The national parks of Zimbabwe offer unparalleled opportunities to experience the natural beauty and wildlife of Africa on your own terms. During the two weeks that we spent with Ian Batchelor and his colleagues, we traveled through spectacular and diverse landscapes, photographed countless species of animals, and learned about the history, culture, and ecology of the country. Our trip was planned and executed flawlessly and the accommodations were superb.
From the airport in Victoria Falls, the journey began with a three-hour drive to Somalisa Camp in Hwange National Park. We were delayed for a few minutes by a large herd of elephants standing in the road, seemingly oblivious to our vehicle. This gave us our first experience taking pictures of wildlife at close range in the warm autumn light, with thunderclouds in the distance. At the camp we were greeted with cool towels and a refreshing ginger drink before settling in for a gourmet meal on the deck under several billion stars. Ian and camp host Nick took turns pointing out the constellations with a powerful laser and rattling off the names of the principal stars. The guest tents are spacious and elegantly furnished, with outdoor enclosed bathrooms and hot showers. It took a while to get used to the lions roaring nearby and the elephants walking through the camp before we could get to sleep.
We spent the next few days at Somalisa on game drives and walks photographing dozens of animal species, including impala, kudu, waterbuck, zebra, giraffe, cape buffalo, jackal, warthog, baboon, eagles and many other birds, and perhaps a greater density of elephants than in any other place in the world. The camp is built next to a pan that brings frequent groups of elephants to the edge of the deck, within meters of the dinner table. The highlight for us was getting out of the vehicle with our guides Ian and Raymond and tracking lions, elephants, and buffalo through the grass and brush. We came upon a pride of lions finishing a meal of zebra and a large bull elephant that walked downwind onto our blind in fallen tree branches. While these encounters did produce a fair amount of adrenaline, we felt secure with our experienced and well armed guides.
From Somalisa we flew to Bumi Hills, a typical bush airstrip with curious impala and an occasional elephant that needed to be coaxed off the dirt runway before the plane could land. We were met by Steve Edwards, the owner of Musango Camp on an island in beautiful Lake Kariba. Steve enthralled us with stories from his many years as superintendant of the Matusadona National Park. He and his crew of guides took us fishing for bream and tigerfish, tracking black rhinos in the Park, and spotlighting monster crocs floating in the lake at night. The fishing was excellent (we each caught some nice tiger and brought home bream for supper under the stars) and the lake is an incredible habitat for hippos, crocs, heron, storks, eagles, and countless other birds that we enjoyed photographing from the pontoon boat. The accommodations and food at Musango were terrific, highlighted by a sundown cruise on the lake where we enjoyed cocktails as a family of elephants grazed on the rich grass along the shore right off our bow.
Our next stop was Kanga Camp in the Mana Pools National Park, again reached by a scenic flight into a bush airstrip with spectacular views of the Lower Zambezi River. Kanga is an oasis of luxury surrounded by a diverse forest and built on a lush pan that is a magnet for wildlife. Our hosts Richard and Gilly made us feel immediately at home, pointing out the tiny frogs hiding in the furniture and meeting us for a champagne toast in a grove of Ilala Palm trees. Our guide Fisher took us on several long walks in the bush where we encountered elephants and cape buffalo and were schooled in the names (common and scientific), ecological function, and medicinal value of dozens of trees and plants, including the majestic baobab. With Ian we inspected the new platform camps built in the trees overlooking a riverbed (dry in May) that is a highway for wildlife. During a lazy afternoon on the deck, we identified and photographed the many animals, birds, and reptiles that wandered in and out of the water, including a family of mongoose and a fish eagle that left his nearby perch in mostly unsuccessful efforts to catch dinner in the pan. We celebrated Ian’s birthday under the stars with a delicious traditional Zimbabwean feast.
A short drive from Kanga, by way of the Mana Pools and the Park headquarters, took us to Vundu Camp on the bank of the Zambezi River. Nick Murray, the proprietor, has established a premier site for canoeing, fishing, wildlife photography, and game tracking. The camp is very comfortable, with large tents and a high-roofed, open air dining room, sitting areas, and bar overlooking the River. Again the food and drink were excellent, introduced as usual by traditional drumming and accompanied by quick-witted monkeys skilled at snatching the fresh muffins from the breakfast table. Our two afternoons of canoeing past numerous colonies of hippos in the mile-wide Zambezi provided plenty of excitement. Very large crocs slipped off the shores into the water as we approached. Nick and his assistants Tanya and Dani are patient and experienced navigators, however, so we paddled to safe landings with only a minor bump from one of the behemoths. During the rest of our stay we tracked a pride of lions to a kill and followed the Vundu pack of wild painted dogs for 10 km to try to locate the den of the radio-collared alpha female. Our last night began with a relaxing sundowner on the riverbank, fishing for tiger and watching the sun set gloriously behind the mountains in Zambia. A leopard observed our early morning departure for the airport from his perch along the road.
Sad as we were to leave the bush, we ended our trip with a short stay at the stately Victoria Falls Hotel and a wet walk along the edge of the cliff overlooking the falls. As we saw during our scenic flight in from Vundu and experienced in a very immediate way from the trail, the falls are one of the premier geologic wonders of the world.
Our trip to Zimbabwe was an incredible introduction to a part of Africa that has seen more than its share of turmoil but offers incredible beauty and hospitality to travelers. Everyone whom we met was friendly, welcoming, and optimistic about the future of the country. As the economy continues to improve, there will be more flights, more camps, and more opportunities to experience Zimbabwe’s natural treasures. My advice, however, is to not wait: see it now, and then return as often as you can.