“Ooh, I’m so happy to welcome you at my gate,” gushes Abiot Musema as he hops around our vehicle. “You are the first people…” He gazes off into the distance as he tries to remember when the last person came through Robin’s Gate on the north-western boundary of Hwange National Park. Then, remembering his manners, he gives up and says, “... in a long time.”
Abiot’s happiness is a foretaste of the welcome awaiting us in Hwange. After a decade as the world’s pariah, Zimbabwe’s trickle of tourists has now turned to a stream, and the light at the end of a very long tunnel shines strong.
It’s already 5pm when we arrive at Robin’s Camp, so we spend the night there. Pleasantly and efficiently welcomed by Rhino, the manager, our onward reservations are made for the next day. Later, as dusk turns to night, he does his last rounds to make sure that we’re settled and everything is okay.
Remarkably Hwange National Park has come through its endurance test relatively unscathed. There are small signs of neglect, such as raggedy-edged tarmac and sparsely stocked shop shelves, but they hardly impact on visitors’ enjoyment. If anything, it all adds to the wild atmosphere.
The tourist facilities are clean and generally well maintained. There is a quaint, old-fashioned feel about them. Polished cement floors, Bakelite toilet seats and 3D maps made of the stuff of carnival masks are souvenirs of a bygone era – one that holds immense appeal for its unpretentiousness.
We’re happy, we assure Rhino.
The next day we move to the picnic site at Deteema Dam, where we’ve been told by Rhino to “expect fireworks”.
These sites are game-viewing hides that can be reserved as an exclusive overnight campground at a reasonable rate. During the day you need to be prepared for other visitors as they are permitted to use the sites for picnics.
We have no interruptions, and enjoy the solitude of the place for a whole day and night. And true to Rhino’s promise, Deteema produces a dazzling show: elephants by the ton, giraffe, kudu and impala, a lone hippo – who doesn’t seem to mind his role as a grey heron’s perch – and the antics of two persistent hamerkops keep us entertained. Lion roars at night add to the fizz.
The following day we slow-drive through to Jambile Pan on the eastern side of the park because all the other picnic sites are occupied. We are surprised at how full the park is. A drinking martial eagle and a leopard are special sightings on the way.
At Shumba Pan we encounter some Zimbabweans who are here for the annual Friends of Hwange game count. Each year, at the end of the dry season, this dedicated group gathers to complete a comprehensive game count over a 24-hour period at full moon.
We’re invited in to have tea and biccies and a natter, and it becomes apparent that while they’re having fun they’re also passionate about the wildlife heritage of their country.
It is thanks to the Friends of Hwange and several other organisations that the wildlife populations in Hwange have been maintained.
“We come every year,” says Brian.
He’s a rancher from Gwanda, south of Bulawayo so, of course, we have to ask how life is now. He smiles and says, “Well, it’s great. I have the biggest ranch in Zimbabwe. All the fences have disappeared so now it’s free-range grazing. The herdsmen go out with the herds in the morning and come back at night. No problem.”
In his line of business he’s less concerned about Zimbabwe’s image abroad. Unlike Abiot and Rhino, who are both very aware of the damage a country’s image can do to its tourism industry.
The gate-keeper at the main camp says it all when we ask why we have to have a gate pass. With a wide, white smile he explains that if we don’t return he will send someone to look for us. “Not to arrest you. But to assist you!”
Access: The Victoria Falls to Bulawayo road is a well-maintained tar road. Hwange Airport is open and operational, although no fuel is available at present. The crossing at Pandamatenga is hassle free and quick. The road is passable in a high clearance 2x4 in the dry months. Wet season may be a problem so check beforehand.
Accommodation: The Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority offers a variety of accommodation including self-catering lodges, cottages and chalets, camping and caravan sites, as well as conference facilities at the main camp. There are also self-catering exclusive camps as well as undeveloped bush camps accessible only by 4x4. The picnic sites at game-viewing hides are available as exclusive overnight stops for campers. Activities on offer by the park include escorted walks, full moon game drives and wilderness trails.
There are several private camps – Linkwasha, Davisons, Little Makalolo, Makalolo, Somalisa and The Hide. Contact the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority for details. See www.aitbase.co.zw/zta
Walking safaris: Multi-day walking safaris are offered by experienced, long-time guide Leon Varley.
Money: While goods and services in Zimbabwe are payable in South African rands and Botswana pula, the exchange rate is often unfavourable. Everything is quoted in US dollars. It’s a good idea to have small denominations on hand for fees such as the road toll. - Weekend Argus