Return to Eden is a good name for a houseboat. Every time I come back to Lake Kariba I find I’ve forgotten just what a paradise it is. The winter days are sunny and warm and the nights are mild. Hippos honk from the shallows and somewhere in the thick mopane growth of Matusadona National Park a lion roars, lulling us to sleep.
Lions, hippos and crocodiles aside (all three have been known to kill people on and around the lake), Zimbabwe is a safe place to visit. I’ve read with interest a number of recent articles dissecting the political, economic and security situations in the country as the journalists have grappled with the wisdom of recommending or discouraging a visit to this troubled Eden. For me it’s a no-brainer; I’ve travelled to Zimbabwe annually for the past 17 years and will continue to do so.
I’ve met British people who have skirted the country, telling me how much they would be hated and persecuted if they set foot in it (Rubbish!), and South Africans who have refused to go because they fear for their safety (And this from people who live in Johannesburg!). Myth, rumour and misinformation abound in Africa, but Zimbabwe is the recipient of more than its fair share of all of these.
Don’t get me wrong – all is not right in Zimbabwe. Despite the inroads the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and their splinter groups have made into government, real change is still just beyond the reach of those who would bring back the rule of law and good governance. Violent intimidation of MDC organisers and voters is still a fact of life, especially at election times, and the last few white-owned farms are anything but secure as the land grab continues, albeit away from the front pages of the world’s newspapers.
The US dollar replaced the worthless Zimbabwean equivalent a couple of years ago and one can buy just about anything the modern-day tourist needs, but despite the fact that the supermarket shelves are full, many Zimbabweans from all walks of life live in poverty.
So it’s far from perfect, so should you visit? Well, that’s up to you, but I can’t get enough of the place. Zimbabwe offers so much and, as far as I’m concerned, in terms of the personal safety of tourists, it probably ranks at or near the top of the list of the safest places I’ve visited in Africa.
Which is why I’ve found myself back on Return to Eden. It’s more house-ship than houseboat, with its six double cabins, all with en-suite bathrooms and air conditioning. It even has a swimming pool, which on my first voyage was home to a monstrous, metre-plus barbel (catfish) that the crew had caught on our first day out. It became a slimy, muddy mascot for my fellow passengers and me, and a feast for the crews’ families when they returned to port.
But on this trip the days are so warm the pool is reserved for humans only. There’s little to do on board other than read, sleep, drink, eat and watch a passing parade of game. In the mornings and evenings we take to the tender boats – flat steel platforms on pontoons, with half of us going in search of fish and the rest seeking out wildlife on the shores and waterways of the national park.
Lake Kariba was formed in the late 1950s when the Zambezi River was dammed. The water’s high when we visit and the shoreline’s grasses are submerged, so the grazers (buffaloes, zebras, etc.) have moved inland and out of sight, but we see waterbuck, impala and hundreds of elephants every day. I’ve seen lions here plenty of times but on this trip we just hear them, and that’s almost as good.
Captain Satiel and deck hand and boatman Panache expertly navigate us in and out of the myriad channels that line the shore and point out an incredible array of birdlife – giant, malachite and pied kingfishers; and darters, herons and African fish-eagles galore. As we watch, drinks in hand, a herd of elephants emerges from the bush and, after checking us out and deciding all is safe, the matriarch leads her family in single file past us. It’s an incredible moment and somehow I feel a closer connection to the elephants than if I were watching them from a vehicle. We drift slowly down a narrow channel, Panache paddling now and then to keep pace with the animals, our movement as silent as the grey ghosts we’re shadowing.
Back on board chef Christopher turns the provisions we’ve brought with us into excellent meals. He supplements our rough menu guidelines with home-baked desserts of his own device and serves kapenta, freshwater sardines, in the style of deep-fried whitebait for bar snacks in the evenings.
Satiel tells me that when Zimbabwe’s economy was on its knees, he left the lake for a while, joining the millions of his countrymen who streamed across the border to South Africa in search of work.
‘I worked at a golf club in Cape Town, mending clubs,’ he tells me.
‘How was that?’ I ask.
He shakes his head and smiles. ‘Cold and wet.’
‘Are you glad to be back in Zimbabwe?’
The sun glitters off the lake and elephants dot the far-off shores. As if on cue a fish-eagle calls.
‘Yes,’ he replies simply.