The lions stand still, sizing us up with yellow eyes. There is a big male, his black ruff backlit by the pale morning light, and three females. “They look as if they have not eaten for many days,” Milton Mpuche, our guide, whispers. In the open-sided vehicle, I edge closer to my daughter and try to look as un-breakfast-like as possible. The lions turn their heads and pad quietly away.
We continue our morning drive through the Matetsi game reserve until Milton pulls up by the side of the track. “Come, we will go for a short walk in the bush. Please tread softly as the lions are still close by,” he says, grabbing his rifle. We follow in single file, stopping to watch the flash of colour as a lilac-breasted roller bird leaves its perch, and copying Milton as he breaks off a twig from the “toothbrush tree” (Salvadora persica), which seems to do the job just as well as our mass-manufactured equivalent. Like all the Zimbabwean guides we have met, Milton has a deep knowledge of the properties and behaviour of his country’s wildlife.
He leads us through some thicker mopane bush, putting his finger to his lips when I stand on a dry branch. With hearts pounding, we emerge into an open glade – to find a table laden with watermelon, freshly baked scones and crispy bacon.
Breakfast, it seems, was the order of the morning after all.
When I mentioned to friends that I was taking our family to Zimbabwe for Easter, the reaction was almost uniformly of disbelief, edged with disapproval, as if I were going to feed my children to a pride of lions. Over the past quarter-century, Zimbabwe has got a bad rap, deservedly so. When international attention turns towards the country, the reports that follow are invariably negative: of thugs allied to President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party stamping out political opposition; of forced farm requisitions and shops with bare shelves. In 2008, inflation rose to a barely conceivable 231,000,000%, the economy virtually shut down and, for the next few years, there was no tourism.
Then, in 2009, the last trillion-Zim-dollar notes were taken out of circulation (you can buy them now, for peanuts, in Victoria Falls), the US dollar was adopted as the currency and life started to sink back into some kind of normality. There was food in the shops, at least, and enough stability to encourage investors – mostly Chinese – to start rebuilding the tourist infrastructure.
We had come to see game – great and small, running, flying and sleeping – without having to share the privilege with the swarms that buzz around the safari honeypots of Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa. We flew north from Harare, up to the banks of the Zambezi, which separates Zimbabwe from Zambia, the old Southern Rhodesia from Northern.
It is with excessive modesty that our hosts at Ruckomechi Camp have designated our glorious abode as a tent. Inside the canvas walls were two huge four-posters, leather armchairs and two bathrooms. From my pre-dinner shower, I watched a large hippo climb out of the river, the moonlight shining on its wet back, to graze below our terrace.
Over the next few days, we settled easily into the rhythm of safari mornings. The two teenagers leapt smartly out of bed at 5.30am after that wonderful safari alarm: a low voice calling “knock, knock”. There was a pre-breakfast of coffee and rusks before we jumped into the vehicle in time to catch the animals changing the guard – the leopards and mongooses slinking back to their holes and caves after a night of hunting and grazing; the zebra and impala waking up to get on with the daily business of staying alive.
But there is nothing routine about a bush drive. We were constantly delighted by what we saw, whether it was a swirl of bright red bishops (“the male builds the nest,” our guide, Chris, told us, “the female inspects it and, if it’s not good enough, rips it up”) or the tiniest of baby elephants stepping on its trunk as it crossed the track. Four million emigrants and most of the cash in the central bank may have fled the country, but the animals certainly haven’t. We were treated to a pageant of creatures at every turn: herds of grumpy buffalo, a leopard sitting on the fork of a mahogany tree, its tail hanging down the trunk, glossy zebra, a shy African wildcat and skittery civet – on top of the buck, birds and butterflies that were as common as pigeons in London.
One bright afternoon, we squeezed into canoes and paddled downstream, navigating carefully between the Scylla of gap-toothed hippos and Charybdis of a 12ft sunbathing crocodile. That night, we slept on a treetop platform over a large pond, lying under swathes of white netting listening to the cackling of hyenas as we drifted off, waking only when the resident hippo announced its return from a night of grazing with some hearty chortles. I couldn’t help flipping the bird to the fears of my townie friends.
The sign read “Beware of crocodiles”. It was hanging on a post in the small harbour where we boarded the Matusadona, a houseboat, for a three-day safari on Lake Kariba. Like Ruckomechi, the Matusadona shows no sign of suffering from Zimbabwe’s economic woes. Before we had even motored out into the calm lake, our kids had dumped their stuff in their staterooms and were sitting in the hot tub on the upper deck, scouring the shore for game.
After the heaviest rains since 1953, the waters of Kariba were high. The lake used to be a valley, which was flooded between 1958 and 1963 to create the world’s largest man-made reservoir (by volume). This now feeds the turbines that provide most of Zimbabwe’s electricity. We passed the dam wall as we cut across the lake to our first night’s mooring at Gordon’s Bay. Chinese investors are busy pouring their yuan into mending the wall and improving the turbines which – like much in Zimbabwe – have been working at well below full capacity for years. But, out on the water, it is hard to think about economic issues. I realised, after a few hours of gentle motoring, that the concerns of everyday life had melted away. With Scott, our blond South African host, in charge, there was nothing to worry about – other than whether our shorts were going to fit after the delicious meal William, the cook, concocted for our pleasure.
We moored in a bay and were loaded onto one of the three tenders, along with a cooler filled with Zambezi beer, wine and Appletiser. We puttered down one of the inlets on the edge of Matusadona National Park, weaving in and out of the skeletal trees, their bare upper branches a reminder of the submerged valley.
We anchored near the shore, close to a basking crocodile, and cast our lines. None of our family had caught a fish before, but it was only minutes before my daughter was winding in the first of a steady stream of bream.
With a full bucket of fish, we headed into the next inlet to find an elephant eating wild basil, and a pride of lions, snoozing in the late, red sun. “That pride took a boat captain near here the other week,” Scott informed us. We chewed on that, briefly, as we returned to our vessel to slot back into the rhythm of our riverboat trip: sleep, eat, fish, eat, read, eat. Repeat.
The new Victoria Falls airport was opened last November and smells box-fresh. Built by the Chinese, it’s intended to enable international visitors to bypass the streets of Harare, the capital. We had spent our first night in Harare and were surprised, once again; while the country was in the midst of a cash crisis, with people queuing for hours in the banks for the chance to withdraw a single $20 note, the streets were peaceful and, in the northern suburbs anyway, seemed to be caught in a time-warp. I walked the few blocks from our B&B (something I would never do in Johannesburg) to the Spar, where I waited at the checkout while an octogenarian white woman, trailed by her servant, bought a box of strawberries-and-cream Lindor chocolate balls.
But while Harare had the traffic and smells and collapsing buildings of most African capitals, the town of Vic Falls was picture perfect, the grass trimmed, the doorman at the Victoria Falls Hotel smart in his white pith helmet. The falls themselves were truly magnificent, their flow greater than in living memory – greater, even, than when David Livingstone first saw them in 1855. Walking around town, unmolested by hawkers or beggars, I couldn’t escape the feeling of being enclosed in a bubble, hand-blown to protect the visitors they desperately need from the harshness of everyday Zimbabwean life. Some figures put unemployment at 95%. The curio market in town was empty of shoppers, its stallholders desperate to sell even a carved soapstone elephant the size of a fingernail.
It was hard to pull back the curtain and see past the apparent perfection; the settlements where most people live are hidden behind thick mopane trees. “Things are tough now,” Paka, our driver, told me. “But we are Zimbabweans. We have fire in our bellies. We still have the highest literacy rate in Africa – it is over 90%. We will find a way to make things better. And we thank you for coming here and for bringing your family.”
An hour away, at Matetsi, we lost ourselves in what must be one of the most glorious safari lodges in all Africa. Strung along the swollen Zambezi, it has just reopened after a $10m renovation. We had the run of the River House, a four-bedroom beauty clad in bamboo and beaten copper. It came with its own pool and staff, including John, who had been at Matetsi, on and off, for 15 years, and who admonished us if we dared to leave anything on our plates at any of the six daily meals: “You won’t see any animals if you don’t eat,” he said.
But the animals were always there: we saw two male giraffes thwacking their necks repeatedly against each other as they fought over a female; a large group of elephants gathering for an evening party by a waterhole in the middle of a majestic vlei; and some baby baboons doing gymnastics over their father’s tummy. And the pride of lions we had met before breakfast? We saw them the next day, full-bellied (like us) and dozing in the shade of a tall teak tree.
Samantha Weinberg is travel and food & drink editor of 1843. She was a guest of &Beyond