March 21, 2014 5:32 pm

Michael Buerk returns to Zimbabwe

Elephants in the Gonarezhou National Park©Plainpicture

Elephants in the Gonarezhou National Park

He looks like an Old Testament prophet even though his fiery chariot is an elderly, single-engined Cessna. White-haired, deep-bearded and grave, the pilot gazes down at the story of postcolonial Africa written on the landscape 3,000ft below, and sighs. “It’s a different country now,” he says.

Under the right wing of the plane is his own lost paradise; the family tobacco farm, gone in a morning. It had been the lifetimes’ work of generations, ended by a rabble calling themselves “war veterans”, puppets of a tyrannical state. The pilot and his family were ordered out of their home there and then. He can’t even say he was sent packing because they weren’t allowed to take their belongings. Their past and their future, all gone by lunchtime.

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The valuable tobacco crop, he says, was left to rot. Some of his land is now being used for subsistence farming. Looking down, you can see, here and there, a few patches of maize, the odd cow. But most is returning to bush.

The pilot describes it all with a detachment that is almost shocking. He seems to have trained himself not to express any opinion, any emotion. Life is obviously a long battle against bitterness but even he can’t keep the sadness out of his voice.

He has reinvented himself as a charter pilot, flying the few tourists who still go to Zimbabwe around some of the finest sights in Africa. “The sun still gets up every morning,” he says. “And so do I.”

Zimbabwe’s economy depended on tobacco and tourism. In that spasm of calculated madness a decade ago, President Robert Mugabe destroyed both. When 2,500 white farmers were turfed off their land, the tobacco industry collapsed. The brutality with which it was done deterred all but the bravest of visitors.

“People are strange,” one tour operator told me. “The violence against the farmers and their workers put a lot of tourists off. But when television showed their family pets being killed, 98 per cent of my bookings were cancelled overnight.”

. . .

The tourists are starting to come back now. The politics of Zimbabwe are still poisonous but the country has reached the stability of stalemate. Mugabe retains power through fraud and thuggery. The opposition was first beaten to a pulp and then sucked into a “unity” government and neutered. Mugabe may not even have needed to rig the last elections but he did anyway. He’s 90 and says he’ll live to 100.

The tourist revival is being spearheaded by the dispossessed. Everywhere we went, the places seemed to be run by former tobacco farmers, or their sons and daughters. They work hard and keep their heads down. They can’t, or won’t, leave the land they loved and lost.

You can see why. It was – is – the most beautiful country in Africa. When it was part of my patch as a BBC correspondent, we used to spend most of our holidays there. My children got soaked in the rainforest created by the Victoria Falls, thrilled there was no fence between us and the thundering chasm (there still isn’t).

We canoed down the Zambezi past 30,000 hippo, camping on the riverbank among elephants and rhino. We stayed in a tree house in the Hwange National Park listening to buffalo scratching themselves all night on the trunk below us. We roughed it, graciously, in the bush camps by Lake Kariba, and on hiking trips through the Eastern Highlands. The place was magical and the people, even after a long and bitter bush war, were friendly. It was a much kinder, easier place than South Africa where we were living.

That, or much of it, is still true. The economy may have been ransacked and ruined. A nation that once had the highest standard of living in Africa now has among the lowest. A country that fed much of the region can’t feed itself. Millions of people have left the country; among those who remain, only one in 20 has a job, and life expectancy has fallen from 60 to 36. But there are small signs of improvement – you can buy things now that they have swapped Zimbabwean dollars for US ones (only after the exchange rate had reached 308 trillion to one).

It is still a great place to visit, and you don’t help anybody by staying away. You have to see Victoria Falls at least once in your life and it is much better from the Zimbabwe side. You could join the trickle of tourists returning to the well-known glories of the Zambezi valley, Mana Pools, Hwange. But if you want to taste the real Africa, and see how a little high-level tourism could do a lot about poverty and official neglect, go to the southeastern corner of the country. Go to the Lowveld.

Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve©Mark Williams

Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve

Chilo Gorge is a collection of stone and thatch luxury lodges set spectacularly high on a cliff over the great Save (pronounced Sah-vay) river. It’s just downstream from the Chivirira Falls, a beauty spot now, but a place of indelible sadness. For centuries there was a slave market by the boiling cataract because it was the furthest point inland that the Arab traders could bring their ships.

Across the river from the lodges is Gonarezhou National Park, the second largest in Zimbabwe and roughly the size of Devon. The name means “Place of the Elephants”. There are lots of them still, lots of almost everything that moves on the low African savannah, except for black rhino. They were wiped out, the park was restocked, and they were promptly wiped out again. Too many poachers, too many guns, too much money to be made, and too few rangers.

To go from Chilo with a knowledgeable guide – and Zimbabwe’s guides are still regarded as the best in Africa – over the river and into the, largely unvisited, park is a raw and wonderful experience. I like the big stuff but other things thrill me more these days. Lions, in particular, are overrated. How can a lion’s loafing compare with the Sisyphean odyssey of the dung beetle, endlessly pushing 50 times his own weight of excrement in pursuit of love?

What living thing compares with the baobab tree? It looks like something out of Tolkien, can live more than a thousand years and grow so large one has a bar with room for 60 people built into its trunk, yet it dies and disappears in a heartbeat. Its fruit has six times as much vitamin C as an orange, twice as much calcium as a glass of milk, and more iron than a steak.

. . .

The driving force behind Chilo is one of Africa’s most famous conservationists. Clive Stockil is a big man in small shorts and a cowboy hat – a dispossessed tobacco farmer, of course. His insight, long before it became fashionable, was that the wild places and their animals will not survive unless the local people have a stake in them. He has pursued it for decades. Over dinner in the gloaming on Chilo’s deck above the river, he summed up his life’s work. “In Africa”, he says, “aesthetics are a luxury. The challenge is not species, but space.”

He’s a native himself: born here, speaks Shangaan, runs his businesses and his trusts in partnership with the local communities. They get a cut from every hunting licence, every visitor bed-night, and meet the first Friday of every month to decided how to spend it. Tens of thousands of US dollars have gone into the Mahenye school, and into local healthcare. The money has bought a mill in the village to make flour from maize.

It seems to be working here but the shadow of industrial poaching hangs heavily over Zimbabwe. A few months ago the salt licks round water holes in Hwange were poisoned with cyanide. More than 300 elephants were killed and their tusks removed. The collateral damage was enormous. Lion, buffalo, giraffe, and rare painted dogs were poisoned too.

Saviour Kasukuwere, the Zanu-PF environment minister, promised violent retribution against the poachers. Still a young man, he reportedly owns all, or part of, nine formerly white-owned farms, a fuel distributor, and much else besides.

Singita Pamushana Lodge in Malilangwe©Mark Williams

Singita Pamushana Lodge in Malilangwe

The real saviour in Zimbabwe comes in the unlikely guise of a New York hedge fund manager. Paul Tudor Jones is worth more than $4bn, according to Forbes, and is spending quite a lot of them on the Zimbabwean Lowveld. He has bought an old cattle ranch the size of Berkshire, abutting Gonarezhou, and turned it into the Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve. It’s all ringed by an electric fence and patrolled by 80 rangers. At its heart, in a magical setting on a rocky promontory overlooking the flooded Nyamasikana gorge, is the most luxurious lodge in Zimbabwe, possibly in Africa. It’s called Pamushana and is operated by the South Africa-based, über-opulent safari group Singita.

Everything about it is breathtaking (including the price). Each lodge is a minor palace of rough-hewn stone and elephant-grass thatch, vibrant with Shangaan artefacts and design. You can watch the hippo playing in the 1,500 acre lake below from your own private infinity pool.

The food is sublime, the service almost overwhelming and the wine cellar (pretty well everything is included) would not be out of place at the Ritz.

Around it is 150,000 acres of untouched, and now heavily protected, bush, mopane forests and acacia woods, studded with leopard lookout outcrops of sandstone and granite. Malilangwe holds one of the largest concentrations of black rhino left in Africa. On a short trip through the rainy season’s dense vegetation we nearly stepped on a lioness’s tail and were seen off by a tumescent, six-tonne bull elephant, livid with lust. There are birds to blow a twitcher’s mind; nine different owls, 11 kinds of hawks, 14 species of eagles.

It’s a different kind of tourism, says Mark Saunders, executive director of the Malilangwe Trust and a former tobacco farmer, naturally, and once the pilot’s neighbour. Tourism as philanthropy – low-impact stuff with the profits, and much more besides, used not just to preserve the wildlife, but to save the human communities on its borders.

Malilangwe feeds 19,000 children every school day. At hundreds of feeding points around the conservancy, local women dish out a special porridge, imported by the trust, with enough nutrition to keep a child going for a day. It costs $35,000 a month. The trust pays for irrigation, it has refurbished the local Mwenze school and subsides the Chizvirizvi clinic where three nurses deliver 30 babies a month. Saunders is relentlessly positive. He talks of working with the government, of officials it is possible to deal with, of a brighter future for Zimbabwe, its animals and its people. His is a personal victory of pragmatism over pain.

I asked Luke Bailes, the chief executive of Singita, why he was gambling on Zimbabwe, with its political risks and a tourist industry where even the best lodges are running at 20-30 per cent occupancy. He said it was because Zimbabwe had many of the finest destinations in Africa, which is true, and that the business was unlikely to be confiscated because “the good deeds and the goodwill here cannot be ignored” – which, given the country’s recent history, is arguable.

Nobody will say it but everybody is waiting for Mugabe to die. It will be a second liberation – hopefully less disastrous than the first.

The broadcaster Michael Buerk was the BBC’s South Africa correspondent from 1983 to 1987, when he was expelled after critical reporting of the apartheid regime. He currently presents ‘The Moral Maze’ on BBC Radio 4

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Michael Buerk travelled as a guest of Scott Dunn (scottdunn.com), Singita (singita.com) and Chilo Gorge (chilogorge.com). Scott Dunn offers seven nights at Singita Pamushana (fully inclusive) and Chilo Gorge (full board) from £4,565 per person, including return economy flights from London to Johannesburg and domestic flights to Buffalo Range

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