As a child, the ultimate treat was a day out to Knowsley Safari Park, a mere mile from my Merseyside home. However, it being the 70s and us not having a car, we’d have to wait for four-wheeled visitors to take us. It usually ended with them driving off in a huff minus their windscreen wipers that had inevitably been pulled off by the mischievous inhabitants of the monkey enclosure.
Fast forward 40 years and I’m sitting in a jeep in the middle of a dusty African plain watching a huge family of baboons at dusk. There are old guys lazily scratching themselves and mums with teeny babies clinging to their bellies, all noisily cracking open nuts and play-fighting against a blood orange sky. None of them are interested in our wipers.
It comes as no surprise that gazing upon this magical scene of wild animals in their natural environment trumped my memory of baboons’ multi-coloured bottoms in a large field on a drizzly Sunday afternoon. But until this summer these rare days out — plus an obsession with the kid’s TV series ‘Daktari’ (you need to be a 50-something to remember Clarence the cross-eyed lion) — had been my only safari experiences.
In what seemed like overnight, my two sons became galumphing male teens who suddenly declared themselves “over” Mallorca after 15 years there. Combined with the bittersweet thought that we wouldn’t have many more family holidays — as our eldest is turning 18 — we decided a safari adventure was the solution.
Now, safaris don’t come cheap, so we needed to tick all the boxes. Zimbabwe was the country that kept being name-checked as the ultimate African experience, despite the somewhat unsavoury reputation it acquired in the long years of Robert Mugabe’s rule. As it turned out, we were going to be there for polling day in the first post-Mugabe elections and would witness first hand the enthusiasm and hope with which Zimbabweans greeted the new political dawn.
Our 10-day adventure began with two nights at the Victoria Falls Safari club, a 20-room boutique hotel in the north-west, bordering Zambia. On the smart central guest decking, overlooking two watering holes, our first introduction to the wildlife was spotting a family of warthogs rolling in mud, while a herd of graceful okapi snootily looked on. This was a mere animal canape. Later that evening we cruised down the Zambezi river and as we munched mini beef wellingtons drank rose, the big boys appeared in the form of four elephants, five giraffes, and three splashing hippos. I may or may not have squealed with joy at those first sightings.
The squealing continued the next morning when we took a helicopter ride over the mighty Victoria Falls. Named by David Livingstone in 1855 in honour of our queen, they are one of the seven wonders of the natural world. At around £150 (Dh703.1) a head, I did question the value of our brief ride. But hovering over the thundering waterfalls is 13 minutes I will never forget. Judging by the awestruck expressions on the faces of my husband and our boys, nor will they.
Back at the Safari Club we bagged the sofas next to the telescope and took high tea overlooking the waterhole and being entertained by a crowd of mongoose fighting like teen louts.
The next day brought a new adventure as we were driven an hour to our next destination of Matetsi River Lodge, right on the banks of the roaring Zambezi. There was something of the surreal about arriving to find a very British lunch of chicken and Eton Mess being served, while watching hippos casually float by, ears twitching.
We were accompanied by a staff member to our lodge and for good reason. On our doorstep was a huge dollop of dung and outside, next to our private plunge pool, a freshly felled tree. An elephant had pulled it down the night before to gorge on fruit from its branches (before being caught short). Eek!
Inside, our spacious two-bedroomed lodge was an oasis of modernism meets tradition with resin floors, circular free-standing tubs and zebra skins. The beds were the size of an elephant and swathed in tasteful mosquito nets.
After being served tea and orange cake, came our first game drive. Jumping into a jeep with our guide Mangezi, we saw elephants guzzling from a waterhole, giraffes and their babies munching from treetops and herds of zebra that look totally out of place. As night fell, our guide shone a spotlight that picked up the shiny eyes of hyenas preparing to hunt. The highlight was being charged by an enormous elephant as we crossed his path. He trumpeted (an ear-shattering experience in itself), flapped his huge ears and broke into a canter, chasing the back of the jeep. We were beside ourselves, like kids on a ghost train.
Beware — it gets so hot in the day that it’s a shock once the sun sets at 6pm, like going from an oven to a deep freeze at the flick of a switch. Despite advice to “dress like an onion”, we didn’t layer up enough and froze, enveloping ourselves in the blankets provided. It was a cold hard lesson and from then on I wore layers of T-shirts plus fleece and scarf over tracksuit pants.
Matetsi offers twice-daily game drives that can last up to four hours (yes, you’ll need to wee behind a bush). As the sun sets, the driver parks up and from nowhere appears a table laden with G&T, hot chocolate and bowls of snacks.
Given my phobia of crocs, I really wasn’t sure about a pre-breakfast canoe trip the following morning in a river full of the sly old reptiles as well as three-tonne hippos, but thankfully our guide was doing the paddling.
As he steered down the Zambezi we saw colourful birds who laid their eggs in termite mounds and trees with horizontal roots that lived above water. The hippos kept their distance, but we went closer to a sleeping croc stretched out along a sandbank than I ever want to go again. I could even count his smirking teeth.
Scrabbling off the canoes, we were greeted by a groaning breakfast table and a chef cooking pans of full English breakfast that we ate by the banks. I felt like Queen Victoria (fun fact: she never actually visited the country).
Next came our final destination, Singita Pamushana in the heart of the Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve, a stunning 320,000-acre private reserve in south-eastern Zimbabwe. This jewel of an African safari destination has earned a string of awards and ploughs every penny back into conserving the wildlife.
But to get there we first endured a three-hour flight in a private Cessna plane best described as a go-kart with wings. The pilot looked like he wasn’t old enough to shave and on landing he had to make an extra loop while a herd of okapi was shooed away from the runway. It was a gut-wrenching, bone-shaking experience.
What followed was worth the nausea
Overlooking the mesmerising Malilangwe dam, Singita Pamushana is almost surreal in its beauty, like all your dream picture postcards put together. My eldest said it looked like the Grand Canyon, while it reminded my husband of Switzerland, with reflections of the green hills in its glassy, calm water. A family of five hippos bellowed beneath — and you could hear them all night.
Singita Pamushana has undergone an amazing refurbishment. With only eight suites and one villa, you feel like you own the place. Our lodge was brand new and made me actually gasp. It was huge, I mean huge, with two enormous bedrooms set between a living area with a tree trunk as its centrepiece plus a massive decking area and private pool which overlooked that jaw-dropping view. We’re talking polished concrete and wooden floors with traditional African artefacts tastefully dotted about and the most insane double-height bathroom, all exposed thatch and timber roof.
Our personal butler Aldrin served some of the best food and wines we’d ever tasted. Meanwhile our guides Alex and Clement became like friends over the next three days as they drove us morning and night through the endless reserve (we never met another jeep, so felt like the landscape was an enormous private view).
We spotted that rarest of creatures, the black rhino (the first one Alex had seen at this reserve, so we felt very lucky), and another rarity — a black giraffe. The next night we came across a 14-strong pack of lions, lying majestically on their backs with full bellies and blood-smeared mouths after having gorged themselves on some unfortunate creature.
Driving back, there was a whiff so putrid it made us gag. Alex excitedly made a radio call and discovered that a bull elephant had been killed fighting another testosterone-fuelled male. No wonder the lions were groaning. At 6am the following morning we tracked down the carcass on foot. A walking safari is a rare treat and done with extreme caution, brought home in no uncertain terms at the sight of Alex’s enormous loaded rifle and bullet holster.
More gagging as we stood over the poor enormous felled elephant, its stomach teeming with maggots. I’ve never seen my sons so repelled yet entranced as by this real life and death scene. To add to the drama, the reserve’s anti-poaching unit was keeping an around-the-clock eye on the body to ensure the tusks weren’t stolen to be sold (on the black market, they can fetch £18,000 each). Our final evening was less dramatic and spent meandering in a boat along the dam. The boys fished while I drank in the sunset and a couple of gins. Absolute perfection.
We spent our last morning in Africa in a hide next to a watering hole where we eyeballed rhino, okapi and giraffe as they slurped, fought and in the case of one zebra, loudly broke wind. Try keeping your teenagers quiet when that happens.
Everyone tells you that done properly, an African safari will stay with you forever. It has. A few weeks after we returned my eldest randomly and uncharacteristically turned to me and said: “I miss Zimbabwe.” The youngest chipped in: “Yeah. It was sick.” (this is a good thing). Somehow I don’t think Knowsley Safari Park will ever come up to scratch.