Melissa Mpofu, Showbiz Editor
There is one tourist attraction in Zimbabwe I have always known about, but never attempted to visit as I felt it was beyond my reach.

However, due to the Covid-19 pandemic that saw us being locked up in our homes for months, I now appreciate a lot of things we took for granted like spending quality time with friends and family, travelling and basic stuff like patronising restaurants, cinemas and general leisure spots.

When lockdown restrictions were lifted recently and Government gave locals the green light to travel locally, without hesitation, I planned a trip that I was to embark on with my friends.

Where to go and on a budget was the first pertinent question. It definitely had to be a local trip because at that point, most airlines had not yet resumed international flights. A week before, we had done Blue Hills Lodge (along Bulawayo-Esigodini road) and I had been to Matopos days before that so doing another place nearby did not sound too exciting.

“Let’s do Antelope Park”, one of my friend’s said. At the mention of Antelope Park, one of Zimbabwe’s leading private game reserve parks on the outskirts of Gweru, I remembered how I had admired another friend, ZiFM Stereo personality, MisRed’s pictures of her visit there. The breath-taking pictures where she was flanked by elephants and a river were to die for and definitely left me with Fomo. Truly speaking, it did not look like she was in Zimbabwe and for that reason, I knew I had to experience this adorable safari place.

But once again, I felt it was not within my reach. So, when my friend suggested we tour this place, I was not very excited because I knew my little finances which I had been saving for months was not enough. I knew Antelope Park would cost us nothing less than US$100 per night per person (accommodation only) and to be frank, I was not keen to part with such an amount.

Before writing it off, I decided to browse the Internet to establish how much their accommodation was. Travel websites, Expedia, FindHotel and Etrip had pegged the accommodation at US$97.

Fortunately, I remembered a virtual travel show being run by the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority on Facebook. I tuned in and coincidentally, one of the ladies spoke of her trip to Antelope Park. To my pleasant surprise, she mentioned how she spent about US$50 for accommodation with her family through a domestic tourism promotion the park was running.

Upon hearing this unbelievable price, I dashed to the park’s website and indeed, there was a promotion which was ongoing. For US$40 per person, one could visit the famed safari destination, spend a night there and have a massive Farmstyle breakfast. It did not end there, for just US$15, one could interact with elephants or embark on a carriage ride/horse ride. For US$10, one could either feed lions, have a lion enclosure tour or embark on a game drive.

This deal was unbelievable as these activities which attract tourists from different parts of the globe, usually cost twice as much or more so it was certainly one not to miss for anything. I instantly contacted my friends and they were all up for it. But then, there was a huge challenge. We were not the only ones interested in this bargain so naturally, the place was fully booked. Weekends is when the crew is free so we would have loved to travel on a weekend. This proved impossible as the place was fully booked, not just for one weekend.

I was on leave and had so much time on my hands. One of my friends, Primrose Ndlovu fortunately had a bit of time to spare so we decided to go ahead with the trip and planned for midweek with the hope to get slots. Not so fast. It was full again with the nearest opening being on a Wednesday of which we wanted to travel on Tuesday. At this point, I was close to giving up until I got a message from their reservations saying there was an available slot on Tuesday. But it was not a river tent which I had hoped to stay in. It was a lodge called Ntaba Aframe, but pegged at the same price as the river tent.

The lady from reservations sent me images and it seemed beautiful and spacious, but not as adventurous as the river tent. I also remembered that Primrose was not a big fan of nature, she is freaked out by mere caterpillars so you can imagine. Therefore, staying in a lodge was a better option although I would have wanted us to have a full-on experience of the park. Mind you, these tents which have en suites are structured in a way that they seem like buildings. You cannot tell you are in a tent and according to reviews of the park online, the river tents are the most popular accommodation and yet they are the cheapest. They also make for amazing pictures.

Our booking was finally sorted for Tuesday. “Our bar isn’t functional so you may want to bring your own drinks”, the lady from reservations advised. That was fine by us as we had loads of ice and drinks on standby. We loaded our cooler box, packed snacks for the journey, fuelled up and were ready to hit the road.

The trip from Bulawayo to Antelope Park took approximately one-and-a-half hours by road. Upon arrival, we were sanitised by security details who seemed not to want to entertain chancers as their first question was “are you booked?”

Our check in was smooth and as we waited for our room to be ready, we were taken on a tour of the place before going to the riverside to relax. Chilling by the riverside as we enjoyed the scenery was soul-refreshing and we agreed this was exactly what we needed. Time out in a relaxed environment.

“This place is under-marketed. It is the next best thing after Victoria Falls”, we concurred as we appreciated the private park. In no time, we were directed to our lodge which was next to the manager’s house. Perfect location I felt because in the event I had a complaint, I knew I would head straight to the manager’s house. Fortunately, there was no need.

Just like it was on the pictures, the charming brick-under-thatch Ntaba Aframe Lodge was impressive and very welcoming. For sanitisation purposes, the lodge’s entrance had a bucket full of water which was quite handy as the Covid-19 pandemic is still there. There was no television in the room and the Wi-Fi was acting up. I did not mind at all and advised my friend that this was a good thing because at times, one just needs to switch off totally.

We refreshed in preparation for our first activity, a carriage ride and quickly activated our tourist mode. We were about to partake in once-in-a-lifetime activities that we were going to remember forever.

By the time we got to the meeting point, the ride which was being steered by one Evans was already on standby and we hopped on. The carriages sit about six to eight people and we imagined the fun we would have had if the whole squad was there. But still, we had a ball experiencing the wilderness and having close up views of impalas, wildebeests, kudus and zebras while sipping our drinks. We had binoculars and never used them at any point as there was absolutely no need, everything was right there. Periodically, the ride would stop and we would jump off to take pictures.

The up close and personal selfies with the elegant giraffes were the most exciting as we constantly watched our backs in case the giraffes would chase after us.

“I could live like this”, Primrose said as the ride went on. That’s the effect the jungle has on people. There is something about being in it that makes you feel so relaxed, soul-refreshed and fully alive.

We also had an opportunity to climb a tree and from the tree top, we had amazing views of the park and beautiful shots taken. Going down the tree was no joke though and the after effects were felt in the morning as our legs were sore.

It was never going to be a legit carriage ride without tree scratches on our hands which we noticed on our way back to the main camp. Moments later, we had supper in the eating area before calling it a night. The weather was a bit chilly and a bonfire had been put up by the fire pit. It was nice seeing kids playing around the area as the stars sparkled like diamonds overhead. Only one thing was missing, the traditional bands you typically find in Victoria Falls with interactive drums to complete the dinner setting.

The next day, we partook in an Elephant Interaction activity which was mind-blowing. I have done this activity numerous times in Victoria Falls, but one can never get used to being near elephants. There were three of them, Jecha, Amai and Ntombi. Ntombi, a small-house of sorts, we were advised, was not friendly so we did not interact with her. Amai, as expected, was motherly and very friendly. The male elephant, Jecha, although he was the youngest, was the biggest and a bit terrifying. We had the opportunity to learn more about the intelligent elephants before feeding and interacting with them. I’d love to believe we bonded well.

Next up was meant to be the snake induction but thy bestie who is scared of caterpillars definitely did not want to interact with these crawling creatures. So, for her sake, we scrapped this activity for I am not much of a fan of snakes either. Bird viewing was also on offer, but after seeing the Zimbabwean bird during our tour of the river tents, we gladly skipped this activity as we felt we could do it while sitting by the river where most of them were flocking to. Other activities which people can do are canoeing, bush walk, lion feed, lion enclosure tour, elephant walk and horse lesson.

We spent the better part of the afternoon relaxing by the swimming pool watching Fish Eagles circle overhead before going to the Smile Coffee Shop for pizza. Afterwards, it was time to say goodbye and head back to Bulawayo.

All in all, this trip cost about US$200 for two including meals and activities which certainly was a big bargain. I would definitely recommend this place to all locals as it is a must visit, especially now when there is a promotion. Whether you are looking to share the fun with your significant other, family or a group of friends, there is definitely something for everyone. The promotion is running until end of this month.

Key things to know
1. Booking well in advance is a must to avoid disappointment.
2. Pack comfortable clothes (especially shoes for the unexpected tree climbings and hikings) and carry swimwear.
3. Invest more in activities.
4. It’s a very peaceful and orderly place. Drop the noise the moment you turn on the Bulawayo-Harare highway.
5. Fill up your cooler box.