The Matobo National Park forms the core of the Matobo or Matopos Hills, an area of granite kopjes and wooded valleys commencing some 35 kilometres south of Bulawayo. The Hills have formed over 2,000 million years ago with molten rock erupting across the landscape — this has eroded to produce smooth ‘whaleback dwalas’ and broken kopjes, strewn with boulders and interspersed with thickets of vegetation.
Zimbabwe: Hwange National Park
Two days exploring the vast ranges of Hwange National Park in northwest Zimbabwe
Day One: Robin’s Camp
From Victoria Falls we headed south toward Hwange National Park, the largest National Park in Zimbabwe. The first 45km was a nice tarmac road, without much in the way of traffic. We then took a right turn on the road to Robin’s Camp. For the next 60 km, we were on dirt tracks, most of which had a rough corrugated surface, which was almost the worst to drive over, as you get a judder-judder all the way, despite the speed you are travelling at. One nice thing that happened on the way was that we came across a small ‘tower’ of giraffes feeding on the side of the road, which made a nice brief stop to look at them.
After about 2-hours or so, we arrived at the eastern gate of Hwange National Park, where we were greeted by the shortest park ranger we had ever seen. He was so excited to see us and insisted that we get out of the car to have some photos taken with him. What fun!
A short time later, just around lunchtime, we arrived at Robin’s Camp in Hwange. After checking in, we were taken to our small cottage, which would be home for the night. I was peckish, but Karen was feeling a little off-colour, so she decided to skip lunch.
The camp is named after Herbert George Robbins. The area was originally ‘Little Toms” and ‘Big Toms’ farms. Robbins acquired the farms in the 1900s. He also acquired another farm, bringing his total holding to 26,000 acres. He barred shooting on his land and took steps to end poaching. The land was popular for hunting due to the variety of game that called it home. In 1928 the government announced the creation of the 14,000-acre Wankie Game Reserve, which was adjacent to Robbin’s land. Local farmers wanted to dissolve the game reserve and give the land over to farming, Robbins worked with the government to resist this. By all accounts he was a difficult, ‘onery’ man who it was hard to get to know – he preferred animals to people. In time his property was bequeathed to the nation and was eventually integrated into what is now Hwange National Park.
In 1934 fearing his land would be sold and become a shooting box on his death, Robbins bequeathed his property to the South Rhodesian Government on the condition it would always remain a game reserve.
He died in 1939 and requested in his will that his body be left on the property to be consumed by the wild animals. The government denied his request, and his grave can be seen today near the entrance to Robin’s Camp.
Some of the original buildings Robbins had built remain today, including the watch tower he had built to watch over his cattle and land. In here you will find a small museum dedicated to Robbins and his lifetime of work towards conserving wildlife.
After lunch, we headed out on an afternoon game drive. Our guide was Simon. We were joined by a young American man called Evan, from New York State, who was on holiday. Karen soon discovered his wife was pregnant. This was not the reason she was not with him on holiday, in fact, she was in India with her mother visiting the area where her father was born and raised (he had died in recent years). This seemed a little strange he was here on his own, perhaps a last chance for an exotic holiday before junior is born.
We spent about three hours driving through the park, which is largely covered in short-cropped (due to the elephants) mopane trees. Most of these were under 10 feet tall, and tightly packed. It was a strange landscape. As we journeyed, we spied zebra and impala. We were also lucky to see the roan antelope, which is endangered, but luckily lives in Hwange in reasonable numbers. The problem we had is that Simon insisted on giving us a lecture (yes literally a lecture) on everything we saw. It was not a warm style of presenting information! We of course had recently done many game drives, so knew a bit about zebras, impalas etc, but we had to assume Evan had not – so we let it go (but it was still annoying – which Evan later confirmed). It certainly spoilt the game drive for us to a degree. Also, when we did see elephants and giraffes in the distance, Simon made no real attempt to get closer. So, we spent some of the game drive talking to Evan and getting more of his story.
In the evening we headed across to the main building for dinner. Which was tasty, but plain. We did get some amusement from watching a chameleon that had climbed inside the restaurant tent and was hanging upside down, motionless, from a rope awaiting some unexpected passing insects.
Day Two: Traversing Hwange on the park roads
Today, we had a long drive through Hwange National Park, from Robins Camp to Main Camp, and the entrance beyond. We were stopping at Gwando Heritage Resort. Originally, we were due to stay at Sable Sands, but they had recently gone bankrupt so our travel agents, Onjamba, booked us into Gwando at the last minute not knowing what it was going to be like.
Hwange National Park is the largest park in Zimbabwe, covering an area of 14,600km2. The large size leads to a variety of landscapes including the mopane woods we had seen in Robbins, to desert scrub, granite hills and grass-filled plains with palm and acacia trees. Hwange contains one of the largest elephant populations in the world.
The journey was only about 150km, but on the worst roads, through very remote and less travelled parts of Hwange. The journey eventually took us around 6 ½ hours to complete, but along the way, we saw plenty of animals, including kudu, giraffes and elephants. We saw a number of elephants really close to the road feeding, some of which didn’t take too kindly to our presence and began to give some warning signs – flapping ears and waving trunks. Along the road, we took advantage to stop at one of the great viewing platforms that had been built by waterholes. Just as we arrived a large bull elephant appeared from the bush and started to drink at the waterhole, and then proceeded to spend some time washing himself down with water and applying a new layer of mud, to protect his skin from the sun. We spent about 20 minutes just watching this elephant go about his business. A short way down from this elephant we came across a large herd, of about 50 elephants, at another waterhole. We had not seen a herd of this size, even in Amboseli in Kenya. It was spectacular.
By the time we reached Gwando it was mid-afternoon, and lunch was just about over (although we seemed to be about the only people staying at the resort). It was a little concerning that at first glance the place seemed to be half-built as a lot of buildings, including the reception which only had the bottom half of a two-storey building built. We were given a tour of the ‘public rooms’, including the bar which had a lounge on the roof (which was sort of finished). When we went up to the lounge there was a pool, which was disgustingly dirty and full of wasps. Also, the walls around the outside in places had not been finished so there was nothing stopping you from falling off the edge. This would be a nightmare for a family with children!
We hurried off to the restaurant and were presented with a menu by a sweet young girl (who seemed to lack training). There were only two vegetarian options on the menu, both involving ‘elephant’ bread (which we know as pita bread – locally it is called elephant bread due to the resemblance of the shape of the bread to the ears of the aforementioned elephant). It was not much better for meat-eaters as two-thirds of the menu options seemed to be not available. We eventually went for the vegetable wrap – which was served on the elephant bread and not actually wrapped! Whilst we ate the young girl hovered about 10-feet away with her arms crossed, waiting to spring and retrieve our empty plates as soon as the last morsel disappeared into our mouths. As we were eating a local herd of elephants came to visit the waterhole next to the camp.
After lunch, we were taken to our room, which turned out to have twin beds. Karen went to ask whether we could change to a double-bedded room, as there were no other guests at the resort. She was offered a family room, with a double and single bed, for an extra $60. We decided to stay put. The room was actually nicely decorated but lacked the finishing touches that would have made it great – such as only one bedside table & lamp.
In the evening we headed back to the restaurant in hope that dinner was better. Karen had negotiated with the waitress that we got pasta instead of elephant bread. So, we got a big bowl of pasta, with a tiny portion of veggies on the side and a small bowl of sauce (obviously shop bought) on the side. ¡No bueno! Once again, our little waitress friend hovered with intent. We had a beer to wash down our dinner and asked for some chocolate cake for dessert. As we set off to bed, we were summoned to the bar to pay our bill. Usually, you would settle your bill when you leave – but not here. Also, to our surprise, we were charged separately for the chocolate cake dessert (which had only been a cheap cake mix!). Again, we were not impressed as we headed off to bed. The only nice thing had been chatting with the friendly barman, Kingston.
Day Three: Exploring central Hwange
We had reluctantly booked ourselves on a dawn game drive (but we’d only be here once). We hooked up with our guide, Solomon, who had collected our breakfast snack and coffee, and most importantly of all, blankets to ward off the morning cold.
We headed out into the park. Another surprise for us was having to pay the park entry fees. Normally, when you do a game drive this is mostly included! So, feeling a bit salty about our experiences so far, we headed out into the park. Once again it was a beautiful clear morning. The landscape in this part of Hwange is very different from Robbins. Here there were no dense growths of mopane trees, instead, there were plains of tall, yellow grass dotted with the occasional acacia and leadwood trees. We had a nice drive around and spotted a few animals, but to be honest we’d seen as much the day before driving through the park ourselves. We resolved we’d do some more self-drives through the parks going forward. Having said this, Solomon turned out to be a good person, and we were able to focus on the more usual such as the trees, the birdlife, carcasses (we saw the remains of a giraffe, including its huge vertebrae), poop and tracks. So, we did have a good time. Right at the end of the game drive, we ended up at a waterhole with a viewing platform, where Solomon set up for breakfast – pancakes and coffee. Which was delicious. At the platform were some other visitors – two young couples, who we had earlier seen parked ‘illegally’ next to a waterhole (some tourists really piss you off!) and there was also an Indian family with young children. The kids insisted on feeding a yellow-billed hornbill who obviously doted on tourists. Their guide told them not to do it three times, but they carried on, goaded by their parents so they could get that Instagram shot (some tourists really, really piss us off!).
When we returned to the Gwando Heritage Resort it was time for our second breakfast. Again, the options were limited, so we went for the breakfast wrap. Back home this would have meant we’d have got some scrambled egg mixed with tomatoes, onions and mushrooms in tortilla wraps. Not at Gwando. There was no tortilla – it was an elephant ear again (aka pita bread) – which you could not roll into a wrap and the egg was not scrambled it was a chopped up fried egg. Very disappointing!
About Hwange National Park
Located in the northwest corner of the country about an hour south of the Mighty Victoria Falls, Hwange National Park is the largest park in Zimbabwe, occupying roughly 14 650 square Kilometres.
Founded in 1929, Hwange National Park was named after a local Nhanzwa chief. It became the royal hunting grounds of the Ndebele King Mzilikazi in the early 19th Century.
Originally, Robins Game sanctuary belonged to H G Robins, a cattle rancher. Because his herds were constantly under attack by lions and leopards, Robins turned the ranch into a wildlife preserve. Later, in exchange for a new house and a water supply, he gave the sanctuary to the government of Zimbabwe.
Located in the northwest corner of the country about an hour south of the Mighty Victoria Falls, Hwange National Park is the largest park in Zimbabwe, occupying roughly 14 650 square Kilometers.
Hwange boasts of 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. Hwange is the only park in Zimbabwe that offers the big five.
The Park has three distinctive Camps and administrative offices at Robins, Sinamatella and the largest one at Main Camp.
Planning your visit to Hwange
Private air charters – These are costly but obviously have the advantage of being quicker and can be useful if you have an extended itinerary that might include Kariba or the lower Zambezi valley. For the more remote camps in Hwange like Little Makalolo, Davison’s, Linkwasha, Bomani, Camelthorn and Somalisa flying is almost essential as trekking in by road just takes too long and is almost as costly.
MackAir Flight: MackAir have partnered with Central Air Transport Services (CATS) and are running daily flights between Victoia Falls and Hwange. They also run flights between the north-western section of Hwange National Park and the east and southern parts.
Road Transfers – These can easily be arranged but are not scheduled and therefore are tailored to your requirements. They are normally in air-conditioned minibuses. If you are travelling alone or as a couple they work out quite expensive as the transfers are quoted at a minimum of 4 people. These transfers can drop you at the Mbala boom from where Camp Hwange or Nehimba will collect you. Or they can drop you at Hwange Safari Lodge, Hwange Main Camp or Halfway House from where the camps in the south of the park will collect you.
Self Drive – If you have your own vehicle, the lodges are happy for you to drive in on your own, however, most of them are only accessible with a 4×4 and once there are further game drives have to be in the lodge vehicles, with the exception of lodges like Miombo, Hwange Safari Lodge, Ivory Lodge and the national park camps. The national park camps and most of the road network within the park are accessible with a 2-wheel drive vehicle except in the height of the rainy season. The park is accessible through three entrances; Main camp, Sinamatella and Nantwich.
Self-drivers coming through Botswana may favour Pandamatenga for the border entry – this is at the western end of Hwange National Park and is one of the less-used border posts. Crossing this border is usually an easy 20 minutes, and it is not busy at all. The drive from there, however, is 113 km to Sinamatella Camp on a rough road.
Best time to visit Hwange National Park
Hwange National Park has distinct seasons, and whether the comfort level of the climate is what determines when you visit, we give you the relevant information below.
Winter Months – Mid May, June, July, early August, although the days are warm with beautiful blue skies, the evenings can get extremely cold and temperatures below freezing are not uncommon, so definitely bring warm clothing. It’s cold I promise you!
Summer months – September through to May. Hot to extremely hot days and warm evenings. Daytime temperatures can go up to 32 ° C (approx 90 ° F), usually, some time in October which is the hottest month of the year.
Rainy season – Generally between late November and April although the occasional rain can occur out of these dates. The showers provide relief from the high summer temperatures.
Best Game Viewing Months
August, September, October and early November are by far the best months for game viewing in this park. Water becomes extremely scarce and the animals congregate around the few pumped waterholes. Sitting patiently and quietly at one of these water holes will reward you with very good game viewing.
Where to stay
Hwange National Park has many accommodations both inside and outside the park.
National Park Camps
Main Camp is situated at the entrance to the park. There are numerous pans and pumped waterholes around Main Camp and the area is rich in game. Main Camp facilities include self-catering lodges, cottages ad chalets, a camping and caravan site, a grocery store, a curio shop, a petrol station, a bar and a restaurant.
Robins Camp is close to the western boundary of Hwange, approximately 60 km from Sinamatella and 140 km from the Main Camp. Traffic from the Main Camp is required to leave by 1200hrs. This camp was bequeathed to the government in 1939 by a local farmer, Harold Robins. The Camp has lodges, chalets and camping sites. In addition, a restaurant, bar, shop and fuel are available. There are several exclusive camps in the Robins area.
There are several lodges just outside the Park’s main entrance. We stayed at Gwango Heritage Resort, which is inexpensive but we had some issues when we stayed there so cannot wholeheartedly recommend it. Luckily, there are plenty of other options.
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