How to plan the ideal holiday to Zimbabwe

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Why should you visit this revitalised southern African country and how can you make
the most of your trip? Shelley Cox tells you everything you need to know: how long to go for; how many days to spend in each place; how to get from A to B; the best places for families, birdwatching and wildlife, and much more

Zimbabwe: a land full of charismatic personalities, prolific wildlife and spectacular landscapes. The country in which I was born, and which I proudly call home. Its vibrant heartbeat is its resilient people, eager to see their nation reborn as one of the most sought-after destinations in Africa. With its rich cultural history, natural wonders and scenic beauty, Zimbabwe should be on every Africa enthusiast’s bucket list, a country to which it is possible to return time and time again, and experience something different on each visit.

We have indeed had our fair share of challenges, but given our tumultuous political and economic past, the country’s wildlife and habitats remain for the most part intact and in a healthy state. This is largely due to the conservation-focused approach of many of the country’s guides and operators who have maintained a strong presence and have continuously worked hand-in-hand with the Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (Zimparks) to ensure the long-term preservation of our natural heritage.

The ‘coup but not a coup’ of November 2017 was typically Zimbabwean — peaceful yet full of hope and excitement. As the new government took charge, led by Emmerson Mnangagwa, the people faced the future with optimism. The change in political stance to one of inclusiveness has spurred on new infrastructural developments and investment across the country, and ease of access by both road and air has already improved.

Contrary to some perceptions, the country is remarkably safe and easy to get around with a fairly good road network linking the regions, domestic flights between the larger cities, and reliable air charters into the remoter destinations. Road blocks have been removed, a number of roads between the major cities have been resurfaced, and the option to self-drive is firmly back on the table. Health-wise, the country has a professional and reliable medical air rescue service in case of emergencies, and in most of the major cities there are decent private medical facilities available, ensuring visitors with health insurance will be well looked after.

Price-wise, Zimbabwe remains competitive with its neighbours and across most of the country there is a wide range of accommodation to suit different budgets. Existing properties have, over the the past two to three years, been completing refurbishments and extensions, and new accommodation facilities are being developed to cater to the increased tourist demand.

I hope that this feature on Zimbabwe will provide you with a good overview of the highlights, where to travel to and for how long, and that it will spur you on to visit our magnificent homeland as we take these bold steps to once again become one of Africa’s most alluring destinations.

Not for many years has there been a more exciting time to visit a country on a very clear and evident road to recovery.

Zimbabwe’s unique attributes
A safe destination  Zimbabwe is considered one of Africa’s most peaceful destinations. Decent medical facilities are available in the major cities, and ACE Air and Ambulance service operates locally and regionally to provide medical services and evacuations.

Diverse landscapes  Around 13 per cent of Zimbabwe’s total land, which amounts to over 5 million hectares, is designated to wildlife and natural habitats. Spread across this are 12 national parks, 15 safari areas and 14 recreational parks. In the west, the landscape is dominated by mixed woodland forests, whereas the Eastern Highlands has a sub-tropical montane forest landscape with rolling valleys, waterfalls and tea and coffee estates. Further south, the Chilojo Cliffs and warm desert climate starkly contrast with the rest of the country, and in the far north lies the Zambezi Valley.

Friendly, talented and hospitable people  Despite the economic hardships, Zimbabweans retain their justified reputation for being friendly, hard-working and creative. There is a strong sense of ‘extending a helping hand’ to anyone in need.

Rich cultural heritage and history  Zimbabwe maintains a strong connection with its ancient past, showcased in the ruins of Great Zimbabwe. Today’s nation is made up primarily of Shona and Ndebele, with Tonga in the north and north-west, Shangaan/Hlengwe in the lowveld and Venda on the border with South Africa as minority ethnic groups.

Prolific wildlife  The landscape supports the Big Five as well as some of Africa’s most endangered species. Zimbabwe has the second-largest population of elephant in the world and maintains healthy populations of lion, wild dog and cheetah in different regions. The country supports an estimated 4440 plant species, 672 bird species, 196 mammal species, 156 reptile species, 57 species of amphibians and 132 fish species.

Outstanding guiding reputation  Zimbabwe’s guides are considered among the best trained in Africa. Aspiring guides follow an extensive and arduous qualification process, which takes, on average, three to five years.

Family friendly  Zimbabweans adore children, so families will be welcomed with greater enthusiasm than ever. Most camps now have family units, sometimes set aside from the main camp to minimise disruption, and can arrange activities that appeal to young nature lovers.

Variety of activities  Whether you prefer to experience these wild areas by foot, horseback, vehicle or canoe, there are several destinations offering both land- and water-based activities, all of which can cater to specific interests including game viewing, birdwatching, cultural or historic site visits, community development project visits, or adventure activities.

 

Where to go

Given the wide range of sights and experiences on offer in Zimbabwe, here’s our highlights:

1 Lake Kariba
As the world’s largest man-made lake by volume, Lake Kariba boasts fabulous sunsets and relaxing houseboat accommodation from which to explore its wildlife-rich shores or to go fishing.
Activities: Game drives, boat cruises, guided walking safaris, catch and release fishing, and more
How long: 2 nights in Kariba, 4–5 nights on a houseboat
Access: Road or air charter
Accommodation: Some boutique lodges in Kariba, houseboats on the lake
2 Zambezi NP
Zambezi National Park, located close to Victoria Falls, is home to a wide range of Africa’s larger and smaller wildlife species.
Activities: Game drives, walking safaris, fishing, boat cruises, day trips to Victoria Falls town
How long: 2 nights
Access: Air, road and boat
Accommodation: Exclusive tented camps, Zimparks lodges and campsites
3 Victoria Falls
Built around one of the world’s most awe-inspiring natural sights, this bustling town is named after the majestic Victoria Falls. With its new international airport, it is set to become the southern African hub for access to the region.
Activities: Tour of Victoria Falls, adrenalin activities (bungee jump, gorge swing, treetop canopy walk, zip-line, flying fox, sky-dive), whitewater rafting, canoeing, helicopter flights, game drives and more
How long: 3 nights
Access: International or domestic flights, air charters and road
Accommodation: Larger hotels, safari lodges, boutique hotels and B&Bs, mid-to high-end tented camps
4 Hwange NP
Renowned for its big elephant herds; has one of the highest diversity of species of any reserve in southern Africa.
Activities: Game drives, guided walks, Painted Dog centre, horseback safaris and village visits
How long: 3-4 nights
Access: Road or air charter
Accommodation: Tented camps, lodges and campsites
5 Chizarira NP
Known as ‘The Hidden Gorges’ of Zimbabwe, little-known Chizarira has some of the most staggering views of rugged landscapes, gorges and ravines.
Activities: Self-drive game drives, walking safaris, birding
How long: 2–3 nights
Access: Self-drive by road but soon to include air charters
Accommodation: Currently two basic campsites, although plans for a family lodge in place
6 Umfurudzi NP
This small, lesser-known park is located along the cool, grassy banks of the Mazowe River. It offers exceptional birding and is home to several crowned eagle nesting sites.
Activities: Game drives, walking and horse-riding safaris; birdwatching, fishing, rock art visits
How long: Day trip or 1 night
Access: Road
Accommodation: Zimparks tented camp, chalets and campsites
7 Mana Pools NP and Sapi Game Reserve
The Zambezi Valley gives a true sense of an untouched wilderness. Mana Pools is famous for its canoe safaris along the Zambezi as well as its elephant, which stand on their hind legs to reach into the albida trees.
Activities: Game drives, walking and canoe safaris, catch-and-release fishing
How long: 4–5 nights
Access: Road or air charter
Accommodation: Variety of tented camps, lodges and mobile camps; plus Zimparks lodges and campsites8 Khami Ruins
This national monument, located 22km from Bulawayo, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is well worth a visit, particularly for those who are unable to visit Masvingo and Great Zimbabwe. It is made up of a complex series of dry-stone-wall platforms, and objects from Europe and China have been excavated here.
How long: Day trip from Bulawayo or Matopos.
Access: Road

9 Matobo NP
Takes its name from the granite kopjes for which it’s known: Matobo means ‘Bald Head’ in Ndebele. With over 3000 registered rock art sites, the area has an ancient cultural history.
Activities: Game drives, walking safaris, rhino tracking, birdwatching, rock climbing, hiking, visit to Cecil Rhodes’ grave and rock art sites
How long: 2–3 nights
Access: Flights to Bulawayo and road
Accommodation: Tented camps, lodges and campsites
10 Mavuradonha Wilderness Area
Translated from the Shona language as ‘Land of Falling Water’, Mavuradonha Wilderness Area is under-rated and largely unvisited. The terrain is wild, with heavily wooded granite outcrops and numerous streams rising in the mountains, flowing north to the Zambezi, sometimes cutting steep waterfalls in the rock as they make their way off the escarpment. Elephant, leopard, eland, sable, kudu and zebra are found here, and it is also a richly rewarding area for birdwatching, with some 290 species.
Activities: Walking, birdwatching, rock art site visits
How long: 2–3 nights
Access: Road — 4WD experience necessary
11 Eastern Highlands
Stretching for 300km, bordering Mozambique, are the Eastern Highlands — the combined name for three mountain ranges that directly contrast with the rest of the country. They combine sub-montane woodlands, open grasslands and rolling mountains, extending into sub-tropical terrain with beautiful waterfalls and landscapes.
Activities: Tea and coffee plantation tours, hiking, waterfall visits, trout fishing, golf, horse-riding, historical sites, game drives, walking safaris, whitewater rafting
How long: 2–3 nights
Access: Road
Accommodation: Small boutique lodges and larger lodges
12 Harare
Zimbabwe’s capital is home to a large portion of the population. Its hustle and bustle is worth experiencing for one or two nights at the beginning or end of your safari and gives a good overview of the atmosphere and stability of the country. Typical of any developing city, Harare has a number of shopping malls, art and craft markets, as well as diverse restaurants catering to local and international tastes.
Activities: Township tours, visit to the national art gallery or Chapungu Sculpture Park, Wild is Life animal sanctuary, market trips
How long: 1–2 nights
Access: International and domestic flights, road
Accommodation: Hotels, B&Bs, boutique guest lodges
13 Great Zimbabwe
The medieval city of Great Zimbabwe is believed to have once served as the royal palace for the local monarch and stands as testimony to the creative energy of the Zimbabwean people. It is considered the largest ancient monument in southern Africa and its impressive central area spans 80 hectares. It is well worth hiring a guide, and the best times to visit are early mornings and late afternoons when the light is better for photography and temperatures are cooler.
How long: 1 night
Access: Road
Accommodation: Fairly basic hotels14 Gonarezhou NP
While the park is challenging to get to, visitors are rewarded with astounding scenery, growing wildlife populations and the satisfaction of supporting an effective community partnership. The breathtaking Chilojo Cliffs are a highlight, but the park has a number of other hidden gems such as Chivilila Falls.
Activities: Game drives, walking safaris, community visits, hiking
How long: 3–4 nights
Access: Air charter or road
Accommodation: One lodge and one exclusive mobile camp, Zimparks campsites and chalets

How to do it

You would need at least a month to do full justice to all of Zimbabwe’s remarkable sights, so most people select a combination of attractions that suit their interests and which are easily linked. Here we highlight three popular circuits, each with their own character, which show the country’s versatile nature and accessibility. Link them together for the ultimate grand tour!

Getting around
Air charter
A number of the more remote destinations are easily accessed by air, which offers a quicker transfer time than road transport. For those who don’t have budget restrictions but who are short on time, this option is recommended. Charter operators provide safe, reliable, quick and comfortable access to most of the major national parks and a number of the safari camps have bush airstrips. Charter flight times are usually confirmed 24-48 hours before departure if travelling on a ‘seat’ basis rather than a private charter basis, so keep this in mind when planning your circuit.

Private road transfer
For those on a slightly tighter budget or who prefer to travel by road, it is recommended to book road transfers with a private operator who will provide a comfortable and reliable door-to-door service to your destinations. Vehicles are generally air-conditioned minibuses, but be aware that circuits can be limited due to the distance between destinations.

Self-drive itineraries
Zimbabwe is one of the safest countries in Africa to drive in, and its road networks are in mostly decent condition. This makes it an appealing country self-drive, particularly for those who wish to explore the more remote areas. While sedan vehicles can be used to drive between major parks, cities and towns, if you want a wilderness experience, and are planning to go off the beaten track, you should consider hiring a 4WD. Driving is on the left-hand side of the road, major roads are well maintained, and the historical issues of road blocks are now a thing of the past, making the journey a lot more pleasant!

Circuit 1: Victoria Falls, Hwange, Matusadona National Park and Mana Pools
Best for: Wildlife
Recommended duration: 10 nights/11 days
Why this combination works: This circuit covers four of the national parks within the north-west including Zimbabwe’s largest national park and two World Heritage Sites. Each of the areas has good populations of a wide range of species and provides ample opportunities to encounter elephant, lion, wild dog, hyena and plains game. Taking in the magical Victoria Falls, the wildlife-dense waterholes of Hwange, Lake Kariba and the Zambezi Valley, and the impressive Zambezi River, this route has everything for the wildlife enthusiast: epic scenery, prolific game viewing and adventurous activities.
Activities: Tour of Victoria Falls, sundowner cruise, game drives, walking safaris, catch and release fishing, canoeing safaris, Star Beds, community visits
How to tie it together: Arriving in Victoria Falls, you will be road transferred in and around this lively tourist hub. Hwange is only two-three hours from Victoria Falls by road, but you need to fly by air charter to get to Matusadona and Mana Pools as there is no direct road linkage. There is a weekly ferry service up the length of Lake Kariba for self-drivers. Fly in or out of Victoria Falls or spend a few days in Harare at either end.
Add-on: Gonarezhou is highly recommended as an add-on, since there are now twice-weekly flights from Harare. Including Gonarezhou allows you to cover five of Zimbabwe’s most popular national parks.

Who is it for? Wildlife enthusiasts, bird lovers, photographers, adventure travellers, honeymooners, families, walkers/hikers, conservationists.
Insider tip: “If you are lucky enough to enjoy a safari experience at Mana Pools, consider making a contribution towards local efforts to keep the area wild. Contribute to their work and make your Mana safari meaningful.” Sally Wynn, Wild Zambezi

Circuit 2: Harare, Great Zimbabwe, Matobo, Hwange and Victoria Falls
Best for: Culture, history and wildlife
Recommended duration: 10 nights/11 days
Why this combination works: This circuit has good road connections, linking the capital with Victoria Falls by encompassing a stimulating variety of attractions. Great Zimbabwe and Matobo provide an insight into the cultural history of this land. Matobo is a unique and dramatic landscape that contrasts well with the open wildlife reserve of Hwange and the drama of Victoria Falls. The beauty of this circuit lies in the variety of the experiences along the way.
Activities: Visits to Great Zimbabwe, rock art sites and Cecil Rhodes’ grave, game drives, walking safaris, rhino tracking, My Beautiful Home cycling tour, community visits
How to tie it together: The only way to link all these attractions is by road; but the route is easy, the roads are good and each connecting leg is only about three-four hours easy driving, making it a pleasant, manageable itinerary. Fly in at one end and out the other, or take a connecting flight back to your port of entry.
Add-on: There are two equally appealing add-ons, each with its own unique character. Break off from Great Zimbabwe to visit the hard and vast wilderness of Gonarezhou, or take a charter flight from Victoria Falls to Kariba for dramatic lakeside game viewing and a spot of tiger fishing.

Who is it for? This has a bit of something for everyone: history and culture enthusiasts, adventure travellers, families, wildlife enthusiasts and bird lovers, photographers.
Insider tip: “End in Matobo. Vic Falls will give you adrenalin and Hwange your safari experience, while Matobo will provide the much needed relaxation part. It’s filled with culture and history and will give you a glimpse into the real Zimbabwe.” Savannah Stead, Amalinda Safari Collection

Circuit 3: Harare, Eastern Highlands and Gonarezhou
Best for: Landscapes, waterfalls and wildlife
Recommended duration: 10 nights/11 days
Why this combination works: Zimbabweans – particularly those living in Harare – appreciate the Eastern Highlands as an easy getaway, into the mountains to escape, enjoy the hikding trails and numerous waterfalls. It is a much underhyped region that is a surprising contrast to the rest of the country. And it is this contrast with the semi-arid lowveld of the Gonarezhou that makes this combination so enticing and showcases Zimbabwe’s diverse habitats so clearly. Good road connections make self-drive easy. For bird lovers, I cannot recommend this route highly enough.
Activities: Tea or coffee estate tours, waterfalls, mountain hiking, game drives, walking safaris, community visits.
How to tie it together: The only air connections between these destinations are thrice-weekly flights between Harare and Gonarezhou, but if you want to incorporate the Eastern Highlands you will need to travel by car. Again, the road network is good, and most drives between locations are about three-to-four hours. You’ll need a four-wheel-drive in Gonarezhou, and it is recommended for much of the Eastern Highlands, especially if you want to explore deeper into the park or the southern Chimanimani area.
Add-on: Travel via Great Zimbabwe to Bulawayo and the Matobo Hills. Extend on to Hwange and Victoria Falls!

Who is it for? Adventure travellers, families, wildlife and bird lovers, off-the-beaten-track explorers, landscape photographers, mountaineers, hikers, conservationists.
Insider tip: “Get out and hike the Eastern Highlands. Search for waterfalls, kayak the rivers, embark on a five-day Turaco Trail hike over Zimbabwe’s highest point, and finish with cake and coffee at Tony’s famous cafe in Vumba.” Kelley Austen, Explore Zimbabwe

 

Top tips from those who know it best

ZIM-STYLE SUNDOWNER
Julian Carter-Manning, Yellow Zebra Safaris
“It isn’t the grand-scale experiences that make Zimbabwe unforgettable. Rather, it’s the small things, such as watching a herd of elephant with the setting sun behind them (right). Moments like these are enhanced by the sundowner you choose. We recommend drinking the local stuff — and we do not mean chibuku! Go for a Bohlinger’s Lager. Or have an Amarula — the favourite tipple of the wildlife!”CULTURE
Carien Londt, Flame of Africa
“Remember Zimbabwe has a fantastic culture to explore as well as the wildlife; be flexible and embrace what people are up to around you. Be prepared to smile a lot and nod along — you might get a good campfire story out of it!”

VISAS
Melanie Du Toit, Rhino Africa
“Make sure you get the right visa. The Kaza UniVisa lets you travel as many times as you want between Zambia and Zimbabwe — ideal when visiting Victoria Falls! Single and multi-entry visas are also available.”

FAMILY
Phil Dobbinson, Zambezi Cruise Safaris
“If you’re travelling with kids or teens in tow, hire a houseboat on Lake Kariba. The views are astounding and the excitement of game viewing and fishing in this setting is like nothing else on offer in Africa.”

MONEY
Ross Kennedy, Africa Albida Tourism
“Always have US dollars on you in small denominations for tipping waiters and making small purchases such as souvenirs at the craft markets.”

Ultimate Zimbabwe

If you have time to spare, don’t feel restricted to the three circuits on the previous pages. You can tick off all of the country’s major highlights and remote corners in a month or so, says Kelley Austen of Explore Zimbabwe

One thing to remember is that you can drive easily here — and this is the best way of getting around if time is on your side. Get a dependable, high-clearance 4WD vehicle to navigate the bush tracks and potholes. Have an up-to-date GPS, your map and directions well laid out from your tour operator — don’t leave it to chance that a road will be marked. Fill up with fuel in the major cities. The police road blocks are no longer there to search vehicles; tourists are very welcome. Upon arrival at any of the major airports, get a Zimbabwe sim card for your phone at an Econet shop so that you can access your Whatsapp, phone and maps during your travels. Load a monthly package so that you are always online. Note the number for Road Angels for roadside assistance anywhere. Finally, include Harare in your itinerary — this safe and beautiful city is home to renowned art galleries, music festivals, fashion houses and the home studio of silversmith Patrick Mavros.

 

ESSENTIAL ZIMBABWE

Language  The official language is English. The local languages of Shona (most prominent in the east and north) and Ndebele (mainly in the west and central areas) are also widely spoken.
Time zone  GMT + 1
International dialling code  + 263
Visas  Required by nationals of most countries; available upon entry, at land crossings and airports.
Health  Malaria is present so prophylactics should be taken by all visitors. Bottled water is widely available.
Safety  Zimbabwe continues to be one of the safest and most hassle-free countries in Africa. Much as it is at home, the biggest risk is from car accidents.
Money  The US dollar is currently the most accepted and widely used currency. It is advisable to carry your credit card with you and cash for personal requirements as there is an insufficient supply of cash in the country. I highly recommend bringing smaller notes as often change is not readily available. There is no restriction on how much you can bring in but travellers are only allowed to leave with a maximum of US$2000. Generally most restaurants and bars accept credit cards.
Costs  Zimbabwe’s wide range of accommodation and transportation caters to travellers on all budgets. It is known in the safari industry as one of the best value-for-money destinations.
Getting there  Most international carriers fly into the shiny new Victoria Falls International Airport and Harare International Airport, so you have a variety of options. It is possible to fly into one airport and out of another, which gives you flexibility in your itinerary.
Getting around  Fastjet operates locally and regionally between Vic Falls, Harare, Bulawayo and Jo’burg. Internal and external air charters operate to most national parks. Privately operated transfer vehicles are recommended for road transfers between destinations if you are not self-driving.
Books  Bradt’s Zimbabwe (3rd edition) by Paul Murray; Footprint’s Zimbabwe Handbook by Lizzie Williams
Find out more  http://www.zimbabwetourism.net

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