Submitted by Pip Strickland on December 12, 2015
Landlocked Zimbabwe sits at the heart of Southern Africa, surrounded by Mozambique, Zambia, Botswana and South Africa. Its northwestern border is marked by the mighty Zambezi River which plunges into spectacular Victoria Falls - one of the world’s greatest natural wonders - while its national parks are world-renowned for their concentrations of big game wildlife and safari experiences.
Despite the recent political and economic turmoil that has plagued Zimbabwe, stability has slowly returned and today the country is again a safe destination for tourists to visit with some outstanding natural protected areas. From the watery wonderland of Mana Pools in the north to the elephant traversed grasslands of Hwange in the west, the safari opportunities in Zimbabwe are not just limited to game drives. You can canoe along tranquil waterways with hippos lurking below, get up close to some of Africa’s most impressive species on walking adventures, or soar in the air above on fly-in safaris offering a birds-eye perspective. There are outstanding luxury lodges to stay in within some of Africa’s most breathtaking wildlife-viewing landscapes, and with other world-renowned national parks just across its borders, it makes an ideal destination within a Southern African multi-country safari.
From big game wildlife to unique and rare flora, the Eastern Highlands are swathed in tropical rainforest, and treks through this mountainous region lead to some beautiful cascading falls. Or head to the expansive Lake Kariba where houseboats ply the tranquil waters on the edge of Matusadona National Park.
Aside from wildlife, Zimbabwe is home to one of Southern Africa’s most impressive ancient sites in the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, for which the country was named following independence. Also not to be missed is the capital of Harare, home to excellent museums and galleries, together with markets selling traditional Shona handicrafts, that make it the culture center of the country.
When to travel/weather
Zimbabwe’s ‘dry’ winter season stretches from May to October, with little rain, sunny skies and cooler temperatures ideal for wildlife viewing. Marked by cool to chilly nights, June through to August is the peak tourist season and coincides with the European and North American summer holidays. But if you visit towards the end of the ‘dry’ season as temperatures start to rise, you will find wildlife more concentrated around the national parks’ watering holes.
The ‘wet’ season begins in November, with rain turning the national parks a vivid green and bird life prolific throughout their wetlands. Some national parks offer limited access during this period while others, such as Mana Pools, are at their best and ideally explored by canoe. For those visiting Victoria Falls, this is the best time to witness this natural wonder when the water cascading over the cliff is at its highest. While you can white water raft the Zambezi River year round, the low water levels from August through to December result in the best rapids
Food and drink
Zimbabwean cuisine is based largely around its traditional staple dish of sadza, a white ‘mealie-meal’ that constitutes a thick porridge. It is the major source of carbohydrate throughout much of the country and appears alongside other meat or vegetable dishes in most meals. Sadza is traditionally eaten by hand, rolling the ‘mealie-meal’ into a ball and using it to scoop up the accompanying sauces.
A popular dish served with sadza is dovi, a stew made from crushed peanuts, onions, tomatoes, garlic and chili that is sometimes also made with red meat or chicken. It is one example of how ingredients introduced from across the world have become important components in traditional Zimbabwean cuisine.
While beef, goat and chicken provide the main source of protein throughout Zimbabwe’s inland regions, the diet of those living on the edge of Lake Tanganyika includes the dried sardine known as kapenta. This delicious mix of fish, tomato and onion can be found in local villages along the lake shore and is usually served with a big helping of sadza.
The legacy of British colonization has not been lost in Zimbabwe’s cuisine and is at its most evident in the tea drinking practices of many Zimbabweans.
Popular vacation spots
Marking Zimbabwe’s northwestern border with Zambia, the mighty Zambezi River boasts some of Africa’s best white water rafting, and adrenalin-pumping adventures along the Bakota Gorge and its grade 5 rapids are not for the faint hearted.
Set on the edge of magnificent Lake Kariba, Matusadona National Park includes both grassy plains and rugged mountains. It is home to the ‘Big 5’, together with countless crocodiles and an impressive bird life that includes fish eagles hunting for prey. Safari cruisers along the water’s edge and through its inlets are an ideal way to wildlife spot, particularly its resident hippo population.
The Chimanimani Mountains within the Eastern Highlands are swathed in lush tropical rainforest, noted for their rare wild orchids. Hikes throughout the region take in the stunning Bridal Veil Falls that scatter over a cliff edge, together with the thousand year old red mahogany Big Tree.
Dating back to the 11th century, the stone ruins of Great Zimbabwe are one of Southern Africa’s most ancient historical sites. It not only served as a capital during the Iron Age, but provided the country’s name following independence, and the unique construction methods implemented are still visible today in its Great Enclosure.
Hwange National Park
One of Zimbabwe’s most popular national parks is Hwange in the far west, which is famed for having one of the world’s largest elephant populations. Game drives through its grassy wetlands and mopane forests offer sightings of not only these gentle giants, but also rhino, cheetah and African wild dogs.
Mana Pools National Park
A designated UNESCO World Heritage Site for its ecological importance, Mana Pools is one of Zimbabwe’s most spectacular national parks. It translates from the local Shona language as ‘four pools’ which aptly describes its ox-bow lake landscape, inhabited by crocodiles, hippos, zebra and impala. While the park is a favorite destination to embark on a canoe safari, walking expeditions through its woodlands also offer some excellent up close wildlife encounters.
Victoria Falls is not only the world’s largest sheet of falling water and one of Africa’s most iconic landmarks, it is also a center for adventure activities in Southern Africa. Bungee jump from the famed Victoria Falls Bridge, take a helicopter ride to get a birds-eye view, or take in its magnificent spray during a boat cruise below.
Matobo Hills National Park
Known for its impressive red granite kopjes, Matobo Hills National Park is home to some of Zimbabwe’s most well-known Bushmen rock art sites which can be visited whilst wildlife spotting for leopard, rhino, and soaring Verreaux eagles.
Nyanga National Park
Including the ruins of the ancient Nyangwe and Chawomera Forts, Nyanga National Park in Zimbabwe’s Eastern Highlands is an ideal spot for trekking to waterfalls, as well as the peak of Mount Nyangani which offers spectacular views across the park below.
Zimbabwe’s bustling capital is many visitors’ first impression of the country, home to some fascinating museums and galleries, as well as innovative public spaces. Unlike many African capitals, it’s not all urban jungle, with green expanses like the Mukuvisi Woodlands offering a welcome respite.
Zimbabwe’s official languages are Shona, English and Ndebele, with a number of other tribal dialects also spoken. While Shona is the most widely used language amongst locals, visitors won’t have any problems negotiating the country with English.
Following its economic crisis and period of hyperinflation, Zimbabwe’s current currency is the US Dollar and you can change other currencies at Zimbabwe’s international airport. ATMs tend to be unreliable, particularly in more rural areas, so carry enough cash to cover your expenses while traveling around the country. Credit cards are accepted by some lodges and tour companies, but there are often hefty fees added for their use.
Tipping within Zimbabwe is not customary, although welcomed by guides and hotel/lodge staff accustomed to working with tourists.
Health and Safety
Malaria is widespread in Zimbabwe so visitors should consult their doctor about anti-malarial medication before departure and take precautions to prevent being bitten. Bilharzia is also found in some lakes, so always check with your guide or lodge staff before swimming.
In terms of security, Zimbabwe is today a relatively safe country, although opportunistic thieves can be found in many of the big towns and cities. Any displays of wealth, such as large cameras and jewelry, should be avoided, particularly when traveling outside of national parks and lodges.