The brightest star to emerge from the Zimbabwe Professional Guides Association in the last decade is Ivan Carter. The association has some of the most rigorous licensing qualifications on the continent, and, at 20, Ivan became the youngest candidate ever to pass the guides exam. Now 30, he operates the six-tent Vundu Camp on the Zambezi River in Zimbabwe's Mana Pools National Park. Like other top Zimbabwe guides, he has recently branched out to countries such as Tanzania and Zambia, because of the farm takeovers and political violence at home.
As a teenager, Ivan apprenticed himself to John Stevens, one of the country's premier guides. But whereas Stevens epitomizes the formal, "socks-pulled-up" style, Ivan wears no socks at all—and only reluctantly straps on rafting sandals. "I hate shoes," he says. "You've got to feel the ground."
Ivan has spoken at Stanford University on animal adaptations and conservation. Though his personal style may tend toward grunge, it's a point of pride for him that his vehicles are polished to a shine, the cooler is always full, the showers are hot, and the beds are comfortable. Vundu is decidedly no-frills, maintaining the low profile of the traditional tented camp to minimize the impact on the environment. Running water and electricity are concessions, but concrete is out of the question. This is a camp, not a lodge: meals and drinks are served under the trees and skies, on the banks of the glorious Zambezi, against a backdrop of incomparable sunsets. "The bush is the décor," he says. "You can't compete with that."
Scanning the floodplain through binoculars, Ivan points out buffalo, elephants, waterbucks, eland, impala, baboons, and zebras. Our early morning efforts to track a pack of wild dogs prove futile, so we leave the Land Cruiser and set off on foot. Ivan likes to take his guests close to the elephants. We approach slowly, letting the huge beasts hear and smell us. He recognizes some members of the herd. Pointing to a young male, he says, "If he rushes up to kick dust on us, don't worry. Just keep taking photos." As if on cue, the male makes a brief charge, but it's all bluster.
The elephants are hoovering fallen acacia pods like potato chips. Carter picks out a lone male for us to follow; the 41/2-ton tusker doesn't mind our presence one bit. We sit near a tree that's dropping plenty of pods, and Ivan rattles a hatful of the snacks he's collected. Within minutes, the elephant's trunk is five feet from me. My initial apprehension soon gives way to trust. "You'll get emotional," Ivan had promised as we set out. He was right.