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
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.”
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