Zimbabwe’s Big 5 – The best of the country’s lodges
My “right here, right now” favourite 5 places to stay
20 Dec 2018
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Not so long ago (and by this I mean as recently as 2015) this would have been an easy piece to write. Despite being rich in wildlife, home to stunning landscapes and Africa’s best guides, Zimbabwe’s political troubles and seen visitors and hence investment, run almost dry, meaning there were just a handful of operational lodges in the country, let alone those that could be regarded as luxurious.
How things have changed in just a few short years. Zimbabwe is once again the rising star of the safari world and visitors are pouring back in and with them huge investment into lodges and infrastructure. Zimbabwe now proudly boasts a plethora of outstanding lodges which more than hold their own against lodges in more “traditional” luxury safari destinations such as Botswana, South Africa and Zambia.
My “Top 5” is very much personal opinion and I must express my apologies to industry friends and colleagues whose lodges don’t feature here as yet – this is a moveable feast but these are my “right here, right now” favourite 5 (in no particular order) in my favourite safari destination
Zambezi Sands Camp, Victoria Falls
Found upstream from Victoria Falls, in the Zambezi National Park, this idyllic lodge is the perfect place to spend a few days at the start or end of a busy African adventure. Being in the park means wildlife comes very close to the lodge whilst being away from The Falls means it is very peaceful and you don’t get the buzz of helicopters flying overhead as they conduct their scenic flights.
The bedrooms here are simply blissful, with comfortable beds, hardwood floors and private decks which overlook the Zambezi River coming complete with their own plunge pools – no better spot to relax in the afternoon with a cool drink in hand. The lounge and dining area leads down to the river and the fire deck that overlooks the water is the perfect place to meet fellow guests and chat about the day’s adventures. Menus are varied and focus on fresh, locally sourced ingredients with plenty of choice so you won’t go hungry.
With The Falls within easy reach guests can enjoy all of the iconic activities the area has to offer, as well as canoe from the lodge, enjoy sundowner boat cruises, massages, game drives in the park and learn about the anti-poaching work they are involved in.
I can think of no better lodge for exploring this area than Zambezi Sands – yes it is a little way from The Falls themselves, but it is a scenic transfer in any case and feels a world away from the crowds that you find there. For peace and tranquillity, this is the place to be.
Bumi Hills Safari Lodge, Lake Kariba
For many years Bumi was one of the most iconic of all Zimbabwean properties, proudly sitting on a hillside overlooking the mighty Lake Kariba. However the downturn hit it hard which is why I was delighted to hear our friends at African Bush Camps had purchased the property and even more so when the reopened this utter gem of a lodge in 2016.
The results were simply stunning, combining traditional touches (full size snooker table, safari art and artefacts) with modern touches (rim flow swimming pool anyone?) to create a truly captivating place to spend some time on safari.
Whether you are relaxing in the comfort of your villa, swimming in the pool, enjoying a drink on the shaded veranda or savouring some of the finest food that Zimbabwe has to offer, Bumi’s outstanding staff will be on hand to look after you and make sure your every need is taken care of.
For those who can tear themselves away from the comforts and hospitality of the lodge there are some superb activities to enjoy here. Boat cruises on the lake are a lovely way to spend afternoons, especially as sunset approaches, whilst morning game drives in the adjacent Matusadona National Park offer a chance to get up close and personal with lion, elephant, buffalo and a variety of plains game.
I remember well learning about the creation of Lake Kariba as a schoolboy geographer but never dreamt I would visit there and even less-so thought I would find such an utterly compelling reason to come back as often as I can but Bumi Hills has managed that. But don’t take my word for it, this is somewhere that you need to enjoy for yourself.
Chilo Gorge Safari Lodge, Gonarezhou National Park
Gonarezhou. Not the easiest place to pronounce (Gorgonzola has been one of my favourite attempts so far), not the easiest place to get to, but my what a treat is in store for those who make the journey. This remote outpost of Eastern Zimbabwe, straddling the border with Mozambique sees just a handful of overseas visitors each year and is home to the gorgeous Chilo Gorge Safari Lodge.
Set up on a clifftop overlooking the Runde River, Chilo offers the chance to explore this truly wild and scenic park but with guests able to return to the lodge each evening safe in the knowledge that superb food, wonderfully attentive staff and beautiful rooms await them on their return. Oh, and the pool isn’t bad either.
One of my favourite features of Chilo is the fact that they offer a bush camping experience for those looking to get back to nature. A night or two (or even more for those so inclined) spent sleeping under the stars is a wonderful way to spend some time and really gives you a feeling of connecting with nature.
The guides here are superb and whether you are out on game drives or enjoying a guided walk through the wilds (something we highly recommend) they will ensure you really get the most out of your time in the bush. If you are looking to really enhance your experience, the legendary Clive Stockhill, founder of Chilo Gorge, can be hired as a guide for the day. Clive is one of the best regarded guides in Zimbabwe (no mean feat) and a day with him is a very special experience.
Chilo fits perfectly with the Far & Wild ethos – it is far away and very, very wild. In addition, it is also wonderfully engaged with, and beneficial to the local communities, something that is hugely important to us and one of our core principals. This is a very special place and somewhere that we are proud to have an association with.
Jozibanini Camp, Hwange National Park
Given the abundance of genuine “luxury” properties on this list, Jozibanini might seem a bit of a departure from the norm, but this is somewhere truly special, not necessarily for its style or fixtures and fittings, but more for its location and what it represents.
Allow me to quickly set the scene. Jozibanini is found in the remote Southern sector of the Hwange National Park, a long way from any roads, other lodges or indeed anything related to the park, apart from of course its incredible wildlife. This created a huge problem in Zimbabwe’s “fallow” years as poaching in this area became rife, as the Zimbabwean Parks Authority lacked the means to patrol this area prevent poaching, be it subsistence or commercial.
Enter Jozibanini, whose dual role is to introduce visitors to an extraordinary and previously ignored part of the park, but also to act as a deterrent to poaching merely by the fact that it is there. This helps to make a visit to “Jozi” truly dual purpose – naturally wildlife viewing is a huge part of any visit there, but it is also an opportunity to learn about sustainable tourism and how camps are working with authorities and local communities to reduce poaching and help the local people see wildlife and wildlife conservation as a sustainable resource.
The camp itself is reasonably simple, with meru-style tents raised high off the ground on decks, a central mess area with space in abundance for outdoor dining under a canopy of stars. Meals are often cooked over an open fire and the camp offers a huge range of activities including game drives, guided walks, mountain bike safaris, time spent in a photography hide and the chance to enjoy a “pump run” – visits to the men and women who help keep Hwange’s waterholes pumped with water year-round.
For those looking to enjoy a traditional luxury safari experience, Jozibanini is probably doesn’t tick many of the boxes. However, if you are looking for somewhere that gives you a wild, back-to-the-bush feel, somewhere away from the crowds and, crucially, somewhere that is doing genuine, visible good to the area where it is found, this is a magical place and a must-visit when in Hwange.
John’s Camp, Mana Pools National Park
There is something magical about the Mana Pools National Park, a remote part of Northern Zimbabwe renowned for its big game, outstanding walking safaris and simple, stripped-back bush camps where the emphasis is on an authentic safari experience rather than the “whistles and bells” of camps in other parts of the country.
For me, nowhere epitomises this “back-to-the-bush” philosophy better than John’s Camp, a beautifully styled bush camp found close to the Zambezi River and a simply wonderful spot for a Mana Pools Safari.
The style of the tents is simple but comfortable, with proper beds, a shaded veranda with canvas camp chairs at the front and bathrooms with hot water on request for the showers. A lovely feature is that the front of the tents rolls up completely, so you can lie on the bed in the afternoons and take in the stunning views out across the plains.
Guests convene for pre-activity drinks in the main mess area and the fact they ensure everyone dines together means there is always a lovely atmosphere at the camp. A short walk from the camp is the firepit area, set right on the banks of the Zambezi – a simply perfect spot to enjoy a cool drink over the flickering flames of the fire and gaze out to the river beyond.
Game drives and walks are a great feature of the camp, operated by hugely experienced guides who really do bring the bush to life with their interpretive style of guiding. For me, my favourite part of John’s Camp is their fly-camping operation, which gives guests the chance to spend a night camping under the stars – these tents are very basic and this isn’t for the faint-hearted, but it is a wonderful experience and one we highly recommend.