Sable Antelope in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe

Sensational Zimbabwe

February 09, 2015

Zimbabwe has some remarkable surprises in store for visitors. This Southern-African country is home to some of the most beautiful and geologically significant landscape in Africa, including one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and, if that is not enough, she also boasts an incredible diversity of wildlife, one of the oldest cultures in Africa and talented and artistic local people. There is something here for everyone; if you’re after some of the world’s most heart-stopping adventure sports you will find them here, while if you are the type who likes to lose yourself in a remote and deserted little corner of the African wilderness you have also come to the right place.

A little background…

The smiling friendly people of Zimbabwe have suffered greatly in recent decades due to the unstable political conditions under the 3-decade rule of their President, Robert Mugabe. The economy virtually collapsed when the white farmers were driven from their lands and the country faced famine and hyperinflation. At this point the tourism industry in the country also collapsed, which meant very wide-spread unemployment, forcing thousands to migrate to neighbouring South Africa to try and find work.

The good news is that since 2009, the economy has been on the mend, foreign investment has picked up and tourism is once again making a come-back. Tourist numbers have been increasing in leaps and bounds and the multiple natural and cultural attractions are back on the tourism radar. In fact, this is the perfect time to come and visit a country that has such a remarkable diversity to offer visitors, and you will be making a very positive real impact on the lives of the local people, who are known for their warm welcome and their great service to all tourists.

It is difficult to know where to start when it comes to discussing the myriad of attractions in Zimbabwe, but since most people will definitely want to visit the Victoria Falls, I will use this awe-inspiring UNESCO World Heritage Site as my starting point.

Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park and Zambezi National Park

Victoria Falls aerial view
The Victoria Falls are situated on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia.

This hard-to-pronounce mouthful “Mosi-oa-Tunya” is the local name for the Victoria Falls. It translates as “the smoke that thunders” and is probably the most apt description you could think up for this incredible waterfall that is the largest sheet of moving water in the world. The Vic Falls (as they are frequently referred to) are situated on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia, and are best viewed from both the Zambian and the Zimbabwean side. (If you are in Zimbabwe you can get a day-pass at the border to cross into Zambia and visit the view-points on that side, and vice versa). You get the best view of the full width of the Falls (up to 2km wide and 1km deep!) from the Zimbabwe side and if you visit when the falls are in full spate you will need a raincoat, as the spray is enormous and can be seen from a distance of several kilometres. Try and budget to treat yourself to a helicopter flip over the Falls for a birds-eye view you will never forget.

The town of Victoria Falls, (together with Livingstone on the Zambian side of the border), is the adventure sports capital of Africa and the place to go for every kind of adventure activity you can imagine, from bungee jumping to zip-line to white water rafting and many more.

The Zambezi National Park, which has a good variety of game including Elephant, Lion, Buffalo and Leopard, together with good herds of antelope, Zebra and Giraffe, is situated a few kilometres upstream from the Falls and is a good place to see some wildlife if you do not have enough time to go on safari in one of the larger national parks. The best way to see a good variety of game in a short space of time is to take a half-day canoe trip through this park.

Mana Pools National Park

Lion herd drinking from a puddle
A walking safari in Mana Pools National Park brings you up close to a huge variety of African wildlife.

The Mana Pools National Park is without doubt one of the most outstanding wildlife reserves in Zimbabwe. This Park offers excellent game viewing in a completely unspoilt and remote setting; some parts of the Park are only accessible on foot, giving you a taste of the true essence of the African wilderness. Mana Pools National Park is situated on the southern bank of the Zambezi River, directly opposite the Lower Zambezi National Park, and animals can move freely between the two sanctuaries. The presence of the four ox-bow lakes in the floodplain of the Zambezi mean that this Park has permanent water and attracts large numbers of animals, including 4 of the Big Five (Rhino are no longer present here) and plenty of small game. The Park has received UNESCO World Heritage status and according to UNESCO, “the annual congregation of animals in the parkland alongside the broad Zambezi River constitutes one of Africa’s most outstanding wildlife spectacles”. What are you waiting for? You just have to come and see it!

The highlight of a safari in Mana Pools National Park is a guided walking safari which will bring you up close to a huge variety of African Wildlife. These safaris take about 3-4 days and you will spend each night in a different bush camp. In addition to the walking safari you can also choose a canoe safari to experience the wildlife from a whole new perspective, or just stick to the more conventional game drives offered by all the lodges. Accommodation at Mana Pools varies from outright luxury at some of the permanent lodges, to simple tents around the campfire on some of the walking and canoeing safaris.

Hwange National Park

Hwange National Park giraffes
Hwange National Park is about the same size as Belgium.

Hwange National Park is an enormous park just south of the Victoria Falls. In the west it borders the Makgadkikgadi and Chobe ecosystems in Botswana, forming of the Africa’s last remaining great unfenced wilderness areas, where animals are free to roam along ancient migratory paths as they have done for centuries. (Just imagine, this Park is about the same size as Belgium!) There is a very large population of Elephant in this Park and most of the other members of the Big Five are also to be found, including large herds of Buffalo which are often seen raising dust clouds as they gallop across the dry terrain.

Hwange is essentially an arid Park, receiving a very low annual rainfall and the presence of the large numbers of animals you will see here depends largely on man-made permanent water holes. This makes game viewing very easy indeed! You just need to find a waterhole, park and wait.

There are good numbers of predators including Lion, Cheetah (this is perfect open territory for Cheetah), Leopard, Wild Dog and both Brown and Spotted Hyena.

To fully appreciate the three different eco-systems and the animals that are attracted to each, you should try to divide your time between at least two different camps. If you are keen on Night Game Drives be sure to spend a night at one of the private concessions in the Park where this activity is allowed.

Matusadona National Park

Elephant shadow with a beautiful sunset background
The iconic floating hotels are an extremely popular way of becoming acquainted with Matusadona without leaving the comfort of your deckchair.

Matusadona National Park is yet another must-see park to put on your itinerary. The northern boundary of this national park is formed by Lake Kariba, and the fact that this unspoilt wilderness is so well-stocked with wildlife is due to the fact that thousands of animals were relocated here from the Zambezi valley to save them from the rising waters of this man-made lake. Matusadona will give you a glimpse of what wildest Africa was like before the advent of Colonialism; the Park is rugged and truly remote and a large portion of this sanctuary can only be explored on foot, making it ideal for walking safaris for the adventurous visitor. (Even 4X4 vehicles are unable to access much of the terrain).

All the Big Five can be seen here, which is becoming very unusual these days, as the Rhino has been poached to the verge of extinction in many of Africa’s premier National Parks. Matusadona has been designated as an IPZ (Intensive Protection Zone) and partly due to its remote position and partly due to the efforts of the wardens, a small core group of Black Rhino have started to thrive here. Many were re-introduced from other areas and some have been raised near-by as part of a captive breeding program. Here you can track them on foot and experience the pure pleasure of coming across one of the continent’s most endangered animals in their natural surroundings - surely the most exciting highlight of any visit to Matusadona.

As I have mentioned, the Walking Safari rules in Matusadona, but there is another way to see some of the bounty of the Park without the effort. A Kariba Houseboat is the solution! These iconic floating hotels, which can take up to about 20 people are an extremely popular way of becoming acquainted with Matusadona without leaving the comfort of your deckchair. The Houseboats come complete with crew and they all tow smaller boats that can take you right up close to the wildlife in the shallows and on the shores of the lake.

The Matopo Hills National Park

Pair of Rhinos in Matopo Hills National Park
The Matopo Hills National Park has a very successful Black and White Rhino conservancy.

From wildlife to archaeology and geology! The Matopo Hills National Park is a unique and ancient red granite landscape that is so unusual you may think you have left the planet. Archaeological finds in the area prove that this majestic landscape has been inhabited for over 500,000 years and was once the home of stone-age man. The area is named after some of the towering granite outcrops which resemble enormous bald heads – Motobo in the local Ndebele language.

Besides the majestic scenery, the Park also has a very successful Black and White Rhino conservancy (Intensive Protection Zone) where you can enjoy seeing both species of this vanishing animal. There are no Lion or Elephant in the Matopo Hills NP, which makes the area a favourite destination for nature lovers who love to come here to hike and enjoy the arresting scenery. It is also a favourite with bird watchers and boasts a very high density of Verreaux’s Eagle, among many other species. Interestingly, there are also a lot of Leopard here (perhaps because they have no competition from Lions?) but they remain acutely shy and you would have to be very lucky to seen one.

Another attraction of this National Park is the Khoisan Rock Art. The San people (Khoisan or Bushmen) lived in this area many thousands of years ago and have left a treasure trove of rock art dating back some 13,000 years. There are three main cave sites you can visit to see some of their amazingly detailed paintings of the world they observed around them.

Great Zimbabwe

Largest African ruins in south Equator, Zimbabwe
These buildings are the largest collection of African ruins south of the Equator.

The Great Zimbabwe ruins are situated about 150km from Harare and would be a great cultural addition to any tour or safari in Zimbabwe. These buildings are the largest collection of African ruins south of the Equator and prove that the area was inhabited by a very sophisticated civilization, skilled at architecture, agriculture and even mining. The ruins date from approximately the 11th to the 15th century, which is quite amazing and one cannot but wonder what catastrophic event occurred to wipe out such an advanced civilization?

Today you can see parts of the 20m high stone wall that surrounded the city, and remnants of towers, staircases and turrets all constructed out of the local granite, using building methods that were unheard off anywhere else at the time. There is also a small museum on the site where you can see various recovered artefacts including shards of pottery that are believed to have come from as far afield as India, China and Persia which leads experts to believe that these ancient Zimbabweans had also established trade links with the East long before more recent colonizers arrived on the African shores.

The best of Zimbabwe – how to see it all

There is just so much to experience in this diverse country that you are going to need more than one holiday to just scratch the surface, so the first thing you need to do is draw up a short-list and then leave it do your tour operator to suggest the best multi-park itinerary. Everyone needs to see the Victoria Falls at least once in their lifetime, (with or without the adventure sports), so make that your starting point or your grand finale. If you have very limited time and want to pack as much wildlife into that time as possible then a combination of Hwange and Mana Pools will probably be your best bet, and it is also easy to nip across the border into Chobe Game Reserve if you like. If you want to track Rhino, be sure to include Matusadona.

Make sure to leave some space in your suitcase and some money in your wallet for some souvenirs – Zimbabweans are very talented artists and produce some of the world’s most outstanding sculpture and bead-work!

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