To say that 2020 was a challenge puts it mildly. Most people want to forget about the year the world came to a halt, resulting in plans being set aside, suitcases gathering dust and camping gear remaining untouched in the garage. For the travel and overlanding enthusiasts, this felt like a jail sentence – Africa calls, and here we are, stuck in the concrete jungle.
Three weeks before the world was placed under house arrest, we learnt that Zimbabwe had experienced an exceptional rain season and that the Zambezi reached the highest water levels in the past decade. The volume of water pouring off the Victoria Falls was being measured at more than 4 289m³ per second. If like me, your criteria for defining the world’s best waterfalls relates to the speed and volume of the falls, it would be criminal to miss this rare occasion. Since the easiest route to Vic Falls runs via Kasane in Botswana, we initially did not consider touring through Zimbabwe. Fortunately, I listened to my adventurer’s heart, which kept telling me, “Who knows – it may be the adventure of a lifetime!” The British screenwriter Robert Holmes once said that the shortest route is not always the fastest and this – in our experience – is undoubtedly the case when it comes to the Beit Bridge border post. It is considered the busiest border post in Africa and although many overlanders pass through here without issue, you are never sure what to expect. For every positive experience at this border post, there are about 10 horror stories of queues spanning kilometres and delays of up to eight hours. We opted instead to cross the border at Groblersbrug in Botswana, en route to Francistown. We have crossed here many times, hassle-free.
Another drawcard is the extremely comfortable Kingfisher Lodge just outside Francistown – a perfect overnight stop with camping and self-catering chalets, surrounded by lovely lawns, a beautiful swimming pool and exceptional birdlife. From Francistown, it is a short drive on the newly tarred road to the Ramokgwebana border post which links Botswana and Zimbabwe. Knowing what to expect when it comes to African border posts, we arrived early and crossed without a hitch, although there were some challenges on the Zimbabwe side. There is no point of getting upset or frustrated with the red tape – be friendly and courteous unless you want your holiday to be spoilt. Also, remember to exchange some of your South African Rands (or US dollars) for Zim dollars at the border, as the tollgate en route to Bulawayo only accepts Zimbabwean currency.
The road between Ramokgwebana and Bulawayo spans about 123km and is by far one of the most beautiful roads we have ever driven. Valsmaroela and Zambezikiaat trees line the road and will leave any tree lover – or as experts call us, nemophiliste – in absolute awe. Arriving in Bulawayo, we make sure to refill all our fuel reserves (including jerry cans) as the next fuel stop is almost 500km away, in Victoria Falls town. We are thankful that we brought enough provisions as the shops in the formerly bustling Bulawayo are rather dismal. Our next stop, Hwange National Park, holds a place dear to my heart. I still cannot stop talking about this place that truly brings Africa to life in an extraordinary way. After many failed attempts to book accommodation in the park through the Zimbabwe Parks Board, we decided to take a chance without a reservation. Arriving at the fairly old but neat Main Camp, offering decent camping sites and self-catering chalets, the friendly reception staff welcomes us. They advise us that we could also stay at one of the remote picnic sites in the park, a privilege usually only available to one group per site. Since the whole point of this adventure was to get as far away as possible from civilisation, the choice was easy and we set off to the Ngweshla camp. Hardly an hour into our Hwange adventure we are amazed by wonderful sightings featuring the Big Five. We realise with great excitement that this really is about to become an adventure of a lifetime. While we enjoy a predator sighting as much as any wildlife enthusiast, our first love is Mother Nature in all her glory. We love exploring biomes within major habitats and revel in the wide variety of birdlife and fauna surrounding us.
We stand in awe of the massive Camelthorn trees which make mature Jackalberry and Hardekool trees look like potted plants. Hwange is considered an important conservation area and boasts some of the largest populations of Yellow-billed Oxpeckers and Bradfield Hornbills in southern Africa. The Ngweshla campsite is indeed a little piece of heaven on earth. It is a small area surrounded only by a natural fence that most fox terriers will be able to jump without difficulty. While there is a ranger you realise – not without trepidation – that this is true wild camping. There are flush toilets and an open thatched kitchen where you can cook in reasonable comfort, but amenities are dilapidated and it is best not to think about the many dollars you coughed up to camp here. Yet despite the complete lack of equipment and resources, the park staff excel at keeping the place clean and tidy. Fortunately, it’s not for the convenience and facilities we travel thousands of kilometres. It is for the 360° view of grasslands and trees around Ngweshla, where the magnificent roaring of lions is the only thing that interrupts the night silence. Inevitably too, we are spoilt with sightings of rare birds such as the African and European Oriole and the Red-faced Cisticola. This is why we come back time and time again.
A feast of Mother Nature
From Ngweshla we drive back to Main Camp to book the following campsite (unfortunately you can’t book two different spots in one go and have to drive back to reception for this). Masuma Dam, our next site, turns out to be the highlight of our Hwange visit. While this place also lacks amenities, the location makes up for it. Situated on a hill with Masuma Dam in front of you, there are no specific campsites or numbers so you can set up camp wherever you want. The thatched roof lookout area compares to some of the best in the Kruger, and, as one of the few watering holes in the area, it attracts game aplenty. More than a thousand buffalo arrived daily, just before sunset. The dust from their running makes for landscape photos that are a spectacular feast of golden rays. We revel in the scenery at the waterhole, admiring the social hierarchy that plays out. One big elephant bull strolls up daily, making it clear that, when he drinks, any hippo must clear out of the pond. However, it was our last morning at Masuma that gave us a memory to treasure forever. While we were having our bacon and eggs, an impala came running from the dense bush into the pond, with 15 wild dogs on its heels. We could hardly believe our luck, and pandemonium broke out as we grabbed cameras and swapped to zoom lenses to capture this once-in-a-lifetime event. The poor impala had almost made it to safety on the other side of the pool when we noticed a four-metre-long crocodile making his move. Without a doubt, this was the impala’s lucky day. He made the dam wall with seconds to spare before the croc dragged him down. Of course, we were cheering for the buck, who could teach Bryan Habana a thing or two about avoiding danger, sprinting down the field. But it wasn’t over. Never underestimate the endurance of wild dogs. The pack moved around the dam, chasing the impala right into our camp. We sat in stunned silence witnessing this incredible National Geographic-like sighting. We will never know if the poor impala made it out alive or became dogfood that morning, but this special memory certainly added another quiver to our arsenal of campfire stories. From Masuma we head to Robins Camp, a privately run campsite leased from the Zimbabwe Government. The camp boasts a lovely campsite as well as self-catering chalets which – like most private lodges – offer luxurious amenities. It is surrounded by salt pans and savannah fields that offer good bird watching. The Hyena bar at the camp gives explorers an alternative style of bush cuisine to the standard braai. Here we got chatting to a Rhodesian who shared his stories of Rhodesian Security Forces supporting the SA Army during the border war in the 1980s. No African overlanding trip is complete without your vehicle taking a mud bath and the Rhodesian’s warning not to take on the black mud sounded more like a challenge to this adventurer’s ears. Luckily I know my Land Cruiser is up for anything!
The smoke that thunders
Our next stop is Victoria Falls town, which reminds me of Ponta Malongane in the south of Mozambique. It’s a busy place, where you can tick off the sorts of adrenaline activities that are on everyone’s bucket list. Before our arrival, we booked the services of a local bird guide who also helped to arrange our accommodation at the Army Camp. There are various camping sites and other accommodation options available around the town. After the silence of Hwange, we feel a little out of place in Victoria Falls town. This is clearly the party capital of Zim. Army Camp is clean and tidy but we would not give it more than two stars; it’s not quite up to the standard we expect. During the rainy season, when the volume of water pouring over the Falls is immense, a dense cloud of mist hangs over the area, so you only get glimpses of the full spectacle. This is the famous “Smoke that thunders”. Still, the sights and sounds remain unforgettable. Remember to bring along a good raincoat or long poncho, and, if your budget permits, book a helicopter ride to view the Falls. For us eco enthusiasts, however, the biome in its entirety with its exquisite fauna and flora is another drawcard to this area. The Vic Falls ecosystem contains many unique small animals and birds. While the African paradise-flycatcher is often the “one that gets away” for many birdwatchers (we missed it this time around), we did have excellent sightings of the Dickinson’s Kestrel. As a keen birdwatcher, it helps a lot to book the services of a local birding guide. From Victoria, our route starts southwards through the Kazungula border post to Nata. In hindsight I am sorry we did not drive the well-known Hunters Road, making a note to include it in our next itinerary. An experienced overlander once told us to always have a notebook and pen handy to write down not only your experiences and sightings but also additional routes and tracks. Thus, next time, it’s you and us Hunters Road!
Panning for gold
Nata Lodge is a popular overnight stop with the option to camp or spend the night in permanent tents. However, we prefer to drive to Sua Pans in the Makgadikgadi district for a night on the pans. There is a campsite at the entrance, but if you ask nicely, they allow you to camp on the pans. It does take a bit of convincing and is more expensive, though is without a doubt worth it. The only condition is that you may only set up camp when the area’s lodges completed their sunset drives. There are absolutely no facilities – pure bliss! The sun setting in front of you, with the moon rising behind you, gives you photo opportunities found in very few places on this planet. Of course, stargazing on the pan is unmatched as there is no unnatural light for hundreds of kilometres. The silence here brings you close to nature, replenishing your soul. When a jackal cries at midnight, it sounds like it is standing inside your tent. Early in the morning, you are woken by the “Maahemmm… mahemmm” of the Crowned Cranes (or Mahems as they are more commonly known). By the time your kettle comes to boil the pan is aflutter with millions of flamingo dancing on the pans. From Sua Pan, we take the road back to South Africa via the Pont Drift border post. We drive through the Mashatu region, which is known for its unique rock formations and beautiful scenery. With this backdrop, you can’t help but start planning your next overlanding adventure immediately! Our last stop is at Ratho Bush Camp just outside Pont Drift on the South African side. With various accommodation options, this is the perfect place to take a long, hot shower and recharge before heading home to the East Rand gives us enough time (around six hours) to recap the past 10 days filled with treasured memories. We are again amazed at the sheer beauty of our continent. Zimbabwe was a fantastic adventure and is now officially part of Sunset Adventure Travel’s Overlanding tour line-up.
Important info and tips
• Total route spanned just over 3 000km. With good planning, its do-able in 10 days
. • Entrance fees to the Zim parks are expensive since they only take US dollars.
• Pre-plan your route as comprehensively as possible but bear in mind that remote communication with the parks is difficult.
• It helps to make contact with local guides – they have their own Whatsapp groups and communication networks to help with bookings.
• Take drinking water and wood – you cannot buy these necessities in Zimbabwe.
• There is no electrical power in Hwange’s picnic campsites – be prepared with solar and other options.
• In Botswana, the presence of foot-and-mouth disease means meat, fresh veggies, and fruit is a problem. Your fridge is inspected at various roadblocks for confiscation. Instead, purchase these in Francistown and remember to keep your receipts!
• Buy only what you and your tour group will consume as you will not be allowed to bring unused items back into Botswana.
• When travelling during school holidays, make sure you arrive early at the border posts as it does get very busy.
• Cash is king. ATMs and card facilities are more often than not offline.
• In Botswana, the preference is Pula over South African Rands.
• In Zimbabwe, the US dollar is accepted but not at tollgates – you need local currency to pay these.
Sunset Adventure Travel Sunset Adventure Travel specialises in Overlanding expeditions within southern Africa but also as far as Uganda. Based in Marloth Park, the team offers several tour options. These include weekend getaways to Swaziland and within the Kruger as well as tours that can be tailored precisely to your needs. The company is run by Anton and Natasha Schutte – both passionate Overlanding enthusiasts with a penchant for bird watching and eco-tourism. Contact: +27 83 381 0964 (Natasha) or +27 73 136 5492 (Anton).