Harare - The boat is small, just big enough for six passengers and our driver, who doubles as our guide. We’re on a lake in the vast, remote Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve in southeast Zimbabwe. Across the hills, the sun is veiled in the last light of day. Darkness will come soon.
All around us, hippos splash, snort and grunt, causing some alarm. Two of my three companions are in the front of the boat, in the “appetizer seats”. If anything should happen, they’ll be shrimp cocktail. I’m at the back of the pontoon, in the dessert seat, if you will, listening to the hippos and the other myriad sounds of an African nightfall.
In a few moments, elephants come crashing through the bush for their last drink of the day, their stomachs rumbling low like distant thunder. Against the backdrop of the sun, a gaggle of Egyptian geese serenades the orchestra of elephants and hippos.
Tengwe Siambwanda, our guide, has what one of my companions has termed the “most ridiculous eyes”. He can see everything. By now, it’s heavy dusk, and I never would have spotted the black rhino standing at the water’s edge if Tengwe hadn’t pointed him out.
At first, the ungulate seems surprised by the boat, but then he becomes agitated. Here’s what an agitated rhino does: He kicks up a dust storm, stomps his hooves like a two-year-old, knocks over a couple of trees, and then mock-charges. For a moment, I wonder whether he’ll leap into the water. If he does, I’ll be faced with the quick decision of whether to face a grumpy rhino or a bevy of hippopotami.
Thankfully, I don’t have to make that choice. Tengwe quietly backs up the pontoon and carefully motors back to the dock, bringing a grand end to our boat safari.
This is my ninth visit to this wondrous continent but my first to Zimbabwe. We putt-putt across the sky from Johannesburg to Buffalo Range airstrip near Singita.
When we land, I half expect our group to be interrogated. But the customs officer is delightful and full of kindness.
On the almost hour-long drive to Singita from the airstrip, we pass villages, herds of cattle and goats, and miles of dusty woodland honeycombed with acacias.
In the road ahead of us is a security checkpoint, and for the first time, I’m a little nervous. But the armed police first scowl a bit then smile broadly at our vanload of ladies. With a wave and another smile, we’re on our way.
Within moments of our arrival inside the boundaries of Singita, in the heart of the Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve, we pass very close to several giraffe. They stare at us blankly, before lankily bounding off into the bush. We’re so close that I can see their long, curled eyelashes shadowing the brownest, sweetest eyes.
There are only eight of us at the lodge: our group of four women, a couple from Australia, Dee and Peter, and John and Karen, a couple from the US, who have already been at Singita for a week.
Lodge managers Jason and Emily welcome us and explain that the 150 000-acre Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve, which abuts Gonarezhou National Park on the border with Mozambique, was established by conservationists in 1994, primarily to protect wildlife from poachers. The lodge, says Jason, is the “ecotourism arm” of the reserve and the proceeds from guests go to wildlife conservation and community outreach.
The requisite Big Five – Cape buffaloes, rhinos, elephants, lions and leopards – are all on the reserve. So are a billion birds. Rollers, weavers, hornbills, owls and egrets flit around, their jewel colours giving away their hiding places in the trees. I can’t get enough of the lilac-breasted rollers, their pastel feathers as vivid as an Impressionist painting.
As we explore the reserve, I etch in my mind forever the colours and textures and especially the sounds of Zimbabwe, where it’s quiet but never really quiet. The wind is always whispering, and the ground is always trembling beneath the hoofbeats and the wing tracks of the most amazing wild and birdlife.
One of my companions says it best as we watch giraffe drink from a watering hole: “You feel as if you’re underneath Mother Earth.”
On one evening of our three-night stay, Jason and Emily host a wonderful wine dinner, pairing bold South African reds and whites with local game.
The next day, Tengwe takes us to the Kambako Living Museum of Bushcraft just beyond the borders of the reserve. It’s a small Shangaan village, the Shangaan being one of 12 or so cultural tribes in Zimbabwe.
We watch and listen as Julius, patriarch of the village, crouches low to the ground to make fire. “We are trying to teach others about our old ancestral ways,” he says in English, spinning two sticks together until they spark into flame. “We are trying to keep old traditions alive.”
After watching a boisterous Shangaan dance, we drive back to the lodge, where later we feast at an outdoor dinner beneath the shadows of an immense baobab tree, our eyes always trained to the bush to keep a watch out for hungry lions.
On our last game drive, we come upon a herd of elephants in a deeply forested corner of the reserve. After watching them for a while, we begin to drive away, when one breaks away and runs after us.
Finally, the big bull gives up the chase and trumpets at full volume, a soothing sound, that of the grandest beast of Africa. I thought I could stay there forever watching him.
Back at Buffalo Range airstrip, our passports stamped with exit visas, I think of one of Hemingway’s most inspiring quotes: “I never knew of a morning in Africa when I woke up that I was not happy.”
I breathe in Zimbabwe one last time, deeply, and then climb aboard the tiny plane for the long journey home.
- The Washington Post