Joe returns to Zimbabwe

I had travelled to Zimbabwe a couple of times before, and it is a special country with incredible people and so much potential. As I landed into Victoria Falls Airport, we flew by the falls themselves and you can see why they are called Mosi-au-Tunya (the smoke that thunders). Despite the poor rains across southern Africa this year, the spray still towered high over the falls.

My first stop was Hwange National Park, I was met off my flight and driven the two hours to Mbala Gate in the north of the park. The drive is slightly unusual passing through numerous coal mines en route. I’m a lover of wilderness and natural beauty, so seeing the huge scars on the landscape so close to the national park made me unsure of what to expect. However, as soon as we entered the national park at the boom gate everything changed. The northern area of Hwange National Park does feel very wild, the vegetation is largely mopane woodland which opens up into large vleis and waterholes. My first two nights were spent at Hwange Bush Camp and Camp Hwange, which are owned by one of Zimbabwe’s most renowned guides – Dave Carson. As a result the guiding is superb and there is a strong emphasis on the walking experience – something for which Zimbabwe is very well known. Spike Williamson was my guide and he was simply incredible. His breadth of knowledge and ability to convey it was outstanding. We went on a walk in an area dominated by rocky outcrops and it was fascinating and informative. Once we got back to the vehicle, I realised we hadn’t actually come across any big game, yet the walk was one of the best I have had in Africa! We discussed the smaller things including a number of different types of ants, seeing where elephants had slept and I took advantage of Spike’s incredible birding knowledge.

Following my time in the northern section of the park, I continued to the south-eastern areas. This is home to a few different concessions including that of Somalisa (African Bush Camps) and Wilderness Safaris. Outside of these concessions, it can become busier with tourists than in the northern areas but the game viewing can also be very productive. The vegetation becomes more varied with large tracts of Zambezi teak and some areas of open plains. There are no rivers flowing through Hwange, so the majority of the game viewing is undertaken around the waterholes, many of which are pumped. These waterholes are prolific throughout the dry season (especially July to October). The National Park is synonymous for its elephant numbers of which there are approximately 44,000 which makes up roughly half of Zimbabwe’s elephant population!

From Hwange, I flew north-eastwards to the shores of Lake Kariba. Flying over the lake really gives a sense of scale and it is hard to believe that it is manmade! I landed into the Bumi airstrip and had lunch a Bumi Hills Safari Lodge. Perched high up, the lodge has uninterrupted views of the lake that are simply breath-taking. Lake Kariba and the surrounds used to be a haven for wildlife with huge buffalo herds, incredible lion numbers and a healthy rhino population. Over time, due to ecological changes in the lake, populations of wildlife have dropped and human impact in the form of poaching has devastated the rhino numbers. Nevertheless if time and budget allows, visiting the lake offers a great relaxing break in-between more game intensive safari areas. I spent a night at Musango Safari Camp which is the home of Steve and Wendy Edwards. Steve, a former warden of Matusadona National Park is a superb host and guide. Days are very relaxed and include boat cruises, fishing, community visits, walking safaris and game drives. It is a traditional Zimbabwe homestead feel with incredible warmth and hospitality.

My stay on Lake Kariba was short and I continued to the second key safari destination in Zimbabwe – Mana Pools National Park. Having visited Mana once previously, I was so excited to return. The area has a lasting memory on me due to the unmistakable river frontage full of albida trees, bull elephants, the Zambezi River and the towering Zambezi Escarpment in the distance.

I began in the east of the park and worked my way westwards along the river. Spending six nights in Mana gave me a great opportunity to learn about the area and the camps/lodges in it. There are varying styles of accommodation available, from the traditional Zimbabwean camps with the focus purely on the excellent guiding to the more comfort orientated options – something to suit all requirements.

Although it is possible to only game drive in Mana Pools, it seems a little bit of a waste, as the best way to see the area is to get out on foot. The landscape is perfect for walking with open areas, but with enough cover if needed. The experienced and knowledgeable Zimbabwean guides are some of the best in Africa and similar walking experiences are hard to replicate elsewhere on the continent. Some camps are more focused on walking than others. One in particular is the home of Stretch Ferreira, a legend of the Zimbabwean safari industry and certainly a character. Staying at his Goliath Camp has a strong emphasis on walking up to big game, in particular bull elephants. He is known as the ‘elephant whisperer’ and his familiarity with these elephants and reading of their behaviour allows you to get frighteningly close. His walks are however heavily focused on the big game rather than the smaller aspects of the bush. Walking generally in Mana involves the bull elephants. Many of the bulls are very relaxed and are used to seeing people on foot, and are known for standing on their hind legs alone to reach the tasty albida pods that they enjoy.

During my stay at Vundu Camp in the west of Mana Pools, I was fortunate to have a pro guide to myself on my morning drive. We headed out in the vehicle and did a spot of birding en route. We were looking for tracks of a large bull elephant, aptly names Tusker. We got out of the vehicle and had a scout around as well as learning a number of different bird calls, tracks and finding pottery from ancient civilisations. There were no big elephant tracks, so we continued. After a nice cup of coffee, we were about to head back to camp until we saw in the distance a large elephant – it must be him! We jumped out of the vehicle and headed towards him on foot. My guide Mitch made sure we were on the right side of the wind as we approached. As we got closer to the elephant, he began to speak to the elephant, just to let him know of our presence (so he didn’t get a surprise if he saw us). We sat perhaps 15 metres from the large bull under a bush and simply sat in silence watching him peacefully feed. It was special being on foot out of the security of the vehicle – definitely a ‘pinch yourself moment’. It makes you far more alert and aware of the environment you are in. It was a great morning and very different to experiences you can have elsewhere in Africa. A laid back and Zimbabwean safari experience, but with superb guiding.

Following my time in Mana, I flew back to Harare where I connected with the South African Airways flight to Johannesburg and then on to London.

Zimbabwe really is an incredible country. In its heyday in the nineties, it was Safari Consultants most popular destination and this trip really demonstrated why. The diversity of the country and the combination of Hwange, Kariba and Mana Pools offers a bit of everything with contrasting game viewing and landscapes. You don’t get the same frills and comfort as you do elsewhere in Africa, but that isn’t what the essence of safari is about. Zimbabwe is for safari purists. Those who wish to immerse themselves in the bush and focus on the guiding experience, and quite probably get out on foot too!

During Joe’s time in Zimbabwe, he stayed at: Hwange Bush Camp, Camp Hwange, Somalisa Expeditions, Davison’s Camp, Musango Safari Camp, Chikwenya, Nyamatusi Camp, Goliath Camp, Zambezi Expeditions, Vundu Camp and Ruckomechi Camp.

Joe site inspected: Nehimba Lodge, The Hide, Somalisa Camp, Linkwasha Camp, Little Makalolo, Bumi Hills Safari Lodge, John’s Camp, Camp Mana, Kanga Camp, Little Vundu and Little Ruckomechi.