Grand Escapades’ Travel Guide To Zimbabwe – Self Drive Safari Through One Of Africa’s Hidden Gems
Itinerary And Time Of The Visit
In July 2012, after travelling 5.700 kilometers in three weeks in cars, boats and even a canoe, we got a bit of a feel what Zimbabwe is like, at least from a tourist’s perspective… Nevertheless, this country is so large and has so much to offer, both On and Off The Beaten Track that we actually feel we only scratched the surface!
- Starting in Johannesburg in a rented car, we drove straight to Beitbridge & to cross into Zimbabwe,
- Bulawayo & Matobo National Park,
- Hwange National Park (Main Camp & Sinamatella Camp),
- Victoria Falls (only Zimbabwe),
- Ferry from Mlibizi to Kariba on Lake Kariba,
- Canoe Safari in Mana Pools National Park,
- Harare (as a stop-over),
- Gweru & Antelope Park,
- Masvingo & Great Zimbabwe,
- Gonarezhou National Park (Chilojo Cliffs),
- And last but not least, a long drive up north to Mutare to drop Heidi & Jason at the Mozambiquean Border,
- Back to Johannesburg via Beitbridge.
Why Travel To Zimbabwe?
- We had the touristic highlights pretty much to ourselves. Even Victoria Falls – a bit tourist trodden – was quite relaxed…
- The game viewing is unique and so different to safaris in other countries! We explored the National Parks driving ourselves; we walked with a ranger and canoed. We put up our tent at sites littered with elephant dung and hippo tracks. We were right in the middle of all the wildlife. We need to repeat this: mostly it was just us, no convoys of camera yielding visitors!
- Zimbabwe’s highlights are not only crowd-free, they are also very diverse: fine National Parks, historical sites, such as Great Zimbabwe & the incredible cave paintings in Matobo National Park. Add the long time favorite, Victoria Falls with its adrenaline pumping activities under, around & over the Falls and you have a great itinerary. To be frank, even Victoria Falls is not overrun by tourists…
Challenges Organizing The Trip – What Would We Have Wished To Know?
The biggest challenge was actually to find any kind of reliable information. Basically, there is none out there! It was just by chance that we discovered there is a Ferry going on Lake Kariba, which saved us from driving a detour of 1.250 kilometers!
The second biggest challenge is moving around… If you want to discover the National Parks, you need a 4WD, a good one. Those cannot be rented in Zimbabwe, so you have to rely on South African Companies.
Last but not least, finding fellow travelers to cut costs turned quite challenging, as there are so few visitors. We found two though, and had a great time with both Mabon & Jason.
Highlights Of The Trip
- The 4 day / 3 night Canoe Safari with Sunpath Safaris in Mana Pools National Park, what a thrill to be so close to game day and night!
- Being the only people in the whole of Gonarezhou National Park, and having it all to ourselves, plus the sun painted Chilojo Cliffs, the remote camp site and the many elephants.
- Hundreds of elephants gathering around Masuma Dam (Sinamatella Area) in Hwange National Park in the late afternoon, drinking up the storm.
- Walking with lion cubs in Antelope Park… Touching, petting and being so close to these creatures felt like a true privilege! We do understand that some people see this project in a rather critical way…
- The mighty Victoria Falls, actually the most expensive shower we ever had! Gilles even took to the sky to get the whole picture…
- Great Zimbabwe: the hilltop complex and the parallel walls of the Great Enclosure brought us close a glory long past.
- The amazing rock formations and the impressive cave paintings in Matobo National Park.
- Crossing Lake Kariba on a ferry and exchanging stories with our fellow passengers.
How To Go Off The Beaten Track?
Not difficult – Zimbabwe IS now completely Off The Beaten Track, maybe except Victoria Falls and partly Mana Pools National Park. It was once a very popular destination, though…
What Will We Especially Remember?
- Police conduct at road blocks: most of the time they just waved us through; often you could see their mind racing: “What can I possibly ask this tourist?” before finally inquiring how we liked Zimbabwe, and then flashing a huge smile when we said how much we loved it.
- Very relaxed cities, without traffic jam and the usual commotion typical for many big cities in Africa. And actually an extremely thinly populated country.
- The omnipresent all-in-one fast food place “Chicken Inn / Pizza Inn / Cream Inn”
- Afrikaaners dominating Zimbabwe’s most splendid campsites. The few tourists were mostly from South Africa and we were always mistaken for neighbors from the south. Every time we explained that we came from three different countries in Europe, and after Jason joined us, even the USA, people were just struck.
What Would We Do Differently?
- Not wasting time and energy on booking accommodation ahead… except in Mana Pools!
- Take more time! The loop we did was hardly doable in 3 weeks. The trip involved a lot (too much) of driving, since the highlights are far from each other.
- Trying to get more than a glimpse of the Eastern Highlands
- Extend the canoe safari
- And maybe invest more in the adventurous, crazy activities offered in Victoria Falls…
Is It Safe & Is It Morally Justifiable To Travel To Zimbabwe?
Is Zimbabwe dangerous? Not unless you get too close to a hippo… All we can say is that we never for a moment felt in a dodgy situation. The closest we came to nuisance and corruption was going through customs at Beitbridge.
Yes, there are many roadblocks but the police there was very friendly and professional. Take off your sun glasses, smile and be polite, and what you will most likely experience are people eager to give the best image possible of their country. Be sure you know all the rules and requirements asked for rented cars!
Nonetheless, Zimbabwe is still rules with an iron grip by Mugabe, supported by the usual network of crooks who destroyed a once flourishing economy. As always, those hit hardest are the “normal people”. We tried to spend money in local businesses that immensely need it, and hoped that at least part of the money spent in the National Park will be used for conservation, before poaching takes a too heavy toll.
Best Time To Visit Zimbabwe
The best time for wildlife viewing is during the dry season, from April to October. Temperatures can turn unpleasantly hot at the end of the dry season though, especially in the lowlands like Mana Pools.
Most important: check into South African Holidays! The cheap camping options in Zimbabwe’s various National Parks draw a good number of South Africans in their big 4WD and fancy tents. This is especially true from the beginning of December until mid of January and in the 3 first weeks of July.
Communication (Language Barrier?)
With English widely spoken, Zimbabwe is a very easy country to travel. Even in more remote areas, communication was easy…
Getting Around In Zimbabwe
Is Zimbabwe easy to travel? This really depends on whether you have a car or not. Visiting Zimbabwe by car is extremely easy and truly rewarding. Just make sure you know the rules and you respect them! There is a downside of course, you are somehow cut off from the country and the local population. So we certainly missed out on this experience…
There are tourists who move around on public transport, we actually met a few and they were truly limited. Most of the real highlights are simply out of reach without a car. In 2012 renting a 4WD in Zimbabwe seemed difficult, if not impossible and even more expensive than in South Africa.
Citizens of many countries can get a Visa On Arrival, either at the border or at the International Airport in Harare or Bulawayo or Victoria Falls.
If you come from South Africa by car, the process is quite straightforward… In theory! Consider avoiding the notorious Beitbridge border and drive through Botswana / Bulawayo. Several people recommended it, without explaining why… After using this border crossing we understand!
Photography – Zimbabwe: A Safari Destination!
Zimbabwe being a traditional Safari destination, your Tele-Lens will be your best friend! Do not leave it at home.
For landscape photography, you should use a polarization filter most of the time to enhance contrasts.
At many waterholes, also consider filming, especially elephants. There, a tripod is no luxury!
Best & Most Inspiring Travel Blogs For Zimbabwe
There is very limited information about Zimbabwe, as this is a very expensive country to travel. This was actually the main challenge when organizing the trip…
Conclusion About Zimbabwe…
Zimbabwe was actually a lot easier to travel than it seemed when we started preparing the trip: there was so little information on the web!
Yes, we are glad we visited in 2012: to have most of the tourist destinations to ourselves made this a very special trip. Soon, Zimbabwe will again be the popular tourist destination it once was.
To a tourist, the country looked politically stable with Zimbabweans simply waiting for Mugabe to disappear and for things starting to improve further. In the last few years Zimbabwe has lifted itself up with incredible speed and we truly hope this continues. The country has tremendous potential, well-educated people, natural resources, fertile soil, an impressive infrastructure and lots to offer to tourists.
So go NOW, when Zimbabwe is still a “hidden gem”!