Recovery and renewal: the return of wildlife tourism in Zimbabwe

Nature tourism in Zimbabwe is undergoing a renaissance. In spite of recent political instability, a new landscape of luxury lodges and private concessions are offering affordable wildlife experiences, where the big five vastly outnumber humans.

By Emma Thomson
Published 7 Oct 2019, 06:00 BST
Kayaking on the Zambezi at sunset.
Kayaking on the Zambezi river at sunset.
Photograph by Andrew Howard Photo

Her amber eyes, cocooned in wrinkles, seem to hold all of time. “She remembers it all — the good and the bad — and will pass the lessons learned on to her family,” whispers Scott, looking at the matriarch elephant standing before us on the dirt road. Coyly peeking out from behind her flank are five others: teenagers, toddlers and a newborn. One stands with its leg motionless in mid-air. Then the limb starts to rock gently back and forth. “See that,” says Scott. “That’s displacement behaviour; they’ll sometimes do the same by picking at leaves, but not eating them. It means they’re unsure.”

Minutes pass, each of us observing the other in complete quiet, save for the flick of a tail, or fan of the ears. “They’re not running — this is a good sign,” remarks Scott, with a pleased nod, as these wandering grey mountains melt back into the bush. 

Until three years ago, this area — the Sapi Concession, in the far north of Zimbabwe — was a hunting ground, and, according to conservation manager Scott, the experience has left mental scars on much of the wildlife here, particularly the lions and elephants. But in 2016, the government leased the 463,000sq mile concession to eco-tourism operator Great Plains Conservation, which converted it into a private photographic reserve; a fine example of how the safari scene is evolving in Zimbabwe.

Conservation organisations are leasing adjoining parcels of land to create ever-larger wildlife corridors and visitors have the unique chance to see, and be a part of, these efforts in their infancy.

Many travellers presume peak wildlife sightings like this are rare in Zimbabwe because poaching was rampant during Robert Mugabe’s almost four decades in power — a period marked by political instability, corruption and a floundering economy. They imagine it’s not a superior safari destination. But that’s a mistake. Safaris here are among the most affordable in Africa, wildlife sightings aren’t marred by hoards of other tourists, and the guides are among the best on the continent, thanks to their rigorous four- to seven-year training. 

Wildlife sightings in Zimbabwe, like the encounter with these water buffalos, aren’t marred by hoards of tourists.
Photograph by Andrew Howart

Get ready to rumble 

“Did you know you can tell the age of an elephant by its dung,” says guide, Cosmo. When they lose their molars, food is digested less, so the more bits,” he says, poking a finger into a sun-baked ball of poop, “the older they are.” 

We’re inside the Chikwenya Concession, a two square mile swathe of land south of Mana Pools National Park — named after the four oxbow lakes formed by the meandering Zambezi river (called ‘mana’ in Shona language). This permanent water source attracts many large animals, including all of the Big Five except rhinos. 

But it’s the two concessions on Mana’s southern border — Chikwenya and Sapi — that offer a different safari experience. Located across the river from Zambia’s Lower Zambezi National Park, together they’ve created a huge area through which wildlife can move freely. And it’s here where travellers can learn about conservation in more detail, as well as having a more bespoke safari experience. 

It’s just Cosmo and me, as my elephant lesson continues. “They use infrasounds to communicate,” he says. I shoot him a confused look. “Stomach rumbling! It can travel up to 15km.” Our 4x4 is parked a good distance from three bachelors. “See how his tusk is pointing down,” says Cosmo, indicating the mismatched ivories of the largest. “They grow in unique ways just like ours,” he says, grinning to reveal his own buck teeth.

“Did you know you can tell the age of an elephant by its dung. When they lose their molars, food is digested less — so the more bits, the older they are”

We rumble on, the last of the sun’s heat melting the fading light into a paint-box smudge of purples, pinks, oranges and blues. In the distance, the pew-pew call of a black-backed puffback sounds like a ray gun being fired. Rounding a corner, we find more elephants moseying down to the river’s edge to syphon off the now liquid-gold water. While waiting her turn, an elephant does something I’ve never seen before. She rocks back and, balancing on two legs, starts stripping the leaves from a tree. “Mana Pools and this area are unique for this behaviour — they’ve done it to adapt to the arid environment,” explains Cosmo. 

Finally, we return to the new Chikwenya Camp. Meaning ‘scratchy,’ it’s a nod to the name of the last chief in the area, who, in 1915, was buried inside the bowels of a vast baobab just a few miles from camp. Beneath a star-studded night sky, I wander back to my luxury tent and run a bubble bath. I can hear a hippo munching grass outside as I soak, and wonder if leopards or lions are also prowling around my canvas fort. 

Sure enough, there are prints in the sand the next morning. We don’t find their owners, but by 10am the heat has risen enough to let white-backed vultures take to the air; eyes down, talons splayed wide, half-a-mile high. Cosmo points out mopane and baobab trees. The former release tannins into the air when being eaten to alert others to change the taste of their leaves, while the latter’s seeds can be roasted for coffee, he explains. 

We spy a waterbuck amid the bushes. “Know why he has a white circle on his butt?” asks Cosmo. “Because he was the first in Noah’s Ark to sit on the toilet seat.” I can’t help giggling as we continue across the floodplain.

Sapi Explorers Camp.
Photograph by Sapi Explorers Camp

Taking time to heal  

President Mugabe’s rule may have ended in 2017 but Zimbabwe continues to face challenges. “Bakeries are closed because importing the flour is so expensive,” my driver, Justice, had earlier lamented in Victoria Falls. “And most garages don’t have fuel; we buy it on the black market or go to Botswana,” he added, pointing to the queue already building. “I’m trying to build a small house, so enquired about the price of a cubic metre of sand. The quote they gave me was $400 [£325]; that’s a whole month’s salary!” 

In 2009, shortly after hyperinflation peaked with the issue of Z$100 trillion banknotes, the Zimbabwean dollar collapsed. The US dollar has been the main currency since then, but in recent months a financial crisis has again taken hold, with inflation once more sky-rocketing. 

“We’re failing in lots,” agrees Cosmo. “When the country isn’t stable, donations shrink because patrons [NGO and charities] are afraid of supporting a bad president and then we can’t afford the fuel to patrol, and poachers take advantage of the parks. But there’s lots of positives too.”

And that optimism is largely thanks to the dedication of conservationists. At the Sapi Concession, Scott takes me to visit the anti-poaching unit, based half-a-mile or so downstream from Sapi Explorers Camp, and introduces me to the head warden. Together with nine other rangers, he’s charged with protecting 463sq miles. 

“On average, we cover about 12 miles a day” he explains. It’s a big task. “A month ago, we found a poacher’s fire, but thankfully we’ve only had one elephant killed in the last two years. It’s low because our zone is buffered by other protected areas and is far from communities,” he continues. 

For three months at a time, the rangers live in small, circular corrugated-roof huts and are supplied only with basic foodstuffs.

Zambezi, Chikwenya Camp.
Photograph by Andrew Howard Photo

Great Plains Conservation recently bought two proper tents for the rangers to sleep in. They’ve given up on their vegetable patch because a local bull elephant nicknamed Sapi started visiting and raiding it few years ago. His ivories are short. “Hunters killed all the males with big tusks and reduced the gene pool, so now you don’t see elephants with big tusks anymore,” Scott explains. It’s the same with the lions. “Prides haven’t formed proper groups because the dominant males were killed by hunters, but that should change with the drought, which will weaken the prey animals and provide more food.” 

Scott, a warden and I watch Sapi ripping leaves off a tree in the unit’s compound. “What’s needed now is time — time for the animals’ behaviour to change. You can have all the park management and species conservation in place, but still we need time,” says Scott. Sapi Explorer Camp manager, Amon Johnson, agrees: “I came one year after hunting ended and everything was skittish. This is my third season here now and you can already see the wildlife becoming calmer.” 

Halfway back to camp, Scott stops the car and gets out. “Let’s go for a walk,” he suggests, strapping a first aid kit to his body protector and wrapping his hand around the .375 rifle wedged beneath the windscreen. I scan my own unprotected body and totter after him like a foal.  

“I came one year after hunting ended and everything was skittish. This is my third season here now and you can already see the wildlife becoming calmer”

“Lions can cover 80 metres in four seconds,” Scott comments, casually, striding over the dry basalt-rich soil, pockmarked with the petrified footprints of hippos and elephants. Gnats hum around the fruits of a woolly caper bush; he picks a leaf and strokes it across my palm to prove its velveteen softness. A troop of around 70 baboons shout ‘Yo, yo!’ as they spot us, and scamper to assume posts in the treetops to get a better look. Scott bobs up and down and the baboons copy. “Comedians,” he laughs. It’s just the two of us surrounded by unbounded bush, with not another tourist in sight. Compare that to the Serengeti and its caterpillar queues of 4x4s. 

We pass the remains of a felled tree. A buffalo and hippo skull lie in its shade. “An old hunting and fishing camp,” murmurs Scott. In the distance, kudus and impalas graze. I bend down to pick up a stray guinea fowl feather and the atmosphere switches. The raspy bark of a kudu echoes across the plain, then the skittish huff and sneeze of an impala ram. “I think something just passed through here,” whispers Scott, his shoulders tensing and his grip around the gun tightening a little. “It’s not us they’re spooked by, because the wind is in our favour. Could be a lion or a leopard.” I scan the bushes for the flash of a tail. Vision and hearing sharpen, and I’m aware of the fragility of my flesh and bones. We return to the car with night falling fast. By the time we reach camp, the night sky is punctured with stars. 

A mongoose hiding in a tree nook.
Photograph by Emma Thomson

Thrill of the hunt

The chuckle of hippos heralds the morning. “We’ve got an adventure planned,” says camp guide, Chris, over a mug of tea sipped in the early copper light. We hop in the 4x4s and drive to the boundary with Chikwenya, where two canoes wait by the waters’ edge. The river bears us along with minimal paddling. All is quiet save for the plop and dribble of water each time I lift the oar. Red-throated bee-eaters swoop past the nose of the kayak, and ahead I spy the obsidian cheese-grater back of a crocodile. 

Chris tells me the Zambezi takes its name from ‘Kazamabez,’ a Tonga word meaning ‘those who know where to bathe without crocodiles.’ But the Tongans believe bigger things lie beneath the surface, namely Nyami Nyami, a Zambezi river god often represented as a dragon with a snake’s head and the body of a fish. When there’s a drought, the Tonga people perform ceremonies to appease the god, in the hope he’ll provide them with fish. Many wear necklaces embellished with Nyami Nyami’s serpentine form; some even believe the initial work on the Kariba Dam — roughly halfway down the Zambezi — in the 1950s was destroyed by rain because construction workers hadn’t asked permission of the river god. 

Impalas watch us, ears twitching, before getting spooked and splashing off through the shallows. Meanwhile, off to the right, a pod of hippos and their calves lounge on a mud bank, sunning themselves with cattle egrets perched on their rumps. “Tap your paddle on the rim of the canoe to alert any hippos in shallower water,” instructs Chris. “They’ll raise their head to identify the sound.”

We pull over beside a floodplain, our oars scuffing the sand to steady the boat. A lioness and two young males sit warming up in the sun, the tips of their ears black, as if dipped in soot. After a while, a herd of impalas appear on the raised ground at the back. The sooty ears prick to attention. Their eyes are fixed, unblinking, on the deer, but the impalas spot them and, suddenly, the attention of the lioness shifts to us. Her eyes cut through the grass like wild fire, as she stalks towards our boat. Closer and closer. “Let’s go,” barks Chris, shoving his paddle into the bank and pushing off. The lioness watches the canoes slip away and turns on her heel, haughtily. The primal thrill of being hunted pulses through my veins. 

“Paddle over to that island,” says Chris, pointing across to where mirages of figures dance on the waters’ surface. In the middle of the Zambezi is a table and chairs — the camp staff have set up lunch in the shallows. We sit, ankle deep in Africa’s fourth-longest river, munching chicken and potato salad; 3,400 cubic metres of water streaming past us every second. Hippos snort and splash in deeper water nearby and, when I wander over to watch the staff fishing, I notice their hoofmarks in the mud are mingled with our own footprints. 

On my way back to the airstrip, we drive back through the Chikwenya Concession and pass an elephant calf feeding; its little trunk curled into the warmth of its mother’s breast. She regards us calmly. “There’s a big difference in the behaviour of the elephants when they’re in Chikwenya [which has always been a photographic concession] compared to when you cross into Sapi Reserve [a former hunting area] — they still feel vulnerable there,” says Scott. And that’s where travellers can make the difference: by supporting camps that prioritise conservation over cash. I look into the amber eye of that calf, heavy with eyelashes, and wonder if its experience of us humans will be a different story from the one his mother told him. 

Goliath heron, Sapi Private Reserve.
Photograph by Great Plains Conservation, Alex Walters

Q&A with ROAR founder Deborah Calmeyer

1. What sets Zimbabwe apart from other safari destinations?

Zimbabwe is relatively young in terms of private concessions and luxury lodges, which means you’ll have a similar safari experience to, say, Botswana, but at a lower cost. The guides also help set the destination apart — as training takes a minimum of four years, they’re some of the best in Africa.

2. Is it safe?

It’s safe when you’re in the hands of local experts who have their finger on the pulse and have the resources to respond to any situation.

3. What is your most memorable Zimbabwe safari experience? 

I was in a Jeep in the Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve at dusk, listening to the call of a lion that seemed awfully close. Suddenly, a herd of 500 buffaloes came charging in all directions, with dust flying and lots of snorting. We realised they had been surprised by the pride of lions we had seen earlier at the water hole. Chaos exploded all around us and when the guide turned on the headlights, a wildebeest came running for its life towards the vehicle. It missed us and sped past. Right behind it was a lioness in a flat-out sprint. I thought she would end up on the bonnet of the vehicle, with all of us in it, but luckily she came to a stop at the last minute, lurching to a halt literally a foot in front of us.


Getting there & around
British Airways and South African Airways fly from Heathrow to Harare via Johannesburg. Kenya Airways flies from Heathrow to Harare via Nairobi.     

Average flight time: 13h40m.

For internal flights, luggage restrictions stipulate the use of a soft-sided duffel bag not exceeding 20kg. 

When to go
The best time to go is during the May-September dry season (averaging 32C), when wildlife tends to congregate around rivers and water holes. The temperature remains about the same during the humid rainy season, mid-November to mid-March. A drier period follows from mid-March to mid-May (averaging 28C). 

More info:

How to do it
ROAR Africa
offers 10 nights at the Chikwenya Camp, Sapi Explorers Camp, Mpala Jena and Stanley & Livingstone Boutique Hotel from £11,500 per person, including all internal flights, accommodation, meals and beverages, safari activities, road transfers and conservation levies. 

Published in the November 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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