It’s not the image of Zimbabwe I expected. As the tiny plane begins its descent to Buffalo Range airstrip near Chiredzi, in the country’s south-eastern corner and close to the border with South Africa, the cane fields below are a lush green and the epitome of order with their verdant circles creating an almost kaleidoscopic effect.
I had anticipated a wasteland, full of starving people with eyes dulled from a loss of hope. Instead I find a cheerful, well-padded welcoming committee at the tiny immigration hall with smiles as wide as the runway we have just landed on.
In spite of this, I can’t help but feel guilty. I am on my way to a five-star safari lodge – Singita Pamushana – in a country where luxuries are rarer than hen’s teeth. But unlike some uber-exclusive and uber-uber expensive getaways, Pamushana is no obscene monument to greed and hedonism.
Yes, it’s absolutely fabulous and a fitting addition to the legendary South African safari lodge group’s portfolio, which includes, among others, the award-winning Singita Lebombo in the Kruger National Park, but it is luxury with heart and soul, providing a valuable lifeline to thousands of people dependent on it for their survival.
Singita has a global reputation for first-class service, luxury accommodation, outstanding cuisine and exceptional game viewing. Add to this a remarkable track record in responsible tourism and social responsibility and it’s easy to understand why Singita’s management of Pamushana is turning heads.
This, you see, is the epitome of safari with soul. It’s luxury with a conscience, and exclusivity with responsibility. All of which means that anyone staying at Pamushana can sleep well at night, safe in the knowledge that their tourism spend is going directly to helping the people who need it most.
The lodge sits atop a breathtaking sandstone kopjie in the middle of the Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve, on the edge of the Gonarezhou National Park. It’s been given an extreme makeover to bring it in line with its illustrious stablemates and the result is a “wow” factor which rivals anything in Africa.
Rich textiles, African art, individually sourced furniture and ingenious design have been married carefully with traditional construction techniques to create a series of beautiful, unique thatched bungalows with views over the Malilangwe dam and its surrounding hills.
It’s an understated opulence, though. One which is considerate of where it is, as well as who it is supporting. It’s not easy running a first-class lodge in Zimbabwe, whose political upheaval has become the stuff of legend.
For the Pamushana team, the reality of where they are often overshadows the impressive views.
And yet, in spite of this, Pamushana manages to marry a seamless safari experience with first-class cuisine, outstanding accommodation and superb service levels.
The achievements at Pamushana are a fitting testament to the patience, temerity and deep-seated commitment to Zimbabwe and her people that the Malilangwe Trust, which owns and manages the reserve, has demonstrated during its 14 years of existence.
It’s an impressive track record which has overseen the lodge’s transition under Singita’s management.
It’s a transition which reflects the remarkable conservation work going on inside the reserve. Covering an area of around 50,000 hectares, south-east of the town of Chiredzi, the former cattle ranch is recovering miraculously from the ravages of poaching.
Animal numbers are booming once more and the game viewing is excellent, with the “Big Five” – elephant, buffalo, rhino, leopard and lion – being an equally big drawcard for guests.
Pamushana has been around for 11 years, the last few under the management of Singita, a globally recognised brand. Thankfully, thanks to Singita’s marketing power, occupancy rates are growing steadily.
It helps that Malilangwe is easy to get to with charter flights available through Federal Air from Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport.
From a marketing point of view, Malilangwe is an easy sell. It’s a beautiful piece of wild Africa punctuated by Zimbabwe’s trademark rocky outcrops and massive baobab trees and inhabited by the “Big Five” – and one of Africa’s highest densities of black rhino.
The lodge has four one-bedroom villas, a two bedroom and three-bedroom villa and a massive five-bedroom villa perfect for exclusive bookings.
It’s a positive experience. A positivity that extends beyond the boundaries of the lodge to the local communities and the Malilangwe Trust feeding programme, which provides a cooked meal for 27,000 pre-school children from 503 feeding points in the villages around the reserve every day.
And the establishment of the Chizvirizvi Rural Health Centre – a clinic serving the Sangwe Community Lands which offers basic health care and a shelter for expectant mothers.
Then there’s the Khomanani Project – an agricultural irrigation programme which is providing food security to hundreds of people on the verge of starvation.
Singita Pamushana, like the Singita group, is a champion of the ethics of benefits beyond boundaries. Traditionally the safari industry is recognized for helping to protect Africa’s last wild places and the flora and fauna which calls it home.
Malilangwe is a living testament to this. But, most importantly, its strength lies in what it is doing for people, not just physically, but spiritually at a time when it’s so easy to despair.
And at a time when the rest of the world is slowly coming round to the idea of visiting Zimbabwe again, Pamushana is a shining beacon of hope.