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On my third day in the area, I had the opportunity to track cheetah on foot with the aid of a park ranger named Wonder Chuma – who was, handily, armed with an AK-47 (a requirement on walking safaris). Although our cheetah sighting was fleeting – I saw its spotted back for just a moment amid a dark thicket before it bolted – the walk was a unique opportunity to view the wildlife at ground level instead of from the customary, elevated confines of a Jeep. Walking safaris are not possible in countries, but Chuma noted that Zimbabwean guides are usually regarded as the very best in Africa. Undergoing a rigorous training programme that usually spans four years, Zimbabwean guides must actually shoot and kill four of the big five (rhinos are endangered and thus exempt), learning how to stop them dead in their tracks. This also means that a Zimbabwe safari has less of the caution that comes with corporate lodges and safari camps, so visitors can get much closer to wildlife here than in other African destinations.

Chuma remembers the difficult days just a few years ago, when there were almost no travellers visiting the parks, and his government pay cheques – paid in Zim dollars – were worthless. The trickle of hard currency brought in by a few intrepid travellers helped buy food from across the border in Botswana and Zambia, and while some rangers sought work in other countries, a hardy band of guides stayed on to try and protect the animals from poaching. It was an estimable challenge, as starving locals killed animals in large numbers for their meat. Chuma explained that he and his fellow rangers would patrol the park perimeter for days at a time, camping and arresting lawbreakers along the way.

The next day, I plunged deep into the heart of the park, to Somalisa, a tented camp with relatively luxurious accommodations (tents included ensuite washrooms and comfortable beds) arranged around a central dining tent, fire pit and a watering hole that, while only a few metres across, was deep enough to keep the many elephants that drink its refreshing waters from actually crossing through.

But standing next to Polenakis at the moment that big bull tried his mock charge, I did not yet know the waters were that deep – I thought there was a decent chance he would come right for us. Nevertheless, we remained neutral – not flinching, not fleeing, but not causing him harm either – and only then did the elephant decide to settle down. He dropped his trunk into the dark water, and then raised it to pour gallons and gallons of water down his gullet. I was close enough to hear to it gush down, sounding like water forced through giant pipe by a pounding rainstorm. It was a sound that I will never forget, as long as I live.

While Zimbabwe is generally very safe for foreign travellers, visitors should plan their trip through an established tour operator, which can arrange local logistics and ensure everything goes smoothly. UK-based tour operator Expert Africa offers tailor-made itineraries to Zimbabwe, including transfers, lodging and other arrangements.

The country’s dry season runs from August to November, and is generally considered the best time for animal viewing. Water becomes scarce and animals seek it out, gathering in big numbers at the remaining sources.

Bulawayo’s Joshua Mqabuko Nkomo International Airport is the closest entry point to Hwange, serviced by a daily flight to Johannesburg on South African Airways. Other international carriers fly to the country’s capital, Harare.

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