Visitors once flocked to Zimbabwe, but abhorrence for President Mugabe's regime has all but destroyed tourism in the country. When will the tourists be tempted back, asks The Independent's Jeremy Laurance.
Almost the first thing Bryson said on greeting my 20-year-old daughter Olivia and me at the border post next to Victoria Falls bridge was: "You are the first British tourists I have seen in so very long. You are most welcome to Zimbabwe."
We had travelled that morning from Lusaka, Zambia's capital, and in an instant, Bryson had established one fact about the holiday we had planned in its benighted neighbour: it was going to be exclusive.
Most of the Zimbabweans we met over the next week agreed with Bryson: 1999 was the year when tourism from the UK dwindled to a trickle. The Independent Traveller, unwilling to lend support to an odious regime, has not carried a report on Zimbabwe since September 1998. But with political change inching closer, despite a series of setbacks orchestrated by President Mugabe, it seemed the right moment to investigate what the country has to offer the traveller, whose tourist dollars it so desperately needs.
Within hours of crossing the century-old British-built bridge that spans the gorge in which the great Zambezi flows, we had seen the tragedy and the glory of Zim.
Bryson, with gentle good humour, led me on a tour of Chinotimba township, behind the town of Victoria Falls, where oranges were selling in the market for tens of thousands of Zim dollars each.
There was no beer in the supermarket and there were no shoes in the shoe shop (except one pair of desert boots, size eight). Even if you had the savings to buy the footwear, there is a daily limit on bank withdrawals, so it would take a month of such visits to amass the necessary billions of Zim dollars, and a wheelbarrow to carry them. By then the price of the boots would have doubled.
At the Wimpy Bar on the corner of the main street I asked for the printed price list. It had been produced the previous week but each entry was already scratched out and a new, inflated, amount inserted by hand.
Yards from this economic mayhem, white, mostly well-heeled tourists still enjoy the spectacle of the "smoke that thunders", though in reduced numbers. It was the end of the dry season, and the Zambezi was less than half full.
Locals say it is the time when "see the falls" becomes "see the rocks" because so little water is flowing through. Yet the spectacle was far more dramatic than on my last visit to the falls, in May three years ago, when the river was in full spate. Then the smoke thundered, all right, but all I could see was spray.
On that occasion I was on the Zambian side. To see the falls properly, you have to be on the Zimbabwean side, where a finger of land juts out into the gorge, affording extraordinary views, each one more dramatic than the last. Along the kilometre-long path, we encountered knots of Japanese, Portuguese and Americans, but no British tourists.
This is one of the world's great sights. When the path closed at 6pm, we were beside the statue of David Livingstone: stiff-backed and moustached, still commemorated as the "discoverer" of the falls in 1855. And we were alone.
We stayed in the Ilala Lodge, where bills must be settled in US dollars (cash only; no credit cards). It is a classy establishment with a thatched roof, polished wood, engravings of Victorian explorers, white linen, deferential staff and an intimate feel. Here, I ate the freshest bream I have tasted. The chef himself had caught it that morning, and oven-baked the fish in coconut milk and "eastern spices".
We sat on the terrace, drinks in hand, looking over a forest of acacia and baobab. And we wondered how, in a country where power cuts and water shortages are frequent and cholera is now rampant, it was all possible.
Halfway through dinner, Olivia leaned across the table and whispered conspiratorially, "Everyone looks so old. Not old like you, really old."
It was true. Most of our fellow guests were American - and not one of them could have been under 70, with many clearly well into their eighties.
They were on tour, we later learnt, with an enterprising American travel company that flies groups of pensioners on "adventure" trips all over the world.)
Their presence was reassuring. Before leaving the UK most of our friends had wondered why on earth we had chosen to take a holiday in a country in a state of civil unrest. The Foreign Office advice had not been encouraging: "You are strongly advised to have your own contingency plan in place for how you would leave at short notice," it warned. But if it was OK for so many American octogenarians, it would surely be OK for us.
A decade ago, Victoria Falls town was thriving, its hotels full, with tourists queuing for white-water rafting, bungee jumping, helicopter rides and safaris.
Today, most of the business has moved to Livingstone, on the Zambian side. The town, though insulated from the worst effects of the economic meltdown in the rest of the country, is a shadow of its former self.
The Victoria Falls Hotel, once the grandest in the country, still serves high tea on the terrace, but struggles to fill its $450-a-night rooms; staff have been laid off. The Elephant Hills Hotel has closed, like many others.
The vast casino at the Kingdom Hotel, though still open, is eerily silent. Only two people were playing any of the 400 slot machines on the day we called.
Ilala Lodge is clearly prospering from its American pensioner clientele. That apart, only the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge seems to be bucking the downward trend; it is a colourful, themed establishment spectacularly situated on a hill outside the town above a waterhole at which game comes to drink.
This is clearly bad news for Zimbabwe. But it is good news for the visitor. At the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge we had the pool to ourselves.
Next morning, we took a one-hour flight in a six-seater Cessna to Hwange National Park. Zebras eyed us from the end of the runway as we taxied to the terminal, where we were the only passengers. Noel, our guide, collected our bags, and we set off on Olivia's first-ever game drive.
It is always worth taking a safari virgin on a trip to a game park - for those, like me, who think they have seen it all before. Her squeals of delight at the first antelope, the first giraffe, the first baboon, restored to me for an instant to the child I knew a decade ago.
Yet it quickly became clear I had not seen it all before.
Over many years, I have visited game parks in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Botswana. In some of them - on Kenya's glorious Masai Mara, for example - it can be difficult to see the game for the press of vehicles laden with tourists clustered round them. Yet in five days in Hwange we saw more animals, in greater numbers and in a wider variety of situations than I have seen anywhere - and there were almost no other tourists.
It is difficult to experience the "wilderness" when lenses are zooming and shutters are clicking all around you. Not here. In Zimbabwe - this is, I am afraid, becoming a refrain - we were on our own.
Around noon, we stopped at a waterhole for a drink from the coolbox. We were watching a group of four ground-hornbills, the size of turkeys, make their ungainly way in search of shade, when, in the blinding light, the grey thorn bushes opposite started to advance towards the pool of brackish water. As they did so they metamorphosed into solid shapes with flapping ears and swinging trunks before plunging into the pan to drink and slosh and roll.
That extraordinary sighting of elephants - two dozen of them emerging silently, urgently, unexpectedly from the bush - was the first of scores. The park is home to an estimated 45,000 elephants (last counted three years ago) and in the dry season all of them have to drink from one of the few waterholes.
Our first camp was the Hide, a luxury thatched lodge overlooking a small lake backed by a forest of flat-topped, silvery green acacia trees. We watched, mesmerised, as, when dusk fell, herd after herd of elephants came padding out of the trees, hurrying towards the water in which they would drink and snort and wallow.
We ate huge meals of chicken casserole and beef hotpot each evening around an enormous polished teak dining table in the two-storey thatched dining room. Then we would carry our drinks to the veranda to peer out in the darkness at the ghostly herds of elephant, giraffe and buffalo moving around the waterhole. In the country beyond the park's perimeter fence there are desperate shortages of almost everything. But there are no shortages within it - other than of tourists.
Our few fellow guests comprised a middle-aged white Zimbabwean farmer who lost his land to Mugabe's henchmen five years ago, his wife and a young Scandanavian couple taking a break from backpacking to splurge on a safari.
Conversation around the table focused on simple survival in Zimbabwe. Hot topics included how to blag your way across the South African border, where to go in Botswana with your US dollars for the best shopping, and how to get it back.
When operating at peak capacity, the Hide provided employment for around 40 staff. That is a distant dream today. It caters to a "meat and potatoes" crowd: solid, salt-of-the-earth types who like traditional cooking in the heart of the bush.
Its spectacular location and homely, family-run feel have helped it survive; half the rival lodges in Hwange park are closed.
We took an evening game drive to a vlei (open grassland) where the waterhole was dominated by quarrelsome baboons surrounded by palm trees.
Under the huge sky, the pale dry grasses tinged pink by the setting sun, we watched the animals lounge across the horizon, as if a million years of history had never happened.
The radio crackled into life: lions were drinking from the waterhole at camp. It was dark by the time we got back but we quickly found the four fine young males, their pale manes gleaming in the torchlight, sniffing the evening air expectantly.
Next morning we discovered one of them hungrily gnawing the carcass of a baby elephant in the middle of the vlei, watched at a respectful distance by a small audience of giraffe, impala, and zebra.
On this evidence, the game seem unaffected by the crisis in the country. But not for much longer.
Our second camp was Little Makalolo, run by Wilderness Safaris. It comprises a group of luxury tents built on stilts and linked by raised wooden walkways winding among the trees.
They offered an extraordinary standard of comfort: flushing toilets, inside and outside showers, polished wood floors and linen sheets. Two American couples, geologists on the trip of a lifetime, were the only other guests.
On the afternoon we arrived, in the enervating heat, Olivia and I lay by the plunge pool on the veranda by the central thatched bar.
We watched a family of elephants lazily approach the waterhole in the distance. Turning up their trunks at the muddy puddle in the pan, they paused, sniffed and then headed in our direction.
A minute later, half a dozen African elephants, including a huge male and a couple of babies, had flopped their trunks over the pool's edge at our feet, and were sucking up great draughts of water and squirting them down their throats, like so many cisterns emptying.
Their raging thirst temporarily slaked, they gently withdrew, eyeing us warily all the while.
Among many vivid moments, that was the one, for both Olivia and me, that will remain burned in our memories.
Without the plunge pool, the elephants would have had nothing to drink (it was regularly emptied by passing herds, the staff told us).
Without the pumps to fill the water holes, maintained by the few lodges and camps that remain open, many more would die.
Without the animals, Zimbabwe's tourist industry, vital to its future, will wither.
- INDEPENDENTBy Jeremy Laurance