Hwange National Park: The Complete Guide

Line of elephants walking at Hwange National Park
Edwin Remsberg / Getty Images
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Hwange National Park

Address
Zimbabwe

Safaris across Africa can feel overrun with tourists if you visit in the high season, but Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe is one of the rare places with a diverse selection of animals, guaranteed sightings, and minimal crowds. Hwange is Zimbabwe's largest national park, so there's plenty of room to carve out your own space and really connect with nature. Its relative remoteness also makes it a less popular destination than other safari spots in neighboring countries, but if you're willing to make the journey then you'll be well-rewarded with an unforgettable experience.

Things to Do

Visitors come to Hwange to go on safari and see the rich diversity of wildlife that calls the park home. The national park is one of the few places where all five members of the Big 5 safari species reside, which are lions, elephants, buffalo, rhinos, and leopards. You're all but guaranteed to see lions, buffalos, and elephants, while the rhinos and leopards are more elusive and considered a bonus. Of course, there's a lot more to see than just these five animals, including cheetahs, hyenas, African wild dogs, antelope, zebras, crocodiles, and more.

For keen birders, Hwange is something of an avian paradise with nearly 400 different types of birds. There are two key seasons for birdwatching: the wet season (November to April) brings with it an influx of migrating birds, including the southern carmine bee-eater and the Amur falcon. The other half of the year (May to October) is a good time for spotting desert specialist species, including the Namaqua sandgrouse and the Kalahari scrub robin. Other notable sightings within the park include Africa’s largest flying bird, the kori bustard, and the southern ground hornbill. 

One of Hwange’s greatest claims to fame is its resident African wild dog packs. The park is home to Painted Dog Conservation, a non-profit dedicated to protecting the species throughout Africa and to educating rural Zimbabweans about the dogs’ importance to the natural environment. Only a few hundred dogs are still left in the park but if you don't see them in the wild, you can visit the Conservation visitors' center to see dogs in rehabilitation and learn more about them.

Go on Safari

Self-drive tours are allowed at Hwange but because it's not easy to get to, the vast majority of international travelers visit by booking an organized tour (typically through their accommodation or on a combined tour of Hwange National Park with nearby Victoria Falls). There are luxury safari options you can reserve online before you arrive, such as andBeyond or Go2Africa, but you'll find more affordable choices in the town of Victoria Falls once you arrive.

While you can find all of the Big 5 at Hwange, the park is particularly famous for its thriving population of elephants. With about 50,000 of them throughout the park, it's thought to be one of the largest populations in the world. The best place for sightings is at the reserve’s waterholes, which act as a vital source of water for herbivores and provide valuable hunting opportunities for carnivores. There are around 60 man-made watering holes throughout the park, which are especially busy with animals during the dry season when it's the only water around. There are game-viewing hides you can hang out in, which are concealed areas so you can observe the animals without them knowing you're there.

Many of the private lodges that offer safari tours to guests also include a walking tour option, which is a much more intimate way to experience the park instead of the typical jeep. You won't be able to cover as much ground, but you'll be able to spot things you would have otherwise driven right by.

Night Safari

Hwange’s private lodges also offer night drives, allowing you to witness the transformation of the African bush that occurs after dark. These nocturnal safaris offer the best chance of spotting the park’s elusive leopard and often yield sightings of scavenging hyenas or lions on the hunt. Nighttime is also the best time for spotting nocturnal rarities like the aardwolf and the aardvark, as well as some of Zimbabwe’s smaller cat species. More common sightings like the springhare and the jackal are also highly rewarding, giving you the opportunity to tick off an entirely different cast of creatures from your safari bucket list. 

Where to Camp

There are several campgrounds around the park and you can reserve them directly through the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority. When you request a reservation, you enter the dates of your trip, how many people are camping, and what type of accommodation you want, and then the Park Authority will respond and let you know what's available.

When requesting your reservation, the true camping options are labeled as "Ordinary Campsite" or "Exclusive Campsite," and you'll need to bring your own camping supplies for either one of them. Be sure to read about what each type of accommodation includes since the name "Exclusive Campsite" sounds like something more glamorous but, in reality, it's bush camping with almost no amenities. If you want a camp-like experience without having to bring your own tent, the "Lodge" or "Tented Lodge" options are structures with private bathrooms and kitchens, but still very affordable compared to private concessions in the park.

Where to Stay Nearby

Outside of the national park's lodges, there are several privately-run accommodation options, many of which fall on the more luxurious end of the spectrum.

  • Sinamatela Resort: Sinamatela was once a campground that was fully renovated in 2018 and now is made up of two and three-bedroom chalets, each one with an en-suite bathroom and modern plumbing. It's near the northern border of the park and one of the closest points to Victoria Falls.
  • Robins Camp: Like Sinamatela, Robins Camp was one of the main campgrounds that got a major upgrade in 2018 that included a stylish lodge with comfortable private cottages, a swimming pool, a hotel bar, and a restaurant. The lodge also conducts its own safari tours, so you can book directly through the front desk.
  • Gwango Elephant Lodge: These treetop lodges are one of the most exclusive options inside the park. You can rent your own raised cottage, offering unbeatable views of the surrounding savannah. The accommodation also provides gourmet meals for guests to enjoy right from their own balconies, which may be visited by some neighboring elephants.

How to Get There

Hwange National Park is on the western edge of Zimbabwe along the border with Botswana. The closest airport is Victoria Falls Airport, which is about two to four hours from the national park by car, depending on which area you're visiting. If you're not familiar with driving in Zimbabwe, driving yourself from Victoria Falls to Hwange can be tricky and even dangerous. The best method for getting there is to book a tour that includes transportation or reserve accommodations that assist with getting to the park.

Tips for Your Visit

  • The best time to visit the park is during the dry season from May to October, when the animals gather around the watering holes and are easier to spot. The wet season from November to April is ideal for birding and the landscape changes dramatically, but the animals are more dispersed and harder to find.
  • May to August is winter in Zimbabwe and while the daytime temperatures are generally mild, nights can get very cold.
  • Be sure to carry small denominations of U.S. dollars with you when traveling around Zimbabwe, which are typically easier to use than the local currency.
  • If you do drive yourself into the park, be sure to carry extra gas with you since finding reliable sources of fuel within the park isn't easy.
  • Malaria-carrying mosquitoes are prevalent throughout Hwange, so make sure you come prepared with malaria pills and insect repellant.
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Hwange National Park: The Complete Guide