Having heard so much about how wonderful a Zimbabwe safari was in the good old days, and how they are soon to become the holiday of a lifetime destination once again, I was intrigued at long last to experience one for myself - and it didn't disappoint!
All the negatives I had heard over the years about Zimbabwe (all the wildlife has been killed, it's a dangerous no-go zone, there's no food and supplies, no petrol, nothing in the shops) were deemed completely untrue. I knew this was the case, but to really see it with my own eyes was so exciting - and I loved every minute of it.
Don't believe those who are afraid to return because it won't be how it used to be - it's better! There's a winning combination of some solid "old hands" who refused to be nudged out when times were tough and a new generation of enthusiastic young guns with fresh and exciting ideas and approaches to conservation, as well as camp building.
Heaps of Game
No game? Ha! After a long journey from Heathrow via Johannesburg and Harare, we finally stepped off our third plane into the bush in Malilangwe Reserve at dusk, breathed in that heady bush smell and stretched our legs...
Within 30 minutes we had seen two cheetah, two rhino, and watched a herd of elephants enjoy a sundowner at the waterhole as we enjoyed a cold gin and tonic and some delicious snacks as the sun went down - and we hadn't even got to our luxury camp, Singita Pamushana, yet! I certainly wasn't expecting such an amazing welcome from the wildlife of Zimbabwe, even though we knew Singita would be a spoiling start.
The same can be said of the warm and welcoming Zimbabweans who greeted us throughout the most incredible and comprehensive two week tailor made trip that took us around all of this landlocked country (bar the Eastern Highlands, which we didn't quite make it to this time around).
For a country and population that has really been through the mill at the hands of a well publicised and at times terrifying regime, it was quite staggering how warm, smiley and inspiring everyone we met were.
The guiding we experienced everywhere was second to none, the passion and knowledge spilling forth and the enthusiasm contagious. They go through rigourous training here to become a guide, and only a small percentage actually pass the exams each year, so you know you are going to get someone who really knows their stuff and has the passion to succeed.
Camps with character
The luxury camps are all so different, yet all super comfortable, and offer amazing food. There's really something for everyone depending on your preference, and we met so many characters along the way who just made the whole experience so rewarding.
The parks themselves weren't that busy, and the camps make you really feel like you are somewhere special, especially as they're not yet overly populated - no jostling with other vehicles around sightings.
Added bonus? It's so much easier on the wallet than its neighbours Botswana and Zambia. I fear this won't last for ever as more and more of us visit and spread the word, but for now, tailor-made holidays to Zimbabwe are still offering incredible value for money.
So much to see
What really surprised me was the diversity of the country, its parks and what we saw, did and learnt in each of them. We got the heart beating fast as we tracked rhino on foot in Singita's Malilangwe Reserve (they are HUGE when on foot and only a few feet away!), enjoyed a day in Gonarezhou ogling its sheer expanse, beauty, remoteness and scenery. We climbed the balancing rock kingdom of the Matapos to visit Cecil Rhodes' grave for sunset, with Paul Hubbard bringing the spiritual heart of Zimbabwe to life. He's fast becoming Zim's answer to the late David Rattray at Rorke's Drift.
Wequite literally shared a swimming pool with the trunks of 15 thirsty elephants in Hwange; we canoed past hippos, crocs and buffalo on the Lower Zambezi; walked through garden of eden woodland of Mana Pools with legendary Stretch Fereirra; tried our hand at fishing at the huge freshwater Lake Kariba and watched lion feasting on hippo from a boat at Musango Island on Kariba with another legendary guide, Steve Edwards. Oh, and we finished it off with a visit to the magnificent Victoria Falls!
Lux for less
Original Travel holidays here really do cater for all budgets, as you can even do some road transfers between some of the parks to keep costs down. It's possible to make it an affordable safari experience, as there are lots of great value camps - but equally feasible to get your private charter to the remoter corners, splash out with a Singita safari experience and twin it with some mobile camping and walking in Gonarezhou. Now is the time to go, before the rest of the world catches on!