We were in Hwange National Park, the largest reserve in Zimbabwe, and bumps were in ample supply. Water, on the other hand, was a different story – and the cause of Ivan’s exhaustion. He had been up all night, along with every other game ranger within driving distance. Not tracking the nocturnal habits of the wild and exotic creatures of this land – but saving their lives.
Evidence of the struggle filled the air – plumes of smoke rose up into great clouds that bruised the sky in shades of black and purple. Particles of ash rained down like the Devil’s manna. The fire raged on, plundering its way through Hwange’s tinderbox.
The fight was not finished. Despite his urgent need for sleep, Ivan would be out again that night, shovel in hand. The most ancient of firefighting methods, the men could only defend this land with itself – by digging fire lines, shoveling the earth over the flames, suffocating it in its place. It was painstaking work. There was no water.
This is a fact I would learn over and over again during my time at Hwange. Yet it is because it is so dry that this reserve even exists. With no perennial rivers and very little natural surface water, this area was once regarded as a wasteland until 22-year old visionary Ted Davison declared it a Game Reserve in 1928. It is almost totally reliant upon man-made watering holes, supplied by borehole pumps. With water came more animals, tourism flourished, and times were good.
In its heyday there were more than 100 pumps in operation, but then the Crisis hit. From 2000 until 2009, the stability of Zimbabwe was rocked to its core like a ship in a storm at sea. Tourism dried up and so did the economy. In 2005 the effects of extreme drought added even more pressure, the pumps ran out of fuel, and the wildlife of Hwange began to die. An urgent appeal for help was issued and the Friends of Hwange was born – which today contributes private funding to keep the pumps working. Today African Bush Camps is also contributing to the cause with their own campaign, H20 Hwange.
Nowadays things are looking better. Zimbabwe seems to be finding its feet, despite Mugabe’s bungling. Her people remain resolute, passionate about their country. The economy is stronger with the introduction of the US Dollar, and travelers like me are starting to return.
I was looking forward to my first safari in Zimbabwe, and Ivan – camp manager at African Bush Camps’ Somalisa concession, would be my host. As we drove along he told me stories of the many chapters in his young life. How he used to work in the Congo and flew all over Africa, before settling down in his hometown of Bulawayo to become a spice merchant. It wasn’t long before he returned to the Bush though, this time with his newlywed wife Christie (a Cordon Bleu Chef) in tow, for the start of a quieter lifestyle.
Idyllic as it sounds, the wilderness presents challenges of a different sort. Creating a luxury experience for travelers in one of the most remote corners of the bush – where there is limited electricity and water, and where you are hours from the nearest shop – is no small task.
Besides the logistics, there are the gentle giants to contend with (I discovered this myself when an Elephant Parade caused a Zimbabwean Traffic Jam on my way to my tent). And of course there is the constant tug of war between the sparkling clean water intended for the guests swimming pool, and countless herds of elephants who arrive in camp daily, having journeyed a great distance intending to drink it.
As I waited for the Traffic Jam of elephants to clear the path to my camp for the next few nights I stood and reflected. Life at Somalisa would be interesting, I thought. Interesting indeed.
Nominated as a finalist in the 2012 Safari Awards for Best Safari Accommodation Group in Africa, African Bush Camps is a small, privately owned company run by some of the best professional guides in Africa. Somalisa, African Bush Camps’ flagship property, is located in one of the most remote corners of Hwange National Park, halfway between Bulawayo and Victoria Falls in western Zimbabwe.
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