Power and glory

Issue 2 · Summer 2015

With a stable currency, new lodges, and some of Africa’s finest guides, Zimbabwe is back on the tourism radar, says Ian Belcher. And the scenery’s not bad either

Issue 2 · Summer 2015

With a stable currency, new lodges, and some of Africa’s finest guides, Zimbabwe is back on the tourism radar, says Ian Belcher. And the scenery’s not bad either

Elephants at a watering hole

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.

On other days we catch bream and fail to catch head-shaking, tail-walking tiger fish, or drift up the deep dark Sanyati Gorge, cocooned between vertiginous slopes of fig, amarula and African star-chestnut trees: a claustrophobic prelude to a sunset during which the glass-still lake and sky merge into a vast puddle of liquid honey.

Above the water, Changa’s private concession sits in Matusadona National Park, home to the Big Five and 350 species of bird – a peachy base for walking safaris. I drive out with George van Wyk, one of Zimbabwe’s leading guides, pulling up on the red clay soil of a dried riverbed. As we yomp towards the lake, George reads tracks and dung like a forensic scientist. “Elephant. Passed through yesterday. It’s grazed down so he’s young with good teeth.”

Crisp, clear tracks lead us to a dead leadwood tree polished to perfection by itchy elephants, before we finally spot our prey several hundred yards away. After darting across open land to the cover of a large termite mound, we approach through the waterfront forest. “We’re still downwind,” whispers George. “He can’t get our scent.” Distance shrinks. The huge bull detects us at 60 yards. “Great condition,” nods George. “Look at those tusks.” Game over.

Changa over, too. I fly farther east to my final stop: Mana Pools, one of Africa’s most iconic national parks. Kanga Camp, 12 miles back from the Zambezi (sorry, the mighty Zambezi) in dense bush – a tree rises through my bathroom floor – is petite, intimate and seriously atmospheric. Its USP is that the six tents swaddle a remote pan that’s a magnet for local wildlife.

As I sip on a frosted beer on the deck, I watch buffalo, impala and hyena drinking at the pan

The drama starts en route from the airstrip, when our vehicle is mock charged by a young male elephant. “Trunk’s not up,” says my guide, Cloud, calmly. “He’s not exposing his tusks. It’s bluster.” That’s just the very beginning. As I sip a frosted beer on the deck beneath an enormous jackalberry tree, I watch buffalo, impala and hyena drinking at the pan. Later, over an excellent roast supper alongside American, European and Turkish guests, the spotlight picks out wild dog and honey badger: the laziest safari of my life. That night I lie awake in my tent, unnerved by the sound of rustling leaves and padding feet directly outside. Next morning I learn it was two lionesses and a leopard – a far better reason for insomnia than work deadlines. I could hole up here, I really could. But Mana’s glorious Zambezi riverfront is a mere hour’s drive in the camp’s lovingly battered Mitsubishi jeep. We pass 100-strong herds of buffalo, their horns like Regency fops’ wigs, twice that number of impala and five resting lions, before reaching the park’s four crocodileinfested pools and stretch of river, backed by the blue wall of Zambia’s Kayila Mountains.

A quiet riot of wildlife grazes on the floodplain, observed by a flotilla of canoes, beneath a series of waterfront campgrounds. They’re used by African Bush Camps, Kanga’s owner, for Zambezi Life Styles: temporary camps pitched on the day of your arrival with five superbly equipped en suite rooms and dining and relaxation areas, from where guides take you canoeing, fishing and walking.

Beneath imposing leadwood, Natal mahogany and ana trees, I decide Mana is the closest thing I’ve ever seen to the Garden of Eden. “Mana, Victoria Falls and Kariba never went away,” sighs Kanga’s manager, Caisias Tembo, recently returned from a decade in Mozambique. “We still have the animals and the mighty Zambezi. Now people must come. Zimbabwe has to look forward.”

Images: Corbis, Getty Images, Lonely Planet Images

Baobab trees in Zambezi National Park

Scott Dunn Suggests

Enjoy waterfalls, wildlife and a night under the stars in this African adventure

Experience the very best of Zimbabwe with Scott Dunn’s Zimbabwe in Style itinerary. Start at the Victoria Falls River Lodge – located upstream you’ll enjoy beautiful views of the spray in high water season, along with delicious dinners and sundowners, served beside the river. After a few nights of relaxation, fly to Lake Cariba, before taking a boat to Changa Camp, which is located in the Matusadona National Park. Here you’ll find an incredible array of wildlife, from lions, leopards and hippos, to tiger fish and exotic birds. From here, head on to the Mana Pools National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site that’s particularly unspoilt. Stay at Kanga Camp and enjoy incredible safaris, not to mention the opportunity to spend a night sleeping under the stars on a special platform. Finally to Harare, to catch your plane home – or, if you can’t bear to leave, stay for an extra few nights and visit the luxurious Singita Pamushana.

Scott Dunn offers luxury tailor-made trips to Zimbabwe from £3,200pp for a 10-night itinerary including accommodation on a fully inclusive basis, game drives, park fees, private transfers and international and domestic flights.
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