by Rosie Reed, May 2017

The first thing you notice when flying into Zimbabwe is the landscape. Far removed from the dense Australian bush, the trees are spaced apart, allowing for glimpses of the orange red soil between. The clichés about the African sky going forever? Well, it’s a cliché for a reason!

Provided you are sitting on the left of the plane, you will also see a huge cloud of what looks like white smoke leaping out of a cluster of trees. This was my first sighting of the famed Victoria Falls, where the Zambezi River plunges 100 metres into the Zambezi Gorge below, in a 2km wide curtain of gushing water.

On the transfer through the bush on the way to our lodge, we kept our eyes peeled for elephants, giraffes and baboons. “Unlikely to see anything in the first hour”, we thought aloud to each other. The Jeep sped past leaping impala and we looked at each other in excitement – our first wildlife spot!

Continuing around the corner, the Jeep stopped and it took everything we had not to scream. Elephants! A whole herd of elephants in fact, over two sides of the road. We stopped to watch them ripping trunks off trees and chewing slowly, until they were all together on one side of the road. This took about ten minutes, but I don’t think we had any real concept of time at that point.

Our first taste of African luxury was Zambezi Sands, located in the western area of Hwange National Park on the banks of the Zambezi River. I knew “tented lodges” were a bit more than a tent and a sleeping bag, but I couldn’t have expected this. Twin double beds, a living room, minibar, claw foot bath and, tying for best amenity – a welcome bottle of Amarula and an outdoor shower!

After a quick refresh, we embarked on our Sundowner (one of my new favourite traditions) cruise on the Zambezi River, enjoying canapés, gin and tonics, and the sunset. Unfortunately we had no luck with the hippos, but it was a wonderfully relaxing way to ease in to our trip

We were up early the next day for a canoe on the Zambezi. The drive there had us see our first baboons and a warthog! From the minute we jumped into our canoes, the power of the Zambezi was obvious. 100 different currents going 100 different ways, we were thankful for our guide’s patience and knowledge.

After getting changed into dry clothes we were transferred to breakfast in the bush; a beautifully set table with fresh coffee, toast, cereals, yoghurt and omelettes cooked right on front of us.

This morning we made our way to our next lodge by scenic ride on the Elephant Express. We had the pleasure of meeting the colourful character of Mr Butcher, Managing Director of Imvelo Safari Lodges, and a great host if ever I’ve met one!  Around dusk, we were all jolly after a gin and tonic or two, when the Elephant Express came to a sudden holt and an excited Mr Butcher hailed the 4WD that had been following with our luggage. We clambered aboard, and over bumps and potholes and a noisy engine, we finally saw our first lion! Silence fell upon the whole vehicle as the engine came to a stop. Arriving at Camelthorne Lodge 3 hours late, we settled in for dinner and bed.

Rising early again today, you could feel the excitement in the group as we left Hwange National Park, towards Mlevu Junior School. Despite it being a real privilege to discover Zimbabwe as a traveller, this is the real reason we were here. Each person on our tour raised funds for Imvelo’s social programs, and today was the day we got to see that effort in action.

The schools water pump had been broken for the past 5 years, meaning members of the community have been walking 5km to the nearest borehole to carry home their days’ worth of water – enough to drink, bathe in, do laundry in, cook with, and wash up in.

Our projects involved fixing this pump, painting the school building and classrooms, and help cook the lunch for the kids. It turned out we couldn’t do much with the pump, so we got to work painting and cooking. There was so much to see and reflect on after today, the first true reminder of where we were and what we can achieve with a little motivation and comparatively little money. It was truly special being able to meet and interact with the kids and it is a memory I will carry with me for life.

The next day we enjoyed a morning game drive, our first sighting of buffalo and ostrich, and an entire family of elephants. We also had the pleasure of visiting the Ngamo village to meet the headman, tour his homestead and ask questions about his culture.

We then continued onto the school, where we were treated with incredible songs of welcome and thanks. After watching a great game of netball between the students, we were invited to join in, with the kids on one side, and the mothers filling in the rest of our side. I’m happy to report at this point that we got our butts kicked. Next was soccer, though I must confess I spent most of this time just running up and down the field hoping desperately I wouldn’t be hit in the head with the ball.

On our afternoon game drive, we got word of a lioness, who was known for having newborn cubs, with a fresh kill. Our Jeeps sat across a tiny pond watching her pace back and forth, take a bite, and relax. The hope was that she might bring her cubs out for a feed, but no luck on that front. We were also fortunate enough to see ostriches, jackal, impala, hippos, kudu, hornbills, giraffes, elephants, vultures, buffalo, zebra, and wildebeest. Phew, not a small feat!

We enjoyed our Sundowners this evening in the middle of a stunning African plain with elephants moving around behind us. Yet another one of those moments where you truly realise “wow, I’m in Africa”.

Back at Bomani, we enjoyed dinner under the stars before a gin and tonic or two around the fire, accompanied by marimba renditions of famous Zimbabwean songs.

The next morning, we ran into the offspring of Cecil, the lion who was lured out of Hwange National Park to be hunted and killed, grabbing the attention of news outlets all around the world.

After transferring back on the Elephant Express, we were picked up by our guides for a game drive through the park, only to run smack bang into a pack of African wild dogs, a protected and endangered species with beautiful patterning and very distinctive ears.

Nehimba Lodge is situated in the middle of Hwange National Park and makes the perfect base for game drives and walking safaris. On our second day, we set off in single file through the bush, armed with nothing but the knowledge that what we were doing was dangerous, and our guides. We saw a few elephants through the trees, but the real treat came when the bush opened out into a watering hole where a male elephant was drinking. We stood and watched in awe as he went about his business, suspiciously eyeing us off from time to time. It was only after he plodded back through the bushes that we were told what a close call that could have been.

As we enjoyed sundowners and dinner, it was a very special sight to see the elephants coming up to the waterholes to drink. One was very interested in our dinner, until he drank some of the pool water and decided he was better off sticking with the unchlorinated offering.

Next day we were off to Gorges Lodge, on the edge of the Batoka Gorge, 30 minutes drive from Victoria Falls. Our evening activity was watching the resident wild Verraux Eagles.

This beautiful and luxurious property is set amongst lush native gardens, with the view from the rooms over the gorge – a perfect place to sit with a morning cup of coffee (spiked with a little Amarula if you are so inclined. Go on, you’re on holiday).

This evening we were treated to a local dance troupe performing traditional Zimbabwean song and dances – with the condition that we danced with them of course – followed by a traditional Braai under the stars.

We woke the next morning with the excitement that can only come with the anticipation of seeing Victoria Falls for the first time. Head to toe in ponchos, there wasn’t much opportunity for taking photos unless you were well equipped with a waterproof camera (which I was not). Each vantage point of the falls gets increasingly wetter, and I highly suggest you wear flip flops, or at least shoes that have time to dry before you need them again! The power of the falls is massive, and changes depending on the time of the year. Obviously in drier seasons the falls won’t be a strong, though this may work out better for any photographers, as we had a little trouble seeing anything towards the last few vantage points.

People talk about the “Africa bug”, and they’re right – once you have been, you start counting down the time until you can go back again! I can’t wait to go back to Zimbabwe, although this trip has also opened my horizons to so many other countries in the region – Tanzania, Kenya, Botswana, Namibia and so many more!

After all, I still have 2 of the Big 5 to see…

Find out about embarking on your own African adventure through Hwange National Park!