the opposite way through Bulawayo to the Natural History Museum.

Obviously, we could have driven to the museum, as this does appear to be what everyone does, but we wanted to check out some of the Colonial architecture along the way.

A street view of a colonial-era building that now houses the Fazak gift centre.
Fazak gift centre
The Art Gallery in Bulawayo is an incredible building with its charming balconies and verandas. As you wander around the city, you can pick out a few more of the properties that would have been built around the turn of the 20th century.
Looking across a busy junction at a colonial-era building that now houses the Bulawayo Art Gallery.
Bulawayo Art Gallery

Nowadays some may have slightly modern shopfronts at the base of the building, but just a slight glance up and the traces are still there to be seen.

I can only imagine how this would have looked during the early 1900s, horse and carriages being drawn through the middle of the vast wide roads.

A look along a wide road through central Bulawayo with modern building on the left and colonial-era buildings on the right.
Where old meets new
A historical building now occupied by the Standard Chartered Bank.
Standard Chartered Bank
Once again no-one really seemed to bother us even though it was obvious we were tourist, it’s a bit difficult to disguise Gary’s camera, so you just have to go with it. 

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Catching up on the history

We arrived at the Natural History Museum, crossing the roads at times was a bit of a challenge, dodging the commuter buses and the cars that couldn’t quite tell the difference from a red and green traffic light. But it’s all part of the fun.

As we’re not Zimbabwean nationals the charge for the museum was US$10 each, and unfortunately, no photography was allowed.

Two metal giraffe statues standing outside the Bulawayo National Museum.
Bulawayo Natural History Museum

The museum was informative, not only did it concentrate on the animal species and geology within Zimbabwe, but it also had an interesting exhibition on the tribal elders of the country. Another educational section was on Cecil Rhodes and how he played such an integral part in the development of Zimbabwe, specifically around mining and the railways.

We strolled back through the town, and it was still bustling, horns honking as wedding parties passed through the streets and families just going about their everyday business.

A woman is crossing the road with a large box in one hand and another on her head, with three loaves of bread on top of that too.
A balancing act
An elephant head detail carved out of stone under a balcony.
It’s all in the detail

A helpful guide

If you're considering an adventure around Zimbabwe, then your in for a holiday of a lifetime. I always find it incredibly useful to plan our trips with the help of a guide book.

Take a look at this informative Bradt guide, it will give you great tips and advice.

A peaceful Sunday

The following day we went to Matobo National Park. On arrival back in Bulawayo in the late afternoon, we strolled back into town. 
A small shop, built in 1902, of colonial-era style with a terrace on the upper floor.
Classics still remain
The entrance to the Bulawayo Public Library.
Bulawayo Public Library
We wanted to discover more colonial architecture, and as it was Sunday, it was a lot quieter, and it was lovely to see families young and old out in their Sunday best. 
A Domed building that houses the High Court of Zimbabwe.
High Court of Zimbabwe
We spotted a little craft market, so we headed over as we hadn’t really bought any keepsakes from this trip. I immediately spotted a soap dish with a little hippo in, almost like he was wallowing in mud and it reminded me of the one at Rhino Safari Lodge in Lake Kariba, so this was a must for me.
A view across the road to a market under the shade of trees.
A craft market in Bulawayo
Children's toy cars made out of recycled materials on sale in a street market.
Kids handmade trucks
We had a little look around, and although people encouraged you to take a look at their stall, there was no pressure from them.

Where we stayed

The Bulawayo Club is an old gentleman’s club that was established in 1895. When you walk into the beautiful colonial building, you feel like you’ve stepped into a different era. With the hustle and bustle outside, suddenly tranquillity falls. 
The outside of the Bulawayo Club from the opposite street corner.
The Bulawayo Club
The main reception area is surrounded by wood panelling, artefacts from the colonial past and old photos of the town and members gone by.
The wooden panelled reception area of the Bulawayo club in a colonial style with mounted antelope heads adorning the upper part of the walls.
The Bulawayo Club reception
Laid out on the reception table for the guests’ enjoyment are old members club books. There are club suggestion books and a betting book. The betting book was amusing, members of the club used it to bet amongst themselves on sporting events and other goings-on around the time. 
Two, rather old, leather bound, books on a wooden table. One is the Bulawayo Club Suggestion Book, the other os the Bulawayo Club Betting book.
Suggestion and Betting books
The Bulawayo Club still has members, though now I get the impression that they are few and far between. Although that doesn’t stop the staff, ensuring that the dress code is upheld in certain parts of the club, particularly in the bar areas. 
The upper cocktail abr an lounge area of the Bulawayo Club.
Invites only

There’s a charming roofless atrium in the centre of the hotel, which you feel like you’re automatically drawn too, as it’s such a contrast from the traditional styling within the reception.

The staff at the Bulawayo Club are really friendly and helpful, although the bedrooms lacked the elegance and decadence of something special from the past.

A fountain in the open air atrium at the centre of the Bulawayo Club.
The central atrium
To quote a line from the film ‘A Good Year’, I felt that the Bulawayo Club had the “patina of a bygone era"

Getting to Bulawayo

Of course, you can fly, but where is the fun in that?

From Harare the drive is around 6 hours (270 miles/433km), there are 5 tolls along the way to Bulawayo, at a charge of two Zimbabwe Bond each (around 50p in 2019). Also a few police roadblocks, which tend to be stopping the laden down commuter buses.

It may seem to be a long journey, but you see so much of the countryside and locals along the way, and you get to experience a bit of what Zimbabwean life is about. 

We passed through two larger towns en-route, Kwekwe and Gweru and after the peaceful journey leading up to these, mayhem seemed to ensue, although to the locals this was normal.

Buying Fuel

As we were tourists, we arrived in the country with USD cash, which is widely used in Zimbabwe. We used USD to buy the fuel, which, unfortunately, majority of Zimbabweans do not have access to. 
Cars are queuing round the block for fuel, people running across the roads and commuter buses playing chicken with the traffic. Gary did extremely well, and we got through the traffic unscathed. It’s such an eye-opener passing through these towns, you see some places like these on TV and you never quite know if they are staged or not, but, believe me, this is real life. 

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  1. Great to read about Bulawayo — I never knew about this place in Zimbabwe until I read your post 🙂 Some of the buildings remind me of rural towns in Australia – they share similar architectural styles.

    1. Yes, Bulawayo was a really interesting city, quite lively.

      I’ve never been to Australia, although I have seen photos of similar buildings, very colonial. I need to visit one day.

  2. What a fascinating adventure! The architecture is wonderful and The Bulawayo Club looks like a really interesting place to stay. Such a sense of history! I’d love to stay there one day.

    1. It certainly was an adventure. Yes some of the architecture was beautiful, you just had to keep looking up as some of the shopfronts disguised it.

  3. Bulawayo sounds like an interesting destination. I’d enjoy exploring its colonial post; I love the architecture. No doubt I’d be forever taking photos.

  4. Staying at the Bulawayo Club at the moment. Went out to Matobo today and saw Rhinos. Railway Museum and Natural History Museum tomorrow. We are travelling from Nairobi to Cape Town by train. Agree with everything you said about the Club. Enjoying Zimbabwe enormously.

    1. Author

      Zimbabwe is a beautiful country and really has so much to offer, and I just love the friendliness of the people. Matobo was incredible, standing at the top of ‘World’s View’ takes some beating.
      Have a great time at the Railway Museum, the guy that runs the place is such an enthusiast.
      Your trip sounds wonderful, how long are you planning for the whole journey?

    2. Wow, what are a journey you’re on – sounds fabulous. Glad you’re loving Zimbabwe; beautiful country, beautiful people. I just wish more people could get to enjoy it.

  5. So nice to see Bulawayo pictures again. We lived there from 1958/1970
    opposite the swimming pool and Milton High school in Borrow street.
    The children were born in Mater Dei hospital.
    Still a bit of nostalgia

    1. Author

      This was our first time visiting Bulawayo, we were over in Zimbabwe for a family wedding in Harare in 2019. We headed to Matobo NP too, it was incredible.
      We absolutely love Zim, it was our third visit, we were previously there in 1996 and 1998. We had noticed a few changes since then, so things must have been quite different in the 60s?
      It’s a beautiful country it’s shame how life is there at the moment, it has so much to offer.

  6. Thanks for the fine glimpse of Bulawayo. It brought back to me many indelible memories. Bulawayo seems to have an indestructible personality all its own. My sister was born in there in 1941, and I three years later in Gweru (which you mention). Gweru used to be known as Gwelo and back then, of course, Zimbawe was known as Southern Rhodesia. The nation — that is the people — have been through massive, soul-shuddering change during the last 120 plus years. You describe the beautifully engaging spirit of the people … which has had a quiet way, I think, of reaching into the hearts of the now reduced white population … despite the traumas and toxins that have been such a part of the checkered history of that beautiful land. Its a great place to visit.

    1. Author

      I’m really glad you enjoyed it. We’ve visited Zimbabwe on a few occasions as I have relatives in Harare; however, this was our first time to Bulawayo. It had a lovely untouched feel about it and the people we met great. We were stopped a couple of times by people in the street for a chat.

      Zim has certainly had turbulent times over many years but it’s a a beautiful place and the scenery is incredible, a well kept secrete in my opinion. Are you still in Zimbabwe.

  7. I lived in Bulawayo at the railway housing estate called Westgate (no longer there) and started school in Westgate. I was always in trouble for playing around the railways. My father was a railway CID officer having been a mounted police officer in Bechuanaland ( now Botswana) We later moved to Ndola in old Rhodesia. Years later I joined the Rhodesian Railways as a fireman. I worked for a short time in Bulawayo and was then posted to Thompson Junction as a fireman. I fired loco’s to Livingstone over the Victoria Falls bridge for a few years, and then was posted to Umtali, where I worked trains down into Portuguese’s East Africa and also half way up towards Salisbury. I left Rhodesia on a whim in 1969 and sailed to the UK, where I have lived ever since.

    1. Author

      Wow, you and your family certainly had an interesting time on the railways. It must have been fascinating working on the trains during that time, were you a fireman on the Garratt locomotive?
      Zimbabwe is a beautiful country and the people we met were so welcoming.

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