The Best of Zimbabwe

Sharon Amos / 24 October 2016

From the big cats and waterholes of Hwange National Park to the mighty Zambezi river, Sharon Amos shares her highlights of a dream holiday in Zimbabwe.



Natural Wonders in Hwange

Day one of my trip and I found myself sitting beside a fire basket at Nehimba Lodge, in the remote north west of Hwange National Park, sipping pink gin as night fell. At a waterhole just a few feet away, a patch of darkness intensified and coalesced into a huge bull elephant.

More and more of the animals arrived – coming so close I hardly dared breathe. Elephants are very familiar from countless TV documentaries, yet it was difficult to grasp that they were right there in front of me. But Hwange was full of such natural marvels.

When I arrived at Nehimba, run by Imvelo Safari Lodges, the first thing I noticed was the birdlife: flashes of colour as a lilac-crested roller opened its wings; hornbills with red or yellow beaks; a secretary bird stalking alongside the track. Before I’d even checked in, I’d seen impala and crocodiles nearby.

Later, on safari, I saw kudu with fantastically twisted horns, groups of comical warthogs and several water buck – easily recognisable by the loo-seat-shaped white markings on their rears – before the big thrill of picking out two lionesses resting in the shade of a stand of trees.

Licensed guides can lead visitors on walking safaris in Hwange – an entirely different experience from watching from a jeep. Legendary ranger Mark ‘Butch’ Butcher took my group stalking an elephant through the bush.

Soft flexible footwear is better than solid walking shoes, he advised – elephants may have poor eyesight but they can hear a twig snap at 100 yards. If an elephant charges, he added, don’t all run in different directions but bunch together and make yourselves look big. Simple!

Related: Discover Zimbabwe and Zambia. 

Luxury, Contrasts and Riding the River

The next part of the trip, took me to the mighty Zambezi river, some three hours away by car from Nehimba. It is the natural border between Zimbabwe and Zambia and the difference between the two countries was obvious, even from the shore.

While Zimbabwe is open bush, Zambia is agricultural land and over the broad, calm stretch of water, I could see fields of maize and tobacco and people working in them – even hear their conversations echoing across.

I stayed at Imvelo’s Zambezi Sands lodge, right on the river’s edge, with decking, plunge pools, and vervet monkeys sitting on the loungers or peering quizzically through the windows, doing a bit of tourist spotting.

Bushtracks has the edge on other river trip companies. It’s installed jet engines rather than propeller-driven motors on its boats, meaning they can journey up the Zambezi into much shallower water and within 500m of the mighty Victoria Falls, right on the Zambian border, without risk of snagging on weed or rocks.

As other sunset cruisers turned back, my boat, the charming rustic Darter, headed on towards the waterfalls. 

It was very African Queen, but with a bar. The loo, tucked neatly into the cabin, even had open windows so you wouldn’t miss a thing.

In between pouring cold beers and chilled white wine, our guide pointed out hippos (including a mother with baby on her back) and crocs, hammerkopf birds and their untidy nests, pied kingfishers and Egyptian geese. 

Getting Soaked by the Falls

Victoria Falls can be seen from as far as 12 miles away, as a vast plume of ‘smoke’  (mist, of course) often accompanied by a rainbow. I could also hear the constant roar as 30 million cubic feet of water a second thundered over the 350-foot-high rockface.

At the visitor centre, all guides carried umbrellas and poncho traders were everywhere. My poncho was rather cumbersome and I had half a mind not to wear it – after all, I was British, how bad could the spray be? 

And all was fine until I got closer to the falls, the fine mist became a deluge and my cropped trousers neatly funnelled the run-off from the poncho into my shoes.

When the Zambezi is low, it’s possible to walk from the Zambian side to Livingstone Island in the middle of the falls, where people have picnics and, if you’re brave, you can also swim in a natural infinity pool that leaves you all but peering over the waterfall’s edge.

Vertigo at the Zambezi Gorge

First-time visitors to Gorges Lodge, 30 minutes from the falls, are led nonchalantly through reception to a viewing deck… 1,000 feet above the Zambezi as it winds through the sheer-sided gorge.

There were synchronised gasps all round in my group – it was a literally breathtaking view. Chalets were in the same dramatic position, with their own balcony, making it difficult to tear oneself away from the view until night fell.

A pair of black eagles is a local attraction at the lodge, with telescopes set up to focus on their nest on an impossibly narrow vertiginous ledge. 

Debbie, who runs the lodge with her husband Chris, has built up a special relationship with the birds – they came to her call to be fed, snatching a piece of meat on the wingas she hurled it into the void.

For details of Saga’s Zimbabwe holidays and safari tours, visit saga.co.uk.

Read about a thrilling trip to South Africa in the November 2016 issue of Saga Magazine. Subscribe to Saga Magazine today.

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