Africa specialist, Matt, had always dreamed of visiting Zimbabwe. Lured to its plains by the promise of exceptional guiding and extraordinary safari experiences, he set out to experience the country and all it has to offer for himself. Here, he explains what makes Zimbabwe unique when it comes to getting up close with the flora and fauna of Africa.
Walking with rhino in the Matopos
About an hour south of Bulawayo are the stunning Matobo Hills. Whilst this isn’t the sort of place where you’ll be ticking off species after species, it is probably one the best on-foot experiences you can have with rhino. My guide Kevin pulled up around 50 metres from a large male rhino and casually asked, “why don’t you grab your camera and we’ll just walk over towards that tree line?” Flabbergasted, I hopped off the vehicle and stuck to Kevin like glue for fear of being charged at. After some soothing words from him, we were able to approach to within around 10 metres of this magnificent beast. I was spellbound and truly humbled from being so close to this prehistoric beauty.
Dining with elephants in Hwange
Many camps and lodges will take your breath away in Africa thanks to the sheer beauty of the views and their incredible settings. And whilst camp hosts and hostesses are integral to a stay, it is rarely them that make you gasp in amazement when you first arrive. At Nehimba Lodge, however, you almost feel as if you are being welcomed by elephants who queue up by the swimming pool, waiting their turn before plunging their trunks into the fresh clear water for a long, thirst-quenching slurp. You could reach out and touch them – they’re that close or even hop in to the pool before they arrive for the best seat in the house. It is one of those “pinch yourself” moments that I still can’t quite believe happened!
Witnessing the magic of Victoria Falls
The towering statue of David Livingstone looms over you as you edge closer to the mighty falls. He once waxed lyrical about the Victoria Falls and his famous quote, “scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight” all makes sense as soon as you stand in front of the Devils Cataract for your first view of them. I finally understood why he spent so much time writing about the Falls – he was mesmerised by their beauty, and so was I. I can vividly remember being captivated by the sight of a hornbill bird (one of my favourite species) fluttering around in the trees in front of me, with the falls raging in the background almost like something an animator would create in a story book or cartoon. It had a strangely serene and ethereal feel to it; an encounter I will never forget.
Riding the Elephant Express
Train delays are so frustrating, but when you’re travelling on the Elephant Express from Dete to Ngamo, train delays are positively encouraged and even welcomed by everyone! The Elephant Express is a specially adapted railcar with comfy seats, huge open sides for panoramic vistas, and plenty of chilled drinks. It runs from the small town of Dete, travelling southbound alongside Hwange National Park to properties in the south eastern corner of the park. And what an incredible way to start a safari! I’ve found lots of different ways to view wildlife – in a vehicle, on foot, in photographic hides, on horseback, on a mountain bike, and even by microlight; but from a train…now, that is a new one for me and so enjoyable too. The drivers and guides encourage unscheduled stops to watch the elephants wander across the tracks, and lions have even been spotted slouched over the tracks enjoying a midday siesta.
Up close encounters
“Sneak in quickly guys, and don’t make too much noise” said our guide, Sibs, as he ushered us in to the photographic hide sunken into the ground. Within a few minutes, we were all sat gazing up out of a huge shipping crate at a bull elephant which was noisily slurping from the waterhole in front of us. There wasn’t the usual “click click” of camera shutters for a while, simply because none of us had ever seen an elephant from this perspective before – looking up at this huge old boy, so close we could study his toe nails and point out the hairs on his trunk. The way he used his truck fascinated me for ages, before I finally snapped out of my trance and began shooting away with my camera for some of the best elephant shots I’ve ever taken.
Approaching big game on foot… and on bums!
I’m quite used to going on a walking safari and being told that the buffalo or the elephants or the lion had come this way, or that they’re over that way. And then we promptly turn around and avoid any possibility of bumping in to them. However, in Zimbabwe the guides seemed hell bent on getting us as close as possible to anything remotely dangerous, and I loved it! At no point did I feel in danger and at one point I had to stop and take stock of what was happening… I was shuffling along the middle of a pan, towards some water where there were around 200 buffalo drinking. I didn’t stop for long since the rest of the group were ahead of me, and by the time we stopped, we were about 20 or 30 metres from the buffalo, totally exposed and sat on our bums. Simply incredible!
Canoeing on the Zambezi
You can’t visit Zimbabwe without getting in a canoe. The Zambezi is the perfect place for a canoe safari, which could be a wildlife experience, or you can choose to run a few rapids. I chose the rapids. In my mind, it sounded safer to play on the rapids than bat off hippos and crocodiles…that was until one of our group took a dunk in the river after the fourth rapid! Thankfully she was absolutely fine and we even took the time to jest with our guide Blessed, who’s boat it was that went under. An exhilarating experience interspersed with opportunities to kick back and let the current take you down-stream – pure bliss.
Swimming in crocodile infested waters
“Well I’d let my children swim here so you can tell how safe I think it is”- our guide John seemed crazy to me. We’d just seen a monstrous crocodile in the Zambezi, probably about 12-foot-long, and here we were, upstream and perched on a rocky outcrop in the water. Everyone disembarked, chivvied by the prospect of a gin and tonic sundowner in the middle of a small island on the Zambezi. John had other ideas for some of us… “Yeah, just there, there is a deep pool. You can jump in, grab the rocks, float around with your beer and watch the sun go down. The crocs won’t come here, but just don’t get swept out that way in to the open water.” Well, with the safety briefing all done, we stripped off our t-shirts and jumped in, Zambezi beer in hand. The little fish nipping at my feet were a little unnerving but I can now say I swam in the crocodile infested Zambezi… well, sort of!
Sitting with wild dogs in Mana Pools
“Dogs, over there next to the sausage tree.” Alarmed, I dropped my beer which spilt everywhere but it didn’t matter. Our guide had just seen wild dogs pass close to us whilst we enjoyed a sundowner on the banks of the Zambezi in Mana Pools. I rushed for the binoculars and caught a glimpse of them as they left, probably in pursuit of a tasty morsel for dinner. Knowing how hard it is to see the fascinating but elusive predators, I was ecstatic just to be in their presence momentarily. Then dawn the following day brought an even bigger surprise – firstly, that it had even arrived because the night had seemed endless thanks to hippos bumping the side of the tent and elephants feeding close by. That’s before we mention the feeling in the pit of your stomach when you hear the lions call at night – a primeval feeling reaching back centuries. But dawn did arrive, and it brought us the wild dogs. The dogs were in the same area and they were settling down for their morning siesta. Not only did we get a great chance to see them, we in fact approached on foot and sat with them for 2 hours. I doubt I’ll ever be this lucky again with the wild dogs – simply incredible.
The armchair safari
Kanga Pan lies deep within Mana Pools, away from the hustle and bustle of the river. It isn’t somewhere that you’d normally think to come, but the camp here is built around the pan where there is permanent water. Importantly, it is the only permanent water for miles and that has given birth to the armchair safari! No need to rattle around in a 4×4 getting your twice daily “African massage”. Just kick back with a cold drink, your camera and binoculars close at hand whilst enjoying everything unfolding in front of you. Elephants come and go to drink and bathe, along with buffalo, impala, baboons and a myriad of birdlife. And then as dusk comes, the show really begins. Spotlights reveal lions, leopards, hyena, civets, and much more. It’s really hard to focus on your food when wildlife is being pointed out to you left, right and centre. What a show!
Birding and boating on Lake Kariba
50 species before lunchtime. I couldn’t quite believe it when Steve told me, but that is how good the birding on Lake Kariba is and, of course, how excellent a guide (and host) Steve is at Musango Camp. We headed out on the pontoon up the creek to see what wildlife we could spot. Several kingfishers posed perfectly for me, though I struggled to capture them with my limited photographic skills. And then came the highlight. Steve took out some dead fish from a cooler box – sushi for sundowners?That’s different, I thought. But thankfully they were not for me. A pair of fish eagles in the area are semi-habituated to come at Steve’s call – they come swooping down towards the lake, talons outstretched in front of them before clasping the fish and perching on a tree to enjoy their own sundowner. A record-breaking five fish later, and the male was probably feeling like he’d sat for Christmas dinner before we called it a day, some beautiful photographs banked for posterity.