Already in 2010 we played with the idea of visiting Zimbabwe, but found very little information. The economic collapse and the surreal inflation rate made travelling there infeasible between 1998 and 2009. A few blogs raved about an amazing country and some travel guides pointed at some of the challenges, but did not provide answers. Ironically, prior to the dark years, Zimbabwe used to be major tourist destination, with more than 2 million visitors a year.
Our parameters were: we did not want to book the trip through a tour operator to have maximum flexibility. The initial plan was to cover long distances between cities on public transport and then use a local tour operator for the national parks. After spending weeks looking into that the result was sobering. We would save next to nothing and thus rented a jeep for the entire trip. So for those who want to head this way in the near future, hopefully the following information is helpful.
Costs? Zimbabwe is not cheap! When reading the individual entries and under “Budget”, you will find lots of information on prices.
Renting a 4WD? Where? Without a car, visiting the national parks (Matobo, Hwange, and especially Mana Pool & Gonarezhou) is virtually impossible, unless you go there through local tour operators. This is not cheap either. A high clearance is necessary in almost all national parks, as is a 4WD in Mana Pools, Gonarezhou and for some of the remote tracks in Matobo and Hwange National Park. Actually renting a jeep in Zimbabwe seemed impossible: all our mails remained either unanswered or the reply took weeks, giving very little details about what is actually offered. So we rented at Bushlore in Johannesburg / South Africa a Toyota HiLux 4WD with rooftop tent and camping gear for a rough 150 USD a day. To share the cost for the car we looked for fellow travelers on the Lonely Planet ThornTree Forum. Although not many people travel to Zimbabwe, hardly any on public transport, we were lucky!
Booking ahead? We met very few tourists everywhere we visited, except Victoria Falls and Mana Pools National Park. Most tourists still only visit Victoria Falls and maybe Mana Pools, which are within easy reach from Zambia. It was definitely not necessary to have reservations for accommodation in Hwange and Matobo National Park. Not to book would have saved us a lot of worries, because we only got the confirmation that we had paid the day we left for Zimbabwe. Only Mana Pool National Park was booked out, according to ZimParks.org. But we learned that their reservation system is not completely reliable, to put it mildly. Actually, not getting a camp site in Mana Pool turned out be the best that could happen to us! Otherwise, we would not have booked that expensive canoe safari, the very, very highlight of our trip! Of course, luxury private lodges for 400 USD per person per day are waiting for tourists.
Kariba Ferry booking? Any booking in Mana Pool should be coordinated with the schedule of the Kariba Ferry between Mlibizi & Kariba (or Kariba & Mlibizi), especially if you have a car with a rooftop tent: the ferry can only take 3 cars with extra height.