In the north-western tip of Zimbabwe, along a 15km private stretch of the Zambezi River, lies Matetsi Victoria Falls, a luxury safari lodge nestled within the 136,000-acre Matetsi Private Game Reserve. Founded by Sara Gardiner and her family in 2016, the award-winning lodge rests just 40km from Victoria Falls and has become renowned for championing both its 100 per cent Zimbabwean team and fervent wildlife conservation.

    It is the childhood memories of time spent with family and friends in the bush of Mana Pools National Park on the banks of the Zambezi River that Sara recalls as the spark for Matetsi Victoria Falls. She remembers the beauty of the bush, watching a pride of lions with her twin brother and parents, and once even being chased by a giraffe. These are the warm recollections of a youth that cultivated a passion for her homeland of Zimbabwe and all that it encompasses. “Being in the bush is so much part of my upbringing,” Sara tells me. “I think that love for the bush, for safari and for Zimbabwe was nurtured in us as children. Over time, we realised we could share this on a wider scale, share this side of Zimbabwe’s story and open people’s eyes to the beauty we have here.”

    As a child, Sara recalls watching prides of lions with her family by Matetsi Victoria Falls.

    Yet Sara’s path to Matetsi was altogether unconventional, and a love of research and science led her to undertake a PhD in physical and theoretical chemistry at the University of Oxford. “When I was doing my PhD, it gave me time to realise that I really wanted to go back to Zimbabwe and contribute to a country that is my home and one I absolutely love.” In 2014, she returned and began discussions with her father about realising the family’s dream of a Zimbabwean safari lodge. “Matetsi is a family vision,” she says. “My dad knew we could do it in Zimbabwe, and do it really well, we just had to find the right location.” In 2014, they found Matetsi and undertook a comprehensive redesign of the pre-existing lodge before opening the doors in 2016. Today, the lodge boasts 18 suites and a private villa, all inspired by the surrounding landscape and finished to exacting standards. “It’s great if guests remember the name of the property,” laughs Gardiner. “But even if they forget and just remember that they had the most incredible time in Zimbabwe, in the most beautiful place with the most incredible people, then, for me, that’s mission accomplished and what we truly want to achieve.”

    In 2021, Matetsi was awarded Africa’s no.1 resort hotel by Travel + Leisure.

    What is most apparent when speaking to Sara is her passion. A wide smile seals itself on her face when she speaks of Zimbabwe and Matetsi, and it is an infectious sensation. As she attests, “My role has changed over time and now, I really see it as ensuring our vision and to make sure we are showcasing everything exceptional about the country.” This passion noticeably fuels her vision, and the evidence of this can be found in the lodge’s numerous awards, including the prestigious title of Africa’s no.1 resort hotel 2021 by Travel + Leisure, despite only being open for six years. In fact, it is Matetsi’s Zimbabwean roots that Sara is particularly proud of. “There’s so much raw talent in Zimbabwe; we want to bring people up to a really incredible skill level,” she says, “but there’s also the warm, authentic hospitality that I haven’t seen anywhere else in the world.” It is this authentic experience for their guests that Sara notes as a defining characteristic of Matetsi. “It’s not just about having a beautiful meal prepared for you. It’s about having a beautiful meal that’s been prepared with love by Zimbabweans,” she adds.

    Matetsi Private Game Reserve covers 136,000 acres along the Zambezi River.

    This ideal extends to the game reserve. Sara notes the pride that their guides feel, as Zimbabweans, for sharing their home environment and wildlife with guests. The vast unfenced Matetsi Private Game Reserve lies in the heart of the KAZA trans-frontier conservation area, a region twice the size of the United Kingdom. It is home to immense herds of elephants and buffalo, prides of lions, elusive leopards and a plethora of reptiles and birdlife. By managing the land through a process of rewilding and aided by 16 solar-powered boreholes that deliver much-need water to the area, Sara’s vision for the game reserve has seen an abundance of wildlife return over the past five years. This is echoed by rangers in Zambezi National Park on Matetsi’s eastern border, who have noted increased animal sightings since the Gardiners took over in 2014. In addition, 550km of roads have been re-established and a comprehensive radio communication network has been implemented for anti-poaching initiatives, with Matetsi developing its own unit to help protect the park.

    Matetsi hopes to train more than 80 scouts to protect the reserve.

    Thus far, 32 scouts have passed the training programme and subsequently saved numerous species, alongside removing over 160 snares from the reserve. In time, they hope to train and utilise more than 80 scouts to protect the reserve further. “They’ve achieved plenty already which makes my eyes sparkle,” says Sara with pride. “We’ve been entrusted with this land, we must do our very best to preserve this wilderness, preserve the wildlife and regenerate what we can.” In evidence of this, the team plan to reintroduce waterbuck to the park in the next year – the first reintroduction of a species in the reserve. Long term, they plan to reintroduce rhinos to the reserve too, and the creation of the anti-poaching unit signals the start of this process. “As we preserve wild spaces and wildlife for future generations, we hope to inspire others to do the same,” Sara shared, “that’s very much what Matetsi is about and it’s very much what I’m about as well.”

    Opening picture: Matetsi Victoria Falls

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