The EA Guide to Zimbabwe safaris
Zimbabwe is a classic all-round safari destination, hugely rewarding for people of all ages and packed with opportunities for adventure, luxury and wonder. People come here for the exceptional facilities, high-end accommodation, friendly locals and relaxed atmosphere. But mostly they come for Zimbabwe’s abundant wildlife and glorious natural features.
One of the most popular safari destinations in Zimbabwe is also the largest: Hwange National Park. Teeming with big game, it’s especially famous for its large elephant population and walking safaris that get you close to these magnificent animals.
For game-viewing activities on both land and water, nothing beats Mana Pools National Parks. Here, you can camp right on the water’s edge, sleeping out in the bush with nothing but the wind and calls of wildlife around. It’s blissful – and maybe even a little intimidating on that first night! Canoeing safaris are outstanding here, and of course at Victoria Falls. Zimbabwe boasts the very best river guides to help you navigate the Zambezi by canoe or kayak, and as well as witnessing the iconic Falls, you can see incredible wildlife at nearby Zambezi National Park.
A wildlife safari in Hwange and Mana Pools National Parks is beautifully bookended with a visit to Victoria Falls and then time out on Lake Kariba; one of the largest man-made lakes in the world. The wildlife-rich Matusadona National Park sits on the shores of this vast inland sea.
You can also view the granite boulders and rock art in Matobo Hills National Park; get close to wildlife on a mountain biking safari at Jozibanini, a remote safari camp in Southern Hwange; and enjoy exploring private reserves set up simply to help preserve and sustain the wildlife and ecology, such as Singita Pamushana, located within the Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve, bordering the Gonarezhou National Park in southeastern Zimbabwe.
The key to an effortless Zimbabwe safari holiday is access, and with a sporadic flight schedule and costly private charters, logistics play a crucial role. That’s where we step in, to handle all the arrangements and logistics for you. And wherever you choose to spend your time in Zimbabwe, we can recommend the perfect accommodation for you, from high-end lodges and tented camps, to mobile safari camps.
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The best time to safari in Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe safari-goers can expect mild temperatures throughout the year. Maximum temperatures range between 25C and 35C, while minimum temperatures range from 7C to 21C. The dry season, which runs from May to October, is considered the best time to visit for wildlife due to clear skies and little rain. Bear in mind September and October become very hot and dry and at this time, wildlife congregates more than usual around waterholes and rivers. The rainy season lasts from December to February.
Wildlife in Zimbabwe
The “big five” roam freely in the national parks in Zimbabwe. Other animals you’ll hopefully be able to check off your list include hippos, giraffe, wild dog, hyenas, crocs, and rare roan and sable antelope. The best place to see these animals are in the game-rich wilderness areas in northern Zimbabwe. The biggest reserve in the country is Hwange National Park, located in the northwest. It’s home to the Big Five, including one of Africa’s largest elephant populations (currently estimated at more than 50,000) , as well as one of Africa’s biggest wild dog populations. Other fantastic Big Five sightings can be had at Matusadona National Park, on the shores of Lake Kariba National Park. Meanwhile, Mana Pools National Park is known for its big herds of elephant, large numbers of buffalo, high density of endangered wild dogs and regular sightings of cheetah, leopard and lion. Other national parks in the north of the country that are home to four of the Big Four (there are no rhino) include the Zambezi National Park (next to Victoria Falls) and Chizarira National Park, south of Lake Kariba.
Hwange National Park
Quite simply, this is one of the greatest national parks in Africa. Located to the west of Zimbabwe, on the border with Botswana and close to Victoria Falls, Hwange National Park is the largest game reserve in the country. Covering around 14,650 square kilometres, Hwange (pronounced “Hwang-ee”) enjoys a biodiversity that rivals the Kruger – the benefit here is fewer people, camps and cars. Hwange provides sanctuary for an incredible array of wildlife, with no fewer than 400 species of birds and more than 100 species of mammals – including the Big Five. It’s home to some of southern Africa’s last great elephants, and the population here is one of the largest in the world – there are around 50,000 of these magnificent animals, with herds as large as 400 often seen. Other animals you’re likely to see in Hwange include giraffe, hippos, zebra, cheetah, buffalo, sable antelope, brown hyena and African wild dog. A visit to the Painted Dog Conservation centre, opposite Hwange National Park Airport in the town of Dete, is also well worth a visit. This is one of the most successful wildlife organisations in Zimbabwe today, having effectively reintroduced and rehabilitated many wild dogs into national parks across the country after the population diminished from 500,000 to just over 3,000 in only 10 years or so. Today, the centre is open for visitors to learn about the rehabilitation process and the importance of this extraordinary species that’s only found in Africa. Night drives, walking tours and mountain biking are some of the other activities on offer in this amazing park, where you can stay in a rustic camp or luxury lodge located in its own private concession, or spend a night under canvas – and a blanket of African stars.
The best time to visit Hwange, if your safari holiday is all about abundant wildlife, is the dry season between July and October when the waterholes become magnets to animals, vegetation thins out and sightings come more easily. If you’re a birding enthusiast, migratory birds arrive in droves during the summer months of November to April. Some properties close during the wet season, which runs from December to March. Our favourite time to visit Hwange is April to June, when bright blue skies are common, rain is rare, the the heat isn’t as oppressive and vegetation still has colour and lushness. This is the time when many species have just given birth to their young, too.
In the far west of Zimbabwe, the country’s border with Zambia is marked by the Zambezi River. The point where this mighty river plunges off the top of a precipice and into the gorge below is one of the most fantastic sights in the natural world. This is the epic Victoria Falls, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The breathtaking sight, deafening sound and sheer size of this magnificent spectacle cannot fail to amaze and inspire – it’s the largest sheet of falling water on the planet and twice the height of Niagara Falls. The locals refer to Victoria Falls as Mosi-oa-Tunya, or “The Smoke That Thunders” – its spray (which can be seen from almost 50 kilometres away) also saturates, so be sure to wear a raincoat if you get close! So should you visit Victoria Falls on the Zimbabwe side or the Zambia side? Both sides are enticing and have their own unique features and viewpoints. The Zimbabwe side is known for its classic views of the Falls, which you can see from 16 spectacular viewing points. Don’t-miss parts of the Falls include Devil’s Cataract, Main Falls, Horseshoes Fall and the picture-perfect Rainbow Falls. For more details about the Zambia side, read here. There’s so much to see and do at Victoria Falls; we always recommend at least one full day to explore. As well as seeing the Falls on foot from the national park, taking a helicopter or microlight flight to see them from above is a never-to-be-forgotten experience. Adrenalin seekers will enjoy bungee jumping, gorge swinging, zip lining and taking a plunge in the Devil’s Pool (seasonal; on the Zambian side), while water lovers can go jet boating, white water rafting (seasonal), canoeing, boating or fishing, and enjoy sunset cruise on the Zambezi River, cocktail in hand.
The town of Victoria Falls is abuzz with tourists, markets, lovely cafes and restaurants and local craft markets ideal for souvenir shopping. You can take a ride over the Victoria Falls Bridge on the Royal Livingstone Express steam train, visit the David Livingstone bronze monument, play a round of golf at the 18-hole course at Elephant Hills Hotel designed by Gary Player, visit Victoria Falls Snake Park or take high tea at the iconic Victoria Falls Hotel, the Grand Dame of the region, renowned for its unrivalled location, history and beauty.
Victoria Falls is also a great destination for an extended stay due to the abundance of wildlife in nearby private game reserves, as well as the Zambezi National Park in Zimbabwe and the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park in Zambia. Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe and Chobe National Park in Botswana are also easily accessible, making a Victoria Falls/safari holiday a very simple prospect.
Expect completely different viewing experiences depending on the time of year – it all depends on the water levels.
From March to May levels are high and you’ll definitely get wet if you explore the Falls on foot. The mist and spray may also affect your photo-taking abilities. At this time of year it’s essential to get up in a helicopter to see the enormity of the Falls. June to August is better for photography as water spans the entire width of the Zambezi River, but the spray is not as intense. Towards the end of August the Falls are in transition from a flooded state to a low-flow state. From October waters ease right back and it becomes possible to walk across to Livingstone Island and swim in the Devil’s Pool. But even during the low-water months of October and November the view from the Zimbabwe side won’t disappoint as the sections known as the Main Falls and Devil’s Cataract still have water plummeting over the lip. December to February is the rainy season and while water levels are low, they start to rise when rains kickstart the cycle all over again.
The Victoria Falls are the stuff of legends, myth and romance and always features prominently on the “must-see list” of our guests heading to southern Africa.
Mana Pools National Park
The UNESCO World Heritage site of Mana Pools National Park in the far north of Zimbabwe is one of the most pristine, untamed nature areas in Zimbabwe. Fronting onto the mighty Zambezi River, it’s an extraordinary setting, with incredible concentrations of wildlife and superb big game viewing. There’s an impressive population of elephant as well as strong predator action, with regular sightings of cheetah, leopard and lion, and a high density of endangered wild dogs. The photographic opportunities are exceptional.
Most people come here to explore the river and the four pools after which the park is named. It’s a haven for water-based wildlife – there are large concentrations of crocodiles and hippos, and buffalo flock to the permanent water pools in the drier winter months. It’s also a prime spot for birders, with more than 400 bird species. For those who like a “reel” challenge, there’s great tiger fishing in this part of the world. Most camps provide rods and tackle, and their guides know the best spots for a successful catch-and-release session. Activities abound here. Zimbabwe has some of the best river guides in Africa and canoeing and boating safaris are a real highlight. Nothing beats floating down the river and viewing wildlife as they come to drink at the water’s edge. As well as game drives in 4×4 vehicles, this is a great destination for walking safaris. Heading out on foot across plains, through forests and along the riverbank is an incredibly exciting way to view the landscape.
After exploring the pools a few people – but only a very few – head inland to Kanga Pan and the Chitake Springs. Kanga Pan, an hour or so inland from the river, is outstanding for walking safaris. It’s quite a hub for wildlife – you can find elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard, wild dog and ample plains game here – and holds cultural and archeological significance too. Nestled deep in Mana Pools National Park, the Chitake Springs is an area of great importance for the wildlife in this southern part of the park. Remote and untouched, it lies at the foot of the Southern Zambezi Escarpment in an area dominated by predators, including an impressive lion population. Fossils dating back to the Jurassic period have also been discovered here, making this part of Zimbabwe an even more fascinating safari destination. It’s possible to explore the Springs on a walking safari or from the comfort of a game vehicle.
The best time to visit Mana Pools National Park is from May to October. Just keep in mind temperatures can be fairly high towards the latter part of October. November is when the heat really sets in – and when elephant herds congregate at the river, waiting the arrival of the wet season.
Matobo National Park
Matobo National Park is located in southwestern Zimbabwe, about 40 kilometres south of the city of Bulawayo. Established in 1926, it’s the oldest national park in Zimbabwe. This isn’t a park you’d choose to visit if your only goal was to see huge numbers and a huge diversity of wildlife. There are no elephants or lions here, and the animal density is low. But the Matobo wilderness area is a specially protected area for both white and black rhino, and home to the last significant population of rhino in Zimbabwe, as well as the world’s highest concentration of the black eagle and leopards.
What the breathtakingly beautiful Matobo Hills are known for is some of the most incredible granite scenery in the world. The unique landscape of fantastic balancing rock formations makes you think of Pride Rock in The Lion King – surely the animators used Matobo Hills as their inspiration!
The Matobo Hills also feature one of the highest concentrations of rock art anywhere in the world. There are some 3,000 known rock art paintings, dating back at least 13,000 years. The rich cultural significance and diversity of this area is one of the main reasons the Matobo National Park was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2003.
It’s also the final resting place of Cecil Rhodes, founder of former British colony Rhodesia. Whatever your views of the man and his legacy, one thing is for sure: he sure picked an amazing burial spot. His grave lies on the summit of Malindidzimu, a granite peak that he said had, “A view of the world” – in fact, it has incredible 360-degree views of the park. This spot is also sacred to the Ndebele people of Zimbabwe.
Gonarezhou National Park
Covering more than 5,000 square kilometres in remote south-eastern Zimbabwe, Gonarezhou National Park is the second-largest national park in the country – only Hwange National Park is bigger. This is one of Africa’s last great wildernesses; a truly wild place that’s unspoiled by mass tourism… for now, at least. Go there as soon as you can! You will be greeted by some of the most unique, rugged and beautiful landscapes in all of Africa. The scenery is simply spectacular, with wide meandering rivers, extensive dense woodlands and steep rocky gorges with waterfalls and pools. At the heart of this breathtaking landscape stand the dramatic Chilojo Cliffs. They’re like some sort of geological cake, in tiers of pink, cream and terracotta that turn gold in the sunset. The spectacular sandstone cliffs, which stretch out for 16 kilometres and stand almost 200m, are the most-photographed feature of the park.
Gonarezhou is also teeming with an incredible diversity of wildlife, including more than 400 species of birds and 150 mammal species. Predators include lions, spotted and brown hyena, and rare African wild dogs, while crocs and hippos wallow in Gonarezhou’s sweeping sand rivers, the Save and the Runde. There are also wildebeest, warthogs, zebra, giraffe, eland, buffalo and even the elusive nyala and suni antelope. It’s also home to huge herds of elephants. There are around 11,000 of these magnificent animals in this park that’s a self-drive haven for 4x4s – Gonarezhou, after all, means “Place of Elephants”.
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