Not far from the Victoria Falls, down dusty, winding tracks of thick red Saharan sand, hides one of the world’s newest luxury safari camps: &beyond’s Matetsi River Lodge. Digital Editor Millie Walton visits the banks of the Zambezi River, watched by a troops of baboons, bush buck and the invisible eyes of a leopard, and contemplates the return of luxury tourism to Zimbabwe.
Beyond the falls, Zimbabwe doesn’t attract many tourists. For one, it’s expensive. In 2008, inflation reached 79.6 billion per cent. In 2009, their currency was redundant and replaced with the US dollar. Crisp Z$200,000,000 bills can now be bought on the side of the road for a couple of dollars, euros or whatever else you have in your pocket. More seriously – and mistakenly – it’s considered a bit of a nowhere. Why go to Zimbabwe, when you can just as easily cross the border into Botswana?
Ask any Zimbabwean and they’ll tell you. It’s in the burnt red earth, the ancient trunks of the baobabs, the hidden caves of the kopjies, the warm golden hue of dusk and the open smiles of it’s people. It’s a country that’s loved deeply and widely, even by those who have been forced to leave it.
Slowly, though, tourism is catching on. At the end of last summer, the luxury travel company &Beyond, renowned for it’s luxury camps across South Africa, returned to Zimbabwe, opening a lodge on the banks of the Zambezi in Matetsi private game reserve. That’s where I’m sitting now, as I write this, on the terrace of our private suite. It’s early afternoon, when the bush is lazy and hot. A large male baboon stares as he stalks past and dips his head to drink from our plunge pool. A bush buck daintly follows behind the troop picking leaves from the trees. A leopard is a resident in the area, but at this time of the day big cats are sleeping and the smaller animals can relax.
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Our suite, like the rest of the camp, is un-fenced so nighttime is a tenser, more exciting time for us too. After a candlelit dinner on the river bank, we’re led by a member of staff back to our room just in case we happen to cross paths with a hungry predator. We know the leopard’s around. During an evening drive, our guide Milton received the call and instantly, the headlights went out, the torch beam sweeping the bush from side to side, catching the gleam of a startled kudu’s eyes. The leopard had moved on or – quite possibly – was watching us from the dark branches of a tree. It’s what I love most about safari: the unpredictability. No matter how good your guide is or how much you’re paying per night, there are never any guarantees. Some animals are so well adapted to the wild that they can seemingly melt into their surroundings and disappear.
A good safari isn’t, for me, what you see, but the experience itself, which is where &Beyond excels. You can tell that instantly from the design of the camp. The buildings are open and inviting, made from materials that interact beautifully with the natural surroundings. Light is given privilege above everything else. It shines dappled through the roof onto concrete floors and licks down the curved walls of the outdoor shower. Smoothed and polished tree trunks act as tables and abstract paintings by an artist in residence hang on the walls. It’s beautiful in it’s simplicity and calming in it’s unobtrusiveness.
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It’s not just the way the camp looks though that sets you at ease. It’s the staff too. They’re warm, fun people, who are genuinely enthusiastic about what they do. There are no set meal times and no menus. When you’re ready to eat, your table is waiting and the choice is limited to a couple of dishes, which can be adapted to your tastes. Honestly, it’s a relief not to be impressed with endless decisions and it’s fitting for the setting. Somehow, it would seem almost grotesque to be fed a seven course tasting menu of rich meats when all around you animals are struggling to survive in the wild.
The game drives or activities (depending on what you choose) are twice daily. At 5am coffee and biscuits are pushed through the butler’s hatch with a wake up call so that the drive can commence just as the sun is rising and the air’s still cool. Whilst the afternoon makes the most of the soft sun before it dyes the sky orange, pink and gold, and dips behind the horizon.
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On our final morning, we kayak down the Zambezi. “Don’t trail your fingers in the water,” our guide warns. “Crocodiles sometimes follow the kayaks because of local fisherman who trail bait.” I watch warily for a yellow eye to appear, but we only see hippos at a distance and otherwise, the water stays still, reflecting the sky like a giant mirror. It’s the best way to see the kingfishers who hover and dive for insects and fish, or the thin legged storks picking their way through the reeds. On the opposite bank is Zambia, where a group of women are collecting water from the river, balancing the buckets on the tops of their heads. Depending on the size of their family, they may need to return three or four times in a single day.
As our truck winds its way back to the camp for the final time there’s rustling and whispering in the front. We seem to slow, then round the corner, a table appears laid for breakfast with champagne, fresh fruit and a braai under the spread arms of a kigelia tree.
Rates start from US$495 per person per night, based on two guests sharing and including all meals and twice daily game drives. For more information about wider andBeyond itineraries and combining Zimbabwe with South Africa, Botswana and island stays in Mozambique and Tanzania please contact your preferred Africa travel specialist or visit www.andBeyond.com