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Tick majestic Zimbabwe off the bucket list on an African safari with a difference

This landlocked African gem is most famous for the mesmerizing Victoria Falls on the mighty Zambezi River – and rightly so. But Zimbabwe’s also home to some of Africa’s most exciting and untouched game reserves. Not to mention some of the friendliest and most hospitable people on the planet. The time to visit is now.

With its seemingly never-ending political and economic challenges, Zimbabwe tends to be in the news for the wrong reasons. Ask anyone who’s visited this Southern African jewel to sum it up, however, and the headlines will all be positive. There’s virtually no crime, the lodges and staff are fantastic, and the safari experience is second-to-none.

From the verdant highlands of Chimanimani, to the sweltering savannah grasslands of Hwange and the crocodile-infested waters of Rudyard Kipling’s “great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River”, this is a land of superlative natural beauty. A visit to Zim won’t just dazzle your senses – it’ll also change your perspective on a misunderstood region. We’re firm believers that tourism can be a force for good, and this is a case in point: Zimbabwe’s tourism industry might need your dollars … But you need Zimbabwe’s smiles, savannahs, and sunsets even more.

Mountain lion cub at Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe
A lion cub looks back as it follows a family of mountain lions.

Come face to face with “The Smoke That Thunders”

On 16 November 1855, the Scottish Explorer Dr David Livingstone became the first European to clap eyes on one of the world’s greatest natural wonders. So astounded was he by the sight of the entire volume of the Zambezi River being forced through an almost impossibly narrow keyhole and into the jagged and turbulent gorge below, that he named it after the mightiest presence in his frame of reference: Queen Victoria.

Victoria Falls aerial view in Zimbabwe
A helicopter ride to take in this breathtaking aerial view is highly recommended!

Of course, the locals had known about the falls for millennia – and they had their own names for them. The Lozi people still refer to them as Mosi-oa-Tunya or “The Smoke That Thunders”. Other local names include Shungu Namutitima (“Boiling Water”) and Chongwe (“The Place of the Rainbow”) – a reference to the permanent mist that is the inevitable result of so much falling water. Victoria Falls is neither the highest nor the widest waterfall in the world – but with a continuous sheet of falling water that measures 5,604ft x 355ft, it is considered to be the world’s largest waterfall. To put that in perspective, it’s roughly twice as high as Niagara – and well over twice as wide.

But the numbers only tell half the story. The Zambezi cuts a swath through a pristine national park that’s home to all of the Big 5, and some of the finest lodges in Africa. The rainforests in the immediate vicinity of the falls teem with birds, butterflies, and monkeys. And the gorge below the falls boasts fantastic white-water rafting, and what must be the world’s most scenic bungee jump.

Mosi-oa-Tunya has to be experienced to be believed – preferably from a helicopter. And on an indulgent sundowner cruise accompanied by fish eagles and hippos. And, if you’re feeling really brave, from the Devil’s Pool – a natural swimming hole just inches from the precipice. A visit to Vic Falls will stay with you forever.

Visitors at the Devils Pool at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe
The Devil’s Pool is a 10-ft. deep natural swimming pool sitting right on the edge of Victoria’s abyss. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Royal Mayhem)

Take the Elephant Express on a once-in-a-lifetime Hwange safari

Encompassing almost 6,000 square miles of untouched African savannah, Hwange isn’t just Zimbabwe’s flagship national park, it’s also one of Africa’s ten biggest. Originally designated as the royal hunting grounds of the Ndebele king Mzilikazi in the 1800s, it was declared a national park by the colonial authorities in 1929. Recent refurbishments and new developments mean you’re spoilt for choice when it comes to top-notch lodges – and Zimbabwe’s legendary game rangers (their 4-year certification is the envy of the continent) will wow you with their vast knowledge of the bush. The convenient location near Victoria Falls seals the deal.

Hwange boasts all of the Big 5, but it’s most famous for its elephants – all 40,000 of them! At the end of the dry season (August to September), huge herds congregate at the park’s pumped waterholes, but pachyderms are never in short supply in Hwange. Neither are lions, for that matter (the king of the jungle is classified “very common” here), but you’ll have to work harder to see cheetahs or leopards. Hwange is one of the few places in Zimbabwe where you can see giraffe, and it’s also renowned for having one of the world’s largest sable antelope populations.

Giraffe at Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe

With more than 400 bird- and 107 animal species, you’ll never run out of things to see in Hwange. And you don’t have to limit yourself to viewing them from a Land Rover either: The evocative Elephant Express allows you to wind back the decades on an oh-so-romantic rail-based safari experience. It doesn’t get much better than Hwange.

Experience “Nature, red in tooth and claw” in remote Mana Pools National Park

It doesn’t get more wild or untouched than Mana Pools, an untamed conservation area on the banks of the Zambezi River. In days gone by, the journey to the far north of the country would take days or even weeks, but now it’s easily accessible in a small plane. Fortunately, the easier access has done nothing to dilute Mana Pools’ overwhelming sense of wilderness. In fact, it’s still one of the few (if not the only) African national parks where visitors are free to walk as they please, without a guide. This despite the fact that this always-green UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to thriving populations of crocodile, hippopotamus, lion, and elephant. (To mitigate the risk, no fruit is allowed inside the park – go figure!)

Hippopotamus yawning at Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe
A sleepy hippo yawns, revealing its raging bottom canine teeth.

As an SA Expeditions guest, you won’t have to worry about any of this, as you’ll be accompanied by an armed ranger on all activities (this applies to all of our safaris across Africa). You will enjoy morning and afternoon game drives, canoeing and walking safaris, as well as boating activities in November and December (subject to water levels). And you’ll also get the opportunity to simply savor this magnificent corner of the planet while lazing next to the pool with a book, a cocktail – or both.

Many people have gone on safari. But few can say they’ve been to Mana Pools…

Zimbabwe travel 101

Now that we’ve covered the most exciting destinations in the country, let’s turn our attention to the (slightly) more boring stuff.

  • Zimbabwe is a year-round destination, but the Mana Pools lodges close for the rainy season (January to March). Game viewing is generally best in the dry season (June to October), as the animals congregate around water sources and the absence of thick grass makes them easier to spot. Victoria Falls is at its most impressive from February to May, directly after the summer rains. (But you can still see animals in the rainy season and the falls never disappoint.)

  • Zimbabwe is generally very safe, but the usual rules apply: don’t flaunt expensive jewelry, walk alone at night, etc. All of the destinations we visit are in malaria areas, so please speak to your doctor before you travel.

  • US Dollars and South African Rands are accepted almost everywhere. Most small/local establishments don’t accept credit cards.

  • As is the case in any country, it’s never a good idea to take photos of people without their permission. In Zimbabwe, you’re also not allowed to photograph any government buildings. And it’s illegal to wear camo as this is reserved for military personnel.

  • Tourism is an important source of revenue for Zimbabwe, and standards are stringently maintained. Zimbabwe’s lodges and restaurants don’t just look fantastic – the people who run them are some of the friendliest and most competent you’ll ever encounter.

Pack of wildlife at Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe

Now that you know a bit more about Zimbabwe’s most intoxicating attractions, you’re probably keen to experience them for yourself. Our most popular Zimbabwe itinerary takes in Victoria Falls, Hwange, and Mana Pools. Speak to an SA Expeditions Destination Expert about crafting a bespoke Zimbabwe adventure for you and your family. Perhaps you’d even be interested in throwing a bit of South Africa and Botswana into the mix?

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