If you read all the bad press about Zimbabwe and believed it, you'd never ever go there for a holiday. It's really unfair, as when you get there you are reminded of what a wonderful place this still is, and how incredibly friendly Zimbabweans are, in spite of a very tough couple of decades. People in Zim are still smiling! And that - combined with the wildlife - make it one of my favourite safari destinations.
With my group of 8 intrepid travellers from Germany/Netherlands, Singapore, India and Queensland, we set out on a journey that would gobsmack even the most hardened safari-goer. While ivory trade was being debated in nearby South Africa that same week at the CITES meeting, we were blissfully off-the-air with no internet connectivity at all in the remote safari camps in Zimbabwe's national parks.
It's hard to believe that poaching is a problem when you see so many elephants at Mana Pools and Hwange National Parks. At Ruckomechi Camp, the elephants walk right through camp, literally stepping on the wooden deck of the outdoor dining area, brushing against the canvas of your tent as you take a shower, so close you could touch them just outside the gauze of your luxury abode. In the dry season, they come to camp for the Ana tree pods that fall from the Ana trees sheltering Ruckomechi Camp, and it's not unusual for herds with babies to feed on pods dropped on the deck of your tent in broad daylight. It's really something else! At Hwange, the herds all come in for an afternoon sundowner around 4pm, and there are hundreds of them at the waterholes, creating a brilliant opportunity to just sit and relax and observe the behaviours of the herds while enjoying a sundowner of your own.
According to the recent Great Elephant Census, Mana Pools' population is declining and Hwange's elephant population is stable (see my last blog on this). Actually, with over 80,000 elephants, Zimbabwe now has the second largest elephant population in Africa after Botswana, with its 130,000. While at Hwange we did find a baby elephant that had recently died, apparently of natural causes according to our guides.
Hwange NP isn't without its controversies, as this is where the baby elephants were taken for export to Chinese and other zoos, something I strongly opposed. It's also where hundreds of elephants were killed by cyanide poisoning of salt licks in the park in the last few years. When we were there however, there were no signs of either activity and we were pleased to see many baby elephants in the herds. There is a major problem with snaring in Zimbabwean parks, as our friends at the Painted Dog Conservation Project told us, and it was great to hear about what's going on behind the scenes from them as part of our journey. African wild dogs are still critically endangered, and it's great to see strong action being taken by groups like this to ensure the remaining dogs build up their population.
I love going back to Zim. It's the friendliness of the people that I love the most, their capacity to keep smiling in spite of the tough times. Zim allegedly has 90% unemployment and the economy is still in pretty terrible shape (though better since the Zim dollar was replaced with the US dollar in 2008), with little prospect of a political solution any time soon. But the people still smile, wave and shake your hand, welcoming visitors with open arms.
Tourist dollars go a long way here and when you're there you really feel like an ethical safari is truly giving back. We visited the local Ngamo School, just outside Hwange National Park, which is supported by Wilderness Safaris through Children in The Wilderness and several other tourist operators from Hwange. If you get the chance to do a cultural experience while on safari it's really worth it. This was a highlight for many of my group and the broad smiles of the kids brought a different perspective to all of us.
But for me it was all about the elephants, who were a constant presence everywhere we went in the national parks. Of course, the big herds of impalas at Mana Pools were fantastic to see (hundreds in a herd!), as were the lions on a buffalo kill there, the leopard and civets we were very fortunate to see at night up close. At Hwange, we were very fortunate to see a cheetah on our first day, and the birds of prey and displaying kory bustards, crowned cranes and secretary birds were a sight to behold. I'll let the photos do the talking... Scroll down for more great memories of Zimbabwe, and when you're thinking of a safari, don't rule this amazing country. The foreign currency that comes in through tourism really makes a difference by keeping local people employed which ensures the wildlife has a chance in areas that would otherwise be taken over for other land uses.
Vera enjoys a sighting of waterbuck at a waterhole while having a cup of tea mid-morning at Mana Pools
Ruckomechi Camp is literally like living with a herd of elephants. The herds walk right through camp, enjoying the feast of Ana tree pods in the dry season.
Walking with a qualified walking guide is one of the great experiences you can do at Mana Pools. There's nothing like the feeling of being so much closer to nature when you're on foot. And of course it's a great way to learn about the tracks, trees and the little critters (of and of course, my favourite, the dung!).
A not so common sighting of a cheetah at Hwange National Park - very special!
The gang! Enjoying sundowners on the Zambezi at Mana Pools after a canoe ride among the hippos at sunset.
Sunset on the Zambezi River at Pioneer Camp, where we stayed at Victoria Falls (out of the tourist area). This was a brilliant location right in the middle of Zambezi National Park and totally private.
A magnificent male kudu at Mana Pools NP.
Roopa has a chat with our walking guide at Ruckomechi. Days were hot in September - mid 30s and higher in the Zambezi Valley.
Flying impalas! I never tire of watching impalas and at Mana Pools the herds are enormous, in the hundreds.
Sunset with elephants in Hwange NP.
Victoria Falls - always a highlight at the end of a Zimbabwe safari if you haven't seen it before. It's a wonder of the world and the photos don't do it justice. You've got to see it at least once in your life!