Our arrival at Chikwenya couldn’t have been more perfectly choreographed. The camp, located in a secluded area of Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools National Park, nestles into a densely forested embankment overlooking the majestic Zambezi River. As our Land Rover pulled up to the clearing at the center of camp, the sinking sun was casting a spectacular salmon glow across the vast floodplain, while the mountains of the Rift Valley escarpment formed shadowy silhouettes in the distance. A herd of water buffalo grazed along the riverbank below, and the absolute serenity was broken only by the intermittent bassoon-like groans of hippos submerged near the shore. It was a moment, as one of our guides, Luke Terblanche, later said to me, “when there are just no words to express the peace, the beauty, the magnificence.” This place, he added, “exposes you to the soul of Africa.”
I was among the fortunate first visitors to the new Chikwenya, which briefly reopened after a two-year total rebuild last fall before closing during the November-to-March rainy season, when the soft ground makes the area difficult to navigate. The camp is a collaboration between local Zimbabwean owners and Wilderness Safaris, which operates more than 40 camps across southern and eastern Africa. It’s part of a significant investment Wilderness is making in Zimbabwe as the country begins to emerge from years of corruption, violence, and economic devastation under Robert Mugabe, the liberation hero turned dictator whose close-to-four-decade rule came to an end in 2017. His ZANUPF party remains in power under president Emmerson Mnangagwa and the economic situation is still tenuous—as evidenced by ongoing fuel and food shortages, currency instability, and sky-high unemployment—but there is real hope, something long missing, that Zimbabwe can finally turn a corner.
And that is good news for the tourism industry, which suffered badly in the final years of Mugabe’s regime. “Those were really dark, tough times,” said Wilderness Safaris CEO Keith Vincent, a native Zimbabwean. He explained that the company was forced to scale back its operations in the country as bookings, particularly from Americans, dried up. In 2006, Wilderness pulled out of Chikwenya, where it had operated a camp since 1998. The 6,200-acre private concession was taken over by Capmount Lodges, an operator that focused mostly on river and fishing expeditions for a predominantly regional clientele. “As a company, we had a choice,” said Vincent. “We could pack up our bags and leave Zimbabwe completely or we could try to keep a few people employed, look after these areas with spectacular wildlife, and hope to live long enough to see us come out of that era.”
A few years ago, as signs of positive change were afoot, including the opening of a new airport in Victoria Falls, on the northwestern border, Capmount and its investors began a dramatic overhaul of Chikwenya. In addition to converting to solar power and installing a water-purification system, they updated the design and built an airstrip less than ten minutes away. They also asked Wilderness Safaris to come back to run the camp.
For Wilderness that meant returning a jewel to its stable of Zimbabwean properties—three in Mana Pools and three in Hwange National Park—all new or recently refurbished. “Reopening Chikwenya secures the long-term future of one of Zimbabwe’s premier wildlife areas,” said Vincent.
Early one morning, as our gregarious and endlessly knowledgeable driver Foster Siyawareva—one of Zimbabwe’s first certified black African guides—was telling us about the sausage tree and its distinctive elongated fruit, I was the only one to notice a couple of female lions relaxing in a clearing perhaps a hundred yards away. (It was a proud moment, spotting those lionesses before our eagle-eyed guides.) Soon, several lumbering elephants emerged from the trees, accompanied by a few skittish baboons. Next, a group of impalas cautiously approached, while the lionesses—one pregnant and both apparently satiated—barely took notice.
As we made our way through the forest, past centuries-old termite mounds rising several feet, there was wildlife at every turn. In addition to elephants and impalas, we encountered groups of water buffalo and eland—the shy, ox-like antelope with faint white stripes and thick, twisting horns—as well as gracefully antlered waterbuck, whose shaggy manes provide buoyancy when swimming. We spotted plenty of smaller creatures too, such as vervet monkeys, mongooses, and an array of birds, including iridescent-blue long-tailed starlings and brilliantly colored little bee-eaters. Down along the river we saw one of the crocodiles that make the Zambezi treacherous, and we watched a massive hippo graze briefly before disappearing into the water until dusk.
What we didn’t come across at Chikwenya was other people. Unlike in some places, we never found ourselves sharing our once-in-a-lifetime animal encounters with a dozen jeeps. It was just me, another couple (an American actress and her filmmaker husband) and our guides. And boats are rarely seen on this stretch of the Zambezi. The most visible sign we saw of other people was the distant smoke of fires across the river in Zambia. When I asked my guide, Tendai Mdluli—who has worked at multiple camps and is now part of Wilderness’s corporate team—what makes Chikwenya special, he didn’t hesitate. “The location,” he said. “And the remoteness—we’re way out in the middle of nowhere.”
Chikwenya is a great place for touring on foot, as I did with Mdluli. On the ground, your relationship to the surroundings shifts—perspective, scale, awareness, vulnerability (even with a rifle-toting guide). It was humbling and thrilling to watch a couple of elephants, less than a hundred feet away, bathing themselves with mud, first splashing their chests and under their ears, then slinging the muck over their backs. This area is known for some of the best up-close wild elephant sightings in the world.
The only one of the Big Five safari animals absent from Chikwenya is the rhino, which roamed the Zambezi Valley until the 1980s, when poaching nearly wiped them out. With fellow operator andBeyond, Wilderness is participating in an ongoing project to replenish both white and black rhinos in Botswana. I asked Arnold Tshipa, environmental officer, about the possibility of bringing rhinos back to Mana Pools and Hwange. “Not anytime soon,” he replied, without hesitation. “You have to guard them 24-7, and it’s very expensive.”
That harsh reality is a reminder of how fragile the search for human-wildlife balance is. And it’s a big reason why Chikwenya’s owners wanted a camp that sits lighter on this land that animals pass through daily as they move between forest and river. (On the night of my arrival, the armed guard who accompanied me to my tent casually mentioned that a lion pride was “hanging out” under my terrace.)
The seven cabin-like tents (two are multi-tent family units) stand on low wooden decks and are accessed by elevated timber walkways. The interiors, by South African designer Tanja Beyers, are outfitted in luxe-safari style with large, cozy beds, soaking tubs, and desks crafted from reclaimed wood slabs. Lighting is embellished with beadwork and ceramic disks, which were made by regional artisans, as are the hand-batiked robes.
In keeping with the Disconnect to Reconnect motto espoused by Wilderness, there’s no Wi-Fi, so you can blessedly forget about email, the markets, and the latest headlines. But there are plenty of spots for reading and relaxing. All of the tents have outdoor seating areas—a couple have their own plunge pools—from which you can take in the wildlife along the riverbank. One afternoon, as I enjoyed an outdoor shower beneath a towering muhute tree, the only sounds came from birds in the canopy overhead, while baboons frolicked and groomed each other in the shade of a feverberry tree and the sun glinted off the river beyond.
The lure of the water is irresistible, and a boat excursion, especially in the late afternoon, is an essential part of the Chikwenya experience. You can go angling for tiger fish (the closest I came to a catch, alas, was when a yellow-billed kite swooped down and tried to steal my bait), or you can just sit back, drink in hand, gliding past groups of submerged hippos and solitary elephants feeding on the reed grasses of small, marshy islands. Out on the river, time slows and primordial rhythms seem to take over. As the sunlight began to fade and the colors deepened, I felt the ineffable sense of inner peace and connection that Terblanche had described wash over me.
Back at camp, evenings began with cocktails and canapés in the palapa-style lounge or around the fire pit. Dinner was served at a communal table in a large open-air pavilion or at tables out on the lawn, and the quality and diversity of the food—especially for a far-flung campsite—was impressive. While we dined on plates of perfectly grilled rib eye and roasted potatoes beneath the stars, just a stone’s throw down the slope a two-ton hippo was having its own moonlit feast of riverbank grasses.
Over meals, the members of Chikwenya’s small team shared safari stories, talked of their families, and offered thoughts on Zimbabwe’s future. For them, the stakes are, of course, personal. “I hope by the time people leave this place they have a better understanding of Zimbabwe,” said Mduli, “and a positive view of our country.”
At one point during my visit, the discussion turned to the topic of evolution. I found myself caught off guard when a couple of the guides told me they rejected the theories of Darwin. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. Whatever your spiritual beliefs, it’s not hard to embrace the idea that this magnificent natural setting was molded by a divine hand. Suites from $1,288 per person.