Photo: Dave Holt-Biddle
With over 8,000km² (5,000mi²) of thorn and sand flats on Zimbabwe's western border with Botswana, Hwange National Park is the largest game reserve in the country and one of the biggest in the world. The salt-pans, thorn trees and grassy plains support the densest concentration of wildlife in Africa including great herds of buffalo and elephant.
'Safari' is Swahili for 'walk.' At Hwange the word, 'safari' takes on a broader meaning and game-viewing comes in many forms. Visitors can choose from ranger-guided or self-drive safaris and horse rides as well as the more traditional walking safari.
The dry season from August to October provides the best viewing conditions but year-round, game-viewing is made easier by the shallow pans scattered throughout the park. These natural salt-licks provide the elephants' favourite snack and great photographic opportunities for the patient visitor.
480 km of dirt road link Main, Nantwich, Robins and Sinametella camps. As the name implies, the park's administrative centre is at Main Camp and provides access to the popular viewing platform at Nyamndhlovu Pan. 'Elephant head' in Ndebele, the name says it all.
The park has numerous facilities including an airport, petrol stations, good roads and a range of accommodation options. Several of the private lodges offer fishing, canoeing, tennis and a marvellous hot mineral spa.
Along with an abundance of animals, the park also has a lot of visitors and can get crowded during the school holidays. However, there's always room to manoeuvre. The dry season from August to October provides the best viewing conditions.
The Zambezi is Africa's fourth largest river. 2 700km (1,675 miles) long, it has its beginning in central Africa from where it flows for 1,300 km (800 miles) across the Zambian plateau and over the Victoria Falls, on to Kariba and into the Mozambican flood plains before finally emptying into the Indian Ocean.
At the Victoria Falls, on Zimbabwe's north-west border, the 'Great River' spreads to almost a mile wide (1,7km) and drops a hundred metres (328ft). The Victoria Falls is the most well-known of the country's four World Heritage sites and is a majestic spectacle shared by both Zambia and Zimbabwe and territorially divided by a bridge.
On the Zimbabwe side, five main cataracts can be viewed from the 23km² (9 mi²)of rain-forest that make up the Victoria Falls National Park. The constant mist from the rushing water explains the waterfall's local name, 'the smoke that thunders.'
Cover your cameras and take a raincoat. The Falls are at their wettest and most spectacular by the end of the summer rainy season in April or May. The end of the dry season in September and October means better photo opportunities but less water.
The nineteenth century Scottish missionary and explorer, David Livingstone, is credited with discovering the falls. His notebook recorded his first impressions in 1855, 'On sights as beautiful as this, Angels in their flight must have gazed.' Thus, the popular plane ride over the cataracts is known as the Flight of Angels.
As the estimated age of the falls is two million years old, Livingstone's is but the most recent claim. Yet, his statue still stands in the small National Park. However, it was the coming of the English imperialist Rhodes and his railway to the north in 1905 that brought the first settlers and the first tourists. The original Victoria Falls Hotel was built soon after.
This is big game country and National Parks and private game reserves abound. Zambezi National Park begins 6km (3,7 miles)from the Falls and stretches along the river for 40km (25 miles). Two roads follow the Zambezi and Masuie River providing easy game-viewing but the Big Five are the tamest of the attractions on offer here.
The park offers fine view points of the five cataracts that make up the falls which are at their wettest and most spectacular by the end of the summer rainy season in February/March. To be suitably awed, look first and take photos later.
At Victoria Falls National Park, walking through the rainbow-sprayed rain-forest graphically explains one of its former indigenous names, 'smoke-that-thunders.' For the unwary tourist, they might have added; 'smoke that rises. And is wet.' Cover your cameras and take a raincoat.
In town itself, an extensive Craft Village displays traditional huts and traditional dancing, craftspeople at work and a curio shop as well as a nganga (witchdoctor). Guided tours are on offer. At the Zambezi Nature Sanctuary, you'll find crocodiles, cats and curios, a museum, informative videos and a tea-room comprise this eclectic zoo.
The Zambezi Taxidermy Snake Park offers the opportunity to watch snakes being 'milked.' If you're that way inclined.
Victoria Falls town is one of the adventure capitals of the world. Crafts and crocodiles, thrills and spills, gambling and ambling, game drives and golf drives; the recreation on offer, in this neck of the woods, is as sweeping as the Falls themselves.
There are as many ways to experience the Falls and their surroundings as there are means of transportation - by air, water, land and rail, on foot or in the saddle. There's no better way to arrive than by steam train from Bulawayo, or for a once-in-a-lifetime trip, travel from Cape Town to Victoria Falls in the luxury of Rovos Rail.
Once there, canoe up the river past hippos in the water and elephant on the banks; raft the whitewater of the Zambezi gorge or fling yourself from the Zambezi bridge in the world's second highest bungee jump. Local tour operators can arrange all trips and adventures.
What better way to arrive at the Falls than on a rail safari from Bulawayo which allows you to follow in the railway tracks of British imperialist, Cecil Rhodes. Catch the 12 hour overnighter between Bulawayo and Victoria Falls for some dawn and dusk game-viewing from the comfort of your compartment or go the whole hog.
Rovos Rail runs between Cape Town and Victoria Falls in a style to rival the Blue Train. And then, there are champagne steam safaris through the teeming game country around Victoria Falls.
Of course, there's traditional game-viewing safaris by open jeep and, for the more adventurous, on foot. Alternatively, there's horse-back or elephant-back safaris through the Zambezi National Park.
An array of flying machines do flips over the Falls and aerial game-viewing jaunts. in Pipers and Cessnas, helicopters and sea planes, microlights and ultralights. There's even a hot-air balloon safari. Or just jump out of a plane or skydive in tandem.
And for one of the longest jumps of all without climbing into a plane, there's the second highest bungee jump in the world - 111 metres straight down off the Zambezi Bridge into the river. And if that's still not enough adrenaline, combine the big leap with a rafting trip by jumping off the bridge into a boat.
The Zambezi is famous as one of the best rivers in the world for river-rafting, Batoka Gorge, below the Falls, is Zimbabwe's favourite stretch of white-water. High season is from the end of August to December when the water is low and rapid.
The Zambezi's stiff class four and five rapids make for a day-long adrenaline rush. But the deep, open water and steep gorges as well as trained guides and first-rate safety precautions ensure that injuries are rare. Be prepared for a swim, however, and leave everything that isn't tied on at home.
Low season runs from January to July with water levels at their highest during the rainy season from June to August. With the first ten rapids washed out, this is a half-day excursion at this time of year. More of a float than a mad river dash, the most strenuous part of this excursion is climbing out of the gorge.
Sobek, on the Zambian side, offer low season rafting further down the Zambezi and overnight rafting expeditions. If hurtling down it isn't your idea of navigating a river, booze cruises operate at all hours of the day, on the Zambezi above the falls. Canoeing and kayaking excursions of varying duration are also on offer. Other activities on offer include fishing and hunting trips and bird-watching safaris.
But if it's some African peace and quiet you're after, the remote Kaszuma Pan National Park on the western border with Botswana is little-known and less developed. This remote region resembles the open savannah of East Africa both in appearance and in the mass migrations of game that take place during the dry season from September to November.
Two basic National Park camp-sites provide the only accommodation and visitor access is strictly controlled. There's a very good chance you'll have the buffaloes, lions, cheetahs and elephants all to yourself. Backpacking tours of the big five in this savannah wilderness can be arranged.
Copyright © 2002 Laurianne Claase. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without the permission of the author is prohibited