Since independence, Zimbabwe has boomed as a clean, green example of beneficial tourism, says Simon Calder
Few eyes are brighter, few smiles broader, few minds sharper than those belonging to the dozens of Zimbabwean children who sweep every visitor along to their school in a tidal wave of jollity. The openness, generosity and sheer good humour of life in an African village such as Mahenye should persuade you to postpone your departure from it as long as you can. But when you finally retreat to your safari lodge, you can sleep soundly knowing that the proceeds from one snore in every 10 are destined for the local community.

When the new country first began to promote itself in the early Eighties, the slogan used was "Welcome to Zimbabwe - now in its 150 millionth year". No matter that the name of the nation had existed for barely 12 months; Zimbabwe set out to equate itself with nature. The ads implied that the tourist, besides being privileged to share in an ancient, unspoilt land, was doing the place a favour. The now much-copied concept of eco-tourism was born.

Since then, a lead-free, politically correct, environmentally sensitive travel bandwagon has been rolling across the world. Travel companies realise that the image of caring about the effect of tourism can pay off, for their shareholders as well as for us stakeholders in the future of the planet. But when any big corporation begins to brag about its green credentials, I tend to urge a good helping of scepticism.

So when a large hotel enterprise like Zimbabwe Sun begins to develop a region close to the Mozambique frontier, you have to ask a lot of questions about the likely winners and losers. But, having been a tourist there myself, and having talked to everyone, from the chambermaid to the leaders of the community, the project seems to represent an excellent example of how sustainable tourism development can work - and an exciting model for any community thinking of starting along the road towards reaping the uncertain rewards of tourism.

For the past 30 years, the area around the Save (pronounced sah-vay) river has been out of bounds to foreigners. Initially the reason was insurrection within white-ruled Rhodesia; then, after the country became Zimbabwe, the war in Mozambique required tourists to be kept away. As a result, when the conflict ended, the region was left with a cleaner sheet, as far as travellers are concerned, than almost anywhere else outside obscure regions of the former USSR.

Compared with most of the ex-Soviet Union, the great advantage that south- eastern Zimbabwe possesses is extraordinary natural beauty. Nothing dramatic, mind: the landscape gives the impression of having been there for ever, gradually and comfortably worn down by the millennia. From the mud that has slumped in the Lowveld, slender trees accelerate above the gentle scrub towards a sky whose intense blue shrieks at the onlooker.

For a room at the Mahenye lodge, you pay a surprisingly modest pounds 50 per night. The local community claims 10 per cent of this, with a guaranteed minimum of 250,000 Zimbabwe dollars (pounds 13,300). After 10 years, community leaders can elect to close down the operation or lease it to someone else.

To gauge how much the scheme is working, just visit the local school and meet Lyson Masango. He will explain how, in 10 years, the school's roll has increased from 50 to 700. Knowing that one-tenth of your spending is contributing to the education of the village can tempt you to over- indulgence; one more Castle beer could help buy another schoolbook. That kind of logic could be dangerous.

Mr Masango is also chairman of the local wildlife committee. What, you may ask, about the wildlife? Are they destined to become objects of voyeurism in the manner of animals elsewhere in Africa, barely distinguishable from beasts confined to zoos?

Not if the walking safari I joined was anything to go by. We spent four hours looking not at impala and elephants, but at their dung. The guide demonstrates, in an impressively inspirational manner, how animal excreta can tell you much about the ecology of the wilderness.

The point of walking wasn't just to get closer to nature (in all its glories). I wanted to tread lightly on this miraculous country, which has never known the tyre tracks of the eco-tourism bandwagon. By the end, I realised that nothing is bigger than an African sky, nothing is noisier than an African silence, and nothing is more fragile than the balance between land, wildlife and man.

Simon Calder travelled to Zimbabwe for BBC-2's `The Travel Show'. Air Zimbabwe (0171-491 0009) and British Airways (0345 222111) fly between London Gatwick and Harare. Official fares are high - a minimum of pounds 725 return on Air Zimbabwe. But if you can travel on September 9 or 29, and return before the end of November, you pay only pounds 425. This ticket is on sale from next Tuesday. To reach Mahenye from Harare involves a drive of around six hours; you can travel on a series of buses, but this is likely to be a long process. The Mahenye Safari Lodge can be contacted on 00 263 31 3159.

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