Travel: Where sculpture grows on trees

Nicola Kurtz takes a walk through the weird and wonderful landscape of Zimbabwe's bush
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The Independent Culture
The goat was supposed to be that night's meal. But it had stayed defiantly on the loose. Instead, we made do with vegetable stew which proved a more than adequate alternative. The outcome was, I thought, an appropriate symbol for the sort of freedom you enjoy at the wilderness camp of Hippo Pools, three bone-shaking hours from Zimbabwe's capital, Harare. Unlike many other African safari camps, here you go hiking in the bush. And you can go alone.

Hiking? And without guide or gun? The idea sounded daft - at first. But as you quickly discover, walking is the best way of becoming, and feeling, part of the landscape.

I arrived at Hippo Pools in the dark and was only able to get a sense of the place from the glow of the campfire and the lines of hurricane lamps - there is no electricity here. Settling into my cabin that first evening, I was lulled to sleep by the soothing gurgle of the Mazowe River - interspersed with more alarming sounds of all manner of things that go croak in the night.

There is a no-nonsense attitude at the camp: the day starts early and if guests wish to take part in guided tours, they need to be up at 7am - sharp. After my late arrival the previous day, however, I got up late (8.30am is considered nearly lunch time). "No problem," I was assured, "why not go exploring on your own?" So, map in hand, water bottle full, hat on, and camera loaded, I set out.

An extensive network of paths criss-crosses the park around the camp. It is an effective and simple system. All routes are clearly marked with different coloured tin lids attached to trees along the way. By a system of markers that relate to the colour-coded map, it is easy to find your way around the bush. And, with the exception of hippos, there aren't any really dangerous animals here.

Being able to walk at your own pace and explore areas in your own time is a real luxury. Unaccompanied, you find any sort of animal you see from a distance - be it guinea fowl or the backside of a deer - a real thrill. The obsession of animal watching that dominates most trips to Africa can result in a long analysis of the back of the backpack of the person in front of you, or being driven around in a zebra-painted Land Rover fighting for a place to photograph a distant animal along with 20 others.

On foot and alone, you get an almost overwhelming sense of the space, quietness and freedom that is Africa. That morning, I chose routes that would pass through the widest variety of bushland. I walked through flat areas of knee-high grasses and skeletal trees with tufts of leaves which burst forth from spindly branches.

I scrambled up numerous rocky hills, the grassy plains giving way to granite boulders and rockscapes with small twisted trees that grow out of cracks and cling on to ledges seemingly defying gravity. It felt as if I were walking through an immense and never-ending sculpture.

All paths, it seems, eventually lead to the Mazowe River. Here, life gets lush: you pick your way down dark green tracks overhung with branches and creepers and find yourself by sandy shores, marked with the footprints of numerous creatures.

Your sense of exploration may well get the better of you here; the grunt of a hippo from the river bank may send you pegging it across the bush to the safety of the dirt road, heart beating and a sudden interest in climbable trees rapidly developing. It is best, they tell you back at camp, to leave a healthy distance between yourself and a hippo.

Not, of course that you can avoid close encounters for long. The next day it was time to participate a little and I signed up to go canoeing on the river.

We set off at 3pm, just as the full heat of the day was over, and some of the local people were panning for gold and washing on the riverbanks. Further downstream are the hippos. They are quite happy to attack a canoe, I was told, and can also charge on land - running at 25mph. Two tons in weight, and with huge teeth and a poor sense of humour, you can almost feel sorry for them. But not for long.

Adrenalin pumping, we paddled along by the bank. Three pairs of hippos, meanwhile, were cooling their blood by the islands in the centre of the Mazowe. Then we sat, and waited long and hard for them to move. You need to exercise your powers of observation to spot where the hippos are going: usually the only sign of them is a small break in the water, showing an ear, nostril or eye - the rest of their massive bodies lurk in the depths.

Finally the hippos moved off and we were able to proceed - with caution and with increased respect for all who live alongside such very real dangers. That night back at camp I could have eaten an entire goat, and more - only there it was, still engagingly gallivanting around and enjoying its freedom.

Air Zimbabwe (0171-491 0009) and British Airways (0345 222111) fly between Gatwick and Harare. Official fares are around pounds 700. Air Zimbabwe sometimes has special deals which it sells direct for about pounds 500, but discount agents usually offer the best deals. You can call Hippo Pools on 00 263 718 3302.