THERE aren’t many places left in this crowded world that can still be called wilderness but I was recently in one of them, among just 10 people in the Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe.
Sitting with Stockil beside a campfire on the wide sandy bed of the Save River, over which his Chilo Gorge Lodge looks, I see a crocodile on a sandbank and, in the distance, the sound of a trumpeting elephant reverberates in the evening air.
“It is crossed by three big rivers, so the diversity of wildlife is extraordinary.
“It has waterfalls, sand forests, about 450 species of birds and, on the plateau, magnificent pools around which elephants gather. It really is heaven on earth.”
Exploring the area over three days with Stockil and his knowledgeable Shangaan guide, Thomas Mutombeni, I can see what he means.
Gonarezhou means “Place of many elephants” in the local Shona language, and here it’s impossible to go on a game drive without seeing them.
The last game count estimated there were more than 10,000 – which is why, Stockil explains, “we have so many South Africans now coming here to see them”.
“I think people are at last realising that Africa’s wildlife belongs to us all,” he says.
“And unless we all protect it, and put money into the local communities, it will vanish for ever.”
Stockil’s relationship with nearby residents is essential to the success of the project, he says, which is why all of the 33 staff are local, why 10 per cent of profits are shared with them, and why he encourages guests to visit their village with its clinic, school and traditional Shangaanhomes.
Lions at Mana Pools, Zimbabwe
At lunchtime, we sat beside luxuriant green lawns fl anking the pool, spotting birds from our loungers – squawking ducks, white egrets, jewel-coloured bee-eaters and soaring snake eagles.
In the afternoon we set off in open-sided safari vehicles to explore Gonarezhou National Park where we walked round a 3,000-year-old baobab tree, gazed at big herds of zebra, wildebeest and buffalo and later heard hyenas howling in the moonlight.
This year, Stockil hopes the park will complete its Big Five with a family of rhino he has successfully bred near his home in the nearby Save Valley Conservancy, something the Duke of Cambridge was particularly interested in.
“I was very impressed by what he knew,” Stockil said over a glass of wine by the camp fire.
“He is extremely passionate about wildlife – I’m sure he would be here in a second if protocol allowed it.
“It doesn’t now – but President Mugabe won’t be around for ever.
Chilo Lodge’s pool at the Save River
Prince William might never have visited here, but he clearly has advisers who understand the peril of its wildlife and the need for its conservationists to be recognized.
When he does get here, there can be no doubt that he can only fall in love with it.