Zimbabwe's wildlife parks teem with lions, leopards and rhinos. But with an Antipodean in tow, writes Andrew Thorman, you'll be lucky if you ever see one
The moment she opened her mouth I knew we were in trouble. A brash Aussie in the African bush. No chance. Every animal would be scurrying for cover. And so it turned out. After two hours attempting to track rhino in Zimbabwe's Matusadona National Park, not a thing. Our guide, a former park ranger, dashingly equipped in khaki and armed with elephant gun, pistol, hunting knife and walkie-talkie, was reduced to searching for signs of life amongst various deposits - but even the ubiquitous dung beetle had gone to ground.

The only time our Antipodean friend paused to draw breath was to light a fag - but then she compensated by letting out a piercing scream which echoed about the distant mountain range. It happened as we were disconsolately trudging back along a river bed to our boat. A crocodile, clearly more concerned with seeking sanctuary than with finding a meal, made a dash for the water after being rudely disturbed while sunbathing on the bank. Its path took it straight between her husband's legs. "Jeez," she shrieked "a flaming goanna!"

Still, there was always tomorrow.

And so to our own encounter with life on the wild side. A series of grunts outside our thatched hut on the banks of the river Ume - one of the many rivers that feed Lake Kariba - was mistaken by my wife as the precursor to the arrival of early morning tea. This was religiously served at 5am to ensure that we were fully awake and alert before setting out in pursuit of game, which is best observed during the most antisocial hours of the day.

After several grunts, and several replies along the lines of "Thank you - just leave it there, please", we realised something was not quite right. A glance at my watch revealed that it was 3am. Couldn't be tea, then. On with the torch, which revealed one large hippo munching on the grassy floor of our open doorway. We had come face to face with the first of the Big Five. Given our location, I suppose we shouldn't have been surprised. At least we didn't scream.

The Big Five, I should add, are what everyone goes to Africa to see. Lion, hippo, giraffe, elephant and rhino seemed the favourites - but if you're holidaying in an area where giraffe don't live (and we were) then it seemed fair game to substitute something else. We said we wanted to see a leopard. No leopard. OK, how about gazelle? No. What about a cheetah ... hyena ... eland?

We didn't see a lion, either, but we heard them. And the rhino were hiding, too. But that was not too difficult, when you realise that the national park covers some 1,400 square miles and there are thought to be only 20 or so rhinos left after years of poaching. Ten years ago there were 2,000.

To be fair, we saw lots of other animals - including elephant, impala, buffalo, wart-hog, zebra, baboon and crocodile - plus vultures and fish eagles. As our only previous sightings of these creatures had been in a zoo, everything seemed magical.

Tiger Bay, where we stayed, had another sort of magic: a swimming-pool, bar and umpteen meals a day, to which we were summoned by the sound of an African drum. The view was across the river to the Zambezi escarpment, a glorious mountain range that encloses the Matusadona Park, one of half- a-dozen national parks where commercial hunting has now been banned. The mountains glowed in a purple haze, and provided a backdrop to spectacular sunsets.

There are several safari resorts scattered around the area, and getting to any of them usually entails a hairy landing on a rough airstrip in a light aircraft, followed by a bumpy ride in a four-wheel-drive vehicle. We shared our flight with that day's egg delivery - a replacement for a previous batch, which arrived scrambled after the plane had landed in a 3ft-deep "puddle" and flipped on to its back.

What separates Tiger Bay from other, similar, resorts is cost. To be perfectly honest, we chose it because we could afford it. While other tourists we met spoke of paying up to pounds 250 per person per day to stay at places such as Fothergill Island (not now an island, because the level of water in Lake Kariba has continued to fall due to continued droughts) we were paying just pounds 40 each. Sure, we had to spend extra for every safari trip we made (although safaris have since been made part of an all-inclusive package), but I still reckon we had good value.

Most of the other guests at Tiger Bay were white Zimbabweans, there for the fishing. The river Ume is famous for its abundance of fighting fish - but the only ones we caught sight of were hanging on the wall in the bar. In fact, the tiger fish appears to be another victim of poachers, who prefer nets to rods. But the fishermen seemed content enough to land bream - which at least they could eat.

We spent three days at Tiger Bay. Each day was wonderful. In the morning you had a choice of a two-hour safari by speedboat, by Land Rover or on foot. You never knew what you might see around the corner. The big game might have gone to ground, but despite the screeching Aussie, the other animals, especially the elephants, seemed oblivious to our presence. Crocodiles just silently sank beneath us, hippos yawned, buffalo stared and monkeys mooned. We opened another beer, took another picture and mouthed another superlative.

In the late afternoon you were given a similar choice (in fact you could also opt for a canoe, but the stories of hippos turning them over was enough to dissuade us). For the rest of the time - well, there was always the swimming-pool or a good book, or just sitting and soaking up the views. It was all so still and calm - the only sound might be a distant roar, or the lapping of the water on the foreshore.

The problem with Tiger Bay was that it was just too laid-back. So much so that the management never really told us anything. There was an annoying practice of allowing other river users - especially those on houseboats, frustrated at not being able to dive into the lake for a cooling swim, dropping anchor in our bay and then invading our pool. We were left to sort of muddle through.

But then, I guess that's what being on holiday is all about.

ZOOMING TO ZIMBABWE

If you can travel next week, Air Zimbabwe (0171-491 0009) has a special for travel on Wednesday 22 July or Friday 24 July; you pay the remarkably low fare of pounds 380 including tax for the flight from Gatwick to Harare, returning any time within three months (though you must fix the date). British Airways (0345 222111) also flies between Gatwick and Harare. In general, though, the best fares are likely to involve a change of planes. For example, in July Tradewings (0171-631 1840) is offering pounds 515 on Balkan Bulgarian Airlines. Bridge The World (0171-911 0900) has an August fare of pounds 549 with Air France from various UK airports. This drops to pounds 385 in September, but only if you book before the end of July.

From Harare to Kariba the air fare is pounds 48 return, and from Kariba to Tiger Bay pounds 53 return.

The deal that Andrew Thorman bought now costs pounds 78 per night for accommodation, including three meals and two safaris a day, booked through Tailor Made Holidays (0181-398 7424).

Numerous companies offer packages to Zimbabwe. Voyages Jules Verne (0171- 616 1000) arranges flights and six nights' accommodation from around pounds 800. Current offers include pounds 610 for return flights, including tax, transfers and six nights' accommodation at the Elephant Hills hotel, Victoria Falls.

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