Once upon a time, Zimbabwe set the standard for authentic safaris in Southern Africa but after a period of political instability, the tourism industry almost came to a stand still and the country became a 'forgotten' destination. I hadn’t been back in almost 15 years when the owners of Somalisa and Kanga camps invited us to experience their hospitality. I’ll admit I felt some trepidation – not about the service or standards of the camps - but about the state of their once-legendary national parks.
Here is what we experienced.
We kicked off in Matobo National Park
A sacred space to the Ndebele and a World Heritage Site near the thriving city of Bulawayo, Matobo is famous for its rugged granite outcrops that shelter Khoi-San rock art that dates back to the Stone Age. This is also the burial site of (in)famous English colonialist Cecil John Rhodes who connected South and East Africa by railway and bequethed much of his vast fortune to fund worthy scholars from Africa attending Oxford University. The park is also famous for the population of black eagles that breed there. We recommend visiting between May and August for mild, sunny days and cool nights.
Our accommodation was Camp Amalinda Perched on the side of a granite koppie, this charming camp features a gorgeous rock infinity pool, stunning views of the night sky from the star deck and a lovely spa. Expect a warm welcome, passionate and informed guides and delicious down-to-earth cooking.
Our favourite experience: Sunset drinks looking out over the magnificent World's View in the Matopos Hills near the final resting place of Cecil John Rhodes.
Next, we headed to Hwange National Park
At 15 000 km² (5 792 m) Hwange is Zimbabwe’s largest national park – it’s also the most famous with an elephant population to rival Botswana’s Chobe and plenty of big game action, including huge herds of buffalo. We also saw lion, kudu and sable antelope and fantastic birdlife, including vultures and ground hornbills. Visit Hwange between May and August for the most comfortable weather and plenty of wildlife action.
Our accommodation was Somalisa Camp and Somalisa Acacia Camp: The Somalisa camps are set in a wooded spot along the Kennedy vlei line but each camp faces its own waterhole. The camps are very intimate: Somalisa has seven suites while Acacia has four, including two family suites. Both camps feature spacious tented suites on raised decks with a central dining area, lounge and plunge pool all looking out over a busy waterhole. We loved the plunge pool and superb barbeque served under starry skies, as well as the hammocks on our private decks and huge copper tubs in each tent’s en suite bathroom.
Our favourite experience: Sitting in soft lamp light after dinner and watching a small herd of elephants drink from the plunge pool’s freshwater overflow, less than five metres away. It was a regular occurance for the camp staff but an absolute privilege for us to have such a close-up, peaceful encounter with Africa's gentle giants.
Our final stop was Mana Pools National Park
Set in the Zambezi Valley, Mana Pools is rugged and beautiful with a wonderful blend of grassy plains, woodlands and riverine scrubland. The Zambezi River forms the park’s northern border and makes it possible to explore the area by canoe. The diverse landscape and plentiful water means healthy populations of wildlife. We saw so much! Hyena, elephant, buffalo, warthog, antelope – including herds of waterbuck – and even a very rare anteater were all in abundance. The birdlife was excellent too – we saw fish eagles, water fowl and bee-eaters. Mana Pools’ wildlife is fantastic and the area is very beautiful in terms of scenery.
Our accommodation was Kanga Bush Camp: Set in a private concession deep in the reserve, the camp looks out over a busy waterhole that offers fantastic armchair game viewing from the comfort of the main deck. Within minutes of arriving at Kanga, we saw storks, fish eagles, and an elephant at the waterhole. The tents are fairly basic but comfortable with the en suite bathroom open to nature on one side – you can literally watch game in the pan below while brushing your teeth.
Our favourite experience: We got to see a famous Mana Pools sight: an elephant stretching to the tip of his trunk to reach delicious fruit. We watched him strain to grab a mouthful and then munch it with obvious enjoyment. When he’d eaten enough, he strolled right past our vehicle, so close we could see his lovely long eyelashes!
Our verdict on Zimbabwe
We got to see three of Zimbabwe’s top national parks in a few days and made at least one unforgettable memory in each one. Everywhere we went we experienced superb service and genuinely warm hospitality as well as the kind of professional guiding that once made this destination the number one in southern Africa.
Is Zimbabwe for you?
We recommend Zimbabwe to travellers returning to Africa in search of an off-the-beaten track experience. It is authentic, rugged Africa. In addition to quality game viewing and classic tented camps, expect comfortable luxury free of ostentation, fresh, wholesome food and one of the warmest welcomes in the world.
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