In 1930, as many as 10 million wild elephants roamed the African continent. But decades of poaching and conflict have decimated the African elephant population, leaving less than 415,000. But not all the news is bad. Botswana & Zimbabwe are home to nearly 200,000 elephants, the largest population in Africa.
In October 2022, our Zimbabwe Great Elephant Safari followed the ancient migration paths of elephants between Botswana and Zimbabwe (with the exceptional guides of Imvelo Safari Lodges). We witnessed great congregations of elephants in Botswana’s Chobe National Park and Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, enjoyed the splendor of Victoria Falls, and experienced the amazing diversity of Africa’s wildlife. Along the way we learned about Imvelo’s important elephant conservation projects and met many of the wonderful people of Zimbabwe.
Imvelo Safari Lodges has been at the forefront of community conservation in Zimbabwe since 1996. By building some of their camps and safari lodges on communal land bordering Hwange National Park, their goal is to create a symbiotic relationship between local communities, responsible tourism, and conservation. This in turn promotes conservation of the local wildlife and natural resources and encourages sustainability for these village communities while at the same time adding significantly to the safari experience.
Read on to learn more about our amazing safari!
Chobe National Park, Botswana
Chobe National Park is synonymous with elephant, its reality the unforgettable sightings of gentle giants frolicking in the waters or moving slowly through desert-like stretches of sand, ears flapping to the slow rhythm of nature. With an elephant population well more than 40,000 (reputedly the largest in the world), Chobe's river and floodplain area ranks among Africa's premier safari destinations.
In addition to the massive herds of elephant, the park is home to the more unusual, shy antelope species such as roan, sable, tsessebe, eland and red lechwe. Rare Chobe bushbuck and puku make an appearance, and high densities of lion, leopard, spotted hyena, and cheetah complete the safari experience. During the dry season months of May to October the floodplains of the river support large herds of Cape buffalo. Woven into a melodious tapestry, the sounds of over 450 bird species merges with the harsher call of the big game, and the chatter and alarm calls of the inhabitants.
We began our journey in northern Botswana’s Chobe National Park, flying into Kasane and spending two nights at the Chobe Game Lodge . This is the only permanent lodge situated within the boundaries of Chobe National Park so we could avoid the drive from Kasane each morning (and the lines at the entrance gate) to maximize our time searching for wildlife. Built along the riverbanks with spectacular views of the Chobe River and the surrounding floodplains, Chobe Game Lodge is a prime venue to explore the wonders of this famous park.
Of course, Chobe did not disappoint. During our stay we enjoyed early morning game drives, afternoon boat trips, and ended the day with a late afternoon game drive. Both the safari vehicles and the boat are electric so we could silently glide along the water or quietly drive through the bush. The elephants were the main attraction and we saw hundreds as they came to the river to drink. One morning we had a fantastic leopard sighting next to the lodge followed by a lone male lion walking along the road. He was so close to the vehicle you could touch him (not recommended). We were also fortunate to find a small pack of wild dogs. It was a quick sighting as they were moving fast, but it’s always a thrill to see Africa’s rarest large carnivore.
Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
We departed Chobe National Park for the 3-hour road transfer to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe for a one-night stay at the Batonka Guest Lodge . This small, boutique lodge is about 2 miles from the entrance to Victoria Falls National Park and was the perfect, central location for our quick visit.
The Victoria Falls is created by the Zambezi River which forms the boundary between Zambia and Zimbabwe. In the local Kololo language it is known as Mosi-oa-Tunya, or “The Smoke that Thunders”. The name says it all for when the river is high the Falls are at their most magnificent as the towering column of spray and thunder of cascading water can be heard miles away.
We only had the afternoon to see the Falls, so we took a cab from Batonka to the Lookout Café for lunch. This amazingly scenic café is perched high on the cliffs just downstream of the Falls. After taking in the scenery and some crocodile kababs, we wandered the paths opposite the Falls. The numerous outlooks offer spectacular views, but it can get wet from all the falling spray.
What makes the Falls so stunning is not only the sheer volume of water flowing over it (145,000,000 gallons every minute), but also its incredible breadth. Where the river meets the cliff, the Falls is over a mile wide making it the longest curtain of water on the planet. This water tumbling across such a long expanse falls over 300 feet before crashing into the canyon below, creating what is considered one of the natural wonders of the world. Victoria Falls is a National Park and a World Heritage Site. Through millions of years of erosion, the Zambezi River has created a series of waterfalls, each slightly upstream of the previous one. The present Victoria Falls will eventually give way to a new waterfall. This process is already starting at the Devil's Cataract on the Zimbabwe side. Evidence of the previous waterfalls can be seen in the zig-zagging gorges downstream of today's Victoria Falls.
After a few hours exploring the Falls and doing some curio shopping, we had dinner at the Dusty Road. This extraordinary restaurant provides authentic Zimbabwean meals that are locally sourced and cooked the traditional Zimbabwean way over open fires and cast-iron pots. The restaurant is set in a township near the town center and beautifully decorated with bright colors and recycled material.
Nehimba Lodge, Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe
Following our day in Victoria Falls, we headed south to the vast Hwange National Park. The 3-hour drive passed through a rural landscape of rolling hills dotted with baobab trees. We met our guide at the park entrance gate for a wildlife filled drive to Nehimba Lodge .
Royal hunting grounds in the 19th century and declared a national park in 1929, today, Hwange is Zimbabwe's largest wildlife reserve. Protecting some 5600 sq miles, Hwange is as big as Northern Ireland. Vast stretches of wilderness, extend from horizon to horizon and form part of the elephants’ ancient migration route between Hwange and Botswana's Chobe region. This diverse landscape of mopane and teak forests, semi-desert scrubland and granite hills is inhabited by a wide variety of mammals and birds. There are over 100 species of mammals, including 19 large herbivores such as buffalo, eland, sable, giraffe, zebra, and wildebeest. Hwange supports a healthy population of lions, cheetahs, leopards, wild dogs, and some rhinos.
Over 400 bird species have been recorded here. However, the area is particularly famous for its population of elephant, some 44,000 strong that dominate all the water points in the dry season. Combined with the elephants of northern Botswana this is the world’s largest contiguous elephant population.
Hwange is a special place and well worth a visit. It’s larger than Tanzania’s Serengeti and sees far fewer visitors. In fact, Hwange sees about 43,000 visitors per year with a density of 3 people/km2 (much lower than the Serengeti with 23 people per km2 per year, Kruger with 85, and Masai Mara with 192). During our stay in Hwange, we saw very few people and most of our wildlife sightings were private. Hwange can be a very exclusive place!
Nehimba Lodge is located on a private concession within the park. It sits on the edge of the mopane woodlands of northern Hwange and the Kalahari sandveld and offers a full spectrum and diversity of fauna. The topography here is entirely different from the south of the park, with kopjes, some rolling hills and thick mopane forests. The area is well watered so is home to large numbers of animals throughout the year but particularly during the dry season.
Our three days here were filled with activities, though the most memorable time was relaxing on the deck watching the elephants come to drink, so close they would rub up against the railings. There were so many elephants wandering around the lodge the staff had to escort us to our rooms each night.
With such a high density of elephants, the walking safaris were a thrill as you never knew if you’d come across elephants making their way to the waterhole. On one early morning walk we were following the many elephant paths and as our guide was describing an animal track, he suddenly whispered to get off the trail. We quickly followed him off trail and hid behind a large tree. An elephant was also walking down the same path and when it came across our scent, it stopped for a minute and smelled around with its trunk before moving on. On our other walks we explored the rocky hills north of Nehimba. Walks are highly recommended as it gives you a chance to stretch your legs and learn about the plants and animal tracks you can’t see from a vehicle.
We also spent time on game drives and found lions, buffalo, giraffe, zebra and many birds. Given the lack of crowds here we hardly saw another vehicle and had many of the wildlife sightings to ourselves.
Bomani Tented Camp, Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe
From Nehimba, we continued our journey south to Bomani Lodge to experience a different side of Hwange. The Ngamo Plains surrounding Bomani Lodge is home to a wide diversity of wildlife and is particularly good for cheetah sightings. The area is also home to abundant plains game, elephant, lions, and many bird species. Bomani's location on a private concession and adjacent to the park allows for game drives, night drives, and visits to the nearby Ngamo Village.
We also enjoyed a unique transfer to Bomani on the Elephant Express. The Elephant Express is a one-of-a-kind 24 seat private rail car that traverses the historic colonial era railway line which runs along the edge of Hwange National Park and onward to Victoria Falls. Wildlife is often seen during the journey. The northern section runs through magnificent indigenous hardwood forest, while the southern section crosses the Ngamo Plains and ancient palm forests. During our ride on the Elephant Express we saw lots of wildlife, including wild dogs, elephants, zebra, wildebeest, and giraffe.
Upon arriving at Bomani our guide met us, but he was in a big hurry. Evidently a pride of lions had just made a kill and he wanted to take us there immediately. There were also two cheetahs spotted nearby so as soon as we stepped off the railcar, we jumped into the vehicle. We soon found the two cheetahs on an old tree looking beautiful in the setting sun. These are two brothers that roam long distances away from Hwange but usually return. We spent a few minutes watching them as they sat in the tree until they jumped down and walked off into the bush.
We then found a pride of about 13 lions feeding on their fresh kill (see video above). There were a number of cubs and adult females but the lone male dominated the kill. Even an elephant strolled into the scene before it realized lions were present and quickly ran into the bush. We watched this scene until the sun set then drove back to Bomani for dinner.
There were lots of activities to keep us busy during our stay. We searched the grasslands for wildlife on bush walks and game drives. Though not as many elephants as at Nehimba we did see buffalo, giraffe, and plains game. Perhaps the highlight of our stay was our private visit to the new rhino sanctuary, led by Mark Butcher (founder of Imvelo Safari Lodges). We also had a visit to the local school and village. Here we saw first-hand many of the community conservation projects funded by Imvelo.
In May 2022, white rhinos were re-introduced to Hwange National Park after a 20-year absence. Hwange's white rhino population was eradicated from heavy poaching and hunting. However, working closely with the local communities, Imvelo established the Ngamo Rhino Sanctuary and began a bold plan to bring back the rhinos. This historic translocation is one the most exciting conservation projects in Africa today and represents a massive paradigm shift by placing rhino on community land with the local communities as custodians.
Mark Butcher met us at the rhino sanctuary and gave us details on the massive rhino relocation project and how the local community is responsible for protecting the rhinos (including many rangers recruited from nearby villages). Mark then took us out into the fenced sanctuary, and we met the two rhinos (Thuza and Kusasa). Both were very curious and came very close to us. It was a thrill standing so close to these massive animals and to witness their comeback to Hwange.
Besides the rhino sanctuary, Imvelo funds several projects in the local village. We spent time in the new classrooms build by Imvelo and the kids performed traditional songs for us. It’s wonderful opportunity for the kids to meet and interact with people from all over the world who have come to see the wildlife they live among.After the school visit, we drove to a nearby village for an unchoreographed visit of a local homestead. We were able to see some of Imvelo's community initiatives and gain insight into the day-to-day life of a rural Zimbabwean including learning about thatching roofs, tilling fields, milling maize and weaving baskets.
Jozibanini Tented Camp, Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe
For the final segment of our safari, we flew from Bomani to the very remote Jozibanini Tented Camp. During the 30-minute flight we could clearly see the abrupt boundary between the national park and communal agricultural lands. With people living so close to the park, human-wildlife conflict is a serious issue. However Imvelo’s numerous community conservation projects are big step in resolving this conflict.
Jozibanini has an interesting story which reinforces the importance of our visit here. A ranger station named Jozibanini was abandoned in the early 2000's due to lack of park funds, leaving the south and west of the park largely unpatrolled by rangers and never visited by tourists. As a result, elephant poaching raised its ugly head in this area in 2013. After these poaching incidents, Imvelo Safari Lodges decided to establish an outpost at Jozibanini which staff and a privileged few tourists could use as a base for both management of water resources and a safari experience unlike any other. Presence in the area would also deter poachers, and who better to employ to protect the new project than ex-poachers who have turned over a new leaf. By introducing tourism, the Jozi project has helped protect and conserve hundreds of miles of remote park, and regular traffic on the route has translated into reliable support for both the park and about 25% of Hwange’s thirsty wildlife in the dry season.
The ecosystem here is semi-desert, similar to the Kalahari in neighboring Botswana. Ancient windblown fossil sand dunes are separated by shallow valleys where elephant paths have compacted the terrain, providing the opportunity for game viewing by mountain bike or walking.
The Jozi experience is all about elephants and I’ve never seen so many elephants in one place! During the dry season (June-October), Jozibanini is an elephant mecca as large numbers visit the waterhole in front of the camp. We did some game drives and bush walks but the highlight at Jozi is camp’s unique wildlife viewing blind.
Called a “look-up” blind, Imvelo has taken a modified shipping container and sunk it deep into the sand next to the waterhole. This placement provides amazing views of the elephants since you are looking up at them. The elephants don’t realize you are hidden in the blind, so they behave naturally. It’s a surreal experience as elephants jostle and fight for water only a few feet away. This was one of the most interesting wildlife experiences I’ve had in Africa. There’s nothing like sitting in the blind with a cold gin and tonic in hand and watching the sunset over herds of elephants.
All too soon our safari was over. We boarded a bush plane at Jozi for the flight back to Victoria Falls and home.
Our Guides: Harris & Sibs
Zimbabwe is renowned for superb, highly qualified, professional guides. Our guides, Harris and Sibs, were no exception. Both were fun to spend time with and eager to share their vast knowledge of the bush.
Our Victoria Falls & Hwange Itinerary
This is a similar itinerary to our Great Elephant Safari (except it does not visit Chobe). It's 11 days and visits the same lodges. Contact us if interested!
We have plenty of safari packages to explore or we can help you create a tailor-made safari that is perfect for you. We have the expertise and experience to design an adventure deep into the African wilderness.