Home to Africa’s friendliest pachyderms, Zimbabwe is once again a great destination for wildlife tourism.
There can’t be many places in the world where you feel perfectly at ease in a vehicle surrounded by a dozen grey behemoths, and where your sense of wellbeing is only enhanced by your hair being ruffled by a jet of warm air exhaled from a wriggling trunk centimetres above your scalp.
In normal circumstances, no self-respecting safari guide would allow this to happen. It’s far too dangerous. Indeed, our Land Cruiser was actually being rocked by a group of animals that could flip it over in an instant.
But Sharon Pincott is no ordinary guide, and the Presidential Elephants of Hwange Estate no ordinary elephants. I challenge anybody to experience their collective charm and not be entranced.
Twenty years or so ago, it was accepted wisdom among African ‘old hands’ that if you wanted close encounters of the giant mammalian kind, you should go to Zimbabwe.
The country I remember from the 1990s was a wealthy nation brimming with tourists. It enjoyed a reputation for fantastic bushcamps, the best-trained guides in Africa and game-rich national parks and private reserves.
But since the social upheavals of President Robert Mugabe’s regime started around 2000, there has been a stream of stories about the impact of the land redistribution on the country’s wildlife, and tourism all but dried up.
However, since 2008’s power-sharing accord and the reinvigoration of the economy following the introduction of the US dollar, the country has enjoyed years of relative stability.
So it was time for me to return and find out whether Zimbabwe has reclaimed its place as the top travel destination for lovers of African wildlife – or if its charm has been lost forever.
My first stop was Hwange Estate to see Zimbabwe’s Presidential Elephants. The herd resides on 140km2 of state-owned land adjacent to Hwange National Park in Eastern Zimbabwe, a three-hour transfer from Bulawayo Airport.
“Quick,” urged Sharon, an Australian conservationist, the moment I arrived at Ivory Lodge bushcamp. “The Presidentials are down at the vlei [a shallow lake], but they could disappear at any moment.” I hurled my rucksack into my treehouse accommodation, to the chagrin of a cheeky southern yellow-billed hornbill, and off we raced.
Down at the vlei, about 40 elephants were luxuriating in the muddy water. One youngster was pursuing guinea fowl, making them roll around like demented bowling balls, while a pair of velvet-coated sables melted into the mopane-acacia scrub in a haughty retreat.
Diamonds are forever
The Presidential Elephants were protected by a special decree from Mugabe in 1990 because they had become so used to tourists that they were vulnerable to poachers. As the jewels in Zimbabwe’s conservation crown, they were never to be hunted or culled.
Despite this, Sharon has spent much of the past decade battling to save the herd from illegal hunting and snaring, and an interminable drought.
Today, the population is relatively secure, and during the dry season – from May to October – the elephants can be seen wandering between the estate’s water-filled pans.
Sharon is based nearby at Miombo Lodge, and joins safaris when she can. “The Presidential herd is very different from the national-park elephants,” she told me. “If you approach within 50m of those, they run away.”
That loving feeling
We were watching the M-family, one of the 450-strong herd’s 17 family subdivisions, and the remarkable bond that she has built up with the animals over the past 10 years was instantly clear. “Come on, Misty girl, come and say hello,” Sharon cooed.
Sure enough, like an obedient puppy, a 30-year-old female came over, with her baby Masakhe in tow. Mum stopped just 1m away and allowed Sharon to caress her tusk. Her small eyes glazed over like a purring cat while her back legs crossed – a sign, apparently, of pachyderm pleasure.
As I rummaged for the widest-angle lens I could find, Sharon explained: “Despite many attempts to hunt them, these remain the most relaxed elephants in Africa.” Well, all bar Mertle. The matriarch motored towards us and bumped poor Misty away in a fit of jealousy.
Licence to thrill
There were other wonderful encounters during my stay. Sharon gave one elephant, Lady, a trunk massage, and it was incredible to watch Grace eat acacia pods by dexterously using a foreleg to assist her shortened trunk (the result of getting it caught in a snare).
I also met Inkosikasi, the grizzled, tuskless grand matriarch, who has been around since the 1970s. “The artist David Shepherd came to sketch her years ago and was treated to a full-on charge,” smiled Sharon. “But she’d never do that now,” she added, reassuringly.
Generally speaking, however, Hwange Estate’s wildlife lacked abundance. Poaching has taken a heavy toll on some of Zimbabwe’s private game estates, because a disastrous programme of land redistribution spawned problems with management and opportunistic hunting.
Happily, the national parks are largely well-protected, and there is much more to see in those.
Nearby Hwange National Park’s 14,651km2 of savannah woodlands and grassy plains don’t just host 30,000 elephants; during our dawn drive to Nyamandhlovu Platform I was enchanted by sightings of kudu, giraffes, zebras and buffalos.
Lilac-breasted rollers were ubiquitous, while ground hornbills lumbered across the plains like punch-drunk boxers.
And that’s not all. Earlier in the morning, I’d been lamenting to fellow guests that I’d never seen a cheetah or an African wild dog.
But it wasn’t long before we encountered a full-stomached cheetah resting on a mound – and even a small pack of dogs. I now regret not complaining that I’d never seen a pangolin.