The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for southern Africa: Cherri Briggs of Explore.
Cherri, who has homes in both Botswana and Zambia—where she knows everyone who’s anyone, including all the government VIPs —has spent the past 25 years creating unique African travel experiences that include canoeing the Zambezi River, running with zebra and giraffe on horseback across the Okavango Delta, and exploring remote corners of Africa including Ethiopia, Madagascar, Mozambique, and Sudan. She books directly with service providers, cutting out middlemen to ensure that her clients get the best value and the smartest selection of lodges and camps. Cherri has worked in conservation for decades, has served on the boards of African conservation organizations, and works only with lodges that follow the best sustainability practices and support local communities. In 2013 she was appointed Honorary Consul to the USA by the Government of Zambia, and in 2014 she became the first non-citizen to be appointed to the Botswana Tourism Organization.
Camps and Lodges
Zimbabwe as a whole is fast becoming known as the best value in the African safari world: Compared to equivalent camps in Botswana, you’ll typically pay 25 percent less in Zim (as it’s known). I often combine Zimbabwe with Zambia, which is also on the more affordable end of the southern Africa spectrum. When it comes to game viewing, quality accommodations, and authentic cultural experiences, Zim is on a par in every way with its far more pricey neighbors.
In particular, Hwange Bush Camp has six very good—but basic—tented accommodations in a great part of Hwange National Park, which is the best protected and most productive wildlife park in the country. Rates are as low as $400 per person per night, and you can drive there from Victoria Falls (much more affordable than a charter flight to a more remote camp).
Safari accommodations worth the splurge
Renowned conservationists, filmmakers, and National Geographic Explorers in Residence Dereck and Beverly Joubert just opened their new Mpala Jena Camp. The camp is located on the Zambezi River just upstream from Victoria Falls and reached by a game drive through the Victoria Falls National Park or by private helicopter transfer directly from the airport—the latter giving you the ultimate bird’s eye view of the cascade on your way to camp. In addition to the four guest tents, each with their own wrap-around decks and plunge pools, there is a two-bedroom suite that is perfect for families or those wanting a bit more privacy.
At Wilderness Safari’s Linkwasha Lodge, contemporary luxury tents provide the highest level of comfort and style found anywhere in the bush. The lodge is located in the company’s massive private concession inside Hwange National Park, which is home to a dense population of wildlife: from rhino to elephant to lion, leopard, cheetah and wild dog. Food, wine, service, guiding—all are five-star. Sometimes I surprise my clients with private sundowners (sunset cocktails in the bush), or a full day out on safari without going back to the lodge for lunch.
If budget isn’t an issue, fly into Singita’s spectacular Pamushana Lodge, located in a 130,000-acre reserve bordering Gonerezhou National Park. Zimbabwe’s most luxurious lodge provides critical support for the conservation of this fabulous wilderness area by working closely with communities. It would take two full days to drive here from Hwange; the easiest and least expensive access to this remote area is via one of Singita’s regular scheduled charters from South Africa.
Verney’s Camp also just opened in a very remote part of Hwange, with luxury safari tents and some of Zimbabwe’s best guides.
Best safari lodge for families
Hwange’s Somalisa Camp, a classic-style safari camp with zip tents on decks, offers particularly good value for quality. The brand-new Somalisa Acacia is more contemporary and luxurious than its older sister, with big canvas chalets, but both have great staff, food, and guides. Acacia is also the more kid-oriented of the two, with two multi-bedroom family tents, an elephant drinking pool, and guides specially trained to captivate your kids. Both Somalisa lodges (the only ones I know of owned by a black African, incidentally) are in the heart of the territory where the pride once led by the famous Cecil still roams, and these stunning lions are often seen on game drives, or heard calling when hunting near camp at night. And at both properties, the tents are strung out from the public areas, so your choice of accommodations generally depends on your personal preference of convenience versus privacy. I’m able to reserve the most senior guides for my clients, and I can sometimes arrange for a private vehicle at no extra cost.
Families also love private traditional tented mobile safaris with Kazuma Trails, which is run by Dave Carson—one of the most experienced of Zimbabwean guides. It’s the ultimate bonding experience to be out in a remote portion of Hwange with just a fire and a few lamps to see in the dark.
Best for thrill seekers
Victoria Falls certainly qualifies as Africa’s adventure epicenter, and one of the top five in the world. If you want to burn some adrenaline, spend a few nights here. You can choose from several ways to throw yourself into the 333-foot-deep Zambezi gorge: bungee jump off the Vic Falls bridge, fly through the air on the gorge swing, or rappel off the canyon rim. For an intimate experience of the river, risk it with one of the most incredible Class V rafting experiences in the world: Batoka Gorge takes you through 22 major rapids in just a few hours, and offers a good chance of a long swim in the Zambezi at no extra cost!
(Of course, it’s also possible to enjoy magnificent Victoria Falls without jumping off a cliff…. You can spend an afternoon walking the one-and-a-half-mile rim of the falls, with numerous dramatic viewpoints (bring your raincoat), or book a helicopter for the eagle’s view. We love the Victoria Falls Hotel, an African icon that has seen history pass through its doors since 1904. I can arrange for an upgrade if space is available; both the Baines and Songwe suites have views of the magnificent Batoka Gorge, and you can hear the thunder of the falls from these rooms.)
What to See and Do
Visit Hwange National Park (the country’s largest park, covering an area the size of Belgium) for a classic African safari: spectacular Big Five game viewing, bush walks with Zimbabwe’s world-renowned guides, sleeping under the stars, watching elephants up close from the safety of a hide.
Canoe down the Zambezi (a 90-minute flight downstream from Vic Falls) in remote and untouched Mana Pools National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There is nothing more peaceful than drifting by a herd of elephants drinking from the shore, and nothing more exhilarating than negotiating your small craft through a large pod of hippos. Mana Pools has a large lion population and massive numbers of most of the Big Five, excluding rhino.
Delve into the history and culture of Zimbabwe at Matobo National Park. Clamber over rocky hills and ancient boulders to search for some of the 2,000 San “bushman” rock art paintings, or visit one of the villages of the Matabele people to have your fortune told by a traditional sangoma. From the historical tribal wars to more recent colonial incursions (Cecil Rhodes is buried here), Matobo offers good wildlife viewing plus serious cultural and historical insight. At the owner-run Camp Amalinda, the nine beautiful chalets seem to be carved out of the rock itself.
Visit Lake Kariba; scheduled charter flights now make the western part of the lake much more accessible. Stay at the historic Bumi Hills Safari Lodge, perched at a lofty height over the lake—which has recently been entirely refurbished, and where activities include fishing, game drives, and visiting local villages—or take a cruise on the private luxury houseboat Matusadona.
The Jouberts (see “Safari accommodations worth the splurge,” above) have also opened a more traditional safari circuit in a very remote part of the Lower Zambezi—not to be confused with the Upper Zambezi, which is about 90 minutes away by charter plane. The private, 300,000-acre Sapi Reserve expands the protected area of the adjacent Mana Pools World Heritage area. This is a stunning, very wild area; from May through mid-November, you can spend two nights each at three camps inside the reserve, which are limited to six guests at a time.
We love to arrange genuine and authentic cultural exchanges for our clients. Whether you’d like to share a meal with a Zimbabwean family, join some school kids for a friendly soccer match, make jewelry with the village grandmothers, visit a medical clinic, or help in the local garden, we can make it happen.
The drier it is, the easier to see big herds—so the dry season (June through October) is best for an intense wildlife experience. Avoid July, though, which can get very cold (yes, even in Africa, and especially with little in the way of heating), and October, which can be brutally hot. From late August until late September, temperatures are just right. My other favorite time is May, when everything is still green from the rains and the temperature is delightful, but it’s dry enough that you can see the animals.
November is too hot and too dry, with too many aggravated elephants arguing over water.
Thinking that Victoria Falls is too touristy. It’s fantastic, truly one of the natural wonders of the world. After 20 years, I still always go to see the falls. Do consider the season, though: It can be a trickle in November, and so big in April that your vision is completely obscured by spray. The falls sit right on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe; for those on safari in the former, it’s essential to cross into the latter in order to get the best view—so it makes sense to tack on a few days’ safari in Hwange National Park, just three hours away.
Have your camera ready as you paddle your canoe past a herd of elephant or buffalo drinking at the banks of the Lower Zambezi.
Pop over to the Zambian side of the falls for either of these amazing shots: You taking a dip in Devil’s Pool at the edge of Victoria Falls (yes, it will look in the photo like you are about to go over, but it’s perfectly safe), or a “moon bow” over the falls, which forms at each full moon. Only a limited number of people are allowed to go out to the falls to see it, so you must make reservations well in advance.
The stone sculptures made by the famed carvers of the Shona tribe. Some of the best are at the Elephant Walk Shopping and Artist Village in Vic Falls; ask for Phineas, who owns one of the galleries and is a real expert in the art form.
Belts or bracelets fashioned from sustainably raised crocodile are available at Ndau, in Victoria Falls. Ask the owner, Christie, to take you to her nearby workshop.
If you’re rafting, a hand-carved Nyami Nyami necklace is essential! The goddess of the Zambezi is believed to provide protection while crossing the river. They are readily available from any craft market in Vic Falls for a couple of dollars.
Don’t even think about participating in the highly questionable “walking with lions” experience on offer in Victoria Falls. Thinly veiled as a “conservation effort,” the program is scorned by serious conservationists. Once habituated to humans, lions are lethally dangerous after nine months of age, and there is no sanctuary big enough to accommodate the lions that come out of these tourist attractions. See the film Blood Lions for some ideas on where habituated lions may wind up.
Not necessarily for the gastronome, but a must for the adventurous eater: Try crocodile kabobs or mopane worms at the Boma restaurant in the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge.
Sasol eBirds of Southern Africa, for identifying avian wildlife.
Be generous. Zimbabwe’s residents have suffered for years; the person you tip is likely supporting ten or more extended family members. On the same note, don’t bargain too hard.
This depends very much on the time of year. But whatever the season, pack light; you will need far less than you think. Most lodges have a very simple dress code and free laundry. Only bring colors found in nature; no white, black, or bright hues. Do invest in great binoculars and a great camera—which doesn’t necessarily mean a big one. I’ve gotten phenomenal shots from my little Leica C in all kinds of lighting situations.