Look out for the trainspotting lions

MY ROUGH GUIDE
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The Independent Travel
BEST DISCOVERY

Probably the most remarkable artists' community in Africa is at Tengenenge, a remote village north of Harare. Everyone in the village lives off the revenue of stone sculpture and some who've won international fame have Mercedes-Benzes parked behind their mud huts. The whole place is a massive open-air gallery, where more than a hundred sculptors display their wares. I challenge you to leave without buying something. I ended up lugging around a small sculpture of a rhino changing into a dog that weighed 25 kilograms and consumed my entire baggage allowance on the flight home.

FAVOURITE HOTEL

Zimbabwe's hotels are fine, but none is likely to make the Tatler Top 50. On the other hand, some of its game lodges can knock your socks off. None more so than Ruckomechi Camp, perched on a high bank of the Zambezi River in the Mana Pools National Park. Elephants and lions routinely pass through the camp, which isn't fenced off from the rest of the reserve. But the party piece is a bath big enough for two, open to the sky and, on one side, to the river, where you're invited to wallow while crocs drift by and hippos snort.

BIGGEST MISTAKE

I should have known getting off in Kwekwe was a bad move the minute I noticed that the colossal rifle at its outskirts representing the Kwekwe Rifle Club was dwarfing the town's welcome sign. Kwekwe is a grimy mining centre in the Midlands - Zimbabwe's most dreary region - and this was where I'd decided to take tea. As I sat writing notes on a hotel terrace, a figure in shades ambled up to identify himself as a Central Intelligence Office operative. At the time Zimbabweans were paranoid about South African spies and it must have seemed that anyone writing in a book was on a major sabotage mission. He arrested me, took me to the police station and questioned me for over an hour. But it was when he began leafing through my book that I really sweated. "What the hell do you mean calling Kwekwe a dismal dump, punk?" I imagined him yelling. But he politely returned the book and let me go. Perhaps he didn't get to the bits slagging off Kwekwe, or maybe he couldn't help but agree.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

If you've ever wondered what lions do to pass the endless hours between sleeping, hunting and eating, the answer is, like humans, they have hobbies. I discovered this on the overnight train from Victoria Falls to Bulawayo, which in the late afternoon passes along the eastern boundary of Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe's biggest game reserve. As I was looking out the window I was startled to see a pride of lions not more than 20 metres from the tracks, nonchalantly gazing at the train. When the ticket collector came round a little later I told him about my sighting. He replied that he'd been working on the route for 15 years and he'd seen plenty of other game but never lions. "I suppose they must have been trainspotting," he said.

MOST MEMORABLE MEAL

Apart from crocodile tail served on lettuce leaf, Zimbabwean cuisine is a run-of-the-mill affair. But the country makes up with a vengeance for its culinary mediocrity with some paradisiacal eating venues. My favourite was supper one night in the middle of a three-day canoe trip down the Zambezi. Having prepared our camp on an island, our guide set about cooking supper - mostly from tins. The river was awash with the blood-red reflection of the setting sun, a herd of elephants was enjoying the water on the opposite bank, lions were roaring somewhere in the distance and, after a couple of glasses of wine, all eight of us had almost forgotten that we were going to be sleeping under nothing more substantial than mosquito nets. Suddenly a hippo who'd lost a territorial dispute barrelled up the riverbank, came to a startled standstill on encountering this herd of humans, and tactically retreated to the other side of the island to console himself with some grass.

BIZARRE MEETING

At least the boisterous lion cub called King seemed pleased to see us, which was more than I can say for the manager of the Gweru Lion and Cheetah Park, who could barely hide his disappointment at seeing these bespectacled figures. "I thought you said you were the Rough Guys," he said, almost accusingly. "I thought you ran hunting safaris." I just stopped myself saying, "No, actually we write travel guides for spotty, vegetarian, environmental activists," - just as well because he had laid on a barbecue of hunks of meat that looked as if they needed to be hoisted onto the grill by a forklift truck.

Tony Pinchuck wrote 'The Rough Guide to Zimbabwe'. Keep up with the latest developments in travel by subscribing to the free newsletter 'Rough News', published three times yearly. Write to Rough Guides, IoS offer, 1 Mercer Street, London WC2H 9QJ. A free Rough Guide to the first three subscribers each week.

FACT FILE

Tengenenge is two hours' north of Harare by car. Bushbeat Trails Memorial House, at 35 Samora Machel Avenue, Harare (Tel: 00 263 14 461 172) charges pounds 35 to take you there.

Daily rates at Ruckomechi Camp (book through Shearwater Adventures, PO Box 3961, Harare (Tel: 00 263 14 735 712; Fax: 00 263 14 733 716) start at around pounds 80 inclusive of all meals and safaris.

Zimbabawe National Railways runs daily overnight sleeper trains from Bulawayo to Victoria Falls. The trip rates as one of the great railway journeys of the world and will cost you less than a tenner for a first- class berth.

Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe's premier game reserve, is famed for the biggest elephant herds in Africa. The national park also has camping sites and reasonably priced chalets.

A number of safari companies, among them Shearwater Adventures (see Ruckomechi Camp entry), run canoe safaris down the Zambezi River.

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