Trip report: Hwange National Park and the Zambezi River, Zimbabwe

This is the second and final part of this trip report, you can find the first part here: Trip report: Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

Introduction

As mentioned in the first part of this report from Zimbabwe, in November last year I took part in a familiarisation trip to Zimbabwe with my good friends and partner company, Imvelo Safari Lodges.

After arriving early to stay at three other properties in the Victoria Falls area, I met with the rest of the Nordic group at Victoria Falls Airport and the Imvelo trip began…

EXTENDED REVIEWS OF THESE PROPERTIES WILL BE PUBLISHED SOON

We made our introductions in the arrivals hall – I did not know any of the other agents but had got to know the Imvelo Nordic representative, Eva, on previous occasions.

I was really pleased to find that our guide for the entire trip would be my old friend Vusa – who had worked his way up from trainee when we first met in 2014 to an expert guide in 2018.

You’ll find more about Vusa in my older article about Mvelo’s safari projects and of course in the video series explaining reasons why we partner with Imvelo Safari Lodges.

After that we climbed into the transfer vehicle and made our way to the first property on the tour – and one of my favourites from my first African safari.

Gorges Lodge

Possibly the most spectacularly sited lodge in all of Africa, Gorges Lodge is somewhere you won’t forget in a hurry. With Victoria Falls town an easy drive away you can enjoy all the activities available there while “living on the edge”.

I first visited Gorges Lodge back in 2014 and had an amazing experience – it was the first lodge I had stayed at in Southern Africa and what a start it was…

Since then a new section, Little Gorges, has opened which consists of 5 luxury tents on the other side of the main area. In the full accommodation review I will cover these rooms as well since I had the chance to photograph the new section on my latest trip.

Anyway, here is a video of my chalet, the pool, the bar and the restaurant filmed at the end of 2018:

10km downstream from the Victoria Falls and a 22 km road transfer from Victoria Falls town or a 19 km road transfer from Victoria Falls Airport.

And it is located right on the edge of a 250m gorge above the Zambezi River!

The room

I was accommodated in chalet number 1, which is furthest away from the central main area with the pool and restaurant. It’s not that far, of course, and like all the chalets feels very private without any close neighbours.

The room design had not changed much since my previous visit – if it ain’t broke, why fix it – but had been refreshed with a brighter and more modern style. The large bed was a joy to sleep in.

The best feature of the room was undoubtedly the vertigo-inducing balcony (which all chalets have). Beat that view!

Tea and coffee making facilities are provided, as is a free minibar – just help yourself! The minibar is restocked each day and you are unlikely to run out in any case.

The bathrooms have been upgraded since I was last there and the huge double shower area is an excellent touch. A full range of bathroom ameneties are provided.

The water pressure in the shower was excellent, too.

The pool

Relaxing in and by the pool is hard to resist. However, there are plenty of other activities available.

Activities

Birdwatching, school and village visits are excellent options. When I visited in 2014 I was there at the weekend when the school was closed so I went on a village visit which was very rewarding –

I have a short video here:

A local dance and drumming troupe often perform in the evening at the lodge too, again I have a video from my first trip:

There are a pair of Verreaux’s Eagles that nest at the lodge and these can be viewed while enjoying sundowners and snacks at a separate part of the property near the Little Gorges tents. There are plenty of other birds in the area and you can also take guided walks along the edge of the gorge or in the gorge itself.

And of course Victoria Falls is one of the best adventure hubs in Southern Africa – the lodge can arrange all of these, or you can do so yourself. Here are two articles from my first trip to give you an idea of waht is on offer – a morning in Victoria Falls and what I got up to in the afternoon.

Unfortunately we had only one night at Gorges, but I will be back (again). After breakfast we set off for a guided tour of the Falls and then back to our vehicle for the next leg of the trip, to Dete on the way to Hwange National Park.

Imvelo Safari Lodges has a unique experience for its guests heading to Bomani Tented Camp and Camelthorn Lodge. For an additional fee (pre-booking essential) you can ride the Elephant Express from Dete to Ngamo Siding, a wonderful 2-hour journey on a refurbished railcar.

You will often see the railway line when on game drives as it marks the border of the park. It was the longest stretch of perfectly straight rail line in the world – 120 kms – when it was built in the early 1900s.

Elephant Express

On arrival at Dete it becomes clear that – unfortunately like a lot of infrastructure in Zimbabwe – the station has seen better times. Dete was an important town for the railway back in the day and even has a large housing estate originally built for the workers.

These days there are very few departures in either direction.

But soon a special departure arrived – the Elephant Express.

With an engine at either end allowing for travel in both directions – and to switch direction if necessary in an emergency – and a former Zimbabwe Railways driver, we knew we were in safe hands. A quick briefing followed, then we had lunch before setting off.

And of course drinks would be served…

If it’s Africa, it’s gotta be a G&T. There are no exceptions. And then we were off.

Train drivers in this part of the world face somewhat different issues than back in Europe.

Have a look at this video for an idea of the experience:

The trip is also a mobile safari and the driver stops for interesting sightings – like a giraffe or two.

You get an opportunity to make a fool of yourself (and drive the railcar for a bit).

We had to stop several times because of animals on the line, too.

The Elephant Express is a fantastic way to travel to Imvelo’s properties on the south-eastern edge of the park and is a lot more fun that the 4-5 hour road trip from Victoria Falls. You won’t save any time, but you will appreciate the change in transport and the relaxed rail journey.

As we arrived at Ngamo Siding, Vusa’s trusty Land Rover was waiting and we transferred our bags and drove the short distance to our accommodation for the night.

Camelthorn Lodge

In 2014 work was just being finished on Camelthorn Lodge, but I was lucky enough to have a look around and realised this was going to be a very different property than the usual tented camp. As with all Imvelo lodges, Camelthorn was built and is run with the help of the local community as a joint venture, with a large proportion of profit used for health, education and conservation projects.

With Camelthorn, the local community wanted a permanent building to ensure that the lodge would be in use for generations. As soon as you arrive at the property you will have no doubt that this has been achieved.

Here’s a video to show you more:

Camelthorn is situated in one of Hwange’s last remaining well-protected and unspoilt acacia woodlands, on the edge of the South Eastern corner of Hwange National Park. The lodge is nestled in the cool woodlands on the southern edge of Ngamo’s famous Plains.

It is also about 15 minutes from Ngamo Siding for those arriving on the Elephant Express and a similar distance from another Imvelo property, Bomani Tented Lodge.

The room

Accommodation is in 8 forest villas, which as you can see are the size of small houses.

With two good-sized beds, there is plenty of space for families or friends travelling together. The decor is bright and inviting and has all the features you will need.

There is an open fire for cold Hwange nights (yes, it gets cold in the evenings during some times of the year).

The bathroom was large and equipped with both a bath with a view and a big shower cabinet.

Filtered water as well as tea and coffee making facilities are available in the room as well as a free minibar.

For the more sociable, there is a lovely bar in the main building stocked with a large range of drinks (of which the local varieties are included in the room rate).

A lounge area is provided next to the bar with comfy chairs and sofas. It’s a great place to unwind after game drives or other activities.

Meals are served in the restaurant area on the other side of the building or al fresco depending on your preference and the weather. Full marks for the Marmite (Bovril too, if you are so inclined).

We had time to relax before dinner and then enjoy a sundowner in the bar. A fire had been lit for us in the garden and we joined the other guests for an excellent meal under the stars.

Before too long it was time for bed, and I slept like the proverbial stone.

We were up early with our bags packed as we had a full day ahead of us. Breakfast was a buffet with a hot option (I went for the full English, as per) and very tasty.

And then it was time to leave this unique lodge. I enjoyed my time at Camelthorn, and can see its appeal to travellers wanting accommodation which veers closer to a hotel concept, but in the bush. For families with small children, it may feel safer than staying under canvas.

But for me, I will always choose a tented lodge over a brick building, and the next two nights would be spent at my absolute favourite in Zimbabwe (and high on the list for the whole of Africa).

Game drives in Hwange National Park

While our bags were transported to our next destination, we jumped about the “Team Vusa” Land Rover for a day searching for wildlife. I have written about the safari experience in Hwange National Park in a separate article so I will not repeat myself here, but I can’t resist sharing the video I made for that one here to give you an idea:

After a morning game drive and a hearty lunch by a waterhole in the park, we then went on an afternoon adventure before arriving at Bomani around 1600.

Bomani Tented Lodge

As mentioned earlier, I absolutely love Bomani. It was the first place I stayed on my first African Safari, which may go some way to explain this, but there is more to that. The location, the staff and the atmosphere here are just unique and I love the accommodation too.

Talking of which, here is a video too:

Bomani is sited on a private concession in a remote area 15 minutes drive from Hwange National Park, thus affording privacy and exclusivity for game drives within the concession. But even in the park itself, you are unlikely to see many other vehicles due to its vast size.

The room

I stayed in the honeymoon suite, no less! This is a tented room on a tiled floor, with a large terrace outside and a view over the Ngamo Plain.

A large and comfortable bed as well as all the usual ameneties await those staying here, but this suite also includes a few nice extras.

The bathroom area is more permanent than in the regular tents, with double handbasins as well as a full bath and shower.

Perhaps the best aspect to Bomani is enjoying a drink around the campfire with the other guests.

Breakfast is often taken here too, and the whole feeling of being part of one big group of friends is an experience that will stay with you long after you return home.

The Pool

Again, the swimming pool is an inviting option. And once again I missed out on using it, but such is life on a busy trip. Also, it was scorchingly hot so I passed.

There are many activities available at Bomani (and Camelthorn, which is close by) and I will detail these in the in-depth accommodation review rather than here.

Having said that, a school visit is basically a must-do and picking up the children on their way to school is possibly one of the best things I have ever taken part in and for this article, a video will have to do it justice:


After the school visit we went to the village headman’s home and the local crafts market before an afternoon game drive.

And sundowners, obviously.

After returning to Bomani it was soon time for dinner, another riotous affair with our new friends – the other guests staying at the lodge.

Such a brief time here is never enough (I think I have said this before?) but we had more lodges to see, so in the morning we hopped back in the vehicle and set off for a different area of the park.

Nehimba Lodge

Nehimba is situated on a 278 square kilometre private concession, within the remote northern region of Hwange National Park. The lodge is on the edge of the mopane woodlands associated with the north of the park and the kalahari sandveld of the south and west.

We took the Elephant Express back to Dete and then a game drive on to Nehimba (about another 2 hours through the park).

As we arrived at the lodge we heard that many elephants had been visiting recently, and while we had missed the massive influx – each year well over a hundred converge on Nehimba’s waterhole, we were definitely going to see plenty during our one night stay here.

Before we go any further, here’s my video:

 

The room

I was assigned one of the thatched tents built on teak decks, in my case a family room with extra beds.

This was the main double – another amazingly comfortable bed at an Imevelo property.

There was plenty of space for children or friends here, and at a reasonable distance from the double bed.

A fancy bath could be found in the spacious bathroom, but there was a better alternative…

Yes! An outdoor shower, the best shower there is.

The pool

The pool at Nehimba is a little different to the pools at most properties. I don’t think anyone ever swims in it, as the elephants have basically taken it over as a drinking spot.

Activities

For our sundowners we visited the Nehimba seep, which is an ancient source of water once used by the San Bushmen, as well as being a place where elephant still dig for water and minerals, as they were doing while we enjoyed our drinks and snacks.

Take-away G&Ts – now that’s a good idea.

After a fantastic three-course dinner we went for a quick night drive as lions had been spotted not far from the camp, and we got lucky.

We found a whole pride, but these guys were clearly the heads of the family.

Returning to the lodge for a nightcap, we were joined by some guests.

It was an amazing experience to sit so close to a bunch of beautiful elephants, and is just one of the factors that makes Nehimba unique.

Driving out of Hwange National Park

The next morning we hit the road again after a great breakfast. Today we were heading for our final Imvelo property and our last night in Zimbabwe. We tried to forget about the latter and make the most the 2.5 hour game drive to the park gate. We stopped a number of times including at this viewpoint and campsite.

There was plenty of wildlife to view and it’s a good place to break the journey.

Finally we reached the gate and our transfer vehicle met us after we had a refreshment break. We then drove back to Victoria Falls and entered Zambezi National Park through the private gate to our last lodge for this trip.

Zambezi Sands River Lodge

Located within Zambezi National Park, some 16km from Victoria Falls town, Zambezi Sands is situated right on the riverside and offers a change from the typical safari lodge in that the main focus is on water-based activities.

Here’s an overview video by Imvelo:

The room

Now unfortunately I had a technical problem with my video camera upon arrival at Zambezi Sands and I was unable to make a clip, but I took a LOT of photos of the tent. Most of these I will publish in the full review of the lodge but the ones here will give you an impression.

The tents are massive. The first part that greets you is a lounge area with tea and coffee facilities as well as a free minibar.

The bathroom is in the middle of the tent, separating the lounge from the bedroom.

A full-size bath is provided, which is a great feature.

The bedroom is on the other side with huge comfy beds as usual.

Yay – an outdoor shower!

The (private) pool

Each tent has a huge private terrace overlooking the legendary Zambezi River with its own plunge pool, sun loungers and seating.

And yes, the plunge pool is a welcome place to chill during the heat of the early afternoon.

Food and drink

We had a fantastic dinner in the evening after our sunset cruise, and breakfast was superb too.

The restaurant location is hard to beat, with a large outdoor area with stunning views of the river.

The main area also has a large and cosy lounge and bar area with comfy sofas and armchairs.

Activities

There are plenty of things to do at Zambezi Sands, so please read the full review for more on these. For now, I’ll cover the two we took part in.

A “sunset drift” is essential. Cruising down the Zambezi with sundowners by boat is just something else.

We stopped off at a sandy island on the way before the sun began to do amazing things with the sky.

Sunset itself was the stuff of dreams.

See what I mean? But things just got better…

There’s a pool in the water where the rocks provide protection from being dragged down to the Victoria Falls. This must be the best spot for a cold beer known to man. Well, known to me anyway…

Canoeing

This is probably the main activity at Zambezi Sands, and the Imvelo video shows this better than I could.

I was more than a little nervous about this as it was decades since I had been in a canoe and that one and only time was a bit of a disaster. What made it worse was that I was put in charge of steering the damn thing with my canoe partner Delphine who had never been in one. Great, so now I could get someone else killed as well as myself.

After being reassured we would be fine by the camp manager who was also our guide on the river, we clambered into our canoes, two in each. This was either typical Zimbabwean wit or typical Zimbabwean “everything will work out” attitude, or most likely a bit of both.

We had about 10 metres of still water to practice in before the rapids began. As a last piece of advice we were told not to hit hippos or cros on the head with our oars if we saw them…

The first rapids saw us doing a perfect 360 degree spin which was a little unsettling but I did get the hang of steering in time for the next set and began to really enjoy myself. By the time the third and final set approached I was hooked.

In between the rapids we cruised along and enjoyed the landscape, until it was unfortunately time to come back to dry land and pack our bags for the airport and home flight.

I was left – once again – with love for Zimbabwe and a desire to return as soon as possible. The Imvelo properties are fantastic and combine very well, also as an add-on to other properties. The country will win you over instantly and the people are so friendly and helpful you can hardly believe the troubles they have been through – and still face.

You really need to experience if for yourself, so contact me to arrange your dream trip to Zimbabwe!