Lions in the wild and a herd of elephants in the swimming pool: The soul of real Zimbabwe is a safari made in heaven
- Victoria Falls is the gateway to a beautiful and natural Zimbabwe with a new airport opens some time this year
- In Linkwasha, 20 years ago there were just 16 lions in the area, but now there are 130
- Hwange boasts more than 100 mammal species and 400 types of bird, all relaxed in their own habitat
By the time you read this, the global tsunami of grief surrounding the death of Cecil the Lion will have subsided and life in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, Cecil’s domain for the past 13 years, will have returned to normal.
Normal means that foreign tourists will continue coming into the massive national park, providing much-needed revenues that will, in the long run, do more for lion conservation – and the conservation of all wild animals – than the viral outburst on social media.
Wildlife conservation is fragile and complex, and to better understand it you need to be on the ground, out there in Hwange among the conservationists, the safari operators, the wildlife guides, and the camp operators. They know a thing or two about endangered animals.
The beautiful camp at Little Makalolo is a great base for exploring the up-close-and-personal wildlife
My most recent trip to Zimbabwe took me to the country’s western province of Matabeleland, starting at Victoria Falls, spending most of my time in Hwange, then going on to Bulawayo and the marvellous, magical Matopos, burial place of Cecil John Rhodes.
Victoria Falls is the gateway to safari Zimbabwe and, when the new airport opens some time this year (nobody seems sure precisely when), it will become the gateway to safaris in the whole region: Botswana, Zambia, Namibia and Malawi, as well as Zimbabwe.
Victoria Falls Airport has been built and funded by the Chinese, President Mugabe’s favoured business partners at the moment, and boasts a new 2.5 mile-long runway – long enough to take 747s – and a stylish, capacious new terminal.
The government is in talks with a number of international airlines about introducing services into the Falls and everyone in the business believes this will be a game changer for Zimbabwe’s tourism industry.
I’ve visited the Falls more often than I can remember. But each time I find myself standing before that mighty torrent in awe.
I’m hardly the first. Seeing the Falls for the first time, David Livingstone exclaimed these were ‘scenes so lovely that they must have been gazed on by angels in their flight’.
Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe opens the door to the beautiful landscape and stunning wildlife of the African country
And so it is today. There is also a buzzing little town with a genuinely interesting mall (Elephant’s Walk), which sells classy indigenous jewellery at shops such as Ndau as well as the usual souvenir tat. There are also two interesting hotels. The Victoria Falls Safari Lodge looks out over a waterhole, so you can sit at the bar, sip G&Ts and watch elephant, buffalo, impala, kudu and the rest come down to the water for sun-downers. The 100-year-old Victoria Falls Hotel, meanwhile, still exudes rare colonial charm and is a short walk from the Falls.
So, after two days at the Falls I head south by road to Hwange to spend a couple of days at Wilderness Safaris’ new Linkwasha Camp beside Ngamo Plain, followed by a night at Khulu Lodge, on the south eastern border of the Park.
Both areas are well populated by Hwange lion prides, (although the most prolific species around here is elephant) and the Linkwasha area alone has more than 130 lions.
For all the stories of illegal hunting and poaching, the population is thought to be doing rather well, given that 20 years ago there were only 16 lions in the area.
Linkwasha is a show of confidence in Zimbabwe’s future, an expensive, £1.3 million camp with all mod cons – the days of long-drop toilets and bucket showers are well and truly gone – and all of it tailored to the US and European luxury market. The massive tents have air-conditioning, enormous beds and large sliding windows that give a panoramic view of the veldt beyond the camp.
Linkwasha at sunset is stunning, and sure to be a highlight of the Zimbabwean safari
At night we sat around the campfire drinking G&Ts and gazing in silent awe at large herds of elephant, wildebeest, impala and warthogs.
And we knew that lurking in the shadows, waiting for the animals to finish drinking, was the lion pride.
Our best animal sightings were at Wilderness’s other camp in the area, Little Makalolo, where a hide beside the waterhole gives outstanding close-ups of the animals.
Little Mak has long been a favourite of mine: more rustic, more worn-in than shiny new Linkwasha and with major animal species.
Hwange boasts more than 100 mammal species and 400 types of bird, and these Wilderness camps are perfect as they are by significant waterholes.
I spend evenings under the stars watching the passing parade of animals, moving in and out of the camp in their own time, relaxed and unconcerned at the presence of homo sapiens.
Another game-rich area is the 6,000-acre concession bordering the park, which is home to Ivory Lodge and Khulu Lodge. Khulu is a charming camp. Completely rebuilt and improved after a fire last year, it has three thatched rooms raised on stilts as well as a main area with bar, pool and large deck. Elephants pass through in large herds and many drink from the swimming pool – Khulu is Elephant Central.
Hwange boasts more than 100 mammal species and 400 types of bird, and these Wilderness camps are perfect as they are by significant waterholes
After four days in Hwange it is time to carry on moving south.
The four-hour drive to Bulawayo is uneventful, save for the regular police road blocks. This is simply low-volume corruption as part of the social fabric – the cops stop you, discover some trivial misdemeanour, and ask in a perfunctory manner for a $10, $20 or $30 fine to be settled in cash. It’s a shake down.
For all that, I arrive in Bulawayo in high spirits. I grew up here and it retains a significant place in my emotional hinterland. The once pretty colonial town is rather down-at-heel these days, being out of favour with President Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF party, but there have been improvements. Cash-strapped Bulawayo City Council has found money to give the City Hall a lick of paint, get the water fountains working again, clean up the surrounding streets and fill in the potholes.
It is easy to visualise a post-Mugabe world with Bulawayo springing to life again and recapturing some of the glory of its colonial youth, when it was one of the prettiest cities in Africa.
Right now Zimbabwe is in a socio-political hiatus, not that you would know it if you were spending your time in the bush.
For all the stories of illegal hunting and poaching, the population is thought to be doing rather well
Since President Mugabe sent his stormtroopers on to the white farms and ‘liberated’ them, allegedly for the dispossessed black masses, the country has been in economic free-fall. Thus, what was once the breadbasket of southern Africa has been turned into the basket case of the region and, after several significant crop failures, Zimbabwe has been forced to import a million tons of maize this year.
But good times are not far away, according to the long-suffering citizens on the ground.
In the meantime, visitors should enjoy the country for what it is – a remarkable, sun-drenched landscape filled with some of the nicest people in Africa.
It is my last night in Zimbabwe and I have returned to the Falls. I walk out of the front of the Victoria Falls Hotel, sit on the lawn and listen to the thunder of the water. Even on this dark night I can see clouds of spray rising and, like Livingstone, look upon a scene gazed upon by angels in their flight.
Above is the African night sky. This turbulent country and this thundering natural wonder become one. This is why we travel.
I turn to look at the lovely building behind me and wonder what my colonial predecessors thought when they stood on this very spot more than 100 years ago.
Maybe what I am thinking – that politicians and generations of people will come and go, but this beautiful country, represented tonight by the mighty Victoria Falls, will go on regardless of our fussing and scratching. I leave my beloved Zimbabwe with a mixture of elation and sadness.