By Evelyn Mukozho
What started for me as a lazy Sunday morning in Harare, drained from the previous day’s work, took a round about turn when I found myself, with my boyfriend, in the city of progress, Gweru, a few hours later. A mere five kilometres out of the heart of Gweru, we turned off the highway into a winding gravel road. The scenery immediately changed, and a feeling of excitement crept in as I knew that we were close to our destination, Antelope Park. We arrived 10 minutes later under a dusk sky,travel weary from our long drive.
Upon arrival, we were directed to the reception area, where we met a cheerful, and jovial staff complement, headed by our host Irene, Co-manager of the reserve with Dax. Checking in was easy, and in ten minutes we were done and settled in ouraccommodation, which was a majestic riverside tent. The picturesque view from our tent, immediately replaced all thoughts of urban lifestyle and ushered in an African Savannah feel.
Without wasting much time, I headed to the dining area, a huge open plan gazebo which let in the cool evening breeze as it had rained the previous day. A hearty farm-style dinner menu brought back fond memories of country living as I helped myself to mash potato and grilled pork chop with a freshly baked bun, all lovingly prepared over an open pit fire in the kitchen. The ambiance alone was soothing to my soul, whilst the hearty meal ministered to my taste buds and the beating sound of the African drum set the tone for the evening as I took it all in. A glass of sweet rosé wine from the bar was a perfect nightcap.
For me, and I’m sure for many others too, the number one African experience you can ever have the privilege of experiencing, is being close to a roaring lion – better yet, more than one, roaring in unison. A pounding heart and an adrenalin rush woke me up and got me to my feet, thinking lions were about to enter the tent. Unbeknownst to me,our accommodation was adjacent to the lion enclosure, separated only by a seasonal river. A shower in the en-suite bathroom, fitted with teak-panelled showers, with a Gwaai tile base accent, calmedmy lingering jitters.
During breakfast I had time to chat to Dax who gave us some background about Antelope Park, their vision and work with lions. This is an inspiring initiative headed by Dr Norman Monks with the goal safeguarding and increasing the dwindling numbers of the African lion through releasing cubs bred by lions in captivity, into the wild. They have designated places including Chizarira National Parkon the Kariba shoreline, where development has been done and they await a go-ahead from relevant authorities to release the lions that are ready for the wild.
The day’s itinerary was brought to us by Yemi, who was to be our personal guide during the course of the stay: one can choose from a list of diverse activities on offer, including safari horse riding, to hunting with the lions whereby one will have first-hand experience as lions get to hunt in full view, to walking and feeding elephants, to mention but a few.
Weopted for the sunset carriage ride. This gives guests an opportunity to get up close and personal with all the diverse animal species within the safari park in a horse-drawn carriage as compared to a modern 4×4 vehicle.
After breakfast, I took a stroll and ended up stumbling upon the campsite where there was a group of over 50 campers. They had chosen to forgo the modern amenities of the park, and pitch tents in the demarcated campsite under sprawling Msasa trees. I became acquainted with a Belgian woman who expressed her joy in being able to get the full, untamed African experience at Antelope Park through cooking their meals over open pit fires, to bush walks where they got to see all the flora and fauna in its natural state.
Modern amenities such as a swimming pool to cool down from the summer heat are available, as well as laundry facilities for those who stay for longer periods.
For corporates wanting team building and strategy meetings, there are well-appointed boardrooms, conference rooms, and riverside lodges that can accommodate large teams at one go. For families planning a weekend getaway or reunion, there are large self-catering lodges, with amenities such as outdoor fire pits for the perfect spit braai.
Catering for the sweet toothed and the coffee lovers, a cafe is open from 9am till late into the evening. As if that’s not enough, there is a curio shop to buy memorabilia and artefacts. For those who would want to add to their collection of African inspired couture, this is also a one stop shop.
As the day headed towards sunset we embarked on our carriage ride. It was like a fairy-tale come true as I finally had my Cinderella moment in a horse-drawn carriage with my Prince Charming beside me. Vusi our driver and guide, was there to answer all our questions about the animals we encountered along the way as well as the indigenous flora.
About 5km into the reserve we came across a self-catering lodge in the heart of the Safari Park, surrounded by lion enclosures. This is ideal for those wanting a first-hand encounter with the species of wildlife which wander through the area including waterbuck, wildebeest and kudu whilst lion can be seen roaming freely in their enclosures. As we continued, we came upon a mega-structure erected to mimic a horseshoe, used as a viewing place for polo played in the ground below as well as doubling up as a wedding ballroom.
Little did I know this place will forever hold an iconic place in my memory! We disembarked and took a walk through the polo field to get closer to the structure. As I led the way, Prince Charming lagged behind me but I was not bothered as I knew he would catch up. Little did I know that magic was about to take place. As I turned around to see where he was, I saw him down on bended knee, with an open navy blue velvet box in hand. Inside was a shiny ring sporting some carats. Out of breath and shaking, I could not believe this was the moment. All I could utter was YES!
Back at the campsite Irene and Dax were eagerly waiting to congratulate me as they had played their part in helping my Prince organise this special moment, whilst managing to keep poker faces all the time.
At Antelope Park,as well as the setting, it is the staff who make the place special, from chefs Chad and Perfect, to guides Vusi, Yemi ,and the others who make sure you experience the most out of your stay, to the heart of the team, Dax and Irene, who ensure everything runs smoothly.
We experienced another amazing dinner, with some of the staff members playing drums, singing, and dancing in the gazebo dining area. This brought a different feeling all together. It was as if they were celebrating our engagement.
The following morning, it was not easy to pack up to leave. Bidding farewell to the hosting team was the most sad moment for us. Antelope Park is not just a reserve but a haven, where love exists and is felt.- © NZiRA Travel Zimbabwe, Issue 14 http://www.nzira.co.zw