Ray squats down and inspects the tracks carefully, his rifle held in the crook of one arm. “These are from yesterday,” he says, pointing to where the fine dusty edge of the print has been blurred by the breeze. “It’s a big male – very big. The one we heard roaring just before dawn.”
That was an hour ago. I glance around the silent trees, half expecting to see a big cat staring back at me. Ray gets up and searches the ground nearby. “Looks like there are two lionesses with him,” he says.
We walk on through the dry forest. At a glance the area looks dead, but closer inspection reveals signs of recovery: green shoots are appearing, the trees are gambling on rain coming soon. Ray leads on for about a mile then stops and inspects another lion print. This time the track is fresh. There is a stiff breeze blowing but the print is perfect. Ray nods and says: “They were moving around this morning.” He glances at me. “Remember the rules. Stay with the gun. Never run.”
I was wondering how I could politely ask: “Are you a good shot?” But I knew the answer: all guides in Zimbabwe are great shots. It’s part of their training, an apprenticeship that consistently produces top wildlife guides who are supremely competent in those awkward social moments, like a lion charge. In Ray’s case, I knew he had spent his life handling such tricky situations, having been born and brought up in this place: Hwange national park. It’s a giant of a reserve, 5,400 square miles, bigger than Yorkshire or the state of Massachusetts, but just one element in a vast ecosystem that extends into Botswana, Namibia and southern Angola.
We move on again. The bush is thicker and visibility at times down to as little as 10 metres. Then we come to a small clearing. “They slept here,” whispers Ray. He kneels down by a patch of wet, sandy earth – lion urine – and sticks his finger in to take the temperature. “They are very close.”
He stands and finds the cats’ trail leaving the clearing. We follow it. Then we see the dead buffalo, a female lying in the shade of a tree. Its eyes have been pecked out, but it has yet to be disembowelled. Ray touches the carcass.
“Cold.” He frowns. “It can’t have been killed last night: the birds wouldn’t have got to the eyes yet. But if it was the night before last, why have they eaten so little?”
I’m standing, camera at the ready. There are fresh tracks all around us. I feel like I’m watching a chef who is about to whip open the oven door: “Voila! It’s ready!” All the ingredients in place for a feast of lion-watching – or maybe just a feast. Who is the masterchef here: is it Ray, or the lion? Three of them against two men and one gun – which is not with me, thankfully, but I do wish I’d brought something resembling a weapon. Will a Canon EOS 7D camera block up a lion’s mouth?
I’d arrived in Zimbabwe expecting surprises and with lots of questions. This was a country that had gone from being the bread basket of southern Africa to a basket case in a few short years. The catalogue of disasters was damning: thousands of villagers in Matabeleland had been slaughtered; white farmers had been terrorised and robbed; thousands of black farmworkers had lost their homes and jobs; the economy had been ruined and much of the population had fled abroad. Now there was talk of a recovery and a tourist influx but in the face of such an indictment, I asked myself, should anyone go to Zimbabwe?
No sooner had I arrived than I was asking that same question to everyone I met. The replies were always frank.
“It’s different now,” one man told me. “We have a power-sharing government. Tourists should definitely come,” he said.
“When there were no tourists,” said another, “I never knew if my family would eat.”
Others honed in on underlying issues. “How much of your money actually goes to the government? I’ll tell you – just the $55 visa fee.” And, of course, land redistribution came up: “It had to be done,” was a common refrain. “The British stole it, then sold it to each other and thought that was all fine. But the land seizures … aish!”
That sound: aish, you hear it a lot in Zimbabwe when words are inadequate. When people talk about the period between the 2002 and 2008 elections, you hear it constantly. This was a time when visitor numbers nosedived. Zimbabwe’s market share of African tourism had peaked in the 90s at around 8% but that halved in five years. In Hwange the total number of permanent safari lodges and seasonal camps fell from around 35-40 into single figures.
Tour operators in the UK had difficult decisions to make. “We kept Zimbabwe in our brochures,” says Chris McIntyre of Expert Africa. “It was important – especially for the small, owner-run operations that we’d known for years – to show them that we wouldn’t abandon them in the bad times and that we took our responsibilities to them seriously.”
Out in the country I found that loyalty did not go unnoticed. “We had so few tourists,” said one man who had kept his job, “But those few kept us alive.” When people say such things, the true significance of a decision to boycott a country sinks in.
“For evil to prevail,” one black Zimbabwean hotel owner told me, “it only needs good men to do nothing.”
These people, I thought, see tourism as something with real economic and moral power, something that can have a significant and beneficial effect on Zimbabwe’s future.
So, I am standing there, an hour after first light, watching Ray dip his finger in a dead buffalo, one that belongs to a lion pride that is undoubtedly only metres away. And I start grinning because I had never asked the question: “Is Zimbabwe safe?” And if I had, it would have been with people in mind: angry war vets, baton-wielding police, violent mobs. Any safety threat, I’d imagined, would come charging at me in a uniform, not a sandy yellow fur coat with canines as long as my hand. Why hadn’t I thought of that? Because the short-term political world distracts us from the deeper, more eternal questions of the natural order, questions such as: am I about to become a feline breakfast?
Ray motions with his rifle and moves off. I follow. It is almost impossible to be silent in these dry leaves but fortunately the lions have left a big dusty trail. We walk in their footprints. Then suddenly Ray is pointing. “There!”
I catch sight of a lioness’s backside, then a few flickers of straw-coloured bodies through the trees. Through one gap, a face pauses momentarily. My gaze connects for an instant with a pair of sombre, yellow eyes, then they are gone. We set off in pursuit, but after a few minutes Ray stops. “They got spooked. We’ll never catch them now.”
I hadn’t expected that: the king of the jungle to be afraid of us. But Ray nods. “Sometimes they will sit, rarely they will charge, but usually they run away.” It doesn’t matter to me. I’m elated. Seeing lions on foot is an adrenaline-charged pleasure even when very brief. We decide to call off our lion hunt and go find some breakfast back at Somalisa Camp.
A tented site, Somalisa is built with minimal impact under a bunch of tall acacia trees that spread between two waterholes. At each there is a small pool, not more than three metres across protected by a shallow moat. As the heat of the day fades, elephants come to both. Once there they drop their trunks in, suck up water, and then pour it down their throats. The particular experience here, however, is to slide into the pool and sit quietly in the water, the vast animals looming overhead as the evening comes. After their drink the giants stroll off through the camp – there is no fence.
When Beks Ndlovu, a black, Zimbabwean wildlife guide, started Somalisa in 2006, it was his first venture and also the worst possible time: electoral violence and land seizures had brought economic chaos. By November 2008 basic commodities were doubling in price every hour of the day and the currency was, quite literally, not worth the paper it was printed on.
But elections led to a power-sharing government the following February and after that came recognition that the Zimbabwean dollar was dead. No one would accept it any more. The US dollar was declared the main currency. Since then Zimbabwe has been crawling its way back from the edge of the abyss. “Things are getting better,” says Ndlovu. “Our business has grown to eight camps in Zimbabwe and Botswana.”
Next day I find a sign of the growing confidence a few hours’ drive away at Camp Hwange, a new operation set up by Dave Carson. In the dark days of hyperinflation, Dave moved his employees out to wildlife camps in Botswana, saving them from a fate that came to many black Zimbabweans: a border run and escape to Johannesburg. Now there is a new semi-circle of six luxury lodges strung around a waterhole that is filled from a borehole.
“Hwange is a very dry area,” explains Dave. “The boreholes and pumps were started in the 1930s and without them, the animals could not survive. They’d all have to move away,” he says.
Even with the extra water, this time at the end of the dry season is a deadly period. Everywhere we see baobab trees that have been gnawed through by hungry elephants, while each waterhole seems to have the carcass of a young animal that didn’t survive, always presided over by a committee of vultures. That evening we see long lines of elephants marching towards the waterhole, a few of them running.
“Some come long distances,” says Dave as we stand by the campfire, just a couple of hundred metres away. “We don’t know what those animals have been through. Some have probably had bad experiences.” As if to prove him right, the herd is about to throw up an example of one such individual.
Our original plan was to walk out to a hide that Dave has built under an African ebony tree next to the water. Unfortunately, we’ve left it too late and there are so many elephants rushing in that we need to drive. First, we skirt the pan. In the treeline we spot kudu, impala and sable, all waiting for the elephants to finish. The birds have no such qualms: lines of guinea fowl come chuckling along in the dust while the sky is strafed with pigeons. The elephants take long drinks, then chuck themselves in, throwing great splatters of mud over themselves, and us. The air fills with dust and the contented sounds of animals that know they have survived another day.
We motor slowly around the back, attempting to reach the hide. One cow elephant is behaving aggressively, rushing at other animals, waving her ears and trunk. The object of her anger, however, always seems to be other females of similar age and size. She doesn’t tackle the big males. She doesn’t tackle Land Rovers. Dave goes slowly, keeping a respectful distance. “We’ll just see if she’ll let us into the hide.”
No sooner are the words out of his mouth than she drops her head and charges. Our forward path is blocked by lines of elephants who are still pouring in towards the water. Dave slams us into reverse, wrenches the wheel around. We shoot back and around. Then for a split second we are motionless. The elephant is six or seven car lengths away and closing fast. Dave bangs the driver’s door and shouts at her, but she is determined to show this tin pachyderm who is boss. We speed away. The mad cow stops, shakes her trunk and ears, then looks around, like a playground bully seeking any signs of mockery in the onlookers. There is another smaller cow elephant standing near. She’d seen everything. Maybe she sniggered. Next thing, the mad cow is chasing her off behind the ebony tree.
“Some of theses elephants might not have seen vehicles or even humans before,” says Carson. “So we are careful with them.”
Later on, when the skittish female has gone, we climb into the hide – a pile of protective logs around the bole of the ebony tree. All around are huge elephants and the sounds of water gurgling down large and thirsty throats. The sun dies in a blazing thorn tree behind us. After dark, when all the big animals have gone, I walk back to the lodge with Dave and we talk about tourism and conservation.
“The wildlife rangers do an amazing job keeping Hwange going,” says Dave, shining his torch up into a tree to reveal an African scops owl. “But without tourists it would be very vulnerable.”
It seems as straightforward an argument for visiting Zimbabwe as any I’ve heard. Without the economic clout that tourism brings, wilderness areas can offer little resistance to pressure from other business interests, notably mining. Mana Pools, a world heritage site and one of the country’s leading attractions, is under threat from mining companies interested in its mineral sands, and Hwange itself is bordered by open-cast coal operations that are spilling over into the park. Everywhere wildlife is being called on to justify its existence. Beks Ndlovu puts it like this: “If it is to survive, wildlife must have a value and tourism provides that. When we say that these areas should be protected and not mined or exploited in any other way that appears economically viable, it is tourism that gives us a powerful argument.”