Just Back From

Just Back From: Zimbabwe

Contact Indagare for assistance planning a vacation to Zimbabwe.

When I conjure my Zimbabwe safari, it is the sounds I remember first. The outraged yelping of a dozen wild dogs as two hyenas swooped in to steal an impala they’d just killed. The deep, guttural rumble of one elephant squabbling with another in the dark at a seep in Hwange, a dozen yards from where we were eating dinner under the stars. The cry of hyenas at night. The teenage male elephant trumpeting at us from a river bank (just posturing to look cool, our guide assured us) and the sudden splash of hippos bobbing up in the water beside our boat. But most of all, I will remember the sound of the pride of lions around a buffalo kill in Mana Pools. We had watched them for a while in the twilight as our guide explained the group dynamics of the scene before us. At first, it was just the two lionesses eating their fill, licking the hide to soften it and jealously guarding the prime spots near the hindquarters, while the rest of the pride lounged about ten feet away. Four youngsters lurked for a while observing, then politely padded over to take their place towards the (less desirable) head. Two more filled in the remaining spots. The alpha male was nowhere to be seen, but we could hear his calls later that evening trying to locate the feast. After taking a break for sundowners, we came back to the kill, turned off the lights of the car and just sat in the dark listening. If one lion encroached on another’s spot, loud growling and snarling would ensue. Heard in the dark from 20 feet away, this sound sent a deeply primal thrill through all of us.

Related: On the Rise: Zimbabwe Travel

Because the accommodations of most of Zimbabwe’s top camps are under canvas in startlingly productive game areas, the sounds of the bush are with you day and night, making the country a marvelously immersive safari experience. Once you get used to being part of the conversation of the wilderness, being “in the room where it happens,” it’s hard to imagine any other way of being on safari. At Deteema Springs in Hwange, for example, the animals came to us: all our game viewing was done within 100 yards of the camp, including the evening we had sundowners while 120 elephants paraded by to drink from a watering hole, and the bush walk where we crouched on a rocky outcrop to watch a herd of “dagga boys” (bachelor buffalo) thunder past. At Nyamatusi, there was a lion kill 20 feet from one of the tents. Unlike in most safari destinations, Zimbabwe’s guides will often combine game drives with bush walks, suggesting that everyone hop out of the vehicle if there’s something interesting to investigate, such as wild dog puppies.

Related: Families on Safari

Elephants at Hwange National Park Zimbabwe. Photo by Indagare

Elephants at Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe. Photo by Eliza Harris

Though not as well-known on the safari circuit as its neighbors Botswana and South Africa, Zimbabwe offers extraordinary game-viewing coupled with the best guides in all of Africa. Being certified as a safari guide in Zim is notoriously difficult (the toughest standards of any country) and takes years of training. (Last year, 13 people applied and only 3 made it.) The result: every single guide you will have has been carefully screened for exceptional dedication, passion, seasoning and deep knowledge of the bush and its denizens. Getting to know them and hear their stories is a rare privilege.

Related: Singita Pamushana Review

An ideal Zimbabwe safari will include time in Mana Pools, a stunningly beautiful area on the Zambezi River, Hwange National Park, which is particularly game rich, and Malilangwe, a rhino sanctuary. Must-do experiences include boating on the Zambezi River amidst hundreds of hippos and wading birds, bush walks, nighttime safaris and camping out under the stars on a sleeping platform, such as the one at Linkwasha or Ruckomechi. Although accommodations in Zimbabwe have long been more rustic than those in nearby Botswana, this year saw the opening of some wonderfully soulful and stylish new safari camps, including Chikwenya (Wilderness Safaris) and Nyamatusi (African Bush Camps) in Mana Pools and Deteema Springs (Machaba Safaris) in Hwange. With the addition of the iconic Singita Pamushana, one of the finest lodges in Africa, you can have a top-notch safari experience at prices that are consistently below those of Botswana. But above all, it’s the warmth and spirit of the Zimbabwean people that will help you fall in love with the country, as I did.

A Zimbabwe Safari

Getting there:

Fly to Johannesburg, then connect to Harare. It is best to arrive in the morning so you can head straight to the bush.

Getting around: Zimbabwe does not offer daily domestic scheduled flights, so you will need to charter a King Air, Cessna Caravan or Navajo. We chartered a six-seater twin-engine Navajo and had our pilot travel with our group for a similar price to booking scheduled flights in Tanzania. Flight times between destinations ranged from 30 minutes to two hours. A second pilot can be arranged upon request.

But is it safe? Prior to departure, I had many people question my desire to go to Zimbabwe, given the political situation. The Zimbabwean people living in the cities are certainly struggling with things like price fluctuations for basic goods and inconsistent electricity, but safari travelers are not impacted, as most camps are off the grid and run by solar and/or generators. I never felt unsafe, even when I overnighted in Harare. On the contrary, I was glad to be bringing my tourist dollars to support the local people, who were wonderful, warm, positive and resourceful.

When to go: The dry season (July through October) offers the best game-viewing, as there are fewer leaves on the trees and the animals congregate at watering holes. However, October can get quite hot during the day. August and early September offer abundant game with more pleasant temperatures.

Contact Indagare for assistance planning a vacation to Zimbabwe.

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