Dance of the sil­hou­et­ted elephants

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - KATE ESHELBY THE SPEC­TA­TOR

Whowould have thought a pig and an elephant would be­come best friends? ‘‘When we be­gan look­ing af­ter Kimba, an or­phaned elephant, she took an in­stant lik­ing to Whisky, our pig,’’ says James Var­den, my guide. ‘‘Elephants are so­cial an­i­mals, so they slept to­gether. Whisky was ex­tremely pro­tec­tive of Kimba and pan­icked if she was not there.’’

I last came to Zim­babwe in the 1990s, when tourism was bloom­ing, so now I’m in­ter­ested to see what Robert Mu­gabe has done to his coun­try. Some friends have crit­i­cised me for com­ing here, ask­ing why I was sup­port­ing a dic­ta­tor. ‘‘Most Zim­bab­weans want peace and to get on with life,’’ Var­den says. ‘‘When tourists come it gives us hope.’’ And although Mu­gabe gets the visa money, the or­di­nary peo­ple ben­e­fit far more. Few tourists are com­ing; yet it is safe and the na­tional parks are thriv­ing.

Whisky lives at Siya Lima farm. But Kimba is no longer here. She had to be re­lo­cated when the war vets moved in ‘‘be­cause they would have eaten her’’, Var­den says.

Var­den uses Siya Lima as a B&B, but we just stop by en route to Kopje Tops, his sa­fari lodge, nes­tled in Mavu­radonha Wilder­ness. Here 600sq km of to­tal wilder­ness sur­rounds us; we don’t see an­other per­son for our whole stay. Mo­bile phones don’t work; you are com­pletely im­mersed in un­touched bush.

All around are kop­jes and moun­tains, through which we set out next morn­ing for a cou­ple of days of walk­ing, sleep­ing each night in a bush camp. We walk among long cop­per grass, miombo wood­lands and moun­tain aca­cia, their leaves blush­ing red and yel­low. We pass hi­bis­cus flow­ers, gi­ant but­ter­flies and lucky bean coral trees.

Ba­boons bark and we watch herds of ze­bra, gi­raffe and greater hon­eyguides.

Mavu­radonha means place of fall­ing water in Shona, and there are nu­mer­ous streams. The water is so clear that we fill our drink­ing bot­tles with it, and jump into the River Tingwa dur­ing the mid­day heat to swim up through the rocky canyons.

We are now fully in the sa­fari groove. Next is Harare, from where we fly to Lake Kariba in Zim­babwe’s north. The Zam­bezi River, Africa’s fourth long­est, is dammed at Kariba, which cre­ates the world’s largest man-made lake. Here we have hired a house­boat.

It is the dry sea­son, so nu­mer­ous an­i­mals come down to the shore to drink. We see abun­dant herds of elephants. Some stand in a row drink­ing, oth­ers stride out into the lake. And there are impala and wa­ter­buck. Kariba is pip­ing hot so we sleep on the boat’s deck, en­joy­ing the breeze. We wake early to bird­song. Sur­round­ing us is the sound of waves, the bel­low­ing of elephants and the snort­ing of hip­pos.

One evening we see a most stun­ning sight. The land points to a fin­ger of grass on which two elephants stand, per­fectly sil­hou­et­ted against an enor­mous red ball of sun. Ei­ther side is a long line of impala graz­ing — the whole scene re­flected in the water.

A huge crocodile charges out of the water, catch­ing fish, and the bob­bing heads of hip­pos are ev­ery­where. The elephants gen­tly paw the ground in uni­son, their front feet mov­ing rhyth­mi­cally to up­root the grass, as if they are danc­ing.

I con­tem­plate whether the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity should have trum­peted louder about what Mu­gabe has done and is still do­ing. Or is it best that we don’t in­ter­fere?

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