Zimbabwe – Safaris – On the banks of the Great Zambezi

Zimbabwe’s has some great safari destinations, including he Hwange National Park and the Mana Pools National Park, and we recommend combining your Zimbabwe visit with a safari in Zambia (see our blog), South Africa (see our blog) or Botswana (see our blog).

Despite Zimbabwe’s political and economic instability, which has dominated western news in recent years, it is a relatively safe and very accessible country to visit.  Robert Mugabe was removed from power in 2017, and by 2019 the new government was still struggling to overcome the legacy of that dictator’s 30 years of repressive rule, with annual inflation around 175%. This added pressure on a population already struggling with shortages of basic foodstuffs, fuel and medicine — when we were there in 2019, the country didn’t even have an official currency! But don’t let that stop you, come and support this wonderful place.

Every elephant has to carry its own trunk around – Zimbabwe proverb

Hwange National Park

Zimbabwe’s largest national park, Hwange borders Botswana and encompasses 14,600 sq km. Its scenery, vegetation and game vary from the semi desert in the south, to the forests, hills and valleys of the woodlands in the north.

We came to Hwange via Botswana, a road transfer to Victoria Falls Airport and then a light aircraft transfer to Hwange National Park and jeep transfer to Somalisa Camp. Officially a tented bush camp, Somalisa is less rustic than other bush camps, with indoor bathroom and soaker tub.  Each room has an outdoor/indoor seating area. The outdoor pool and common area is filled with wildlife, a large watering hole only meters away and one of the few in the whole area.

The park is home to over 45,000 elephants, twice the ecologically carrying capacity.  This has resulted in habitat degradation and  alteration to the flora structure and composition of fauna species.  As the park is a very dry area, boreholes have been dug to create artificial watering holes, thereby  keeping elephants from migrating (good for tourism). Together with a successful anti poaching program using K9 dog units, the elephant population has exploded.  However, the vegetation cannot meet the increased elephant population, the elephants are dying of malnutrition.  This was a recurring problem in several parks and reserves we visited.

Species include kudu, sable antelope, zebra, wildebeest, gemsbok, the rare roan antelope, buffalo, giraffe, white rhino, lion, leopard, hyena and many more. 

Our guide at Somalisa was a young women, Carina, who was the only female safari guide working for the company (which owns 15 other camps in 3 countries!). We asked her if there was a lot of pressure as the lone female guide, and she laughed saying: “I put pressure on male guides, who feel they have to continuously prove themselves.”  Getting a female perspective was unique, and she was an excellent guide and did her own tracking, but we did notice that on one occasion she deferred to a male guide in the other jeep when in pursuit (lions), but it appeared this was because he was her senior, not because he was male. 

Throughout the year, Zimbabwe can experience extremely cold weather in early mornings and late evenings. The lodges and camps do supply insulated hooded capes to wear on the safari drives and although the Somalisa did give us hot water bottles to use in bed, there was no heating in the rooms (except for a small wood stove that was never lit).

Mana Pools National Park

Mana Pools gets its name from the four large permanent pools formed by the middle Zambezi River as it meanders down.  The park is at the northern end of Zimbabwe, includes the south bank of the Zambezi River and borders with Zambia.  It is known for the large populations of crocodiles and hippos and a very popular area for elephants.  The Park is one of the most remote parks in the country and is known for walking and canoeing safaris. 

We arrived at our camp via light aircraft transfer from Somalisa Camp. Kanga Camp is a true ‘bush’ camp, together with outdoor toilet and shower and all meals are eaten outside in the common area.  There is a large watering hole in front of the common eating area where you can observe the animals when they come to drink.  The watering hole, at different times of the year (dry season) is more a mud pit than a watering hole.  Watching elephants and monkeys cooling off by splattering mud all over themselves (and you if you are not careful), is the attraction here. 

There is no air conditioning anywhere, no electrical outlets except in the common area and to be used only for recharging phones and cameras. The generator goes off pretty early in the evening.  With no mosquito netting in the room, the days were horrible, the nights were brutal, bitterly cold, down to about 5C, and even with appropriate clothing for evening drives, the temperature was just too cold. The camp has 2 really nice tents and 5 basic ones.  Food was very basic: boiled egg and ham for breakfast, a burger for lunch, farmed tilapia for dinner, bacon-wrapped sausages and sugar cookies for snacks. 

The game drives nearby were not at all productive, there were more animals at the pit in our camp than anywhere else.  About an hour away was the Zambezi River with camps and lodges, the river also offered  more interesting animal viewing.  If we had to do it again, we would not stay at Kanga, instead we would stay at one of the river lodges.  One night at the camp is more than enough to experience a bush camp in Zimbabwe, and two virtually unbearable.  We stayed for 3 nights.

Like in other areas of Africa, the elephant population is over extended. With a dramatic reduction in rainfall during recent years, two of the Mana Pools have dried up while the third is 20% its original size and the fourth, Long Pool is 5% of its normal size.  The acacias and other indigenous trees and grasses that provide the bulk of food for the elephants, and other herbivores, are decimated by the drought.  More elephants are dying from malnutrition, making good feed for the lions.  Mana Pools Park authority decided to start supplementary feeding animals in July, 2019.  The Feed Mana project has trucked thousands of bales of hay to the park.  The group has also been appealing for donations of soy bean hay, grass and other feed.  Zimbabwe is also trying to export elephants and is pushing to sell its ivory stockpile in order to manage the swelling population.  Other African countries are not on side.

We left Kanga Camp for Zambia and returned to Zimbabwe at the end of our trip in order to spent a few days at Victoria Falls, the only falls visible at that time of year were on the Zimbabwe side.

Victoria Falls

It was never our intention to visit Victoria Falls, as we have been too many times disappointed with the ‘must see’ places in tour planning guides, Treetops in Kenya comes to mind immediately.  However, we had a return flight that was too good to pass up but meant we had to stay in the area an extra few days.  Logistically, it became very convenient to hang out at a nice hotel (or two) and visit some local villages.  Although we are happy to have seen the Falls, we don’t believe it would have been such a missed opportunity if we had not. The villages, however were not to be missed. In Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, we stayed at the iconic Victoria Falls Hotel. Beautiful heritage property with finely curated grounds, although service was horrible.

There are several local villages in the area that are worth a visit for some local culture and colour.

The Zambezi River plummets over a cliff down 100 meters into a gash in the earth, and the stunning views can be seen from the Zambian as well as the Zimbabwean side.  In 2019, the worst drought in a century slowed the waterfall to a trickle, essentially leaving the Zambian side totally dry.  Besides affecting tourism, the drought has impacted both countries’ hydropower from  the Kariba Dam located on the Zambezi River that also feeds from the falls.  We visited the Falls in October 2019, the Zimbabwe side still had a pretty spectacular water drop, though we could see many dry patches along the cliffs.

At a primary school in the area we were enthusiastically greeted by the kids and the staff. The parents are concerned about high school, which is much farther away. The kids can’t walk to it because wild animals are on the trails. Most will not be able to go.

For two of the nights in the Livingstone area, we stayed at the classic Livingstone Hotel on the other side of the border in Zambia. Gorgeous grounds, efficient staff and overall great hotel.

The sunsets were breathtaking.

The Livingston National Park, although not a notable safari experience and closer to a zoo than a park is nevertheless home to the endangered black rhino. The rhinos are fed daily by park rangers and seem to react to humans as animals would in a zoo environment. However, it is a great place to take photographs of these noble creatures.

Six Mondisti Zimbabwe Safari Trip Tips

  1. When on safari in this area, visit Victoria Falls but do not go out of your way to do so, not worth it.
  2. Hwange National Park is a great safari experience.  Somalisa Camp is highly recommended.
  3. Mana Pools was a disappointment, although had we stayed on the Zambezi River in one of the lodges, it would have made Mana Pools a better experience.
  4. Be very careful when choosing a lodge or camp as the name can be deceiving. 
  5. The temperature plays a huge role in the enjoyment of the trip and nights in Zimbabwe can get very cold.  Dress accordingly.
  6. Despite Zimbabwe’s reputation for political instability, we did not have issues.  Since you can use USD for everything, the inflation will not affect you.