Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe

Once the royal hunting ground of Mzilikazi Khumalo, a 19th-century Matabele King, Hwange National Park is one of the largest parks in Africa. Sprawling over 14,600km² of forest, plains and desert scrub, it has a diverse wildlife cast to rival the Serengeti in Tanzania and South Africa’s Kruger National Park in South Africa, but with far, far fewer visitors.

More than 100 types of mammal make their home here, including lions, giraffes, leopards, cheetahs and wild dogs, but it’s the elephants that define Hwange. There are some 45,000 in the park, and 100-strong herds walking their migratory path across the savannah to Botswana or Namibia are a frequent sight.
“It’s a massive park and a lot of it is inaccessible,” says Simon Mills, from our Africa adventure specialists Native Escapes. “You just don’t get many people there and so you get brilliant game viewing. It’s the place to go if you love elephants, as there are thousands upon thousands of them; but there are a huge amount of other species too… Last time I was there I saw a really strong pride of lions, huge packs of wild dogs and other plains game such as antelopes and giraffes.”
Visiting Hwange National Park not only delivers on the wildlife watching front, it also brings in valuable funds to support conservation and fight internationally funded poaching. Zimbabwe’s national parks, Hwange included, have struggled in recent years due to both a lack of investment and lack of tourists, with many deterred by the persistent flow of bad news emerging from the country. Hopefully, increased investment under Robert Mugabe’s successor, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who has stated his commitment to both conservation and the tourism industry, will see Zimbabwe’s wild spaces thriving again.
For the moment, many safari operators in Hwange National Park are heavily involved in protecting wildlife and working to improve the lives of local people, putting tourist revenue into jobs, education, providing clean water and protecting farmers’ crops from roaming wildlife – and in so doing, reducing both human-animal conflict and the need to resort to poaching and other wildlife crimes.

What does a safari in Hwange National Park involve?

Safaris in Hwange are amongst the best in Africa, and much of that is down to the guides,” says Simon Mills. “Zim guiding is in our opinion just about the best in Africa. The guides in Zimbabwe can only be locals. They call them Zimbabwe Pro Guides and they have to go through incredible training. It’s similar to getting in a cab in London and getting one in Paris. In London they’ve gone through ‘the Knowledge’ and they know everything, but in Paris they haven’t had that extensive training. It’s exactly the same in Zim. To become a guide, you have to go through such a rigorous process and it sorts the wheat from the chaff. So, the guiding is out of this world.”
Most people spend two to three days in Hwange as part of a longer tour of Zimbabwe or Southern Africa. Wildlife is plentiful and the number of tourists so few that it feels as if you and your group are alone in the wilderness – you won’t find hordes of jeeps crowding around one stressed lion here. Safaris begin early. You’ll usually be up at dawn, for breakfast and hot drinks before heading out into the bush, either in a 4x4, where you’ll cover more ground and are more likely to see the big beasts, or on a walking safari with an armed scout, where the focus is on smaller wildlife, plants and animal tracks. You can choose between going on a full day’s safari or returning to your camp for lunch and heading out again, either for an afternoon or night-time drive. Or, for something a little different, you could try a horseback safari – some tour companies offer the chance to ride from one lodge to the next.
There are all kinds of accommodation in Hwange National Park, from state-run camps offering self-catering facilities and campgrounds to super luxury private bush camps. “The accommodation in Hwange is really good and there’s a real mix of stuff,” says Simon Mills. “You have some incredible tented camps that are very luxurious and then you also have some solid three-star camps... The lodges we work with don’t use plastic, they use recyclable bottles, they mostly use solar energy, and a lot of them have their own fruit and veg that they grow or use local farmers to grow. ”
Many of the camps are also involved in conservation as well as supporting people living in nearby villages. “The majority of camps that we use support the surrounding local communities and a lot of them get involved in conservation efforts, particularly in relation to conflict with farming and predators,” says Simon Mills. “But also, there are two or three camps that really support local schools in terms of helping with building, supporting teachers’ salaries, and that sort of thing. And one group of lodges in particular will allow you to do a school run. They’ll take out the open safari vehicles when the kids are on the way to school and let the kids jump in the vehicles to go to school, so you really get involved at a nice level there.”

Beyond the park

People often combine a safari in Hwange National Park with a visit to Victoria Falls and a safari in Chobe National Park in Botswana, because you can reach all of them quite easily by road, but there’s much to be said for spending your entire vacation here.

“Personally speaking, I think Zimbabwe is about my favourite place to go on safari, just because of the variety here,” says Simon Mills. “Not just Hwange, but including Mana Pools National Park, Lake Kariba and Gonarezhou National Park in the south. There’s so much going on and it isn’t busy, so you get a wonderful experience, and combine that with the quality of guiding and it’s just fantastic.”

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When to go to Hwange National Park

The best time to visit Hwange National Park are the dry season months of August, September, October and early November, when the game viewing is at its spectacular best and the malaria risk is at its lowest. Water is extremely scarce at this time, so the animals congregate around the park’s few pumped waterholes. Waiting patiently and quietly at one of these waterholes will reward you with some serious photo ops – the congregations of elephants in particular can be staggering.
Written by Nana Luckham
Photo credits: [Page banner: Steven dos Remedios] [Top box (Wild Dogs): Paul Balfe] [What does it involve: John Culley] [When to go: Laura]