Harare - As guide Livingstone Sana cuts the engine and we glide to a slow stop, the wind ruffles the silence.
A few hundred metres away, across the open plain, they watch us, suspicious.
Our scent is heading towards them and they don’t like it: even though they are four young, strong bachelor males, the Sable antelope are jittery. Even though they are fast and possess sharp, scimitar-curved horns, they don’t want us anywhere near their space.
So, they take off, a symphony of flexing muscle and sinews, their glossy black, white and brown coats shimmering in the early morning sunshine. As they hit top speed, they look as though they could run down any thoroughbred racehorse.
Sana, a guide with the Wilderness Safaris camp at Linkwasha Camp in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, points out that their biological name - hippotragus niger - alludes to the fact that they are the most horse-like of the antelopes, along with their cousin, the Roan.
In mere seconds, they are swallowed up by the tree line, which offers them the comparative safety of the teak thickets. But I feel privileged to see them, in this, one of the last truly wild places in Africa and where Sable, one of the last true icons of the African wilderness, are surviving - and even thriving.
Keith Vincent, chief executive of Wilderness Safaris and a fanatical supporter of Hwange, says there are times when you can see groups of up to 40 of these increasingly rare animals. Roan, which is an endangered animal and even more rare than Sable, sometimes gather around Linkwasha in similar numbers, says Vincent.
The last time I saw this many Sable was 25 years ago in another Zimbabwe national park, Ngezi, in the central area. I have only seen one or two since then in South African protected areas, and occasionally larger groups - but then only in breeding camps.
Sable are a rare sight in South Africa - and certainly in such numbers. That is because their habitat is increasingly becoming threatened by illegal hunting and expansion of human development. The only places, other than Hwange, where you can see Sable in large numbers in southern Africa are in northern Zambia and northern Mozambique. But Hwange is closer than both of them.
The good health of the Sable population in Hwange parallels the improving overall health of the park itself, which was for many years badly neglected by the Zimbabwean authorities and tourists.
Money is still tight in Zimbabwe and private organisations are helping to ensure maintenance is done to the national park’s infrastructure. But it is the private operators, like Wilderness (which operates three camps in Hwange), which have been ploughing in money. Private concessions account for less than 10 percent of the park’s 15 000km2 area but provide most of the artificial water, via boreholes and pumps. That investment (and a huge amount in refurbishing camps and building new ones) is something which Wilderness and other Zimbabwean tourist companies got together to protect by promoting the fact that Hwange, Victoria Falls and the adjacent game areas are well and truly open for business, despite the seeming political instability in Harare.
The recent completion of a new terminal at Victoria Falls airport has vastly improved the tourist handling capacity of the area.
The bonus for South African passport holders is short waiting times in the “no visa required” queue on arrival. Victoria Falls and Livingstone, across the border in Zambia, are served by twice-daily scheduled flights by both South African Airways and British Airways from OR Tambo International in Joburg.
Kenya Airways has recently added a new Cape Town route to its South African schedule, which goes via Livingstone, allowing potential visitors from Cape Town direct access to Victoria Falls.
But, you don’t have to fly in: Linkwasha camp manager Joe Hanly says South African visitors can drive in. They can be collected at one of the park’s main camps, which means even two-wheel-drive vehicles have all-weather access.
A road trip is a longer, and not necessarily that much cheaper option, once you have factored in time, fuel and accommodation costs. Many South Africans choose to go to the Falls either via Botswana - staying over in a place like Francistown before crossing into Zimbabwe at Kazungula - or through Plumtree into Zimbabwe, before heading to Bulawayo and driving up to the Falls.
Driving is generally a two-day trip and there will be seeming endless police roadblocks in Zimbabwe, although travellers are reporting officers are much more pleasant and less inclined to solicit bribes than they were a few years ago.
Flying in to the Falls means you will have to take a connecting light aircraft flip to Linkwasha. You’ll fly either in a 12-seat Cessna Grand Caravan or a six-seat Cessna 206, both of which will complete the journey as part of the Wilderness Air scheduled service, in around 45 minutes.
The question many would ask is: Why go to the extra effort to go to Hwange when we have Kruger?
The answer is simple: Hwange is different. Hwange is wild. Hwange is what the African bush was before it became crowded with racing tourists chasing app-fired sightings.
Part of the Kalahari ecosystem, Hwange was started as a park in 1928, with the first artificial waterholes being dug in 1935. Before that, it was the royal hunting park of Matabele king Mzilikazi.
That’s something I think about as Sana busies himself arranging sundowners on the plain. I grew up in Zimbabwe and the school I went to was steeped in colonial history, named after Allan Wilson, the leader of an ill-fated patrol to teach Lobengula - descendant of Mzilikazi - a lesson in the Matabele uprising on 1893.
For the king’s men the battle at the Shangani River was a resounding victory: they slaughtered Wilson’s 34-man group to the last. But, they remarked that the white men were “men of men” for the way they had fought. As I sip my merlot and watch the sun explode into crimson as it gets sucked in by the horizon, I remember: the school mascot was a Sable.
The sunset shot almost takes the breath away from Gerald, a retired dentist from Virginia in the US.
“That’s not real!” he exclaims, as he snaps a few frames of his wife Dianne, before the light fades completely.
They are loving every minute of Hwange: they’ve come from Wilderness camps in the Botswana delta, but they agree this is a special place.
“You’re so lucky to live in Africa!” says Dianne. For once, I cannot criticise an American for exaggerating.
Sana is what makes the experience for me - whether describing how lucky we are to see a wild dog pack (I know, Livingstone, I know) or how a tortoise has been killed by a hornbill: “The tortoise he hides inside his shell, but the bird he just pecks, pecks, pecks and he eats the tortoise alive.”
The experience at Linkwasha also confirms, for me, that Wilderness Safaris walks the walk in honouring its commitment to improving the lives of the people who work for it and who live around its operational areas. The black guides and camp staff are all competent, friendly and confident enough to interact with people from all walks of life.
Sadly, that is not something you see often in South African game lodge operations, where African people are sometimes promoted beyond their capabilities or are treated as menial workers despite their rich knowledge. With Wilderness, you get more of a sense of being invited into someone’s family, rather than having a group of servants around you.
For African South Africans who are not comfortable in a white-dominated game lodge environment at home - have a look next door.
It would take many more multiples of this space to share the mystique of Hwange - the mysterious teak forests, the bushveld smell in the early mornings, the racket of lions, hyenas, elephant and hippo around the camp in the night and the stars which perch just above you in their billions every clear night.
You need to see it for yourself. And when you do, give thanks that a piece of the old Africa still exists.
Gone are the days of Cecil and his Spice Girls
The old lioness has no front fangs, but she’s determined to grind what nourishment she can out of the baboon bone with her back molars. When hungry cubs try their luck at grabbing a piece, she growls and snaps at them.
Guide Robert Chadyendia estimates she is 12 or 13 years old - old for a lion. But she’s connected - at one time she would have been a mate for Cecil, the iconic lion who was shot and killed by a trophy hunter last year in a hunting area adjacent to the Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe.
Cecil was, for many years, an alpha male among alpha males in the area of the Wilderness Safaris Linkwasha camp.
Because of his power, says Chadyendia, Cecil “chased away all the other males” and had his pick of the females. In fact, at one stage, his six-female harem was known to rangers at Linkwasha as the “Spice Girls”.
Cecil was more than a lion, remembers Chadyendia, he was a personality.
“He knew when a vehicle was in the area and he would stand up, walk into the road so people could get their photographs.”
On another occasion, he remembers, a chef was walking back to camp after missing his lift. He came upon Cecil and he (the man) got such a fright he fell down.
“Cecil just looked at him and then walked away.”
The reign of the magnificent cat started coming to an end one season when he was challenged by two male newcomers, Bush and Bhubesi.
“Cecil chased them away. He was very strong, but he was getting old and tired.”
The next year, the two Young Turks returned and this time Cecil was defeated and forced to flee further south in the park.
There he met up with Jericho, a young male lion who, according to Chadyendia, was “always mischievous”.
While Cecil seldom ventured far from the environs of Linkwasha, Jericho tempted him into crossing the railway line into the hunting area alongside the park. (There is no fence between the two areas.)
That was where Cecil was spotted by a Zimbabwean professional hunter, who guided his client, an American, in for the kill.
“But, I don’t know,” says Chadyendia. “They could have seen that Cecil had a collar. They should not have killed him.”
There is a hole in the space around Linkwasha these days, says Chadyendia. Even the young male, Zanda, who is watching the old lioness and cubs from a distance, is only a shadow of Cecil at his peak.
“When Cecil roared, you could hear it 15km away,” says Chadyendia. “He was a special lion and we will miss him.”
If You Go...
Brendan Seery was a guest of Wilderness Safaris.
South African residents qualify for special rates. Linkwasha Camp costs from R3 900 per person per night sharing on a fully inclusive basis: accommodation, all meals, scheduled safari activities, laundry and local brand drinks including beer and wine, bottled water and teas/coffee.
Rate is valid until June 14, 2017 (excluding peak dates).
The membership programme also offers unique rates.