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When you think there are some wonderful places we had to ignore in order to keep this list to just a dozen, you realise quite how diverse the country is. Gonarezhou National Park Located deep within Zimbabwe’s southeast corner, Gonarezhou (pictured above) is the country’s second-largest national park, covering just over 5000 square kilometres. Roughly [...] The post The 12 best wilderness areas in Zimbabwe appeared first on Travel Africa Magazine. ...

The 12 best wilderness areas in Zimbabwe

When you think there are some wonderful places we had to ignore in order to keep this list to just a dozen, you realise quite how diverse the country is.

Gonarezhou National Park
Located deep within Zimbabwe’s southeast corner, Gonarezhou (pictured above) is the country’s second-largest national park, covering just over 5000 square kilometres. Roughly translated, ‘gonarezhou’ means ‘the wilderness of elephants’ – a name that conveys the park’s austere beauty and natural wealth. A trip here will take you through a continuum of ever-changing ecosystems, ranging from floodplain thickets, sandveld forests, the Tambahata Pan and wetland. Those who visit this epic wilderness will discover it has Zimbabwe’s richest biodiversity. The avifauna alone is staggering – more than 400 species of bird have been recorded here. “The secret to Gonarezhou is the ability to walk quietly,” says Rawana Kaschula of Private Guided Safaris. “As it’s possible to go for a week or more without seeing another visitor, there are no loud intrusions by speedboats, planes and other vehicles. One can sneak up to waterholes with only the natural chirping of mongooses and occasional warning sneezes of the impala giving one’s presence away.”
What to look for:
Nyala antelope: rare in many areas, this antelope is regularly seen in Gonarezhou
The Little Six: southern Africa’s smallest antelopes – Livingstone suni, grey duiker, Sharpe’s grysbok, klipspringer, steenbok, oribi – are all found here.
Squacco herons: a stocky, short-necked heron, which has long neck feathers in summer.
When to visit: July to October.

Zambezi National Park
A mere 5km from Victoria Falls, this 56,000ha national park is one of the nation’s most accessible. Embracing the southern bank of the Zambezi River, much like Mana Pools, it is also one of the most scenic. Wildlife concentrations in the mopane forest and accompanying savannah are not dramatic, but game drives and guided walking safaris can turn up a number of iconic African species: elephant, giraffe, wild dog, leopard, lion, hippo and crocodile. Several operators also run birdwatching safaris within the park. Experienced riders can join the anti-poaching patrol for a unique look at this aspect of conservation.
What to look for:
Kori bustard: arguably the heaviest bird capable of flight.
Nile crocodile: there is a healthy crocodile population, so be on the lookout!
When to visit: year round.

Bvumba Mountains
Stationed between Essex and Burma (valleys that is), this small section of the Eastern Highlands is overflowing with life all year round. The lush botanical gardens and luxuriant forests are great for walks, especially for amateur botanists and bird lovers. The upper sections offer some great views over less elevated sections of the highlands and the tropical lowlands of Mozambique, which sit over 1000m below. There is also a smattering of wildlife lurking within the lush surroundings. With plenty of accommodation options and activities available, the mists of the Bvumba Mountains offer a great escape from the heat.
What to look for:
Swynnerton’s robin: this tiny bird is tricky to see, but if you keep an eye out for fleeting flashes of orange on the forest floor, you’ll increase your odds.
Flame lily: Zimbabwe’ s national flower, it has long petals that vary from pure yellow to blood-red.
Elephant shrew: while scanning the forest floor for Swynnerton’s robin you might just catch a glimpse of this long-nosed little beast.
When to visit: year round.

Mana Pools National Park

Mana Pools (pictured above) is not just a national park – it is one of the continent’s greatest natural treasures, qualifying as a UNESCO World Heritage site on three different counts. Spread along the Zimbabwean side of the mighty Zambezi, this 2196 square kilometre park comprises sandy riverbanks, forested floodplains and the four main pools that gave the park its name (‘mana’ means ‘four’ in the Shona language). As much of the park is inaccessible to vehicles, it is incredibly pristine and thus prime territory for walking safaris. Even the large albida trees even do their bit, providing a shady canopy under which you can explore. The wildlife is plentiful, with healthy populations of elephant, buffalo, hippo, lion, leopard, spotted hyena and Nile crocodile. The park is also legendary for its canoe safaris.
What to look for:
Elephant: you’ll usually find them picking up elephant cookies (albida seed pods) beneath albida trees.
Hippo: large pods reside in the Zambezi by day, and emerge at night to feed along the riverbanks.
African skimmer: this graceful bird can be seen skimming the river’s surface with its beak while in flight.
Spotted hyena: this species often patrols the campgrounds after dark, looking for scraps around campfires.
When to visit: March to October.

Kazuma Pan National Park
Kazuma’s swaying savannah grasses, encircled by Zimbabwe’s more familiar mopane woodland, seemingly transplant the lucky few who visit this park straight to the plains of East Africa. Because of its neighbours’ success, most visitors don’t know they are passing by this little gem when driving from Victoria Falls to Hwange National Park. Its complete absence of safari crowds and tourist infrastructure doesn’t seem to bother the many elephants who stop in Kazuma when moving between Hwange and Botswana’s Chobe National Park. Seasonal flooding inundates the pans, which in turn draws in thousands of migratory birds.
What to look for:
Elephant: sizeable herds of elephant are known to congregate here in dry season.
Lion: these big cats are commonly found lurking in the white grass plains.
Eland: the largest of antelopes; males can weigh up to 1000kg.
Giraffe: one species you’ll have little trouble spotting, even when the grasses are at their longest.
When to visit: June to October.

Matusadona National Park

Matusadona. The name slips off the tongue like a silky smooth piece of Belgian chocolate. However, it’s a shame that the literal translation of it means ‘constant dripping of dung’. Many say that Matusadona (pictured above), some 1407 square kilometres in size and difficult to access, is their favourite park in Zimbabwe. It’s certainly a photographer’s dream, with abundant birdlife, stunning sunsets and huge areas of dark, fossilised trees that still stand despite the park being flooded in 1959 to create Lake Kariba. Matusadona’s remoteness, harsh internal network of roads and limited choice of accommodation all combine to keep the crowds and traffic out – and that’s what makes it so special. Exploring Matusadona by foot is the preferred choice, but there are excellent opportunities for game drives, and sleeping beneath the stars on the deck of a houseboat by the shoreline is an unforgettable safari experience.
What to look for:
Lion: many believe that Matusadona has the highest concentration of lion in Africa. Swimming elephants: large herds are known to swim en masse along the lakeshore.
Nile crocodile: Lake Kariba is teeming with these toothy reptiles. You’ll often see them sunbathing along the shore at intervals of 200m.
Herons: several species of this leggy bird – great white heron, grey heron, goliath heron – frequent the shallow shoreline in Matusadona.
When to visit: June to October.

Nyanga National Park
Blanketing the highlands from which it takes its name, this 33,000ha national park is spread around the 2593m summit of Mount Nyangani, Zimbabwe’s highest point. With numerous trails, plenty of birdlife and trout-filled streams, trekkers, twitchers and fishers will have a hard time pulling themselves away from here. Apart from the striking landscapes, there is plenty of history to appreciate in Nyanga too. Vestiges of Iron Age settlements and other archaeological sites pepper the park. The Nyangwe Fort is the park’s best preserved relic. With numerous trails and plenty of birdlife, trekkers and twitchers will have a hard time pulling themselves away from Nyanga National Park. The latest attraction is the world’s highest zip-line and an accompanying walkway that traverse a 762m chasm enabling visitors to look at the Mutarazi Falls face on.
What to look for:
Samango monkey: these primates spend their days up on tree branches. When you hear a sharp “Jack!” alarm call, you know they are close.
Mutarazi Falls: this 762m-high waterfall is the continent’s second highest.
When to visit: June to October.

Chizarira National Park
The name Chizarira harkens back to the Tonga word ‘sijalila’, which means ‘huge barrier’. Considering the dramatic, sheer bluffs of the Zambezi Escarpment that dominate this park’s landscape, the name rings true. Add lush green gorges, rolling hills and the scenic Busi River flood plain and you have one of Zimbabwe’s most stunning landscapes. Limited accessibility and lack of accommodation within the park mean that this park is currently off the radar of most visitors to Zimbabwe, but it is hoped this will change in the coming years. However, for those willing to take the rough with the smooth, Chizarira offers a legitimate slice of truly remote wilderness.
What to look for:
Taita falcon: one of the smallest falcons in southern Africa, it roosts on the cliffs of the Zambezi Escarpment.
Africa pitta: this green, gold, orange, black and teal-coloured little bird is one that twitchers dream of seeing. Keep your eyes on the undergrowth.
Leopard: with plenty of antelope species in the area, the leopard population is a rather healthy one.
When to visit: July to October.

Matobo National Park

This petite park (pictured above) punches well above its weight, offering visitors dramatic landscapes, compelling cultural sites and intriguing wildlife. It has been designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO for its 3000 or so rock art sites, which date from 320-500 AD, and for other historical treasures such as 20,000-year-old stone tools. Standing here, dwarfed by its majestic landscape of huge but delicately balanced rock slabs and its gargantuan ‘whalebacks’ of granite, it’s easy to understand how the Matobo Hills have inspired humans for many millennia. The sense of spirit here is truly palpable. Amazingly, the wildlife still has the power to distract from the surroundings. Mind you, when you’re standing a stone’s throw from a tonne of white rhino, it’s hard to concentrate on anything else.
What to look for:
Rhino: it’s a case of black and white, since both species once again call these hills home.
Leopard: the nation’s highest concentration of leopard is found here, though the dense and rugged landscape means you have to work hard to spot one.
Black eagles: soaring on thermals, these birds are one of the park’s flagship species.
Rainbow lizards: darting around Matobo’s many rock outcrops are these colourful reptiles.
Rock hyraxes: these little furry creatures are found hiding in the many rocky crevices or basking atop an outcrop. Incredibly, it’s one of the elephant’s closest relatives.
When to visit: July to October.

Malilangwe Trust
Once a cattle ranch, this 50,000ha private estate is now a conservation and community stronghold. Working with the ethos ‘conservation through development’, the Trust works to ensure that the community benefits from their conservation efforts. While extensive ecological research and breeding programmes have helped protect the endangered species that remain here, a number of others were reintroduced. Irrigation schemes and a market garden programme have helped to empower local women, while a child supplementary feeding station continues to help by serving meals to over 19,000 youngsters daily. Visitors will have the opportunity to cross paths not only with lion, leopard, rhino and elephant but also rare species like the brown hyena. There is one tourist lodge on the estate.
What to look for:
Big Five: yes, elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard are all regulars here.
Wild dog: this rare species is once again roaming the Malilangwe hills.
When to visit: July to October.

Chimanimani National Park
Accessible only by foot, this park is Zimbabwe’s best trekking destination. The Chimanimani Range straddles the Mozambique border, stretching over 50km along its length, and features bulbous mountain peaks, jagged pinnacles, waterfalls, crystal clear rivers, caves, savannah valleys and stone forests. The scenery is stunning, as is the temperature of the river water! That said, swimming is still a must. Whether you’re planning on a day hike or six-day trek, Chimanimani National Park has enough to keep you captivated. The Bundi Valley is blessed with numerous caves, which make atmospheric campsites. Keeping you company on the savannah plains are heather, lobelia and other wild flowers, while orchids, protea and hibiscus look down on you from the slopes.
What to look for:
River frogs: the Inyangani river frog is endemic to the Eastern Highlands. It frequents rocky, fast-flowing streams in the montane grasslands.
Skeleton Pass: linking Zimbabwe to Mozambique, this scenic mountain pass will take your breath away in more ways than one. The view down into Mozambique is staggering.
Bridal Veil Falls: it does what it says on the can: a lovely waterfall that resembles a bridal veil.
Livingstone’s turaco: this green beauty is one of the many colourful bird species found in Chimanimani.
When to visit: June to October.

Hwange National Park

Hwange National Park’s epic size– some 14,651 square kilometres – cannot be disputed, nor can its abundant wildlife. With 108 species of mammals and over 400 species of birds recorded, Hwange (pictured above) actually has one of the highest animal diversities of any national park on the planet. And most pleasingly for you, many of them, including over 40,000 elephants, are easily accessible. Several great safari lodges are found within the park and in the surrounding wildlife concession areas, as is an extensive network of loop roads for game drives. Dotted throughout Hwange are viewing platforms and hides that overlook waterholes and reservoirs, offering another great way to observe the rich variety of wildlife.
What to look for:
Elephant: Hwange is justifiably famous for its massive elephant herds. The park is currently thought to host around 45,000 of them.
Sable antelope: Hwange has one of Africa’s largest populations. Their massive horns are often over a metre long.
Brown hyena: This shaggy species is more typically associated with the arid western regions of the park.
Red-billed hornbill: You’ll likely see more of the male variety. Why? The males use mud to seal in their female companions into their nest hole during the incubation period.
Bateleur eagle: this wobbly flyer, who tips the ends of its wings when flying (thus earning its name, which means ‘acrobat’ in French) is one of Hwange’s most distinctive sights.
When to visit: year round.

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