For many years, Zimbabwe’s reputation as a travel destination was tainted by the spectre of political unrest. However, the country is more stable now than it has been for decades, and slowly, tourism is returning. Most of Zimbabwe’s top attractions are found outside the main cities and are therefore considered relatively safe. As ANDRÉ VAN VUUREN discovers, those that decide to visit can expect breath-taking landscapes, exotic wildlife and ancient sites that offer a fascinating insight into the continent’s history. Best of all, Zimbabwe’s world-class game reserves and UNESCO World Heritage Sites remain incredibly uncrowded — giving you the truly thrilling sense of having stepped off the map.
As with most of the best adventures, this one started with a phone call from Paul Corver, an old safari client and friend that did numerous trips with me in the past. He wanted to put together a tailor-made safari for himself and a few of his friends from the Southern Cape. Because of political unrest, roadblocks and and bureaucracy at the border posts, I had not been to Zimbabwe for a number of years. But as I have been itching to rediscover this former gem in Africa’s tourism crown, I immediately started doing some research by contacting acquaintances and some of the lodges that we had stayed at in the past. They all assured me that Zimbabwe had changed completely and that it would be safe and a pleasure to travel the country. Paul and I started to look at various options and soon we had put together something really special and memorable.
Nine adventure seekers in a convoy of five well prepared and properly rigged safari vehicles, met at the Petroport on the N1 just north of Pretoria on the first day of our safari. After a quick coffee and some introductions, we hit the road to Kwa Nokeng Lodge, on the Botswana side of the Groblersbrug border post. Translated from Setswana, Kwa Nokeng means ‘at the river’ – a very fitting name as the lodge overlooks the majestic Limpopo River and offers splendid views of indigenous trees, incredible birdlife and hippo’s wallowing in the water. We spent our first night in the en-suite chalets of the lodge and enjoyed a scrumptious buffet dinner on the deck under a huge Mashatu (Nyala berry) tree.
Since a long day in the saddle awaited us, with a 520km drive to the well-known Elephant Sands Lodge (around 70km north of Nata), we set off at sparrow’s the following day. The main roads in Botswana are relatively well maintained, with only the occasional pothole. It’s advisable to keep to the speed limit, though, as the local traffic police are very strict, and offenders have to pay an immediate spot fine. They even have credit card machines on hand!
The Game Centre in Francistown always makes for a good pitstop. We topped up the vehicles with fuel and got coffee and a take-away brunch before proceeding to Elephant Sands, arguably one of the most unique places in the world. The elephants congregate just metres in front of you at the restaurant and pub and come to drink from the watering hole all night. The lodge offers a variety of accommodation options, including chalets and an immaculately maintained campsite with neat ablution facilities. Additionally, the sparkling pool is always a hit after a long and dusty day on the road.
The following day saw us heading for the Kazangula border post with Zimbabwe. It is always easy to leave a country, but more complicated to enter another. One of the ladies in our group was travelling on a Dutch passport, and she had to buy a visa at Immigration. For the rest of us it was a breeze. The biggest delay is getting a temporary import permit for your vehicle at the Customs counter. This can, however, be done before your trip as the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (ZIMRA) has an electronic platform which can be accessed via a mobile app or on the website (https://ecustoms.zimra.co.zw/etip/).
Once done with all border formalities, we continued our journey to the well-known Victoria Falls, where we spent the night in the self-catering lodgings at Victoria Falls Rest Camp. Although the infrastructure is old and a bit run down, the chalets were very clean, spacious and affordable. After some great summer rainfall, the water level of the Zambezi River was still very high, and the falls were absolutely spectacular. Next on our itinerary was the Hwange National Park. The road took us via the town also called Hwange, where we stopped to get SIM cards for our cell phones and do some quick grocery shopping. One can basically get everything on the shelves in Zimbabwe but be prepared to pay a premium for provisions.
The road between Victoria Falls and Hwange must be one of the worst in Zimbabwe. The potholes are huge and for long stretches we had to drive next to the road. We eventually arrived at our destination around lunchtime and set up camp in the main campsite for the next three nights. While the group agreed that the facilities are in need of some TLC, everything was clean and we had hot water from the boilers every day – certainly a bonus in the bush!
Hwange is the largest and one of the most popular parks in Zimbabwe. It offers excellent wildlife viewing and most big safari animals can be seen, including the Big Five. It is best known for the impressive concentration of elephants that are attracted to the waterholes during the dry season. We spent our days game viewing, and we had a few excellent sightings, including elephants mating and a pride of lions on a giraffe kill. Although the gravel roads in the park aren’t in the best condition, the picnic sites are highly recommended and can also be booked for camping. They are clean and extremely well looked after, and I will definitely make a plan to camp there for a night or two in the not-too-distant future.
We also paid a visit to the Wild Dog Rehabilitation Centre close to Hwange Safari Lodge just outside of the park. Here wild dogs that were trapped in snares or hit by cars on the road are cared for until they can successfully be released back into the wild after rehabilitation.
One of the reasons that we stayed in the main camp of Hwange was to be relatively close to Mlibizi, where the next leg of our Zimbabwe adventure started. As the road via Binga to Kariba is in a terrible state, I decided to make use of the ferry from Mlibizi. The ferry – named The Sea Lion – has a height restriction of 1.9m in the vehicle loading area and we had to remove some of our rooftop tents. The crossing takes around 22 hours, so it’s an overnight affair. Fortunately, the ferry can accommodate up to 70 people and 15 vehicles and the fare includes lunch and dinner on the first day, as well as a full English breakfast on day two. Morning and afternoon tea is also served.
By the time we arrived in Andora Harbour at Kariba Town, there was great excitement amongst our group. We were booked on a houseboat, the Peregrine, for the next two nights. No driving, camping or cooking… bliss! We had pre-ordered all our drinks and the fridge in the bar on the top deck was properly stocked. The catering was out of this world and the scenery, the islands and the game viewing was something that will stay with us forever. Two of the guys in our group had brought their fishing tackle and went out early every morning and late in the afternoons to try their hand at tiger and bream fishing, unfortunately without any success.
All too soon our stay on the houseboat was over. We headed back into town to fill up with fuel and restock the fridges before leaving for Mana Pools. It is not uncommon to see elephants in town and zebras meandering through the filling stations, but it still surprises guests. We had another very scenic drive to Marongora, where I had to present our booking documentation and get the necessary permits to enter the park. While the road down the escarpment to the turn off to Mana Pools is dangerous, with a steep descent into the Zambezi Valley, it is incredibly scenic.
Mana Pools National Park covers an area of 219 600ha and received National Park status in 1975. A series of pools still lie in the old river channels. It is said that ‘mana’ means ‘four’ and refers to the largest of these pools, which are refilled during the rains. We pitched camp at Nyamepi Camp, close to the reception area and located on the bank of the Zambezi River, for three nights. The ablution facilities had recently been renovated, and we had hot water, flushing toilets and laundry basins with washing lines.
Firewood was delivered in the evenings, and we enjoyed sundowners as we watched the sun set over the Zambezi before disappearing behind the mountains in the Lower Zambezi National Park on the Zambian side of the river. We spent our days doing game drives to the Mbera River, Mana Mouth and all along the Zambezi River. The fishermen amongst us got a local fishing guide and they were more successful casting from the banks of the Zambezi, while the rest of the group enjoyed siesta time in the campsite. A resident elephant and a few monkeys and baboons made sure that we had more than enough entertainment. There are many famous parks across Africa, but once you have visited Mana Pools, you will acknowledge that there is something magical about this small stretch of land between the Zambezi River and the Zimbabwe escarpment.
We were slowly reaching the end of our safari and it was time to pack up and start our journey back south. We travelled via Chinhoyi and Karoi to Harare. Certain stretches on this road are also bad but we made sure that we had enough time to cover the distance. Lion’s Den Saucy Sue’s take away is found 25km from Chinhoyi and is definitely worth a visit. There are outside tables where one can sit and enjoy your meal, as well as clean bathrooms that were very welcome after our long journey.
We spent the night with Deon and Martha Theron, the owners of Dema Villa, a guesthouse in a quiet suburb on the perimeter of the city. Deon was a successful commercial farmer in Zimbabwe and the five units – all comprising of a bedroom, bathroom, lounge and fully equipped kitchen – are named after the five farms that they lost due to land expropriation.
After a scrumptious breakfast prepared by Deon, we left for the Great Zimbabwe Ruins, 30km south-east of Masvingo in the south of Zimbabwe. The main road from Harare to Beitbridge is being rebuilt and was a pleasure to drive. There are currently some detours, but the road will be completed in the next few months.
Great Zimbabwe is the ruins of an ancient African city dated from the Iron Age. It was built between the 11th and 15th centuries and all the stonework was done entirely without mortar. The people were herdsmen and metal workers, with trading links that stretched as far as India, Persia and China. In fact, in the museum near the site you will find pieces of Persian pottery, a Chinese writing set and brass ornaments from India. After visiting the Zimbabwe Ruins, we drove a few kilometres further to Clevers Lakeview Resort, where we set up camp on the lush green grass overlooking Lake Mutirikwi (formerly known as Lake Kyle). The resort is built around the tin-roofed homestead of Murray MacDougal, the man who conceived and was in charge of the construction of the lake. Known for its beautiful gardens, home-style cooking, comfortable accommodation and friendly service it is well-situated for a first or last stop-over in Zimbabwe if you are travelling to or from South Africa. It was our last night in Zimbabwe and as we relaxed around the fire, we relived all the experiences and highlights, of which there were many.
The next morning we had an early start as we had to cover a distance of roughly 300km to the Beitbridge border post, which is notoriously busy and crowded with long lines of buses and people going in and out of South Africa. On arrival we found a brand-new border post building on the
Zimbabwean side. The officials were extremely efficient, and we got our passports stamped and customs done in less than half an hour. We were also very lucky on the South African side as we were the only people there.
We arrived back in South Africa with a completely different view and opinion of Zimbabwe. Although quite expensive, the shops were well stocked. Fuel was readily available, but one needs to pay cash in US Dollars as most of the filling stations do not accept credit cards. Some of the roads in the rural areas are very bad, but we could clearly see that there is new development in the country and that the main roads are being fixed. The infrastructure and facilities in the National Parks and at some of the lodges are old and need attention, but everything is kept clean, and the staff went out of their way to accommodate our needs. Zimbabwe will definitely be on our travel itinerary again!
Interesting facts about wild dogs
• They are not wild domestic dogs but a distinct species evolved separately. Their scientific name (Lycaon pictus) translates as ‘Painted wolf-like animal’.
• Wild dogs allow their pups to feed first and will bring food back to any pack member that is injured or undertaking babysitting duties.
• They will mourn the loss of a dead pack member.
• The loss of just one adult pack member can spell doom for the entire pack, as each dog plays a key role in hunting and protecting the pups.
• Due to their teamwork and speed, 75 percent of wild dog hunts end in success.
Where to stay
Victoria Falls Rest Camp
Zimbabwe National Parks
Sea Lion Ferry
Dema Villa Guesthouse (Harare)
Clever Lakeside Resort
More about the author
André van Vuuren runs a privately owned enterprise specialising in guided 4×4 self-drive safaris to Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi and has, since 1997, undertaking numerous overlanding trips into Africa. He has also done 4×4 driver training for various vehicle manufacturers. In addition, André has published numerous articles and is co-author of Top 20 Off Road Trails in Southern Africa. He is a brand ambassador for Opposite Lock and has a soft spot for Africa’s largest mammal… the elephant. There are some exciting tours coming up, so give André a call!
CONTACT: +27 82 935 7405 | firstname.lastname@example.org