The flames swayed and swirled in a drum beside us. Hippos went about their evening romp, on the grass on the Zambezi’s riverbank below. Golden hour had slipped past and storytelling had taken over.
We had spent the first day of our safari at Mpala Jena Camp, in a private concession in the Zambezi National Park in Zimbabwe, taking it all in: the giant baobab we stopped the vehicle for so that I could slip out the wide lens to capture the tree’s mammoth girth. The giraffes we sat with for longer than usual, watching them devour natural salt licks, legs splayed in their awkward downward-giraffe pose, tongues flopping between mud and nostril. The skinny baby baboons, scuttering up and down stumps and flinging their bodies courageously from branch to branch in the tallest heights of the mopane trees, sausage trees, marula trees and ilala palms.
We’d spent the last hours of the day’s light following jostling elephants and their calves kicking up dust across the dirt paths of the reserve like line-dancers at a rodeo. We’d squinted at a lone buffalo staring back at us through dry twigs a few metres from our car. And we’d debated the moving object in the river, while standing on the banks with gin and tonics in silver goblets. It’s a crocodile, someone said, pulling me back up from the slowly moving water. It’s a terrapin! It’s a crocodile! It’s a terrapin! It’s a rock! And so it went… the river was the lifeblood of the park and simply standing beside it we could feel our energy rising, the spirit of the wild showing us a bigger world, a beautiful world.
Back at camp, sitting around the fire, with the creatures of the night, we found ourselves in that great dance of campfire conversations.
With Desnee, the camp manager, and our guide, Elliot, our discussion led where all discussions about Zimbabwe lead. To the country’s past and how it is emerging, now, from 30 years of rule by Robert Mugabe, how, in spite of the political upheaval that the country has endured for decades, there is still hope in the people who have never left, who work in the country’s lodges and reserves, who see the beauty and potential of its wild spaces and its people. Great Plains Conservation shares this view, this hope, this dream and has actively invested in tourism initiatives in the country, for instance where we found ourselves that night, on a beautiful stretch of the Zambezi River, just fifteen kilometres from Victoria Falls.
At Mpala Jena Camp, one of the most environmentally innovative camps in the park, a solar-powered example of sustainability in tourism, with all staff being Zimbabwean locals, we could see the dream played out – the community upliftment, the conservation successes, the potential and the beauty of the people, land and animals showing themselves proudly when simply given a chance.
The landscape and wildlife of Zimbabwe remain under threat, as in many reserves across Africa. Protecting them, as Great Plains Conservation has undertaken to do, goes a long way in impeding hunting, poaching and the destruction of the environment. Investing in the country provides jobs for local people, and is a chance for restoration in a country in need of nourishment.
Above: Camp Managers Warren & Desnee
Above: Guide, Elliot ~ Below: Head Chef, Zamani
We moved our tale-swapping inside, from the fire to a table in the large, open-sided dining tent, where the roar of lions could still reach us, and the dance of hippos still taunted us to take a look-see between dishes. The camp’s chefs were busy in the interactive kitchen, preparing dinner.
Before the night was over, Head Chef, Zamani Sibelo and his team managed to show us just how a country once avoided by travellers, is becoming a source of gastronomical inspiration and insight. Great Plains Conservation’s food philosophy is simple: natural, sustainable and nourishing.
“All produce is firstly sourced locally to minimise our carbon footprint and benefit the country we live in,” Desnee told us. “Zimbabwe has a wonderful variety of fresh produce and local grains. Some of the items are in such high demand, because of it being in a tourist area, so we sometimes turn to Bulawayo, in southwest Zimbabwe, or hop over the border to Botswana. We source all of our wines and MCCs from South Africa.”
Chef Zamani has turned his childhood interest in cooking into a life-long career. At Mpala Jena Camp, his focus, he says, is “on the taste and nutritional value of my ingredients. I also go beyond the traditional way of cooking by implementing other unique styles. Being a trained dietitian, I would love to guide people in getting back to the basics, to realise how good nutrition can easily fit into their lifestyle.”
Sustainable and nourishing… that’s the credo, and one that promises, with perseverance, to help restore one of the most beautiful places on our planet.