Don’t let the news from Zimbabwe deter you, because this country is rich in history, scenery and wildlife. And it’s all just a little north of our country.
Don’t allow the news from Zimbabwe to deter you – this country is rich in history, scenery and wildlife. And it’s also just over there...
Zimbabwe is often in the news for the wrong reason, but this country has recently had a major political upheaval and, slowly but surely, there’s more light at the end of the tunnel. Regardless of politics, it remains a unique country that’s incredibly rich in natural beauty, with residents still welcoming visitors with open arms.
Just think: this is a country that lies between two of southern Africa’s largest rivers: the Limpopo to the south and the Zambesi to the north. You’ll certainly know of the Victoria Falls.
And then there are 10 more national parks as well as at least 10 other smaller national conservation areas that include spectacular caves, awesome lakes and beautiful botanical gardens. And, if you’re an animal lover, pack your bags as Zimbabwe’s game reserves are world-renowned for their wildlife.
Mpafa Travel offers a 13-day selfdrive safari tour through Zimbabwe, stopping at as many of its highlights as possible. When we heard there was a spot available, we didn’t think twice. We were out the front door... heading straight for our neighbour!
Rhodes’ final resting place
The tour group consists of 12 vehicles plus two Mpafa supporting vehicles. We meet at the
Big Cave Camp just outside the Matobo National Park, about 35 km outside Bulawayo. It’s a long way from home, and we spend two evenings here so we can thoroughly explore the park the following day.
Matobo, which means “bald heads”, gets its name from the characteristic granite hills in the area that were formed more than two-billion years ago. The park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, covers 424 km² and is the largest in the country. It was originally >
founded in 1926 as the Rhodes Matopos National Park. It’s between these hills where the Second Matabele War raged and eventually ended when Cecil John Rhodes personally met with the Ndebele.
The area so charmed Rhodes, that he requested in his will to be buried here – an event that happened in 1902. Today, you can visit his grave on top of a hill called “View of the World”. The view is indeed impressive and beautiful in the last light before sunset.
It’s no surprise that the San lived in the area centuries before the British and the Ndebeles. In the park, there are more than 3 000 registered spots with rock art, and the best examples are in caves in the park. Unfortunately, the drawings in the Pomongwe Cave near the Maleme Dam were badly damaged in 1965 when an attempt was made to try and preserve the artworks with linseed oil.
Rather aim for the Nswatugi Cave to the west of the park – you’ll find a whole wall of drawings in great condition. But be warned: it’s a short but steep climb uphill to get to the cave.
Where it all began
From Matobo, drive back to Bulawayo (35 km) before turning east on the A9 in the direction of Masvingo (280 km). This town isn’t special in itself, but only 28 km south of there is surely the most important historical site in the country: The Great Zimbabwe Ruins.
If you set off from Matobo early enough you can have lunch at Great Zimbabwe, and use the afternoon to explore the ruins. Like countless other ruins, the finer details of this ancient city remain a mystery.
But what archeologists do believe is that it was built by the Shonas between the 11th and 15th centuries as an apparent royal palace. The country eventually gained its name from this palace after independence in 1980, as Zimbabwe literally means “House of Stone”.
The golden bird on the country flag is a picture of one of the eight soapstone statues, the Zimbabwe birds, found on the premises. These statues, probably representing fish eagles, are in the small museum near the entrance.
Take your time here and don’t forget your camera. And it’s a good idea to hire a guide to walk you through the different parts of the city and bring its history to life. Don’t miss the Great Enclosure, a spectacular circular fort with stone walls up to 11m high.
And, even if you’re not in top-notch shape, do yourself a favour and walk up to the Hill Complex for a great view of the entire ruined city. It’s especially beautiful just before sunset when the last rays of sunshine bathe the stone walls and narrow corridors in soft golden light.
We stay till after sunset because our overnight stop isn’t far away. The campfire has been lit when we arrive at Norma Jeane’s Lakeview Resort on the banks of the Mutirikwi lake.
Raptors and caves
The following morning, we hit the road early and drive back to Masvingo. From here, our route turns north to the peak of the tour: the Mana Pools. The total distance is 680 km and we plan to do the trip over two days. This way, we have enough time to stop at two interesting places along the way: the Kuimba Shiri Bird Park and the Chinhoyi Caves.
The A4 main road is another reason why you should rather take your time as this is the road hordes of big trucks from Harare use to drive to the Beitbridge border post. The distance between Masvingo and Kuiba Shiri on the Chivero Lake outside Harare is around 320 km, but it takes six hours to drive there in convoy. Fortunately, there’s a restaurant with cold beer to cool that heat under the collar caused by the truck drivers.
Kuimba Shiri was established 20 years ago as a rehabilitation centre for raptors. Today, you can sleep over, camp, go horse riding or fishing and even take a boat out on the lake. The owner, Gary Stopforth, is an exuberant man whose love for birds of prey is clear when he welcomes you. He has had a fascination with birds of prey all his life and knows everything there is to know about these species. In the past, he was even involved in the training of eagles for BBC documentaries. Every afternoon at 4 pm, Gary presents a show where he teaches you about owls, falcons and eagles. One of the highlights is when a fish eagle catches its prey in the lake a mere five metres from us. >
The next morning, we’re on our way again, bright and early, first in the direction of Harare and then with a shortcut on the edge of the city to the A1 where our convoy turns northwards. Our goal for tonight is the Mana Pools but, late morning, we first visit the Chinhoyi Caves.
The caves are like a miniature version of the Cango Caves, but holds a trump card you don’t see every day: a cobaltblue pool with water that’s so bright your friends will think you have been doctoring you photos. This pool is called the Sleeping Pool and, although it’s beautiful, it has a somewhat ominous reputation. Legend has it that a killer threw his victims into the pool before a Shona chief, one Chinhoyi, got rid of him – hence the cave’s name.
A second story claims that the traditional name of the caves is Chirorodiziva, which means “Pool of the Fallen” because the Angoni tribe drowned people here in the 1830s, too.
Lazing about at the Zambesi
On the A1, it takes about 185 km to get from the caves to reach Marongora on your left. The park’s office is here and you have to pay your Mana Pools permit here. When you’re done, drive 5 km further on a winding mountain pass (watch out for trucks again) down to the park’s entrance gate. Here you have to stop at a boom to write your details in a book – it also gives you the chance to let some air out of your tyres for the dirt road ahead.
It’s not a 4x4 track, but the road is corrugated in place and softer tires will save your kidneys. Also, get rid of any fruit in your car and donate it to the guards as they’re banned in the park. The reason? Well, if an elephant’s gets a sniff of them in the campsite, there won’t be much left of your car or tent.
Just over 30 km further, you will get another boom and another sagging book to fill in. Stretch your legs as the dirt road isn’t quite done with you yet – the Nyamepi Camp lies another 45 km
further. Head pretty much straight north to the mighty Zambesi River and one of the most beautiful campsites in all of Africa.
It’s just before dusk and the Mana Pools welcome us with their distinctive late-afternoon light rays shining through the branches of massive trees, immersing the world around us in a golden glow.
Just as every other evening, our tents are already set up thanks to the Mpafa team who sets up camp in advance; so, the main thing is now to place a camping chair on the banks of the Zambezi and relax with a cocktail. Besides, there’s more than enough time to make a nest – we’re here for the next three nights.
Three days are only just enough to explore the Mana Pools. From the Nyamepi Camp, you don’t have to drive far to see many animals. The pools or water holes that gave the park its name are close to the camp.
The Chisasiko Pool, Long Pool and Chine Pool are especially great places >
Fruit is banned in the Mana Pools park because, if an elephant gets a sniff of them in the campsite, there won’t be much left of your car or tent.
to sit and wait in the early morning with a cup of coffee for the animals to come drink water. The park doesn’t have rhinos, but the rest of the Big Five are all present and you may also see a cheetah or leopard.
The elephants here are known to get onto their hind legs to reach the high tree branches – see if you can get a picture of this. And, if you don’t get to see them in the park, chances are good they’ll come to the campsite.
Talking of the campsite, ensure your vehicle and tents are closed properly, even when you are in the camp. The blue monkeys and baboons are terribly irritating and the camp rangers warn us the baboons have even learnt how to open tents. Mana Pools is one of the most spectacular conservation areas on the continent and there are few other places where you can relax as completely as this in nature.
When you sit next to the mighty Zambezi at sunset and watch elephants and hippos standing halfway in the water while munching away, as a huge crocodile lies on the shore and a fish eagle flies by with its distinctive call, a deep peace engulfs your heart.
Where Nyami Nyami keeps watch
Nobody is really eager to leave the Mana Pools, but there are still a few lovely destinations ahead. Our next one, the Kariba Dam, is fortunately not too far and we have some time for breakfast after a last early morning wildlife trip.
It’s back to the same park gate where we came in and we pass Marongora before turning west at the town of Makuti. It’s about 70 km to Kariba from here. The Kariba Dam is a great piece of engineering. The 280 km length of water is held by a dam wall of less than 600 m. It’s impressive and definitely worth a visit. Visitors may walk on the bridge, but you must report at the immigration office for a permit because the wall forms the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. Pop in at the visitor centre (GPS S16.522972 E28.766878) for a view over the dam wall.
Here you’ll see a statue of the Zambesi River god, Nyami Nyami, watching over the water mass. >
Till the next time
The final destination of the tour is the Hwange National Park, about 260 km north of Bulawayo on the A8. The dirt road between Kariba and the A8 is in very bad condition and you’ll struggle to go faster than 60 km/h. So, make sure you leave early to tackle this 480 km as it will definitely take you all day. On this tour with the convoy, we decided to do it in two days, and so we spend a night in Binga before leaving for Hwange.
Hwange is the largest national park in Zimbabwe – look at a map and you’ll soon realise there’s no way you could properly explore the whole park on a single visit. Nevertheless, it’s packed with wildlife and the many water holes almost guarantee you’ll see a good number of animals.
If you stay close to the main camp, head to the Makwa Pan early in the morning and do the circular route past the Kennedy picnic site, the Manga and Dopi waterholes, and end at Nyamandhlovu. Pack some food and charge your camera’s batteries – you’re going to be busy all day. During our visit, we encountered a pride of lions, gigantic elephants and beautiful giraffes in short intervals and even saw two crocodiles devouring an impala in the water.
We say our goodbyes the next morning with heavy hearts. Not only because this group of strangers now parts as friends, but also because, despite its reputation, Zimbabwe has stolen everyone’s hearts.
Next time we read the horrid headlines, we’ll know at least that there is a different Zimbabwe. And that’s a place we’ll soon visit again.
ANCIENT WORKMANSHIP. The bricks (above right) on the wall of the “Great Enclosure” were packed by hand and without cement to form a circular fortress (insert). Inside , a maze of corridors (right and middle above), lead you to the inner rooms.
ORPHANAGE FOR FEATHERED FRIENDS. During Gary Stopforth’s raptor show at Kuimba Shiri Bird Park, he introduces visitors – Elmarie van Wyk is pictured here – to rehabilitated birds including the cute barn owl (top), demonstrates how a fish eagle hunts (middle), and even how a lanner falcon makes a meal of a young chicken.
EERY WATERS. The bright blue and deep pool of water at the Chinhoyi caves remains a mild 22°C year-round. You can view it from a vantage point outside as well as underground.
AMONG THE ANIMALS. You’re never too far from wildlife at Nyamepi Camp (main pic), because elephants come visit often (top right), while impala and hippos seek the refreshment of the nearby waterholes (middle and below).
THE USUAL SUSPECTS. Peaceful elephants between dense trees (top), giant baobabs in the middle of the road (below), and marabou storks next to waterholes (middle) are typical scenes at Mana Pools.
WHERE THE ZAMBESI PAUSES. After the construction of the 128 m high Kariba dam wall (top and middle) in the 1950s, kapenta was introduced in the dam. At sundown, the fishing boats head out for the night.
GREET THE BIG GUYS. Tuskers Camp near Hwange National Park is worthy of its name when you’re perched in the hide late afternoon and the elephants come within metres of you to drink water and splash around.