Ultimate Guide to a Zimbabwe Safari

Ultimate Guide to a Zimbabwe Safari

Things to See and Do

Things to See and Do

Zimbabwe is home to a kingdom dating back to the 11 century, deep caves that are filled with silent pools explored by US Navy divers, the world’s biggest artificial lake by volume and the planet’s most colossal waterfall.

But it is the country’s wonderful wildlife and varied national parks – along with Victoria Falls - that are most famous, and why thousands upon thousands of safari lovers flock here every year. The country takes conversation seriously and has a network of sizable reserves:

 

Hwange National Park

The most famous and visited is Hwange (pronounced ‘wang-gee’), which spans over 14 600 square kilometres / 5 850 square miles, and provides a haven for 107 mammal species and more than 400 recorded types of birds, many of which flock to Mandavu Dam during the mid-year dry season. If it’s elephants you want to see, then the area around Nyamandhlovu Pan is the place to be – it literally means, ‘Meat of the Elephant’. Hwange is most commonly combined with Victoria Falls as they are closest to each other. This is probably the best place to see the Big 5 – elephant, rhino, leopard, lion and buffalo – in Zim.

Leopard near Little Makalolo in Hwange.

 

Matobo National Park

This is supposedly the location of Ophir, the biblical land from where King Solomon got ivory, gold and exotic birds. Today, it is a protected area where highly endangered black and white rhino are making a comeback. Its granite outcrops are the perfect hunting grounds for Zimbabwe’s reportedly highest concentration of leopards, as well as raptors like soaring and swooping black and bateleur eagles. One of its most famous sites are the ‘balancing rocks’, where improbably large boulders are stacked up in a row, without mortar or supports.

Massive boulders in Matobo.

 

Gonarezhou National Park

Way down south of the country, Gonarezhou (gone-a-rez-who) is off the beaten track. Its most famous landmark is the stunning red sandstone Chilojo Cliffs, which provide a dramatic backdrop to late afternoon sundowners on game drives and glow red in the setting sun. Another highlight is Chivilia Waterfalls, which flow fastest during the summer rainy season.

Chilo Gorge in Gonarezhou.

 

Mana Pools National Park

Back up north, Mana Pools is considered one of the prettiest reserves in the world. Its location near the Zambezi River gives it large pools that support a plethora of wildlife and activities like canoe safaris – a terrific way to see hippos, elephants, crocodiles and aquatic birdlife like herons, jacanas and terns.

Feeding elephant near Chikwenya in Mana Pools.

 

Matusadona National Park

Lying on the southern shore of Lake Kariba, Matusadona takes its name from the Matuzviadonha Hills. This is a remote region accessible only by light aircraft, 4x4 convoy or boat and is considered one of the country’s hidden gems. It is a haven for endangered black rhino.

Zimbabwe’s safari guides are considered among the best in the world thanks to their extremely rigorous training. It takes at least five years to complete the course, which involves everything from learning all the Latin names of bird, plant, insect and animal species to basic first aid, advanced driving skills and weapons training. It is so tough that it is estimated that in some years only five percent of the incoming class make it to the final written exams. This exceptional knowledge of and passion for the bush, combined with the fun-loving Zimbabwean sense of humour, put Zimbabwean guides at the top of their field.

The country’s commitment to conservation also makes it part of two gargantuan cross-border parks. The Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA) is the size of France and includes Victoria Falls, Hwange and Lake Kariba. The Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park is the size of the Netherlands or Taiwan, and takes in Gonarezhou. These transfrontier areas show close co-operation between Southern African countries like Zimbabwe, South Africa, Botswana and Namibia to preserve natural and ancient migratory channels for animals and maintain their traditional habitats.

In addition to game drives, nature walks and water-based safaris in the national parks, Zimbabwe offers a lot of other outdoorsy activities for adventurous travellers:

 

Victoria Falls

Probably the biggest attraction in Zimbabwe and the classic end-point to a safari. The Falls, traditionally known as Mosi-oa-Tunya or ‘the Smoke that Thunders’, are the largest in the world when you combine their height and width. Fed by the Zambezi River, they provide all sorts of adrenalin activities like white-water rafting, visits to Livingstone Island, swimming in Devil’s Pool on the precipice, and bridge swinging, bungee jumping and sunset cruises.

Victoria Falls.

 

Lake Kariba

Dammed to supply hydroelectric power to Zimbabwe and Zambia, Kariba is fondly known as ‘the Riviera of Zimbabwe’ because of the many upscale houseboats that dot its shores. It is a wonderful place for birding and Spurwing Island – named after the African spur-winged goose – is testimony to this. Spurwings are famous for diving for fish and are very social, often living in communities of up to 50 birds. Kariba is a good place for a ‘beach holiday’ in the midst of safari country.

Bumi Hills Safari lodge in Lake Kariba

Great Zimbabwe Ruins

The local Shona people are thought to have built the Zimbabwe Ruins from about the 11 century, carefully dry packing thousands of stones into intricate patterns, towers and staircases. Between the 13 and 15 centuries, at least 20 000 people lived here on a site that was 1 780 acres / 722 hectares big. It was the trading hub for the Kingdom of Mutapa or Munumatapa and is now a World Heritage Site. So important are the ruins that the country is named after them: ‘dzimba’ means ‘houses’ and ‘mabwe’ means ‘stones’ making up ‘Zimbabwe’ or ‘Great Houses of Stone’.

Zimbabwe is a huge country and first-timers generally visit Victoria Falls, Hwange and Mana Pools as these have the best infrastructure and are easiest to reach. Visiting other sites in this far-flung land is trickier and only recommended for experienced travellers.

No matter where you go in Zim – from the rush of Vic Falls to the dry bush of Hwange – you will always have the Milky Way above you, the sun to greet you in the morning and the incredible hospitality of Zimbabweans to look forward to.

The stars above Linkwasha in Hwange.

Timing: When to Go

Timing: When to Go

The beauty of Africa is its infinite complexity and this is equally true of Zimbabwe. The best time to go depends on where you want to go – on safari or to see Victoria Falls. Naturally, almost all travellers would like to do both, which leaves a much smaller window to see both at their best. This is because the one – the Falls – depends on rain while the other – peak-season safari – depends on the lack of rain!

 

Safari high season

The best time for game viewing is during the dry winter months, from about May to October. There are many reasons for this:

  • The vegetation thins out significantly, making the animals easier to see.
  • A number of water sources dry up, meaning they don’t move far from the remaining ones, making them easier to find.
  • The climate is far more moderate as it is cooler during the day.
  • It is generally more comfortable as there are fewer bugs about.

This time coincides, however, with the major holiday season in the northern hemisphere, making booking in advance absolutely imperative to secure accommodation and flights.

By May, the rain had dried up and the grass thinned out.

 

Victoria Falls full flood

The best time to see Victoria Falls in all its glory is from about February to May, or summer to late autumn. This is because:

  • The Zambezi River feeds the Falls, and is in turn fed by rains that fall far away on the Angolan Highlands. It takes months for the first summer rains in about November to trickle down and reach Batoka Gorge in about February.
  • The rainy season lasts until about March or April, meaning that the Falls get ‘replenished’ over this period.

The spray from the Falls in the sunrise.

 

It is important to know that, when the Falls are at their fullest and highest, they are ironically hard to see and especially to photograph, because the 500 000 litres / 132 000 gallons of water that plummet over the edge create a huge amount of mist (and the noise can be deafening, hence the traditional name Mosi-oa-Tunya or the Smoke that Thunders). If you do visit then, consider a flip in a helicopter or – if you’re more daring – a microlight to truly appreciate the sheer size of the Falls and to take photos.

 

The strong current and high waters at this time of year make water activities like white-water rafting unsafe so bear this in mind when you book. It will also be too dangerous to swim in Devil’s Pool or to visit Livingstone Island as the water rushes furiously by. These activities are undertaken from about August to December, when the levels have dropped to be safer.

White-water rafting near Gorges Lodge.

 

If you want to have the best of both: May - July

If you want to see Vic Falls when the water is still high and have a good safari, aim for May, June or July. After this, the safari will improve but the Falls will begin drying up and you won’t get the full curtain of water. Before this, the Falls will be in full flood but the game watching may prove challenging to first-timers.

If you visit from September on, you may find large parts of the Falls completely dry. By October, although the safari will be excellent, the Zambian side of the Falls will be bare rock and the rest very, very reduced.

Other things to consider

  • The regional school holidays fall in July, and Hwange, Victoria Falls and Lake Kariba are generally very busy with local holidaymakers. This is peak safari season and viewing the Falls is still very good so if you want to visit then, try to book at least nine months to a year in advance to ensure your first choice of accommodation.
  • The period between Christmas and New Year’s is also very busy because of regional holidays. We don’t recommend Victoria Falls then as they will be reduced to trickle, and the game viewing may be strenuous for first timers because of rain, muddy roads and long grass (photographers, however, revel in the summer low or green season as there are fewer vehicles at sightings, the verdant vegetation provides a beautiful backdrop, animals are in prime condition, lots of colourful birds and adorable babies are about, and the rain washes the air clear of dust).

 

Rain comes to Hwange.

 

  • November is considered a tricky or unpredictable month. It is spring and anything is possible. If the rains are late, the dryness and intense heat of October will carry on into November. If the rains arrive ‘on time’, then it can be very wet. We’re never quite sure what to expect but sometimes, that’s half the fun of travelling. The animals certainly don’t disappear or hide when it’s raining: elephants, antelope and predators will all happily still graze, laze or stalk in the wet.

 

Green season at Matetsi River Lodge

 

  • If you have limited vacation time, we suggest trying to take it in May, June or July if you want to travel to Zimbabwe to see the Falls and go on safari. Bear in mind that many other travellers will be doing the same, so chat to an Africa Safari Expert as soon as you can to secure accommodation in the best areas.
Budget: What It Will Cost

Budget: What It Will Cost to Visit Zimbabwe

Even though we have been in the safari game since 1998, it’s very hard for us to give a single figure when it comes to costs. There are so many variables to consider, such as time of year you’re travelling, how long you’re staying, and whether you prefer comfortable or luxurious accommodation. This is why we don’t believe in a one-package-deal-fits-all approach and prefer to consult with each client individually, using our expertise to tailor-make an itinerary from scratch.

We can, however, supply ballpark figures that help with formulating a budget. For accommodation, we suggest working with the following:

Zimbabwe

4-star comfort 4-star luxury 5-star luxury
Low High Low High Low High
$499 $500 - $700 $600 $1000 $1850 $1850

 

Victoria Falls

4-star comfort 4-star luxury 5-star luxury
Low High Low High Low High
$350 $400 $400 $450 - $600 $650 $700 - $1200

 

All our safaris are all-inclusive, which means that meals, most drinks, park fees and taxes are included in the rate for accommodation and you don’t get any ‘surprises’ when you leave. We also prefer to book and arrange excursions or activities as part of your itinerary for the same reason. It is generally pricier to stay in a private concession rather than a national park but the benefit is that you can undertake activities like going off-road to get closer to sightings, night drives and nature walks that aren’t permitted in the park.

Like most things, the more substantial your budget, the more options you will have. But even those with modest budgets can still find a way of exploring Zimbabwe – the key is to communicate openly with your consultant so that he or she can do their utmost to create the best possible trip for you.

 

Accommodation: Where to Stay

Popular accommodation

Victoria Falls:

Hwange:

Mana Pools:

How to Plan Your Trip

How to Plan Your Trip

Zimbabwe is a dream destination but there are plenty of things to consider.

Is this your first trip to Africa?

Most of our first-time visitors combine Victoria Falls with destinations like the Kruger National Park in South Africa, which has almost guaranteed Big 5 game viewing, and the wonderful city of Cape Town. Other first-timers will link a safari in Hwange with time at the Falls. If this is a return trip, consider going off the beaten track to places like Matobo, Gonarezhou and Matusadona.

A classic itinerary is two nights at Vic Falls, three or four nights in Hwange, and three to four nights in Mana Pools or Lake Kariba.

Remember that distances between destinations are long and that you will be taking light aircraft to get from place to place. The more full days you have in a destination, the more morning and afternoon game drives you will be able to fit in.

 

Dust bath in Hwange.

 

What are your must-sees or must-dos?

Unless you have plenty of funds and time, it may not be possible to see and do everything that a varied and large country like Zimbabwe has to offer. Start with your interests and preferences, and work from there. If a peak-season safari is important to you, then build your itinerary around that.

If you are interested in more unusual activities like seeing ruins or caves, then bear in mind that accommodation around these attractions is very basic and extremely limited, and there may be long driving distances if flights or airstrips aren’t available. Visiting these areas will take a lot of planning so be sure to mention them upfront when consulting with your Africa Safari Expert. It is easier to include them from the beginning of your planning than to add them at the last minute.

 

Sunset over Chundu Island in the Zambezi.

 

When do you want to go?

If you want to see Victoria Falls in full flood, then it’s best to start planning about a year in advance. This may seem extreme and unnecessary, but the best accommodation is limited and goes fast. If you leave it very late, you may not be able to secure accommodation at all as this is a popular regional and honeymoon destination. Availability is a key issue in planning a thorough and satisfactory Zimbabwe itinerary.

Once you have the practicalities down – when you want to travel, what you want to spend, what you want to see and do, and who you want to go with – you can hand over all the planning, paperwork and admin to your travel consultant and go back to daydreaming about touching down in Zimbabwe!

 

Canoe safari at Mana Pools.

 

What about the political situation?

At Go2Africa, we prefer direct answers to direct questions. We are frequently asked about the political situation in the country and whether it is safe to travel there.

It is no secret that Zimbabweans have survived huge political turmoil, starting with colonisation in the 1800s. By the 1990s, then president Robert Mugabe was desperate to hold onto power and by the early 2000s had embarked on an ambitious but ill-fated land redistribution programme to help empower ordinary Zimbabweans. Unfortunately, this largely had the opposite effect and the country’s currency rapidly devalued, investors pulled out, farms were neglected and even white-collar workers in towns faced empty shelves and food shortages. Many Zimbabweans left for neighbouring countries to earn a living and those residing in rural areas were sometimes forced to turn to poaching to survive. This in turn, coupled with widespread and prolonged drought, had a negative effect on wildlife areas. What had once been called the bread basket of Africa because its supremely fertile soil that supported vast tracts of maize and tobacco, and which was considered a top-notch safari destination, became benighted by food, fuel and cash shortages. In those conditions, safety was a serious consideration.

We are happy and confident to say that Zimbabwe has definitely come through this challenging period of the early 2000s. The new president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, has committed to undoing the excesses of Mugabe’s rule and to helping the country out of recession. One way of doing this was by scrapping the hugely devalued Zimbabwean dollar and allowing business to be conducted in US dollars (the currency used by the tourism industry). In fact, traders will often also accept South African rands, Botswana pula, pounds sterling and even euros for their goods (it is best to use US dollars, however, as they are most widely accepted. Credit cards are accepted at major attractions).

 

Boma dinners at Somalisa Acacia

 

Since our inception in 1998, we have kept hundreds of thousands of safari-lovers safe. We do this by regularly travelling to the countries we recommend and by keeping in constant touch with our vast network of contacts on the ground. We will never send a client to a place that we would not visit, and we use only the most reputable accommodation, transfers and activity providers throughout Zimbabwe, all of which have impeccable records. We travel to Zimbabwe regularly and can say with confidence that the country is safe is visit.

It is important to remember that the safari locations are very far from Harare, the capital, and that Victoria Falls is ‘shared’ with Zambia, a peaceful, stable and thriving democracy just across the Zambezi River. When you’re on safari, you are hundreds of miles from Harare and we never route clients through the city. When you’re on safari, you are in the hands of diligent and knowledgeable guides and lodge managers who know the country inside out – we have full confidence in them. We also provide all our travellers with a 24/7 hotline for use in emergency that we are pleased to say very seldom actually gets used.

 

 

Zimbabwe is still a stunning safari destination and the sight of Victoria Falls cannot be beaten. Game is making a massive comeback and investment into new and upgraded lodges is surging. Zim was once dotted with simple ‘bush camps’ and 2-person tents; now lodges have private plunge pools, designer interiors and gourmet food, all of which is indicative of the confidence investors have in the country. Of course, those more rustic places remain and we take care to match you with the perfect style of accommodation you have in mind.

In a nutshell: yes, Zimbabwe is safe to visit. Thousands of people from all over the world marvel at its wildlife and natural beauty every year, and there’s no reason why you can’t be among them.