eating lunch in the central tent, washing down slices of tasty wood-fired pizza
with glasses of gin and tonic, when a massive, six-ton bull elephant decided to
crash our party. Big and dark and looking slightly weary, his white tusks
flashing in the sun, the elephant walked towards our table with a steady gait, moving
with a dogged, fatigued determination. Conversation at the table ceased.
Everyone’s heads turned toward him. Nobody reached for more pizza.
Nic Polenakis, wildlife guide and part-owner of the Somalisa Bush Camp, did a curious thing. He stood up
next to me, pulled on my arm and told me to follow him, walking towards the
elephant. Quietly folding his hands behind his back and exhorting me to do the
same – arms swinging forward can be mistaken as provocation – Polenakis turned
his head and whispered, “he’s not one of our usual clientele. He may have
walked all the way from Botswana. That’s why he’s so nervous – it’s been maybe
years since he’s seen a human being.” As if on cue, as we stepped to within 2m of
the massive animal – with just a small, but deep, watering hole separating us –
the bull tried a mock charge, kicking up dust with a little stutter step and
raising his trunk to cut the air with the mighty sound of 100 trumpets. Heart
pounding in my chest, I stood my ground, eyes unblinkingly focused on every
movement of the big elephant.
I was in
Zimbabwe, a country that in recent years has been better known for political
corruption and violence than for thrilling, up-close animal experiences. Ruled
since its 1980 independence by Robert Mugabe, this southern African nation has
enjoyed a steady recovery since its absolute nadir in 2008, when its currency
ballooned out of control and economic and civil unrest ruled the day. With a
power-sharing agreement now in place and elections planned for 31 July, 2013,travellers
have started to trickle back into the country, seeking out the breathtaking
experiences that originally put Zimbabwe on the safari map.
I had begun
my journey a week earlier in the Zimbabwean town of Victoria Falls, located just
across the water from Livingstone, Zambia. It is where most visitors start, walking
the edge of a dizzying gorge and feeling overpowered by the majesty – and the
spray – of Victoria Falls. Dripping wet, I walked into town, trailed closely by
a ragged band of boys, all of them trying to sell me expired 10 trillion dollar
bills. Zimbabwe remains desperately poor, with an unemployment rate close to 90%.
So young men seeking to raise a few bucks often try and sell off their
remaining stocks of Zim dollars to travellers as novelty items (the official
currency is now the American dollar, a move that served to stabilise the
country’s economy). When the country’s currency crisis reached its most chaotic
period, people drove around with trunks filled with notes – they were worth
almost nothing and, worse still, the rates fluctuated almost constantly.
Contractors would cost out a project and then return the next day to find that
they now only had enough money to build half the house. Prices at restaurants
were written in chalk, as they could change as many as three times during a meal.
toured Victoria Falls’ two or three main streets, which were largely lined with
all-but-empty souvenir shops, I drove about 200km to the nation’s main
attraction, the massive Hwange National Park – which at some 14,000sqkm is
roughly the size of Belgium. I spent the first few nights at Ivory Lodge, sleeping in a room set high on stilts on the park’s
periphery and going out on game drives to view zebra, giraffe, cape buffalo,
elephant and all sorts of other exotic creatures.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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