Just beware of the killer chocolates on your pillow

Welcome to one of the few places where tourists can come into close contact with African elephants - and other dangerous animals.

A TAWNY eagle circled in the hot, hazy sky and a couple of wood sandpipers called as they flitted about the water's edge of the Chamabonda River. Somewhere overhead a flappet lark was displaying, his wings rattling like the shuffle of a damp pack of cards. But warden Mark Brightman was more interested in some footprints in the mud.

"Good to see these two are still around," he said, pointing at the dinner- plate sized prints, which slid down the creek bank. "I was one of the people who said this elephant calf should be shot." He hoisted his .375 rifle on to his shoulder. "But he's a tough little character - he survived."

He showed us the footprints of the baby calf, three perfect roundels and one not much bigger than a thumbprint, running along parallel to his mother's firm tracks.

"That's what a landmine does to an elephant calf," said Mark. "He was only a few days old when he stepped on an anti-personnel mine. Most of his right hind foot was blown off." He told us that the calf's mother had taken him out of the herd in the Zambesi National Park and moved to the Chamabonda River, near Victoria Falls, to nurse the injured youngster back to health. Now that he had survived the first shock, he would probably live - Mark said that several mine-damaged elephants were known in the area.

"Are there many mines around here?" I asked. It all seemed so very remote, so very quiet, the only background noise in the bush being the distant roar of the Falls, and even that was muted at the end of the dry season. The mopane trees were coming into new green leaf after the first showers of the annual rains but the rivers were not yet rising.

"The Falls is ringed with them," said Mark. "Minefields all around the town, dating back nearly 20 years. But somehow the military maps got lost and no one knows exactly where they are."

Zimbabwe has lots of elephants - so many that they have to be culled to protect trees and crops - and vast minefields. The two come into contact quite often.

"What's the baby elephant called? Does he have a name?" I asked. "Dai," said Mark.

I thought about Dai a couple of days later as a trio of magnificent young bull elephants trod gingerly through the rocky splendours of the Matopos National Park, near Bulawayo, at the other end of Matabeleland, on Zimbabwe's southern edge. This is not a sweeping landscape, but a jumble of balancing rocks and steep hills, known to some as the place that Cecil Rhodes chose to be buried, to others as the park with the greatest concentration of leopards and black eagles in Africa. It is also one of the few places where you can come into close-up contact with African elephants, long regarded as too temperamental and too powerful to be tamed like their Asian relatives.

The three young bulls - Eshe, Duma and Tusker - were survivors of a natural disaster a dozen years ago, a drought which devastated the Low Veldt. Now the orphan trio are 13 years old, big enough to carry passenger and mahout (elephant driver) along the hilly trails but not old enough to be in the grip of bouts of musth, the little-understood sexual rage which turns placid male elephants into raging monsters at apparently random intervals.

Their home, and ours for our stay, is Camp Amalinda, a safari lodge so well hidden among the rocks of a kopje that there isn't even a postcard photo of the place - "nothing to see, just trees and rocks. It doesn't show up, even from the air," I was told. The rooms burrow back into the hillside, the bathrooms a troglodyte paradise with shower water running down the cool walls into rock pools, and the beds under thatch. Even the bookshelves in the lounge are built into the rock.

It's a place to get very close to nature, with lizards on the steps or a gigantic scarlet grasshopper perched on the visitors' book. Sizzling, flapping weaver birds, in glowing red or yellow plumage, build their nests in the branches above the entrance to the dining room. Beside the path, what appeared to be a brilliant orange-green leaf turned out to be a dying chameleon, a foot long, slowly fading to off-white. "Somebody must have stood on him by mistake. They move so slowly..."

Amalinda currently has two sets of orphans, the elephants and a couple of young lions, soon to be moved to a farm. The prospects for the elephants are good - they have settled happily into their semi-domestic life and spend most of the day wandering the bush with their mahouts, smashing trees with gunshot sound-effects and rooting up shrubs. As we were told: "You don't need to worry about where they are. Just go outside and listen. Crack! Crash! That's them."

Two seven-month-old lions, just mature enough to feel the urge to stalk and kill, were practising their skills on one of the camp's riding horses at a waterhole. They are another matter. Reintroducing them to the wild is a tricky business. Other attempts have ended in tragedy, so Nduna and Mzingeli will probably end up in an enclosed park.

In the meantime, they are honing their skills on the visitors to Amalinda. Sometimes it's fun, sometimes it's rough. Fanny, a member of our party, finished up with a wrenched neck muscle after one of Nduna's boyish leaps threw her to the ground. Lions are like big pussycats - you just don't want to turn out to be the mouse on the carpet.

Justice, our guide, took us out to see the dramatic rocky landscapes of the Matopos, bringing us into close-up with sable antelope and walking our group within a few yards of grazing white rhinos. He was full of fascinating facts: did you know that rhino dung is a contraceptive? Or that it will cure nosebleeds if you burn it and sniff the smoke?

At night, we dined on kudu casserole and the camp staff danced enthusiastically to the beat of tall drums in the light of the camp fire, inviting us to join in the songs.

When it came to bedtime, the more nervous members of the party had to face up to the fact that wildlife comes in numerous small forms, all active after dark. Every leaf beside the path, every folded towel in the bathroom seems to conceal an insect or... something. Sarah, one of our party, got safely back to her lodge room, navigating carefully with small torch in hand, only to find a vivid emerald-green beetle sitting on her pillow. Sweeping aside the mosquito net, she swatted it heroically with a book, only to discover that she had killed her goodnight chocolate, neatly wrapped in its bright green foil.

But after the drama of Victoria Falls, with its contrasts - the splendour of the natural spectacle, the elegance of the old hotel, the familiar raggedness of the gap-year youths who seem to be the mainstay of its tourism - after all that, we were content to wander the hills on elephant back and listen to the shrikes and woodpeckers in the morning heat.

As we came back towards camp, we passed a group of neat grass-thatched huts in the bush, tucked into the foot of a rocky hillside. The "model village" we were told - Playboy models as it turned out. This was where the pretty girls took their clothes off before being photographed with the elephants on a recent "Darkest Africa" shoot for the magazine.

We asked Justice if it had been a success. He laughed. Yes, it had. But they were dangerous, he said. Unlike the white rhinos, they couldn't be safely approached on foot...

zimbabwe fact file

Willy Newlands flew with Air Zimbabwe (0171 499 8947) which has seasonal fares from pounds 594 return. Details of Camp Amalinda (pounds 115 per night all inclusive) and Sekuti's Drift at Victoria Falls (pounds 135 per night all inc) from Africa Portfolio (01874 658470). A seven-night package to both lodges, including all flights and transfers, costs pounds 1,630 per person sharing a twin room with Tana Travel (01789 414200).

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