Who doesn’t dream of a safari? Out in the wild, flocks of animals, lions roaring, elephants trumpeting and the smell of wildebeests in the air. Okay, my sister doesn’t, but that has to be a mistake.
Hwange National Park is great for safari for 3 reasons: it is close to Victoria Falls, it is absolutely packed with elephants, and it’s home to 4 of the Big 5! You would think this natural wonder would be packed with cameras and pasty white people in khakis. But we were the only visitors! Not too many people go, probably because it’s located in Zimbabwe. But go before it becomes way more crowded and expensive (and it will be): We saw lions killing a buffalo, and I went on a walking safari!
Here’s what animals you can see, where to stay and when to go to Hwange National Park on safari.
Few safari parks also offers walking safaris. Hwange is one of those places. But they didn’t want kids coming along, so my wonderful husband agreed to stay behind in the camp with our son, while I went on a walking tour with our guide.
I was pretty nervous, and I’ve never been so happy to be near an armed man. Of course, I know the animals probably wouldn’t charge us. You leave us alone, we leave you alone. But still, the jeep offers some sense of protection. The idea that you’re out in the middle of nowhere, hours and hours from a decent hospital, and you are a guest. And the hosts might eat you whenever they want.
I have to admit I was pretty relieved, when we came back to camp… But an unforgettable experience with just me and the guide – and the wild.
THE BIG FIVE
The Big 5 are lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhino. We saw the first 3 animals in Hwange, the leopard we saw in Mana Pools and the rhino in the south Zimbabwe. This doesn’t mean that any other animal is not as important or interesting. For instance the Small 5 are just as fun. Well, almost.
This was the animal I was most excited about. I’ve loved the big cats since I was a child, and I still dream of quitting my job and going to Africa to study them.
Something you always hope for on a safari is some hunting. And we were so lucky. The small buffalo not so much. This was such an amazing experience, that I had to write an entire post about it. Lions killing and eating a buffalo in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe.
But of course we also saw the the lions just hanging around. Near our tent! Especially two male lions. It was in Hwange the male lion Cecil was shot, which caused a big scandal, but I don’t think it was any of these two beautiful gentlemen. The brown box in the collar around their necks is a device placed for research. Some of the female lions also had one.
I was surprised to find that the growling sounds we heard around us didn’t come from the lions, but from the elephants. A grown male elephant charging your jeep is not fun.
There are too many elephants in Hwange. And this is an actual problem, since they eat and destroy vegetation. But how to handle the overpopulation si – as you can imagine- not easily solved and greatly disputed. You could allow a certain amount to be killed every year, but this is not a popular suggestion.
Meanwhile the large number are wandering into peoples homes and destroying crops. There have been several conflicts, and we saw a young elephant dead from poison spread by locals. This unfortunately affects the entire ecos-system poisoning scavengers and predators. It smelled horrible.
The buffalo is actually a very scary animal, and I was more afraid of them than of the lions. They would stare right at you and make small charges at the jeep.
One night, we woke in our tent by a massive stomping and a smell like the zoo. It was several hundreds buffaloes trampling 5 meters from our tent. I was very awake until they had passed. They just look angry.
THE OTHER NOT LESS INTERESTING ANIMALS
The big 5 are not the only animals worth looking for. It was the 5 animals worth killing as a hunter and I certainly have a different agenda. Love the diversity and go for the small 5.
Already when driving off the main road to the large hotel, we got the first glimpse of the huge variety of animals. Alongside the road there were African wild dogs, and Hwange has the largest population in Africa.
Wild dogs don’t really have a great following, but they are actually very social and make sure the sick or wounded dogs in the pack also have a bite of the zebra. The also cuddle up as you can see. The dig a hole in the ground to find cooler soil to cool down in the intense heat.
Zebras walk in a long line with male in front and the females after him – the youngest female in the back. Apparently, the stripes are like fingerprints – each have their own.
There are not to many giraffes in Zimbabwe, but in Hwange there is. I can’t remember what kind of specie we saw, but there was only one type.
You would think they would just stay away from the lions, but we saw a small group of giraffes carefully watching the lions. Nothing happened, but as the picture below shows – sometimes something does happen.
It was so fun to watch it trying to drink water. Kind of nerve-wrecking…
The eco-system is a balance and most animals have adapted to their niche for surviving. After the lions finished with the buffalo, the scavengers came. Although not much was left for the poor things. Yes, I felt sorry for the vultures – they have evolved into ugly birds with acid in their stomachs, and then there was nothing left for them.
We followed the jackal for days. It always followed behind the lions hoping for some leftovers. In the case of the buffalo, it got the stomach (I think it was). We later caught up with its puppies (is that the word) hiding in a old tree trunk, while dad was out getting dinner.
WHAT, WHEN & HOW
THE SOMALISA CAMP
There are not too many camps in the park. And still we were the only ones there. It has been 5 years, but I doubt anything has changed at all. It might be worse with the violence of the recent election.
We stayed at Somalisa Acacia Camp for 550 USD pp/night. I can highly recommend it. I can see they have added some platforms and it now looks less intimate and tent-like and more constructed. But this was a superb experience.
Since we brought a kid we were only allowed to stay in the family tent. It was huge and had a wooden walkway to the common area. Breakfast was taking by the campfire very early on the mornings and one morning the lions walked past us only 10 meters away. I didn’t breathe for 10 minutes. But we knew they had eaten the buffalo the day before, so…
The best known feature of the camp is the pool, where the elephants go to drink. At one time we got stuck by the pool for 1.5 hour while a flock of huge elephants surrounded us drinking all the water. I was to afraid to take a picture, but got a later one.
This is the most expensive trip I’ve ever been on, but I definitely think it was worth it. We had our own private car and chauffeur meaning we could decide where and when to go and for how long. Important with a child. And I could tell him to stop for insects which other passengers might not be so interested in. Great food and service and they had solarpanels for heating (like you need heating). Note that on the other side of the acacia trees is the Somalisa Camp. This is the same, but not the same, so make sure to book the right one.
You can also just enter the park and bring your tent and car, but I would only recommend this if you are very experienced and not bringing a small child. You can get lost and killed. Wilderness Safaris has some of the best and most luxurious camps, but also most expensive. And they didn’t want a child in their camp.
WHEN TO GO TO HWANGE
We went in the end of the dry season. This meant that all the waterholes were dried out, and all the animals gather at the few drinking spots. The area has water from electrical pumps in the dry season. This is to avoid the animals migrating across to Botswana or outside the park and getting killed.
The dry season is good, since it is easy to spot the animals. Not only is there less water and hence the animals gather at the remaining one, but also the vegetation was gone making it more difficult for the animals to hide in the grass. The weather was nice and warm, but not to warm. But the downside was, that there were no sunsets, since the clouds and the rain were on their way.
HOW TO GET TO HWANGE
We took the bus from Vic Falls towards Bulawayo. The company Pathfinder had great service, but writing this I found several pages saying they don’t go this route anymore. That sucks. I think you can take the local bus (it’s not that far) or otherwise hire a taxi (like we had to do on many other occasions, this country having poorly established tourists routes, but that’s what you get for going off the grid). I think you can also fly (which we had to do for the other safari – actually hire a plane).
Get dropped off at the big hotel Hwange Safari Lodge. This might be the spot for the lesser adventurous traveller, but way to boring for me. But peek inside to the green lounge. There someone from the camp picked us up. He was quite amazed, we came by bus and not a car with a chauffeur.