Introduction to Zimbabwe

by Mike Cadman

Introduction to Zimbabwe

Most people are familiar with brilliant photographs of the iconic Victoria Falls, but few know of the cool mists and tumbling streams in the Vumba and Chimanimani Mountains, or the chain of long-vacated stone “palaces” stretching across southern Zimbabwe, smaller cousins of Great Zimbabwe, once a thriving centre of trade and culture. Similarly, hundreds of thousands of people have enjoyed the thrill of the “Falls,” entirely oblivious to the fact that they are on the doorstep of another of the country’s gems, the Zambezi National Park, which stretches all the way to Botswana and forms part of a giant ecosystem encompassing the game-rich Chobe National Park, the Okavango Delta vast areas to the north in Zambia and Angola.

Together with its neighbours, including South Africa and Mozambique, the country helps protect some of the most diverse large-game populations in the world. These countries are home to two-thirds of all the elephants in Africa, as well as boasting thriving numbers of antelope, giraffe, buffalo, and predators, including lions and wild dogs, which are in decline in many other regions.

Although Zimbabwe is best known for its wildlife and adventure tourism, cultural treasures, some seldom visited, abound. The Matobo Hills, 40 km south of the city of Bulawayo, boast some of the richest concentrations of rock painting in southern Africa. Some of the art dates back 13 000 years and provides a fascinating insight into the lives of the hunter-gatherers who first lived in the area.

Although political uncertainty and the global travel shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic have impacted severely the country’s tourism industry visitor numbers are rebounding quickly. Lodge operators, national parks authorities, adventure travel specialists, and others have geared up for this growth and it is increasingly easy for travellers to get to the capital Harare and major tourism hubs. Many of the more upmarket lodges in remote areas also offer fly-in safaris.

The country’s economic fragility is well documented, and tourism creates, and will increasingly do so, critically important jobs, particularly in rural areas. Unemployment rates are high in Zimbabwe and those fortunate enough to be employed usually support both immediate and extended families. Without tourists visiting the country the plight of many poor people would worsen.

Tourism operators and lodges also play an important role in providing financial support for anti-poaching efforts around the country. Without this support, many anti-poaching operations would grind to a halt.

The Landscape

Zimbabwe, which is about the size of Norway or the American state of Montana, lies across a high central plateau averaging 900 – 1400 m above sea level, with the hot low-lying Zambezi and Limpopo River valleys dominating the northern and south/southeastern parts of the country.

The plateau is warm in summer and cool in winter, but lower altitude regions are very hot in summer.

The vegetation of the plateau is miombo woodland and grassland savanna, whereas mopane woodland, interspersed by giant baobab trees and thickets of forest along the rivers, dominates the northern and southern regions.

The Eastern Highlands, where the highest peak, Mount Inyangani soars to 2592 m, forms part of the border with Mozambique. The Highlands are generally cool but can get very cold in winter.

Zimbabwe also shares, with Zambia, the gigantic 230 km long Lake Kariba, which is built as one of the largest artificial lakes in the world. Most of the Zimbabwean shoreline of the lake has been designated as wildlife areas. It is a favourite destination for anglers, particularly those in search of predatory tiger fish, birdwatchers, boat-based game viewing, and for anyone who likes peace and quiet out on the vast waters of the lake. The star watching from a houseboat on the lake is spectacular because there is very little artificial light.

The National Parks (clockwise from Victoria Falls)

Zimbabwe has 11 national parks, and a variety of other protected areas, but significant numbers of wild animals, including elephants, live outside of these areas.

Lions, for example, are known to move through communal lands between the Chizarira and Hwange National Parks, a distance of some 220 km, and elephants regularly move between protected areas.

Antelope is found in many farming areas, often living alongside domestic livestock and in the south and southeast of the country private conservancies support large wildlife populations.

Many of the national parks are situated on the periphery of Zimbabwe close to its borders and are part of transboundary conservation areas (see below). Transboundary conservation involves countries agreeing to cooperate in the management of wildlife areas that stretch across borders. This improves biodiversity management and offers broader tourism opportunities.

Victoria Falls National Park

In addition to the stupendous sight of the Zambezi crashing over the falls into the gorge below, there are many other activities to keep tourists busy, including some of the most exciting white water rafting on the continent, bungy jumping from the Victoria Falls bridge, helicopter and microlight rides over the Falls, and even golf on the Elephant Hills course where players sometimes have to pause to allow a wild animal to move across the fairways.

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Zambezi National Park

Although the entrance to this park is within walking distance of the Victoria Falls it has for many years been considered a poor relative to the better-known parks. This has now changed, and the Park has sprung into focus as an area rich in wildlife with elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo, sable antelope, giraffes, and other species regularly seen on game drives. Some game viewing is done by boat from the Zambezi River which forms the northern boundary of the park. Sundowner cruises on the river are a favorite amongst guests.

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Chizarira National Park

Although this park has been heavily targeted by poachers over the past two decades, new efforts to rehabilitate the area are underway and backpacking trails through the remote and spectacular scenery are now offered for fit and adventurous visitors. This park is 300 m from Victoria Falls by road although fly-in options are planned.

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Matusadona National Park

Situated on the lake some 40 km from Kariba town, this park is easiest visited by houseboat from the town of Kariba. Although also heavily targeted by poachers, the park is now being run jointly by a non-profit organization in conjunction with Zimbabwe National Parks and efforts are underway to return it to its former grandeur. Historically the area was renowned for its large elephant and buffalo populations.

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Mana Pools National Park

Situated on the Lower Zambezi Mana Pools is famous for its bull elephants which live on the floodplains. There is also a good population of lions and many other species of wildlife. Tourism is well-developed at Mana Pools and there are options for all budgets. Some upmarket lodges offer fly-in safaris although the park is also extremely popular with self-drive tourists. One of the highlights of many visitors’ trips is the elephants that placidly wander through campsites, paying little heed to humans.

Also, within the Park are the Chitake Springs, a wild location that offers some of the best game viewing anywhere, particularly lions hunting buffalo.

There are several lodges, all in good wildlife areas, situated both to the west and east of the national park boundaries.

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Nyanga National Park – Eastern Highlands

This park, which was declared in 1926, offers a complete contrast to the hot big-game reserves of the north. It offers a variety of hikes, specialized birding, trout fishing, horse-riding, clear mountain springs, and wide views of rugged mountains. The 760 m high Mutarazi Falls in the park is the highest in Zimbabwe. There are several hotels and national parks accommodation in the park.

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Chimanimani National Park – Eastern Highlands

This relatively small park, at 17 000 km², is small by Zimbabwean standards and is also a hiking, trout fishing, horse-riding, and birding destination.

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Hwange National Park

Hwange, proclaimed in 1928, is one of Zimbabwe’s premier conservation areas and extends over some 14 650 km², making it the largest national park in the country. It hosts more elephants, including the famed “Presidential Herd,” and is a stronghold of the threatened African wild dog. Lions, cheetahs, buffalo, sable antelope, giraffe, and nearly 100 species of other mammals as well as about 400 species of birds, occur here.

The game is particularly plentiful in the north. The park is served by a wide range of private lodges and National Parks also has a variety of accommodations and campsites.

Some visitors fly to the park and others drive from Victoria Falls which is 170 km away.

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Gonarezhou National Park

Situated in the southeastern corner of the country close to the Mozambique and South African borders this remote and spectacular national park is home to large populations of elephant, buffalo, lions, and about 150 species of mammals. This park has perhaps the most complex mix of vegetation of any park in Zimbabwe and boasts hugely varied birdlife as a result. The scenery is also spectacular, the ochre and yellow Chilojo Cliffs towering over the Runde River.

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Matobo National Park

Situated some 40 km south of Zimbabwe’s second city of Bulawayo this park is a region of jumbled valleys, massive granite boulders, and wooded valleys. It boasts one of the highest densities of the huge Verreaux eagle in Africa and a remarkable variety of other birds of prey are found here too. Part of the park is an intensive rhino-protected zone where these endangered animals are offered a haven from poachers.

There are thousands of rock paintings in the park, a legacy of the early hunter-gathers who lived in the area as long ago as the Stone Age.

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Kazuma Pan National Park

This seldom-visited park lies north of Hwange National Park and has several pans, fed by pumps, which attract elephant, buffalo, and other game. It forms a part of the same ecosystem as northern Hwange. There are two campsites in the park but no lodges, although some operators from Hwange and Victoria Falls do arrange visits to Kazuma.

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Other Parks and Conservation Areas

Zimbabwe has many other game reserves, recreational parks, and botanical gardens. There are also several trophy hunting areas close to protected areas. Although trophy hunting is controversial the Zimbabwean government believes that revenue from trophy hunting can be used help to alleviate poverty in rural areas.

Zimbabwe is involved in the development of several transboundary conservation initiatives which are intended to contribute to improved wild area management through international cooperation. Transboundary parks are also intended to improve tourism opportunities.

These include:

  • Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park (Zimbabwe, South Africa and Mozambique);
  • Limpopo/Shashe Transfrontier Conservation Areas (Zimbabwe, South Africa and Botswana;
  • The Kavango-Okavango Transfrontier Conservation Area – KAZA – (Zimbabwe, Botswana, Zambia, Namibia, Angola);
  • Zimbabwe-Mozambique-Zambia Transfrontier Park with the Lower Zambezi Valley at the core of this initiative;
  • Zambezi Valley- Mana Pools Transfrontier Conservation Area (Zimbabwe and Zambia);
  • Chimanimani Transfrontier Conservation Area (Zimbabwe and Mozambique).

The country is home to five UNESCO World Heritage sites including both environmental and historical sites, which are:

  • Mosi-oa-Tunya/Victoria Falls
  • Matobo Hills;
  • Mana Pools;
  • Great Zimbabwe;
  • Khami Ruins.

Cultural Sites

Great Zimbabwe is by far the best-known historical site in the country. The stone ruins, spread across 80 hectares, were between the 12th and 15th centuries the centre of a powerful kingdom that spread its influence amongst communities across much of what is now southern Zimbabwe. The first inhabitants of the settlement arrived in about the 12th century, having left the Mapungubwe Kingdom on the banks of the Limpopo River in what is now South Africa.

The citizens of Great Zimbabwe developed sophisticated social, political, and economic systems and established trade links with business people from the Indian Ocean Coast. Artifacts from as far afield as China and Egypt bear testimony to this trade.

Six stone bird sculptures, each about 40 cm high and mounted on 90 cm high bases, were also unearthed here and are unique to the area. These sculptures play an important role in Zimbabwean cultural history and an image of one of these birds is represented on the Zimbabwean flag.

The Khami Ruins near Bulawayo represent a similar, although small centre of power. There are dozens of similar ruins spread across southern Zimbabwe, Botswana, and northern South Africa.

Conclusion

Everything we have outlined above is merely the backbone of what Zimbabwe offers visitors. There is much more to learn about each region, the hidden gems, often forgotten stories about wildlife and people, and the role the country plays in the jigsaw puzzle of conservation and tourism in the region. This is the first article in what will be an ongoing series that will provide in-depth information to anyone interested in Zimbabwe.

Mike Cadman
blog@seoloafrica.com

Mike has worked as a journalist for a variety of international and local media organisations as well as environmental NGO’s for the past 38 years and is the author of five books. During his career, he has covered all major news developments in southern Africa and has travelled extensively throughout many parts of the continent. He spends as much time as possible in the bush and has extensive knowledge of broader environmental issues as well as the creatures that live there.