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My first African safari – Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe

by in Africa, Features, Home, Places, Zimbabwe.

Selfie in vehicle

It took me 44 years, but I got there in the end. In 2014 I finally got to realise what all the fuss is about. Actually, I guess I knew what the fuss was about but going on safari in Africa far exceeded my expectations and made me understand why this particular experience is at or near the top of so many bucket lists.

Crane by the road

If you’re a fan of this website then you are probably one of those people who wants a little more from their holiday. Perhaps in truth a fortnight on the beach reading bestsellers is more of a trial than a vacation.

Maybe you want to come back from your travels with more than a Bloomingdale’s Big Brown Bag. Don’t get me wrong – lazy days in the sun or frenetic shopping in New York are fun too, and this is not about travel snobbery. I can assure you I’m not going to get into that tired old ‘traveller versus tourist’ debate.

Giraffe

However I do believe that every single one of you should plan on an African safari at least once in your lives, and in this article I’m going to try to explain why…

The call of the wild

Giraffes at sunset

The urge to get back to nature and away from the stress and claustrophobia of modern life is a major reason why a safari holds such appeal; but there are other ways to ‘get away from it all’.

Living in Norway I’m lucky enough to be able to escape to the hills and forests with ease and perhaps I appreciate this even more having grown up in South London. But solitude is one thing – coming face to face with Africa’s wildlife is another.

Elephant

Nothing can prepare you for your first sighting – you’ll be pinching yourself to check if that elephant twenty feet away is really there. You’ll learn all about the animals and life in the bush; you’ll make new friends and share amazing experiences.

You’ll bask in the warmth of the African sun and be transfixed by the brightness of the stars in a sky that appears to be in some kind of super widescreen ultra high definition.

Eland

Above all, it will become clear to you just how incredible this planet of ours really is – and how vulnerable are its other inhabitants to the arrogance of man.

Vulture

It might not turn you into a tree-hugger or vegetarian, but a safari in Africa will change your view of the world in a positive way and I guarantee that this great continent will get under your skin. Your holiday may be intended as a one-off trip of a lifetime, but you’ll be back…

It took me 20 years but there was never any doubt in my mind that I’d be return to Africa and I’m already looking forward to my next journey.

Where and who to go with

Planning a safari can be a daunting task as there are so many operators – and countries – to choose from. Deciding where, when and how to travel is beyond the scope of this particular post so I’ll just tell you about my own experience in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe.

I’ve already made my case for why you should consider booking with Imvelo Safari Lodges and why Bomani Tented Lodge makes the perfect base when I reviewed the accommodation, and my next Zimbabwe article will show you the work that the company is doing with the local communities.

If you follow my advice, this is what you can expect:

The daily routine at Bomani – far from the daily grind

Rather than an alarm clock, the TV turning itself on or a phone call from reception, your wake-up call is in the form of a softly-spoken “Knock-knock” outside your tent at the prearranged time. It’s a good idea to make an early start so you can catch the sunrise and the sounds of the wildlife surrounding the camp coming to life.

I arranged my ‘call’ for about 0545 every day but was usually awake a little before of my own accord – just lying in bed listening to the sounds of nature is a wonderful way to begin a new day. It sounds brutally early but you’ll be on a different rhythm here – one of early nights and early starts.

If you have hot water left from the night before you can take a shower – or use cold water if you’re struggling to wake up. I soon established a routine of slapping on the suncream and spraying on the insect repellant before getting dressed and making my way to breakfast. A steaming mug of coffee completed the preparatory process and a filling breakfast set me up for the morning.

Together with the rest of the group and our guides we discussed the plan for the day, and shortly after would set off on a game drive.  This may include a walking safari as early morning is the best time for this activity and we would be back for “second breakfast” or brunch at around 1100. Then it’s time to relax or have a siesta until around 1500 when we would again gather at the main building for our second game drive which would conclude with sundowners in the bush.

Sundowner

We’d head back to camp just after dark and get cleaned up for dinner – preceded by drinks round the campfire. Most nights the restaurant was empty about 2230 after the last guest had been escorted to their tent and most of us were fast asleep soon after, dreaming of the day to come.

Truly expert, local guides

Sibs tracking

Your guide is the key to a successful and enjoyable safari – the amount of wildlife in the park is irrelevant if you can’t find it. As I’ve touched on before, Zimbabwe’s guides are recognised as among the best in Africa; it takes much longer to qualify as a guide than to complete a university degree and the first-time pass rate is under 10%. The training programme is not just about theory and learning about the enormous amount of flora and fauna – it also covers people management, tourism and environmental laws, first aid, vehicle maintenance, firearms and cookery.

It’s no surprise that Zimbabwe’s guides are sought-after in other countries and that during the economic crisis many quickly found work abroad. To this day, a certificate from Zimbabwe is almost a guarantee of an instant job offer from most safari companies. Happily many guides are now returning and are a major force in attracting tourists to their home country.

I had the privilege of being guided by Sibs – an extremely knowledgeable, friendly and down-to-earth guide with a great sense of humour. He had just joined Imvelo after working for other safari companies in Hwange and abroad – Sibs found work in Botswana and South Africa during the worst of the problems in Zimbabwe.

We also had a trainee with us, Vusu, who in line with company policy was from the local village. Vusu told us all about life in the bush and how tough it had been before Imvelo came into the picture. A former teacher, working in education had been the only possible career as a young boy and conditions were extremely difficult even when he secured the sough-after position at a run-down school. Things are different for many of his contemporaries who are schooled in modern classrooms and now have the opportunity to train as guides or for other jobs in the lodges and thus a future in the tourism industry in Zimbabwe.

Game drives

The main activity while on safari is the game drive – at Bomani there are typically two per day; one right after a very early breakfast then another after an afternoon siesta period. Imvelo uses the classic safari vehicle – a modified Land Rover SUV which seats up to 7 guests and is very comfortable.

Vehicle en route

There is ample stowage space for each seat where you can keep your camera, binoculars, water etc. while on the move. Your guide will usually be driving and often has an assistant with him up front.

After going over a few simple rules (the majority of which are common sense like not leaving the vehicle and switching off your phone) we clambered aboard and were soon bumping our way along the trail from the lodge and into the National Park itself.

Everyone is encouraged to try to spot animals although it’s often hard to compete with the expertise of the guides who usually get there first. Binoculars are a must-have, and a good camera is essential too but no pictures (or even video) can quite replicate the experience. Having said that, this clip should whet your appetite – it covers my first morning on safari from waking at dawn to returning for lunch.

Walking safari

As you will have seen in the video, we also went on a walking safari. This is a thrilling experience, there is something very different about being on foot in the bush as opposed to being a few feet up on a vehicle.

Again it’s vital that you follow your guide’s instructions and we were also taught a few hand signal in case we would not be able to talk without disturbing (or annoying) an animal close by.

Sibs led the party and was carrying a rifle – just in case. He told us that in all his years as a guide he had never had to use it which is just as well – aside from having to kill one of the animals bullets cost around USD 12 each due to the embargo in force against arms to Zimbabwe, so it would be both expensive as well as tragic to have to pull the trigger.

With Vusu bringing up the rear we proceeded in single file and followed the trail of elephants and lion. It’s amazing how much these guys can interpret from some tracks in the dust.

The wildlife

Here are some of the highlights from the game drives I took while at Bomani.

As you will have seen in the first video, we didn’t even make it to the gate before we came upon a pride of lions – it was an amazing way to begin.

Lions on first morning

Sibs stopped the vehicle when they first appeared and gave us time to get photos and observe the group while telling us all about them. After it became clear where they were headed he started up the jeep once more and moved into a position where we would head them off – so the lions passed right by us.

I could feel the adrenaline rising during the encounter but I felt safe the entire time – it is easy to relax when in the hands of an expert who knows when if it is time to retreat.

Jackal

Soon after we came upon a jackal watching us from a distance and Sibs managed to get closer to this guy too. Jackals are very attractive creatures with a slightly bad reputation – which is mostly undeserved.

Hippos

Moving on again we passed a waterhole with a small group of large hippos keeping cool in the early morning sun.

We passed them several times each day but never once saw them leave the water or even stick their heads up enough for a proper photo. I mean really…

Waterbuck and birds

Waterbuck are magnificent animals, and the story about the reason they have the ring on their hind quarters is because they got stuck sitting on a freshly-pained toilet seat is an oldie but a goldie…

Wildebeest

Wildebeest are everywhere at Hwange and the subject of much derision by guides who say that they were put together from all the bits left over from other animals.

They certainly have an uphill battle in the survival stakes as they are unable to stop their tails swishing which gives away their position to predators…

Impala

Impala are also very common but it takes a little patience to get this close – they are easily startled and run very fast.

Baboon

This baboon was one of a huge group we saw several times.

Zebra

Zebra are beautiful creatures, no?

Buffalo

Buffalo are really fun animals to meet. Not as fierce as they are reputed to be, they are incredibly curious animals and it’s quite unnerving to be watched so closely by so many huge buffalo – these were at the edge of a very large herd. The entire group just couldn’t seem to take their eyes off us…

Ostrich

The ostrich – one of nature’s strangest creations.

Steenbok

Steenbok are very timid and we were lucky to see this one before he sped into the distance.

And to complement the photos, here’s some more video footage from our game drives:

Conclusion

You should be planning a safari holiday – that’s the conclusion.

Need to know

All the activities mentioned (and more besides) are included in the cost of your holiday with Imvelo Safari Lodges. If you have a week then do as I did – spend a couple of days at Victoria Falls and stay at Gorges Lodge before transferring to Bomani Tented Lodge. Imvelo is expanding and a new, top-end lodge has recently opened called Camelthorn which is very close to Bomani and a more remote camp in Hwange will commence business later this year.

In terms of value for money I would give the Gorges Lodge/Bomani combo full marks and this is the same itinerary I will use when I return with my wife and daughter.

A few tips

  • Your guide is the boss – end of story.
  • You are in the animal’s kingdom when on a drive, not a zoo. Keep quiet and don’t make sudden movements
  • Bring binoculars and a camera, but don’t go overboard on equipment. I won’t bring a tripod again as I barely used it
  • Don’t break the rules in camp
  • Leave your phone behind
  • Don’t wear bright coloured clothing
  • Don’t forget a hat or suncream. Don’t forget to use both
  • Tip your guide – they deserve it
  • Start saving. Now.

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