Sue Watt takes a trip to Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe, the home of Cecil the lion, to find out more about life there, and what has changed in the past year since his death. All photographs by Will Whitford.
Chilling on a sun lounger sipping tea at Somalisa Acacia Camp, I felt as though I had a front row seat at an IMAX cinema – just two metres away, and just as chilled as I was, were three huge elephants gurgling, splashing and slurping up water from their ‘elephant pool.’
Hwange National Park is renowned for its 30-40,000 elephants – you can barely turn a corner without seeing pachyderms, their poo or their prints. Recently, however, the park became famous for a lion called Cecil, killed by a trophy hunter just beyond the border. A year on, I’d come here to find his pride.
Since my last visit four years ago, Hwange has changed. Not in its natural habitat of verdant teak woodlands and mopani forests. Nor in its beauty, with plains swathed in lofty palms jutting to the sky and glass-like waterholes feeding myriad wildlife. But there’s a tangible air of confidence here now, borne from an increasing number of visitors and new lodges committed to conservation and the surrounding communities.
After chugging along in the Elephant Express, a new single-carriage tram that takes guests along the railway track, I arrived at Camelthorn, Imvelo Safari’s smart lodge on the Tsholotsho Communal Land abutting the park. I particularly loved this lodge’s ‘Look-up blind’, a lorry container mostly submerged in the ground that allowed unobtrusive wildlife watching in perfect camouflage. One elephant stood so close I could count the hairs on his trunk.
The following morning, we joined the school run at Ngamo village as hundreds of excited, maroon-clad children walked or ran to class, chatting on the way. Safari operators Imvelo and Wilderness Safaris support the local schools, providing new classrooms, sponsorships, supporting teachers’ salaries and feeding schoolchildren.
Hwange has no perennial rivers so the lodges maintain boreholes that pump water into pans. Our bumpy six-hour drive to Imvelo’s Jozibanini Camp simultaneously functioned as a ‘pump run’. We checked seven pumps en route, gaining an unusual insight into the Park’s operations. These man-made arteries are the lifeblood of Hwange; the waterholes literally swarm with wildlife in the desperate dry season.
In Hwange’s remote south, Jozibanini is simple and unfussy, with just three en-suite tents overlooking a beautiful pan. We sipped G&T around the campfire and dined under a star-splattered sky, relishing that back-to-the-bush feel as we listened to the distant roar of lions. In the morning, we explored on foot and on bikes, following elephant tracks.
In contrast, Wilderness Safaris’ Linkwasha Camp has vast, contemporary-styled tented suites and multi-level decks around a plunge pool, lounge and dining room. Wildlife had been busy on their private concession: on game drives, we saw elephant herds with tiny babies and a cheetah with five cubs. We visited Wilderness’ women’s groups in Ziga and Ngamo villages too, checking out their beautiful jewellery and fabrics that help them earn income beyond subsistence farming.
African Bush Camps, who own Somalisa Camp, support similar women’s groups and schools in Dete and Main Camp areas but with a further focus on sport. I watched hundreds of competitors in their annual Dete 10km Fun Run, from lean, fit guys moving like lightning to old ladies ambling along in flip-flops. It didn’t really matter who won – what mattered was the uplifting sense of joy and community spirit.
Worthy winners of the Design Africa Award at the prestigious We Are Africa show in May, Somalisa has been completely rebuilt, running entirely on solar power. Its tented rooms come with wood-burning stoves, copper baths and a true sense of style. Clearly having good taste, Cecil would often be seen around Somalisa, instantly recognisable by his voluminous black mane.
His pride of three females and seven cubs still frequent the area. We eventually found them snoozing under an acacia. Occasionally they popped their heads up from the tall, golden grasses or rolled on their backs flashing furry white tummies. Entranced, we watched them for hours.
“When Cecil died he sent a message to the world about conservation,” our guide Calvet Nkomo whispered. “His pride is very special. They help to spread that message.”
Sue Watt travelled with grateful thanks to Ethiopian Airlines www.ethiopianairlines.com and Zambezi Safari and Travel Company www.zambezi.com who offer tailor-made trips in Zimbabwe and across Africa.