The Hide, in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, has recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. One of Travel Africa’s original advertisers, it is a prime example of how a lodge has evolved over the years to reflect the changing needs of safari-goers. Phil Clisby reports
The Hide Safari Camp, situated in a private concession on the eastern border of Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, first opened its doors in 1992 – but this was just the end of the beginning as far as Tom’s dream was concerned. The story goes that when Tom and Lorraine first stood on the site that would later become their award-winning safari camp, they looked down across the golden-grassed vlei line and saw a herd of elephant approaching. “Perhaps,” thought Tom, “those same elephant – and generations more – would make their way towards the natural waterhole”, which was positioned just in front of where his dream camp would be. It would be a place where “animals and people could convene in harmony” and enjoy the natural wilderness that is Hwange.long with his wife Lorraine, Tom Preston believed that the success of a safari was all in the experience: “That one time that makes you catch your breath or simply stops you in your tracks.”
Although Tom passed away in 1995, his wife, sons – Edward and Angus – and their fellow workers have taken up the mantle. Over the past 25 years, the camp has continued to evolve, maintaining, and perhaps even surpassing, the ideal that he originally set out to create. The evolution is ongoing: a major facelift is underway right now, its third such refurb.
But why and how does a lodge evolve? How does it stand the test of time? And what keeps guests coming back for more? Competition from other lodges and camps, the changing demands of guests, the ability to offer value for money, to contribute to conservation and, finally, the challenge of delivering a unique offering; all of these factors combine to fuel the need for a lodge to continually develop.
“The current renovations are due to a few different factors,” says Kelly Wood, The Hide’s marketing and sales manager. “The demands and comments from our guests, our agents and even our friends are taken into consideration. This is what brought on the revamp to the main A frame, which has hardly changed in 25 years.”
“There is more competition, [especially] with tourism on the increase for Zim — obviously we feel the necessity to try to keep up with the times. However, The Hide is unique and we intend to keep our identity. We are not a modern lavish lodge — we remain a classic, family-run safari camp.
“Then there’s making sure that what we offer meets expectations, especially from a price perspective. The general upkeep of the camp is important. Tent canvases, flooring and thatching all need to be replaced, as well as many other things, and we always try to keep up with these throughout each year.”
There is a nod to the modern technological age, but this is kept to a bare minimum. Kelly explains: “We offer free wi-fi but it is available only in our reception area. This way it is controlled. We like to have it on offer because we understand people have families across the world and they would like to keep in touch. But it also forces guests to ‘switch off’ when they are in their rooms or sitting on the deck admiring the elephant around the waterhole. We feel this is the best of both worlds.”
There’s not just the front of camp — the side that guests see, that a lodge needs to consider — there’s the back-of-house operations as well. “We generally change things that don’t work and continue with those that do,” says Kelly. “Angus goes into camp regularly and we have constant interactions between the main office and camp to ensure that all systems are working for everyone.”
“One of the major recent changes we have made has been our ‘Going Green Initiative’. For example, our entire buying and recycling system has been restructured.”
Enhancing the offering
When it opened, The Hide housed 10 East African-style tents. Today, the main camp hosts up to 20 guests in thatched tented accommodation. There are eight standard tents and two luxury or honeymoon tents; one tent is wheelchair-friendly. The focal point of the camp is a steep-sided, A-frame construction, resembling a classic tent shape. Built in 1992, it has been a solid fixture since day one. The dining area within it overlooks the waterhole. Its 22-seater dining table, commissioned by Tom, has remained since the camp’s inception. Today, the table is no longer one piece, but a few smaller versions of itself “which enables us,” says Kelly, “to offer the big table and also separate, individual dining as well” — a result of guest feedback that not everyone likes communal dining.
With the changing needs of safari-goers, select additions to the camp’s accommodation have also been made. These include Tom’s Little Hide, set away from the main camp and built as a tribute to its namesake. It is designed for exclusive or family safaris. “It [enables] families with children of all ages to come on a Zimbabwean safari… and the children get to learn so much,” says Kelly.
The Private Hide, a little way off on the other side of the main camp, offers, as its name suggests, a private dining, lounge and plunge pool, from which to view wildlife at the nearby waterhole, together with an exclusive guide and vehicle.
Then there’s the tree house: The Dove’s Nest provides a sleep-out option away from the main camp. The brainchild of a former camp manager, Bruce Elliott, the original Dove’s Nest was a simple viewing platform built in an old Leadwood tree — known to be the biggest such specimen in the park — and offering views from on high. Today, it is a multi-story construction, with a bedroom, bathroom and deck. Perhaps surprisingly (but important from a conservation perspective), it has been built in such a way that it is not attached to the tree at all.
Focus on the experience
But while providing warm hospitality, exceptional guiding, delicious food and luxurious accommodation are all part of a lodge’s minimum offering these days, the primary focus remains on the safari experience itself.
And the pièce de résistance at The Hide is its underground hide. The first such creation was Tom’s idea. He wanted to set up “a secluded and hidden place from which photographers could observe wildlife and take pictures unobserved by the animals.” An unused container was sunk into the ground and covered with logs and sticks to disguise it. It proved to be an unqualified success, apart from one time when, after particularly heavy rains, the container popped right out of the ground.
However, for Angus, the format wasn’t enough, he wanted guests to be able to take themselves off to a hide on a whim — without the need for a guide to accompany them. So, right in front of the A-frame, he built an underground hide that is accessible from the verandah, via a tunnel and into a relatively spacious area, on the very edge of the waterhole, giving guests a “startlingly up-close view”. He also added a wine cellar; the underground conditions perfect for storing wine.
The trick to creating a successful lodge is not to rest on your laurels, but to keep evolving. The Hide may have been voted Best Safari Camp 17 consecutive times by the Association of Zimbabwe Travel Agents, but it still strives to improve, upping the ante with its increased conservation efforts and community work in the park and the surrounding areas — and, of course, its current overhaul.
This is a challenge that faces all camps across Africa, and helps to ensure the safari experience remains relevant while addressing emerging challenges and priorities.