It's 7 o'clock on a cool Saturday morning and we can barely hear ourselves speak above the whistles and shouts of some 800 people jostling for position on the starting line of the Dete 10km Race. Runners include elderly ladies in traditional wraparound skirts, bare-chested young men as lean as leather, and teenage girls in skin-tight jeans. A lucky few wear trainers and some women are teetering in high heels, but most are in flip-flops or barefoot. Just 36 minutes and 50 seconds later, the winner, a young man called Navigator, bounds across the finishing line, dripping with sweat.
Organised by the leading Zimbabwean safari operator, African Bush Camps, and the Jane Bubear Sport Foundation, a UK charity providing sports kit and equipment to disadvantaged communities, this annual race follows the main road towards nearby Hwange National Park. Its main attraction, however, is the electrifying buzz and lively camaraderie it creates within the Dete community. About 30,000 people live here, enduring poverty and unemployment, low standards of education, no running water and minimal electricity. But amid today's party atmosphere, there's a palpable sense of hope.
Slowly but surely, Dete is benefiting from the quiet resurgence of Zimbabwe's once booming tourist industry that welcomed about 1.5 million guests annually in the 1990s. The Noughties proved a bleak decade for tourism as white-owned farm invasions, hyperinflation and economic mismanagement deterred visitors. Some still boycott the country to avoid contributing to Robert Mugabe's dictatorial regime. Others want to contribute to responsible tourism that brings employment, education, community development and conservation. A more stable economy, based on the US dollar, coupled with Mugabe's fast fading influence, popularity and health, may mean that more decide it's time to come back.
While driving around Hwange, I wish I'd come back sooner. Disproving the misconception that the country is almost devoid of wildlife, the 14,600sq km that make up Zimbabwe's largest national park are home to more than 100 mammal species and 400 species of bird. On the open plains, we see giraffe, impala, zebra, kudu, sable, jackals, hippos, hyenas, lions and leopards and hundreds of elephants: up to 30,000 plod a migratory route to and from Botswana.
In 2006, while many safari companies jumped ship, Beks Ndlovu and his wife Sophia, owners of African Bush Camps, decided to stay and to work with local communities by establishing the African Bush Camps Foundation. Over dinner, Beks explains: "If we were staying, we really needed to make a positive commitment. To us, the foundation is as important a part of the business as the commercial side. We're both passionate about it and the travel business allows us to pursue that passion." Through their foundation, the Ndlovus have made a real difference to lives in Dete.
Sophia takes guests on a village tour, where I meet eight women and 200 noisy, somewhat smelly six-week-old chickens that the Ndlovus will soon be selling for a healthy profit before buying their next brood. Under the shade of a mango tree, we watch ladies at the Vugani project rolling strips of pages from magazines, transforming them into beautiful beads for jewellery. And in a school classroom, we admire colourful robes made by women in the Thandanani sewing group for sale to visitors and lodges. These women are widows or caring for orphans or both, but are benefiting from Sophia's business advice and micro-finance loans.
At Main Camp Primary School near the gates of Hwange, children in pristine green uniforms sing for us to marimba drums, dancing frenetically. The foundation supports teachers and vulnerable pupils here, covering school fees and salaries. Some 15km away, along an almost indiscernible, bumpy dirt track, they're starting similar work with Manbanje Primary School including funding two children to go to secondary school – the first ever to have done so from here.
Funding for the foundation comes from guest donations and a percentage of bed-nights from African Bush Camps' safari operations. These include Somalisa and Acacia Camps in Hwange, and Kanga and the Zambezi Lifestyles Camps at Mana Pools National Park – a place that's long been on my wish list. This Unesco World Heritage Site lives up to my expectations after a two-hour flight north. Just after the rains, its lush vegetation makes game-spotting tricky. But the dry season brings wildlife swarming to the four pools, left by the Zambezi's changing path, that give the park its name. ("Mana" means "four" in Shona.)
With options for canoeing, walking, sleeping under the stars or camping on the banks of the Zambezi, Mana Pools offers a rare blend of freedom in the bush. We stay at the intimate Kanga camp. At dusk, an elephant wades across a lily-strewn pan of water; Ian Batchelor, Beks' partner at Kanga, comments: "It's a special wilderness here." Biased he may be, but he's also right.
In fact, there's a lot that's special about Zimbabwe. Back in Dete, enjoying a beer in a bar, a young man thanks us for coming. "We just want to get on with our lives," he says. "We want tourists like you to come back." Choose the right company and coming back can have far-reaching, positive effects: when you're ready to return, Zimbabwe will be waiting with open arms.
Sue Watt travelled with Cox & Kings (020-7873 5000; coxandkings.co.uk), which arranges escorted tours to Zimbabwe. A six-night private itinerary taking in Mana Pools and Hwange National Parks and Victoria Falls costs from £2,645 per person. This includes flights from Heathrow with Kenya Airways (020-8283 1800; kenya-airways.com) via Nairobi, four nights' full board in Mana Pools and Hwange and two nights' B&B at Victoria Falls. Flights to Harare are also offered by South African Airways from Heathrow via Johannesburg.
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