At A Glance
- Zimbabwe was once known as Rhodesia, named after its colonial founder, Cecil Rhodes
- At just under 400 000sqkm, Zimbabwe is about the size of California
- About 13% of Zimbabwe consists of national parks, private concessions & forestry
- Hwange National Park boasts one of Africa’s largest elephant populations
- Victoria Falls is best viewed from the Zimbabwean side, especially during February and May
Zimbabwe Overland Travel
For a country that’s spent the last decade on the front pages for all the wrong reasons, Zimbabwe is still an integral part of an African Overlanding experience. It’s a remarkably resilient country with a diverse array of national parks and reserves, a friendly and welcoming population (who speak excellent English), and great Overlanding infrastructure.
And it’s not like you’re going to come all this way to Africa and not see Victoria Falls.
Logistics hub for a Southern Africa safari experience and home to “The Smoke that Thunders”, Victoria Falls is Zimbabwe’s biggest trump card and has long been the undisputed favourite stop-over for Overlanders heading to all points of the compass.
Not that it’s all about Vic Falls of course; Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park is one of Southern Africa’s heavyweight reserves, and there are many superb wildlife destinations in the north and west of the country. Game viewing is good, the scenery rugged and undeniably African, and the country boasts a range of Overland-friendly activities from elephant-back safaris to white-water rafting.
Check out our wide range of Zimbabwe Overland tours, browse our Zimbabwe map and start a little background research with our Zimbabwe destination guide.
Parks and Reserves
There’s no point trying to hide the obvious: despite the fast that 13% of Zimbabwe’s surface area is taken up by national parks and reserves, these conservation areas are not what they used to be. A decade of neglect and abuse have had a negative effect on what were some of Africa’s best wildlife reserves, and animal numbers and park infrastructure have suffered.
However, Zimbabwe has turned the corner and people are cautiously optimistic. The parks and reserves are still there, wilder than ever, and with conservation and safari travel once again on the rise, provide some very authentically challenging safari experiences.
Most Zimbabwe parks are in the north and north-west of the country and are typically open wooded savannah environments, perfect habitat for classic African mammals such as elephant, buffalo, lion, giraffe and the usual range of antelope and other big predators like leopard and cheetah. Many parks are located close to major water sources, a fact which means great aquatic life such as hippos, crocodiles as well as superb bird watching.
Victoria Falls National Park
The waterfall may take centre stage but the easy-to-access Victoria Falls National Park and adjoining Zambezi National Park deliver a great introduction to Zimbabwe’s wildlife, and the bird watching is amazing.
Hwange National Park
Zimbabwe’s monster-sized flagship park has seen better days but a visit to Hwange still ranks as one of Southern Africa’s best wildlife experiences. It’s classic open savannah and forest country, easy to get to and home to the full range of big mammals, especially elephant, buffalo and lion, plus it’s close to Victoria Falls.
Matobo National Park
Home to both black and white rhinos as well as a good range of classic game species, superbly scenic Matobo National Park is a great introduction to African wildlife and is also home to the greatest concentration of rock art in Southern Africa. It’s close to Bulawayo and one of the easiest Zimbabwe parks to access.
The Matobo hills are the final resting place of the controversial British Imperialist Cecil John Rhodes, who requested that he be buried here. There are great views over the park from his grave perched on top of a rock, an area aptly known as ‘World’s View’.
Matusadona National Park
The great thing about Matusadona National Park is that it combines the lake shores and wetlands of Lake Kariba with wooded savannah and forest, which makes for a fantastic range of big mammals and an amazing birdlife.
Matusadona National Park is most easily accessible by boat from the town of Kariba, some 20km north but its relatively poor accessibility by road and rudimentary internal network of roads keep the crowds and traffic out. If you like wild, you’ll love Matusadona.
Mana Pools National Park
With Lake Kariba forming its northern boundary, this wild and little-visited World Heritage Site has an excellent reputation for wildlife and can be explored by canoe, on foot and by 4X4.
It’s a challenging destination though: the park is only open to cars during the dry season months of May to October; rainy season access is by boat or foot but be aware that the park is extremely remote at the best of times and things get wilder and more difficult during the rains.
Despite a decade of bad news, Zimbabwe still has a generous sampling of the Africa that many people hope to see – exotic scenery, interesting cultures and game parks full of animals.
And one of the great things about the country is the fact that you’ll have plenty of opportunities to experience urban African life too – Zimbabwe’s cities and towns are often on an overlander’s itinerary as destinations to restock and refuel – literally and metaphorically.
Scenery, wildlife, adrenalin adventures and dance-until-dawn parties: Zimbabwe’s biggest trump card lies on the Zambezi River close to Botswana – the name refers to both thundering waterfall itself and the bustling town that has grown up around it.
The bridge across the gorge was built as part of Cecil John Rhodes’s ambitious, but never realised, Cape to Cairo railway in 1902. Though its name is Victorian, the town boasts some fine examples of Edwardian architecture, including the elegant Victoria Falls Hotel and the Victoria Falls Station, where the Bulawayo-Victoria Falls train arrives.
Today there are campsites and backpackers to accommodate budget travellers and a variety of hotels and safari lodges. The town has a village atmosphere centred around the commercial district, which is dotted with souvenir shops, tour operators, restaurants and an African-style curio market.
Located on the high grasslands well away from the steamy Zambezi, Zimbabwe’s capital city may be a bit worn at the edges these days but it’s always been one of Africa’s safest cities with a thriving nightlife and welcoming atmosphere.
Harare derives its name from the Shona word ‘haarari’, translated as ‘one who does not sleep’. This is mighty questionable, since Harare must be one of the sleepiest capital cities in Africa!
Overlanders driving north to Victoria Falls will pass through Zimbabwe’s second biggest city as it lies on the main north-south axis. The city has seen better days, but it is the jumping-off point for Matobo National Park and not far from Hwange.
The tree-lined streets and suburban lawns belie the fact that the dusty Kalahari is just over the border in Botswana. Although it has more than 600 000 residents, it doesn’t feel that large and retains an old-fashioned small town charm. Indeed, with its somewhat dated atmosphere, Bulawayo feels like an English provincial town of about 50 years ago.
Damming the Zambezi in the 1950s led to the creation of a colossal lake which now reverberates to the sound of honking hippos and fish eagles. A fisherman’s paradise, Lake Kariba is both an excellent recreational and wildlife destination
Stunning sunsets are a distinctive feature of Lake Kariba, as are the bleached skeletal trunks and bare branches of dead trees that were drowned in the dam all those years ago. They make excellent perches for fish eagles, cormorants and other water birds.
Great game viewing aside, Zimbabwe, and in particular Victoria Falls, has been on the Overlanding map for decades due to the country’s wide range of activities. Some of these Zimbabwe activities are some of the most exciting white-knuckle rides you’ll do in your life, others more pedestrian, but all deliver an unforgettable African experience.
It’s one of Victoria Falls’ iconic experiences: a leap into thin air from the sturdy railway bridge that joins Zimbabwe and Zambia – your destination? The bottom of Batoka Gorge over 100 metres below.
At 111 metres it was until recently, the highest bungee jump in the world. In Africa, the Bloukrans Bridge bungee on South Africa’s Garden Route superseded it at a whopping 217 metres and now the Macau Tower in China at a mind-numbing 233 metres. Still, the Vic Falls bridge jump, with the spectacular backdrop of the Victoria Falls themselves, is hugely popular and tens of thousands of people have jumped to date – all of them safely.
So what are you waiting for? 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…bungee!
Considered one of the best stretches of accessible white-water in the world, the Zambezi is THE place to go for some top class river rafting. The adrenaline junkie will get a wild roller coaster ride on the series of 23 foamy rapids that stretch from the bottom of the Victoria Falls for 22km – most of the rapids are graded either 4 or 5 – and you don’t get any bigger!
Low water runs are the most adventurous and generally operate from mid August to late December. High water runs only traverse rapids 11 to 18 from beginning of July to mid August, and are unlikely to spill you out the raft.
A canoeing safari on the calm waters of the upper Zambezi River is a wonderful leisurely way to enjoy the astonishingly beautiful scenery that lines the river before it takes its plunge over the Victoria Falls.
This part of the river is flanked by national parks on both sides and is an enchanting labyrinth of small islands and sandbars, home to many birds and animals as well as graceful riverine trees and dense, almost tropical vegetation. Sit back in your comfortable two-man canoe and let the river carry you along. Expert guides accompany every trip both for your safety and to provide a wealth of knowledge on the flora and fauna.
The relative silence of travelling by canoe enables superb game viewing and interaction with the wild at nature’s pace. There’s good opportunity for some close-up encounters with a variety of wildlife, including elephant, buffalo, hippo and crocodile, and the bird watching is excellent.
Who said surfing was only for ocean-goers? Armed with a wetsuit, life jacket, helmet and fins, you can surf some of the world’s biggest freshwater rapids on a river board on the Zambezi.
It’s a bit like white-water rafting but the main difference between river boarding and rafting is that you are in charge of your own board on the river. The attraction is the physical freedom and the sense of achievement of tackling the mighty Zambezi on your own. You must be confident and relaxed in water, and you’ll need to be a strong swimmer.
The best time to go river boarding is during low water season from mid August to late December when the river is at its roughest. There are half-day and full-day trips, or river boarding and rafting combinations where you get to experience the rapids in 2 different but equally thrilling ways.
An elephant-back safari is not just a ride on the largest animal in Africa, it’s an unforgettable experience: you interact with the elephants as well as enjoy a ride through the bush.
The trip starts with an educational and safety talk, after which you are introduced to the elephants and their ‘Ndunas’, or handlers. Getting onto the elephant involves climbing an elephant-height frame and hopping on behind the handler.
The elephants amble through the bush for around two hours and it’s a great way to see other wildlife through the eyes of an elephant and to view the elephant’s behaviour at very close quarters. Each elephant’s handler has a wealth of knowledge about these magnificent mammals from their own first-hand experience. A armed and qualified guide also accompanies your safari on foot.
After the ride there is more interaction time with the elephants and you’ll have the opportunity to touch their tails or eyelashes, hand out ellie-treats and see baby jumbos being fed.
There’s no doubt about it: the best views of Victoria Falls and the winding gorges of the Zambezi River are from the air, and the best time to fly over the 1.7 km-wide falls is when the spray is at its highest. From April to June the falls are at their peak and the massive volume of water makes its own spectacular rainbows.
These breathtaking flights over the Victoria Falls are often dubbed ‘Flight of the Angels’ after the explorer David Livingstone’s words, ‘Scenes so beautiful … must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight’.
Gorge Swing & Abseils
It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing … the Zambezi Swing, set up across the top of the Bakota Gorge, was the world’s first cable gorge swing. One hundred and thirty five metres of cable spans the top of the 75 metre high gorge which has a sliding pulley system hanging from it.
Once firmly attached in a full body harness, you’ll need to take a deep breath before taking a running jump from a wooden platform and plunging for a heart-in-the-mouth 50 metres, before being swung out into the middle of the gorge. The jump ends with several pendulum swings before you are lowered to the ground.
The flying fox is an alternative to the swing. It’s a cable slide that sends you coasting smoothly across to the other side of the spectacular gorge. Then there is the 53 metre abseil, backwards or ‘rap’ jump, facing forward.
Zimbabwe has been populated since the Stone Age. Indeed, the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, dating back to the ancient African kingdom of Munhumatapa, testify to the advanced level of civilization that existed before the Europeans even got there.
Zimbabwe has long been home to the Shona people who today make up about 80% of the population. In the 1830s however, the region was thrown into upheaval by the northward migration of Ndebele people, a Zulu clan, from South Africa who enslaved the indigenous Shona people until the end of the century. Then things really started to change: the British arrived in 1888, headed by coloniser-king Cecil Rhodes who controlled the British South Africa Company. He had it in mind that all the land from the Cape to Cairo should belong to the British. And while his great railroad through Africa failed, he did colonise this region, giving it the modest name of Rhodesia.
The country’s road to independence was a long and rocky one. It became Southern Rhodesia in 1923, and in 1953 it joined with Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and Nyasaland (now Malawi) to form the Central African Federation. A nationalist movement emerged to protest against the new federation – at the forefront was the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), mostly Ndebele, led by Joshua Nkomo. It was shortly joined by the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), mostly Shona, led by Ndabaningi Sithole.
After the collapse of the federation in 1963, both ZAPU and ZANU were banned, and the majority of their leaders imprisoned. Relations between the white minority government – led by Ian Smith – and Britain soured over the government’s treatment of black citizens. Under increasing pressure to change its ways, the white government declared independence from Britain in 1965 and UN sanctions against Rhodesia followed in 1968. Both ZAPU and ZANU began campaigns of guerrilla warfare from their bases in Zambia and Mozambique and by 1972 it had become a fully-fledged civil war. The coming of independence in Angola and Mozambique in 1975 put more pressure on Smith to accept majority rule. He eventually conceded and released the imprisoned nationalist leaders. Talks led to an agreement known as the Internal Settlement. Finally, in 1979 under the Lancaster House agreement, its legal status as the British colony of Southern Rhodesia was restored in preparation for free elections and independence as Zimbabwe. Elections were held with 53 out of the 80 seats going to ZANU, Robert Mugabe became president, and the capital Salisbury was renamed Harare. Zimbabwe formally became independent in 1980 in a ceremony attended by Britain’s Prince Charles and Bob Marley who wrote and performed a special song entitled ‘Zimbabwe’.
However, the post-colonial government has been far from successful. Almost immediately there was bitter rivalry between ZAPU and ZANU, and from 1982 to 1983 the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade, composed mostly of Shona soldiers, was sent by the government to Matabeleland where they massacred between 2 000 and 8 000 Ndebele civilians. No one has ever been prosecuted for these massacres, and commanders who perpetrated them are now at high levels of the Zimbabwe armed forces. Nkomo (ZAPU) left for exile in Britain, but returned in 1988 when talks led to the merger of the two rival parties as ZANU-PF.
Matters worsened in the late-1990s. Mugabe moved to increase his grip on power and eliminate any political opposition, throwing political opponents or journalists who criticized him into prison. He has since tried to change the constitution so it protects his position, and insists that it is the British, by not fulfilling their independence promises, that are the root of all evil in Zimbabwe.
His government became a synonym for economic mismanagement and corruption. Along with all this there was the forced and often violent removal of white farmers in a land redistribution programme which led to the destruction of much of Zimbabwe’s agricultural base. Over 100 000 farmers, farm workers and their families lost their homes and jobs.
It was only a matter of time before organised opposition re-emerged. At the beginning of 1999, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was formed, led by Morgan Tsvangirai, which pitted itself against ZANU-PF in the 2002 elections. Surprisingly, ZANU-PF won the controversial election. However, it was considered far from free and fair and it is alleged that violence and intimidation were used in anti-Mugabe strongholds to prevent citizens from voting. In 2002, as a result of its claimed human rights abuses and election rigging, Zimbabwe was temporarily suspended from the Commonwealth of Nations. Mugabe retaliated by withdrawing his country from the Commonwealth altogether.
Well into his 80s, Mugabe has few years left and his demise is sure to be the catalyst for change in Zimbabwe. Predictably, the conflict caused economic havoc: fuel shortages, rampant inflation, and an increase in crime, especially around Harare, the capital. But these incidents are not directed towards tourists: quite the contrary – the ordinary people of Zimbabwe are desperate for the tourism industry to reignite, to fuel the economy and create jobs.
And now as the 21st Century enters its second decade, things have calmed down in Zimbabwe. The US dollar has replaced the worthless Zimbabwe dollar, political power is shared (albeit not very fairly) and tourists are returning to Zimbabwe ready to embrace the country once again.
Elephant Herd Elephant family enjoying the waterhole.
Victoria Falls Take a scenic flight over the thunderous Victoria Falls!
Chobe River A typical sunset on the Chobe River.
Zimbabwean Locals A memorable cultural tour with the locals.