In the late 1990’s Zimbabwe was booming as a tourist destination and Victoria Falls and Hwange were key components in almost any safari itinerary. In late 2013 I visited Mana Pools and Matusadona, two other key safari regions, which was my first time back in Zimbabwe since 2000. Now it was time to re-explore Victoria Falls and Hwange, and I desperately wanted to be impressed. What I found was very reassuring.
I spent the first three days of my trip in the Victoria Falls region, spending nights in three camps in or near the Zambezi National Park which sits on the banks of the Zambezi between Victoria Falls (National Park) and the Matetsi Safari Area to the west. Zambezi was always a ‘second string’ park in terms of big game, but it offers a stunning Zambezi River experience in addition to great birding and some pleasant general game viewing. During Zimbabwe’s ‘unsettled’ years the park suffered from lack of investment and tourism activity and poaching became widespread. The last few years have seen a dramatic increase in tourist activity and this has been hugely beneficial for the park and its wildlife. Along the river you can see elephants (especially during the dry season from June to October), hippo, crocodiles and wonderful bird life, whilst you are also likely to encounter baboon, impala, kudu, waterbuck, warthog, bushbuck and various other species. Predators can never been guaranteed, but lion, leopard, spotted hyaena and wild dogs are seen fairly regularly.
I stayed at three different properties, old timer Imbabala in the far west next to the border with Botswana, and two newer camps – Zambezi Sands in the heart of the park, and Pioneers Camp a little closer to Victoria Falls. All three camps have beautiful locations and offer something different, Imbabala with its open flood plains and easy access to Botswana’s Chobe region, Zambezi Sands with its beautiful accommodation and exclusive location, and Pioneers with its intimate bush feel and relaxed atmosphere. Each of the camps offers ‘day’ access to Victoria Falls and all the activities available there, but they are not close enough for it to be completely convenient (each is about an hours drive from the falls). They can therefore be combined with a night or two in Victoria Falls town itself, and can definitely be visited as a ‘stand alone’ Zambezi River experience, especially as a more relaxing safari option at the beginning or end of a longer itinerary. All three camps offer walking safaris with professional guides, canoeing (inflatables), boat cruises and fishing, so there is plenty to do even if you don’t prioritise game drives or spend time visiting the falls.
Within Victoria Falls town and the more immediate vicinity I visited a wide range of hotels and lodges, enjoying my visit to Elephant Camp where I met ‘Silvester’ the tame (orphaned) cheetah and was shown around their veterinary clinic which supports and services most of the wildlife areas of Zimbabwe. The new boutique guesthouse called Bayete will offer a very friendly and more personal alternative to the larger hotels.
I also found time to take to the air over Victoria Falls and visit them on foot through the rainforest, in both cases with the prime motive of filming and photographing the falls at this stunning time of year. However I have to admit it was a real pleasure just to gaze on the falls again and remember what it was like to see them for the first time. They really are magical.
Rather than feeling that Victoria Falls is a busy town to be passed through as quickly as possible, I enjoyed the vibe and felt that the region really does have plenty to offer, especially when combined with Zambezi National Park.
From Victoria Falls I travelled by road through to the northern entrance of Hwange National Park, from where I visited Nehimba and Camp Hwange, two excellent properties. Despite the early season the game viewing was good with lions and wild dogs in the area and, of course, plenty of elephant. The hospitality at Nehimba, led by owner and ex-parks ranger Mark Butcher, was fantastic and it was a treat to be hosted in such a personal manner – Zimbabwe style. It was also interesting to meet and spend some time with some of the Hwange Lion Research team. Camp Hwange was equally welcoming but a little more sophisticated in style with really excellent guiding.
I then travelled south-east through the park for the next three days, visiting The Hide Safari Camp, Somalisa Expeditions (and their main camp which was a building site at the time), Bomani Safari Camp and the exclusive Wilderness Safaris Concession which is home to Linkwasha Camp, Little Makalolo and Davison’s Camp.
Throughout my safari I saw great game and beautiful scenes. On the Linkwasha/Makalolo concession I was fortunate to watch lions stalking and chasing a male sable antelope – the sable was too clever and too fast and got clean away! I spent a morning looking for cheetah (we found only tracks), but were delighted to come across fresh wild dog tracks in the same area. Unfortunately on our whistle stop scouting trips, we never seem to have enough time to follow up on these discoveries! However, we do get lucky too and one evening after dark on my way back to the luxurious and beautifully located Linkwasha Camp, I had a wonderful sighting of an aardvark.
Hwange does have large patches of teak woodland and mopane scrub which are not especially productive for game-viewing (though the teak woodlands are one of the best places in Africa to find the beautiful sable antelope), but between these areas run a system of beautiful open grassland vleis, each holding a number of pans, or water holes, to support the wildlife of the park. Hwange is different from most other big game regions in that it is based a system of pumped waterholes. This is a legacy of early projects to protect the wildlife of the park and ‘keep’ the game safe within the park throughout the year.
During the dry season natural pans dry up completely and the pumped waterholes are an obvious lifeline for all species, most notably elephants. There are approximately 40,000 elephants in Hwange, arguably more than is ideal, and the elephant viewing possibilities are amazing and definitely some of the best available in Africa. Despite the pressure for water creating an element of stress amongst the herds during the height of the dry season, the elephants of Hwange are generally very relaxed towards vehicles and humans, enabling wonderful up close encounters.
Behind the Scenes
On this trip Rob stayed at Imbabala Zambezi Safari Lodge, Zambezi Sands and Pioneers Camp on the Upper Zambezi, and Nehimba Lodge, Camp Hwange, The Hide Safari Camp, Linkwasha Camp and Davison’s Camp in Hwange. He also visited Victoria Falls River Lodge, Victoria Falls Safari Lodge and Club, A Zambezi River Lodge, Bayete Lodge, Ilala Lodge, The Victoria Falls Hotel, Sprayview Hotel, Rainbow Hotel, The Elephant Camp, Stanley and Livingstone Private Reserve, Somalisa Camp, Somalisa Expeditions, Bomani Tented Lodge, Camelthorn Lodge and Little Makalolo.