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So a zebra walks into a bar...

Long overlooked by travellers in favour of more fashionable outposts, such as Botswana, Zimbabwe is back in the sights of savvy safari-goers. Colin Bell, a conservationist with rock-star status in safari circles who co-founded Wilderness Safaris and Great Plains Conservation, puts it simply: ‘Zim is pumping again.’ And he’s not just talking about the Falls (‘For too long, Vic Falls has been perceived as the whole country!’) or the high concentration of game in Hwange and Mana Pools national parks.

Since the US dollar was adopted as local currency, Zimbabwe’s economy has stabilised, entrepreneurs have returned to open businesses, and there’s been a wave of new investment by safari operators – most obviously in Hwange, the largest park, where previously mothballed camps have reopened their doors and smart new versions opened to great acclaim. With the construction of the new Victoria Falls Airport, Zimbabwe now has a proper international gateway which looks set to attract an increasing number of flights. The introduction of a joint visa for Zimbabwe and Zambia has also boosted interest in the region, especially from Americans. Tourist numbers are already on the rise – Ron Goatley , MD of Wilderness Zimbabwe, confirms that overall guest numbers for their three camps in Hwange were up 30 per cent in 2015. ‘What this means for all of us operating here is more employment, more investment, and more revenue from taxes and park fees.’ Numbers are also gradually going up in other parts of the country, including the untrammelled south-east.

Incredible game viewing, some of the best guides in Africa (see page 41) and genuine, warm hospitality aside, Zimbabwe offers considerable value for money: two nights on safari in Zim costs roughly the same as one night in Botswana. For families in particular, adding Zimbabwe to an itinerary is a great way to stretch the budget or stay for longer while seeing a greater diversity of landscapes – some of the most beautiful on the continent. And for now, Zimbabwe doesn’t mind being labelled as a budget-friendly alternative to Botswana. Those already in the know, like Colin Bell, refer to the country as the ‘secret gem of Africa’. At last thought, the secret’s out..

North West
Hwange National Park

Linkwasha is one of the impressive reopenings – built from scratch on the footprint of the original camp of the same name, it used to be Hwange National Park’s premier destination before it was closed due to visitor numbers dwindling in the early 2000s. The new Linkwasha is a sleek, ultra-modern camp with gleaming new game-viewing vehicles. Raised off the ground to maximise views over the surrounding grassy plains, nine oversized tents each have a king-size canopy bed, generous spaces in which to relax and large sliding doors to bring the sights and sounds of the bush even closer. A rim-flow pool overlooks a waterhole where buffalo congregate while guests tuck into a lunch of grilled bream (flown in from Kariba), followed by fresh fruit skewers.

Among the many highlights of a stay here is a walking safari with guide Lewis Mangabe – the pace is brisk but the reward will be guaranteed elephant sightings and plenty of intricate details about the park’s famous pachyderms, flora and birds when you eventually stop for tea. There’s no doubt Linkwasha has brought a new level of luxury and comfort to Hwange, but there is a marked for more rustic and low-key experiences, too. Its sibling camps, Davison’s and Little Makalolo, still have a loyal following (and weathered the tourism drought). ‘While many smaller outfits were forced to give up completely during those years, most of our camps stayed open and we continued to operate – even at a loss,’ says Chris Roche of Wilderness Zimbabwe.

A whirlwind tour of both camps revealed intimately scaled, beautifully maintained settings and hospitable staff, some of whom have been employed by Wilderness for a dozen years of more.

Hwange National park

The opening of the original Somalisa camp in 2006 marked the humble beginnings of African Bush Camps, founded by Bulawayo-born BeksNdlovu at a time when his peers thought he was crazy. Ndlovu, an ex-Wilderness guide to the rich and famous, struck out on his own in his 20s, and now runs eight rustic-chic properties in Zimbabwe and Botswana. In January 2015, he opened a ‘more grown-up’ version of Somalisa and a smaller, family-oriented satellite camp called Acacia. Designed for the future by safari lodge specialists Fox Brown Creative, the new camps feature luxury tents with butler hatches for morning coffee, copper clad slipper baths and wraparound decks with outdoor showers.

It may be all change, but Somalisa continues the tradition of providing elephant herds with a guaranteed water supply: the split-level main deck and splash pool for guests overlooks a ‘drinking pool’ for the animals as well as a large waterhole. During the year-long building process, a temporary camp was pitched. Furnished in high style with dark-wood sleigh beds, Persian rugs, campaign furniture and framed explorers’ maps, it proved to be a hit with guests (especially the open-to-the-elements bathrooms with hot bucket showers). As a result, Somalisa Expeditions Camp is opening in May this year as an equally exclusive but more low-key, affordable alternative to the luxury Somalisa. ‘We’re embracing changing guest expectations, without forgetting where we’ve come from,’ says Ndlovu.

Lake Kariba

This camp on the fringes of Matusadona National Park was set up by renowned Zimbabwe guide Steve Edwards in 1990. Committed to this area for most of his adult life, Edwards was the Matusadona park warden for 18 years. During this time, he helped introduce rhino into the park, set up anti-poaching units and developed a reputation for being an ace tracker. In the past 20 years, however, he has witnessed wholesale poaching of the park. These days the enterprising owner of Musango takes his guests on exclusive walking safaris on his own private concession, where the animals are protected and any proceeds can be ploughed back into targeted, anti-poaching patrols.

The Armchair Safari
At Kanga Camp in Mana Pools, you don’t even have to leave the couch, says Christopher Scott…

On the lower deck at Kanga Camp sits a deep, sturdy, inviting lounge suite – spacious enough to accommodate me, several others and my vast array of camera gear. This couch will serve as my observation post for the next few days.

Kanga Camp is built astride Kanga Pan in Mana Pools National Park, 15km inland from the Zambezi River, and its deck is just metres from the only source of water in the area, which in the dry season means it is a veritable hotspot of animal activity. From my throne I will be privy to all the comings and goings at the waterhole, and they are numerous and frequent.

As I arrive in camp, my luggage hasn’t even touched the ground when I have my binoculars planted on my face, observing eight different species of raptors either drinking at the pan or hunting among the dense foliage of the towering African ebony and nyalaberry trees that provide thick shade to the camp’s public areas throughout the day. Once I’m done ogling the birds of prey, I turn my attention to the bustling waterhole. Full swing into the mid-morning rush, hundreds of doves are noisily flapping down to the water’s edge, spooking the notoriously shy family of kudu. Taking no heed of the birdlife is a pair of old buffalo bulls, who have taken to retirement from the larger herds and find solace in each other’s cantankerous company. A herd of elephants run the last 100 metres of dry, dusty plain to the water’s edge, so grateful for the quenching cool of the water that they visibly can’t decide whether to drink deep or drench themselves from head to wrinkly toe. A troop of 50-plus baboons, with their human-like poses and expressions, add humour to the otherwise peacefully industrious scene. Settled into my feathered throne, I revel for most of the morning in the diversity of life congregating around the pan, until a polite call to brunch stirs me into action and I use muscles for the first time in several hours to haul myself over to the table nearby. Eating is no easy task though – as soon as I look down to choose my next morsel, there is some commotion from the waterhole: an African goshawk catching a green-spotted dove or a bull elephant noisily drinking just metres from where I sit. Brunch, delicious as it is, exhausts me and I am thankful to avoid the scorching midday hours in the sanctuary of my room. Even from the cool comfort of my bed I can keep half an eye on the action at the pan – all rooms at Kanga have their own unique view of the waterhole.

Back at my throne in the late afternoon, the manic activity of the morning seems to have cooled along with the temperature, and I am able to watch more intimate moments a bit more closely: a mother zebra nuzzling her nervous young foal towards the water, a pair of saddle-billed storks repeatedly probing the shallows. The subtle sounds of the bush envelop me and all seems well with the world as the sun slides towards the horizon, everything glowing orange, then red. As I lazily contemplate the many salubrious advantages of my ‘armchair safari’, I am jolted into action – a hasty grab for my camera – by the arrival of a pack of a dozen wild dogs and their pups, eager for a drink…

African Bush Camps, which runs Kanga Camp, also operates a mobile tented safari, Zambezi Life Styles, affording the opportunity to see the rest of the Mana Pools floodplain in all its glory and in luxurious style.

Mana Pools National Park

One of the oldest safari camps in Zimbabwe, established in the early 80s, Ruckomechi has long held iconic status among bucket list-ticking safari-goers craving a truly last frontier-type experience. It has an arresting location under mature acacia and mahogany trees, overlooking the Zambezi River and its tributaries as well as the mountains that rise up from the river on the Zambian side.

Everything in the ship-shape, ten-tent camp – from the loos and library to a sociable fire pit sunk between the deck and the reeds – is blessed with wraparound views. Walking between the tent suites and the communal areas, guests are told to be alert for hippos crossing the path; at night, loud grunts are a constant reminder of their proximity.

Game drives are interspersed with walks and canoe safaris (with increasing hippo and croc populations, these are not for the faint-hearted). Some guests like to spend a night under the stars at Ruckomechi’s sleep-out deck, and almost everybody take a bath in the open-air Victorian tub next to the river.

South East
Gonarezhou Bush Camp
Gonarezhou National Park

Bordered by Mozambique and the Malilangwe reserve, Gonarezhou has long been off the radar, due to its isolation, far from the northern tourist circuit. In this wild and beautiful place, third-generation Zimbabwean Anthony Kaschula( a professional guide with a string of degrees, who has worked all over Africa) has set up camp – the only operator in the park. His passion is guiding guests on food through remote tracts of wilderness, stopping to point out the most minute details. ‘We have a private campsite overlooking the Runde River and are allowed to walk anywhere we want to, which means we usually steer clear of roads to avoid seeing self-drive visitors in the park,’ he say.

Malilangwe wildlife Reserve

Long considered the swankiest lodge in the country, Pamushana is situated in the pristine, private Malilangwe concession neighbouring Gonarezhou National Park. It is run by Singita but owned by the Malilangwe Trust, a non-profit organisation that funds several highly successful community and conservation programmes in the area – with substantial input from Wall Street hedge funder Paul Tudor-Jones. Its school-feeding programme provides a meal to 19,000 children on week days.

The lodge’s six suites and villa are set high up, between boulders, overlooking a majestic landscape encompassing ancient baobab trees and Malilangwe Lake. Those fortunate enough to check in to one of these exquisitely decorated, jewel-bright sanctuaries spend their days fishing and cruising on the lake, walking, mountain biking, visiting sacred rock-art sites and absorbing the tangible magic of the place.

Africa’s Best Guides
Zimbabwe’s professional safari guides, who are required to undergo a rigorous four-year certification process, are recognised as some of the best in the world, which also makes Zim one of the best places to go walking and to see the Big Five on foot. A learner guide has to clock a minimum of 250 walking hours to be taken seriously.

‘Zimbabwe’s procedures for obtaining a licence are known to be the most difficult, extensive and well respected in Africa,’ confirms Beks Ndlovu of African Bush Camps. ‘Stats show that only one in 15 guides succeeds each year.’

Training includes a minimum tw0-year apprenticeship and concludes with a rigorous, week-long, practical exam, during which time the aspirant guide has to track and make safe approaches to dangerous game such as elephant and buffalo. It’s costly to achieve full professional guide status in Zimbabwe, which means only the most passionate and dedicated apprentices stay the course. According to Robert Chadyendia at Wilderness Linkwasha, a learner guide has to purchase his own rifle, binoculars and textbooks, and off 10 rounds of ammunition per month – an expensive exercise when a single bullet costs around $15.

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