"Shall we take a walk?" our guide Bulisani "Buli" Mathe asked, already half out of the Land Cruiser, rifle in hand.
"Uh, sure," I said, surprised.
"I always have the rifle in the vehicle so we can go on a bush walk in the middle of a game drive," he explained. The spontaneity, he said, makes it "more exciting."
He was right. We'd spotted an elephant grazing in a clump of mopani trees at the top of a small ridge. Following his lead, we hiked through the brush stopping 30 yards beneath the pachyderm.
I had arrived the day before as a guest of Mpala Jena, the new luxury tented camp in Zimbabwe on the banks of the Zambezi River. Situated on a private concession within Zambezi National Park, the camp is a 90-minute drive from the town of Victoria Falls. It's the second property in the country for world-renowned wildlife filmmakers and conservationists Beverly and Dereck Joubert, founders of Great Plains Conservation. The first was the six-day Mana Pools Expedition Camp, which opened in January 2018.
Named for the Zambezi tributary that bisects the camp's relatively small footprint, Mpala Jena comprises a large communal tent with an eat-in wine cellar, spa, and boutique, four luxury guest tents and a single two-bedroom family suite for travelers who want more privacy. In keeping with Great Plains Conservation's values, the camp is run exclusively on solar power and constructed of predominantly recycled materials.
My tent was spacious and bright, owing to floor-to-ceiling netted windows facing the dramatic shores of the Zambezi. A queen-size canopy bed featured its own air-conditioning -- with temps reaching nearly 100 degrees, a welcome treat. In addition to an en suite bathroom, an inviting clawfoot tub, inside and outside showers, and a private deck with plunge pool provided the perfect setting for my morning peanut butter-and-banana smoothies.
Handpicked by the Jouberts, the decor is a blend of layered stonework inspired by the ruins of Great Zimbabwe (a medieval town in the south), a Moroccan sensibility and Beverly Jobert's award-winning photography. Intricately carved wooden doors fronting every tent were discovered in a market in Zanzibar.
During my two-night stay, I went on three game drives including the one with the aforementioned elephant. Ears held out straight to look bigger than his school bus-sized physique, the bull gave us a long stare, a bit of a sniff, and then strolled out of sight.
Overall, wildlife sightings were few. Until recently, self-driving and camping in this end of the park were the norm, not the consistency of permanent lodgings, and the animals were skittish. Plus, the guides were just beginning to familiarize themselves with the terrain, territories and favorite watering holes that make sightings more likely. Viewing will get better over time.
That said, Mpala Jena is designed for guests wanting to enjoy more than the conservancy's fauna. Boat cruises, canoeing, spa treatments, an interactive kitchen, or a day trip to Victoria Falls are also available.
Rates start at $1,020 per person, per night.