July to September is the peak safari season in southern Africa, as I remember it from my days in the safari tourism industry. It is winter, but dry, which is good for viewing wildlife and the days are warm – shorts and t-shirt weather. Malaria risks are also low. Coinciding as it does with school holidays, the period usually sees South Africans flock northwards in their 4x4s. But what struck me on our overland safari through Botswana, the Caprivi Strip (or Zambezi Province as it is now known), Zambia’s Zambezi shore and Zimbabwe’s northern areas, was the extremely low occupancy of national park and private camps and lodges.

Deserted Main Camp at Hwange NP

Almost without exception every camp had only a handful of vehicles and campers, the sole exception being the camp at Chobe Safari Lodge, which was full, except that the new luxury lodge there seemed deserted. A camp owner on the Zambezi confided that occupancy was down 40% compared with last year. Both Mana Pools and Hwange national parks were largely empty. While Mana Pools is more remote and wild, it was particularly disturbing to see the large Main Camp at Hwange devoid of tents and vehicles. Now, personally I dislike crowds so it suited me, but these parks need visitors and foreign currency to survive. At the best of times the steady decay of infrastructure is palpable, but the current situation ensures no hope of a turnaround. Worse, without resources how will the national park agencies stem the bloody tide of poaching? Furthermore, in a world where the prevailing economic paradigm dictates that “if it pays, it stays”, these ecosystems, habitats and species are at risk. Where (eco)tourism falters hunters will fill the void and justify their savage “trade” on economic, not to mention conservation, grounds.

Track of a morning game walk at Hwange, where we nearly bumped into a buffalo.

Why is this happening? One reason could be a hangover from the global recession, although the top-end of the market is probably little affected. The activity at the ridiculously expensive Royal Livingstone Hotel near Victoria Falls seems to bear the latter point out.

Secondly, Zimbabwe – and probably Zambia too – are pricing themselves out of the South African self-drive market. Since Zimbabwe adopted the US Dollar as its currency, food, accommodation and fuel have become very expensive for South Africans, exacerbating the liquidity crisis. Not only are services and goods expensive, but southern African travellers also have to swallow the cost of obtaining USD. The smallest unit of currency is $1 which leads to some curious transactions, especially when buying fuel: for example, if filling up the tank costs $64.50, the attendant will happily tender 50 South African cents change for the $65 you hand over. Never mind that the exchange rate is north of ZAR12 to $1. Don’t try to do it the other way around though!

Thirdly, some of my countrymen like to take the moral high ground – somewhat ironically in my view – and refuse to visit the country while Robert Mugabe rules. By withholding their money they argue that they are hurting the regime and the president’s acolytes. This is faulty logic. The only things that get hurt are the people and the wildlife, both of which have to outlast the regime.

On the upside, although Zimbabwe has a reputation for petty corruption and shakedowns at random roadblocks, we experienced none of that. Everybody was unfailingly polite and we never encountered any trouble at the many police checkpoints. The people seem to understand that they need visitors, and we were often thanked for our “support’.

Humour is also not a casualty of hardship. The information boards in the reception at Hwange’s Main Camp about the park’s history, flora and fauna obviously date from before 1980. “Rhodesia” has been scratched out and replaced with “Zimbabwe”, although not with the same neat hand. Similarly, the word “Rhodesian” in “Rhodesian teak”, which dominates the woodland, has been smudged out. As I read the boards with interest I happened to remark aloud that “nothing has changed here in 35 years”.  The young (black) official glanced up from behind his desk and said with a grin: “You’re wrong. I have!”. Indeed.