It’s 6:30 on Monday morning and we’re caught in a visitors jam: a herd of elephants blocks the monitor, tucking into some acacia branches for breakfast. The matriarch, who’s sheltering a calf beneath her stomach turns in the direction of us, flapping her ears and nodding her head in a gesture which means ‘again off’; we swiftly reverse via the mud. Simply your typical commute at Matetsi Personal Recreation Reserve, then.
These tusked giants undoubtedly prime the wish-list for any safari in Zimbabwe – residence to the world’s second largest inhabitants of African elephants, in reality. However Matetsi’s 136,000 acres additionally maintain subtler wonders, simply missed once you’re trundling alongside in Land Rover with binoculars scanning the horizon for large sport.
That’s the place a strolling safari is available in. So, after placing a protected distance between us and the elephants, senior information Ophious Sibanda parks up and leads us into the bush for a special perspective.
Down right here, within the spun-gold grass, my senses crackle with the sudden consciousness of simply how feeble my khaki-clad kind is. I lack the claws and deadly canines of Matetsi’s lion prides, or the curved horns of its ill-tempered buffalo (though the rifle slung over Ophious’ chest affords back-up within the unlikely occasion we get on the mistaken facet of such large sport).
We proceed, as instructed, in a sluggish single file, spaced an arm’s size other than one another to keep away from being mistaken for prey, talking solely in hushed tones.
Because the solar rises increased, beating the backs of our necks, one thing rustles from a shrub-covered outcrop to our left and Ophious holds up his fist, which means ‘freeze’. No trigger for alarm, although: the small, lithe creature that springs out and bounds up the slope is a Klipspringer, demonstrating its efficient technique for shedding much less agile predators.
An oracle of wilderness knowledge who’s been guiding right here for the reason that mid-90s, Ophious has a mushy spot for safari’s smaller or much less lovable residents. He counts hyenas and vultures as favorite animals and spent his childhood catching scorpions.
‘I could possibly be standing out right here an hour, simply staring down, and folks may say “he’s loopy”, however what they don’t realise is I’m watching a line of ants raiding a termite mound,’ he laughs. ‘Even in spite of everything this time, I nonetheless study new issues about nature after I decelerate and look intently.’
Certain sufficient, strolling via the wilderness with such a proficient information is akin to wanting via the microscopic lenses of a David Attenborough documentary. You discover, for the primary time, the nests of white-browed sparrow-weavers hanging like wicker lanterns from baobab branches, solely ever constructed on the leeward facet of a tree, and the butterfly-shaped leaves of mopani timber.
Admire the cattle egrets swooping low as a single, white streak, searching for out buffalo whose hooves churn up grubs for the birds to eat. Really feel the prickle of spear grass heads hooking onto your clothes, simply because it hitches a raise on animal hides.
The bleached, leafless trunk of a combretum has turned as pale and clean as a marble sculpture over the centuries, worn down by generations of animals who like to rub towards this tree. The Lion King’s ‘Circle of Life’ begins to play in my head.
Taking a safari outing on foot additionally sheds mild on one other resourceful, ingenious species: homo sapiens. Ophious factors out crops utilized in bush medication and native delicacies, just like the South African foxglove, which will get steamed and stirred into Zimbabwe’s staple cornmeal mash, sadza. Wild basil sends up a heady menthol aroma as we brush via the foliage.
‘When it’s dried out, we use these leaves to brew inexperienced tea or for baking,’ Ophious says, wafting a bunch of the aromatic herb underneath our noses. Crunching beneath our boots are occasional fragments of long-abandoned, overgrown railway tracks – a reminder that earlier than it turned a protected wildlife haven, this terrain was mined for ‘crimson gold’, copper (again at Matetsi’s most important lodge, flashes of metallic décor and a lustrous crushed copper bar nod to this heritage).
When the undergrowth finally grows sparser, crisscrossing animal tracks are revealed within the red-brown earth. The deep, spherical, hooved imprints belong to kudu, a sort of enormous antelope, whereas a warthog would’ve made the set of smaller, star-shaped prints, which we’re in a position to comply with proper as much as the doorway of its burrow.
Decoding such clues within the bush makes me momentarily really feel like a part of Matetsi’s anti-poaching unit, a 50-strong unit who monitor unlawful hunters and wounded animals via this wildness with assistance from educated rescue canines.
Returning to the lodge for lunch, the place outside tables overlook the Zambezi River, it appears the elephants are eager to remind us of their presence. They emerge from the tree-line on the water’s edge and use their trunks to splash their wrinkly hides, cooling off from the noon solar, whereas we tuck into vibrant bowls of quinoa and watch on.
That’s the magic of a spot that’s residence to such considerable wildlife: you’ll be able to take a morning off to understand littler issues and nonetheless not miss out on the headline act.
Estella Shardlow is a contract journey author and editor whose work has appeared in The Instances, Suitcase, The Telegraph, Meals & Journey and extra.