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Jill Explores Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe first edged on to my radar in the mid 1990s. I had university friends from Zimbabwe and the National Parks of Hwange and Mana Pools were favourite holiday destinations for them to go on camping holidays with their families. In the early 2000s I started to work in the safari industry and, whilst Zimbabwe was enduring political upheaval which took it off the tourist menu, during my travels I’d meet Zimbabwean professional guides working elsewhere in Africa. These guides were some of the most knowledgeable, passionate and experienced guides I’d encountered anywhere, and they would frequently drop the likes of Mana Pools and Hwange into conversations. And so Zimbabwe accrued an almost legendary status in my mind, enshrined in more recent years by feedback from colleagues who started to travel to Zimbabwe as the political situation stabilised. It wasn’t until this year that I actually got to experience the magic of Zimbabwe for myself.

My mission, which I most definitely chose to accept, was to travel the length and breadth of Hwange and Mana Pools National Parks, with a visit to Lake Kariba in the middle, to experience the camps the team here know and love and write them up for our website.

With no direct flights to Zimbabwe from the UK, there are a plethora of routes to choose from, all depending on where you’re originating from in the UK, carrier preference and cost. I chose a rather lengthy (but cost effective) option via Frankfurt and Johannesburg to Victoria Falls, and was thankful for the “buffer” night I’d booked in Victoria Falls – both to get over the journey before heading out on safari and as a backup in case of missed connections.

Shortly after landing I found myself at the Palm River Hotel. This relative newcomer is built on the edge of the Zambezi River, just out of town. The serene setting was just the antidote needed post flight(s). The hotel still feels quite new and is growing into itself, but they’ve kept a good number of indigenous trees around the grounds, which softens the new landscaping and architecture, and the team couldn’t have been friendlier.

The next morning I headed back to the airport, and while I didn’t have time to visit the Falls on this trip (having seen them previously, based from the Zambian side), I made time to stop by a fabulous initiative called the Lesedi Project. The project was set up by Zimbabwean guide Benson Siyawareva who wanted to give back to his local community. It has grown in just nine years from humble beginnings as a little open-sided preschool classroom designed to look after a handful of infants to a primary and secondary school with over 230 pupils and the addition of a community clinic. I was greeted by the charismatic and passionate headteacher Mrs Mutori and a wonderful welcome display of singing and dancing by some of the children. My visit was a truly inspirational use of an hour, gaining insight into the challenges that face rural communities in Zimbabwe and drawing hope from the difference being made by such a successful initiative.

From here, with a lightness of step, I took a 20 minute flight from Victoria Falls to the remote northern sector of Hwange National Park where I would be staying at Hwange Bush Camp for two nights. The camp is owned and operated by Zimbabwean professional guide Dave Carson who has a long experience in Hwange National Park and in whose company it was a privilege to spend the start of my trip. The camp is an authentic bush camp, with bucket showers, comfortable beds, fantastic food, a friendly team and exceptional guiding and hosting. It wasn’t long before we encountered large herds of elephants (something Hwange is renowned for) congregating around a pumped waterhole and also spotted lion, hyena, giraffe and the tail end of a leopard as it slunk into the tall grass. The highlight for me though was not the wildlife, but the style of guiding. This area of Hwange does not have the density of animals found further south in the park, but watching Dave and his tracker Felix take the time to read the bush and follow tracks allowed anticipation to build and made the sightings much more rewarding. Being able to create an enjoyable wildlife viewing from scratch by using exceptional bush knowledge, while keeping your guests engaged and entertained, is a fine art.

This area of Hwange National Park lends itself well to walking safaris, with gentle ridges, rocky outcrops and open vleis and with experienced professional guides, walking is first rate and something the camp likes to focus on. I enjoyed a full morning’s walk with Dave, following a breeding herd of elephants at a respectable distance, and then chancing upon a bat eared fox dashing away from us.

From Hwange Bush Camp I went to Camp Hwange, also in the north of the park but on its own private concession, before heading south, past Hwange Main Camp and through teak forests after which the landscape opened out. The wildlife in this area of the park was definitely more prolific, with elephants in and around camp, attracted by the ripe acacia pods, and a wide variety of plains game. On a drive between two camps we spotted impala, kudu, steinbok, roan and zebra all in quite a short space of time.

The Linkwasha-Makalolo Private Wilderness Area, in the far south east of the park, occupies a prime wildlife area bordering the fabulous Ngamo Plains, a vast seasonal flood plain fringed with acacia forest and ilala palms. We took a game drive out to the plains early one morning and the sense of impending drama was palpable. The area was teeming with plains game and was a cacophony of bird call, wildebeest grunts and baboon barks. The area reminded me of Chada Plain in Tanzania’s remote Katavi National Park. We didn’t witness any big cat action though there were plenty of fresh tracks giving evidence of lion, cheetah and leopard and had I not been rushing off to a site inspection, I’m certain we would have seen predators.

That afternoon, still on the Wilderness concession, we found the big cats – a large pride sleeping in the long grass. Our guide knew they were in the area, but even so, the vehicle had to get within just a few metres for us to realise they were there. A telltale twitch of a black ear tip drew us closer, until suddenly the whole foreground shape-shifted into 17 lionesses. After a while we left them to do what lions do best (very little) and picked a spot next to a nearby waterhole to sit and watch a continuous stream of elephant herds come in to drink, each herd 30 to 40 in number, with lots of little babies. At one point some roan joined in and just as you thought it couldn’t get any better, the 17 lionesses appeared above a ridge at the other side of the vehicle. We had elephant en masse to the left, a pride of alert lion to the right, and the sun setting behind, at which point our guide made the comment “if it gets better than this it becomes illegal”.

Luckily we avoided getting embroiled in any illegal activity and the next morning I bade farewell to Hwange National Park. My next stop was Lake Kariba, flying into Bumi Hills towards the northern end of the Lake’s south shore, adjacent to Matusandona National Park. I had lunch at Bumi Hills Safari Lodge which was quite a contrast to the dry and wild bush of Hwange National Park. Although only 10 rooms, the lodge feels like a coastal resort with large infinity pool and breathtaking views over the sparkling lake. The lodge is on a small concession and so walking and game drives are offered, as well as boating, fishing and village visits. It would make a different option to Victoria Falls for anyone who wanted to ease in or out of a safari whilst still having activities on offer.

From here I was to spend two days at Musango Safari Camp and was warmly met at the little harbour below Bumi Hills Airstrip by Musango’s owner and professional guide Steve Edwards. A 15 minute boat ride to Musango’s private island had us stepping on to the camp’s jetty and leaving everyday strains and stresses far behind. Steve and his wife, Wendy, built Musango Safari Camp and raised their children here, and it feels like being welcomed into someone’s home… a home where staff, guests, resident bushbuck and dogs are all part of the family.

The camp itself is simple and old school, but the setting, on a thin island with views both east and west for the rising and setting sun respectively, is first class. The hospitality at Musango is also what really sets it apart with Steve and Wendy making a winning team. Steve spent 18 years working for the Department of National Park and Wildlife Management, including time in Matusadona, and so knows the bush and its wildlife intimately. He is an avid bird enthusiast, keen photographer and natural historian (he made a notable dinosaur fossil discovery on the concession and has a comprehensive “museum” of specimens and artefacts collected in the area). Wendy meanwhile manages the running of camp, with her lovely team of staff, conjuring up beautiful home cooked meals with ingredients fresh from the garden.

That afternoon we explored the waterways that weave in and around the shoreline of Lake Kariba and that are part of Musango’s concession. Drifting on a comfortable pontoon boat is a wonderful way to quietly enjoy the setting while watching the wildlife on the land and superb birdlife on the water. Steve likes to set keen birding guests a “50 species” challenge to reach within the first 24 hours of arrival, and has apparently only had one set of guests who failed to reach said target in the allotted time – they identified only 49 species. I’m no ornithologist, though I do enjoy seeing different birds and I defy anyone to leave Musango not having enjoyed the birdlife here. From African fish eagles aplenty, to little bee-eaters and malachite, pied and great kingfishers, the water’s edge is a constant hive of birdlife. Jacanas elegantly tread the water hyacinth while Egyptian geese squabble in the background. The following morning we chose to explore by boat again and this time Steve set up a “photography shoot” with a pair of African fish eagles that have been habituated to swoop in and feed in front of the boat. For bird photographers, Musango is paradise. Although not matching the wildlife drama of other parks in Zimbabwe, there is still good wildlife to be found on land and we were treated to the excitement of three male lion hunting (and narrowly missing taking down) a hippo on our afternoon game drive. At the end of the game drive, we were met by Wendy and crew on the lake shore with the boat which had been transformed into a beautiful fairy-light-strewn sundowner venue, complete with handmade sushi. Sitting on the boat at sunset, on Lake Kariba, with fine company was a wonderful end to my stay at Musango Safari Camp.

The next day I returned to the airstrip for a flight over the vast waters of Lake Kariba and its dam to Mana Pools National Park on the banks of the Zambezi River. I was lucky to enough to have a full week in the park, travelling west to east along the Zambezi River and then heading deeper into the park further south. Most of the accommodation in the park is found close to the river, offering reliably good and varied wildlife viewing, as well as beautiful river views. Private concessions flank the National Park at both sides and I started my time in the Wilderness Ruckomechi concession, followed by a couple of days on the adjacent Vundu concession, each offering strong wildlife sightings alongside quite different camp experiences which would suit different guests.

Vundu Camp is one of a handful of fabulous little owner-managed camps that are found in Mana Pools. The Park is home to some of Zimbabwe’s most renown professional guides, past and present, including the “elephant whisperers” – highly experienced guides, including Vundu owner Nick Murray, who have spent decades getting to know individual bull elephants to allow extremely close encounters on foot. Whilst I didn’t get up close and personal with elephants on foot (which to be honest, I was quite relieved about) I did enjoy some fantastic walking, including getting quite close (enough) to herds of buffalo and zebra. With a history of such strong professional guiding, it’s hardly surprising that walking is really the stand out activity in Mana Pools. The habitat is also perfect for getting out and exploring on foot, with large shady trees and sparse ground vegetation providing cover here and there but allowing for good visibility when looking for wildlife and tracks. There’s something about being on foot that heightens the senses and immerses you in where you are; and something quite magical about doing that in Mana Pools. Little wonder that so many of Zimbabwe’s top guides have been drawn to this area.

From Vundu I headed into the National Park itself to stay at the delightful John’s Camp. Named after longtime professional guide John Stevens (and owned by his daughter and son in law), the camp is as classic a safari camp as you could hope for, operating like clockwork with a team that have clearly been working together for years. Bucket showers, crisp linen, convivial campfire chatter and sounds of the bush playing gently in the background – just perfect. Our afternoon game drive was productive and while there was plenty of wildlife, for the first time during my trip I was aware of other vehicles, which illustrated the benefits of staying in a private concession should you want the most exclusive experience. Although compared to other areas of Africa, the parks in Zimbabwe are quiet – I’d just become a little spoilt! The afternoon culminated in a sundowner overlooking the river and watching a family of elephants while, right on cue, a herd of impala gracefully leapt and pranced left to right, and then back again, like something out of a carefully choreographed ballet.

This area of the park features lots of the iconic ana (or winter thorn) albida trees which, in the late afternoon sunshine, take on an ethereal quality with shafts of dusty golden light threading between blue-grey branches. One of the most striking things about Mana Pools National Park is its natural beauty. Activities on or along the river have the ever-present majestic backdrop of the northern Zambezi Escarpment towering behind sparkling Zambezi waters. The landscape comprises broad leafy green mahogany and fig trees with neatly clipped browsing lines and the absence of thick bush beneath gives the impression of well-tended parkland. At times the scenery can rival the wildlife. One of the guides during my trip commented that he’d looked after a group of photographers last year that came purely for the trees and the light and weren’t interested in the wildlife – a bit of shame in my opinion, but testament to the park’s beauty nonetheless.

As I made my way further east, into the concessions outside the park boundaries, the wildlife gradually became less prolific and the habitat more dense. At the eastern extremity of the park lies the vast 128,000-hectare Sapi Reserve which was taken over by Great Plains Conservation in 2016 and they are gradually restoring this previous hunting area, reestablishing the wildlife which is wonderful to see. While wildlife concentrations were not as dense as further west, the guiding was outstanding, to the point you barely noticed. I spent a joyous afternoon at Tembo Plains Camp, watching an elephant drink from a river channel right below the deck of my room, before being road-blocked by said elephant on the way to afternoon tea. I beat a steady retreat to the safety of my room to wait for a guided escort (elephant whisperer I am not). Following this, I took a late afternoon boat cruise. We followed a large bull elephant “island hopping” across the river channels, before being greeted by a surprise sundowner set up with chairs ankle deep in the river. Very memorable.

From Sapi I made my way south, away from the river, towards the inland pans for my final night in Zimbabwe. Less well known than the Zambezi River area, the inland pans provide vital and scarce permanent water deeper in the park in the dry season and the wildlife drama that unfolds around them can be quite spectacular.

I arrived at Kanga Camp in mid June, so not yet the peak dry season, but already the wildlife around camp was impressive. The camp is built right on the edge of the Kanga Pan, and from the instant I arrived (greeted by three adult elephants) it was clear why this charming little camp has been nick-named “home of the armchair safari”. Over lunch I was distracted by a highly entertaining display from a family of elephants including a very little baby, slipping and playing around in the mud on the pan’s edge; and breakfast on my last morning was watched over by a leopard, honey badger and a duiker! Never has a departure from camp been so reluctant and I would just love to return further into the dry season.

I flew out of Mana Pools to Harare Airport ready for the international flights home, with plenty to reflect on. It had been a personal privilege to spend time with Zimbabwe’s professional guides on their home turf and to experience the wilderness areas that inspired them to embark on a life devoted to wildlife. But it had also been a pleasure discovering the dramatic wildlife of Hwange National Park, the warm hospitality of owner-managed camps, and the captivating beauty of Mana Pools; not to mention the nuances of each camp – how they all have something different to offer, be it level of luxury, hospitality style, safari focus or setting. Watch this space for the full write up of each camp in the Zimbabwe section of our website!

Jill stayed at: Palm River Hotel, Hwange Bush Camp, Camp Hwange, Somalisa Camp, Wilderness Little Makalolo, Wilderness Linkwasha, Musango Safari Camp, Wilderness Ruckomechi, Vundu Camp, John’s Camp, Tembo Plains Camp, Nyamatusi Camp and Kanga Camp

Jill visited: Somalisa Acacia, Somalisa Expeditions, Wilderness Davison’s, Bumi Hills Safari Lodge, Wilderness Little Ruckomechi, Little Vundu, Wilderness Chikwenya and Nyamatusi Mahogany.