A safe road trip through exciting Zimbabwe offers the best opportunity to discover this diverse African country.
A WARM WELCOME FROM ZIMBABWE
You probably know the clichés about certain countries or people. Some of them have a grain of truth in them; others are a bit of a joke. Take the cliché about Zimbabwe: the friendliest people in Africa. When arriving in Harare Airport, I can’t help but already believe the statement. Big smiles everywhere, a good vibe, and a genuine “Welcome to Zimbabwe, we’re happy to see you and have you here!”
BIG MONEY FOR GOOD CAUSES
It’s only a couple of hours’ drive to one of the most luxurious lodges in Zimbabwe. It offers the best proof that with big money, big things can be done. Many of these lodges promote animal conservation projects and support the local communities around them with a variety of programs. Take for example the rhinos living near our lodge. We see the white rhino baby on a late afternoon game drive, looking like a puppy. Its mother certainly doesn’t. In the wildlife reserve there are also plenty of elephants, lions, leopards, bouncy klipspringers, impalas, kudus, elands, waterbucks, and the unique wild dogs. Rhinos were reintroduced here a while ago, bought from South Africa with a heavy price tag. Now they are heavily guarded to protect them from poachers. One horn is worth around 350,000 US dollars. This is the case even though scientific research clearly shows that powdered horn has no medical effect.
THE SAVIOR OF ZIMBABWE
This is not Arizona, Utah nor Uluru/Ayers Rock in Australia. These are the red sandstone Chilojo Cliffs in Gonarezhou National Park, on the border with Mozambique. In the dry heat we survey a barren landscape in the “lowveld” part of this region. Along the sandy riverbed below, elephants are marching in a straight line to drink from the skinny river. We meet Clive Stockil, the owner of Chilo Gorge Lodge, well known as a visionary in Zimbabwe and beyond. In the 1980s he was one of the first people to take action to protect the endangered rhinos in Africa, and he was also heavily involved in development projects in the region. He doesn’t have much time as he is a very busy man. A few weeks ago Clive received the first Lifetime Achievement Award from the Tusk Trust Conservation out of 50 nominees from all African countries! Prince William, the royal patron of this charitable organization, presented him with the much sought-after prize together with 50,000 euro to further support Clive’s work in Africa. Wearing shorts, a straw hat, with a pair of SWAROVSKI OPTIK binoculars around his neck, and sporting a serious gray beard, he looks like a tough boy scout. His intense gaze is reflected in his very, very firm handshake. Clive Stockil is not a man for idle chitchat. He automatically accelerates into fifth gear when it comes to talking about environmental protection.
“This is the real wild. You almost never see another car, the animals are not used to seeing 4x4s, and so you have to make a real effort to find them.” Both in this park and the Savé Valley Conservancy, Clive is working hard to reintroduce rhinos, elephants, and wild dogs. Other national parks in Zimbabwe transport their rhinos to his private concession because here they have a stronger chance of survival. Clive explains how rhinos and elephants are hunted today: with high-tech apparatus, silenced weapons, helicopters, fast cars, and even poison. “Poison is injected by the poachers directly into fruit or poured into waterholes so that the animals die without much effort.” Clive calls it “a weapon of mass destruction” because not only do hundreds of elephants die in this way, but also vultures and other scavengers that come to feed off their carcasses.
This week Clive is flying back to England to give a speech at the famous National Geographic Society in London. Nevertheless, he remains modest. And despite his jampacked schedule, he still makes time at his lodge to take guests around the park and explain his projects. He is a knowledgeable bird expert and knows every nook and cranny of his vast park.
THE FLINTSTONE INN
Ever heard of zonkeys? These are zebras that get too cozy with donkeys.
They can be seen near Matobo National Park. Despite some very tame zebras that come to lounge and sunbathe near the swimming pool, animals are not the only reason for visiting this area. Our accommodation is nestled against impressive granite rocks and almost disappears into them. No room is the same. It all feels very Flintstones, with walls consisting of massive stones, a showerhead popping out of the rock and small windows that keep the heat out! This is a camp where we can relax and unwind after an exhausting day on safari. This entails enjoying good food, meditating for hours next to an open camp fire at night, and having stimulating discussions with other guests. Early in the morning our guide Paul Hubbard takes us for a drive to the wildlife park with two park rangers. It’s not long before we stop and get out of the 4x4.
With our highly skilled rangers, we venture through low grass, over sandy ground, and through bushes to reach them. A breathless silence reigns, and we need to avoid stepping on crackling, dry leaves. Our guides check the wind direction and watch how the animals behave. They make soothing whistling sounds to calm the animals and let them know we are there and that we are no threat. We stand and observe these impressive, almost extinct creatures. Thankfully, there are rangers committed to protecting them. Paul Hubbard is actually not only a great nature expert but also a guide offering private historical and cultural tours with a difference. He will take you to see amazing wall paintings in hidden caves, drawn by the ancestors of the San Bushmen. You will visit the grave of Cecil John Rhodes where you can enjoy a “world’s view” over the Matobo Park. You will visit communities, schools, and churches, and Paul will explain everything about the fence project around one side of the Matobo Park. It’s a huge project to keep the animals in and all the intruders on the other side. Paul is behind the fence project and can get really enthusiastic about a “piece of wire.” He hopes that the park will soon be fully fenced. A man with such great ambition and a healthy dose of idealism is much needed in this part of Africa.
FROM CITY TO BUSH
After several days in the wild, it’s time to return to civilization. In the old days, women were not allowed to enter the main entrance of our hotel in Bulawayo. But emancipation also changed colonial Africa and everywhere is now open to ladies. This small, friendly place is an excellent stopover between Matobo National Park and Hwange National Park. We are given room No. 1, offering access to the terrace on the top floor, which provides the best surroundings for relaxation in this completely renovated colonial hotel. We drive from here further up north to the famous Hwange National Park, a gigantic stretch of wilderness on the border with Botswana. One thing missing from our itinerary was a camp, which was why we were delighted to arrive at Davison’s Camp. Of course, we’re not talking here about roughing it in mini-tents. This camp is run by Wilderness Safaris, offering nine comfortable luxury tents where a palatial bed and a private bathroom with a shower await you. If you are lucky, you can hear animals roaming around the tents at night: elephants, buffalo, lions, and leopards.
One day we ask our guide Mike to take us to see cats... preferably a big, old, dignified lion. In fact, we almost beg him: “Bring us to the Lion King.” Early next morning, we head off, following the clearly visible footprints in the humid Hwange National Park earth. But our hopes are soon dashed, as the tracks head into dense bush. Gone with the wind! But Mike has promised us cats and we change course for one of his favorite areas close to our camp. He tells us: “This place has fresh water and lots of open space for hunting, which attracts the cats.” Within minutes, Mike shows us a huge cheetah at the water hole. Then the animal leisurely gets up and lies down in the shade of a huge tree. Mike confidently states: “He’s resting, digesting, but is still very alert for predators like lions and hyenas.” We stay a while watching and photographing the animal, and we witness him getting up and marking his territory, jumping onto a branch to check out the area. We didn’t get to see the Lion King but we did see a cheetah. Solid proof that Mike knows his cats!
VICTORIA FALLS SPLENDOR
There’s one thing Zimbabweans agree on: Victoria Falls should definitely be visited from their side and not from Zambia. We think the best views are from a helicopter, during an inexpensive, 15-minute scenic flight. Did you know the following facts? David Livingstone, the Africa explorer from Scotland, named the falls after Queen Victoria, and 500 million liters of water thunder down every minute. Enough facts and figures. You must simply visit this awesome wonder of nature. We end our trip at the Victoria Falls Hotel, imbued with colonial nostalgia, next to the falls. Even if you can’t afford a room and the superb breakfast offered here, visit the terrace with its stunning view over the Victoria Falls Bridge and the thundering spray from the falls. This is the ideal place to end our exciting adventure through Zimbabwe, which has a bright future ahead of it.