The Revival of Zimbabwe’s Safari Experience

With a change in leadership and an atmosphere of renewed hope, this southern African nation looks set to reemerge as one of the continent’s great safari destinations. 

Photographs by Jen Judge.

The bird’s-eye view of Victoria Falls and the Zambezi River gorge.

On a winter morning on Zimbabwe’s westernmost stretch of the Zambezi River, the dawn air seems to hum. The flood of water over Victoria Falls, the world’s largest waterfall, is so powerful and constant that it reverberates in my chest. Though I can’t see the cascades from where I’m staying a couple kilometers downstream at the venerable Victoria Falls Hotel, the tentacles of mist writhing above the distant tree line make it obvious that the crashing water is raising the din. And yet the deep, dull tremor—locals call the falls Mosi-oa-Tunya, or “the smoke that thunders”—almost feels like the collective, expectant trembling of an entire downpressed nation.

An elephant on the shores of Lake Kariba.

 

It’s June of 2018, and I’ve come to Zimbabwe at a momentous and delicate juncture in the country’s history. Just seven months earlier, the military suddenly and unexpectedly deposed Robert Mugabe, the infamous strongman whose 37-year rule is said to have cost Zimbabwe US$38 billion in lost growth and the lives of three million people. “For us, who never knew any president other than Mugabe, we thought his death was the only thing that could ever rid us of him,” a Zimbabwean national wishing to remain anonymous will tell me during my trip. “It was impossible to believe he would ever step down or be ousted. And then it happened.” Hopes are higher than they have been in decades, but there’s also uneasiness about the future, a flicker of the past that touches the corner of every optimistic smile. 

A safari track in the grasslands of Hwange National Park.

Zimbabwe never should have come to this. At its independence in 1980, the country formerly known as Rhodesia had a diversified economy and was considered one of the shining lights of Africa. Beyond its agricultural and mining establishment, it has 11 national parks and a profusion of wildlife, which, in a region that banks on safari tourism, should add up to full coffers. Yet under Mugabe, tourism cratered, with revenue plummeting from US$777 million in 1998 to $26 million in 2008, and only slightly recovering thereafter.

History aside, the country’s new president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, has declared Zimbabwe “open for business,” and tourism operators have rallied to support the industry. For the first time in decades, there’s a feeling that the southern African nation could finally seize its promise. That’s especially true in the town of Victoria Falls, which, of all the corners of the country, best weathered the Mugabe era. Demand to see the World Heritage–listed waterfall on its doorstep never completely dried up, after all. “I like to say that Victoria Falls is a country of its own,” says Meghan Volkwyn, a spokesperson for Victoria Falls Hotel, one of the country’s longest-running institutions. “It wasn’t easy, but we didn’t see the effects like other parts of the country.”

A Linkwasha Camp tent at night.

Now that Mugabe is gone, prospects here look even brighter. In late 2016, the town welcomed a US$150 million airport, which opened direct access to international travelers for the first time, with flights to Johannesburg, Nairobi, Addis Ababa, and other regional hubs. The streets are abuzz with cranes and construction sites for new restaurants and hotels. Several hoteliers whisper to me that Hilton, Four Seasons, and another international chain are considering opening properties in Victoria Falls if all goes smoothly. 

A herd of Cape buffalo near Linkwasha Camp in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe’s largest wildlife reserve.

The visceral power of the falls is evident from the hotel, but it’s completely overwhelming when I take the rim walk the next day. Except for me and my guide, Kheto Ncbe, the path is virtually empty. “Tourism has been badly affected for years by politics. People stopped coming,” Ncebe tells me on our stroll out to the scenic pathway. The dearth of visitors is great for uninterrupted photos but shockingly quiet for the start of busy season. If Victoria Falls was least affected by the slump, it makes me wonder how the rest of the country endured.

A good rainy season upriver means the Zambezi is at a 10-year high, with 545 million liters of water per minute making the 108-meter plunge over the edge of the falls. A good portion of that erupts back into the sky as spray. Standing at the edge, it feels as if I’m being bucketed with water, and I can’t hear anything above the roar, not even Kheto, who is standing nearby and mouthing something that’s lost to the thrum. If there’s a single reason for tourists to return to Zimbabwe, this is it. There’s wildlife all across Africa, but nowhere else also offers this immersion.

Later, back at the van, I ask Kheto what he was saying. “I saw your smile, and it made me hope that many more people will soon come,” he explains. I ask him if he believes that will happen, if the future looks brighter for Zimbabwe. “I think so. When Mr. Robert left,” he says, referring to Mugabe, “there was a big celebration and everyone began to feel like real change is coming. I think the leaders have heard the people. It’s time for something new.”

On safari with Bumi Hills, a recently reopened safari camp above Lake Kariba.

It’s long past time, of course. Yet I can’t help but wonder whether the drone of political inertia won’t be as deafening as the falls.

I first visited Zimbabwe in 1994 on a Christmas vacation from my family’s home in Nigeria, where I was born and raised. Compared to the barely controlled chaos of West Africa, the country was shockingly well composed: roads were properly paved, farms were industrial-size and brimming with crops and livestock, people were friendly and well spoken, and you could actually purchase petrol at the gas stations. Mugabe was in power, but this was before he’d begun bleeding the country. Unlike much of the Africa I’d seen, Zimbabwe sparkled, and in my head the nation became a proxy for the progress and promise possible on the continent. 

Now, I’m back in the country for the first time in over two decades. This post-Mugabe trip isn’t only about whether Zimbabwe has hung onto its luster after all these hard years—it also feels like an attempt to reaffirm my hopes for Africa.

From Victoria Falls, I hop aboard a single-engine Cessna 206 for the 90-minute flight to Linkwasha Camp in Hwange National Park, the country’s largest game reserve. An expanse of mostly dry savanna about the size of Kuwait, Hwange is home to healthy populations of wildlife, including all of the “big five.” Although my driver, Leo Mutsvangwa, promises to take us to a scenic spot for sun-downers, he first wants to check a side road where lions have been spotted in recent days. Within half an hour of landing, having passed roan antelope and kudu and Cape buffalo, we find the pride. In fact, we damn near drive over the animals, which are stretched out on the track like speed bumps. They likely fed in the morning and are now as indolent as housecats, lazing on their backs and yawning at us with eyes shut. It’s not until dusk, when we have to leave the pride, that I realize I never got that cocktail. Sundowners, I guess, are for the drivers who strike out.

The Zambezi Queen.

My two days at Linkwasha unfold in a flurry of impressive encounters—500 Cape buffalo at the house watering hole at dawn; crossing tracks with rare brown hyena, twice—but it’s the guides that really impress. With a toothy grin and the charisma of Jim Carrey, Lovemore Nowakhe, who guides me for most of my stay at Hwange, knows more about his country than Google. No matter the question, Lovemore has an answer: a typical elephant tusk weighs 25 to 35 kilograms; the gestation period for hippos is eight months, and their babies, which are born underwater, are more than a meter long at birth; and that soft trilling we hear, like a cassette tape on rewind, is the call of a pied kingfisher.

It’s seemingly harder to become a guide in Zimbabwe than a doctor or lawyer in the United States. The certification is the strictest on the continent, involving two years of coursework and a series of practical exams that can cost some US$10,000 and take five to 10 years to complete. So any working guide is a veritable PhD in the bush. And it’s not only credentials, but attitude. Lovemore, the last of 23 siblings who got his name after his 80-year-old father cheated on his third wife to conceive him, tells me half a dozen times each day how much he loves his job. Such enthusiasm, which I witness in almost everyone I meet here, is infectious. “The politics threatened even our jobs here in the park,” Lovemore says. “So every day working is another great day in Africa.”

From Hwange, I return to Victoria Falls and then exit the country for a taste of river life in neighboring Namibia and Botswana, where I hope to put Zimbabwe’s current situation into context.

A bream fished from Lake Kariba.

It takes an hour’s drive and a couple of oddball border crossings to reach the Zambezi Queen, a 14-room floating safari hotel that operates at the confluence of the Zambezi and Chobe rivers. At Namibian immigration, I wait 10 minutes before a yawning agent materializes. Looking annoyed, he stamps my passport without even glimpsing at my paperwork, which lands in a dusty pile in the corner before I’ve exited. The agent loafs out the door behind me, anxious to continue his nap.

At a certain time of year, during the ample rains of the wet season, the current on the Zambezi becomes so strong that the river thrusts up against its tributary, the Chobe, and reverses the flow of the smaller watercourse. Instead of pouring inexorably eastward toward Victoria Falls, 80 kilometers downriver, some of the Zambezi’s water turns back west and pools into a vast, verdant delta. I’ve hit it just right. Not only will we be able to travel as far upriver as at anytime in the year, but the game should be profuse. 

Churning up the flood plain aboard the Zambezi Queen, we spy mud-blackened ele-phants cavorting in the river, battalions of hippos floating like corpulent minefields in phragmite reeds and papyrus, and crocodiles indistinguishable from floating logs except for their sinister, cadmium half-eyes. In spite of the geopolitics, life in this water world goes on, with herons and cranes and six species of cormorants buzzing and squawking on a blue expanse camouflaged by grassy green and yellow islands. There’s also a constant patrol of safari jeeps and boats overloaded with tourists. It’s a far cry from how deserted it felt at Victoria Falls and Hwange. 

Birdlife on Lake Kariba.

Later, I strike up a conversation with Emile Muller, the South African managing director of development at Mantis Group, parent company of the Zambezi Queen. Muller works throughout the world, but southern Africa is his home, and he tells me about the tough times under Mugabe. Yet Muller says the trials have forged Zimbabwe. “It’s light years ahead of everywhere else in southern Africa. The hospitality … Och!” he exclaims. “Botswana, Namibia, these other countries, they haven’t had war and hard times. The Zim greet you and are kind to you. They’re truly glad you came.” His comments make me think of the listless Namibian customs officer.

However, Muller’s optimism evaporates when the conversation turns to Zimbabwe’s political future. “There’s a saying in Africa: ‘It’s my turn to eat,’ ” he says. In other words, many leaders here feel it’s their right to exploit their countries. “The politics, they will never change.”

The mood is sunnier back in Zimbabwe. After my Chobe excursion, I take a three-hour flight to Mana Pools National Park, on Zimbabwe’s northernmost stretch of the Zambezi. Hwange may be the country’s largest reserve, but Mana’s riverside setting makes spotting game here almost more reliable.

Kudu antelopes on the banks of the Zambezi River.

I’ve been on safari in a dozen countries across Africa, and the animal density here astounds me. On my first evening at Little Ruckomechi, a three-tent camp overlooking the river, it takes all of 10 minutes for a safari vehicle to get me so close to a family of elephants that we can hear them chewing on the grasses they rip from the bush. The next morning, we slip into canoes and paddle down the Zambezi, slaloming between rafts of hippos in the shallows and herds of elephants on land. Later the same day, we see two lion brothers lounging beneath an acacia tree, then, after dark, come across a leopard stalking a group of oblivious impala. “Even with everything that happened in Zimbabwe,” my guide, Engilbert Ndhlozu, tells me, “our anti-poaching efforts were not affected. We may not have a lot, but we still have our wildlife.”  

Linkwasha Camp safari guide Lovemore Nowakhe explaining the power of a hippo’s bite with a jawbone found on a walk in Hwange National Park.

From Mana, I fly an hour south to Bumi Hills, my final stop in Zimbabwe. The first person I meet is a pilot named Ross who flew his family to the resort from his home in Cape Town. Ross was scheduled to leave the day before I arrived, but an elephant smashed in his plane’s windscreen, rendering the aircraft inoperable. As I climb out of the Cessna that brings me in, he climbs aboard—it will be months before he can get a replacement window, so he’s booked commercial flights home. “Hell of a thing,” he mutters. “You never know what will happen in Africa.” 

Set on a rust-colored hummock above Lake Kariba, a dammed waterway on the Zambezi, Bumi Hills isn’t your typical safari camp. Having just reopened after a US$4 million renovation, the main lounge, dining decks, and stone-and-glass guest rooms are cantilevered off the hillside like diving boards. No matter where I go at the resort, I feel as if I’m hanging in the mopane tree canopy among vervet monkeys and looking down over elephants and hippos watering along the red mud fringe of the lake. Game drives here feel extraneous; the airy setting and infinity pool that bleeds into Lake Kariba are the point. 

The tented lounge at Little Ruckomechi Camp in Mana Pools National Park.

The worst of the Mugabe years were brutal for small destinations like Kariba. “Because of the crisis, so many lodges shut down,” says Jaison Kazembu, one of the managers at Bumi Hills. Jaison is from a village just an hour’s drive away, and he names resort after shuttered resort: Rhino Camp, Water Wilderness, Sinyati. “Other than a few houseboats from Kariba town, very few people have been using the park.” He’s referring to Matusadona, a compact national park crouching beneath a rib of high, barren peaks to the east, just across the mouth of the Ume River from Bumi Hills. The park has thriving stocks of elephant, impala, lion, and black rhino. And though Bumi once operated safaris there, as tourist traffic nosedived, the lodge was forced to withdraw because it couldn’t afford to maintain its operations. 

These days, the resort mostly takes guests to Starvation Island, a spit of public land to the north where bushbuck and impala rattle through the dry grasses as we fish for bream. After a morning of casting, I catch so many of the saucer-size fish that the net won’t hold anymore. With the national park a thin green line on the horizon, Starvation still feels a bit of an anticlimax. All is redeemed, though, when the chef at Bumi Hills turns my catch into a mean bream cocktail. 

A staffer at Bumi Hills.

I dine that night with a couple who have come up from Harare, the capital, for a little R&R. Angela, 36, was born and raised in Zimbabwe and attending university in England, where she met her husband Tom. She calls Mugabe’s reign “incomprehensibly devastating,” and vividly describes the food scarcity and petrol shortages of the mid-2000s. The couple is hopeful that the autocrat’s ouster augurs well for the country, but they are not blindly optimistic. “The opposition has won for years, but winning hasn’t meant ruling,” says Tom. Even if the ruling party holds power, though, Angela says they won’t leave. “This is a hopeful country,” she explains. “Zimbabweans have a saying, ‘We will make a plan.’ ” 

Preparing riverside sundowners in Mana Pools National Park.

A month after my visit, Zimbabwe will hold its elections and, despite all the hope and expectation I encounter while on the ground, it will not go to script. Emmerson Mnangagwa, the ruling-party candidate and Mugabe’s former vice president, will win the presidency by a narrow margin. Despite claims of voter fraud by the opposition and outside observers, the results will be upheld, leading to an uneasiness that the country still hasn’t broken free of its past. After initial protests and riots, however, a calm will prevail, with the new president making moves to unify the country by recognizing the opposition and normalizing relations with international allies. Even if it’s not the dramatic metamorphosis that many had hoped for, the change will still present a new way forward. It also leaves me slightly hopeful for the country and the continent. After all, you never know what will happen in Africa.

On a safari drive in Hwange National Park.

On my final evening at Bumi Hills, I take a boat ride across the water toward Matusadona. The surface glints like copper in the setting sun as we near the park, and a herd of elephants materializes from head-high grasses on the bank and descends into the lake to cool off and drink. With 1,400 square kilometers of mostly untapped game habitat, Matusadona’s immense potential mirrors that of Zimbabwe. We can’t enter the park right now, my guide, Max Siadembe, tells me. “But the resort has permits, and we will soon have guides and trucks and boats that will stay at Matusadona.” I assume that’s all dependent on funding and political stability and the resurgence of tourism. But, as Angela said, there are plans afoot.

Max cuts the engine, and we float 50 meters away from the elephants, their playful trumpeting reverberating in the steamy air. As the river catches the boat, we drift slowly out onto the Zambezi’s persistent eastward current. It’s impossible to know what more we might see as the river carries us along. But for now, we are moving forward. 

A ring-tailed mongoose.

 The Details 

Getting There

The gateway to southern Africa, Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport is served by daily flights from Singapore on Singapore Airlines and from Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific. From there, it’s an hour-and-40-minute flight to Victoria Falls, which also serves as a hub for safari-goers.

Where to Stay

Bumi Hills Safari Lodge

Lake Kariba; from US$495 per person per night sharing, all-inclusive.

Linkwasha 

Hwange National Park; from US$551 person per night sharing, all-inclusive.

Little Ruckomechi 

Mana Pools National Park; from US$1,080 per person per night sharing, all-inclusive.

Victoria Falls Hotel

Victoria Falls; doubles from US$401.

Zambezi Queen

Two-night cruises from US$1,140 per person per night sharing.

This article originally appeared in the December 2018/January 2019 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“A New Day for Zimbabwe?”).

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