Long ago I fell in love with Zimbabwe. It was a coup de foudre. The magical five days I spent canoeing down the Zambezi river did it. Way back then it was the Big New Thing (now that it is a “big old thing”, it is rather more perilous – the hippos and crocs are less afraid of man and there have been some nasty accidents). We paddled down river by day, dodging the dangers and watching Africa’s iconic animals come down to the shores to drink. By night we had supper round our fire and slept under the stars on little camp beds, listening to the sounds of the bush around us. Our guide wasn’t allowed a gun (they are now), and if lion or hyena came moseying along we were told that banging saucepan lids together usually worked a treat. It was enchanting. I so loved it that I took several groups of FT readers on trips to Zimbabwe. Almost to a man and woman, they came to love it as much as I did.
However, it’s a long time since I’ve been back. Holidaying in a tragic, oppressed and poverty-stricken country didn’t seem either fun or decent. But things are changing. There is the coalition government, with the Movement for Democratic Change’s Morgan Tsvangirai acting as prime minister to president Robert Mugabe of Zanu‑PF. There is no longer hyper-inflation (more than 230m per cent at one point). The economy, now that it is tied to the US rather than Zimbabwean dollar, has stabilised, and tour operators are dusting down their lodges and once again featuring Zimbabwe in their brochures. Young Zimbabwean entrepreneurs, such as Beks Ndlovu with his African Bush Camps and Humphrey Gumpo with his Tailormade Safaris, have launched new enterprises, hoping to persuade those who want an authentic African experience that Zimbabwe is still the place to find it. The old glories – Vic Falls; the Zambezi river and its valley; Mana Pools, a Unesco World Heritage Site that borders the Zambezi and is one of the most beautiful of all national parks; and Hwange, Zimbabwe’s largest game reserve – are all still there. For the visitor, it is a safe and fascinating place to travel, and delivers a fantastic wildlife experience at a significantly lower price than its less-complicated rivals Botswana, South Africa and Kenya.
For first-time visitors, the Falls are, of course, a must. Like world-famous sights all over the world, they have an inflated viewing fee (at least $30) and are besieged by touts, an unavoidable trial by fire that has to be endured if you want to see the spectacular mile-wide curtain of water falling some 355ft into the gorge below. But then leave Victoria Falls behind; head into the wild areas, and you will find small and charming lodges, most with no more than six or seven tents apiece – and with that comes personal service and a willingness to adapt their times and habits to the guest.
In Hwange National Park, 5,656sq miles filled with ancient teak forests, acacia and terminalia woodland, as well as open grasslands and Kalahari sand veld, we saw some spectacular sights – and, most importantly, shared these sights with very few other visitors. From outside our tents at The Hide, which is owned by the Preston family; at Little Makalolo (a Wilderness Safaris lodge); and at Somalisa, one of Beks Ndlovu’s new lodges, we could sit and watch the panorama all day long. Great breeding herds of elephant came out of the bush to drink at the pumped water holes through most of the day and night. We saw roan antelope, herds of buffalo looking for sweet grass, bat-eared fox, groups of sable, eland and, most excitingly of all, a pride of 16 lions on a buffalo carcass and a honeymooning pair of leopards.
At Mana Pools, in mobile tents set up on the Zambezi bank by Tailormade Safaris, our contingent was just us, Dardley, our guide, and the staff, who cooked exactly the sort of food we like. The game seemed sparser than I remembered, and the days of tracking rhino on foot as we so memorably did with John Stevens years ago are long gone (the last two were relocated to Matusadona in 1996 to protect them from poachers); but Dardley took us out tracking a pair of lioness with a cub, as well as two huge ginger-maned males. Mana Pools is still beautiful, and on the last morning we missed by a whisker a pack of wild dogs hunting.
If, after all this, you want a dose of serious luxury, it is there. Pamushana is a swanky lodge run by Singita on land owned by the Malilangwe Trust (which is funded by the American hedge-fund manager and philanthropist Paul Tudor Jones, who has done so much to conserve wildlife areas in Africa). The rooms are huge, with spectacular views. The land itself is ferociously beautiful, with great sandstone crags on which black eagles nest, huge baobabs, vast savannahs filled with game, at least two lakes and more than 100 examples of early rock art. On top of all that, it is one of the few places in Zimbabwe where you can still see rhino.
We spent a heavenly afternoon with our guide Bradley and wildlife documentary maker Kim Wolhuter, quietly observing the cheetah mother and two cubs that he is currently filming. He’s a South African, the grandson of the first game ranger at Kruger National Park, but he has chosen to live and film in Zimbabwe. “Firstly,” he says, “it’s because the people are wonderful. They have been through so much, yet still they smile. Secondly, Zimbabwe has a wildness that has been lost elsewhere. Many of the parks have been neglected, so they aren’t spoiled and filled with lodges and mini-vans. For instance, a pack of wild dogs that I was filming were last heard of in Botswana, hundreds of kilometres away. That couldn’t happen anywhere else in Africa – the blocks of land are too fenced off, too organised. Here there are still vast tracts of wild places.”
About halfway through our trip I realised what else it was that I so loved about Zimbabwe: it’s behind the times. It’s like the Africa of 20 or 30 years ago. The lack of funds, the years of isolation mean it has had to concentrate on the things that really matter. So while you get all the comforts anybody reasonable could possibly demand – from two hot water bottles on freezing nights (and yes there are some, so if you hate the cold, don’t go in May, June or July) to delicious though un-fancy food and drink, you don’t get the nonsenses that proliferate in the swankier parts of Africa and serve only to make one feel insulated from the very wilderness and wildlife one has come to see. In Zimbabwe, the experience is all. You never are in any doubt that you’re in Africa – a wilder, less crowded, more appealing Africa.
And then there’s another thing. Zimbabwe had – and still has – one of the best guiding programmes in all of Africa. I’m a bit of a romantic, and so love the old guard, guides who’ve lived long lives and have rich and varied tales to tell. I like the long perspective and the layers of memories that recall another, vanished Africa – that can bring great ecological and sociological intelligence to bear on the changes Zimbabwe has faced.
Many of the greatest guides, men such as John Stevens and Garth Thompson, have had to earn their keep out of Zimbabwe during the difficult years; and though they are now coming back, they have won an international clientele that pays mega-bucks for their services. They guide privately (Africa Travel can organise this) and these days it is hedge-fund managers, tycoons and entrepreneurs who’ve sold their own or their family businesses that hire them at rates of $1,000 to $2,000 a day (excluding travel expenses) for month-long safaris, going by private jet to wherever the game looks great. But there’s a new generation of terrific guides coming up. At Somalisa we found Jim Lafferty, newly returned after 10 years in the UK. “Every day my heart is singing,” he says. “I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to be back.”
Zimbabwe is also a great place for adventures. Adrenaline junkies can spend days hanging around Victoria Falls, getting their thrills by going white-water rafting, bungee jumping, taking helicopter flights over the Falls or, more sedately, boarding one of the overly commercial but nevertheless must-do-once sunset cruises on the Zambezi. But there are other experiences to be had. Stay with Steve Edwards, another old-school guide (he worked for the national parks for 18 years), at his Musango island paradise on Lake Kariba . He will take you canoeing or kayaking in the creeks of the island and concessionary land he looks after; he’ll guide you on day-long walks tracking rhino into the Matusadona National Park, just across the water; and if you give him enough notice, he can lay on a three-day (or more) agenda of hiking trails, overnighting in tents. Nearby is a Batonka fishing village (the Batonka traditionally inhabited the area flooded by the creation of the Kariba dam), from which many of his staff are recruited and which his guests love visiting.
If you’re still doubtful about visiting a troubled land, it’s worth remembering that if you stay away, none of the ruling elite will suffer one second’s inconvenience. It is the people on the ground who will pay the price. Many years ago I interviewed the great South African businessman and philanthropist Anton Rupert, and I’ve never forgotten one thing he told me: “Africa’s biggest need is jobs, and every tourist that comes creates seven jobs.” If you mind about Zimbabwe and its people, then remember that what they need terribly is work. If tourists don’t come, the wildlife will go. For all the difficulties and tragedies Zimbabweans have endured, most love their country passionately. One is aware that behind those smiling faces looking after us with such fastidious care there are some heartbreaking stories – here a farm lost, there a family member murdered, there a business in receivership – but Zimbabweans are famous for “making a plan”. They’ll make one for you; and I would be very surprised if you didn’t love it.