Rhino Safari Camp: Keeping it simple and wild

Dick Pitman • 4 May 2018

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Having spent a goodly part of the past 40 years in the Zimbabwean “bush”, living out of the back of my 4x4, I’m not exactly a typical “international” safari camp guest. I tend to judge such camps by rather different yardsticks than does the first-time safari client from the suburbs of Washington or London.

Also, such experiences often cause me to ponder: what do I really want from such camps? Why am I here? And usually the answer is: because, once in a while, I want to immerse myself in wilderness and wildlife, in comfort, without having to do my own cooking and washing up.

Two things strike me about the wildlife tourism business. One – try googling it – is that the term “luxury” is almost mandatory in safari camp websites and promotional material. Well – you can give me all the scented towels and bowls of roses in the world, but if I can’t get a cup of coffee and a hot shower when I really want it (which is at 5.00am), you’re dead in the water.

The other is that – having trumpeted their prolific wildlife and “wilderness quality” - they then go to immense lengths to insulate you from it. They make you walk everywhere on raised boardwalks, instead of enjoying the delightful feel of sand between your toes. They surround themselves with high-voltage electric fences. Air conditioning obliterates the evocative wind-borne scent of buffalo and elephant dung. And so on.

I don’t doubt that large numbers of high-rolling camp clients enjoy these features, and seek them out. Equally, though, I suspect there is also a fair-sized market for those who prefer simplicity over the trappings of “luxury”, and immersion over insulation.

Which is a long introduction to one of my very favourite safari camps – or “bush camps” in the real meaning of the term: Rhino Safari Camp, at Elephant Point, on the Lake Kariba shoreline in the Matusadona National Park.

Here, our bedroom – on stilts, so it overlooks the bush on three sides and the magnificent Matusadona shoreline on the fourth – is open to the breeze all round. The nighttime sounds of hyaena, elephant, hippo, and distant lion aren’t filtered through glass or air conditioning.

And the daytime view is, quite simply, superb. Elephant Point didn’t get its name for nothing. For whatever  reason, and wherever elephants may or may not be in Matusadona, there are always elephants somewhere on the shoreline close to the camp. We’ve noticed this over many years, whether we’ve been passing the point in our sailboat, or staying at the camp itself. The gently-sloping shoreline has a good deal to do with it, as it grows a lush carpet of so-called “torpedo grass” (Panicum repens), which is highly favoured by elephants.

I also get the impression – and it’s no more than that – that the grass tends to be denser and more widespread here than elsewhere on the Matusadona shoreline. Be that as it may, it’s very rare not to see elephants from the Rhino Camp bedrooms – together with the ubiquitous impala and, of course, hippopotamus in or out of the water. Add in the famous cry of fish-eagles perched on the drowned treelines, and the experience is complete.

And that’s just sitting in the bedroom – which, I should add, is constructed entirely from pole and thatch, with weathered timber flooring – and has an en suite toilet, plus a shower (also open to the sky) that delivers copious amounts of hot water when needed.

As the camp is totally unfenced – a huge “plus”, in my rather esoteric bush-camp philosophy – the aforementioned elephants can, and indeed do – periodically wander around and between the chalets, so getting from your bedroom to the main camp dining-room and lounge via a path through the surrounding dense bush can have its excitements. For reasons such as this, camp owners Jenny Nobes and Karl Wright do not accept children under twelve as guests.

Experienced “bush hands” will have no problem with the walk through the jesse bush. Others, however, will prefer to make arrangements to be escorted by the resident armed guide, who can be called on at any time he’s needed to ensure safe passage to and from the chalets.

And herein, also, lies just one of the great advantages created by small, flexible and fully bush-oriented camps such as Rhino Safari Camp. Other than lunch- and dinner-times, there are no fixed “activity schedules”. No matter if you’d like an early morning guided bush walk, a later “game drive” by vehicle or boat, or an afternoon’s fishing – these things can be organised according to your tastes and preferences.

In short, it’s all very informal and unregimented, with friendly hosts, lots of choices and plenty to see and do. Besides the ubiquitous elephants and impala, lion are regularly sighted on walks and drives; and – unusually, for much of Zimbabwe – the Matusadona has a small resident cheetah population.

Furthermore, there are fascinating fossil deposits in the area, dating from 150-200million years ago, that can add a whole new dimension to the Matusadona experience.

And, in between, meals are homely and simple, and the bar well stocked. What more could one ask, if one’s main objective, like mine, is to enjoy wild surroundings in good company and with all one’s basic needs provided for?

No doubt, at this point and in this era, some will say “phone and internet access”. I’ve been knocking around the Matusadona for 40 years now, largely before such things were even heard of, so I’m in two minds about this. Well, cellphone coverage and internet availability did arrive in the area – and at Rhino Camp – a year or two ago.

But, once again, I think it’s a question of what you want from your safari “experience”. I’m tempted to say that if your entire wellbeing is centred on instant connectivity and the superficial trappings of the “luxury safari camp”, then places like Rhino Safari Camp aren’t for you. But, for the discerning lover of wildlife and wilderness – and there are, I’m convinced, many such people out there, looking for authenticity combined with the essential comforts of life – it’s one of a very limited number of camps I can thoroughly recommend.

Getting there – well, you can drive there, but it’s a long and arduous business, requiring full-on 4x4 capability and a lot of stamina. Charter flights can be arranged, to a local bush airstrip. The best way, though, is to take the 50km camp transfer-boat ride from Kariba town, which is a great experience (and adventure) in itself. You may even get a bit wet, if the wind’s up and the lake choppy.

But if you can’t handle that, you’re probably going to the wrong place anyway!


Dick Pitman is well known in Zimbabwe as founder and former Director of The Zambezi Society - which has been saving Zambezi wildlife & wilderness since the 1980s. He has published several books, and is a passionate and experienced bushman, sailor and aviator.

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