When I stroll down the raised walkway to my tented bedroom in a safari camp, I almost bump into an elephant.
She’s as surprised as I am, and we both take a step backward. Then I quietly walk onto the wooden deck and pull up a chair as she continues eating. Soon more elephants jauntily stroll along to join her until 11 are standing in the mud 100 meters away, drawn by freshwater bubbling out of the ground at Deteema Springs, a five-star tented lodge in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe.
Elephants are a big part of the game viewing experience here, along with lions, leopards, buffalo, giraffes, and zebra, and the lodge sits by a dam that attracts them all. Its eight luxurious tents stand on elevated decks, while the main lodge has a small swimming pool and an open-plan lounge, bar, and dining area. One afternoon the action unfolds right in front of the deck, with an amazing stand-off between a male lion, a herd of truculent buffalo, and the elephants, who side with the buffalo and scare the lion up onto some rocks, where he stubbornly sits trying to regain his dignity. He’s too outnumbered to cause trouble and too embarrassed to flee.
Deteema Springs only opened in 2019, just before the Covid pandemic closed everything down again. Despite the many attractions of Zimbabwe, with its fabulous game viewing and world-famous Victoria Falls waterfalls, the country’s political and economic collapse has kept it off the list for all but the most intrepid travelers. Then they stopped coming too when Covid made international travel impossible.
The effect on Victoria Falls town was swift and brutal. Tourism provides the only income here, but almost overnight the hotels, guesthouses, restaurants, and bars closed down. Tour companies had nobody to show around, and hundreds of artisans selling in the markets or on the streets had no buyers. When the schools closed, many children from this poor area in a poor country lost their main meal of the day. There was also a looming medical crisis at the ill-equipped hospital.
Then the community swung into action by forming an initiative called We Are Victoria Falls. “Looking after the community, nature, wildlife, and our town were key focuses. Everybody was working hand-in-hand to make sure nobody was left behind,” says Shelley Cox, a specialist in linking tourism to conservation and community development.
Victoria Falls has become one of the most responsive tourist areas in the world, with initiatives including free healthcare services and feeding schemes. An HIV/Aids organization donated its buildings as a Covid isolation center, and all the builders in the town volunteered to install plumbing and partitions. Donors provided medical equipment; vegetable gardens were planted; mass vaccinations were rolled out quickly, and a ‘food for work’ scheme let people work on community projects in return for groceries.
Moses Kalembela and some other artists formed the Rasta Compassion group and built a kids’ playground, and delivered food to the old age home. Now they are back at the Elephant’s Walk craft center, selling their incredible artwork, weavings, clothing, jewelry, and sculptures as tourists begin to trickle back in.
“Anybody who cared about the town came forward and said what can I do?” says Christine Brookstein, creative director of Ndau Collection jewelers. “We have become a family because it’s pulled us together even more.”
Their efforts have strengthened the town for the future, with a fully equipped and free medical center, a new vocational opportunity to teach crafts, the opening of a women’s refuge for victims of domestic abuse, and flourishing vegetable gardens.
One of the most active players was Blessing Munyenyiwa, founder of the Love For Africa charity. He previously worked for Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida and persuaded his international contacts to make hefty donations to the hospital.
He’s now opened the Zimbabwe Boutique, a solar-powered hotel with a wine cellar, a spa, gym, and swimming pool, and activities including star gazing and conservation talks. His hotel is one of many newly launched or revamped ventures since tourism will inevitably bounce back because of the magnetic allure of Victoria Falls. The traditional activities are also back in business, with helicopter flips over the falls, white water rafting, river cruises, zip-lining through the gorges, and bungee jumping 111 meters from Victoria Falls bridge.
But the locals realized they must also provide extra activities and more varied accommodation to attract more diverse visitors and appeal to post-pandemic travelers.
Even before Covid, the visitor profile was already shifting away from young thrill-seekers to more culturally curious people, says Shane White, director of the tour company Wild Horizons. “Many international people want to spend more time getting to know the country they’re visiting rather than just staying in five-star hotels eating the best food. It’s about giving back,” he says.
Since foreigners often want to make donations, Wild Horizons has started community tours to a school, an old people’s home, and an orphanage where people can see exactly what is required. “The guest can then go to the shops and buy it and do a little handover ceremony, so they’re buying what’s needed and spending their money in the local economy,” Shane says.
Employees at a luxury lodge run by Wild Horizons have been trained to take guests home with them for a family meal experience. “We’re really keen for tourists to get to know the Zimbabweans who serve them and get to know their background, so you can go to their home to meet their family and have a meal with them. The revenue generated goes to the host, and it’s absolutely fantastic,” Shane says.
Another activity that spreads the income is visits to a rural village. I joined a tour with Signature Africa to Monde Village, a homestead for the extended family of Chris Ncube. Chris showed us around the cluster of small, thatched, mud-brick houses and described a lifestyle that hasn’t changed for centuries, using plants for medicine, drums instead of telephones, and battles to prevent wild animals from eating their cattle.
Visitors can also tour Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust, which runs a rescue and rehabilitation center for injured or orphaned animals. Or you can join a new Conservation and Awareness Safari with Charles Brightman of Discover Safaris. That gets you involved in tracking animals and recording game sightings, removing snares, and visiting remote areas to look for signs of poaching.
The game viewing here is glorious, and another new attraction is mobile tented camps run by Umdingi Safaris. They’ll take you to Zambezi or Hwange National Park for a fully catered camp in tents featuring bucket showers and flushable toilets. One evening as we sit with our feet in the Zambezi River, its owners Clint and Kelly Robertson ponder what the future will look like for their fledgling company and for Victoria Falls as a whole.
The way the community pulled together to fight Covid and reverse the economic collapse it posed has kindled a strong community spirit that built on the natural warmth and resilience the Zimbabwean people already have. As a visitor, just being in the town and supporting the local tradespeople makes you feel that you are also part of the solution.