Zimbabwe’s turbulent political past is well documented, and, certainly, the effects of corruption and extreme poverty have impacted on the country’s natural areas in terms of poaching and the stripping of resources. Nevertheless, Hwange National Park remains a rewarding safari destination, known especially for its large herds of elephant. Covering 5,655 square miles/14,650 square kilometres, it is the largest and the most famous of Zimbabwe’s game reserves. Visitors will be rewarded by exceptional wildlife sightings and fabulously uncrowded camps and lodges.
Keep an Eye Out for the Big Five
Hwange National Park is home to the Big Five - the name given to safari royalty including the elephant, buffalo, rhino, lion, and leopard. In particular, the park is famous for its thriving population of elephant, thought to be one of the largest in the world. Huge herds of buffalo roam its open plains, while the park’s lion population is estimated at around 450 individuals. In 2015, Hwange’s lions gained international fame with the controversial death of Cecil, a much-loved Hwange lion killed by a trophy hunter from the United States. While white rhino are no longer present in Hwange, black rhino are sometimes spotted by a fortunate few.
Hang Out at a Dam
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. Hwange has around 60 man-made waterholes and an abundance of natural salt pans. These pans provide ample wallowing opportunities for the park’s elephants, while the waterholes are especially prolific during the height of the April - November dry season. Some of the waterholes (including Madavu, Masuma and Datema Dams) also offer game-viewing hides. Pack a picnic and spend a few hours watching the natural behavior of animals oblivious to your presence.
Spot Some of Southern Africa's Rarest Species
Hwange is home to over 100 species of mammal, including some of Southern Africa’s rarest species. Amongst the most notable of these are the South African cheetah, listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List; and the rarest of all hyena species, the brown hyena. Hwange National Park also provides a sanctuary for the highly endangered African wild dog. There are only 6,600 of these beautiful animals left, and Hwange’s population is one of the largest. The park’s diverse array of different habitats also allows for sightings of regional rarities like the desert-dwelling gemsbok and the woodland-loving sable antelope.
Book a Walking or Horseback Safari
Those that wish to travel back in time to Karen Blixen’s Africa should consider abandoning traditional 4x4 vehicles in favor of a walking or horseback safari. Both options are available at several of the private lodges in Hwange’s concession areas, and offer total immersion in the magic of the bush. On a walking safari, the slower pace allows you to notice things you may not have spotted from a vehicle. Your guide will teach you how to study and interpret spoor and give you an insight into the park’s fascinating flora. On horseback, animals are less wary than they would be on a regular safari - allowing for unforgettable close encounters.
Go on a Night Drive
In the concession areas, 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.
Add to Your Birding Life List
For keen birders, Hwange is something of an avian paradise. Almost 400 bird species have been recorded in the park, which is particularly known for its abundance of raptors. There are two key seasons for birdwatching. The wet season (November - April) brings with it an influx of inter-African and palearctic migrants, including the southern carmine bee-eater and the Amur falcon. The other half of the year (May - 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.
Learn About Painted Dog Conservation
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. You can learn more about the charity’s work at their Visitor’s Center, where an Interpretive Hall offers information about the painted dogs and the charity’s ongoing projects. A walkway allows visitors to admire rehabilitating dogs kept in an adjacent enclosure, while the gift shop sells wire sculptures made from snares retrieved from the bush.
Embrace the Wilderness at a Bush Camp
Hwange National Park is home to three main public camps - Main Camp, Robins Camp and Sinamatella Camp. Here, you’ll find a range of facilities including self-catering lodges and chalets, campsites, restaurants and fuel stations. Luxury accommodation can be found at lodges in the private concessions. However, for a truly unique experience, book at least one night at one of Hwange’s bush camps. With no electricity, no running water, and rough access roads, these camps are not for the faint-hearted. They require complete self-sufficiency, but reward forward-planning with unspoilt starlit skies and quiet evenings interrupted only by the calls of nearby wildlife.