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Forget what you’ve heard! Zimbabwe may have got some pretty bad press over the past few years, but anyone who decides to leave this country off their bucket list would be sorely mistaken. Despite political hardships, the Zimbabwean people are incredibly friendly, the prices reasonable, the safaris exceptional, and it boasts a whopping five UNESCO World Heritage Sites!
The most well-known of these is Victoria Falls: the largest sheet of falling water in the world and the adrenaline capital of the continent. Follow the Zambezi downstream and you’ll come to another World Heritage Site: Mana Pools. These four massive oxbow pools were formed by the changing currents of the Zambezi over thousands of years and now attract flocks of wildlife in dry seasons.
For one of the best game-viewing experiences on the continent, head on over to Hwange National Park, home to over 400 species of birdlife, as well as one of the largest elephant herds in Africa. Its counterparts, Matobo, Matusadona, and Gonarezhou national parks, all offer their own unique magic to this melting pot of safari opportunity.
Hwange National Park
Hwange National Park spans an impressive 14,600km² and is a sanctuary for one of the largest elephant herds on the African continent. Aside from these impressive feats, Hwange also happens to be the largest and oldest park in the country, providing a home for the Big 5, a wide variety of plains game, over 400 different bird species, and plenty more. Visitors can explore this park on game drives, horseback safari, and bush walks.
Matobo National Park
Zimbabwe is best known for Victoria Falls and the Zambezi River, and as such most travellers head here for their safari. However, the south is certainly well worth a visit thanks to the enchanting Matobo National Park. A defining characteristic of the park is its iconic collection of boulders balanced on top of each other. Thanks to its impressive wildlife population, including large numbers of white rhino, and the countless examples of Bushman rock art adorning hundreds of caves scattered around the park, Matobo is another one of Zimbabwe’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Mana Pools National Park is one of the most remote reserves in Africa, situated along the Middle Zambezi Valley in northern Zimbabwe. If you are looking to venture off the beaten track and get acquainted with untouched Africa, then this is the place for you. There are no big hotels or lodges, few tarred roads, no airport, and very little development. It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it offers a safari experience untainted by modernisation.
The park is a World Heritage Site, and home to a great diversity of wildlife. Hippos and crocodiles are choc-a-bloc in the mighty Zambezi, and you can drift past them on a canoe safari. Elephants, buffalo, rhino and an array of plains game line the banks, meandering through the bush and past your camp at will. There are just a few lodges and campsites here, each providing a private retreat in the wilderness.
Matusadona National Park
The story of Matusadona National Park begins with a flood. In the late 1950s, the waters of the Kariba Dam swelled and spilt over into the Zambezi Valley. This flood gave rise to Lake Kariba and — thanks to its waters — the shoreline exploded with rich grassland, attracting large populations of wildlife. Elephant, buffalo, waterbuck, and zebra made these new shores and islands their home and, where they settled, Matusadona was established.
This history of ecological change has made Matusadona a mecca for game-viewing. The mighty Big 5 — especially the buffalo — roam the park, and sightings of the endangered black rhino are possible. Sable antelope graze the grasslands, while hungry wild dogs can be found skulking not too far behind. The waters of Lake Kariba are brimming with hippos, crocodiles, and tiger fish, while the cormorants and fish eagles soar overhead.
Gonarezhou National Park
Three rivers wind their way lazily through the 500,000ha Gonarezhou National Park in the south-eastern Lowveld of Zimbabwe, creating natural oases around giant pools from which droves of thirsty wildlife and birds drink. ‘Gonarezhou’ means ‘Place of Elephants’ in the Shona language and the park sure lives up to its name. Giant herds of large-tusked elephants roam through the sandy river beds and baobab trees under the watchful gaze of an impressive outlook of craggy cliffs.
There are few roads and the park is isolated. The best way to explore the landscape is on hikes trailing ancient elephant tracks. 4x4ing is a rough but rewarding experience, especially when visitors are treated to sights of stalking leopards, rare nyala antelope, and colossal elephants. The park also has an incredible variety of birds, amounting to over 380 different species.
Victoria Falls National Park
Words frequently fail to capture the grandeur of Victoria Falls, but if you were to look for an apt description, you probably wouldn’t find better than its Kololo name ‘Mosi-oa-Tunya’, which roughly translates to ‘the smoke that thunders’. While Victoria Falls is a fantastic destination all year round, different seasons offer vastly different experiences.
During the rainy season, the Zambezi’s water is at its highest and the Falls are at their most dramatic. The high water volume, however, also drapes the Falls in a cloud of spray — which makes sightseeing a little bit trickier, though no one seems to mind meandering around this misty realm. During the dry seasons when the water is lower, one can get a better view of its dramatic precipices. Wildlife spotted here includes elephant, buffalo, rhino, and eland while the Zambezi’s waters are home to crocodile and hippo.