Singita Pamushana in southeastern Zimbabwe is not just exquisitely beautiful and wondrously luxurious: it’s also a Big Five safari experience that’s helping to change thousands of lives for the better.
My Singita Pamushana experience begins at OR Tambo, when, approaching the check-in desk, the hostess greets me by name – before I’ve even handed her my passport. She whisks me past the immigration queues to the VIP desk and tells me not to be late for boarding.
For two hours, the Pilatus swims over puffy clouds, then bucks down to Buffalo Range airfield. 45 minutes after clearing immigration, we arrive at the gates of Malilangwe, a 130,000-acre nature reserve bordering Gonarezhou National Park in south-eastern Zimbabwe.
We get out of the vehicle and walk under the bough of a rock fig that curves over us like a welcoming arch, towards a baobab towering above a sea of lawn. We have arrived at Singita Pamushana. I have never been here before but it feels like a homecoming of sorts – the chorus of crickets and an emerald spotted wood dove’s chortles is wondrously familiar. We walk through the reception area and onto the deck where a swimming pool mirrors sky and trees. I forgo a game drive, opting instead to admire the view of the shimmering lake below with a cup of Zimbabwean tea.
When the smoky orange sky has turned ashen blue and the mosquitoes have started nibbling, I walk down to my room – more of a house, really, with Great Zimbabwe-style walls and topped with thatch. The interior is a riot of African geometrics and lush textures, with graphic elements from all over the continent (capulana, kente, kikoi) that manage to be vibrantly harmonious rather than a clashing mess.
When I return to the main deck for dinner, it is studded with brightly glowing lanterns. The meal is princely – ham croquettes to begin with (along with freshly baked bread), then roast quail with porcini foam, all washed down liberally with Paul Cluver chardonnay.
The next morning, our Land Cruiser is bumping down from the lodge through the charcoal dawn. We’re out there for over five hours, and although the lions prove elusive, there is still much to see. Giraffe-silhouettes pierce the mist as the sun rises, their necks thwacking against each other. Later, we’re surrounded by a breeding herd of elephants (one of whom trumpets an angry reprimand as he dashes forward before retreating). A leopard tortoise sunbathes on the road, as we pass sandstone cliffs ringing with the bark of baboons. On the reserve’s eastern boundary two young cheetah brothers laze in the shade, their ears and tails twitching against flies. Through the fence, a cluster of boys from a nearby village watch us watching them.
In the mid-afternoon, a flat-bottomed boat putters us over to a spot on the lake where bream is known to congregate. I’m handed a fishing rod – the first time I’ve held one in years. I spend at least an hour casting into the blue-gold without success. Occasionally the line tangles, or the worm escapes the hook. Frustration mounts: I steal jealous glances at the bucket my two other companions are smugly filling with slick, flickering fish.
We move to another spot, a Zambezi beer helping to numb the rising feelings of inadequacy. I cast again – and there’s a tug! I reel in. Photographs and smiles all round. Before we head back for dinner, I snare another two more – happier than a kid at a funfair.
As the plane lifts from Buffalo Ridge, a line of wildebeest gallops across the grass below and I feel an ache. Leaving Pamushana after three nights feels particularly difficult – and not merely because it’s a beautiful place where you’re pampered silly. Indeed, when I reflect on my visit, what comes flooding back is not just memories of chef Shane Ellis’s exquisitely yummy food (matched, of course, with excellent wine), or the warm and attentive staff, or the wildlife dotted against majestic vistas. There’s also a sense of awe at what is being achieved here to protect this remarkable place for generations to come.
The profits from the lodge are ploughed back into the Malilangwe Trust which owns the reserve – a non-profit guided by an ethos that acknowledges community development as an essential part of conservation. The day before I left I had hopped into a Land Cruiser with Shepherd Mawire, the community projects coordinator, to discover exactly what that means in practice. Over the course of the morning, we visited school and clinic buildings the Trust has built, passed boreholes it had sunk and witnessed the feeding of a dozen or so of the 19,000 kids on the reserve’s fringes that are provided with a nutrient-rich porridge daily.
This is a living blueprint for the future of conservation, one that is uplifting and inclusive. If more ecotourism initiatives adopt this approach, then perhaps we stand a chance of saving Africa’s wildest and most beautiful places after all.