After 27 hours en route from Florida to Hwange National Park in central Zimbabwe, I’m not going to win any beauty contests. The landscape here, however rolling fi elds fl anked by a thick tree line and an amber sky signaling end of day is a top contender. My guide, Sam, gives my foggy traveler brain a primer on the animals I might see on our initial game drive, starting just fi ve short minutes after the 10-seat Cessna lands clumsily on the red-clay airstrip. Before our group heads to Linkwasha Camp, the newest settlement by Wilderness Safaris, we hop into the Land Rover and head out in search of our fi rst animal sightings.
A 3-ton bull elephant grazes solo in the open bush a few paces away.
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It’s the fi rst time I’ve ever seen one in the wild, and it’s majestic. Confi dent, quiet, powerful. Along the tree line, Sam points out the elephant’s herd, barely visible to our tired eyes, but Sam’s training Zimbabwe’s safari guides undergo an intensive program before they can lead guests into the bush means he can see what our vision, muddied by too much screen time and city lights, can’t. On the way to celebrate our arrival with sundowner cocktails a Southern African tradition left over from British colonial rule we see rainbowcolored roller birds, hundreds of long-horned buf alo, and enough impala to feed 50 lions.
We’ve already checked of two of the Big Five after being on safari for an hour. Sam brings us to a tree house overlooking a watering hole lined with jackals; the Linkwasha staf are waiting with gin and tonics and a wood-fi red pizza we’ll talk about long after. Settling into my four-poster bed, draped with white mosquito netting, I hear something big grunting and snif ng on the other side of the canvas walls. My heart starts racing, and I go into full-on Jurassic Park mode. If I don’t move, it won’t hear or see me. The expansive savanna is dotted with acacia trees, a favorite of giraffes. Lions are special sightings.
Linkwasha Camp’s plunge pool and luxe glamping tents feature decks for animal-watching (2). Jeep safaris are the best way to get up close and personal with the wildlife. Listen to the mighty Zambezi river rush past the fire deck at Ruckomechi Camp in Zimbabwe. Luckily, it’s just a happily grazing hippo, and as it turns out, hippos have pretty bad eyesight anyway. The next three days see back-to-back sunrise wake-up calls, and I layer up. It’s May, but it’s the beginning of winter. Morning temperatures average about 40 degrees Fahrenheit, but by midday, it’s 80. Sam takes us out into the bush to track big cats (though they elude us until we spot a lion on our last night at Linkwasha), spy the more than 400 bird species, and ogle zebra, baboons, warthogs and oh-so-many elephants. Every day brings the same excitement as the first.
We set of on no fewer than 15 game drives over the next seven days as we camp-hop from the luxury living at Linkwasha Camp, to the rustic Ruckomechi Camp on the banks of the “mighty Zambezi” river, to the border town of Livingstone, where Toka Leya Camp’s fi ve-star amenities, like a spa treatment with views of Victoria Falls’ mile-high spray, seduce us. Between our Land Rover excursions, I cast lines for tilapia of a skif in the Zambezi’s rapids while beeeaters buzz back and forth to their mud huts. I grip the sides of a 60-year-old iron footbridge, green with algae, on a soaking walk traversing the Zambian side of Victoria Falls, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, minutes from the Toka Leya Camp.
Bungee jumpers, white-water rafters and microlighters fl ock to this adventurer’s paradise. Romance runs high here. Spotting tiny bushbuck antelope and vervet monkeys in the trees, and taking midday showers under thousand-year-old baobab trees is just another day in this dreamland. A herd of zebra plays in the grass while we sip afternoon tea, lounge in deck cabanas, and take dips in the plunge pool overlooking the vast savanna. You fi nd that it’s about spotting animal tracks and trail markers instead of scrolling through Facebook and Twitter feeds. You connect with wildlife, with nature and with each other. A private treehouse dinner melts into an alfresco bubble bath under the stars, which becomes a sleepover in an acacia tree.
My short fl ight from Victoria Falls to Johannesburg lifts of, and the millions of gallons of water that make up the waterfall roar beneath us, fi lling the 350-foot-deep ravine. Come summer, more than half of the waterfall will evaporate in the dry season. I settle into my suite at the Tintswalo Waterfall hotel on the outskirts of a vibrant city experiencing the kind of rebirth Nelson Mandela would be proud of. My fi nal dinner of ostrich carpaccio and braised lamb shank fi lls me enough for the long journey home in the morning. Africa like love is intoxicating and absorbing, and best shared with your person. Linkwasha Camp from $550 per night. Ruckomechi Camp from $675 per night. Toka Leya Camp from $650 per night.