Certainly one thing that got us through the pandemic was our wonderful safari guests. Most of whom watched helplessly as their safaris, largely booked in 2019, disappeared down the 2020 disaster. With their understanding and the good will of our partners in the industry, these safaris finally came around again for the start of the 2021 season. And so it was that in June this year, myself and a rather extraordinary group of friends made it to Zimbabwe.
Gonarezhou National Park
Times were indeed strange. OR Tambo airport in Johannesburg, was really quiet. After being released from months of Covid restrictions the real human effects of the almost total shutdown of the tourist industry became immediately apparent, more on that here. Having lined up the PCR tests and filled out some new forms, off we went.
First stop Gonarezhou (points if you can pronounce it). This has long been on my list and makes a good first stop coming in from South Africa, sitting as it does in the far south east of the country bordering Mozambique. Walking out onto the deck at Chilo Gorge Safari Lodge is enough to wow even the most seasoned safari veterans, especially after 18 months of wall staring. We only got stuck once crossing the Save River in the mornings, which turned out great because we saw some wild dogs right after! You have to work for it in Gonarezhou, it’s vast, it’s wild and it’s beautiful. The elephants are not exactly friendly, only fair after years of civil war in Mozambique, where we also set foot, no forms this time! Legendary poachers, fascinating local history, the Chilojo Cliffs and more. We also had the fortune to meet Clive Stockil, co-founder of Chilo and award winning conservationist, to learn about the intriguing story behind the lodge itself and community conservation efforts in the area.
Mana Pools National Park
Flying along the Zambezi river into Mana Pools is pretty awesome. Wide river channels, forests, mountains, elephants and hippos everywhere you look. Even better when you’re picked up off the plane for a game drive to your exclusive tented camp right on the water. Straight out on the boats to enjoy that incredible river, cruising by pods of hippos, elephants on the bank, throw a line in and floating sundowners. Kayaking down the Zambezi? Another dream achieved. As our hosts cooked chicken three feet underground and we enjoyed the campfire and soothing tink of reed frogs, a bull elephant made himself welcome. You’d be surprised how quickly you can move a BBQ and ten guests up a riverbank! Everyone gorged on gourmet cuisine, ours cooked by in front of us in the middle of nowhere and served with nothing short of fine dining class. His served up belly deep in the river just on the edge of the lantern light.
Hwange National Park
Having arrived at a few safari camps, you can tell when a welcome is really genuine. Driving up to Somalisa Camp, we could hear the singing before we rounded the corner to see the entire camp staff dancing on the deck. Having been closed for extended periods and only seeing a trickle of guests for so long certainly added to the tangible joy and relief of seeing some actual guests. Only later did we learn from camp manager Ronald, who couldn’t help himself wobble his legs at almost any opportunity, that dancing was common here and guests were encouraged to join in, however embarrassing this might be. We also learnt pretty quickly that Hwange National Park has a lot of elephants, many of whom like to wonder in-between the rooms hoovering up acacia pods and drinking from the water hole, inches in front of the sun loungers. We became acquainted with the local twenty plus pride of lions, got up close and personal with an elephant on a bush walk and tried to learn the difference between female Roan and Sable antelopes.
Landing at an all be it empty Victoria Falls airport and driving through town is a bit of culture shock after being in the bush for a while. But Matetsi River Lodge is perfect tonic for that. When you come back from game drive to a hot bubble bath you know you’re in a different league. Not only that but at last we managed to catch the elusive tiger fish at the very last opportunity, too cold or not! Thanks to Covid we wondered along the Victoria Falls viewpoints, water thundering over just in front of us, with the whole place to ourselves. Going up in the chopper is pretty incredible but my favourite moment was our guide throwing a leafy branch over the edge, watching it disappear and then spin up high through spray and rainbow, riding a plume of air, displaced by the shear volume and force of the water coming down. Someone also thought it would be a good idea to throw oneself off a ledge into the Batoka Gorge and 70m of free fall. I must say it really was.
Thank you Zimbabwe. Thank you everyone who made it happen along the way. And thank you Texas.
Interested in a privately guided safari?
Images courtesy of our lovely guests.