Mary Lussiana experiences the animal magic of Zimbabwe’s national parks with a safari company that offers an entrée to the country’s smartest lodges, camps and private houses
I have waited a long time to experience the African night: to watch the sun sink in a brazen blaze of red, silhouetting the flat-topped acacia trees and the bare branches of the baobabs in transient splendour; to see elephants reflected in the glassy surface of a watering hole in the last light; and to hear grazing zebra and white rhinos venture a little bit closer as sundowners are drained and stories shared.
It is a magical world I have always been hesitant about visiting, fearful of disappointment caused by loud tourists, snapping cameras and Disney-esque animal line-ups. But at a dinner in London, I met Alexander Mavros, the son of the Zimbabwean silver-smith and sculptor Patrick Mavros, who recently launched a safari company with his three younger brothers. Alexander’s passion for his country made me think again and I was lured by the promise of a journey that would offer an insight into Zimbabwe and a chance to see conservation at its best. Head-ine news of the recent controversial elections may have raised cause for concern, but the Mavros family believes firmly that the recent change in government will give their country its greatest chance of stability. ‘Zimbabwe has been in the shadows for 20 years,’ Alexander explained. ‘But hopefully we can now move forward and focus on the future.’
And so my adventure began, based on a nine-night itinerary created by Mavros Safaris. My route would take me across much of the country – by four-wheel drive and sometimes private plane – staying in a variety of camps, lodges and private houses that the Mavros family considers to be the best in each location.
My starting point was Singita Pamushana, in the south-east of the country, where nine beautiful thatched cottages, rich with local Shangaan design, overlook the green waters of the Malilangwe Dam. The lodge is set in 130,000 acres of private reserve with an abundant population of game, including endangered black and white rhino, elephants, lions, warthogs and hippos, which, during the first night’s sundowner cruise, lay submerged in the river like fat, pink stepping stones. The Singita group is known for its conservation work and its outpost in Zimbabwe has an impressive antipoaching task force, as well as expert guides who can talk just as knowledgeably about rock art as they can about the four-chambered stomach of a wildebeest.
A few days later, I was introduced to Zimbabwe’s most eminent expert on rock art, Paul Hubbard – our meeting strategically arranged in the Matobo National Park, south of Bulawayo. The extraordinary landscape is dominated by vast granite boulders and known for the Nswatugi Cave, where excavations have revealed beautiful 10,000-year-old depictions of giraffe, elephant and kudu. That night, we stayed nearby in the private house of Beks Ndlovu, owner of safari company African Bush Camps and a personal friend of the Mavroses (a typical example of the kind of doors the family can open). The remote house had huge floor-to-ceiling windows, which framed the magnificent granite scenery, and a long table on which Dean, the charming Mavros Safaris chef, cooked up a feast.
En route to Hwange National Park in west Zimbabwe, we paused on the outskirts of Harare to visit Patrick Mavros at his workshop and to lunch with him at the family homestead. His shop on London’s Fulham Road may be the best showcase for his animal- and Africa-inspired jewellery and sculptures, but his studio affords a fascinating glimpse of the craftsman at work.
Then on to Hwange and the new Verney’s Camp, where 10 elegant Out of Africa canvas tents were pitched between a teak forest and a watering hole. The dining tent was filled with antique campaign furniture and the silver and cut glass on the table gleamed in the light of the chandeliers reminiscent of a past era. Just outside the tent, the warmth of the firepit gathered staff and guests for a nightcap under the stars.
For the final leg of the journey, I flew by private charter to Victoria Falls, known as the Smoke that Thunders – its spray rising high into the air, visible from far above as we circled in to land. Our accommodation was 40km upriver, at Matetsi Victoria Falls, where 20 sleek villas border a private stretch of the Zambezi River. Each one had handmade contemporary African furnishings, a pool and a candle-lit circular bathtub overlooking the river. But it is for the animals that I will remember my stay there. A no-boundaries policy added more than a frisson of excitement, with a mother elephant and her baby to be dodged one night, and a pack of lions another. But this was, after all, Africa.
Ways and Means
Mary Lussiana visited Zimbabwe as a guest of Mavros Safaris (020-3824 6000; mavrossafaris.com), which organizes bespoke itineraries from $6,000 per person, full board, including flights and transfers.