I went from less than half a dozen trips to the grocery store over eight months to hopping on a flight to Zimbabwe and I have to say I feel like chose my outings well. It goes without saying that international travel has changed over the past months, but it bears repeating that it’s not only possible, but that it comes with even greater rewards than before. Visiting Zimbabwe during this time was like no other trip I’ve made there.
To begin with, visiting Victoria Falls and being one of only a handful – literally six – people at the Falls was extraordinary. To see one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World is exciting on a good day, to have it to oneself is exceptional. The other times I’ve visited, I’ve patiently waited for people to move to get the perfect shot, moved along at a sort of pre-determined shuffle like others and while enjoyable, I’ve been ready for a quieter spot afterward. This time could not have been more different, and I feel incredibly lucky to have had such an exclusive experience. It was the same throughout Vic Falls town and the three lovely properties I stayed at. No helicopters buzzing overhead, few, if any, boats on the river for sunrise or sundowner cruises and exclusive game drives in the reserves and National Park. It was a lovely way to ease in and out of time on safari in Hwange National Park.
Now is really the time for longer stays in one place, and luckily Hwange is hugely diverse and Imvelo Safari Lodges have four unique properties offering very different experiences from one another. Jozibanini’s raw and rustic nature gives guests the chance to really connect with nature. Separated only by canvas at night (or not – don’t miss a sleep out in the star beds!), your lullaby is the sounds of elephants at the waterhole, the hyena’s lonely call or the distant roar of lions. Days are spent exploring on foot, or driving to see what might be drinking or playing at the next waterhole. Late afternoons are unforgettable when spent at the look-up blind with its incredibly close and intimate view of elephants jostling for position to drink the freshest water. It’s a sight guests never forget, and it’s nicely enhanced with a cool drink and snacks. It never hurts to be a little bit spoiled, even in the most rustic of areas!
Bomani Tented Camp sits on a private concession on the Ngamo Plains, and our group was welcomed with not one but two sets of mating lions on a dramatically windy day. To say that sighting left an impression would be an understatement. The plains are home to myriad wildlife including big cats, plains game and, of course, Hwange’s elephants. We saw an abundance of species, including more special elephant encounters at Stoffie’s Pan and Major Pan, two scenic waterholes that were thoroughly enjoyed by the eles during our stay. The elephants come in great numbers, drinking, splashing and playing in the water – joyous after a long, dusty walk.
Nearby Camelthorn Lodge has a very different feel from Bomani yet holds similar charms. It has, like Bomani, access to the private concession as well as Hwange NP. It is situated on community land in a gorgeous forest that is fenced off to keep elephants out (otherwise, no forest!). In addition to excellent game viewing, we enjoyed long talks by the campfire as well as a visit to Ngamo village. We were welcomed to the village by Headman Johnson Ncube, who was happy to show us around his compound as well as to share with us some of the hardships the village has faced as a result of the pandemic. The village benefits greatly from tourism and with travel at a virtual standstill for much of the year, incomes were drastically affected, though Imvelo are still working hard to provide meals for school children, are busy building a clinic for the village, are helping to fund the local anti-poaching unit and more.
We finished our visit with time in the outdoor, socially distanced market, which had not been held since March. An important source of income for the villagers, the market offers a wide array of local crafts. Beautifully woven baskets, carved wooden bowls, bright textiles, jewelry and more are on offer to visitors at a fair price. There is an expectation of negotiation – it’s part of the fun. We were all happy to load up on gifts for those back home and to know that our purchases had real meaning.
A visit to Hwange with Imvelo should always incorporate a trip on the Elephant Express, their lovingly restored Zimbabwe National Railways open-air rail car. Perfect for game viewing, as well as sipping a cocktail while enjoying the scenery, it’s a totally unique experience that harkens back to the romantic rail days of old. We were lucky to see lots of wildlife, most notably a rare bachelor herd of sable antelope!
We finished the trip at Nehimba Camp, known (once again!) for the elephants and other wildlife that visit the camp’s waterhole and swimming pool to slake their thirst during the dry season. It has a very different feel from the other camps, and its setting around the waterhole means you can stick around in camp to enjoy game viewing if you wish. We enjoyed ‘dining with the elephants’ as they came in to drink in the evening, leaving everyone briefly speechless while soaking up the almost unreal backdrop of elephants in the starlight.
It was hard to leave, but our drive out of the park was stunning. The ever-changing scenery was dotted with a huge variety of wildlife. We stopped at waterholes to warily admire crocs and hippos, saw playful warthogs with piglets, spent time with large groups of giraffe and saw lots of plains game. Elephants gave a final farewell as we met our transfer vehicle for the drive back to Victoria Falls.
What I haven’t mentioned was the obvious structure, care and attention paid by everyone at Imvelo to COVID protocols. Extra careful sanitation coupled with frequent temperature checks and hand sanitizing were de rigeur. Plated meals (gorgeously plated!!) served in spectacular outdoor settings were the norm instead of family-style dining. And of course, it’s safari – everything is outdoors, making for a very safe-feeling experience. Now more than ever, and especially as North America heads into a long winter, a safari is such a gift. The ability to be outside for so many hours every day, to be immersed in nature and to break away from constant worry is something that everyone can benefit from. Zimbabwe is absolutely ready to welcome your travelers safely for an unforgettable experience.