Although this article, Zimbabwe Tourism for the Off-road Traveler, deals mainly with 4×4 trails in Zimbabwe, it is one of a series of fifteen articles that will briefly describe the geography, climate, terrain, must-do activities, must-see places, and much else besides, of all nine South African provinces, as well as some of the countries bordering on South Africa.
Geography of Zimbabwe
Slightly larger than California, Zimbabwe is landlocked, and borders on Zambia to the northwest, Mozambique to the northeast, South Africa in the south, and Botswana towards the southwest.
The central highlands are the source of dozens of rivers and streams, most of which feed Lake Kariba, a manmade inland sea, or drain into the swamps of Botswana in the west, or further afield into the Zambesi River. Massive granite outcrops, known locally as “koppies”, accentuate the highland, which ends in the 2,592m-high Mount Inyangani, Zimbabwe’s highest elevation. This range, at more than 200 miles long, is the heart of a spectacularly scenic part of the country, and a firm favourite among international tourists.
Climate of Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe’s tropical climate is largely influenced by its high altitude, as well as its location away from oceanic influences, and even though Zimbabwe falls entirely into the tropical zone, the general climate is mainly temperate. However, during the dry season that runs from August to October, daytime temperatures often exceed 300C. Most rainfall occurs during the months of November through March, and it is often accompanied by violent thunderstorms in the afternoons.
The best times to visit are from April to May, before the onset of winter, during which nighttime temperatures can reach freezing point, and August to September, before the onset of the hottest parts of summer.
Scenery of Zimbabwe
From a scenic perspective, Zimbabwe has much to offer the visitor. For instance, the spectacularly beautiful Eastern Highlands with its intimidating mountains that loom over indigenous forests also offer some of the best trout fishing in Southern Africa, as well thundering waterfalls, hiking trails through slightly eerie, mist-shrouded forests, and a silence that one must experience to appreciate.
Zimbabwe has many waterfalls, but there is none as impressive as the 100m- high Victoria Falls. The estimated 550 million litres of water that thunder over the 1 688 m-wide cliff face every minute causes a vibration in the rock that if nothing else, reminds the observant visitor of the insignificance of mankind and its works. Many seasoned travelers regard the Victoria Falls as the most impressive waterfall in the entire world, surpassing even the spectacular Niagara Falls in the USA.
Almost all of Zimbabwe offers scenic attractions, from majestic mountains, rolling savannah, indigenous forests, grasslands dotted with huge granite domes and balancing rocks, and the description, “Africa’s Paradise”, has more than just a passing validity. With its scenic beauty and varied wildlife, Zimbabwe is a must-see, must-do destination on any tour of the African continent.
National Parks and Reserves
With about 12% of the total area of Zimbabwe given over to National Parks and Reserves, the opportunities for game viewing are unsurpassed, with some Parks offering a variety of wildlife that rivals that of the famous Kruger National Park in South Africa.
Zambezi National Park:
In conjunction with the Victoria Falls National Park, this area covers 56 000 ha, in which most of the larger animal species can be seen in two main viewing sections of the park complex. Elephant, leopard, lion, buffalo, zebra, eland, kudu, sable antelope, and many smaller species such as water-buck are plentiful along the Zambezi River, and most viewing points are accessible via an extensive network of tarred and gravel roads.
Although the 25 kilometre Chamabondo Game Drive is a favorite among visitors, bear in mind that this park is closed after heavy or prolonged rain. Accommodation is available in luxurious lodges, as well as in several camping sites.
Hwange National Park:
At 14 620 sq/ km, and with 480 kms of roads, this Park id Zimbabwe’s largest, and home to a world famous herd of elephants, and more than 400 species of birds. The variety of wildlife rivals that of any wildlife reserve in all of Africa, and most of it can be viewed from the extensive road network.
All the camps, Main Camp, Sinamatella, and Robins, are connected by road, although traffic to Sinamatella, which is an Intensive Conservation Area, is not allowed after 2 PM. However, the road network is not always in passable condition, and advance bookings and enquiries about road condi-tions are strongly advised.
Accommodation varies from luxurious 5-star lodges, to self-catering chalets, to caravan sites, to camping under canvas in several campsites. The larger camps have shops and filling stations, but fuel my not always be available, so be prepared to carry additional fuel.
Matusa Dona National Park:
This Park comprises some 1 400 sq/ km, and although it is one of the smallest in the country, it is the most diverse, with three distinct ecological habitats, or regions. The first, and arguably the most diverse in terms of wildlife, is at he are around the Kariba Lake shore. The second area comprises the Zambezi Valley floor with dense mopane and jesse woodlands. The third area consists of the Escarpment, which has thick Julbernadia and Brachystegia woodlands.
The diverse ecology of this park provides shelter for an astounding variety of wildlife, among which are huge numbers of elephant and buffalo. Other common species that occur here are among oth-ers, honey badger, civet, small spotted genet, slender mongoose, banded mongoose, spotted hyena, wild cat, lion, leopard, yellow spotted dassie, black rhinoceros, zebra, warthog, common duiker, grysbok, klipspringer, waterbuck, bushbuck, scrub hare, porcupine, vervet monkey, chacma baboon, side-striped jackal, hippopotamus, roan antelope, kudu and bush squirrel.
Other, albeit rare species include clawless otter, white-tailed mongoose, reedbuck, sable antelope, eland, civet, rusty spotted genet, caracal, and bush pig. Species that are known to occur but that are rarely sighted are African wild dog, cheetah, roan antelope, and pangolin.
This park has no shopping facilities, although fuel is sometimes available at Bumi Harbour. Accom-modation is in lodges, and various campsites with varying levels of comfort and amenities.
Most of Zimbabwe has been described as one long, unending scenic drive, and while this may be true to some extent, the best way to experience the off-road attractions of this country, is to undertake a self-drive safari on a route that takes in most, if not all of the attractions of a given area.
Tourism for the off-road traveler in Zimbabwe is very well catered for by several tour operators who have developed dedicated routes and tours of various degrees of difficulty and duration. One such tour, and arguable the best, is the route that enters the country from Beit Bridge, to pass through Bulawayo, and on to the Matopos-, and Hwange National Parks, both of which offer excellent game viewing.
The route can be extended to Lake Kariba for some tiger fishing from a luxurious houseboat, before moving on to Mana Pools National Park on the Zambezi River. This route takes in much of the most scenic parts of Zimbabwe, and it is not time limited. On this route, you can spend as much time off road as you wish, which in large part, compensates for the scarcity of off-road trails in the country.
The tourism industry of Zimbabwe is more focused on game viewing, hunting, and safari experiences than arts, culture, and extreme sports,
Hire a houseboat on Lake Kariba:
Depending on your budget, you can hire a houseboat with varying levels of luxury and amenities which to cruise along the shore of the lake for up to five days. Enjoy different locations, vistas, and fishing in as many spots as you want, and if you can afford it, you can even hire a catering company to do your cooking for you. This is the quintessential colonial experience of Africa, and is an experi-ence not to be missed.
Tiger Fishing on the Zambezi River:
Fishing safaris that are dedicated to tiger fishing is arguably one of the most rewarding experiences on offer in Zimbabwe. The tiger fish puts up an unforgettable resistance to being reeled in , and one experience of a big tiger “walking” on his tail in attempts to dislodge the lure, will have you hooked on tiger fishing for life- guaranteed!
White Water Rafting on the Zambezi River:
As an adrenaline rush, there are few activities to rival white water rafting on the mighty Zambezi River. Guided rafting down a succession of grade four and five rapids will leave your heart in your throat, and an intense desire to do it again! Your trip through white water paradise ends at Bakota Gorge, but the memories will last forever.
“Flight of the Angels.”
This 15-minute flight in a helicopter over the thundering Victoria Falls provides you with a breathtaking view of the Falls that is impossible to get any other way. No other aircraft can fly as low as the “Flight of the Angels”, which means that for a brief moment, you can enjoy a sight of the Falls the way birds see it. Spectacular, and highly recommended!
Horseback game viewing through the Hwange National Park:
If the idea of following the local wildlife, including the Big Five on a horse, then this is for you. This opportunity to view game from up close in the Hwange Park by following animal paths lasts for the best part of a day, and even if you are not an experience rider, the pace is slow enough to allow you take in the sights, smells, and spirit of the wilderness in a way that is impossible to do in any other way. Another highly recommended activity during your stay in Zimbabwe.
Several tour operators run photographic safaris i many parts of the country, and the skill with which the guides brings you to within “shooting distance of your subject rivals that required to hunt the animal. Some tours specialize in bird shoots, while others are open to requests, which means that if you want to “shoot” lions, rhino’s, or almost anything else, there is tour operator that will oblige you.
As with off-road trails, there is no reliable information on the condition, elevation, elevation gain/loss, degree of difficulty, or passability of mountain passes in Zimbabwe. Nonetheless, three official passes are listed here, but we cannot guarantee that they are still open, or passable.
Matorashangu Pass (Mutoras Pass)
Latitude: -17.1610833239 – Longitude: 30.6918333750
Latitude: -18.9458599873 – Longitude: 32.6357800327
Latitude: -20.1578055695 – Longitude: 30.7707222551
Before 1980, Zimbabwe had many picturesque old colonial towns- towns that reflected the pioneer spirit of the settlers that tamed the wilderness. However, most small towns are now decrepit, rundown, and virtual ghost towns, especially the mining towns.
The only city worth visiting is Bulawayo, and then only for a day, or at the most two while stocking up for a safari in the interior. The genteel shabbiness of the city may have a morbid attraction for some, but for the most part, it is good only for the experience of staying over in the Bulawayo Club, a restored “gentlemen’s club”.
The original club was constructed in 1935, and back in the day, it was the hub of all upper-crust soci-etal activity. The restored building now offers overnight accommodation, the food is excellent, and the personal attention that the club staff lavishes on guests almost makes it worthwhile staying another night.
However, while some visitors describe the Bulawayo Club as one of Zimbabwe’s best-kept secrets, others are of the opinion that the place should have remained a secret. So if ever you find yourself in Bulawayo, spend a night in the Club- who knows, you might like it!