The opening of the new international airport at Victoria Falls is testament to Zimbabwe’s resurgence in tourism and game conservation. The country has piqued travellers’ attention this year, not least for the opening of a few swanky lodges boasting a whole new level of luxury in the bush.
In its golden years, Zimbabwe had a reputation for the best guides in Africa, promising the Big Five in plentiful numbers. Times may have changed but both the game and friendly smiles are as ubiquitous as ever. Contrary to all expectations, Zimbabwe manifests as Africa’s friendliest country.
First views in Hwange National Park (roughly the size of Belgium) are of wide open areas called vleis, surrounded by teak forests and surprisingly unskittish animals. Even before landing, we saw myriad game trails filigree across the sandy loam and a vast herd of over 80 elephant wandering the valley. A taste of things to come.
Adjacent to the landing strip, a bellow of over 300 buffalo were busy grazing on autumnal grasses between a labyrinth of multicoloured termite mounds. The vlei comes alive as the sun rises, and 12 pumped bore holes surrounding Linkwasha act as thirst quenching animal magnates; with plentiful sightings of elephant, lion and impala, and an amusing mob of mongoose scurrying across in haste.
A small aperture through the trees revealed a young bull elephant reaching skywards for an acacia seed pod: elephant sweety-time. Nearby a journey of giraffes ambled towards the water, splaying their stilty legs to drink for just a minute. We watched in awe as our guide Sam shared another fascinating snippet: despite their length giraffes have just seven vertebrae in their long necks – the same as humans.
Zimbabwean elephants are a good news story: they’re prolific. In Hwange alone, an estimated 45,000 elephants roam; three times the optimum ratio of one square km per elephant, creating something of an overpopulation issue.
Linkwasha lodge has broken new ground on the design front. Gone are yesteryears’ safari lodge extravaganzas of crystal, empire silver, regal sofas and Persian rugs: welcome in clean, straight lines, minimalist decor and token indigenous baskets and lamps; a library of illustrated tomes on African game; and an open air Boma for stargazing around the fire.
At night distant, and sometimes not so distant, cries of lion, hyenas and zebra can be heard along with the occasional rumble or trumpet of elephants. Tucked up in bed, enormous by anyone’s standards, under a heavy duvet for protection from the chilly night air a I slept deeply. Outside the wildlife remains on full alert: wilderness mantra dictates eat or be eaten. I awoke to a troop of baboons arguing on my terrace; animals come and go at will in this unfenced campand guests know exactly who’s land they’re visiting.
We were spoilt with sundowners in an enclave of fallen trees bleached by the sun, just metres from a water hole where over 40 elephants were filling their trunks. The intimacy and trust between man and beast was staggering. In fact the Hwange pachyderms are so acclimatised to vehicles and humans all were perfectly relaxed and their fleeting uncertainty of our presence soon gave way to thirst, as did ours as we sipped our G&Ts. This whole park is an elephant Mecca, giving hope for their future on this continent.
Hwange is also a lion stronghold and with over 500 it’s considered something of a lion factory. One contiguous field between Zimbabwe, Botswana and Zambia (where they’re known to swim across the river) allows cats the biggest roaming area in Africa. This could mean bad news for local tribesmen but conservation experts old us they’ve happily witnessed a 40% reduction in cattle kills since cat collaring and tracking was introduced. Local farmers are now warned when lions approach villages and scared off with, of all things, vuvuzelas. Once there was a dead lion for every young man as part of their initiation to manhood. Today they’re educated to protect rather than kill and wear a new badge of honour as the Long Shield Protectors.
Zimbabwe is a country to be felt rather than explained, her love for life will surely shine through and I long to return soon.
After Hwange fly north to the soulful Ruckomechi River Camp for game viewing along the Zambezi around the scenic Mana Pools, perfectly located for canoeing, fishing, treehouse sleepovers and morning walks among the prolific elephant herds; followed by a finale at Victoria Falls, one of the great wonders of the world.