This African tour de force will be hard to match. Matobos – Zimbabwe’s oldest park, and rich in heritage. Hwange – rugged, wild and remote. Mana Pools – incomparably scenic, and rich in wildlife. Matusadona – a lakeside paradise. And finally, relax and reflect with the majestic thunder of Victoria Falls in the background.
Safari operates from April to November
If you have the time, this safari is an ideal way to cover a large swathe of Zimbabwe’s rich and interesting landscapes and unspoilt wildlife destinations.
This safari start out in the Matobos, a landscape of two-billion-year-old granite outcrops that have been weathered smooth by the passing of time. With more that 3 000 recorded sites, the Matobos is home to one of the richest rock art collections in Africa. The mystery of the place has given the hills a hallowed reputation among the local tribes, and was the home of many spiritualists and oracles in times gone by.
The second stop of the safari heads of to Hwange. It is home to the most beautiful forests of Albizias, Mahogany and Cathedral Mopanis, and has one of the largest elephant concentrations in the world. The scarcity of natural water sources means that game is concentrated around the waterholes, which makes for exciting viewing, especially in winter.
Mana Pools, the third stop, is a lush riverine ecosystem spread out along the fertile floodplains of the mighty Zambezi. Relaxed game and impressive populations of the bigger beasts, make for some of the best walking safaris in Africa.
Second to last, Matusadona lies on the shores of Lake Kariba, one of the largest man-made lakes in the world. The park holds large populations of wildlife. Buffalo are especially prominent and herds of up to 1 000 strong often congregate along the shoreline in the dry season. Matusadona is also home to the second largest population of lion in Africa and is one of the last strongholds of the black rhino.
The final leg of this safari heads off to Victoria falls for a gentle reintroduction to civilisation at one of the most spectacular river settings in the world.
The Matobo National Park forms part of the Matobo or Matopos mountain range, just south of the town of Bulawayo. It is easy to imagine why Mzilikazi, the founder of the Ndebele nation, named these hills as he did, as the name means ‘bald head’ in the local vernacular. The landscape is a cascade of two-billion-year-old granite outcrops that have been weathered smooth by the passing of time. Amongst these ‘bald heads’ stand countless rocky columns that balance a staggering variety of boulders, one on top of the other. The Matobo National Park is the oldest park in Zimbabwe and was put forward as a reserve by Cecil Rhodes himself. In fact, he so loved this area that he chose the summit of ‘Malindidzimu’ or ‘the hill of the spirits’as his final resting place, and his grave is carved out of the granite rocks he adored so much.
Named after a local Nhanzwa chief, Hwange National Park is the largest park in Zimbabwe. The park is remote, and off the beaten track. It is accessible from the west through a tiny border post on the Botswana side at Pandamatenga, from the east from the Victoria Falls side, and, of course, by light aircraft. Hwange used to be the royal hunting grounds of the Ndebele warrior-king Mzilikazi in the early 19th Century, and was set aside as a national park in 1929. It is a charming remnant of a bygone age, when vast herds of antelope roamed the savannah. Hwange is home to the most beautiful forests. Its huge canopies of Albizias, Mahogany and Cathedral Mopanis will leave you breathless. Hwange has a tremendous variety of wildlife, and to crown it all one of the largest populations on the continent is found here.
Mana Pools lies on the Zimabwean side of the Zambezi River, opposite the Lower Zambezi National Park in Zambia. It is one of the most exciting places you will ever visit, and the only danger is that you will never want to leave. The word 'Mana' means four, in reference to the four pools around the park headquarters: Main, Chine, Long and Chisambik. They are actually not in the river, but on the mainland, in an area of deep, rich alluvial soil along the southern bank of the river. They owe their existence to the scouring action of the flooded river that created a number of elongated troughs that retain their water long after the flood have subsided. This area has a park-like appearance. Massive Acacia trees tower over what appears to be, from a distance at least, a carefully manicured lawn. Further away, a border of Mopani trees and Combretum scrub begins and there is a visible line, like some extraordinary tidemark, a browse line that exactly demarcates the height to which browsing animals can reach.
Matusadona, or Matuzviadonha, means ‘falling dung’, and probably comes from the elephants and buffalo that roam the area, and the ‘parcels’ of fertiliser they leave behind. The park hugs the southwestern shoreline of Lake Kariba, one of the largest man-made lakes in the world, stretching over 5 400km2. However, the lake was only built in the 1950s, and before then, this area was almost impossible to get to. Even now, access within the 1 500km2 reserve is mainly on foot or by boat from the Lake Kariba shoreline. The park holds strong populations of most mammals occurring in the Zambezi Valley. Buffalo are especially prominent and herds of up to 1 000 strong often congregate along the shoreline in the dry season. It is also home to the second largest population of lion in Africa and is one of the last strongholds of the black rhino. The game viewing opportunities here are endless, it is a true wilderness area – rugged and vast.
Approaching the Victoria Falls by aeroplane is awe-inspiring. If you press your face against the window like an impatient child, you will catch a glimpse of the Zambezi River from above, twinkling silver and blue, calm and deliberate as it drifts towards the inexorable precipice. And then all hell breaks loose. You will feel the Victoria Falls before you see them. It’s like pressing your chest against a bass speaker: the thundering of 500 000 cubic metres of water per minute reverberates though you as it plummets 108 metres into the mists beneath. Victoria Falls is neither the highest nor the widest waterfall in the world, but it is the world's largest sheet of falling water. It is roughly twice the height of North America's iconic Niagara Falls and is rivalled only by Argentina and Brazil's Iguazu Falls. Apart from its natural splendour, Victoria Falls offers activities that range from the sedate (sunset cruises, steam train excursions, walks through the rain forest or canoeing above the Falls) to the extreme (bungee jumping and white water rafting below the Falls). Flights over the Falls by helicopter or microlight are mandatory.
Nestled in a wilderness of granite, award-winning Camp Amalinda's rooms are built in and among the granite boulders, and combine world-class facilities with the spiritual energy, allure and unique beauty for which the Matobo Hills is celebrated.
The 9 well-appointed thatched rooms include three double rooms, three family rooms, and a trio of suites that are ideal for honeymooners. The rooms are set well apart from one another. Each has a distinctive look and feel and is steeped in African artefacts of a bygone era. Featuring boulders as dividing walls, and showers and bathrooms built into the granite rock face, a unique accommodation experience awaits you.
Established in 1926 as Rhodes Matopos National Park, a bequest from Cecil John Rhodes who was buried here, the renamed Matobo National Park is a World Heritage Site. Its rocky outcrops or dwalas are composed entirely of granite that has weathered into fantastic shapes of balancing boulders over the centuries. This rocky landscap has a tremendously rich heritage of San rock art, with over 2000 sites on record.
The Matobo Hills is high in botanic diversity, with over 200 species of tree, including the mountain acacia, wild pear and the paperbark tree. There are also many aloes, wild herbs and over 100 grass species. The wide diversity of fauna includes 175 birds, 88 mammals, 39 snakes and 16 fish species. You are likely to come across game such as leopard, rhino, sable antelope, impala, giraffe, zebra, wildebeest and ostrich at Big Cave Camp, and a visit to the adjacent small Whovi Game Park is highly recommended.
The Matopos does not offer ‘The Big 5 Tourist Experience’, where you drive around ticking off as many of the large and dangerous animals as you can. Rather, it is a place of timeless majesty, a place to recoup, reflect, and reconnect with nature. There are over 3 000 rock art sites in the Matobo National Park, some dating back as far as the Middle Stone Age, as well as clay ovens and other artefacts left behind by the early San people. The hills still echo with the voices of kings long departed, and towering rocky columns stand sentinel at improbable angles, reminding us of the enduring nature of the natural world. The ancient mystery of the place has given the hills a hallowed reputation among the local tribes, and was the home of many spiritualists and oracles in times gone by. In the western section of the mountain reserve lies the 105km2 game reserve known as the Whovi Wild Area. Animals were relocated here from Hwange, and it provides guests with good game viewing against the backdrop of the dramatic hills and rocks of the Matobo. It is perfect leopard habitat, and is thought to have one of the highest densities of these elusive cats in the country. Both black and white rhino breed successfully here, which makes it rather special. Safe from the bigger predators such as lions, the rest of the reserve is a hiking and walking heaven. It has a rich diversity of plant life, with over 200 species of trees and 100 different species of grass. The views are spectacular and the birding is excellent.
Little Makalolo is a small and intimate camp. It is set on the edge of a waterhole in a section of the Hwange National Park that is known for its high density of game. Camp staff are friendly and warm, and the allure of the camp is perfectly complimented by the breathtakingly beautiful surroundings.
The 6 tented suites were designed with the perfect balance between luxury, comfort and the feeling of the untamed wild. The permanent floors and wooden doors allow some separation from the elements, while the indoor and outdoor showers and the private lookout decks in each suite offer the opportunity to immerse completely in the African bushvelt. The communal lounge, bar, dining and swimming areas are spacious, relaxed and sophisticated, and have magnificent views of the open plains and the waterhole in front of the camp.
Hwange National Park is the largest Park in Zimbabwe, occupying roughly 14 650 square kilometres, and boasts a remarkable variety of wildlife, with over 100 species of mammals and nearly 400 bird species recorded, and one of the largest elephant populations in the world.
Hwange National Park occupies roughly 14 650km2, and boasts a tremendous selection of wildlife, with over 100 species of mammals and nearly 400 species of bird recorded. It is the only protected area in Zimbabwe where gemsbok and brown hyena occur in good numbers. The elephants of Hwange are world famous, and the Park's elephant population is one of the largest on the continent. The north and northwest of the park are drained by the Deka and Lukosi rivers and their tributaries, and the far south is drained by the Gwabadzabuya River, a tributary of the Nata River. Aside from that, there are no rivers in the park, although there are fossil drainage channels, which form seasonal wetlands. In these dry sections, pans, grassy depressions and a number of man-made waterholes form oases that attract animals in their droves. Sightings at these points are varied and afford exciting opportunities to see animals at their best. On occasion, visitors are even treated to a stalk and kill, as leopards and lions often lie in wait of the unsuspecting antelopes.
Situated on the western boundary of Mana Pools National Park, Ruckomechi Camp lies on the banks of the mighty Zambezi River and offers superb views of the mountains of Africa's Great Rift Valley across the river in Zambia. The camp is shaded by a canopy of acacia and mahogany trees and is known as the elephants' favourite camp because the albida trees dotted through camp are much loved for their tasty pods. It accommodates guests in spacious en-suite tents, including a honeymoon suite, all of which open out onto wooden verandas overlooking the Zambezi River. Each tent has both indoor and outdoor showers.
Mana Pools National Park is a World Heritage Site that lies at the heart of the Zambezi Valley. It is a remote, beautiful place with spectacular views. The area offers large concentrations of buffalo and elephant, while predators such as lion, wild dog, leopard and cheetah are often sighted. Greater kudu, Burchell's zebra, impala, warthog and common waterbuck can be seen on the plains and the grunting of hippo can be heard all day.
The mighty Zambezi River flows from Lake Kariba through the Lower Zambezi Valley on its way to Mozambique. Over the millennia, it has created a tapestry of islands, channels and sandbanks in this valley. And as it meanders along, it leaves trails of mineral-rich volcanic soils in its wake, supporting the tall stands of mahogany and ebony that gather around its small oxbow lakes. This abundance of water and luxuriant greenery accounts for the valley's wealth of big game. Mana Pools has Zimbabwe’s biggest concentration of hippopotamus and crocodile, and large dry season populations of elephant and buffalo. There is a wide variety of birds, and the game is very relaxed about people on foot, making Mana Pools one of Africa's best parks for walking safaris. But it is not only by Land Rover or on foot that the excitement of the area can be enjoyed. Guided canoe trails are an incredible way to experience the river at first hand. Every kind of wild animal and bird is viewed at close quarters as the canoes glide silently past. One can drift within metres of grazing buffalo, slide by sleeping crocodiles, watch wading elephants and enjoy a sense of openness, freedom and a feeling of being totally at one with the environment that is hard to match elsewhere.
Nestled into the surrounding bush, Changa Safari Camp is a sanctuary of peace and seclusion with 8 luxury tents, including two that cater for families, set in an idyllic landscape. Each luxury en-suite tent is tastefully decorated and with unique African influences, from rustic wood and leather to woven basketry and locally crafted furniture; and features an outdoor bath and shower. The views from the private verandas are incredible and add to the sense of spaciousness and freedom.
Matusadona National Park covers an area of 1 400km2. Its northernmost natural boundary is Lake Kariba. Changa Safari Camp’ concession includes a four-and-a-half kilometre section of shoreline which ensures the privacy of this luxurious tented camp. Elephants that have adapted to a semi aquatic lifestyle, frequent the shoreline, as do buffalo and numerous species of antelope, their feeding patterns governed by the ever-changing levels of the lake. Lion, leopard, hyena and cheetah occur in good numbers and a few endangered black rhino are found here.
Although the Matusadona National Park is largely unknown, in comparison to its more famous counterparts, the contrast between lake, mountains and flat open plains offer such a wide variety of opportunities that it should be high up on any visitor’s list. Lake Kariba is one of the largest man-made lakes in the world, and the showpiece of the reserve. But its construction was not without its dramatic moments. After the dam wall was completed in the 1950s, Lake Kariba filled much more rapidly than was anticipated, and many of the animals were rescued in Operation Noah, one of the most dramatic animal rescue operations ever undertaken anywhere in the world. Led by Rupert Fothergill, teams of game rangers and volunteers ferried over 5 000 creatures in makeshift boats to the shoreline. To this day colourful stories of these men and their wild rescue adventures capture the imagination of all who visit. And then there is the legend about the river god Nyami Nyami who was so distraught at being separated from his wife, who was trapped on the other side of the floodgate, that he almost destroyed construction works in two massive floods, and only allowed the dam wall to be completed after he had been placated by the local tribe. Apart from the rich variety of wildlife, there are over 240 different species of birds to search for. The crocodiles here grow to storybook sizes, and there is nothing quite like watching a 6- metre monster glide silently through the shallows, only to disappear without so much as a ripple.
Set in exquisite surroundings within a private Big 5 reserve, the Stanley and Livingstone is a glamorous Safari Lodge that combines stylish elegance with a sense of bygone grandeur and charmingly nostalgic decor. For a quintessential African experience, there is little to beat this magical destination.
The 16 exquisite thatched suites are large, air-conditioned and immaculately maintained. Each has a gracious lounge and a secluded patio that overlooks the tropical gardens and the constant flow of wildlife at the nearby waterhole. An outdoor jacuzzi is provided at the Honeymoon Suite. Inter-leading rooms are available for families. Nearby Ursula’s Camp is an intimate, private retreat and is perfectly suited to extended families or small groups. The 4 en-suite chalets, accommodating a total of eight guests, include a master chalet with lounge area and satellite television, a swimming pool and Wi-Fi throughout.
The Stanley and Livingstone is a fenced private game reserve bordering the Zambezi National Park. At least three of the Big 5 are sighted on most game drives, and wild dog, sable, eland, giraffe, hippo, crocodile, hyena, bushbuck, impala, baboon, kudu and waterbuck are also frequently sighted. But the highlight is often a close encounter with the ‘crash’ of endangered Black Rhino, some of which have been successfully bred on the property.
The Zambezi River and the Victoria Falls pulse with an annual flood cycle of high and low water. Summer rains in the upper reaches of its catchment area, in Angola and Zambia, flood the river, causing significant rises in its levels. At high water, the spray plume can rise up to 500 metres and is visible from over 20km away. During the dry winter months, before the regional rains return in November, the river recedes to a ribbon of water, and the Falls runs dry for much of its length. It is during the dry season that the sheer magnitude of the Falls can be truly appreciated. Clear of the shroud of spray, one can marvel at the solid rock walls of the gorge, worn smooth by the abrasive power of the water. However, the best time to view the Falls is probably between May and August, when the river is running at mid volume. Apart from being the biggest waterfall in the world by volume, what makes Victoria Falls special is that nature has provided man with a front row seat, as it were, from which to view the whole 1.7km width of the Falls. Except at the point where the river exits through the narrow channel into the whirlpool known as the Boiling Pot, it is possible to walk the whole length of the Falls through the Rain Forest and gaze at every part of this awe-inspiring spectacle.
Zimbabwe has the greater frontage of the Falls, and the deepest channels run along that side. This means that the Zimbabwean side of the Falls will still be running when the Zambian side has long dried up.
The Zambian side, on the other hand, is more intimate, and offers the chance of a swim literally on the lip of the Falls. Whichever side you stay on, take a day pass through to the other side so that you can experience the Falls from both perspectives.
This safari commences and ends in Johannesburg, South Africa