With the arrival of a new airport at Victoria Falls, Stuart Butler explores the area and its offering to the influx of tourists Zimbabwe’s government is hoping to see.

Carefully I turned it over in my hands. It was heavier than I expected and larger. It was also kind of drab to look at. I don’t know why but I’d always thought that something this valuable would sparkle in the sun and inspire a sense of awe, but it didn’t do either.

It was, simply put, just another old bone lying in the dust. But yet the object that I now held in my hands, which has been the cause of so much bloodshed, was worth thousands of dollars on the black market.

Turning the elephant tusk over I asked my guide, Robert, if he knew what might have killed the elephant, “If you look at the teeth in the skull here”, he replied pointing to the enormous bulbous skull lying at the centre of the pile of bones in which we’d found the tusks, “You can see how worn down they were and this were its last set of teeth so it most probably just died of old age”.

We were on a walking safari together in the vast Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. The waterholes and dry woodlands of Hwange seem custom made for elephants and, indeed, Hwange is home to one of the biggest elephant populations of any national park in Africa.

Elephant tusk in Hwange, ivory, ZimbabweCredit: Stuart Butler

Latest estimates give a conservative figure of around 30,000 jumbos, but Hwange does more than just elephants. As I’d discovered over the past few days there are also healthy populations of lions, leopards, hyenas and even wild dogs as well as massive herds of buffalo and all the other classic African herbivores.

Back in vogue

Zimbabwe was once the golden boy of southern African tourism, but a mixture of political upheaval and economic collapse sent safari tourists scurrying elsewhere for much of the past fifteen years. Now though, tourism in Zimbabwe is once again on an upward trajectory.

The symbol of this uplift can be seen at the Victoria Falls airport close to Hwange. For years it was a backwater with little more than a garden shed for a terminal building. But at the start of 2016 Victoria Falls airport got serious.

A new, enlarged, runway and sparkly new terminal building have opened and the government hopes that over the next couple of years the airport will become an international hub for safari tourists visiting southern Africa.

Lioness relaxes in Hwange National ParkCredit: Stuart Butler

But the return of tourism to Zimbabwe doesn’t mean that you’ll be tripping over other tourists. This is a big country and visitors tend to end up lost in the background. A case in point being the Linkwasha Camp, where I’d spent the past few nights being lulled to sleep by the nightly chorus of lion roars.

Renowned for offering the finest safari experience in Hwange, the lodge has so much human-empty, but wildlife-busy land around it, that it was like having the world’s biggest, and most exciting, garden all to myself.

The Smoke That Thunders

On its own Hwange should be enough to bring visitors flocking to this corner of Africa, but sharing centre stage with the lions and elephants is something even more powerful: Victoria Falls.

Known locally as The Smoke That Thunders, this giant sheet of water has inspired poetry from generations of visitors. The first Westerner to lay eyes on it, in 1855, was the explorer turned ‘lost’ boy, David Livingstone.

Not normally one taken to flights of fancy, he nevertheless said of it, “scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight”. And if you want to look like an angel in flight, then there are all manner of ways to do this (and appropriately most of them feel like they might send you to meet the angels…).

Victoria Falls in the rain, ZimbabweCredit: Stuart Butler

You can strap in for a scenic fly-by in a small prop plane or, for the more daring, you can harness up a bungee cord and throw yourself a hundred and eleven metres off the bridge that separates Zimbabwe from Zambia.

Too tame? Try the foofie slide (like a tandem zip line) or the gorge swing, both of which will have you spinning and swinging at over a hundred kilometres per hour down and out across the river gorge. It’s definitely better to have lunch after you’ve done one of these rather than before.

There’s white-water rafting as well as riverboarding and, perhaps the most extraordinary thing of all, dare devils can take a dip in the appropriately named Devil’s Pool. This natural plunge pool is situated right on the edge of the falls: you jump into the water and get sucked towards your imminent doom only to be stopped just centimetres from the edge by a lip of rock. Lean out over this and the falls open up below you to reveal a view fit for the angels.

The author travelled to Zimbabwe with Smokesilver Travel, a UK-based African tour operator that focuses on small group and individual travel and experiences. Explore more of this area of Zimbabwe with the Rough Guides Snapshot Victoria Falls. Compare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.