Still virtually unknown to western travellers, Zimbabwe is a young country that nonetheless has one of the oldest, most fabled and romantic histories in the whole of Africa. Bushman cave paintings in the sacred Matopo Hills date back some 20,000 years. The country is still steeped in its mythical past. The first explorers came here in search of the riches of the lost biblical city of Ophir, visited by the Queen of Sheba, it was believed, to enrich the temple of Solomon. Today, the ancient ruins of the Great Zimbabwe, the oldest and most spectacular human structure south of the Sahara, testify to the amazing civilisation that flourished while Europe was in the dark ages.
Then during the last century, more explorers arrived. Dr David Livingstone first enraptured all of London with his exciting accounts of the Great Zambezi and the thriving slave trade. He was soon followed by the pioneer white hunters, each one attracted by stories of the incredible variety and quality of game that was to be found in the true wilds of Africa. The most famous of these was Frederick Courtney Selous, the model for Rider Haggard's Allan Quartermain in his novel King Solomon's Mines.
The landscape is still much the same today as in the old engravings, executed over a century ago, when these adventurers first set eyes on Zimbabwe. But this is not a country for mass tourism. There are no great plains, where camera-clicking tourists gloat over the game from the comfort and safety of the minibuses. In the tough, untouched and untamed bush of Zimbabwe, you do your game-watching from an open four-by-four vehicle, on foot, by canoe - and now, from the back of the mighty African elephant.
The Elephant Camp, situated just 25km west of Victoria Falls on 35,000 acres of privately owned wildlife estate, offers one of the newest and most thrilling safari experiences in Africa. The Elephant Camp not only makes it possible to view wildlife from the back of an elephant, but perhaps more importantly, provides the unique opportunity to share a day in the life of an elephant.
Though a new phenomenon in Zimbabwe, as early as 219BC African elephants were ridden by Hannibal and his men across the Alps as they invaded Italy and France. Elephant domestication in Zimbabwe has been pioneered by two dedicated conservationists, Rory Hensman and Norman Travers. It is their belief that the sustained utilisation of wildlife - essentially, getting the elephants to pay for themselves - is the only means by which the elephant will survive in this modern world.
The four resident elephants at the Elephant Camp are orphans left by the National Parks' culling efforts. Miss Ellie and Jumbo come from the Zambezi Valley, while Jock and Jack come from Hwange National Park. They grew up with humans, and are accustomed to receiving visitors. They spend much of the day working with their grooms, and entertaining guests.
Miss Ellie is the leader of the herd. The only female in the group, she is tuskless and smaller than the others - but quite definitely running the show. Jumbo is very intelligent and obviously enjoys the spotlight of centre stage. Jock is the eldest and the largest of the group, demonstrating his maturity in both habit and behaviour. However, he remains quite sensitive to harsh words and clearly appreciates it when he's rewarded with praise. Jack, known affectionately as "The Pig", is the glutton of the group, preferring a life of leisure. Though it takes a bit more effort, and sometimes real creativity to get him going, he's an excellent elephant just the same.
Viewing elephants from the back of a Landrover, or even at a distance on foot, is always an awesome sight. But getting to know these "gentle giants" of Africa - up close and personal - adds an enlightening dimension to the traditional safari experience. Not knowing quite what to expect, and with a certain degree of apprehension, we were introduced to the elephant group. Surprisingly, the encounter was both a tactile and an emotional one. Feeling the texture of the elephant's skin, the incredible softness of its tongue, the tickling of its trunk as it touched one's own nose, was such a contrast to our stereotyped perception of these mighty creatures.
Even more fascinating was watching these youngsters respond to human words and emotions. In the relatively brief period of time we spent with the elephants, we observed each displaying a very distinctive, unique personality. Gradually, we began to understand the elephants' behaviour first-hand. We came to learn, for example, that an elephant's ears stop moving and he raises his tail slightly when he senses danger.
After our initial encounter, large soft saddles were placed on the elephants' backs. They were instructed to kneel, and we climbed aboard. Imagine riding high above the long grass of the bush, wandering at an elephant's pace along game trails used only by animals. The perspective is unparalleled - approaching the wilderness in a way that seems truly a nature's-eye view. The elephants gracefully step over tree trunks, rocks and other obstacles without ever changing pace. If you close your eyes, the only sensation of movement is a slight sway and the breeze on your face. While on the move, they constantly graze, stripping the young leaves off trees with their trunks.
Whether it is game-viewing from their backs, picnicking with them in the bush, grooming, feeding or swimming with them, or simply experiencing the pleasure of being close to such magnificent animals, the encounter is truly unforgettable. After such an experience, one looks at elephants in the wild with a new affection - and a keener insight into how they live and interact, in the complex and touching social structure of the herd.
GETTING THERE: Air Zimbabwe (0171 491 0009) and British Airways (0345 222111) fly direct from Gatwick to Harare with alternating service every day of the week. South African Airways (0171 312 5000) offers daily flights via Johannesburg.
TOURS: African Portfolio specialises in custom-designed tours and safaris throughout Zimbabwe and southern Africa. For further information, phone or fax (in Harare) 00 263 4 497 060 or (in the United States) 00 1 201 538 5235, fax 00 1 201 984 5383.