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The ultimate safari guide to Zimbabwe

There's an unofficial motto in Zimbabwe that says, "Everything that flies has to land." The adage seems particularly fitting these days, as the southern African country — which for years has been plagued by political repression, economic hardship, and rampant poaching — is at last making a return to the safari circuit.

"We are seeing tourism that we just didn't see 4 or 5 years ago," says Henrietta Loyd, founder and co-owner of the UK-based travel company Cazenove + Loyd (cazloyd.com).

The influx is due in part to new antipoaching efforts, which have resulted in the return of wildlife and, with it, Zimbabwe's world-renowned safari guides. "There is also more investment coming back to the country," Loyd says, citing new and renovated lodges as well as infrastructure improvements such as the recently opened international terminal at Victoria Falls Airport.

Indeed, one of Africa's original safari destinations is finally coming in for a landing — and tempting a new generation of travellers to do the same.

Luxe Lodges for Every Safari Style

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Singita Pamushana • Arguably Zimbabwe's best safari lodge, this six-suite camp has exclusive access to the 52,600-hectares Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve. All of Singita's strengths are on display here, from the chic accommodations (including a new five-bedroom owner's estate) to the top-flight cuisine (by Zimbabwe's talented Shane Ellis) and top-notch guides. (singita.com).

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Linkwasha Camp • This Wilderness Safaris outpost brought luxury back to the game-rich Hwange National Park when it reopened in 2015. The camp features nine freestanding canvas-wrapped suites with sliding glass panels and spacious terraces. (wilderness-safaris.com)

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AndBeyond Matetsi River Lodge • Reopened in August on a 50,000 hecatare concession just northwest of Victoria Falls, this camp comprises 18 suites as well as two family suites and a villa with circular soaking tubs and private plunge pools. The game viewing here doesn't match that at Hwange or Malilangwe, but the waterfall experience is one of a kind. (andbeyond.com)

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Ruckomechi Camp • Mana Pools National Park, in the heart of the Zambezi Valley, welcomed back this newly renovated Wilderness Safaris lodge last year. Zip in and out of your canvas tent quickly — it just may be surrounded by a herd of elephants. (wilderness-safaris.com)

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Little Ruckomechi Camp • A more intimate alternative to Ruckomechi Camp, this four-tent lodge sits on a stretch of the Zambezi River that is frequented by hippopotamuses. Some of the park's best wildlife sightings can be had from your tent's private deck. (wilderness-safaris.com)

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Conversations with a Safari Guide

Zimbabwe has long held a reputation for having some of the best safari guides in Africa. Anthony "Ant" Kaschula — founder of Private Guided Safaris (privateguidedsafaris.com) — shares what it takes to reach the country's top designation of full professional guide.

Why are Zimbabwe's guides so highly regarded? The Parks and Wildlife Management Authority puts candidates through an extremely rigorous selection process. Each year no more than four to five guides qualify for a full professional guide's license, which enables you to lead walking safaris, the richest type of safari experience there is.

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What is the process for becoming a guide? First you serve an apprenticeship under a full professional guide. Then you take a set of written exams based on wildlife habits and habitats, laws pertaining to wildlife and firearms, first aid, and Zimbabwe's history and culture.

Once you pass this examination, you're granted a learner guide's license, which permits you to lead game drives and walks under the supervision of a professional guide. Over the next few years, you must also pass a shooting test in which you have to shoot a buffalo or elephant.

When the tutor feels that you're ready, you have a proficiency interview and, if you pass, take a gruelling, 5-day exam that tests every aspect of training, from having to shoot a dangerous animal in a simulated self-defence situation to outfitting and hosting a mobile camp in a remote location. The entire process can take 3 to 5 years or longer.

Have you had any dangerous encounters with wildlife on the job? Fortunately, in my 17 years of conducting walking safaris, I've never had to discharge my weapon at a threatening animal. I've had my share of close scrapes — with hippos while canoeing on the Zambezi, with lions and elephants on foot — but when you do this day in and day out, you learn to keep your cool.

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Have Tent, Will Travel

Seasoned safari-goers are increasingly complementing their stays in luxury lodges with a night or two on a mobile safari. What the portable lodges lack in creature comforts — no swimming pools, terraces, or soaking tubs here — they make up for in authenticity.

"Mobile camps give travellers a real adventure away from the tourist routes in some truly wild regions where privacy and game viewing take priority," says John Spence, president of the outfitter Scott Dunn USA (scottdunn.com).

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One of Dunn's most exciting mobile Zimbabwe experiences is its 3-night Ruwesi Canoe Trail safari in Mana Pools National Park, a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site. By day, guests paddle along the Zambezi River past hippopotamuses, elephants, and crocodiles; at night, they settle into a just-pitched camp where chef-prepared dinners are served under acacia trees and a blanket of stars.

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Chasing Waterfalls

The roar and spray of Victoria Falls can be heard and seen from kilometres away. The waterfall — known to the local Kalolo-Lozi people as Mosi-oa-Tunya, or "the smoke that thunders" — is the largest curtain of falling water in the world, measuring about 1.5 kilometres wide and flowing at a rate of up to 625 million litres per minute.

Four of the waterfall's five chasms lie within Zimbabwe's borders (the fifth is in Zambia), and even during the driest months of the year water flows forcefully. For the best views of this natural wonder, Cazenove + Loyd's Henrietta Loyd recommends chartering the Bushtracks Express (gotothevictoriafalls.com), a steam train that crosses the Victoria Falls Bridge while guests sip sundowners. More adventurous guests can get a bird's-eye vantage via helicopter or even bungee cord.

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The killing of Cecil — the black-maned lion felled by a U.S. hunter in Hwange National Park in 2015 — was the shot heard around the world. Illegal sport hunting, however, represents only a small portion of southern Africa's poaching problem.

The Asian market for rhinoceros horn and elephant ivory poses a greater threat to the region's big game, a threat the Zimbabwean government has engaged head-on in the post-Cecil era.

Recent antipoaching measures have managed to turn the tide in places like Malilangwe, a formerly decimated area that now holds an overpopulation of black and white rhinoceroses, as well as an abundance of elephants, giraffes, lions, and leopards. Hwange National Park is also improving, with approximately 50,000 elephants and a healthy lion population that includes some of Cecil's descendants.

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