From the plane, it looks like smoke from a large fire in the distance. But as you get closer, you can see a giant crack in the earth releasing a cloud of spray that rises high into the sky.
This is Mosi-oa-Tunya (The Smoke that Thunders), widely known as Victoria Falls, one of Africa’s most iconic places and a U.N. Education, Science, and Cultural Organization World Heritage Site. The falls lie on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia, where the Zambezi River widens to more than a mile and, like a curtain, its waters tumble over the long edge into a gorge as deep as 360 feet. The mists rush up out of the abyss soaking admirers. The water flows from the Zambia side, so the best waterfall views come from Zimbabwe.
Victoria Falls is enough of a reason to go to Zimbabwe, but the rest of the country offers a wealth of safari opportunities. The government protects nearly 18,000 square miles of natural habitat, about 12 percent of the nation’s total area. This commitment to conservation put them in partnership with neighboring countries, forming larger preserves that help protect animal migration routes. The Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, which includes Victoria Falls, Lake Kariba, and Hwange, protects an area the size of France.
Where to Go
Charlie Slater of Remote Recreation plans customized safari-centric trips throughout Africa and beyond. Zimbabwe is “very old school,” he said.
“Their safari industry has missed the last 20 years’ commercialization—which is a very, very good thing for people who want an authentic African safari,” Slater said.
Victoria Falls is often the arrival airport for travelers and the falls themselves create quite a welcome or farewell—or both. Nearby Zambezi National Park offers safari experiences, and the river itself is popular for thrilling whitewater rafting tours.
An hour’s drive from Victoria Falls is Hwange National Park, 5,657 square miles with grasslands where you can see lions, leopards, and hyenas, as well as large herds of elephants, buffaloes, antelopes, giraffes, and zebras.
Stay in a houseboat on Lake Kariba, which straddles the border, or try a safari in adjoining Matusadona National Park, where you’ll find the Big Five safari.
Mana Pools National Park is part of the country’s second World Heritage Site. Situated next to the Zambezi in the north, the park and its floodplain maintain ecologically significant wetlands, where one can see abundant wildlife and more than 350 species of birds. Lions circle the watering hole at Chitake Spring each morning. You can go on canoeing and walking safaris there.
Gonarezhou National Park and Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve are more remote and require a bush flight, but the payoff is great. Gonarezhou, meaning “Place of Many Elephants” earns its name with more than 11,000 of them, one of the highest densities of the gracious giants on the continent, while all the big cats are residents as well.
In the Eastern Highlands, along the Mozambican border, the climate is cooler and mountainous, with a rolling green landscape rich with gorges, rivers, and waterfalls—best suited for hiking, horseback riding, fishing, and birding.
Go on Walkabout
Zimbabwe is the best place for a walking safari, which is as it sounds: The traveler on foot in the bush meeting elephants or even lions in their domain. Looking up at a bull elephant, with a full appreciation for its enormity and power, is something you’ll never forget, and consider the adrenaline rush as you follow in the footprints of lions. Sounds like madness, but it isn’t. Walking safaris are common and safe in Zimbabwe, a credit to the demanding training that’s required for certified guides. It can take as many as five years to gain the requisite expert knowledge as a naturalist, as well as extensive training in driving, first aid, and handling weapons.
Julian Brookstein has been guiding for 15 years, after a grueling training and testing period as a walking-safari guide.
“I can only walk the way I do in Zimbabwe. Other countries are either tamer walking or no walking at all,” Brookstein said.
Nothing compares to having a guide whose expert eye and bush sense puts you right on top of a pride of lions lazing about after a meal—and not just to show you, but to tell you what you’re looking at.
The Perfect Combination
Zimbabwe has only really come up on the general tourist radar rather recently, though it has so much to offer. The popularity of other destinations translates to a dozen safari jeeps encircling a pride of lions. That’s not the case in Zimbabwe.
Now is the time to visit. Whether you book a luxurious private villa overlooking Lake Kariba, a tented camp inside a park, or something in between, it all comes with great Zimbabwean hospitality. Combine this with abundant wildlife and with some of the best guides on the continent, and you have yourself a most unforgettable safari.
If You Go
When to Go: May-October is dry and best for game viewing, but it gets hot in September and October. Victoria Falls is best at the end of the rainy season between April and May. August through December offers the best whitewater rafting.
Give yourself about 10 to 14 days and try to visit at least three parks for three days, with morning and afternoon game drives.
Packing: Pack lightweight, light-colored clothes, including fleece for nights, and use soft travel bags. They’re better for jeeps and small planes.