Home to some of Africa’s most beautiful views and spectacular wildlife, Zimbabwe has much to offer travellers. Ruth Styles headed to the country's southeastern Chiredzi region for sunshine, serenity and an action-packed safari.
It began with a picture-perfect African setting, complete with ancient, gnarled baobab trees and shady umbrella thorns; we’d gone 100 yards and the scene within the Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve had changed considerably into a shimmering green grove of mopani trees. Another 20 minutes later, and we were in what resembled old-fashioned English woodland, before arriving at the sluggish yellow Chiredzi River. Bright-red fireball flowers were clumped under the trees like poisonous toadstools, while down by the river, tiny crocodiles basked in the 40°C (104°F) heat. Behind us, a herd of impala nibbled lazily, making almost no sound as they picked their way delicately amongst the trees. It was unlike anywhere else I’d previously visited.
I’d been slightly apprehensive about taking a trip to Zimbabwe, mainly thanks to the fearsome reputation of Robert Mugabe, the country’s president, and his reported coterie of unsavoury henchmen. I’d also heard the stories about violent land invasions and the hyperinflation that bedevilled the country at the end of the last decade. But on the flight over from South Africa, I started to discover a new side to Zimbabwe. My fellow passengers on the tiny Federal Air plane from Johannesburg certainly didn’t look crazy. In fact, they looked positively pedestrian, kitted out with soft, floppy hats, huge suitcases and designer sunglasses, laughing and joking as they sipped their bottles of icy cold Coca-Cola. Surely it couldn’t be as bad as I’d been told.
As we dropped down towards tiny Buffalo Range Airport in the heart of the Chiredzi region, I could see winding ochre dirt roads and emerald-green plantations, dotted with clumps of round thatched huts. It looked peaceful, serene even. Down on the ground, any hint of quiet was dispelled almost immediately by the cheerful welcoming party from Singita Pamushana Lodge, where I would be staying, aided and abetted by the broadly-smiling immigration lady. “Welcome to Zimbabwe!”, she said; I took a deep breath and relaxed.
A 40-minute drive from the airport, Singita Pamushana Lodge is located in the heart of the beautiful Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve, a 50,180-hectare (124,000-acre) stretch of pristine wilderness that’s home to 57 species of large mammal – including 84 of Zimbabwe’s 500-strong black rhino population – plus enormous numbers of birds, insects and reptiles. Overlooking a dam created by former owner Roger Sparrow in the 1950s, it boasts spectacular views, colourful décor and some of the friendliest human beings on the planet. The walk up to the lodge is pure Lord of the Rings, with rock figs and baobab trees combining to create an otherworldly grotto with Pamushana at its heart. I half expected to see Frodo Baggins peering out from behind a tree, but found a pair of klipspringer (small antelope) and several rainbow-bright lizards instead.
The thatched main buildings are set in a semicircle around a turquoise pool, while the rooms themselves are in the form of individual cottages, each roughly the size of a large London flat. Inside mine, I found a huge living area complete with a mini-bar pre-stocked with my favourite drinks (gin and tonic since you ask), an enormous solid wood bed and two, yes, two bathrooms. Best of all, though, was the wooden sun deck, which contained a small private pool and a viewing area, complete with a telescope to watch the hippos in the dam. Small wonder, really, that guests past have included a smattering of Hollywood royalty (Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas among them), as well as the odd infamous tourist in the shape of former Libyan leader, Colonel Gaddafi’s third son, Al-Saadi.
The next morning, I was woken by the sound of the phone ringing loudly next to my bed. “This is your wake-up call,” said a soothing voice. It was 5am. Half an hour later, I was back at reception to meet ranger, wildlife expert and all-round cool guy, Tyme Mutema. We headed out into the dawn, down a rocky wooded slope, before emerging onto the plain where we almost immediately came across a posse of giraffe lazily snacking on leaves from the top of an umbrella thorn. Long-lashed and squinting into the early morning sun, they froze, watching us as we watched them. A spindle-legged baby peeped out from behind its mother, before each returned to its breakfast. Next up was a snorting herd of bizarre-looking blue wildebeest and a galloping group of what Tyme described as ‘dazzle donkeys’, but were actually zebra. We saw elephants crashing through the bush, a female cheetah with four tiny cubs and a herd of peacefully grazing buffalo, the skeletal remains of one was being picked apart by a flock of vultures. But the best was yet to come.
That evening, we headed out onto the calm waters of the dam, picking our way through the spiky skeleton of dead trees and carefully skirting pods of grunting hippo. The carcass of one hippo lay on the foreshore, surrounded by hungry marabou stork and a gaggle of Egyptian geese. A fish eagle swooped low over our heads and a leopard crept out to sun itself on a nearby rock.
Then suddenly, another rock moved. I rubbed my eyes; surely I’d had too many gin and tonics. But Tyme moved the boat closer to shore and the grey rocky shape crystallised into a prehistoric beast, complete with a curving horn: it was a black rhino, one of the world’s most endangered species, and we were less than 2m (6ft) away. I was awestruck, and even the usually sanguine Tyme was impressed. “I don’t think I’ve ever managed to get this close before,” he whispered. With the sun setting over our heads, casting a rosy glow over the lake, the hippo and this wonderful creature drinking in front of us, the scene was picture-perfect. Zimbabwe might have a less-than-stellar reputation internationally, but don’t let that put you off. It’s stunningly beautiful, incredibly welcoming and a brilliant place to see your first black rhino.
Post-safari, head to the Victoria Falls on the Zambia border. Known locally as Mosi-oa-Tunya (The Smoke that Thunders), the Zambezi river cascades down the 110m-high (360ft) falls before crashing into the spectacular gorge below. It’s wonderful from below, but even better when seen from the Flying Fox cable strung across the gorge.
Away from the falls, get to know the Zimbabwean capital, Harare. One of Africa’s prettiest cities, it’s a riot of brightly coloured jacaranda trees interspersed with a curious blend of architectural styles, encompassing everything from 1970s Bauhaus to typical colonial. Generally safe and crime-free, Harare is an easy city to like, although you should give political demonstrations a wide berth.
Need to know:
Getting there: Air Zimbabwe operates direct flights to Harare from London Gatwick Airport. However, most travellers heading to the Chiredzi region go via Johannesburg, before taking a Federal Air charter direct to Buffalo Range Airport.
Visa: Visas are required for all travellers entering Zimbabwe, the price varies depending on your nationality. For more information see our Zimbabwe passport and visa page.
Health: You’ll need to be able to produce a Yellow Fever vaccination certificate if travelling from a yellow fever risk area. As Chiredzi is a malarial zone, you will also need malaria prophylaxis tablets. For more information see our Zimbabwe health page.