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Hwange National Park: The Park with a Heartbeat
On returning from a safari in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe specialist Pierre described it as one of the most full-on safaris that he has ever experienced in 15 years working in travel. Pierre highly recommends Hwange as a holiday destination for the more seasoned safari-goer. Read on to find out why…
I recently had the privilege of spending some time in Hwange National Park in Western Zimbabwe and was really wowed by the whole experience! The largest park in Zimbabwe at 14,651 square kilometres, this is a truly amazing wildlife area and so different from any of the many other national parks and wildlife reserves in Africa that I’ve visited. So why is it so different? The answer is simple: Hwange is the only wildlife park in Africa, perhaps even in the world, with a real ‘heartbeat'. Before I explain what I mean by this, I want to first tell you a bit about my trip…
My journey started with an invitation from Imvelo Safaris to join them in a week long familiarization trip of their lodges in Victoria Falls and Hwange. Imvelo Safaris is owned by Mark Butcher, one of Zimbabwe’s true wildlife conservationists. Butch, as he is known to his friends, started out as a game ranger and has spent the rest of his life protecting the wildlife of Zimbabwe; an endeavour which he continues to dedicate his life to today. After spending the first night in Victoria Falls at Gorges Lodge, we set off to Hwange National Park, which is only a couple of hours drive away. The drive is very interesting, taking you through some of Zimbabwe’s stunning rural countryside, every now and then brightened up by a stop at a road block, when an animal is unapologetically taking over the track.
Entering the park at the main entrance, guests of Imvelo Safaris experience a very unique journey to the south of the park on the ‘Elephant Express’ – a safari train which runs on the railway line between northern and southern Hwange and provides an amazing spin on regular wildlife viewing. We arrived at Bomani Tented Lodge in the afternoon, with an amazing welcome not just from the staff, but from a large herd of elephant drinking at the waterhole just in front of the lodge. After quickly checking in we departed on a short game drive near Bomani, stopping en route for a sundowner. On our way back to camp we saw some lights sparkling in the bush. As our guide drove us towards them, it was a magical moment discovering a lovely bush dinner which had been set up for us under the stars.
The next morning the real safari got underway. Butch and our guide Vusa took us to the local village just outside of the park, where we were fortunate enough to meet the local chief, who is in fact Vusa’s father. Imvelo Safaris is very involved with the local communities, because as Butch said, the only way to preserve wildlife is to make sure that the communities which border the park reap the benefits of tourism. The communities near the Imvelo Safari lodges are a shining example of this; a large number of the staff who work at the lodges come from the local villages, and Imvelo Safaris also gets involved with the local schools, healthcare system and much more. It does not stop there, a large number of other communities on the southern boundary of the park also benefit from the work of Imvelo Safaris and the guests who stay at their lodges.
After a morning visiting the village chief, school and the local market, we headed off into the park for some serious game viewing. We arrived at the first watering hole by lunchtime, where the lodge team had prepared an incredible lunch for us. Sitting under a tree enjoying a long leisurely lunch, watching the elephants drinking and playing in the watering hole, is my happy place; it reminds me why being on safari is, for me, incomparable to any other kind of holiday. The waterhole where we spent our lunch had a fully kitted out hide, even with a loo. We spent most of the afternoon in the hide, watching the elephants drinking and playing. We saw hundreds of elephants coming and going while sitting in the hide, and they had no idea that we were only a couple of metres away from them.
This leads me back to this idea of Hwange’s ‘heartbeat’ – it is the watering holes which really give the park its beat. Yes, all parks have watering holes, but only in Hwange can you hear the heartbeat going ‘tuk tuk tuk’. Hwange is located in a Kalahari Sand area, which means that the park does not have a high rainfall and there are no major rivers flowing through the park to provide water to the 44,000 plus elephants and other wildlife which call the park their home. The only way to provide a year round water supply for these animals is with boreholes, which mechanically pump water to the watering hole from underground. Most of these boreholes are operated by a diesel engine and this is where the heartbeat of the park comes from. When sitting at most watering holes in Hwange during the dry season, you will hear the engine going ‘tuk tuk tuk’ in the background.
After a long day out game viewing we drove to Camelthorn Lodge, only a short distance from Bomani Tented Lodge, where we spent the following two nights. Early the following morning we departed on a ‘pump run’. Imvelo Safaris look after a large number of diesel pumps in the southern part of Hwange, so two to three times a week they need to go and drop off fuel at all the pumps and make sure that all the engines are still in good working order. The pump run takes you into very remote parts of the park, where some of the animals are not used to seeing people, so these can be very exiting days and guests are welcome to take part. The typical pump run starts early in the morning and you arrive back in camp in the early evening. You visit a large number of watering holes, stopping at some of them for morning coffee and a leisurely lunch. After lunch, you have time for a siesta before continuing with the job in hand. You can participate in the actual work of dropping off fuel and checking out the engines as much or as little as you want, but either way it is a great and very unique safari experience, giving you a real insight into some very remote parts of the park.
No safari in Hwange is complete without a bush walk. Safari guides in Zimbabwe are some of the best trained guides in Africa; it takes a minimum of five years to get your full guide’s licence, which then enables you to operate walking safaris as well as game drives. As a result, if you are out on a walking safari with one of these professional guides, you can rest assured that your safety is paramount. What I love about a Zimbabwean safari is the flexibility; a walking safari can start anywhere and during any activity, be it a game drive, pump run or travelling on the Elephant Express. If your guide thinks that there is something interesting to see that can only be reached on foot, then he will suggest it. On walking safaris during my stay in Hwange I saw elephants, lions and lots more. The best part of all is that, without the buzz of an engine, most of the animals don’t even know that you’re there, so on a walking safari you get a really authentic insight into the animals’ behaviour, unmoved by human presence.
The southern part of Hwange is a really remote and untapped area. If you want to have a true remote safari experience then this is definitely the place to visit. For those who have been on safari a number of times and are looking for something really different, Imvelo Safaris have a small rustic safari camp at the end of the pump run in south western Hwange, called Jozibanini Camp. The camp has just three small tents, and you will be the only people in a large part of the park. Two nights at Jozi is an ideal end to a Hwange safari, especially for the well-seasoned safari-goer.
If you want to feel like you’ve left no Hwange stone unturned, spend some time in the north of the park as well, to experience the true diversity the park has to offer. I stayed at Nehimba Camp, which really is elephant central. The camp is built around a watering hole, and in dry season the elephants drink here from lunchtime until late at night, meaning you can see them up close and personal from your room or the main lodge. In dry season, the elephants around Nehimba Camp have been known to drink all the water in the swimming pool on a daily basis! Nearby are the Nehimba Seeps – which is one of the only year-round, naturally occurring sources of surface water in the whole of Hwange National Park. You find lots of elephants here digging for water; it is a very interesting place to spend an afternoon, watching them drinking and interacting with one another.
Hwange is a truly amazing park and I would encourage you to visit it now, before everyone else hears about it...!
Inspired to visit one of Africa’s lesser known national parks? Check out our Classic Zimbabwe itinerary which features a number of the lodges mentioned here by Pierre. Give us a call on 020 3141 2810 to start planning your tailor-made trip.