On a win­ter

MORN­ING ON ZIM­BABWE’S west­ern­most stretch of the Zam­bezi River, the dawn air seems to hum. The flood of wa­ter over Vic­to­ria Falls, the world’s largest wa­ter­fall, is so pow­er­ful and con­stant that it re­ver­ber­ates in my chest. Though I can’t see the cas­cades from where I’m stay­ing a cou­ple kilo­me­ters down­stream at the ven­er­a­ble Vic­to­ria Falls Ho­tel, the ten­ta­cles of mist writhing above the dis­tant tree line make it ob­vi­ous that the crash­ing wa­ter is rais­ing the din. And yet the deep, dull tremor—lo­cals call the falls Mosi-oa-Tunya, or “the smoke that thun­ders”—al­most feels like the col­lec­tive, ex­pec­tant trem­bling of an en­tire down­pressed na­tion.

It’s June of 2018, and I’ve come to Zim­babwe at a mo­men­tous and del­i­cate junc­ture in the coun­try’s his­tory. Just seven months ear­lier, the mil­i­tary sud­denly and un­ex­pect­edly de­posed Robert Mu­gabe, the in­fa­mous strong­man whose 37-year rule is said to have cost Zim­babwe US$38 bil­lion in lost growth and the lives of three mil­lion peo­ple. “For us, who never knew any pres­i­dent other than Mu­gabe, we thought his death was the only thing that could ever rid us of him,” a Zim­bab­wean na­tional wish­ing to re­main anony­mous will tell me dur­ing my trip. “It was im­pos­si­ble to be­lieve he would ever step down or be ousted. And then it hap­pened.” Hopes are higher than they have been in decades, but there’s also un­easi­ness about the fu­ture, a flicker of the past that touches the cor­ner of ev­ery op­ti­mistic smile.

Zim­babwe never should have come to this. At its in­de­pen­dence in 1980, the coun­try formerly known as Rhode­sia had a di­ver­si­fied econ­omy and was con­sid­ered one of the shin­ing lights of Africa. Be­yond its agri­cul­tural and min­ing es­tab­lish­ment, it has 11 na­tional parks and a pro­fu­sion of wildlife, which, in a re­gion that banks on sa­fari tourism, should add up to full cof­fers. Yet un­der Mu­gabe, tourism cratered, with rev­enue plum­met­ing from US$777 mil­lion in 1998 to $26 mil­lion in 2008, and only slightly re­cov­er­ing there­after.

His­tory aside, the coun­try’s new pres­i­dent, Em­mer­son Mnan­gagwa, has de­clared Zim­babwe “open for busi­ness,” and tourism op­er­a­tors have ral­lied to sup­port the in­dus­try. For the first time in decades, there’s a feel­ing that the south­ern African na­tion could fi­nally seize its promise. That’s es­pe­cially true in the town of Vic­to­ria Falls, which, of all the cor­ners of the coun­try, best weath­ered the Mu­gabe era. De­mand to see the World Her­itage–listed wa­ter­fall on its doorstep never com­pletely dried up, af­ter all. “I like to say that Vic­to­ria Falls is a coun­try of its own,” says Meghan Volk­wyn, a spokesper­son for Vic­to­ria Falls Ho­tel, one of the coun­try’s longestrun­ning in­sti­tu­tions. “It wasn’t easy, but we didn’t see the ef­fects like other parts of the coun­try.”

Now that Mu­gabe is gone, prospects here look even brighter. In late 2016, the town wel­comed a US$150 mil­lion air­port, which opened di­rect ac­cess to in­ter­na­tional trav­el­ers for the first time, with flights to Jo­han­nes­burg, Nairobi, Ad­dis Ababa, and other re­gional hubs. The streets are abuzz with cranes and con­struc­tion sites for new restau­rants and ho­tels. Sev­eral hote­liers whis­per to me that Hil­ton, Four Sea­sons, and an­other in­ter­na­tional chain are con­sid­er­ing open­ing prop­er­ties in Vic­to­ria Falls if all goes smoothly.

The vis­ceral power of the falls is ev­i­dent from the ho­tel, but it’s com­pletely over­whelm­ing when I take the rim walk the next day. Ex­cept for me and my guide, Kheto Ncbe, the path is vir­tu­ally empty. “Tourism has been

badly af­fected for years by pol­i­tics. Peo­ple stopped com­ing,” Ncebe tells me on our stroll out to the scenic path­way. The dearth of vis­i­tors is great for un­in­ter­rupted pho­tos but shock­ingly quiet for the start of busy sea­son. If Vic­to­ria Falls was least af­fected by the slump, it makes me won­der how the rest of the coun­try en­dured.

A good rainy sea­son up­river means the Zam­bezi is at a 10-year high, with 545 mil­lion liters of wa­ter per minute mak­ing the 108me­ter plunge over the edge of the falls. A good por­tion of that erupts back into the sky as spray. Stand­ing at the edge, it feels as if I’m be­ing buck­eted with wa­ter, and I can’t hear any­thing above the roar, not even Kheto, who is stand­ing nearby and mouthing some­thing that’s lost to the thrum. If there’s a sin­gle rea­son for tourists to re­turn to Zim­babwe, this is it. There’s wildlife all across Africa, but nowhere else also of­fers this im­mer­sion.

Later, back at the van, I ask Kheto what he was say­ing. “I saw your smile, and it made me hope that many more peo­ple will soon come,” he ex­plains. I ask him if he be­lieves that will hap­pen, if the fu­ture looks brighter for Zim­babwe. “I think so. When Mr. Robert left,” he says, re­fer­ring to Mu­gabe, “there was a big cel­e­bra­tion and ev­ery­one be­gan to feel like real change is com­ing. I think the lead­ers have heard the peo­ple. It’s time for some­thing new.”

It’s long past time, of course. Yet I can’t help but won­der whether the drone of po­lit­i­cal in­er­tia won’t be as deaf­en­ing as the falls.

I first visited

Zim­babwe in 1994 on a Christ­mas va­ca­tion from my fam­ily’s home in Nige­ria, where I was born and raised. Com­pared to the barely con­trolled chaos of West Africa, the coun­try was shock­ingly well com­posed: roads were prop­erly paved, farms were in­dus­trial-size and brim­ming with crops and live­stock, peo­ple were friendly and well spo­ken, and you could ac­tu­ally pur­chase petrol at the gas sta­tions. Mu­gabe was in power, but this was be­fore he’d be­gun bleed­ing the coun­try. Un­like much of the Africa I’d seen, Zim­babwe sparkled, and in my head the na­tion be­came a proxy for the progress and promise pos­si­ble on the con­ti­nent.

Now, I’m back in the coun­try for the first time in over two decades. This post-Mu­gabe trip isn’t only about whether Zim­babwe has hung onto its lus­ter af­ter all these hard years—it also feels like an at­tempt to reaf­firm my hopes for Africa.

From Vic­to­ria Falls, I hop aboard a sin­gle-en­gine Cessna 206 for the 90-minute flight to Linkwasha Camp in Hwange Na­tional

Park, the coun­try’s largest game re­serve. An ex­panse of mostly dry sa­vanna about the size of Kuwait, Hwange is home to healthy pop­u­la­tions of wildlife, in­clud­ing all of the “big five.” Al­though my driver, Leo Mutsvangwa, prom­ises to take us to a scenic spot for sun­down­ers, he first wants to check a side road where lions have been spot­ted in re­cent days. Within half an hour of land­ing, hav­ing passed roan an­te­lope and kudu and Cape buf­falo, we find the pride. In fact, we damn near drive over the an­i­mals, which are stretched out on the track like speed bumps. They likely fed in the morn­ing and are now as in­do­lent as house­cats, laz­ing on their backs and yawn­ing at us with eyes shut. It’s not un­til dusk, when we have to leave the pride, that I re­al­ize I never got that cock­tail. Sun­down­ers, I guess, are for the drivers who strike out.

My two days at Linkwasha un­fold in a flurry of im­pres­sive en­coun­ters—500 Cape buf­falo at the house wa­ter­ing hole at dawn; cross­ing tracks with rare brown hyena, twice—but it’s the guides that re­ally im­press. With a toothy grin and the charisma of Jim Car­rey, Love­more Nowakhe, who guides me for most of my stay at Hwange, knows more about his coun­try than Google. No mat­ter the ques­tion, Love­more has an an­swer: a typ­i­cal ele­phant tusk weighs


25 to 35 kilo­grams; the ges­ta­tion pe­riod for hip­pos is eight months, and their ba­bies, which are born un­der­wa­ter, are more than a me­ter long at birth; and that soft trilling we hear, like a cas­sette tape on rewind, is the call of a pied king­fisher.

It’s seem­ingly harder to be­come a guide in Zim­babwe than a doc­tor or lawyer in the United States. The cer­ti­fi­ca­tion is the strictest on the con­ti­nent, in­volv­ing two years of course­work and a se­ries of prac­ti­cal ex­ams that can cost some US$10,000 and take five to 10 years to com­plete. So any work­ing guide is a ver­i­ta­ble PhD in the bush. And it’s not only cre­den­tials, but at­ti­tude. Love­more, the last of 23 sib­lings who got his name af­ter his 80-year-old fa­ther cheated on his third wife to con­ceive him, tells me half a dozen times each day how much he loves his job. Such en­thu­si­asm, which I wit­ness in al­most ev­ery­one I meet here, is in­fec­tious. “The pol­i­tics threat­ened even our jobs here in the park,” Love­more says. “So ev­ery day work­ing is an­other great day in Africa.”

From Hwange, I re­turn -to Vic­to­ria Falls and then exit the coun­try for a taste of river life in neigh­bor­ing Namibia and Botswana, where I hope to put Zim­babwe’s cur­rent sit­u­a­tion into con­text.

It takes an hour’s drive and a cou­ple of odd­ball border cross­ings to reach the Zam­bezi Queen, a 14-room float­ing sa­fari ho­tel that op­er­ates at the con­flu­ence of the Zam­bezi and Chobe rivers. At Namib­ian im­mi­gra­tion, I wait 10 min­utes be­fore a yawn­ing agent ma­te­ri­al­izes. Look­ing an­noyed, he stamps my pass­port with­out even glimps­ing at my pa­per­work, which lands in a dusty pile in the cor­ner be­fore I’ve ex­ited. The agent loafs out the door be­hind me, anx­ious to con­tinue his nap.

At a cer­tain time of year, dur­ing the am­ple rains of the wet sea­son, the cur­rent on the Zam­bezi be­comes so strong that the river thrusts up against its trib­u­tary, the Chobe, and re­verses the flow of the smaller wa­ter­course. In­stead of pour­ing in­ex­orably east­ward to­ward Vic­to­ria Falls, 80 kilo­me­ters down­river, some of the Zam­bezi’s wa­ter turns back west and pools into a vast, ver­dant delta. I’ve hit it just right. Not only will we be able to travel as far up­river as at any­time in the year, but the game should be pro­fuse. Churn­ing up the flood plain aboard the

Zam­bezi Queen, we spy mud-black­ened ele­phants ca­vort­ing in the river, bat­tal­ions of hip­pos float­ing like cor­pu­lent mine­fields in phrag­mite reeds and pa­pyrus, and croc­o­diles in­dis­tin­guish­able from float­ing logs ex­cept for their sin­is­ter, cad­mium half-eyes. In spite of the geopol­i­tics, life in this wa­ter world goes on, with herons and cranes and six species of cor­morants buzzing and squawk­ing on a blue ex­panse cam­ou­flaged by grassy green and yel­low is­lands. There’s also a con­stant pa­trol of sa­fari jeeps and boats over­loaded with tourists. It’s a far cry from how de­serted it felt at Vic­to­ria Falls and Hwange.

Later, I strike up a con­ver­sa­tion with Emile Muller, the South African manag­ing direc­tor of de­vel­op­ment at Man­tis Group, par­ent com­pany of the Zam­bezi Queen. Muller works through­out the world, but south­ern Africa is his home, and he tells me about the tough times un­der Mu­gabe. Yet Muller says the tri­als have forged Zim­babwe. “It’s light years

ahead of ev­ery­where else in south­ern Africa. The hos­pi­tal­ity … Och!” he ex­claims. “Botswana, Namibia, these other coun­tries, they haven’t had war and hard times. The Zim greet you and are kind to you. They’re truly glad you came.” His com­ments make me think of the list­less Namib­ian cus­toms of­fi­cer.

How­ever, Muller’s op­ti­mism evap­o­rates when the con­ver­sa­tion turns to Zim­babwe’s po­lit­i­cal fu­ture. “There’s a say­ing in Africa: ‘It’s my turn to eat,’ ” he says. In other words, many lead­ers here feel it’s their right to ex­ploit their coun­tries. “The pol­i­tics, they will never change.”

The mood is sun­nier back in Zim­babwe. Af­ter my Chobe ex­cur­sion, I take a three-hour flight to Mana Pools Na­tional Park, on Zim­babwe’s north­ern­most stretch of the Zam­bezi. Hwange may be the coun­try’s largest re­serve, but Mana’s river­side set­ting makes spot­ting game here al­most more re­li­able.

I’ve been on sa­fari in a dozen coun­tries across Africa, and the an­i­mal den­sity here as­tounds me. On my first evening at Lit­tle Ruck­omechi, a three-tent camp over­look­ing the river, it takes all of 10 min­utes for a sa­fari ve­hi­cle to get me so close to a fam­ily of ele­phants that we can hear them chew­ing on the grasses they rip from the bush. The next morn­ing, we slip into ca­noes and pad­dle down the Zam­bezi, slaloming be­tween rafts of hip­pos in the shal­lows and herds of ele­phants on land. Later the same day, we see two lion broth­ers loung­ing be­neath an aca­cia tree, then, af­ter dark, come across a leop­ard stalk­ing a group of obliv­i­ous im­pala. “Even with ev­ery­thing that hap­pened in Zim­babwe,” my guide, Engilbert Ndhlozu, tells me, “our anti-poach­ing ef­forts were not af­fected. We may not have a lot, but we still have our wildlife.”

From Mana, I fly an hour south to Bumi Hills, my fi­nal stop in Zim­babwe. The first per­son I meet is a pi­lot named Ross who flew his fam­ily to the re­sort from his home in Cape Town. Ross was sched­uled to leave the day be­fore I ar­rived, but an ele­phant smashed in his plane’s wind­screen, ren­der­ing the air­craft in­op­er­a­ble. As I climb out of the Cessna that brings me in, he climbs aboard—it will be months be­fore he can get a re­place­ment win­dow, so he’s booked com­mer­cial flights home. “Hell of a thing,” he mut­ters. “You never know what will hap­pen in Africa.”

Set on a rust-col­ored hum­mock above Lake Kariba, a dammed wa­ter­way on the Zam­bezi, Bumi Hills isn’t your typ­i­cal sa­fari camp. Hav­ing just re­opened af­ter a US$4 mil­lion ren­o­va­tion, the main lounge, din­ing decks, and stone-and-glass guest rooms are can­tilevered off the hill­side like div­ing boards. No mat­ter where I go at the re­sort, I feel as if I’m hang­ing in the mopane tree canopy among vervet mon­keys and look­ing down over ele­phants and hip­pos wa­ter­ing along the red mud fringe of the lake. Game drives here feel ex­tra­ne­ous; the airy set­ting and in­fin­ity pool that bleeds into Lake Kariba are the point.

The worst of the Mu­gabe years were bru­tal for small des­ti­na­tions like Kariba. “Be­cause of the cri­sis, so many lodges shut down,” says Jai­son Kazembu, one of the man­agers at Bumi Hills. Jai­son is from a vil­lage just an hour’s drive away, and he names re­sort af­ter shut­tered re­sort: Rhino Camp, Wa­ter Wilder­ness, Siny­ati. “Other than a few house­boats from Kariba town, very few peo­ple have been us­ing the park.” He’s re­fer­ring to Ma­tu­sadona, a com­pact na­tional park crouch­ing be­neath a rib of high, bar­ren peaks to the east, just across the mouth of the Ume River from Bumi Hills. The park has thriv­ing stocks of ele­phant, im­pala, lion, and black rhino. And though Bumi once op­er­ated sa­faris there, as tourist traf­fic nose­dived, the lodge was forced to

with­draw be­cause it couldn’t af­ford to main­tain its op­er­a­tions.

These days, the re­sort mostly takes guests to Star­va­tion Is­land, a spit of pub­lic land to the north where bush­buck and im­pala rat­tle through the dry grasses as we fish for bream. Af­ter a morn­ing of cast­ing, I catch so many of the saucer-size fish that the net won’t hold any­more. With the na­tional park a thin green line on the hori­zon, Star­va­tion still feels a bit of an an­ti­cli­max. All is re­deemed, though, when the chef at Bumi Hills turns my catch into a mean bream cock­tail.

I dine that night with a cou­ple who have come up from Harare, the cap­i­tal, for a lit­tle R&R. An­gela, 36, was born and raised in Zim­babwe and at­tend­ing uni­ver­sity in Eng­land, where she met her hus­band Tom. She calls Mu­gabe’s reign “in­com­pre­hen­si­bly dev­as­tat­ing,” and vividly de­scribes the food scarcity and petrol short­ages of the mid2000s. The cou­ple is hope­ful that the au­to­crat’s ouster au­gurs well for the coun­try, but they are not blindly op­ti­mistic. “The op­po­si­tion has won for years, but win­ning hasn’t meant rul­ing,” says Tom. Even if the rul­ing party holds power, though, An­gela says they won’t leave. “This is a hope­ful coun­try,” she ex­plains. “Zim­bab­weans have a say­ing, ‘We will make a plan.’ ”

A month af­ter my visit, Zim­babwe will hold its elec­tions and, de­spite all the hope and ex­pec­ta­tion I en­counter while on the ground, it will not go to script. Em­mer­son Mnan­gagwa, the rul­ing-party can­di­date and Mu­gabe’s for­mer vice pres­i­dent, will win the pres­i­dency by a nar­row mar­gin. De­spite claims of voter fraud by the op­po­si­tion and out­side ob­servers, the re­sults will be up­held, lead­ing to an un­easi­ness that the coun­try still hasn’t bro­ken free of its past. Af­ter ini­tial protests and ri­ots, how­ever, a calm will pre­vail, with the new pres­i­dent mak­ing moves to unify the coun­try by rec­og­niz­ing the op­po­si­tion and nor­mal­iz­ing re­la­tions with in­ter­na­tional al­lies. Even if it’s not the dra­matic meta­mor­pho­sis that many had hoped for, the change will still present a new way for­ward. It also leaves me slightly hope­ful for the coun­try and the con­ti­nent. Af­ter all, you never know what will hap­pen in Africa.

On my fi­nal evening at Bumi Hills, I take a boat ride across the wa­ter to­ward Ma­tu­sadona. The sur­face glints like cop­per in the set­ting sun as we near the park, and a herd of ele­phants ma­te­ri­al­izes from head­high grasses on the bank and de­scends into the lake to cool off and drink. With 1,400 square kilo­me­ters of mostly un­tapped game habi­tat, Ma­tu­sadona’s im­mense po­ten­tial mir­rors that of Zim­babwe. We can’t en­ter the park right now, my guide, Max Si­adembe, tells me. “But the re­sort has per­mits, and we will soon have guides and trucks and boats that will stay at Ma­tu­sadona.” I as­sume that’s all de­pen­dent on fund­ing and po­lit­i­cal sta­bil­ity and the resur­gence of tourism. But, as An­gela said, there are plans afoot.

Max cuts the en­gine, and we float 50 me­ters away from the ele­phants, their play­ful trum­pet­ing re­ver­ber­at­ing in the steamy air. As the river catches the boat, we drift slowly out onto the Zam­bezi’s per­sis­tent east­ward cur­rent. It’s im­pos­si­ble to know what more we might see as the river car­ries us along. But for now, we are mov­ing for­ward.

From far left: On sa­fari with Bumi Hills, a re­cently re­opened sa­fari camp above Lake Kariba; the Zam­bezi Queen; a bream fished from Lake Kariba.

Clock­wise from left: The tented lounge at Lit­tle Ruck­omechi Camp in Mana Pools Na­tional Park; on a sa­fari drive in Hwange Na­tional Park; a ring-tailed mon­goose; a staffer at Bumi Hills.

Above: Linkwasha Camp sa­fari guide Love­more Nowakhe ex­plain­ing the power of a hippo’s bite with a jaw­bone found on a walk in Hwange Na­tional Park. Op­po­site: A Linkwasha Camp tent at night.

An ele­phant on the shores of Lake Kariba. Left: Pre­par­ing river­side sun­down­ers in Mana Pools Na­tional Park.

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