Recipe for the ultimate sundowner: take one serene yet muscular river sprinkled with grunting hippo, bathing elephant and snoozing crocodiles, and blend with an extra-large molten sun and generous measure of ilala palms. Garnish with spray clouds from the world’s greatest waterfall, before serving with a savagely chilled gin and tonic.
Oh Zimbabwe, how we’ve missed you. Not just your sunsets, but your exquisite scenery, prolific wildlife and fabulous hospitality. After a decade in the travel wilderness with hyperinflation – hundred trillion dollar note anyone? – political instability and shortages of essentials, one of Africa’s safari stars is back on our tourism radar. With its currency stabilised, lodges are expanding and opening, airports revamping and staff, including the continent’s most qualified guides, returning from exile.
My chance to witness the renaissance starts with the mighty Zambezi – never merely the Zambezi – and thundering waters of Victoria Falls. I’m staying at the eponymous river lodge five miles upstream, where 12 huge, tastefully neutral tented rooms with decks and outside showers are strung along the riverbank, either side of a lodge whose décor of mottled leadwood tree and hanging jacaranda pods reeks of cool contemporary Africa.
As we’re on an unfenced private concession in the Zambezi National Park, the animals are free to roam and select their favourite room. “The leopard likes number 6,” explains my guide, Faith, pointing to tracks in the ochre sand. “It once killed an impala and dragged it underneath. The lion likes 9, the civet cat 11 and 12.”
I lie in my outside tub, listening to the wallowing hippos and gazing across the water to the towering Matusadona Mountains
All highly convenient, but for more traditional game viewing we drive out among rolling bush dotted with magnificently tangled baobab trees. We watch elephants spray themselves with factor 5,000 mud sunscreen, alongside skittish impala and slinking jackal. My highlight? The American guest who asks our driver if locals ever ride the giraffe. “Oh, very good,” laughs Cloud, before realising with astonishment that the question is serious. “Actually, we try not to ride the wild animals.”
Of course, around here you’re not limited to dry land. There are those divine sundowner cruises, and a dawn trip to Kandahar Island where the lodge is opening a treehouse suite – your chance to be a Zambezi castaway. Today it’s just us, the vervet monkeys and a lonely kudu, Africa’s “grey ghost”. We study the high water mark from 1958; 16 feet higher than present, when the rumble of Victoria Falls shook pictures off the walls of nearby houses.
Ah yes, the furious, mile-wide falls. It’s below April peak flow but still awe-inspiring, generating its own monsoon. Photos snapped, clothes drenched, I amble down to the magnificent steel bridge spanning the Zambezi Gorge, part of Cecil Rhodes’ vision of a Cape to Cairo railway, where bungee jumpers leap into the void. I’m accompanied by an elephant and four warthogs: a mini safari just 30 yards from the juggernauts queuing to pass customs into Zambia.
They’re going north, I’m heading east. After a spontaneous sightseeing spin above the falls, my charter flight zips 130 miles to Changa Camp. It’s gorgeous. The eight open-plan tents are swaddled by mopani bush above the shore on a hernia of land bulging into Kariba, the planet’s largest man-made lake. Each has a gauze side, sucking in cool breezes to wash over the chic earth-toned interiors and stoneeffect bathrooms. I lie in my outside tub, listening to wallowing hippos and gazing across the water to the towering Matusadona Mountains: the perfect pick-me-up.
The lake is, of course, central to any Changa stay. We spend late afternoon weaving through a ghostly forest of sunbleached semi-submerged trees, draped with osprey, reed cormorant and African darters, before cutting the engine to drift towards Fothergill Island. The feeding elephant are unfazed, using their 20,000 trunk muscles to pull up, shake and devour weeds. We’re so close you can stare into their watery eyes and study the crinkled ravines of skin.