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Zimbabwe – Vic Falls and Hwange – April 2017

Posted on 19th July 2017

We read so much that is negative about Zimbabwe, so when I was briefed to inspect Lodges, Hotels and Guest Houses there for the travel and tour operator Gondwana Tours and Safaris I was both concerned but at the same time pleased to finally see part of the country for myself.

Was it true that there were police roadblocks every few kilometers? Were there any wild animals left? Did credit cards work? Would the hotels and lodges be able to provide world class accommodation, food and drink? Would the border crossing be a nightmare? All of this and more I would find out within the next week.

My tour would take me to Livingstone Airport in Zambia,  across the border  immediately to Vic Falls, Zimbabwe, and from there down to the legendary Hwange National Park, one of the oldest and largest wildlife reserves  in Africa, unfenced right through to Botswana some hundred kilometers to the West.

Livingstone Airport was delightful. Clean, polite and efficient, with stately gardens outside. Our drive through Zambia to the Zim border with a transfer company Wild Horizons was stopped not by a police roadblock but by a herd of elephants crossing the highway! We sat and waited while these huge beasts ambled across the main road in front of us, then drove a little further to the town of Livingstone where we reached the border with Zimbabwe. Our driver took our passports and ran into the border post, emerging in seconds with the all clear. We drove slowly across the historic bridge that spans the Zambezi, the spray from the falls quite evident even though the falls are a little upstream. At the Zim side we had to get out and queued briefly for an entry stamp. Then we were through to Vic Falls town, Zimbabwe.

After dropping off the only other passenger at grand old lady,The Victoria Falls Hotel, we moved on to Batonka Guest House where I would be spending my first night. Batonka Guest House is a new Guest House, well appointed with stunning décor and excellent service. From the management to the cleaning staff I was met with a friendly smile and a real effort to satisfy me. The place was full of foreign tourists enjoying the relaxed but elegant atmosphere – and the super food. In particular I was impressed with my room. Tastefully decorated and comfortable.

Batonka Guest House – my bedroom:

I wanted to see the Falls again. They say every time one visits the Falls they are different. And so they are. It was raining when I visited, with mist and a heavy flow of water. Nonetheless the experience was stunning, as before.

Vic Falls in the rain:

 

For those who happen to visit the Falls in the rain, the local vendors hire out good quality raincoats just opposite the entrance.

When I returned to Batonka my first misconception was corrected. Visa and Mastercard work, at least in Vic Falls. My transfer vehicle was waiting to take me the short distance to my first Safari Lodge, Elephant Camp. No sooner had we exited Vic Falls town than we ran into our first police roadblock. My elderly driver leaned out of the window and spoke a few words to the policeman. He laughed and waved us through. I asked my driver what he had said. “I told him I will step on him”, he said!

Elephant camp is a luxurious, friendly camp. Their main area is furnished in a colonial style:

From the deck at Elephant camp one can clearly see the amazing spray that rises from Vic Falls, from which the Falls derives its local name, “The Smoke That Thunders”.

A unique feature of this camp, apart from the good food, great rooms with private pool and deck outside, and friendly service, is the resident Cheetah called Sylvester.  What a cool cat! He was orphaned as a cub and rescued. Unfortunately he never learnt to kill his prey, so although he has an instinct to hunt, he just chases and knocks over his prey, and then “nibbles on the ears or tail” until the frightened antelope gets up and runs away. So the camp feeds him three kilograms of meat a day instead.

Sylvester the Cheetah with his minder:

We had to drive down to Hwange early the next morning but the limited time I spent at Elephant Camp left me with a good impression. The rooms are excellent, with large, well appointed bathrooms, huge 4 poster double beds, private sitting rooms with bar, and of course the deck and private pool outside. The service was good, the guides informative, and the food plentiful and tasty. The camp is pretty close to Vic Falls – they will take one there on request – and their game drives are done off the property, not far away.     

The following morning after a good English breakfast we were off to Hwange in a transfer bus. We had to pass through a few police roadblocks on the way. We weren´t stopped at any roadblock for long though. I have the impression that if one is driving with a camp vehicle or transfer company there is seldom any trouble at these roadblocks.

My private deck and pool at Elephant Camp:

We were in for a treat at our first stop in Hwange National Park…The Elephant Express! This is an old rail carriage that the ever inventive Zimbabweans have renovated in teak and leather, and fitted with a land cruiser engine front and back, creating a viable “train”. They then obtained permission from Zim Rail to use some 70km of their track that runs right along the border of the Hwange National Park. We boarded at Dete Station and were soon heading South East towards our next camp, Camelthorn Lodge. What great fun to be on this express! Food and drinks are provided as well as an onboard toilet. Game abounds. We saw Elephant, Kudu, Giraffe, Wildebeest, Lion, shimmering Zebra, and plenty of other game from the comfort and safety of our train. A unique aspect of the Elephant Express is the opportunity to stop whenever you wish – and to drive the “train” too if you wish!

Ready to board “The Elephant Express” at Dete Station:

Camelthorn Lodge was where we left the Elephant Express. It was getting dark but we saw a couple of elephant and other game on our short land cruiser transfer to the lodge. The lodge is set in a small forest. It has large, comfortable rooms; really they are small houses, not rooms. The food was good and the manageress friendly and informative. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastic. He found us game sightings that were truly remarkable, including a cheetah kill with six or seven cheetah on an impala they had just caught. We also saw many lion with this guide, but he was most passionate about a local village where he showed us around their school and the headman´s kraal – where an ancient Singer sewing machine took pride of place in a specially built boma at the centre of the kraal.

Local Village near Camelthorn Lodge:

Early the next day we left for Somalisa Acacia Lodge, an absolutely stunning lodge and one of the highlights of my trip. From when we first arrived and were met with beaming smiles, through to the super food, excellent wines, stunning rooms, perfect service, and amazing wildlife sightings right across from the camp – really this camp is in my view as close as one can get to perfection in the bush.

Elephants coming down to drink at the Somalisa Acacia watering hole – and their main deck:

Bedroom with a view at Somalisa:

Our next camp was Linkwasha, quite some drive from Somalisa. Time spent on the land cruiser getting to Linkwasha was a delight however as the driver was informative and the whole area was pumping with wildlife. We arrived at dusk to be met by friendly staff and management with a welcoming cool drink.

Linkwasha is a luxurious camp. To me it looked like a 5 Star Hotel dropped in the middle of the bush. Certainly my room was so big that although I had to share with another person, I never heard him nor saw him. The camp was a little too much like an hotel for me, but I can´t fault it´s luxury. The food and wine was excellent, and the other guests happily regaled us with stories of their recent wildlife sightings.

The luxury of Linkwasha is apparent:

On to our next camp, Khulu Lodge. It was another long drive through the Park. We learnt so much from the driver along the way, from the habits of the Hornbill (“Flying Chili Pepper”) and Elephants to the geology of the area. Consequently we hardly noticed three hours of 4X4 driving on bumpy dirt roads.

At Khulu Lodge we were met by Khulu himself, the Patriarch of the Lodge. He regaled us with tales of Zimbabwe, some exciting, some shocking, and some exhilarating. He is a great asset to the Lodge and a mine of information for anyone who wants to understand Zimbabwe and its history better. The highlight of Khulu Lodge for me, and there were many – from Lions on a night drive to the absolute peace of the camp in the morning mist – was the sundowners arranged by the camp under nearby thorny Acacia Trees. There we stood sipping our sundowners while close behind us a herd of elephants grazed quietly under the trees. In fact I saw more elephants at Khulu than on the rest of my trip.

Bedroom  at Khulu:

 

Khulu – young elephants mock fighting:

 

We had to get back to Vic Falls for our flight to Cape Town the following day so we sadly took leave of our hosts at Khulu Lodge earlier than we would have liked and headed back through the roadblocks to our next stop, The Stanley and Livingstone Safari Lodge.

This Lodge has a very high standard. It is luxurious and opulent. Clearly no expense has been spared. Management is efficient and friendly as are staff. As they state:

“The Stanley & Livingstone Safari Lodge consistently earns accolades for best lodge, restaurant, hospitality and service in Victoria Falls and proudly takes its place amongst the finest hotels in Africa. Our staff regularly receive accolades for their outstanding service and attention to detail, and they are dedicated to ensuring that each stay here is memorable”.

There is no faulting this lodge – except perhaps that it is quite close to town and doesn´t have the same sense of history  (nor the grandeur) of say the Vic Falls Hotel – which they seem to have copied to an extent. The lodge guarantees Rhino sighting in their large private reserve, which is pretty unusual. They also offer private dining in the reserve, and of course will run you into town at your request to enjoy the sights and adventures there.

Stanley and Livingstone Safari Lodge lounge:

 

Stanley and Livingstone Safari Lodge gardens.

Alas, we had to leave this stunning North West corner of Zim for Zambia and our flight home too soon. I would say that the vast majority of our experience was extremely positive. I wouldn´t like to self drive through those police roadblocks – rather use a transfer company. Otherwise – amazing wildlife, world class accommodation, all sorts of quirky and special features and experiences, and of course don´t miss the majestic and world famous Vic Falls. Bungee jump or Zipline from the bridge if you are feeling brave!

P.S.

There is a shortage of cash in Zim, so take plenty of small denomination US dollar notes for everyday tips and expenses. Credit cards seem to work but I would pre-pay what I can and take enough cash to cover any unexpected emergency too. Currency regulations should be checked before travelling. This is a malaria area. It gets cold in winter!