Hunkered down in the hot African midday sun – crouching low behind a spindly little bush – I felt rather exposed. Earlier that day, I had embarked upon this walking safari with great enthusiasm, embracing the opportunity to encounter at least one of the Big Five animals in its own natural environment, away from the impediments (and safety) that come with the customary, open-backed safari Jeep. After a short walk down a narrow path, my guide, Calvet Nkomo – armed with a large rifle – spotted a six-ton elephant about 100 metres away. He expertly led me downwind of the animal; if he smelled us, Nkomo said, all bets were off, and big bulls like him could easily charge.
We took up a position and, soon enough, as Nkomo had accurately predicted, the elephant came to us, lumbering through the foliage and settling in just few metres away – upwind. Nkomo repeatedly signalled with one hand that I should crouch even lower. “He cannot see us,” Nkomo assured me in an almost-silent whisper. But then, all of sudden, we had a problem. The elephant began making a low, guttural noise – an invitation, Nkomo said, to a fellow bull somewhere behind us to come and join him. We were caught between the two animals, running the very real risk of being trampled.
I was in Zimbabwe, a country that has, in recent history, made more headlines for economic hardship and societal unrest than for thrilling safari experiences. The past decade has not been kind to Zimbabweans: Under Robert Mugabe, the country’s leader since its independence in 1980, the economy more or less collapsed. The currency spun out of control. Violence and human-rights abuses made headlines. But, since the nadir of “the chaos” around 2008, the country has experienced a steady recovery. Mugabe agreed to a power-sharing arrangement with opposition leaders, and the adoption of the U.S. dollar helped stabilize the economy. Last month, the country approved a new constitution (although the vote was not without incident) that includes a strengthened bill of rights and presidential term limits, leading the European Union to lift most of its sanctions. Tourism is coming back, too, making Zimbabwe – a country that until recently was all but off limits – one of Africa’s next great destinations.
The day before my walking safari, I travelled to Somalisa, a luxury tented camp deep in the heart of Hwange National Park, with Nic Polenakis, part-owner of the camp and an experienced wildlife guide. Hwange is more than 14,000 square kilometres, roughly half the size of Belgium, and we bumped along for hours through the savannah in his weathered Jeep. We passed scores of animals, from timid impalas to playful baboons, majestic giraffes, quirky little warthogs and more zebra than I could count.
Polenakis said that it wasn’t always so. “At the height of the chaos, it was a nightmare. There was no money in the country at all.” Both humans and animals suffered. For the former, inflation spiralled to levels that would have been comical, if they weren’t so tragic: Banknotes were printed in denominations of up to $100-trillion.
The animals in Hwange faced a twofold crisis. The lack of hard currency meant that wildlife camps and lodges, many of which closed during this period, could no longer afford to maintain watering holes fed by pumps that required costly fuel to operate. As well, desperate locals resorted to poaching for meat. It would have been far worse, Polenakis said, were it not for the vigilance of the park rangers (some of whom went months without being paid): They patrolled the extensive Hwange perimeter for weeks at a time, fed and aided by the remaining lodges along the way.
With the end of the crisis, previously shuttered camps are reopening their doors, new ones are springing up and – a sure sign of good things – international airlines such as Emirates and KLM have resumed service to the capital, Harare. The country’s wildlife guides, who are required to undergo a rigorous four-year certification process, are recognized as some of the best in the world, and going on a walking safari is a true Zimbabwean experience. Despite the inherent risks of approaching wild animals on foot, guides keep guests safe, and it has been years since anyone was injured inside Hwange. Even on game drives, the guides here got me much closer to wildlife than those in the many other safari destinations I’ve visited. On one outing, I could hear the purrs and miniature roars of a lioness and her cubs as they nursed and played.
Which, obviously, was far less terrifying than being trapped between the two elephants.