Published by Irish Examiner.
If you want to get up close and personal with wildlife, it would be hard to find somewhere as uncrowded and unspoilt as Zimbabwe, writes Mike Milotte
African sunsets have a magic all of their own, but here in Hwange, Zimbabwe’s premier national park, the enchantment is matchless.
As the golden disk slips below the tree-line, we are left gazing dreamily at the silhouetted reflections of a handful of elephants lingering around the waterhole. Just moments earlier, a hundred or more tuskers, from big bulls to babies, were wallowing here, a stone’s throw from our vantage point. A truly awesome sight that, apart from our guide, we have entirely to ourselves.
As we sip wistfully at our sundowners a lion’s roar suddenly breaks the spell, signalling carnage nearby. The victim, our guide says, is a buffalo, its piteous bellows raging against the dying light. Our hearts are pounding, but the newly sombre mood quickly passes as the sky morphs into a glorious canopy of brilliantly sparkling stars. This is our first night here, and already our senses are tingling, and a cache of unforgettable memories is already stowed away.
With its soaring unemployment, desperate food shortages, occasional riots and state repression, Zimbabwe may not feature on many bucket lists of ‘must visit’ countries, but those who buck the trend are assured of an unfeigned welcome from a warmhearted if long-suffering people who view tourism as an act of solidarity.
And if you want to get up close and personal with the wildlife as well, it would be hard to find somewhere as uncrowded and unspoilt as this.
Our adventure actually begins at the country’s prime tourist attraction — the world’s biggest waterfall, Victoria Falls, with a sunset cruise on the mighty Zambezi where the cavorting hippos were outnumbered only by the free-flowing G&Ts.
The effort of getting up at 5am next morning to watch the sunrise over the falls is well rewarded: at that hour we have the pathways and outlooks virtually to ourselves. An hour later and we’d have been battling for a view.
From Vic Falls, most visitors in search of the ‘wildlife experience’ seem to head west on day trips into Botswana’s Chobe national park, but by travelling the 180km southeast to Hwange (on a good tar road), we leave the crowds behind. And from the entrance at ‘Main Camp’ we still have another 80km to travel on dirt roads to our destination — the remote Little Makalolo camp in the Linkwasha Concession, a vast area renowned for its mammal and bird sightings.
This drive, with a guide who has come to meet us, lasts six hours because we stop frequently to watch the abundant wildlife from our open 4×4 viewing vehicle. Animals we have seen elsewhere in ones and twos — elephants, buffalo and wildebeest — appear here in their hundreds with scores of warthogs, zebra, giraffes and baboons in their wake. Then, as dusk approaches, our first hyena slinks past.
There’s no doubt that elephants dominate the scene here — around 50,000 of them in an area no bigger than Connaught — but with over 100 other mammal species, we are never short of variety. Over five days, in addition to those already named, we encounter three separate prides of lions, some guarding fresh kill; several cheetahs on the prowl; jackals — side-striped and black-backed, and antelope of every kind — majestic sable and roan, imposing kudu and waterbuck, elusive steenbok, elegant duiker, and herds of jittery impala.
As a very special bonus we chance on eight wild dogs out hunting: Hwange is home to 200 of this rare and endangered species — – now officially renamed painted dog and soon to change again to painted wolf.
But it isn’t just mammals. We spot an impressive 98 species of birds — almost a quarter of all those recorded here — including six varieties of eagles, five of hornbills and three of vultures, as well as marabou and saddle-billed storks, grey-crested cranes, kori bustards and secretary birds galore. And those are just the ‘big’ ones.
The secret to seeing so much is simple: an expert guide, and Zimbabwean guides, with their intensive training, are reckoned the best in the world. Leo, our guide at Linkwasha, didn’t just track, spot and identify the birds and wildlife; his knowledge of animal habits, habitats and hierarchies, and the intricate interdependencies between all of them, is exhaustive, and shared with exuberance.
We spend as much as nine hours a day with Leo — six in the morning and three more in the late afternoon — traversing sandy tracks in our 4×4 through ancient teak forest and over open pans, the landscape — and with it the flora and fauna — ever changing. Returning to camp is always tinged with a little regret that another day is drawing to a close, even though Little Makalolo represents glamping with no holds barred. Our sumptuous open lounge, free bar, and plunge pool all overlook an astonishingly lively waterhole.
In the evenings after dinner we chat with camp staff and guides around an open teak-wood fire where the topic, inevitably, comes back to the elephants: are there too many in Hwange? Are they making life unsustainable for other herbivores by destroying so much vegetation? Should culling, which was halted in 1986, be reintroduced? No-one here is advocating it, but the contentious c-word has crept back into serious discourse.
We hear, too, how corruption in high places aids poaching, how bribery allows regulated hunting limits to be exceeded with impunity, and how large numbers of baby elephants are being taken from their mothers for sale by the government to Chinese zoos. The excuse: Zimbabwe owes China more money than it could ever repay.
We could talk all night, but with a 5.30am wake-up call, bed beckons. Leo, with a rifle he calls his ‘walking-stick’, delivers us safely to our capacious tent. In the night we are woken by a whooping hyena, the moon casting its grotesque shadow on the wall, and although we never sense real danger, we have a bedside siren just in case.
After our deep immersion in Linkasha’s wonderful wilderness, we move on to a different experience in Khulu bush camp, set on another concession, this one just outside Hwange’s (unfenced) boundary.
Our plush camp sits on a rise overlooking an enormous waterhole where the herds of drinking animals are bigger than ever, and as there are no barriers of any kind between us and them, only our elevated deck keeps us out of their path. From here we watch a dazzling array of birds, including the stunning green wood hoopoe who is as interested in us as we are in him. Each day 100 or more elephants wallow in the waterhole and when they finish, all that’s left is mud. That’s when the clean water of Khulu’s 7,000 litre pool attracts the tuskers. During our stay, they emptied it twice, and if you happen to be cooling in the pool when they arrive, the advice is to slowly and silently ease yourself out. Then grab your camera. Sadly all good things have to end, and tearing ourselves away from this intoxicating spree is hard and painful. But even as we make our final dirt-track drive back to the tar road, we are brought to a standstill as a great herd of buffalo stampede across our path, enfolding our last views of Hwange in a spectral veil of red dust.
How could we not come back?