It's time wildlife lovers returned to Zimbabwe

Our entry point to Zimbabwe was at one of the wonders of the world, a sight that turned even David Livingstone into a rubber-necker: Victoria Falls. Half of our queue at the new international airport was made up of young people with backpacks and baseball caps. The other half were late middle-aged like us, in sensible taupe hats. Guess who had studied the “before you go to Africa” tips in their safari guidebooks?

We were billeted for a night downstream at the Gorges Lodge (several stone houses set in a tropical garden on the edge of a ravine above the mighty Zambezi). This was instantly Africa. An Africa of thorn and dust and thatched dwellings. To the north west we could see a distant mist: the Falls – otherwise known as “the smoke that thunders”.

Matt, our guide to this phenomenon, was born in Bulawayo in south-west Zimbabwe and had come here to work. He had seen the tourist trade dwindle to an all-time low in 2007. “No one came at all,” he told us. For 20 years a visit to Zimbabwe had involved little more than venturing across the spectacular bridge from Zambia for a day.

No longer. A country in transition is once again pulling in visitors. We joined squads of cowled parties in black ponchos tramping off to visit all 17 of the recommended viewing points and then bussed south towards Hwange. At the country station of Dete we boarded “The Elephant Express”: an open-sided tram powered by SUV car engines and steered by two properly self-important ex-engineers from the Zimbabwe railways. It was noisy and the ride was bumpy, but the only danger, we were solemnly told, was from wild animals. We signed away our rights to complain about animal bites or predation and set off in a state of excitement at the prospect of either. Wildlife at last.

And I was the very last person to spot the giraffe. We were three minutes down the line. Everybody aboard was hollering. They’d taken photos. Some were already back to their books.

“It’s there – to the left of the tree!”

“Where?”

There were 20,000 trees. I finally spotted it, further away than expected, and yet larger too. Giraffes, our commonest sighting, were the most preposterous of all encounters in the bush. Improbably tall and fragile, doe-eyed, gentle and angular. What are they doing in the wilderness at all?

And so it began. It’s not only that the park reflects a vanished world where great beasts roam, it is also that we visitors discover a former, instinctive, stone-age self. We started to scan every teak tree, we stared into every glade of Acacia. We became hunters. Not hunters like that loathsome dentist who killed one of the lions with his silly bow and arrow (Cecil roamed the very forest that we were crossing) but certainly keen-eyed trackers, anxious to be the first to spot a big animal.

Predictably, I identified predatory intent in several logs and a termite hill within minutes.

We had the Sikumbi Forest Reserve to one side and the National Park to the other. Everybody kept a look out: “There! warthogs!” They were running off, tails aloft. “Look! Wildebeest!” and suddenly there was a sable, a massive horned black antelope; dignified and lordly, staring across at us from the undergrowth. Within days we would become rather more discriminatory (“It’s just more wildebeest”) but for now, all creatures great and small were worthy of a shout out.

All this and we hadn’t reached Bomani Lodge yet, where we were settling for four days. We got there in darkness. It sat under a cascade of stars. A fire of colossal branches was burning close by the central meeting hall. We were serenaded by the racket of massed frogs. It had rained unexpectedly. The wet season was over. But the frogs were still celebrating.

It was also cold. They had warned us it would be chilly at the beginning of winter (mid-May) and, of all prior instructions, this is actually the one to pay attention to. It was hurrying-to-the-groovy-outside-shower cold. Two-shirts-the-big-fleece-and-the-jacket cold. You will suddenly realise that your tent, with luxurious dining room, vestibule and panoramic bay-windows that face out over the grassy semi-arid plane, dotted with acacia and roamed by that lonely lovesick gnu, is in fact made of material not much thicker than a T-shirt, and that those ingenious windows are not windows at all but gauze screens. I know this may sound crazy, but we should have packed some ski stuff.

The routine was pretty simple. We got up around 5.30am. We were in an outlying tent. Somebody had to be sent to pick us up in a jeep because we were in the middle of the reserve. The elephants apparently don’t care about people; they will come tramping through the glamping, willy-nilly. As one of the guides told us, “Lion deaths are rare, but I have lost count of the friends gone to elephants.”

After boiled eggs, good coffee and pancakes, and feeling “brisk”, we mounted our jeep, wrapped ourselves in blankets, and, swerving past fresh elephant dung and baboon troops, wrestled with the childish urge to be the first to spot something significant.

We stopped frequently. The lions had recently left clear paw prints in yesterday’s jeep tracks. The violet dawn, however, brought little more than pigeons and finches.

Mr Sibbs, our guide, was on the radio for this quasi-military operation. The VHF crackled. Other voices intoned above the squeaking of our springs. And suddenly, there, in the open, was a lone hippo, lumbering along, gnawing grass, and heading for a swim in the waterhole. A fabulous confrontation, and it was still absurdly early.

Mr Sibbs was off. His descriptions of animal behaviour were a triumph of inventive, extended, comic metaphor – the solitary excluded grumpy buffalo, the elephant night-parties, the lapwing anti-predator distractions – each engagingly brought to life. He was superbly informed, whether standing by hippo poo and demonstrating how they use their stubby tails to distribute it high and wide, or talking up the wildebeest social scene. I wondered why TV Africa has to be presented to us by elderly gentlemen, or babes in shorts. Give me the guttural vowels of Zimbabwean English that make the word “Porka You Pine” into a linguistic delight. “He’s not on our payroll,” Sibbs would aver as a targeted animal headed off behind a thicket, refusing to meet us.

I was learning that the animal kingdom is largely one of perfectly observed, quiet and slow but steady ritual, not hurried drama. This was the most important lesson of the entire trip. Life in this African heartland, this throwback world, this unnaturally preserved natural place, is one of silent conformity. It was near-miraculous that we were allowed to be invisible, simply by sitting in a motor-vehicle – granted an unnatural vantage point from our mobile opera box, and, then, from an even more contrived viewpoint, when Mr Sibbs skirted around a wood, parked up and hustled us into a shipping container buried in the ground, as the same elephants suddenly picked up speed and raced to the waterhole.

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