Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe

On Thursday, November 11, we flew from Cape Town to Victoria Falls International airport in Zimbabwe. Getting through customs didn’t take long at all, and before we knew it we were in the Safari Logistics office waiting to take a (very!) small plane to our first safari!

To get to and from our safari location, we took a 45 minute flight on the smallest airplane we’ve ever been on! Luckily our pilot, Ronald, made us feel very safe and comfortable!

Accommodations

After landing in our tiny plane at Manga Air Strip, we were greeted by our guide, Calvet, who drove us 30 minutes to our camp. Upon arrival, the staff greeted us with a traditional song and dance!

We stayed at Somalisa Camp, which is a protected area within Hwange National Park. It is home to three safari camps and a few bore holes that have water pumped in using solar panels year round. Since not all of the park is protected, this ensures that the larger animals have consistent water and prey without the risk of being killed by humans.

Every moment during our stay, we were in awe of how comfortable the accommodations were and how delicious the food was!

Schedule

This being our first safari, we quickly learned that most safaris follow a fairly standard schedule. The schedule optimizes viewing of “big game” that hunt during the early morning and evening when the weather is cooler and prey is resting. During our two full days at Somalisa Camp, we woke up at 5:00am and walked to the common area where coffee, toast, and fruit were waiting. After a quick breakfast, we hopped in the safari truck as the sun began to rise. The first hour or so was spent tracking lions and cheetahs. If found, we would wait for them to begin hunting, otherwise we would move on to view other animals.

After a few hours of driving, we would typically stop at a watering hole at 7:30am to watch the elephants drink and bathe. Our guide, Calvet, would make us coffee and provide light snacks.

Speaking of snacks…we came to find that we were fed 5x times per day, which seems excessive (which it was), but it was also amazing. After a short break and close interaction with the elephants, back on the safari truck we went. The next few hours of the morning game drive were spent touring the park and observing how different animals interact (more on that below).

During the morning, we also did a walking safari. This is when you get out of the safari vehicle with your guide and see some animals on foot. During our walking safari, we were beyond nervous and excited. The feelings and emotions that come over you when you’re out in the wild and can be approached by a lion, cheetah, or elephant are unexplainable! After a few minutes of walking, we heard a solo male elephant approaching us. Calvet turned around and indicated to Cody to walk quickly and quietly back towards the vehicle! Cody turned and began to retrace our steps. After a minute or two, we reached a large tree and hid behind it as the elephant approached. While observing these animals from a close range on the safari truck is amazing, but we recognized that when we’re up close and on foot all the rules change.

We typically returned to the camp at 10:30am as the temperature reached ~90 degrees Fahrenheit and we would take a quick nap before lunch at 11:30.am. All the meals at Somalisa Camp were incredible! Each dish was beyond gourmet (and they even catered to Melanie’s lactose-intolerance)! After lunch, we would take another siesta or relax by the pool.

Our favorite part of the camp was the natural watering hole ~50ft away from the main area of the camp. Hundreds of elephants would pass through each day to cool themselves off by spraying and rolling in the water. And, at the foot of the camp’s main area, there was a man-made pool that was filled each morning. Most elephant herds would come to the pool and drink ~10ft away from us!

3:30pm each day was “tea time” (aka happy hour)! We gathered in the common area for drinks and snacks before heading on the evening game drive.

The evening game drive began at ~4:30pm. And then, at around 6:30pm, we are fed (once again)! Calvet would pull out a cooler full of drinks and snacks while we watched the sunset and observed animals congregating in the distance.

Animals! (in no particular order & more pictures coming soon)

Baboons: We spotted many of these monkeys throughout our game drives. We loved watching the mothers care for their babies and we also loved watching them clean and pick bugs off one another. They really are so human-like!

Spotted Hyaenas: We don’t have any good pictures of hyaenas because they are nocturnal and we only spotted them after dark. We could hear them cackling as we went to bed each night. It really did sound like The Lion King!

Cheetahs: Calvet taught us that cheetahs are different from leopards because they have slender bodies and a dark tear-drop marking, whereas leopards are stockier and have rosettes (vs. spots). We saw cheetahs on all the days we were at Somalisa Camp. We even saw a female chase an impala while her three cubs followed behind!

Lions: We saw a total of eight lions during our stay at Somalia Camp; all of which were females (lionesses) and their cubs. It was incredible how close we got to them, it felt like they could hear our hearts beating!! We didn’t spot any males since they hunt alone which makes them very difficult to spot. Maybe we will see some on our next safari in Sabi Sands Game Reserve!

Zebras: We will never forget how locals pronounce this word z•eh•bras (the “e” is pronounced like the “e” in “eggs”). These were beautiful to see in person. Some zebras have “shadow stripes,” which are the faded stripes in between the darker, black stripes on their coat.

Giraffes: It was incredible to see these in the wild! They are so tranquil and just mind their own business. When they bend down to drink, they need to splay their legs so that their heads can reach the ground.

Hippopotamuses: We were pleasantly surprised to see hippos on this safari. Hippos do not eat meat, but they are also known to be the most dangerous animals to humans when on safaris. This is because they can easily be startled and are very territorial. We made sure to approach them very slowly and to keep a relatively far distance away from them. We were fortunate enough to see a hippo interact with a cheetah. The cheetah came to the watering hole with two of her cubs. The hippo approached them in a way to say “back away, this is my space” and the mother cheetah stood her ground. Then, the hippo came a bit closer and the mother cheetah scurried away. Even though cheetahs are extremely fast, hippos can and do kill cheetahs when they feel that their territory and boundaries are not respected.

African Elephants: Never have we ever seen so many elephants until this safari!! We loved watching the baby elephants, especially those with undeveloped trunks that had to submerge their entire face in the watering holes to drink! These elephants were definitely wayyy larger than the ones we saw in Asia.

Tortoises: We saw some of these in a few different sizes. They weren’t as big as the ones we saw in the Galapagos, but still very cute!!

Ostriches: We saw a good amount of these! They are very goofy and entertaining to watch.

Impalas: Impalas seemed equivalent to our deer.

Vivid Monkeys: We spotted these only once. They are very different looking than the baboons that we saw often on this safari. The vivid monkeys are white and slender with a black face.

Wildebeests: We saw many of these, but didn’t get any great pictures. We plan to share pictures with our friend we met on our safari, Kelly, and hope she has a few that we can add to this blog post.

Water Buffalo: When we saw water buffalo, they were typically just co-existing with other animals. We saw zebras just hanging out right beside water buffalo and elephants!

Water Monitor Lizard: This was a unique finding. These reminded us of the iguanas we see in St. Croix!

Wharthogs: All we could think about when seeing these was…Pumbaa!

Springhares: These reminded us of rabbits.

Jackals: We saw many of these and they reminded us of foxes.

Coqui Francolins: This was the first animal Calvet identified for us in Hwange National Park. It is a bird that camouflages well with the ground.

Secretary Bird: This is supposedly the tallest flying bird in Africa. When it kills its pray, its legs move like a secretary typing.

Bradfield’s Hornbills, Tawny Eagles, and Red-Crested Korhaans: These were other birds we saw plenty of. The Red-Crested Korhaan pretends to be dead to attract its mate.

Polecats: Supposedly this was a very rare sighting and Calvet was SO excited!

Kurus: We saw so many of these! We hope Kelly got some pictures of Kurus so that we can add them to this blog post.

Stembok: These were always just hanging out with the kurus and the impala.

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