Known for exceptional wildlife guides and of course the magnificent Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe has offered excellent wildlife safaris for years.
The people of landlocked Zimbabwe are amicable, warm and welcoming. The tourist areas are safe to travel in, and well established despite the political turmoil of the first two decades of the 21st century. Two significant rivers form Zimbabwe’s northern and southern borders. As a result of their location, the national parks are clustered mainly in the north, west and south of Zimbabwe.
In the north is the Zambezi River forming a natural border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. Together, these two countries share the magnificent natural world wonder – Victoria Falls.
The fall itself is the result of water pouring over a 108m deep basalt rock lip in the Zambezi river bed. Visitors often cross between Zimbabwe and Zambia to see the falls from both sides of course. On the Zimbabwean side, a small, well-developed town is a gateway to the wilderness areas nearby. As an illustration of how close the national parks are, Hwange National Park is just a short two-hour drive away. On the other side of the falls is Livingstone, Zambia’s port of call to see the Victoria Falls.
Hwange is the first choice safari destination to combine with Victoria Falls. The park is part of the larger Chobe eco-system, with no fences dividing Chobe National Park in Botswana, from Hwange. Consequently, large breeding elephant herds roam between Botswana and Zimbabwe.
To the east of Victoria Falls, following the line of the river, is Lake Kariba and the Mana Pools National Park.
Lake Kariba and Matusadona National Park
Lake Kariba was formed after the construction of a dam wall across the Kariba Gorge on the Zambezi River. Creating a vast body of water between Zimbabwe and Zambia, the purpose was to generate electricity for both countries. Dotted through the lake are several islands, some of which have safari camps or lodges.
Surrounding the lake, on the Zimbabwean side, is a purple ring of mountains, the Matuzviadonha Hills. The Matusadona National Park is home to a variety of animals including buffalo, elephant, impala, zebra and a broad range of birds. The best way to experience this area is on ‘houseboats’ or by walking and boating safaris from the safari camps along the lakeshore, or on the nearby islands.
Chizarira National Park
The Chizarira National Park is really off the safari grid. Even when the volume of tourists was at its peak in Zimbabwe, this area was considered remote and wild. Gazetted a national park in 1958 to accommodate the wildlife driven out of the Zambezi Valley by the trapped and rising waters of Lake Kariba, it’s the fourth largest wildlife park in Zimbabwe. With similar vegetation to Mana Pools, its a land of rolling hills and deep gorges.
Moving further down the Zambezi River to the east, is Mana Pools National Park. With excellent wildlife and pretty scenery, this is a real highlight on any safari. On the opposite Zambian bank is the Lower Zambezi National Park. Animals frequently cross between the two sides, of course. Magnificent bull elephants are known to ‘look you in the eye’ as they stroll past game viewing vehicles. For this reason, the park is a popular destination for real wildlife lovers.
To the south of Hwange is Bulawayo and the Matobo National Park with “a moonscape of endless granite humpback” hills. Not only are there black rhino, soaring eagles and Cecil John Rhode’s grave, but a region filled with legends of Shona dynasties, Ndebele armies, British colonists and the many wars that they fought. To the south of Bulawayo is the ‘great, green, greasy Limpopo River’ of Rudyard Kipling fame.
Great Zimbabwe Ruins
Several hours’ drive away from Bulawayo, in the south-east of the country, is the Great Zimbabwe Ruins. In a continent that has hardly any buildings over 200 years old, nobody truly knows why these ruins are here. There’s no written history, so its left to the archaeologists to sort out the truth behind the mysterious settlement.
Close-by is the Gona-re-Zhou National Park. Less well-known than the other national parks, it has a wild bush atmosphere with scenic charm.
The park is beautiful and remote, and so are the animals! Stunning red cliffs and the wide, sandy Save River dominate the scenery. Just a few camps are in the area meaning visitor numbers are low. There has been heavy poaching here in the past, so the animals are sensitive to people. But isn’t that the way truly wild animals should be?
To the north of this area, the terrain steepens into broken lines of mountains and valleys, the most rugged terrain found in Zimbabwe.
Known as the Eastern Highlands, the mountains create a divide between Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Similar to the Nyika Plateau in Malawi, colder, higher and with exceptional scenic beauty. An incredible array of birds makes use of the varied vegetation including sunbirds, sugarbirds and turacos. This area is an outstanding birding zone for birders for this reason.
A combination of Victoria Falls with Botswana is a rewarding safari. We suggest starting with Victoria Falls, followed by a few nights in Hwange National Park. Add in the Linyanti, and end in the Okavango Delta.
Despite headline politics, Zimbabwe is a safe country to travel within. Stick to the tourist areas and take advice on when and where to visit. Most visitors to the country will start or end in Victoria Falls.