Southern Africa immediately conjures up adventurous travel daydreams of big game and going on a safari – a photo safari to be sure. Each country in this 15-member region has destinations that feature optimal locations for big-game viewing, but with an area so vast, it is wise that we focus on a few countries for now.
However, travelers planning a trip to Southern Africa would be even wiser to plan a multi-destination holiday and put two, three, or more countries on their itinerary. For this article, we are going to focus on Zimbabwe, Botswana, and South Africa – all a border away from one another.
Named after a local Nhanzwa chief, Hwange National Park is the largest park in Zimbabwe occupying roughly 14,650 square kilometers. It is located in the northwest corner of the country about one hour south of the mighty Victoria Falls. It became the royal hunting grounds to the Ndebele warrior-king Mzilikazi in the early 19th century and was set aside as a national park in 1929. Hwange gives travelers a picture of what the interior of Africa might have been like 150 years ago.
Hwange boasts a tremendous selection of wildlife with over 100 species of mammals and nearly 400 bird species recorded. The elephants of Hwange are world famous and the park’s elephant population is one of the largest in the world. Various types of game roam vast stretches of wilderness in Zimbabwe. At Hwange National Park, in addition to elephant, herds of buffalo, and zebra live in the park. It is also a haven for many endangered species, and the only area where gemsbok, brown hyena, and wild dog occur in reasonable numbers. Visitors can view game by car or on walking or horseback safaris, and a variety of accommodation options is available.
The park has three distinctive camps and administrative offices. There are numerous pans and pumped waterholes around the main camp and the area is rich in game. Water remains the single most important management factor in Hwange’s continued existence – absolutely vital to the survival of what is perhaps Africa’s single largest concentration of elephant. The constant maintenance of the artificial but natural looking water pans, complete with resident hippos and crocodile, has been a major factor sustaining this ecological treasury.
At 52,800 square kilometers, the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) is the second largest in the world, characterized by vast plains, salt pans, and ancient riverbeds. The main wildlife concentrations are found in the north, but if for travelers who are adventurous and completely self-reliant, one could traverse the entire reserve – an exhilarating journey of at least two days of 4×4 wilderness traveling. Undeveloped campsites are available for overnight stops.
Nothing prepares travelers for the immensity of this reserve, nor its wild, mysterious beauty. There is the immediate impression of unending space, and having the entire reserve to yourself.
Waist-high golden grasses seem to stretch interminably, punctuated by dwarfed trees and scrub bushes. Wide and empty pans appear as vast white stretches of saucer-flat earth, meeting a soft, blue-white sky. At night the stars utterly dominate the land; their brilliance and immediacy are totally arresting.
During and shortly after good summer rains, the flat grasslands of the reserve’s northern reaches teem with wildlife, which gather at the best grazing areas. These include large herds of springbok and gemsbok, as well as wildebeest, hartebeest, eland and giraffe.
CKGR is unique in that it was originally established (in 1961) with the intention of serving as a place of sanctuary for the San, in the heart of the Kalahari (and Botswana), where they could live their traditional hunter/ gatherer way of life, without intrusion, or influence, from the outside world. The reserve was closed for about 30 years, until in the 1980s and 1990s, both self-drive and organized tours were allowed in, albeit in small, tightly controlled numbers.
The northern deception valley is one of the highlights, principally because of the dense concentrations of herbivores its sweet grasses attract during and after the rainy season (and of course the accompanying predators). It is also the most-traveled area of the reserve, with a number of public campsites, and proximity to the eastern Matswere Gate. The other two gates are completely at the other side of the reserve, at Xade and Tsau, where public campsites are also available. Other worthwhile areas to drive are Sunday and Leopard Pans, north of Deception Valley, Passarge Valley, and further south, Piper’s Pan.
Nearly 2 million hectares in size, Kruger National Park allows one to immerse in the endless wilderness that is truly Africa. Established in 1898, the Kruger National Park is unrivaled in the diversity of its life forms and a world leader in environmental management. Now forming part of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, it is mainly a self-drive destination, although guided tours are available.
Truly the flagship of the South African national parks, Kruger is home to an impressive number of species: 336 trees, 49 fish, 34 amphibians, 114 reptiles, 507 birds, and 147 mammals. Man’s interaction with the Lowveld environment over many centuries – from bushman rock paintings to majestic archaeological sites like Masorini and Thulamela – is very evident in the Kruger National Park. These treasures represent the cultures, persons, and events that played a role in the history of the Kruger National Park and are conserved along with the park’s natural assets.
Founded by Paul Kruger in 1898, the park became part of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park in 2002, linking it with the Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe to the north, and with the Limpopo National Park in Mozambique to the east.
How to get there
If one begins their journey in Zimbabwe, Harare International Airport has a number of international flights. When coming from Europe visitors can fly directly with Air Zimbabwe from London, and Air Zimbabwe has started operating routes within Zimbabwe. Other good options are South African Airways (SAA) and Airlink. SAA operates to quite a few European flights, and routes are also available on Emirates and British Airways. Bulawayo also has an international airport.
Likely the most relaxing way to travel to other countries from here is by air. However, from Zimbabwe to Botswana, one may travel by car as all road access is good and the primary roads within Botswana are paved and well maintained. There is also bus service from Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.
From Botswana to South Africa, of course, again, there is air travel, but also visitors might want to do again travel by car. South Africa operates a number of land border posts between itself and immediately neighboring countries, including from Botswana.
The Regional Tourism Organization of Southern Africa (RETOSA) is a Southern African Development Community (SADC) institution responsible for tourism growth and development. In part, the aims of RETOSA are to increase tourist arrivals to the region through sustainable development initiatives, improved regional competitiveness, and effective destination marketing. The organization works together with Member States’ tourism ministries, tourism boards, and private sector partners. For more information about RETOSA, go to www.retosa.co.za