The sense of remoteness is palpable. It took a 13-hour haul from London to Harare, an hour’s bounce north in a small propellered craft, then a two-hour drive from a Martian-red, sandy airstrip even further back towards our origin to get us here, the edge of the Mana Pools National Park, right on the river border with Zambia. Zoom out from this spot on Google Earth to an area roughly the size of Britain, and you’ll see no major cluster of humanity come into view bar Zambia’s capital Lusaka.
In such an unsullied wilderness, you can feel blissfully, profoundly, lost: lost in a sense that’s not quite like being lost in space – there is a distinct sense of what’s up and what’s down – but far closer to that sensation than being lost in any metropolis. People these days Instagram their wildlife sightings straight from their jeeps in the Serengeti or the Masai Mara: here, if you want to know roughly which way home is, forget your smartphone and instead squint up to the branches of the elegantly gnarly albida and mahogany trees, on the western extremes of which nests have been built – to shield their young from the morning sun – by the kind of birds of prey that look like they’d feast happily on a still-twitching cobras. Suffice to say, it’s a place where your inner David Livingstone gets a rare look-in.
The name ‘Zimbabwe’ is taken from a Shona term which translates as “houses of stones”, but our ultimate destination today is a cluster of luxurious gauze tents which nestle at the confluence of the Sapi and Zambezi rivers: Chikwenya Camp, the latest venture from Wilderness Safaris – a Botswana-based haute ecotourism organisation which also has safari camps in Kenya, Namibia, South Africa, Rwanda, Zambia and Seychelles – which opened in late 2018.
The modern consumer, the luxe tourism industry is at pains to convince us, prefers outré experiences to tangible pleasures. Here, like it or not, you get both. A partnership with local Zimbabweans including John Mapondera and Joe Wright from Capmount Lodges, and designed by Profurn Contracts’ Tanja Beyers, the camp’s main communal area features an open-fronted lounge and dining room, a camp fire area littered with swallow-me plantation chairs and a small swimming pool by which visitors can sit and gaze over an open floodplain that becomes a vast animal playground as the sky starts to take on a sanguine hue.
And it’s not all about gazing from a distance: in this camp, the human visitors mingle with the animals. Spotting hippo tracks is a pre-breakfast ritual, elephants regularly stroll along within metres of awe-struck diners and nimble-fingered baboons deem Chikwenya to be a happy hunting ground to indulge their kleptomaniac tendencies (one visitor who left three days before Robb Report’s arrival shut, but forgot to lock, her door, and came back to find a large container of tablets had been emptied).
The tents – if they can be called that – are strung along the Sapi River frontage by wooden walkways, and each has a decked area with sunken seating, an outdoor shower, a soothing, earthy palette inside and an overall air of unfussy congeniality. All zones, meanwhile, are sprinkled with timber day-beds, local artworks and handcrafted pieces such as beaded chandeliers fashioned from hand-rolled clay beads. In all, 34 families benefited from this, and artisans from the region also designed and hand-batiked the camp’s guest gowns and crocheted the beadwork found on the bedside lights. The luxury-with-a-conscience factor here is authentic, and comes up naturally in conversation: there’s a refreshing lack of holier-than-thou, conspicuous conscientiousness.
Leaving the camp at dawn each day – not so much recommended as insisted upon by the Chikwenya guides – guests enter an enchanted landscape in which biological interaction is in permanent overdrive. Thanks to the guides’ enthusiasm and knowledge, both of which seem infinite, you can’t help but marvel at the ingenuity of nature. Lions, it transpires, babysit for each other. Termite mounds, we discover, are complex civic habitations, complete with social castes and air-conditioning systems (they also make excellent pizza ovens).
Chikwenya is open between April and mid to late November. Accommodation costs around £980 per night, including all meals, twice daily camp activities, laundry and all drinks. wilderness-safaris.com
Africa Odyssey (020 8704 1216./Info@africaodyssey.com/https://www.africaodyssey.com) can arrange a trip with Wilderness Safaris (3 nights Chikwenya Camp) from £4,453 per person including internal and international flights from London.