Up until recently, for even the most seasoned travelers, Zimbabwe was a destination known more for its political turmoil than its touristic appeal. But with the ousting of former leader Robert Mugabe last year, the country is on a remarkable upward path.
Last month I had the privilege of spending ten days throughout Zimbabwe, working my way southwest down the Zambezi River. From the incredible Big Five game to one of the seven natural wonders of the world, Zimbabwe has just about everything you could ever ask for on an African adventure.
Botswana is known for its incredible safaris (here's one of our favorites) but is notoriously on the pricey side. Neighboring Zimbabwe offers world-class national parks and big game for a fraction of the price. What’s more, you can truly feel the excitement of each lodge’s staff. They are energized by the positive momentum the entire country is currently experiencing and are widely considered to be among African’s friendliest people. Several Batswana (the correct term for someone from Botswana) and South Africans remarked that while the countries of southern Africa debate who has the best wildlife or football, everyone agrees that the Zimbabweans are the nicest. Without wanting to generalize, I can certainly understand where such sentiments would come from. Our Zimbabwean hosts were remarkable in every sense of the word.
Zimbabwean guides go through some of the most rigorous training in all of southern Africa. While South African lodges use a ranger and a tracker on safari drives, their Zimbabwean counterparts use just one guide per vehicle, driving and spotting game from literally hundreds of yards away. At first glance this may appear to be a drawback, but I found that my solo Zimbabwean guides could spot things faster and at further distances than anyone else.
So now you’re probably wondering: how do I plan a trip Zimbabwe? Which destinations are must-see? Where in Zimbabwe has the best wildlife or opportunities for big five? Can I do luxury safari in Zimbabwe, or can I do it on a budget? Below I’ll break down each must-see region of Zimbabwe to help determine if it’s right for you. I’ll then share our recommended itineraries for each type of traveler, as well as my own personal pictures to help give you a better feel for each lodge.
KANGA CAMP AT MANA POOLS – ARMCHAIR SAFARI BROUGHT TO YOUR BALCONY
Love the Pantanal? Your first stop should be Kanga Camp. Located on a private concession with Mana Pools National Park, Kanga is home to the “armchair safari”. Once wintertime hits in July and all of the summer rain dries up, Kanga’s lake becomes a watering hole to all of the region’s animals. You can literally sit on your own balcony and watch the safari come to you: elephants, lions, zebras, leopards, cheetahs, hippos...you name it! When you’re ready to leave the lake, you can do a traditional drive or embark on a walking safari. Walking safaris aren’t typical and it’s a wonderful way to not only get some movement but also see the ecosystem on a unique micro level. Beyond the incredible wildlife, Kanga counts some of the most incredible people as its staff. After three days the host, guides and the rest of the team truly felt like our family. It’s a special feeling that is hard to describe and even harder to create.
ZAMBEZI EXPEDITIONS AT MANA POOLS – ADVENTURE SAFARI AT ITS FINEST
Seeking true adventure? Zambezi Expeditions has incredible mobile camps set alongside the river bearing its name and provides one of the most active safari experiences on the market. Like Kanga Camp you can explore by foot on a walking safari. You can also canoe down the Zambezi and brave the river’s swimming elephants and hippos, which proved to be one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life! In the evening you’ll enjoy drinks by the campfire while stargazing at the Southern Cross and Milky Way with jaw-dropping visibility and zero light pollution.
Zambezi Expeditions offers mobile tents, the most "rugged" of the accommodations I experienced but in many ways the most rewarding; you are in absolute comfort yet completely at one with nature, listening to the animals as you go to sleep and wake up. While perhaps not best suited for the weary, this is an experience adventure seekers will never forget.
BUMI HILLS LODGE AT LAKE KARIBA – LAKESIDE LUXURY WITH SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE
Did you know that you can do safari alongside the world’s largest man-made lake? Bumi Hills Safari Lodge is nestled in the hills above Lake Kariba, with views and landscaping so lush you could easily mistake it for the Mediterranean. Yet just five minutes down the hill we saw a beautiful lion on a game drive before heading out on an amazing sunset boat ride exploring the river. Dinner was later served on sand dunes reminiscent of a Moroccan desert. While it would be impossible to pick a favorite, Bumi Hills was probably the most memorable property for me as there’s truly nothing else like it. The combination of exquisite scenery, décor, service and variety of activities makes it a true must-see for virtually any type of traveler. The fact that this luxury lodge is a fraction of the price of anything comparable in neighboring Botswana or South Africa (or even other parts of Zimbabwe!) certainly doesn’t hurt either.
SOMALISA CAMP AT HWANGE NATIONAL PARK – THE SAFARI YOU’VE ALWAYS DREAMED OF
Looking for the quintessential safari experience? Located in Hwange National Park, Somalisa Camp is every animal lover’s dream come true. Everyday at tea time I’d sit at the lodge’s chic plunge pool, placed directly beside a natural pool intended for the camp’s resident elephants. Up to twenty elephants -including a handful of the most adorable baby elephants you’ve ever seen- come within several feet of you as they drink from the natural pool. It is one of the most beautiful encounters with nature I’ve ever experienced.
As if the elephants weren’t enough, Hwange National Park is home to Cecil’s Pride, the family of lions made famous in 2015 when its namesake was brutally poached by an American dentist. Cecil’s two sons are quickly growing and will soon have prides of their own. We witnessed both of them, along with their mothers, aunts and cousins completely at peace in their habitat. To see this pride of over a dozen lions lounging around the national park on various occasions was without a doubt one of the highlights of my Zimbabwe safari memories.
VICTORIA FALLS – THE WORLD’S GREATEST WATERFALLS FROM TWO COUNTRIES
And who could forget Victoria Falls? A trip to Zimbabwe also serves an excuse to cross one of the seven natural wonders of the world off your bucket list. I’ve seen my fair share of waterfalls around the globe, including both sides of Iguassu in Argentina and Brazil, but absolutely nothing compares to Vic Falls. Words really cannot describe its size or intensity. The strength of the water was so profound that while flying in our charter flight from Hwange National Park we could see the mist above Victoria Falls from hundreds of miles away.
A visit to Vic Falls also presents you with the opportunity to add another stamp to your passport if you choose to stay in Zambia. Zambia and Zimbabwe are divided by the Zambezi River (if it weren’t for border patrol you could easily paddle over to Zambia while canoeing at Zambezi Expeditions) and the bridge dividing the two countries can be easily crossed with passport control stations on either side and is conveniently located by the entrances of both countries’ national parks. Zambia has its own park which offers a different perspective of the falls. While not as large and as iconic, it’s certainly worth visiting as well.
I stayed at Thorntree River Lodge, located on the Zambia side just about 20 minutes drive from the border. This two-year old property, located directly on the Zambezi River, is absolutely breathtaking. Each of its ten rooms has its own private plunge pool, outdoor shower and oversized bath tub. The rooms are modern yet rustic, featuring pieces from one of my favorite artists, South African photographer David Ballam. Like Bumi Hills, it’s equal parts romantic and family-friendly so you can’t go wrong. Another incredible feature of Thorntree River Lodge is its butler service included for all guests. The butlers are wonderful and will do anything they can to improve your stay (though to be honest very little extra is needed at this place!).
While the lodge is set within Mosi-Oa-Tunya National Park and offers rhino trekking on foot and traditional game drives, it also features slower paced activities like private sunset river cruises, fishing off the dock, massages at the spa or trips to the Livingstone Museum. Given, I think Thorntree is the perfect place to either begin a trip to Southern Africa after lots of flying or unwind after a “grueling” safari schedule. It’s also conveniently located less than 30 minutes from Livingstone International Airport in Zambia and under an hour from Victoria Falls International Airport, meaning no need for chartered flights and easy access to get to your next destination.
Now to the part that matters most: which lodges do you choose and what itinerary would be right for you?
For honeymooners or luxury travel nuts
For a true luxury experience, it is really hard to beat a combination of Bumi Hills, Somalisa Camp and Thorntree River Lodge. You will want for nothing at any of these three properties and staff is more than happy to cater to the needs of special requests. Our 8 day/7 night itinerary is the perfect go-to for anyone looking for a romantic getaway or simply a way to experience Zimbabwe and Zambia in the most deluxe (yet understated and authentic) way possible. *Our itinerary prices actually reflect mid and even some high season rates for 2018 with $1,500 off per person, so take advantage while you can!
For adventure seekers
For travelers looking for action and excitement, the ideal itinerary would include Kanga Camp, Zambezi Expeditions and Somalisa Expeditions, Somalisa Camp’s neighboring property that offers more mobile-like tents. This combination allows for lots of walking safari, canoeing and fishing, so you won’t feel as if you’re trapped on morning and evening game drives. The accommodations are also more rustic, providing a feeling of true immersion. We’ll have this package launched on our website soon.
For families with children or for multigenerational families, I’d suggest beginning at Kanga Camp. From Kanga Camp you can even arrange a day trip to Zambezi Expeditions for canoeing for the day. From Kanga Camp you’d continue onto Somalisa Acacia, Somalisa’s other property which caters to families. From there you could end the trip at Bumi Hills with a few days to take advantage of their amazing pool and boat rides. Bumi also offers two family villas, which are absolutely ENORMOUS and stunning. Anyone traveling with a group of 4 or more should consider the villa as the pricing is comparable to the regular rooms. For those with a bit more time, an extension onto Thorntree would be a fantastic way to end the trip. We will be posting this itinerary shortly as well.
It’s hard to describe the magic I encountered in Zimbabwe (and Zambia), and can only hope to have the chance to share it with you all when you hopefully make your way to this truly incredible region.