Expert Reviews – Hwange NP

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Zimbabwe’s wilderness flagship
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Hwange is Zimbabwe’s biggest and finest national park – more than 14,000 sq km of crackling dry teak forest, thornveld and mopane woodland reaching away to the Botswana border. That’s an area the size of Belgium, so there’s plenty of space in which Hwange’s famous elephant herds can roam at will. The rest of the big five are here, too, with lion and buffalo in good numbers, and tons of other wildlife including magnificent sable antelope and 400 bird species. For me the best time to be here is in the dry season. This is the African winter, when the ordeal trees turn to gold, when the Kalahari sands shine white as snow under the full moon and the cries of jackals carry far in the cold night air. It’s also the time when lack of rain draws all the animals to what few waterholes remain, making for spectacular game viewing.

My favourite areas are the open parklands around Somavundhla Pan and the mini-Serengeti of Ngamo Pan, its far horizons rimmed with ilala palms. Explore them from Makalolo or Little Makalolo bush camp– both run with great style by Wilderness Safaris. Ngamo Pan was bone dry the last time I was there, with sable running through the sun-dried grass. But if you come in the rains it’s more like the Okavango – water lilies everywhere and storks hunting frogs in a foot of water.

An elephant’s tail
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Once a royal hunting ground, Hwange is Zimbabwe’s most game rich national park. Boasting one of the highest concentrations of elephants in Africa it is also one of the best places on the continent to see the lumbering giant of the bush in large numbers. Elephant lovers take note. Beyond elephants, other large mammals you can expect to spy include giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, kudo, impala, sable, ostrich, hyena and jackal. All ticked off on my last visit. Frustratingly, as I discovered, lions are more often than not heard but not seen. Unlike the vast open plains of the national parks in East Africa, Hwange’s landscape is dominated by extensive stands of teak woodlands and rugged hilly areas of exposed rock, so you certainly have to work harder to find the game. But that’s all part of the park’s charm. While accommodation in and around the park ranges from the sumptuous to the basic, for me the best way to experience the magic of Hwange is to camp as at night the air comes alive with the serenades of the savannah. Lying back in your tent with little more than a sleeping to protect you can be a little unnerving as you listen to the screech of bats intermingling with the whoops of hyena and the deep-throated distant growls of lions but it’s an experience you’ll never forget.

Zimbabwe’s classic Big Five reserve, for old-school safari adventures
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Once the pride of Zimbabwe’s safari circuit, Hwange has suffered from chronic underfunding in recent years. Despite this, it still has huge numbers of elephants. Within minutes of entering this enormous park, I found myself watching a large herd approach a waterhole for the elephant equivalent of a garden party, with adults drinking and socialising amiably and youngsters splashing about in the mud. And as I continued my game drive, we came across many more elephants – along with plenty of evidence of the damage they can do.

It’s easy to see baboons, antelopes and big cats in Hwange, too. Leopards and wild dogs are also present but, as usual, harder to spot. Mechanised boreholes spoil the atmosphere somewhat, but it’s thanks to them that the animals are here, and some of the watering places they feed have fantastic hides from which to observe the day’s comings and goings.

Hwange is close to the tourist hub of Victoria Falls but its accommodation options tend to have a reassuringly authentic feel. You won’t find any luxury-hotel-style places here – instead, you’ll find comfortable, timber-built camps with highly professional staff and excellent guides, proficient in bushwalks as well as game drives.

Elephant playground
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Hwange was my introduction to the African bush and still holds some of my fondest wildlife memories: a crocodile pulling down a kudu; a snouted cobra raiding the nest of a capped wheatear; a honey badger snatching my dinner from the table. Zimbabwe’s premier national park, this 14,500 sq km reserve is best known for its huge concentrations of elephant and buffalo, which dominate waterholes in the dry season. The wooded terrain in many areas makes game viewing harder than on the open plains of East Africa, however, and nothing is guaranteed. Lions are relatively elusive, for example, though I have always been lucky with leopards, and the park is good for both cheetah and wild dog.

Other highlights include large herds of sable. Conditions are semi-arid, with no permanent rivers, but the park’s mix of habitats means an unusual biodiversity – including a rich birdlife, with many Kalahari species. A decent network of roads and public camps makes this a popular self-drive destination for locals, but the infrastructure has been neglected, and today many visitors prefer upmarket private concessions along the eastern boundary. Either way, Zimbabwe’s difficulties mean that these days you won’t meet many other tourists. For spectacular views, head northwest to the Sinamatella plateau.

Cecil’s homeland – and much more besides…
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Hwange holds very special memories for me. Now famous as the home to Cecil, that gorgeous black-maned lion killed by a trophy hunter, I first visited in 2012 and was lucky enough to see him on Kennedy 2 plains. I recently returned to write about Cecil’s Legacy and Hwange a year after his tragic death. For several days, we searched and searched for his pride, three lionesses and seven 18-month old cubs, seemingly to no avail. But on our very last drive we found them all on the Somalisa concession, dozing under a tree. Seeing them alive and well after all their tribulations (and all our efforts!) brought tears to my eyes and we stayed with them in silence for a full four hours until they eventually moved on to hunt.

But of course, there’s more to Hwange than lions (although their population is actually rising here). This vast park is home to the Big Five including thousands of elephants, there are rare antelopes like sable and even rarer carnivores like wild dogs (which have always eluded me), and much, much more besides. Perhaps what draws me so much to this place is the commitment to conservation and communities that many of the lodges share here –operators like Imvelo, African Bush Camps and Wilderness do some fantastic work with schools, women’s groups and healthcare, and I would strongly recommend you visit some local villages while you’re here – you’ll never forget the welcome you receive. The Long Shields Lion Guardian project is also doing great work in helping local people to live alongside the lions, helping to protect their cattle and save the predators at the same time.

Walk with Giants
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Zimbabwe’s premier wilderness area was once one of the biggest names in African safari, but as the country has languished in the doldrums and the years have ticked by Hwange has, by and large, fallen off the mainstream safari radar (although in mid-2015 the park received worldwide, and not very positive attention, thanks to the exploits of a gun-toting American dentist and a certain lion that few of us had heard of before…). The thing is although the park is no longer cool with human visitors it remains an ‘in’ spot with the animals and this huge park is still bursting with mega-fauna. Some say it has the highest density of large mammal species in the world. The park is perhaps most renowned for its buffalo, lions and elephants. Indeed the elephant population is now so large that some experts consider the number beyond the carrying capacity of the park. Part of the reason for this concentration of wildlife is the habit of creating man-made, pumped water holes which means that thirsty animals can get a drink no matter how dry it is and this means that, unlike in areas where water isn’t pumped, there’s no natural cycle of animal population boom and bust to keep numbers under control.

For a visitor though the large numbers of animals and generally low human visitor numbers makes for a wonderful wilderness safari experience (especially if you get to a remoter camp in the south and east of the park). For me though, what I most like about Hwange is the opportunity it affords to walk in the footsteps of large animals. Across Africa this is forbidden for safety reasons in many parks so it’s a rare privilege to be able to do so in Hwange. And if, like me, you prefer you’re parks a little off-beat and to get out of the vehicle and stretch your legs then Hwange is going to impress.

Big is Best and Elephants Rule in Hwange
Overall rating

Zimbabwe’s largest national park is awesome. Overflowing with elephants and home to in excess of 100 mammal species, this is a place that won’t disappoint avid wildlife enthusiasts. Once, while on an afternoon game drive, I sat for two hours and watched a super-relaxed leopard going about his business without a care in the world. I would argue that Zimbabwe’s ongoing political woes are actually a real bonus for safari lovers, because tourists can currently visit a world-class park like Hwange and expect to have the place pretty much all to themselves. Night drives in the private concessions adjoining the park can also be very rewarding for sightings of seldom-seen nocturnal critters; I was lucky enough to see an aardvark during my last Hwange visit!

Hwange – the elephants’ stamping ground
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Hwange gave me my first introduction to the African bush as a very small child. We sat in the tent by the light of a hurricane lamp in Robins Camp listening to the lions roaring outside the fence, and watched through the windows of our family car while herds of buffalo hundreds strong swirled around us in dusty clouds. Once the hunting ground of Ndebele king Mzilikaze, the land was too dry for farming. It was a miraculous reprieve for the local wildlife. In 1929, it became Zimbabwe’s biggest national park, one of the greatest wildlife preserves in Africa. It covers over 14,651 sq km (5,656 sq miles), houses a staggering 105 species of mammals, 400 species of birds, 100 species of trees and shrubs.

What it doesn’t have is spectacular scenic beauty or much natural water. This is the western fringe of the Kalahari much of it is arid scrub. Lush and green in the rainy season, in winter the animals are almost entirely dependent on a network of artificial dams and pans fed by boreholes. With the political upheavals in Zimbabwe, it has become increasingly difficult to find the funds and manpower to keep these operating. In the dry season, many of the vast herds simply wander across the border into Botswana where the rivers continue to flow.

There has been poaching here but there is still plenty of game, in particular some of the world’s largest elephant herds. There aren’t huge numbers of luxury lodges, but there are some, such as The Hide, where I stayed on my most recent visit – a wonderfully sybaritic idyll.

Average Expert Rating

  • 4.2/5
  • Wildlife
  • Scenery
  • Bush Vibe
  • Birding

Rating Breakdown

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  • 3 star 1
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