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Mary is introduced to Zimbabwe – October, 2016

Ten years ago, when I joined safari consultants, the tourist industry in Zimbabwe had already been plunged into crisis and it barely figured in any conversations we had with our clients. The past few years have however seen a resurgence and Bill, Rob and Michele have all returned from trips with positive comments about, and a renewed enthusiasm for, the destination. I have been (im)patiently awaiting my turn and was looking forward to my most recent trip with more fervour than usual.

The demand for Zimbabwe must be growing as I couldn’t get a flight into Victoria Falls itself so instead had to fly into neighboring Livingstone, in Zambia. The cross border transfer was very straightforward, even allowing for visa purchases, and takes you across the famous Rainbow Bridge, giving you a first glimpse of the famous Falls (dependent on water levels) and a fleeting glimpse of the brave souls throwing themselves off the bridge, attached to a bungee cord!

Having spent a night close to Victoria Falls at Gorges Lodge, an oasis of calm away from the hustle and bustle of Vic Falls town and a great option for birders, I headed by road through to Hwange National Park; a relatively quick trip of just three hours.

Hwange is Zimbabwe’s largest national park and is the only place I have visited in Africa where elephants outnumbered by far the number of impala I saw!

The terrain of the park varies as you head from the Kalahari sands influenced south, earmarked by semi-desert scrub, to the mopane woodlands and granite hills in the north. This variety of landscape means you can easily warrant a combination of different camps. I began my stay at the authentic Camp Hwange in the north, known for its excellent guiding and superb walking opportunities, before heading south where I stayed, amongst others, at the more luxurious Somalisa Camp. The waterhole in front of the camp had a constant stream of pachyderm visitors.

There are no natural water sources in Hwange and the wildlife relies on the fifty or so pumped waterholes which are managed by the various lodges within and bordering the park. At no time is this more important than in the dry season when grazing has all but disappeared and the pressure on the waterholes becomes immense.

Whilst the game viewing in the park is varied, Hwange is best known for its huge elephant population and I must have racked up an accumulation of several hours sitting at waterholes and watching them in awe. There is something quite joyful in watching them gain speed as they lumber towards a watering point, trunks raised in anticipation, and then feeling their sense of satisfaction as they slosh about slaking their thirst before wallowing in the muddy shallows.

After the arid and dusty conditions in Hwange, arriving at Lake Kariba was not only breathtaking but also a welcome relief. I of course knew the history behind the creation of the lake and had read many stories about Operation Noah and the remarkable rescue of over five and a half thousand animals, but even so, nothing quite prepared me for the vast expanse of blue below me.

Matusadona National Park runs along the lakeshore and whilst the game here is not as prevalent as elsewhere in Zimbabwe, it can still be rewarding. As the water levels recede in the dry season, the exposed foreshore provides fresh and nutritious grazing leading to excellent sightings of elephants, buffalos and hippos.

Matusadona has always been known as an excellent place in which to track rhino on foot but this has sadly become harder and harder to achieve. Poaching has hugely diminished the rhino population and it is now believed that there are only two or three left into park, a fact only supported by camera traps as they are so seldom seem. It is still possible to track these precious animals but it will be a full day activity, can be very arduous and in reality there is little chance of success.

The lake, and being out on the water, is your principal reason for coming here and it provides a wonderful contrast to the more traditional game viewing areas of Hwange and Mana Pools.

Whilst staying at Changa Lodge we decided to cross the lake to enter the dramatic Sanyati Gorge. Here, towering cliffs plunge into hippo and croc infested waters and even on such steeps slopes game could still be seen. I’m still lost for words at having watched as a sole elephant slowly picked its’ way down an impossibly steep slope to reach the water.

I spent only two nights at Lake Kariba and even in that short amount of time I found myself unwinding and for me this is the magic of the area.

There is a slower place of life on the lake and it is easy to be seduced by it after the early mornings and action packed days of the big game safari areas. The hammock outside by room at Changa Lodge seemed to have my name on it and at Musango Camp, under the warm care of Steve and Wendy Edwards, I was urged, and easily acquiesced, to enjoy the blessed relief of my cold plunge pool. Later we embarked from Musango on a boat cruise, gently drifting along the shore line watching the elephants drink and the fish eagle swooping whilst the sun went down and with a glass of something chilled close to hand! That, for me, is what Kariba is all about!

Mana Pools has, I confess stolen my heart and must count as one of the most beautiful parks in Africa. Fringed on one side by the majestic Zambezi River, the park is a mixture of riverine floodplains and small inland pans interspersed by towering cathedral mopane trees, glorious mahogany trees and albida woodlands.

After the serenity of Lake Kariba, Mana Pools was a high energy adrenalin rush.

I certainly didn’t expect to find myself crawling on all fours towards a pack of wild dog but there I was, slowly making my way towards them when they became very unsettled, got to their feet and began growling in my direction. ‘Don’t worry’ Simeon, my excellent guide from Vundu Camp, assured me with a wide grin ‘they aren’t barking at you… it’s the lioness behind you!’ Fortunately it was quite some distance behind me but it did sum up my stay in the park.

It is an invigorating destination offering a variety of game viewing activities. Game drives are usually combined with an exhilarating walk, led by seasoned guides such as Nick Murray at Vundu Camp or Stretch Ferreira at Goliath Camp, either tracking or approaching the big game; canoeing is offered by those camps close to the river and boat cruises are available only at Ruckomechi, situated in its own private concession on the western edge of the park.

As a perfect antidote to all this activity, Kanga Camp is worth a mention. Set some 15 kilometres inland from the river, it is fair to say that the game viewing outside the camp is not as good as it is elsewhere but the pan after which the camp is named and which it overlooks has very rewarding sightings. Foregoing an afternoon game drive, I opted for a ‘sofa safari’ and waited to see what might turn up. There was constant movement; a flock of red billed queleas repeatedly swooped down to drink; a large troop of baboons kept me entertained as they traversed the pan, playing and fighting en route, skittish kudu carefully approached whereas seemingly carefree warthogs just rushed in, eager to wallow in the mud. The scene constantly evolved and as one species departed another would arrive. As the sun set a herd of elephants arrived and after dark a sole lioness was spotted slinking along the edge of the water. Just after I had retired to bed, a leopard appeared – typical!!

Suffice to say, this trip more than lived up to my already high expectations. The diverse landscapes, choice of different activities, excellent guiding and the genuine warmth of the people all combine to make Zimbabwe an excellent choice for your next safari.