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CHRISTMAS EVE afternoon was spent watching a family of elephants as they came to drink and bathe at a water-hole in the middle of the arid grassland of the Hwange National Park. They arrived in a procession, perhaps 40 of them, the old guys solemn and slow, the babies frolicking and occasionally being reprimanded with a shove or slap from the trunk of an irritated mid-lifer. Once they reached the water, spirits visibly soared as one by one the elephants waded up to their knees, sucking the water up and squirting it into the air. The little elephants seemed to wriggle and giggle. Their pleasure was unmistakable.

It was a suitable finale to an afternoon spent driving through the Park spotting giraffes with Betty Boop eyes peering from the dense bushes, pausing to watch zebras parading, jackals cavorting, wildebeest roaming, warthog like elderly ladies in their best shoes, trit-trotting purposefully through the undergrowth, tribes of monkeys playing the giddy goat and the rarest treat - a lioness flopped out under a tree, panting in the heat, too exhausted to move at the sound of our van, so that we not only had the rare chance to video the sight for posterity, but to look at her, for real, for a good 15 minutes.

A treat indeed, but as George, a Zimbabwean businessman magnificently adorned in a velvet suit and accompanied by his wife wearing lashings of flowered chiffon, observed: "Christmas isn't Christmas without the traditional bit." Call it colonial conditioning if you will, but this chap clearly meant it from the heart. So much so that he had splashed out to be aboard the Zambezi Special safari train - which is where we met - making its Christmas journey with full festivities. For us traditionalists it was pure pleasure to follow the afternoon wildlife excursion in the hot high sun, which is part of the 24-hour trip from Bulawayo to Victoria Falls, with a hot shower and then to be ushered into the dining car to eat a three-course Christmas dinner with turkey and trimmings, to pull crackers and sing carols.

There were communal toasts over which we met a couple who had escaped Mengistu's tyranny in Ethiopia and now run a bookshop in Harare. There were George and his family and an elderly Scottish woman who lives alone in Zimbabwe since her husband died and talks of the annual Christmas special (the rail safari runs throughout the year) trip as "My lifesaver, without it I'd have nowhere to go, but on board I always make friends." There were a lot of jokes delivered in voices blurred by a good Zimbabwean Pinotage which kept us going until we staggered off to bed. And then we came to on Christmas morning at Thomson Junction Station where we had stopped overnight, to find baboons peering into our compartment, a candy-floss sun already high in the sky and a solicitous Train Manager offering a tray with tea and more crackers before the champagne breakfast and our arrival at Victoria Falls.

We had come to Zimbabwe to spend Christmas with our son, who was teaching at a school in Bulawayo during his gap year. But rather than joining a package tour we wanted to plan things our own way. What we hadn't realised was how popular Zimbabwe has become for Christmas; tour operators had filled the decent hotels and what remained were the most basic motel-style places or those that would have made my flexible friend anorexic. It was the charming Grace Remba, at the Zimbabwe Tourist Office in Bulawayo, who offered us tea, masses of advice on places to visit to avoid the tourist crush, and put us in touch with Geoff Cooke. An Englishman who grew up in a railway family and never lost his passion for rolling stock, he set up a business using the beautiful old steam engines made redundant by the National Railways, to run safari trips for tourists. You can, of course, do the same Bulawayo-Victoria Falls route on a state-run train, considerably more cheaply. But the Zambezi Special is for pampered holiday-making, not just transport. The compartments have been done up in classic 1920s style with leather upholstery, chrome, etched glass mirrors and polished wood; whenever you turn round, there seems to be a white-clad waiter offering coffee and biscuits (or something stronger), and the set meals are served on damask table-cloths with coffee in the sitting car afterwards. It was smart thinking to add in the wildlife excursion as that is costly to organise individually.

We loved the sensation of leaning out of the windows, warm air blowing round us as we moved through landscape which changed constantly. Leaving Bulawayo the trees in flat parched ground were reduced to skeletal limbs which seemed to be thrust upwards praying for rain; then suddenly the terrain became much greener, dotted with clusters of trees in deepest red, green and silver. The view seemed to open into an eternity of turquoise sky as we climbed an escarpment then cut down into valleys, through villages where we drew into little stations where children came running up, waving and giggling. On the second day, coming into Victoria Falls you see the Zambezi River cutting like a metallic snake through the land and then the suspension bridge linking Zambia and Zimbabwe from which in 1912 the local postmaster, too impoverished to go on, leapt into the gorge. (So did a bride who ran from her honeymoon suite after a tiff with her husband.)

Once you have visited the Falls, seen the curtain of water cascading over the 100-metre precipice, understood why Dr Livingstone declared: "It is a scene so lovely it must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight," and got the T-shirt, there is not much to keep you here. But if you can afford it, a night at the Victoria Falls Hotel, an elegant former colonial watering spot, offers Zimbabwean tourism at its most polished. The hotel has manicured lawns, pink and purple bougainvillaea draped around the swimming pool, and the best braai (barbecue) in town - three courses and as much as you can eat for pounds 7.50. Pampering on a grand scale is also on offer at the Elephant Hills Hotel (and at top-of-the-market prices - a double room with breakfast will set you back well over pounds 100 at both hotels).

The Elephant Hills is an ultra-modern creation of natural stone and slate with a raised veranda open on every side so that you can gaze out over the bush. One night we watched from it the most spectacular storm I have ever seen, with enormous whiplashes of white lightning on an indigo sky and thunder howling round the hilltops. The hotel has all the creature comforts you could want - pretty, airy rooms with balconies, a gym, a theatre, several restaurants and a huge swimming pool, and a staff who will organise anything from leisurely fishing trips to the madness of whitewater rafting. We would have been inclined to bankrupt ourselves and stay longer had it not been for the white "Rhodies", ex-pats who have never got over the horror of this country's getting majority rule and independence. They now live in South Africa but holiday in "Zim" as they proprietorially call it. They lounge by the poolside, their commands to the African waiters ringing in the air with a conspicuous absence of "please" and "thank you".

It was time to go and explore. We hired the cheapest car Hertz could find (pounds 25 a day with a complicated mileage arrangement) and set off, via a stopover in Harare, for the Eastern Highlands. Driving in Zimbabwe is a schizophrenic experience. The roads are good and relatively empty, as few Zimbabweans own cars. When they do, however, lunacy frequently takes over and you have to be prepared for elaborate dodgem games. Signs warn of elephants crossing, and there are other hazards we Westerners do not anticipate: having to scream to a halt because a family of monkeys is playing in the highway; kids suddenly running out waving and shouting.

For all this the drive north is a delight. We were heading towards the Eastern Highlands, the coolest, greenest part of the country, with tea and coffee plantations, thick forests, rolling moorland and hidden waterfalls, flanked by massive granite bluffs. We drove past fields of terracotta soil, a mass of different flowers and grasses, filigree silhouettes of fine small trees, beside the enormity of a baobab or some old gnarled trunk large as a sumo wrestler's thigh. As we climbed higher the landscape became wilder, rough and primeval with huge natural rock sculptures at the roadside - Zimbabwe has some of the oldest rocks on earth - and virtually all signs of tourism faded away.

Nyanga, our destination, is a plateau at 2,592 metres, with a cool, soft climate and unlike much of the rest of the country, a good deal of rain. Rich in greenery, with rugged mountain peaks and deep gorges, rainforest and masses of wild flowers, blue, orange, purple, pink, it seems untouched by the hand of man. We made for the National Park, created by Cecil Rhodes, where the Pungwe, Odzi and Gairezi rivers begin and tumble down over the escarpment in magnificent waterfalls into the Honde valley. The government lets wooden bungalows and lodges with cooking facilities in its national parks, including the wildlife parks. They are popular with locals so booking early is essential, but the prices are extremely reasonable and you will get a far better feel of the real Zimbabwe than in the Western-oriented hotels. The alternative is to stay in the Rhodes Nyanga Hotel, an old colonial home, where you can get a room, breakfast and an excellent five- course dinner for two for less than pounds 30; or, as we did, you can get the same but in a rondavel - a stone hut with thatched roof in the grounds - for pounds 13. After dinner guests gathered on the hotel porch to sip a brandy or gin and tonic. We heard some wonderful tales of Zimbabwean life there, and made good friends with other travellers.

There are magnificent walks in the countryside round about, and you can tramp for miles meeting just a few villagers and children who come to walk alongside you and chatter as much (or as little) English as they speak. You might, too, see some of the rare birds - cisticolas, waxbills, widow-birds, buzzards and eagles - which live in this area, an important wildlife sanctuary. But fly fishing is the main attraction of Nyanga with its rivers, natural dams and lake stocked with rainbow and brown trout. Tackle and a boat can be hired very cheaply at the hotel or from the park keeper. The fishing in this region is considered among the country's best; that said, we came home empty-handed from our morning outings.

We hung out here for a few days, revelling in the balmy climate, the utter peacefulness and the simplicity of the lifestyle reading a lot, eating and drinking excessively and going to bed as the aluminium moon rose in the sky and day was definitively over. Then it was time to head back. We stopped for half a day at the Vumba Botanical Gardens where the elegant landscaping around a series of small streams was a contrast indeed with the wildness of the Eastern Highlands. There are flowering plants from all over the world - fuchsia, hydrangeas, begonias, lilies, azaleas, orchids, aloes; there are mosses and ferns in humid forest groves, and trees and shrubs unique to Zimbabwe.

Bulawayo, a pleasant-enough provincial town, seemed hot and hectic when we arrived back. We blessed the chap who recommended the Hilltop Hotel where a comfortably decorated bungalow in a garden full of aromatic flowers cost pounds 25 for two, with breakfast. It was the ideal place for our last couple of nights. We topped up the tans around the pool, drove into town to shop for African carvings and fabric and to eat at Sisters, in the Sly and Hatton department store. Their Tagliatelle Alfredo served with a garnish of nasturtium and carrot cake are not to be missed, although you can find places to sample the semolina-like sadza, the most basic national dish, if you want a more authentic experience. But even without it we felt we had had a good taste of the real Zimbabwe.


Tours: Zimbabwe Tours & Travel (0181-882 0141) tailor-makes holidays as well as arranging flight, accommodation or land only holidays. Direct flights to Harare on Air Zimbabwe start at pounds 515 return. Guerba Expeditions (01373 826611) offers various itineraries to Zimbabwe. Prices for their "Best of Zimbabwe" 15-day tour start at pounds 1,300 including flights, pounds 700 land only. Abercrombie & Kent (0171-730 9600) offers tours and safaris by both air and land; all-inclusive prices start at around pounds 1,400 for seven days.

Zambezi Train: the trip taken by Angela Neustatter on the Zambezi Special Safari Train from Bulawayo to Victoria Falls takes about 24 hours, departing at 9.30am. It includes a wildlife excursion in Hwange National Park. Passengers can stay overnight on the train or in a hotel or lodging house. The trip costs from pounds 269 and can be booked through Zimbabwe Tour & Travel and Abercrombie & Kent (see above). It is possible to travel the same route on the regular Zambezi train. However, this leaves at 9.30pm and continues all night, arriving at 6am. Cost: about pounds 25 per person in a four-person first-class sleeping cabin.

Further information: Zimbabwe Tourist Office (0171-836 7755), Zimbabwe House, 429 The Strand, London WC2R 0QE.