For many years travelers have avoided Zimbabwe, aware that the country was ruled by a brutal regime. But Robert Mugabe’s time is growing short, safari lodges are filling up, and the spectacular wildlife is flourishing again.
I'm having lunch on the terrace of the Victoria Falls Hotel, something I never would have done a few years ago. Even now, as I look out over the manicured lawns and the baboons and spider monkeys romping among the trees, I am uneasy.
When Robert Mugabe's power as leader of Zimbabwe was at its cruel height, this hotel provided the dictator with a reliable flow of hard currency and served as a showpiece of the dictatorship. Mugabe's men could point to the tourists here and say, "See, everything is normal." I didn't want to be part of that charade.
Today Mugabe, eighty-eight and ailing, still rules the country with an iron fist. There is a sense, though, that his time is almost up. The economy is in the hands of Tendai Biti, a leader of the opposition who has a reputation for honesty. Animals are no longer perishing in great numbers; poaching has fallen off; and tourists are starting to come back to Zimbabwe.
Earlier, midway through Mugabe's rule, the country was still an enchanting place to be. When I came on safari in 1990, I followed elephants on foot with an Afrikaner guide through the sweeping savanna of Hwange, the country's largest national park; stayed in colonial-style luxury on a houseboat in Lake Kariba; and paddled with a young black guide down the hippo-filled Zambezi River, sleeping on the sandy banks at night. But when I was here in 2005, I saw a country reeling from drought and corruption. Hwange was in ruins—its animals were dying of thirst and disease because the government couldn't afford to keep the water holes filled.
This time, everywhere I go on my ten-day tour, I'm struck by the beauty, the abundance of wildlife, and the optimism that's taking hold. Old journalist friends I speak with in Harare sound relieved, at times amazed, at how things have settled down, and note new restaurants and weekend getaways to game parks as signs of stability. "At last it's possible to imagine having a real life here," BBC producer Firle Davies, who recently moved back to Zimbabwe, tells me.
I look around the packed terrace. The hotel bottomed out in 2008, when the occupancy rate sank to twenty-five percent and menu prices had to be changed hourly to keep up with inflation. "Everything was out of stock," says my lunch companion, the hotel's general manager, Karl Snater. "The staff were not earning a fair wage." Beyond the garden, I can hear the distant roar of Victoria Falls, which has symbolized the continent's natural splendor ever since 1855, when the Scottish explorer David Livingstone became the first European to set eyes on the cataract—called Mosi-oa-Tunya, or the Smoke that Thunders, by the Makololo tribe. Snater tells me that occupancy is now up to fifty-five percent and the hotel will turn a profit for the first time in a decade.
The idea that this combustive country of twelve million blacks and fewer than a hundred thousand whites may be emerging from Mugabe's ruinous reign is a seductive one. The sad history is well known: Mugabe, hailed as a liberation hero when he took power in 1980, devolved into a despot who dispatched underlings to beat and kill opponents. He seized three thousand white-owned farms and handed them out to cronies and wovits, "war vets" of the country's liberation battles (fought between 1972 and 1979)—unemployed, uneducated men, mostly from rural areas, who served as the regime's shock troops. Agriculture collapsed, factories closed, and unemployment skyrocketed. Hyperinflation made the Zimbabwe dollar worthless. People were starving. A severe drought in 2005 brought further misery. The country's wildlife suffered horribly.
Hungry Zimbabweans hunted the animals for food. Some of the worst slaughter was taking place on private white-owned farms and game reserves overrun by wovits and poor squatters. In 2007, the World Wildlife Fund estimated that eighty percent of wildlife on such private land had been killed. In November 2010, a Zimbabwean camper was attacked by a pride of lions while showering outdoors at a fishing camp near Mana Pools; conservationists suggested that the killing was the result of "traumatized" wildlife being pushed off private land by wovits and seeking sanctuary in the national park. And between 2006 and 2009, Zimbabwe lost more than twenty-five percent of its rhino population to poaching.
The reasons for the recent positive turn are multi-fold. Violence against white Zimbabweans has dropped dramatically, partly because most white farms have already been seized but also because of pressure put on Mugabe since 2009 by South African president Jacob Zuma and other regional leaders. In recent years, foreign investors have started renovating lodges and putting money into new hotels and safari camps. This has been aided by Zimbabwe's adopting the U.S. dollar, as well as the fact that Mugabe was forced in 2008 to share power with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, led by Morgan Tsvangirai. And all this, of course, has led to a noticeable increase in visitors to Zimbabwe's famed parks and reserves: Tourism revenues have climbed to about $26 million annually—still a long way from the $777 million peak in 1999.
This is all happening despite the fact that Mugabe is still around—evidenced by threats against opposition supporters and the eviction of pro-opposition Anglican priests from their homes. While the government is now in theory a coalition, Mugabe still controls the army, the police, and the courts. "One side has all the power, and the opposition is desperately fighting for space," a human rights activist in Harare tells me. The day before I arrive, retired general Solomon Mujuru, a onetime Mugabe associate who turned against him, was found burned to death in his farmhouse. Mugabe called the death accidental.
The single-engine Cessna 206 touches down at dusk on a dirt airstrip in Hwange National Park, 5,600 square miles of acacia groves, savanna grass, and mopani scrub on the edge of the Kalahari Desert. Created by the British in 1928, Hwange stood as a model of African wildlife conservation. Lacking natural sources of water during the dry season, the park owes its existence to eighty man-made ponds, or pans, filled by pumps that bring groundwater from hundreds of feet beneath the surface.
Even during the worst of the Mugabe years, this fragile system managed to support one of Africa's largest concentrations of elephants—between 25,000 and 30,000. And with 105 species of mammals here, including herds of buffalo, eland, zebras, sables, and wildebeests, along with 250 lions, Hwange also has one of the highest levels of biodiversity of any game park in Africa. I've barely left the airstrip when the first herd comes into view: two hundred Cape buffalo shambling along the savanna, a pair of jackals prowling at the edge.
I'm on my way to Little Makalolo, a lodge operated by Wilderness Safaris. After the economy imploded, Wilderness Safaris—whose concession, with four tented camps, occupies seven percent of Hwange—considered closing up shop. Most of the two dozen other lodges and tented camps in the park went out of business. But the company's directors diverted income from Botswana operations and funds from its nonprofit Wilderness Wildlife Fund to pay the Hwange camp's staff and keep its dozen water holes running. "When there was a drought and no fuel, forty percent of the animals in the whole park migrated to our concession," says Sibahle "Sibs" Sibanda, a guide, as we walk from the rustic lodge to my luxury tent through a grove of leadwood trees.
Poaching, while still an issue, has receded, a strong disincentive being the authorization of anti-poaching patrols to shoot to kill (if fired upon). Last May, two rhino poachers were killed by an anti-poaching squad at the edge of Hwange Park. There are also gentler approaches: Dean McGregor, a safari guide at Bumi Hills Safari Lodge in Matusadona National Park, helps run an unarmed anti-poaching unit that removes wire snares and frees trapped animals. "Poachers were trucking meat out of here in the backs of pickups and selling it in the villages," he told me. "We've been repopulating the area with game. You would not have seen animals like this a couple years ago. It was desolate." And to help fight hunger—the main reason for illegal bush-meat poaching—Wilderness Safaris runs a program that feeds children in surrounding communities.
Encouraged, new players are emerging in Hwange. Among the most enterprising is Beks Ndlovu, a thirty-five-year-old former guide who owns Somalisa Camp. Somalisa is in a grove of acacia trees at the edge of a pan that draws a steady flow of animals throughout the day, including a breeding herd of elephants which appear at sunset to drink. I chat with Ndlovu, one of the country's most successful black safari operators, on a teak deck leading to a small swimming pool, where guests sip drinks while bobbing in the chilly water, waiting for the elephants to arrive. In 2005, Ndlovu, who grew up near Hwange, saw an opportunity. "The white tour operators were put out of business. They left and went to Zambia, Namibia, Botswana, other neighboring countries," he says. "The parks department was desperate to revive tourism in Hwange and bring in some revenue." With a handful of European investors, he put in an offer for a concession in Hwange. He's now turning a profit and operates another tent camp in Zimbabwe's Mana Pools National Park and two more in Botswana.
Ndlovu tells me he believes the unity government has provided the economic stability to attract tourism. As we sit talking on the deck, I hear a rustle in the trees, and a procession of elephants approaches the pan. The animals—mothers and calves, including two wobbly infants—crowd around the water hole. A few braver ones approach the swimming pool, where the water apparently tastes better. They're so close that I could lean forward and touch them, but I sit frozen in place, silently observing the spectacle.
I head to Mana Pools National Park, seventy miles down the Zambezi from Lake Kariba, where Nick Murray, a trained zoologist, runs the Vundu Camp. Mana Pools is known for its six thousand hippopotamuses, robust herds of elephants, and one of southern Africa’s largest populations of wild dogs. Murray and I are walking through a copse of leadwood and mahogany trees draped in a bright-green creeper known as combretum. In the distance, I hear hippos grunting on the banks of the wide, sluggish Zambezi. Trumpeter hornbills dart overhead, and wild dogs lope through the grass, snouts smeared with blood after a morning antelope kill.
“We go through times when we see lions and wild dogs every day,” Murray tells me. “Ten years ago, it might have been two weeks between sightings.”
Murray has been a player in Zimbabwe’s racial dramas since he was a boy. His father, a member of a white Rhodesian Army mounted unit called the Grey’s Scouts, fought Mugabe’s freedom fighters during the civil war and was killed in action in 1978, when Nick was nine. In 2003, when many white guides were fleeing the country, Murray and his wife took over a concession along the river from a bankrupt operator. “It was a gamble,” he tells me, “but we wanted to be in the right place if tourism started to build.” War veterans at a government plantation hijacked lumber and forced the Murrays to pay double the agreed-on price; the government made them redo their environmental-impact statement, setting the project back months. In 2008, the Murrays opened Vundu, five canvas tents pitched around a lodge, built on eight-foot-high eucalyptus stilts, with a thatched roof.
Life has certainly gotten easier for all Zimbabweans in recent years, but the racial tensions that exploded a decade ago still simmer. A young woman who works in the Murrays’ camp was a neighbor of Mike Campbell’s, a septuagenarian white farmer who had purchased his farm before Zimbabwe’s independence. Campbell later resisted attempts by Mugabe’s men to seize it and, along with his son-in-law Ben Freeth, was abducted, severely beaten, and dumped on the road in 2008; Campbell eventually died from complications of his beating, and his farm was burned to the ground.
“It can still happen to any one of us,” the young woman tells me over dinner at the camp. “We’re all potential targets.”
Another serious challenge to camp owners is Mugabe’s Indigenization and Economic Empowerment Law, which requires all foreign-owned businesses worth more than $500,000 to cede fifty-one percent of their shares to black Zimbabweans. In January 2011, two hundred wovits invaded the Admiral’s Cabin, a popular white-owned safari lodge and restaurant inside the Kuimba Shiri Bird Park on Lake Chivero. Owner Gary Stafford, who stood his ground with his son, told reporters that the assailants cited the law as justification. “They are saying they want ‘to empower the people,’ ” Stafford says. Several independent newspapers in Zimbabwe have reported that Mugabe’s nephew, Patrick Zhuwao, covets the camp.
The repeated blows and threats have taken a toll on Murray, who feels the longer the coalition government is in place, the better for everyone. The alternatives—a corrupt dictator or an inept oppositionist—could be worse: “We need to wait until a qualified leader emerges out of the opposition,” he says—or risk the collapse of renascent tourism and animal conservation efforts.
The next day, Murray and I climb into a boat and paddle downstream on the Zambezi. I am eyeing the waters, mindful of a story he told me. Five years ago, a fourteen-foot crocodile had climbed over the stern of his canoe, snatched his backpack and rifle, and made a lunge for him. He shot the reptile between the shoulders with his Magnum pistol, and “the crocodile went into his death roll and took the canoe over with him.”
The fierce heat of midday has begun to subside, and I lean back in my bow seat, listening to the rhythmic dipping of Murray’s paddle into the coffee-colored water. To my left, the bush-covered hills of Zambia rise beyond a shoreline studded with fishing camps; to my right in Zimbabwe, thick stands of acacia and mahogany extend to yellow sand banks populated with pods of hippos and solitary crocodiles. The hippos plunge into the river with pig-like grunts, bobbing up and down, eyes following us. We paddle through muddy channels, past islands covered with phragmites, a wetland grass that grows to fifteen feet. Murray keeps an eye out for buffalo and elephants in the thickets. The marsh abounds with malachite kingfishers—tiny birds with turquoise heads and wings and bright-orange breasts—as well as with white egrets, fish eagles, Egyptian geese, and massive Goliath herons.
Singita Pamushana Lodge, in the Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve, may be a sneak peek into Zimbabwe’s future. The 105,000-acre reserve is owned by the nonprofit Malilangwe Trust, backed by the fifty-seven-year-old hedge fund billionaire Paul Tudor Jones and some friends, and it embodies the idea that to protect animals you must also offer a livelihood to the neighboring people. Even during Zimbabwe’s hardest years, Singita Pamushana kept local people fed and poachers at bay.
A Toyota Land Cruiser takes me from a private airstrip through arid hills speckled with baobab trees to a boom gate, where a golf cart is waiting for me. My cottage could be an Africa theme park on steroids: curving mud-colored walls decorated with chevron patterns of red, green, and white, based on the fabrics of the local Shangaan tribe; shields; beaded chandeliers; an oversized teak bed shrouded in mosquito netting; and a private plunge pool. Five other cottages and one large villa are scattered across the property. In 1995, the trust bought this former ranch and imported thousands of animals, including forty endangered black rhinos and white rhinos from South Africa. It hired seventy scouts to police the property and surrounded it with an electric fence.
Over a dinner of parsnip and potato soup with white truffle oil, red snapper fillet, and pumpkin pie with crystallized ginger strips, general manager Jason Turner tells me that three years ago, Pamushana could go two months without a guest. The lodge now averages thirty a month, with celebrities such as Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Shakira turning up.
The Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve has one of Africa’s most successful rhino reintroduction and protection programs. The trust also operates irrigation works, community gardens, and a feeding program in the nearby Chiredzi district that provided meals to 45,000 children per day during the worst of Zimbabwe’s food shortages—it now feeds 22,000 kids.
But even good guys have to play politics. Singita Pamushana lies in the heart of Zimbabwe’s Masvingo Province, previously a stronghold of Mugabe’s ruling party, and the trust has worked hard to cultivate cordial relations with the local governing council, controlled by a Mugabe loyalist. “When we hear rumblings, people talking negatively about Singita Pamushana, we get information so we can quickly rebut it,” says Turner. The fact that Pamushana is owned by a nonprofit trust—rather than by an individual white owner—“has taken the personalization out of it.”
Even so, there have been a few close calls. For two weeks, a gang of wovits camped on an adjacent property while the private security force stood back, wary of picking a fight with an outfit that apparently had Mugabe’s backing. Instead, the council chief and other powerful local politicians persuaded them to leave.
Singita Pamushana’s privacy and amenities don’t draw just celebrities. Saadi Qaddafi, the deposed Libyan dictator’s soccer-playing son, came here with six friends during Ramadan in September 2010. The chef worked around the clock, preparing iftar feasts and midnight and pre-dawn meals, while a local documentary filmmaker gave Qaddafi personal tours of the Malilangwe reserve. “He’d gotten three pieces of land [from Mugabe], and he was showing them to me on the map,” says Turner, who spent months pressing the Libyan embassy to pay the six-figure bill. “We were happy to see the last of them.”
I head out with Tengwe Siabwanda, a staff guide, to see the animals. Alighting from our vehicle, Siabwanda spots a family of white rhinos (the term—a corruption of wide rhinos—refers to their wide mouth, not their color) grazing in a grove of mopanis, and leads me on hands and knees toward them. We creep to within fifteen yards of the beasts and watch them in silence. I note the massive haunches, the huge horns. Then the rhinos turn and run, crashing through the brush away from us.
Speaking by phone from his base in Bulawayo, in southern Zimbabwe, Education Minister David Coltart points out that, though Mugabe’s party still controls the Ministry of Mines, Environment and Tourism (which runs the national parks), most tourist revenue currently flows through the Finance Ministry, which is controlled by the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Coltart, a human rights lawyer from Bulawayo who helped found the MDC, is now the only white member of Zimbabwe’s parliament; I’ve met him repeatedly over the years during my clandestine visits to the country and have found him to be one of its most insightful politicians. He sees Mugabe weekly at cabinet meetings, sitting a few seats down the table from the dictator. “Some in civil society may support a boycott—mainly those in exile,” Coltart says. “But I think most would not, and certainly none of the political parties would, including the MDC.”
A few leaders of the anti-Mugabe movement—mostly people who are overseas—urge tourists to stay away from Zimbabwe, arguing that entry receipts from the national parks and lease fees paid by safari operators give legitimacy to an outlaw regime.
On the other hand, it’s questionable whether Mugabe and his men really care about tourism. Not far from Malilangwe lie the Chiadzwa diamond fields, seized by Zimbabwe’s army in November 2008—where much greater profits are to be made. “The amount of money that Mugabe and his crew get from tourism is insignificant,” says Angus Shaw, the Harare correspondent for the Associated Press and a Zimbabwean who has covered Mugabe since he came to power. He is one of many leading Zimbabweans who believe that Western tourist dollars do far more to protect wildlife and provide employment than they benefit the aging dictator and his friends. “Mugabe has so much money, he doesn’t need tourism,” says Dean McGregor, the safari guide who helps run the Bumi Hills Anti-Poaching Unit. “Maybe if you’ve got aspirations to become a big hotelier, that will attract attention. But nobody in Zimbabwe is going to open a Four Seasons Hotel in the near future. Mugabe doesn’t care about bush camps.”
It remains unclear what kind of leadership will come after Mugabe. Prime Minister Tsvangirai, an inspiring campaigner who dared to fight against Mugabe despite getting severely beaten several times, is considered to be honest but has earned a reputation among his critics for being more at home on the golf course than in the halls of government. Ibbo Mandaza, a former freedom fighter, believes that many MDC leaders are more interested in “feeding at the trough” than in governing the country effectively.
Nonetheless, there is a sense among everyone I talk to that Zimbabwe will become a new country when Mugabe finally passes from the scene. Smart and dedicated leaders are coming up—including Finance Minister Tendai Biti, who has restored a degree of fiscal responsibility and transparency, and Coltart, who has brought teachers back to work after the collapse of the country’s schools under Mugabe.
On my last day, I join Nick Murray, owner of Vundu Camp, for a dawn walk in search of wild dogs. These animals’ survival, he tells me, depends upon both tourists and conservationists; without them, the anti-poaching teams will disintegrate for lack of money, and research will grind to a halt.
Standing on the banks of the Zambezi River, listening to Murray talk with such passion about his work, I wonder if tourism might one day play an even bigger role in Zimbabwe’s recovery, pumping more cash into the game reserves, funding additional conservation and research programs, allowing the national parks to become self-sustaining, and providing more jobs for local people. I can envision the Zambezi Valley, Hwange National Park, and the southern bushveld becoming as lucrative as Kenya’s Masai Mara Reserve or South Africa’s Kruger National Park.
As the sun rises over Mozambique, across the river, we find the “Vundu pack” on a grassy plot—seventeen feral creatures with black snouts and mottled black-and-yellow fur, in pursuit of a family of warthogs. “They’ll chase them, but they won’t try to kill them,” Murray says. “The warthogs have tusks—they’re too high-risk.”
Sure enough, soon the dogs give up and bound back down the road, heading for their den.
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