Elephant watching in Zimbabwe

Home to Africa’s friendliest pachyderms, Zimbabwe is once again a great destination for wildlife tourism.

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From Hwange, I headed south to the three-billion-year-old Matobo Hills. I drove there on decent roads and encountered only courtesy at checkpoints.
 
If ever an archetypal African landscape existed, it’s the Matobos’ weather-beaten granite, which has been sculpted into spherical kopjes, giant Oxo cubes and smooth ridges known as whalebacks. And they’re home to the densest rhino population in Africa.
 
Where eagles dare 
 
With our guide for the day, Ian Harmer, we headed to Whovi Game Reserve. Black eagles spiralled overhead, while the kopjes were alive with vivid rainbow lizards and comical hyraxes.
 
Whovi’s 84 white and 34 black rhinos have been relocated to this heavily guarded Controlled Protection Zone, away from harder-to-protect border areas such as the Zambezi Valley.
 
Nevertheless, poaching has become endemic, due to organised crime. “Zimbabwe has lost 40 rhinos over the past year,” Ian lamented. “At this rate, there could be none left in the wild in 10–20 years.”
 
Risky business
 
An hour later, he pulled up his Land Rover by a midden pile. It was still steaming and we could see undigested twigs munched at 45º angles. “That’s down to browsers, so there must be blacks somewhere nearby.”
 
We left the vehicle and walked into the thick, spiny bush, soon spotting a pair of black rhinos 150m ahead. They were aware of our presence, so we dared go no nearer and settled for watching through binoculars. “I once got too close to some rhinos and spent four hours up a tree,” whispered Ian. I found myself plotting an exit strategy, in case of emergencies.
 
There were no such issues with the whites, however. Thanks to his years of experience, Ian was able to take us to within an amazing 4m of a tranquil female and her calf, which was only 30 months old. “Welcome to the world’s largest lawnmowers!” he quipped.
 
Mana Pools
 
My last port of call was the World Heritage-listed Mana Pools National Park, which has long offered some of Africa’s edgiest safaris. Just reaching this remote location on the middle Zambezi’s southern riverbank is an adventure – I took a turbulent Cessna flight over Victoria Falls and Kariba Dam.
 
The classic way to explore Mana is on a canoe safari that can last up to six days. During the dry season, when the parched pans begin to crack, game migrates in huge numbers from the albida and mahogany woodlands down to the Zambezi.
 
“There are four things to watch out for,” said my river guide, Tendayi, before we cast off on an overnight excursion from Ruckomechi. “Sun, stumps, crocs – and river horses.”
 
This stretch of the Zambezi is said to have the densest population of hippos in the world, and they were everywhere.
 
Tendayi had to be careful where he steered, especially since there were Nile crocodiles slipping into the river every few hundred metres, as if auditioning for a new Tarzan movie. Birdlife was a revelation, the riverbanks brightened by carmine and common bee-eaters fussing around their nesting holes.
 
From Zimbabwe with love
 
I’m so glad that I returned to Zimbabwe. Despite the downsizing of the tourist industry, the locals give you a great welcome – keen to present their country in a good light – and the wildlife guarantees incredible experiences.
 
One evening, fireflies caught the trailing moonlight across the Zambezi and sparkled like stardust. And, rather less romantically, I was serenaded to sleep by belching hippos.
 
 
ESSENTIAL TRAVEL INFORMATION
 
Though landlocked, Zimbabwe is sandwiched between two famous African rivers, the Zambezi and the Limpopo.  
 

Where to go

 
Chimanimani NP
The Eastern Highlands escarpment fringing Mozambique offers breathtaking upland scenery and great hiking. Those possessing strong calves will be rewarded with sightings of klipspringers amid dazzling quilts of proteas, giant heather and yellow helichrysum.
 
Gonarezhou NP
A rarely visited 5,000km2 national park in the south-eastern low veldt. River plains and arid forests create a mosaic of bird-rich wetland pans and river cliffs. As well as large tuskers and nyala antelope, the pans are home to many species including sacred ibises and squacco herons.
 
Kazuma Pan NP
Sightings of oribi and roan antelope and occasional cheetahs await visitors to this small national park west of Victoria Falls. The annually flooded depressions of white grass plains have a hint of the Serengeti about them.
 
Matusadona NP
Those who brave a foot safari should experience the dense population of lions within this 1,407km2 park of acacia and julbernardia woodlands on Lake Kariba’s southern shoreline. Stay several days and you should see black rhinos, too.
 
Lake Kariba
Use a motorised houseboat to explore this vast artificial lake that dammed the Zambezi Valley in the 1960s. Wildlife refuges worth visiting include Fothergill Island. Don’t miss the ghostly forests of skeletal leadwood trees, where shoreline sightings of buffalos, waterbuck and elephants can be enjoyed.
 
Victoria Falls NP
Livingstone’s famous falls, known indigenously as Mosi oa Tunya (literally, ‘smoke that thunders’), are a key destination for many. Crocodile- and hippo-watching sunset cruises can be enjoyed above the falls, though the wildest sightings might be the humans bungee-jumping off Victoria Falls Bridge.
 
 
How to get there
 
  • Air Zimbabwe offers both the cheapest and only direct service to Harare. Call 01293 602510. 
  • Flying with South African Airways requires a change in Johannesburg.
  • Call 0871 722 1111.Visas can be bought on arrival at Harare International Airport for about £40.
 
Health
  • Malaria is present so travellers require anti-malarial prophylactics during their stay.
  • Localised cholera outbreaks have been an issue, so immunisation is a wise precaution.
  • Consult your local GP or a travel health clinic well before departure.

 

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