Game to see more of south­ern Africa

As tourism in Zim­babwe starts blos­som once more, Sarah Mar­shall talks to the coun­try’s daunt­less peo­ple and ad­mires the stunning wildlife

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NOW in full spring bloom, a pur­ple haze of jacaranda trees swathes Harare’s quiet sub­urbs. Images of an­gry ri­ot­ers, broad­cast world­wide 15 years ago, are no more than ghostly mem­o­ries, put to rest in the dry, dusty soil where a few stray pe­tals now lay.

For­tunes seem to be chang­ing in Zim­babwe. De­spite Robert Mu­gabe’s stead­fast re­fusal to re­lin­quish power, for­eign in­vest­ment is re­turn­ing and tourists are dis­cov­er­ing an over­whelm­ingly hos­pitable coun­try, rich in wildlife, heart-stop­ping scenery and traces of an­cient civil­i­sa­tions.

We’re driv­ing south-east to Gonarezhou Na­tional Park, the sec­ond largest park in Zim­babwe, cov­er­ing an area of 5,000sq km. At present, sched­uled flights only op­er­ate a few times a week from Jo­han­nes­burg, and the only af­ford­able al­ter­na­tive is an eight-hour ride from Harare, made even less bear­able by my driver’s in­sis­tence on play­ing an MP3 of bird calls on a loop.

“I’m hop­ing to train as a guide,” he con­fides in me, and I won­der if, af­ter our epic jour­ney, I too might be able to qual­ify.

Over­hang­ing the Save River, just out­side the park bound­aries and close to the Ma­henye vil­lage, Chilo Gorge Sa­fari Lodge is work­ing hard to build a bridge be­tween com­mu­nity and wildlife, with tourism pro­vid­ing the ob­vi­ous step­ping stone.

Owner Clive Stockil, who was awarded a Tusk Con­ser­va­tion Award by Prince Wil­liam is 2013, has served as an­in­ter­me­di­ary be­tween the gov­ern­ment and lo­cal Shangaan peo­ple, and has helped re­duce poach­ing in the park by 85 per cent.

A poker hot sun is al­ready climb­ing sky­ward by the time we set off on a morn­ing drive, pow­er­ing across sandy, dried-out riverbeds, we head into the bush, weav­ing through fans of ilala palms and 2,000-year-old baobab trees. One trunk is so bul­bous, our guide Thomas claims poach­ers used it as a hide­out.

We en­counter sev­eral nyala, a species of an­te­lope na­tive to south­ern Africa, and catch a fleet­ing glimpse of wild dogs. “We’ve had ten packs den­ning this year,” Thomas proudly tells me. “But they’re hard to spot.”

Ele­phants, on the other hand, are a game drive guar­an­tee – there are 11,000 in the park – although their be­hav­iour is far from pre­dictable.

Af­ter get­ting too close to one very protective herd, we’re charged by a bull for nearly five min­utes. Thomas many of the crea­tures are still reel­ing from the civil war in Mozam­bique, just a few kilo­me­tres away.

“Did the ele­phants in­ter­view you?” asks an­other guide wryly when we re­turn to the lodge. “If you weren’t scared, then you passed.”

For­tu­nately, I make the grade, and my next stop, the neigh­bour­ing Sin­gita Pa­mushana, is a breeze in com­par­i­son. Set within the pri­vate 130,000 acre fenced Malilangwe Re­serve, the wildlife – a mix­ture of an­te­lope, birds, big cats and even black and white rhino – is eas­ier to man­age, and there’s greater flex­i­bil­ity with game drives.

With in­fin­ity plunge pools on the pri­vate decks of vil­las perched high in the rocks, it’s an ob­vi­ous hit with A-lis­ters, and I’m told my bright Zulu-pat­terned abode, Villa 1, wowed Catherine Zeta Jones and Michael Dou­glas on their hon­ey­moon.

But for all this, Pa­mushana’s great­est at­trac­tions are out­doors.

My guide, Time, and I set out at 4.30am, to spend a morn­ing in a hide by to a wa­ter­ing hole. On our way, he stops the ve­hi­cle to pick up some crumbly white hyena dung and tells me that dur­ing the cri­sis years, chil­dren would use the cal­cium-rich fae­ces as black­board chalk.

When we ar­rive, the wa­ter­ing hole is al­ready busy. Gi­raffe splay their legs and gen­tly bow down to slurp the wa­ter, while swarms of que­lea “lo­cust birds” blow like gusty clouds from one bush to an­other. Two chee­tah cubs emerge from the long grass, their white Mo­hi­can tufts back­lit by the morn­ing sun, with their mother in close pur­suit.

All the while we sit qui­etly, and they never once no­tice we’re there.

Af­ter­wards, Time takes me to see some of the 80 bush­men paint­ing sites in the sur­round­ing for­est. But the most im­pres­sive draw­ings can be found a six-hour drive north-west in the Ma­tobo Hills, a rocky, un­du­lat­ing land­scape formed more than 2,000 mil­lion years ago and strewn with gran­ite boul­ders.

Built into the rock face on a pri­vate con­ces­sion in the Ma­tobo Na­tional Park, Camp Ama­linda of­fers an up­mar­ket take on cave dwellings, with some of the en-suite rooms even fea­tur­ing an­cient art work.

There are more than 300,000 paint­ings in the area, some ex­tremely well pre­served thanks to the dry en­vi­ron­ment and the lo­ca­tion’s in­ac­ces­si­bil­ity, with the old­est es­ti­mated to be 20,000 years. I head to the Nswatugi Cave to see images of rhi­nos, eland (a sym­bol of fer­til­ity) and women with sur­pris­ingly de­tailed volup­tuous bot­toms.

That night, we sit on a deck next to a wa­ter­ing hole and watch ele­phants gather for a noisy drink just a few me­tres from our feet.

“Zim­babwe was one of the rich­est coun­tries in Africa,” says vet­eran guide Peter. “Now fields lay fal­low and peo­ple have lost their sav­ings. But we don’t give up.”

Pic­tures: PA Photo/Re­nato Granieri

A gi­raffe in the Malilangwe Wildlife Re­serve, jacaranda trees bloom­ing in Harare and six thou­sand-year-old bush­men paint­ing in Ma­tobo Na­tional Park, Zim­babwe

The dining deck at the Chilo Gorge Sa­fari Lodge, Zim­babwe

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