USA TODAY 10Best
// By Stacey McKenna
By Stacey McKenna
A lioness in Hwange National Park hunts a wildebeest from the railroad tracks — Photo courtesy of Stacey McKenna
Due in part to Zimbabwe’s political turmoil in recent years and the high-profile 2015 killing of Cecil the lion, this landlocked southern African nation has mostly been overlooked as a travel destination. However, Zimbabwe (affectionately known as “Zim”) is poised and ready to change all that.
Spanning more than 150,000 square miles (that’s slightly larger than the state of Montana), the country has much to offer, with its diverse landscapes, welcoming people and serious commitment to community-based, conservation-oriented tourism. Here are seven reasons Zimbabwe should be your next (or first!) safari destination.
A pair of young lions gorge on a recent kill — Photo courtesy of Stacey McKenna
Zimbabwe is home to more than 250 kinds of mammals, over 670 bird species, over 250 reptile species and over 150 fish species. Thirteen percent of the country’s land is managed by Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, and visitors can choose to spy wildlife in an array of geographically and ecologically distinct national parks. Hwange National Park, the country’s largest natural reserve, is home to the big five: elephants, rhinos, lions, leopards and African buffalos
About 75 miles from Hwange, Zambezi National Park is an ideal spot to spy hippos, crocodiles and the occasional swimming warthog. Diminutive Matobo National Park is a guide favorite, with some of the country’s best rhino- and leopard-spotting opportunities and the most-studied population of Verreaux’s Eagle, which make their home in the dramatic rock formations known as Matobo Hills. The park is about an hour and a half by car from Bulawayo. The abundance of wildlife found in such traversable spaces provides ample opportunities for special sightings.
The fact that Zimbabwe isn’t on most people’s radar yet means the wildlife viewing takes on an exclusive air. At South Africa’s Kruger National Park, considered among the best on the continent, visitors regularly experience crowds while out on safari and may even encounter congestion on the park’s roads. In Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, not only do you have ample opportunity to see the big five, you’re also unlikely to run into other safari parties during excursions.
An elephant sighting in Hwange National Park — Photo courtesy of Stacey McKenna
While elephants are under threat globally and historically have been poached in Zimbabwe, some recent conservation efforts have resulted in the country now boasting Africa’s second-largest population of these great beasts, second only to Botswana. In Hwange, thanks to a network of watering holes, elephants are thriving, and their vast numbers provide guests with ample viewing opportunities.
Visitors to the wide-open Ngamo Plains can expect to happen upon the animals going about their daily routine. Guests at Nehimba Lodge, in the northern sector of the park, can climb into an underground blind for a special, up-close perspective of families visiting a favorite watering hole. The dry season may find the elephants digging for water at the Nehimba Seeps.
Victoria Falls, one of the world’s largest waterfalls — Photo courtesy of Stacey McKenna
Though smaller than its safari-laden neighbors, Zimbabwe is home to a surprising array of landscapes, and thousands of plant species, including more than 200 that are endemic.
One of only two national parks in Africa that lacks a natural, year-round water source, Hwange’s landscape is parched. A flight above the region during dry season reveals the tracks of dry riverbeds, lacing the Kalahari sands and cutting through forests of acacia and mopane trees. Yet, just northwest of Hwange’s most remote areas, Victoria Falls, locally known as the Smoke that Thunders, showcases the power of water. The 5,604-foot-wide curtain of water tumbles more than 300 feet into churning pools.
Meanwhile, the Matobo Hills are known for their otherworldly granite rock formations, and, in the remote southeast of the country, the Chilojo Cliffs rise in bands of red and white sandstone from the plains of Gonarezhou National Park. While Zimbabwe’s size makes independent travel possible, you can look to companies like Wilderness Travel to curate itineraries that showcase the country’s diversity.
In addition to game drives, safaris in Zimbabwe offer ample options for active and unusual game-viewing. Visitors to Hwange can view animals via mountain bike or from a dedicated train, as it rambles along historic rails. In Zambezi National Park, guests can lounge on an island in the river, take bird-watching walks or canoe among the hippos on the vast river that separates Zimbabwe and Zambia.
Students and community members welcome Community Rhino Conservation Initiative rhinos — Photo courtesy of Stacey McKenna
As human and elephant populations in Zimbabwe have increased, so have human-wildlife conflict. Loss of subsistence resources due to wildlife infringing on crops, coupled with the country’s limited economic opportunities, has made sustainable conservation efforts a hard sell for many communities that border Zimbabwe’s national parks. However, a new push for community-based tourism and conservation is unlocking options for communities and building protections for iconic creatures.
For example, the Community Rhino Conservation Initiative (CRCI), a partnership between Imvelo Safari Lodges and communities in Tsholotsho, is reintroducing rhinos to a string of sanctuaries on communal lands that border Hwange National Park. The project provides jobs, community income (via sanctuary visitation fees) and protection in the form of a wildlife fence. It also gives villagers ownership in the preservation of the animals.
Inspired by the potential of the project, it was the Tsholotsho communities who kept CRCI moving forward through the COVID-19 pandemic. In May 2022, the first two white rhinos were introduced.
A guide takes in the sunset on the Zambezi River — Photo courtesy of Stacey McKenna
Safari guides in Zimbabwe are considered to be among the best in all of Africa. Vehicle guides train for years, taking coursework and field classes on flora, fauna, local wildlife laws and global current events. To lead walking safaris, guides must study even longer. In addition to training, guides must demonstrate the ability to keep guests safe and help local communities manage wildlife that are threatening crops, livestock or people.
About Stacey McKenna