Zimbabwe, a side you've never seen

Slowly leaving behind its days of violence and corruption, the southern African nation is back in the business of offering travellers thrilling, up-close animal adventures.

We were 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.

And then 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.

Having 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.

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.