Lions of Zimbabwe

Travelling with Atelier Africa Safaris, Travel Story.

Zimbabwe, comeback.

Zimbabwe is back on the African safari scene. After very difficult years under
controversial President Robert Mugabe, the country is now back on the map, fully supported by
foreign investors who are building new lodges. A pearl reveals itself.

Call me Zim

“Finally, we were really worried!” The friendly boy in moss-green uniform including militarily polished leather boots, raises the eyebrows with an air of ‘relief’ and immediately calls the lodge. “I got them”, we hear him fiddling. A little later, seated in the back seat of a Land Cruiser SUV, we get to hear the story. African bureaucracy (read: why make things simple if you can make it complicated with heaps of documents) ensured that nobody knew with which flight we would arrive. So they were at the ready with every arrival today. Only at the fifth arrival of the day, did they receive a response to the nameplate. But hey, we are in Africa, where time is not expensive and nobody really cares, let alone get angry. “Ha mi amukela” – “welcome” in the Shangaan dialect – the crew shouts when we enter the non-walled Mpala Jena camp.

This new address of the boutique chain Great Plains Conservation has only four XL tents, all overlooking the mighty Zambezi River. And even though they are literally tents, this is anything but a campsite. Because with wooden Moroccan and Indian doors incorporated into the canvas and a private swimming pool in front of the door, this super-luxury chain is putting itself at the top of what Zimbabwe has to offer today in terms of unique safari accommodation. The hostess Dasnee serves a late lunch with roasted chicken fillet, vegetable pie and cheese. This includes, of course, a fine glass of white wine, chenin blanc from the Cape. “Ranger Charlton will soon take you on a game drive,” she says, while we learn that the entire lodge runs on solar energy stored in Tesla batteries. “A first for Zimbabwe,” explains Dasnee. “Due to political unrest, investments were not made here for years.”

Now that new and especially promising times are coming, this chain has decided to invest here in the Zambezi national park. And of course you do that with the latest technologies, such as solar energy and water recovery.” In the evening we decide to leave the ventilation holes of the canvas wide open so as not to miss the sunrise. And so we are able to listen to the roaring hippos.

Waterfall sunset

Zimbabwe is looking for new tourist opening

“It can go in any direction, and the failed introduction of an own currency in 2018 was certainly no boost, let alone something to be proud of. But we all hope from the bottom of our heart that Zimbabwe climbs out of the valley and slowly sets itself on the tourism world map. Again, because Zimbabwe was attractive for tourists, and even exclusive, before the Mugabe era. ”The speaker is Belgian Timo De Nijs, managing director of the small-scale à la carte tour operator Atelier Africa, who comes to take a look at how the country is developing and especially what the new lodges and safari camps have to offer. We sit on the terrace of the glorious Victoria Falls Hotel, Zimbabwe’s most chic and oldest classic luxury hotel, built in 1904 by the British and one of The Leading Hotels of the World. It overlooks the Victoria Falls, the widest waterfalls in Africa. The decor is idyllic. For us, a water curtain of 1708 meters wide and 100 meters high with a maximum fall height of 128 meters forms a wall of natural disasters. 500 million liters of water pour down the rock wall every minute. This waterline forms part of the natural border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. Two waiters in uniform are moving behind us. They serve coffee in porcelain cups. The staff seems to have come straight from the British TV series Upstairs, Downstairs.

“In recent years, many tour operators and investors have considered throwing in the towel,” says Timo. “But the elections came just in time: thanks to the new government and the Mugabe exit, they decided to give it another try. And yes, the tide turned immediately.” We chat and enjoy the moment. It feels as if David Livingstone – the Scottish missionary and one of the most famous explorers of southern Africa, who discovered the falls in 1855 – is looking over our shoulders. “No other view in England can surpass the beauty of this” and “such lovely images must have been watched by the angels with admiration during their flights,” he wrote later. “Zimbabwe has never been as interesting in the last 25 years as it is now,” says Timo. “The country is being rediscovered with great speed. And not just Victoria Falls, a kind of island in Zimbabwe. That has always continued to do well, of course thanks to the falls. But there is renewed interest from real travelers to go deeper into the country, to Hwange National Park, to the Lake Kariba region, to Mana Polish National Park and to Matobo.

Previously it was a limited market, to which almost exclusively British people traveled. Certainly not Americans, who watched the falls and flew back. But now we regularly receive requests for the rest of Zimbabwe. As a safari island it is less known, but because it is less touristic, it houses incredible pearls… And lots of animals. Supported by large chains such as Great Plains Conservation, Wilderness Safaris, African Bush Camps and ‘uncrowned king’ Singita, Zimbabwe works its way back into the offers and brochures. What Namibia realised about ten years ago (read: from barely anything to being sold out a year in advance) is now also happening here. Cautious, but very promising.”

The Rise of a giant

After the obligatory visit to the hiking terraces in front of and next to the falls, we get comfy into the back seat of the Toyota. Claude is our driver and he estimates the ride to Hwange national park to take two hours. “That is where the lodge takes over from me,” he explains. So there was enough time to take a closer look at the current challenges of Zimbabwe. “In the fall of 2018, things were difficult,” Timo explains. “The introduction of the Zimbabwean union, linked to the US dollar, had failed, so that the US dollar was taken back in half panic. The immediate result: empty supermarkets due to hoarding and an acute shortage of gasoline with hours of queues at the pump as a result. This in turn fed a black market activity. This situation makes Zimbabwe a more expensive destination, mainly because of its relationship with the dollar.

Many neighbouring countries are related to the rand, the South African currency. And because it has been cheap for years, those countries are also doing well in terms of tourism.” However, Timo believes that Zimbabwe (invariably abbreviated to ‘Zim’ by locals) will get back on its feet in the short to medium term and will take a definitive place in the tourist landscape. “Many travelers who have seen Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa and Botswana are looking for new countries. Zambia is one of them, just like Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Rwanda. All destinations on the eve of a relaunch.” Or as he summarises it so beautifully: “We are now watching how a heavyweight steps back into the ring after a break.”

Singita Pamushana Lodge drive

Not looking at ten elephants

Somalisa Acacia Camp – operated by the small-scale African Bush Camps chain – is such an address that even the most spoiled traveler should take a moment to swallow. The location, the structure and decoration of the tents, everything is so right. Completely overwhelming! When driver Clement took over from Claude, and we changed from a closed off-road vehicle to an open safari vehicle, we were warned: the ride will take three hours, but it is worth the trip, even though you will be regularly shaken because the roads are rural. But Clement is also joking about that. “This is your free bush massage…” Somalisa is known for its elephants. That has everything to do with the immense drinking troughs that were built in front of the lodge. The animals know this and descend several times a day for a fresh drink. In the evening we enjoy the barbecue in the boma (a kraal: a walled place where people eat) and we get up early. Because tomorrow coffee will be served at five o’clock: not to be missed, because the sunrise is the busiest moment of the day to watch the crowds of drinking elephants.

There they are. More than thirty. They come to drink at our feet, undisturbed, their matte black skin lighting in the first sunlight of the day. The scene becomes less idyllic in the late afternoon. At the edge of a natural pool lies the carcass of an elephant. “A natural death, age”, guide Clement suspects. Lions indulge in the feast while the first vultures have landed and await their turn. Eating in the jungle follows a pecking order, that much is clear. The bloody scene perfectly illustrates that safaris can be both enchantingly beautiful and ruthlessly hard. After two days of fantastic game drives and enjoying the atypical lodge, we fly on.

Next stop is Bumi Hills, a completely different experience, we notice, as soon as the Cessna Grand Caravan starts landing next to Lake Kariba. Lake Kariba, in the north of Zimbabwe, is one of the largest man-made lakes in the world, an artificial reservoir about 385 kilometers downstream of the Victoria Falls. It has a length of 290 kilometers and extends to 32 kilometers. The total surface area is six thousand square kilometers. From the higher elevated Bumi Hills Lodge, built from steel containers that were covered with canvas, we overlook the water and the numerous small islands. In the late afternoon, ranger Maxwell takes us on a cruise. “Once, Lake Kariba, a project from the fifties, was the St. Tropez of Zimbabwe,” he explains. “All you could see were luxury motorboats on Lake Kariba.

But the political situation changed everything, tourism disappeared. Now it’s more like crocodiles and hippos. Nowhere else in the world do as many crocodiles live as in Lake Kariba. There is a crocodile in the reservoir for every meter of the coastline.” The beautiful bays and numerous dead trees that protrude from the water form a unique backdrop, especially when the sun starts to turn red and Maxwell makes the gin tonics. In the evening we try to divide the little time we have optimally. First swim in the panoramic pool, then enjoy dinner on the terrace with front view of the lake. Because tomorrow we will fly on again. At seven o’clock sharp in the morning we fly to Mana Polish National Park.

Drinking elephant

Africa at its purest

We land on Manga Mana West airstrip in a setting that is not in the least reminiscent of where we left an hour ago. “One of the arguments for going on a tour in Zimbabwe,” says Timo as he unloads the kit bag from the propeller plane. “This country is so diverse, the vegetation changes so much, that you feel you’re in a different African country every day.” Ruckomechi Camp belongs to the South African group of Wilderness Safaris. Hostess Joan welcomes us with green iced tea and chilled towels to get the dust off our face. After all, a strong wind has covered the park in a sandstorm. After breakfast, we are assigned to guide Edelbert and track finder Lucky (what’s in a name…), the duo that will assist us in all game drives and boat trips in the next 48 hours. Mana Pools, in the far north of Zimbabwe, is part of the lower stream of the Zambezi River and also forms part of the natural border with Zambia. After every rainy season, the floodplain changes to large lakes. When they slowly dry up and become smaller, the park attracts many large animals, including elephants, buffalo, leopards and cheetahs in search of water.

This makes it one of the best places in Africa to view large game. The word “mana” means “four” in the Shona language. This refers to the four large permanent lakes in this part of the Zambezi. In 1984, Mana Pools, along with the Sapi and Chewore safari areas, was included in Unesco’s World Heritage List. The camp therefore explicitly works with the river. In the morning we go on a game drive by off-road vehicle (the Kalahari Ferrari, they say here), and in the afternoon by canoe or pontoon boat. “There are few places in Africa where you can experience such maritime safaris,” Timo notes. “Only the Okavango Delta in Botswana offers a similar atmosphere.”

“There are few places in Africa where you can experience such maritime safaris.”

On land, on water and in the asphalt pits

Harare Airport welcomes us as if a nuclear war has just begun: no soul to be found. This morning we flew from Ruckomechi Camp by turbo plane to the capital where we now, under the guidance of the pilot, walk to the exit. We’ve rarely seen an airport of a capital city that is so deserted. For the desk clerk of the car rental company it must be a big day: a customer! Travelers who rent a car in Harare, let alone Europeans, are unique. He takes all the time for the enormous administration work and personally guides us to the parking. “Sorry for the dust,” says the man with the tie. “It was washed this morning, but the wind is carrying a lot of sand.” We take a seat in an eclectic blue Japanese SUV and drive across wide avenues with little traffic to Armadale Lodge, a gem of a guesthouse from 1904 in a suburb of the city. It has been in the hands of the same family for three generations. In the evening chef Michael cooks us an excellent piece of chicken with coconut and we make open up a bottle of South African pinotage. For dessert some wise advice: leave early, just before dawn.

Harare is busy, later in the day it will take you two hours to get out of the city. And there we are the next morning, ready for 480 kilometres of African inland. Our little Japanese sloshes through the outskirts of Harare. We soon learn that at this hour red traffic lights are considered purely indicative, half of the minibuses (which operate here as privatised public transport) ignore them anyway. We drive straight through Harare and are confronted with the real black Africa. That means litter, wells like craters in the road surface, pedestrians who take the road as a footpath and a mass of people who are begging for a lift. That Africa fascinates many travelers and gets under their skin is obvious.

But of course nothing is perfect all of the time. The continent also has its shadow sides, its poverty and decline. Downtown Harare is such a place, we conclude. We are therefore not unhappy that an hour later we are rolling through vast green hills away from chaos. A toll booth suddenly appears. “Two dollars”, the man says, the receipt already in hand. It seems like our ticket to peace, a babbling road through the countryside of Zimbabwe, where cows run free and children still play football in the street. Villages are still villages here, houses are huts, shops a corrugated iron loft brightened up by billboards of the world’s most drunk soft drinks.

An unexpected roadblock makes the eyebrows frown. In Africa, anything could happen. Soldiers and police are too happy to organise such roadblocks. Especially since the intentions are not always clear, we are not fans. ‘Police checkpoint’ is written on a large rusted board next to an empty oil barrel. The officer on duty is dressed in an old raincoat that is two sizes too large and has an oversized old military cap on his head. Fortunately, we cannot see any weapons. “How were things on the road”, he asks cryptically. And apparently we have to take that literally.

Of course, he had long seen that we are foreigners in a rental car, so he also knows that the vehicle papers are in order. Only a friendly chat remains. So he wants to know, among other things, whether there aren’t too many pits in the asphalt. When he asks us from which country we come, a smile appears on his weathered face. “Football… Eden Hazard… Fantastic… He is magic,” he suddenly calls out. As a farewell, he also has a message for us: “Make a lot of publicity for Zimbabwe, Sir. We can use every tourist! Have a nice day,” he says as he slaps gently on our roof with one hand, the signal that we can leave. We continue, smiling. “If we had asked for a selfie, he certainly would have agreed,” says Timo. We might not ever know.


Good, better, Singita

Just after noon we do exactly what the program prescribes for us: register at the gate of the Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve, park our car next to the staff blocks and wait for the Singita SUV to pick us up. That’s Alex, a pur sang adventurer who found love and work here after half a world trip. His open Land Rover seems to come from the showroom, but then again, this is Singita, perhaps the best safari chain in the world. “Welcome to Noah’s Ark,” he welcomes us, while we set course to the lodge: “This is one of Africa’s best kept secrets.” Malilangwe in southeastern Zimbabwe is a private park of 40,000 hectares that is run by the foundation of a wealthy American.

To generate a fixed source of income, he allowed the superlative Singita chain to build a lodge. Only their customers have the right to visit this concession. “This policy means that two percent of the total world population of the black rhino lives here,” Alex says. “Just like masses of giraffes, zebras, antelopes, buffalos, lions, hyenas and leopards.” And with that we also discover the biggest problem of the more than 500 square kilometer park: poaching. “We employ 20 rangers who patrol 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Alex explains. “But our greatest asset is the close cooperation with the locals. Involving them in the park, explaining how much natural wealth we have here, is crucial. No gun or helicopter can compete with that.”

“Typisch Singita worden we meteen van onze sokken geblazen.”

The Singita Pamushana Lodge is built on top of a rock. The level is out of category. This is for those who have already seen everything, or for whom only the best is good enough. Barely six suites (say villas) and one large mansion together form this bush hotel. As is customary for Singita, we are immediately blown away when assigned to our suite; it not only comes with a private swimming pool, but also with a large outdoor shower and sun terrace, all with 100 percent privacy. “Only the animals can see you,” says hostess Helene. “But they are not very interested in that.” Hiya amkhela: Welcome! Together with a regular butler, we are also assigned a waiter who, it is said, will serve us every meal at a different location. That same evening, the first location appears to be next to the pool, but candles, perfectly cooled award-winning chenin blanc from the Heaven & Earth valley in Hermanus and plates of marinated salmon and beef fillet that are too good to eat.

Place of miracels

Singita literally means ‘place of miracles’, we discover at half past five in the morning, when the guests slowly stroll into the outpost coffee bar for the first cappuccino of the day. Here rangers, trackers and guests gather for cake and coffee before leaving for a trip. And as befits a Singita address, everything is served of the highest quality. Half an hour later, warm water jug in the back and blanket on our legs, we set course. In the afternoon we have lunch in the shelter of the central salon, after a refreshing dip in our private swimming pool, we climb back into the SUV. It is already dark when we notice that Alex is not looking for the regular route back to the lodge, but is dropping us on unknown ground: a gigantic tree lighted with a hundred oil lamps under which dinner is served. Yes, the entire kitchen team has been working outdoors, including cool boxes with our favorite wine. Saying goodbye the next morning is difficult for us…Because who doesn’t want to stay here for a week?

Tatenda and famba zvakanaka: Thank you and goodbye! But duty calls. Next stop: Great Zimbabwe, UNESCO World Heritage and perhaps THE formal landmark of the country. For this, we cruise the southern A9. That sounds like a highway, but in reality it is a glorified field road, although it’s asphalted, it’s also richly supplied with stray cattle and children, huge wells – and toll booths. Actually, that’s an expensive word for two ladies under an umbrella working for a telecom operator who block the road with a large branch and ask you for two dollars. But the receipt confirms that it is official.

We reach the Great Zimbabwe national monument one hour before closing time. Looking at the parking, we are the only visitors. Why? Nobody? These ruins, according to legend once the capital of the Queen of Sheba, are otherwise a unique settlement from the eleventh century. Once upon a time, this city of 800 hectares and 18,000 inhabitants was the most important settlement of Banthan civilization. Already in 1986, UNESCO classified this trade centre as a World Heritage Site. In a nearby lodge we embrace the local simple but welcoming reception and oversized rooms. We decide to leave early tomorrow morning for the last stop of the trip: Matobo National Park.

giant tree with lights

Never say hotel to this house

Matobo national park covers 44,500 hectares and was established in 1953. In 2003 it was placed on the list of Unesco’s Cultural World Heritage. It is an ‘Intensive Protection Zone’, where a large population of white and black rhinos is successfully bred. It is also where the grave of Cecil John Rhodes (founder of the British colony of Rhodesia, ed.) is located. He is buried on the summit of Malindidzimu or “the hill of benevolent spirits.” He referred to this hill because you have a ‘view of the world’ from there. Matobo National Park is located in the beautiful Matobo Hills that are formed by a range of domes, towers and balancing rock formations carved after millions of years of erosion and weathering from a solid granite plateau.

The Monument Valley of Africa. Matobo therefore means ‘bald heads’ and the area has great spiritual and cultural significance for the local population. One more reason for the owner of African Bush Camps to build his summer house here – once intended as a private place to relax with the family – and recently opened to travelers. The building is called Khayelitshe, and that means ‘rural house where the family lives together’. It is just outside the national park and we feel exactly what that stands for when, after a search of more than an hour – we drove three times past the gate before realising that we had to be here – we were welcomed by the two hostesses. Not only is the recuperation architecture exceptionally different, the wow effect also reinforces the implantation in the midst of large granite boulders that appear to be strewn like salt grains. When we enter the house, we are struck by an eclectic design of African colours and materials. This is really different.

We are assigned a spacious room under the roof – literally under the corrugated sheets, with an ‘Out of Africa’ bathtub for the canopy bed and a panoramic terrace with sun beds you never want to leave. Yes guys, it’s not going to get any better. In the meantime, they are cooking for us downstairs and we are kindly asked to choose a bottle of wine in the cellar. Before sunset we accompany ranger Mickey for a mountain bike ride, when we return the campfire is lit and the table is set. “Whenever”, the girls say. “Maybe you first want to freshen up? Your bath is ready.” While sitting around the fire with a final glass of wine in the evening, we discuss the trip. “Zim lives in hope and you can feel it,” Timo summarises. “They are reawakening, they do everything they can to redeem part of the safari world again.” In the evening we notice a small photo frame with a glorious quote from David Livingstone next to the stairs. It states: “God, send me anywhere, only go with me.” Every traveler is very welcome in Zim. Even without God.

African Bush Camp