At Southern Africa Travel we take the title of “safari expert” seriously. Take safari expert Nikki Theron; Nikki’s been to reserves across South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Namibia, Kenya and Tanzania. That left just one country on her safari wish list, Zimbabwe.
Like many travellers Nikki had been to Victoria Falls (several times in fact), but while Zimbabwe is best known for this thundering waterfall it is also classic safari country with a number of wild and game-rich reserves.
Last month Nikki got her chance to visit two of these reserves: Hwange National Park and Mana Pools.
Hippo in the Zambezi River at sunset, taken by Nikki in Mana Pools.
Why Pick Zimbabwe
As a safari destination, Zimbabwe is particularly popular with return travellers to Africa; seasoned safari goers who’ve done the main safari circuit, ticked off the Big 5, and are now on the hunt for wilder, more remote destinations.
Zimbabwe’s parks offer vast tracks of untamed wilderness, a wide diversity of big game, authentic tented camps, excellent guides and (if you travel to Mana Pools) an exciting choice of activities from game drives and guided walks to river safaris and tiger fishing.
Combine these reserves with a few days at Victoria Falls, and you have an unforgettable big game safari plus all the fantastic activities that surround one of the world’s most spectacular waterfalls.
Hwange has one of the highest concentrations of elephant in Africa.
Hwange National Park
First stop, Hwange National Park. Zimbabwe’s largest and best known reserve, Hwange is famous for its impressive elephant herds along with buffalo, giraffe, zebra, sable antelope and plenty of predators too. Nikki was surprised at just how good the game viewing was; among her safari highlights she listed up-close elephant sightings, a 14-strong pride of lion and birds too numerous to mention.
Nikki stayed at two camps in Hwange, both run by Wilderness Safaris and both located within private concessions. For years Wilderness has been maintaining pumped waterholes in these concessions, and since Hwange's big game relies on this steady supply of water these areas have become the most wildlife-rich regions of the park.
Nikki saw a colourful collection of birds; here's a lilac-breasted roller (left) and secretary bird (right).
Hwange's Tented Camps
The first camp she stayed at, Little Makalolo, has six traditional-style safari tents overlooking a busy waterhole. There is a family tent but, Nikki cautions, this is a wild and unfenced camp where it's not uncommon to awake to the sound of animals grazing just beyond your tent flaps.
So who is Little Mak (as it's affectionately known) best suited to? "A fantastic choice for couples or small groups" says Nikki. And if you are looking for a romantic safari, Little Mak also has a secluded sleep-out deck where you can spend a night snuggled down together under a sky filled with stars.
One of the comfortable tents at Little Makalolo in Hwange National Park.
The second Hwange camp, Linkwasha Camp, opened shortly before Nikki's safari. Linkwasha is a new and luxurious property with eight tents, split-level decks, stylish interiors and a more modern feel.
Most of Hwange is dominated by teak woodlands and rocky hills, but Linkwasha is close to the grassy Ngamo Plains. In Nikki's words "it feels like you’re in the Ngorongoro Crater of Hwange with all the game concentrated in this one area". Another safari highlight was the sundowners stop overlooking a waterhole where elephant were drinking; the curious juveniles coming closer to investigate the drinks table.
Linkwasha is a newly opened Wilderness property and one of Hwange's most luxurious camps.
Mana Pools National Park
Next stop was Mana Pools National Park, and another private concession this time on the bank of the Zambezi River. Here Nikki stayed at Ruckomechi Camp, which she highly recommends: "I loved this lodge, it feels like a real African bush experience with all the luxuries".
Along with game drives in the beautiful reserve, Nikki opted for a walking safari. Her experienced guide led the group as they tracked lion, got exhilaratingly close to elephant while on foot, and learned about the little things that add new meaning to your African bush experience.
Fishing on the Zambezi River in Mana Pools National Park.
Then there was that incredible moment standing on the deck at Ruckomechi and watching in awe as a herd of elephant swam across the river trunk in trunk. And the afternoon spent tiger fishing; Nikki didn't catch a tiger but did spend a good half hour fighting a vundu - the largest freshwater fish in Africa. She managed to land it to, all 30 or so kilograms!
The comfortable riverside deck and peaceful view at Ruckomechi Camp.
Nikki’s safari ended with a night at The Victoria Falls Hotel. In Nikki’s words “she really is the ‘Grand Old Lady of the Falls’, and I loved the fact that there are warthogs running around on the lawns”.
Nikki by the Devil's Cataract on the Zimbabwe side of Victoria Falls.
This historic hotel has a private footpath that leads you straight to the Zimbabwe side of Victoria Falls. You simply couldn’t ask for a better location, but the hotel doesn’t rely on its setting alone and another highlight of Nikki’s stay here was their famous breakfasts.
The breakfast buffet has “everything you can think of”. And, once you’ve taken your pick from the delicious spread, you can sit outside in the Zimbabwe sunshine your view stretching out to the Railway Bridge and cloud of spray billowing up from the falls - a perfect start to my final day!
The gracious Victoria Falls Hotel is a member of 'The Leading Hotels of The World'.