Not many luxury lodges can deliver the promise of river cruising, a UNESCO World Heritage site, world-class food and wine, and wildlife bush encounters that will remain with you for years to come.
The Matetsi Victoria Falls experience begins the moment you land at Victoria Falls International Airport. After being greeted by the lodge’s guides, your bush orientation begins as you’re taken via private shuttle through the Zambezi National Park to Matetsi Private Game Reserve, a private concession of 55 000 hectares. It’s a case of ‘no fences make good neighbours’ as animals are free to roam between the park and reserve.
The first rains fell in Zimbabwe in December and the bushveld is a rich canvas of iridescent greens and light khaki. Near the lodge, the guide points out fresh elephant dung and broken branches. And so your eyes begin to adjust to the signs and marks left by the wildlife and your senses begin to sharpen.
Matetsi Victoria Falls, which consists of Matetsi River Lodge suites and Matetsi River House private villa, is set on part of the concession’s 15km stretch of the Zambezi River, just a 40-minute drive from the Victoria Falls, and offers guests an opportunity to combine a wildlife safari and luxury lodge experience in close proximity to one of the great natural wonders of the world.
While the main lodge is a gathering point where guests can relax and mingle, it is the private suites that will be your home for the duration of your stay.
Your personal butler will lead you through the ebony doors of your suite, located a stone’s throw away from the river. The suite is magnificent; spacious and beautifully appointed with an open-plan sitting room and glass walls on three sides affording a 270-degree view of the surrounding bush. Everything you could possibly need is here – a large circular bath in the glass-fronted bathroom (upstaged only by the river-facing outdoor shower), large sofas for resting between dips in your private pool and a deck shaded by indigenous trees.
Although it’s difficult to tear yourself away from the suite, the lure of river and reserve activities is strong. The sound of the butler’s cheerful 5.30am wake-up call and the bang of the ‘butler hatch’, with a delivery of tea and coffee, signal the start of a day in the bush.
Each suite is allocated a tracker and ranger guide.
It’s a symbiosis of uncanny spotting and reading of bush signs combined with knowledge of animal behaviour honed from years of sharp observation. Our guide, Clever, is a fount of fascinating information delivered with wit and charm, and tracker Lancelot is alert to the slightest movement and sound of game and birds.
The bushveld is lush and dense in summer but we’re taken via open safari vehicle to a valley where the landscape is a mixture of mopane trees, acacias, baobabs, tall savanna and grassland. Here we see warthogs and their little piglets trot past with tails upright like aerials; ubiquitous dainty impala, their markings so similar it seems as if Mother Nature has painted them by numbers; and rotund zebras with their oxpecker jockeys.
At one of the water holes, kept full by solar-powered pumps, a herd of elephants gathers and rumbles. The diminutive calves seem attached to their mothers by an invisible cord and they bleat if they lose sight of the four solid legs that mean safety and protection at their vulnerable age. A very small calf tries comically to put his trunk into his mouth. And fails. Between standing on it or watching it gyrating and twisting independently like an unattended garden hose, it’s a struggle.
Elephant trunks have more than 40 000 muscles so the calf has a way to go before his becomes a reliable suction hose, trumpet, breathing tube, nose and handy harvesting tool.
Darkness falls quickly in the bush and game are on high alert. Lancelot sweeps his torch back and forth as he looks for nocturnal hunters and his beam catches four wild dogs loping through the night on the scent of impala. Some minutes later, two spectacular male lions emerge from the bush and a large herd of buffalo lying in a circle lift their noses to the wind, testing the air for signs of danger.
Between two game drives a day, you can also sit on your deck enjoying the wildlife close by. Here you’ll see what initially appear to be large smooth boulders in the river suddenly immerse themselves then reappear,
beady-eyed, their chamomile-coloured ears peeping above the water. A baby hippo too short to reach the river bed perches on its mother’s back. There is a warning in the Ndebele translation of Kasambezi, which roughly means ‘Bathe, swim, if you know the river’ in English. Hippos may look cartoon-like and benign but have been known to bite a human in half with ease.
In a canoe, with your eyes peeled – and a qualified canoe guide for company – the river is the most wonderful way to experience the bush. There is no need to be a top birder. With a guide at the helm it’s not hard to pick out the lilac and turquoise rollers, giant kingfishers, the green and yellow flash of a Meyer’s parrot and the distinctive wing-balancing of the bateleur eagle.
If you’re neither botanist, naturalist nor birder, the guides soon offer amusing ‘aide-mémoire’ for the creatures you see: the ‘Matetsi kangaroo’ or springhare that hops along on its hind legs looking to all the world like a bunny on an errand or the onomatopoeic go-away bird, the noisy hoopoe.
WINE AND DINE
It seems a little unfair that while lions hunt for hours and hyena circle carcasses, we need do little more than turn up for a boma feast, but that’s the law of the lodge. We are spoilt.
Zimbabwean executive chef, Shane Ellis, provides a fresh and evolving menu of international and local fine foods including Zambezi bream (fresh-water fish), vegetarian and vegan options and local highlights including venison, sadza (white cornmeal) and peanut butter rice, which is much loved in the area.
Also unique to the lodge is the cool and calm of owner John Gardiner’s private wine cellar – this intriguing and cocooning space is a must-visit. Conceptualised by Gardiner, it is a stellar collection of interesting and iconic wines from around the world and arguably the most impressive in Africa. And ask to see the comprehensive (and valuable) collection of vintage toy armies, trains and cars that Gardiner has collected since he was a child.
The eye never forgets what the heart has seen. Once you have been touched by the beauty of Zimbabwe and its people, you leave with them firmly embedded in your heart. It is hardly surprising that Matetsi Victoria Falls is called ‘Zimbabwe’s best-kept secret’. It has become the preferred destination for royalty and members of the Forbes list but also an increasing number of guests who understand that its location between the mighty Zambezi, Victoria Falls and game-rich bush, is unique and unforgettable.