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Jewish safari expands our horizons in Zimbabwe

Sunset over Vintage camp, Hwange National Park
Sunset over Vintage camp, Hwange National Park

'This guy came to stay, and asked to see the Jewish parts of town," recalls Peter Jones, owner of The River Club, a luxurious Zambian hotel. "I asked him to wait until the next day, then spent all evening swotting up on the area's Jewish history."

Thus began his first Jewish tour of Livingstone, a historic town close to the Victoria Falls.

Jones led his guest around the country's first synagogue (now a church), a small museum and the Jewish cemetery. "He really took his time walking round," Jones remembers, "I later found out he was a Holocaust survivor."

That was 13 years ago and Jones reckons he has led about 100 Jewish tours since then.

On a recent trip to the region, I was lucky enough to experience one for myself.

Knowledgeable about all manner of local signs and monuments, Jones points out evidence of the town's rich Jewish heritage that you would never notice yourself - the faint outline of a Magen David beneath the old synagogue's paintwork, the marks on a doorway where a mezuzah used to hang.

It seems appropriate, therefore, that his riverside lodge is home to the first custom-built kosher kitchen in Livingstone's tourism industry.

The newly-built facilities offer separate crockery for meat and milk, kosher food and customised meals for Orthodox guests. Jones explains that he is catering for an upsurge of Jewish tourists, particularly from North America. He is not alone in noting the increased Jewish interest in the region - companies such as Sikeleli Safaris have responded by creating luxury and bespoke "Jewish-friendly" itineraries.

Livingstone’s first synagogue now holds services of a different kind
Livingstone’s first synagogue now holds services of a different kind

This move made sense for the Ponter family, who run the safari company, since they already had long-standing Jewish ties to the region. I spent time with one of the daughters of the family, Danni, a Zimbabwean local whose grandfather was the first Jewish mayor of Harare, the country's capital. She works with many facilities that cater for kosher tourists, including Zambia's River Club, South African beachside hotel, Prana Lodge and the Makweti safari camp.

It is, of course, easier to be a Jewish traveller in South Africa than surrounding countries - there is a major Chabad presence and heritage sites in Cape Town, for instance. But venturing to Zambia and Zimbabwe is infinitely more satisfying, partly due to the Jewish scene's intimate feel. Jews settled in the two countries from the late 1800s, escaping from pogroms in Russia, and later from persecution in Nazi Germany and anti-semitism in South Africa. Their numbers peaked in the late 1950, at 1,000 and 7,000 respectively.

Since then, despite mass emigration to Israel and the West, Jewish life has hearteningly continued. Harare features both a Sephardi and Ashkenazi synagogue, but because the city now has fewer than 100 congregants, the prayers alternate between the two.

Another feelgood factor is the knowledge that one is boosting the economy. Many Zimbabwean camps have fantastic initiatives - staying at a Wilderness Safari camp, for example, helps support nutrition programmes for children. At Miombo, you can visit the Iganyana Arts Centre, where local artisans craft gorgeous creations out of recycled materials. Likewise, The River Club allows you to contribute (hands-on or financially) to social-development projects such as renovating water supplies and building libraries, as well as enjoying a river cruise (with likely sightings of hippos and crocodiles). If you want to help build or fix things in person, you need to organise this in advance.

But visiting Zambia or Zimbabwe does not just benefit others - it provides you with the most exclusive, unparalleled safari experience. The game is abundant (Cecil the lion's pride strolled past my tent in Davison's camp), the scenery is phenomenal and the drivers are incredibly knowledgeable. In addition, according to Sikeleli, a safari in Zimbabwe costs one sixth of the price of a similar tour in neighbouring Botswana.

On top of that, the countries offer such sincere hospitality that you cannot fail to be impressed - upmarket camp Somalisa caters adeptly for vegetarians, even in the middle of the bush, while Vintage, a back-to-basics camp with no running water, still manages to provide for every dietary preference from vegan to gluten-free.

What is more, Victoria Falls, separating the two countries, is a Unesco world heritage site and natural wonder of the world. You have to see its beauty and hear the roar to understand how magical the Falls are. But until you do, trust me that from any perspective - but particularly a Jewish one - a safari in Zimbabwe or Zambia is unforgettable.

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