The official tourism board of Zimbabwe has the tagline “World of Wonders” and we couldn’t agree more. It is a study in contrasts, with diverse ecosystems and landscapes and is home to five UNESCO World Heritage sites: Mana Pools, Great Zimbabwe, Khami Ruins, Victoria Falls (Mosi-oa-Tunya) and the Matobo Hills. Victoria was lucky enough to visit 3 of them during her visit to Zimbabwe earlier this year. Her travels all around the country emphasized what we have known from the founding of African Portfolio over 25 years ago – Zimbabwe is an excellent stand-alone destination, home to incredible wildlife and the best guides in the world.
Victoria’s journey began in the beautiful Mana Pools area, on the banks of the Zambezi river with striking views across to the Zambezi Escarpment. Mana means “four” in the local language (Shona) and refers to the four permanent pools in the area. Its location on the river makes it home to the area’s largest concentration of hippo and crocodiles and the ecosystem ranges from riverine forest to savannah.
In addition to canoeing, boating and fishing on the river offered by lodges on the private concessions, guests in the park can enjoy game drives and exceptional walking safaris (if you want to get close to an elephant in the wild, this is the place to be!). Accommodation ranges from bush camp style to luxury accommodation – this visit was to beautiful John’s Camp, a seasonal bush camp, with classic meru style tents and “talking showers”, where they serve the best sushi Victoria has ever had, and where they have a drum in the center of camp to warn guests and staff alike if a lion is wandering through! Mana Pools was recently featured in the BBC America show, Dynasties in the episode about the endangered wild dog.
From Mana Pools, her journey continued across the country to the little known Gonarezhou National Park, in the southeast of the country on the border of Mozambique. This hidden gem is slowly revitalizing and is home to some very impressive buffalo and elephant herds, stunning landscapes, including the iconic Chilojo Cliffs, beautiful rivers and pools, and some of the country’s oldest and largest baobabs. Victoria stayed at the historic Chilo Gorge Lodge, whose clifftop location overlooks the shores of the Save river- the sundowners at the “beach”were truly magical! The lodge has also forged deep relationships with the local communities, affording guests the opportunity to visit local schools or community projects. In Victoria’s case, this included a visit to the local palm winemaker where she learned about the process of cutting the palm, gathering the sap and learning about the fermentation process before enjoying a tasting. The winemaker sells the freshly “brewed” wine to the local community, except on Sundays!
After a short flight to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city, whose colonial history is still on display with the architecture and wide streets (so the carriages could make a comfortable u-turn), the adventure continued with a quick 1 hour transfer into the mysterious Matopo Hills. Rhino populations in Zimbabwe are slowly rising due to conservation efforts. The best spot to see rhino in Zimbabwe is currently in Matopos, just one of the reasons this very unique area is worth a visit. Victoria’s time at Amalinda Lodge included a very serious rhino search, however the group also enjoyed a visit some of the local caves to learn about the bushman paintings – the area is considered sacred to the local Ndebele – and another beautiful sundowner spot at Cecil Rhodes’ grave, set on a hill amongst some of the unusual granite rock formations that dot the landscape.
The final wildlife destination on this itinerary was the country’s most well known wildlife destination, Hwange National Park. Home to the country’s largest population of elephant, as well as rarer species such as wild dog and sable, it is the cornerstone of any Zimbabwe safari experience, and offers a wonderful variety of camps, including the three camps Victoria visited – Khulu Bush, Davison’s and Somalisa. All three properties offer game drives on their own private concessions, as well as the national park itself and Victoria also enjoyed some up close “armchair” game viewing at each camp’s busy watering hole (and, in the case of Khulu and Somalisa, their pools!).