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Zimbabwe - Game Viewing in Hwange and Mana Pools?

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Good morning, all. I am interested in recent game viewing experiences in Hwange and Mana Pools. I'd love to plan a trip to Zimbabwe, but before doing so, I am interested in hearing reports about the game viewing and density compared to the surrounding countries, especially Zambia and Botswana. I am most interested in any experiences in and around Makalo Plains and Little Makalo in Hwange and Ruckomechi in Mana Pools. I've been to Botswana (Kwando Lagoon, Mombo, King's Pool, Zarafa, Duba Plains, Little Vumbura), Namibia (Little Ongava), and South Africa (Singita, Tswalu, Samara) if any of those serve as a good comparison. Thanks so much.

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    I am not sure how recent you are looking for with regards to animal viewing experience but I was in Hwange and Mana Pools in July & August 2011. I have been to Botswana many time and in every season dating back to 1984 when I was 14. I was in Matusadona National Park (also in Zimbabwe) in September 2012. I have also been to every other lodge you mentioned above except Samara. I have been to every permanent safari lodge in Mana Pools, and every permanent safari lodge in Hwange and Matusadona except for Change and Camp Hwange. Both of those camps opened after my last visits.

    It is my personal opinion and experience that the best general big five animal viewing (i.e. best chance of seeing big five each day) occurs in the Sabi Sands private game reserves adjacent to the Kruger National Park in South Africa. This means, that in my opinion, Singita has the best big animal viewing of the ones you listed. But, keep in mind, the safari experience is quite different at the luxury lodges in South Africa. Many South Africa lodges like Singita are permanent brick-and-mortar (vs. tents or luxury tents) and they have a much higher level of hotel services. This higher level of hotel services is somewhat due to the proximity to power lines, major cities, refrigerated trucks etc. In the Sabi Sands there are also much less expensive places with excellent animal viewing like MalaMala. Many people DO NOT prefer this type of safari and prefer the much more remote areas like Zimbabwe and Botswana.

    During the peak season, I think the overall wildlife experience in the Okavango Delta, Linyanti, Kwando, Selinda region will be equally satisfying when compared to a safari in Hwange and Mana Pools. It all depends on what you are looking for. The Okavango Delta is the most pristine wildlife area I have ever visited and the Delta is absolutely unique. The Linyanti (Kings Pool), Selinda (Zarafa), Kwando (Lagoon) concessions will have massive herds of elephants and good marshes and wetlands on the peripheries. When comparing only Zimbabwe to Botswana there are some marshland animals that you will absolutely not see in Zimbabwe. You also can’t ride a Mokoro Canoe in Zimbabwe and this sometimes interests first-time visitors.

    On the other hand, there are very few places in Africa where you can have a safari on a major river like at Mana Pools. The lodge is literally 10 meters from the banks of the Zambezi. You can go on land rover game drives, walks, canoe, or boat. The animal density, especially elephant & buffalo is very high. I also saw plenty of lion, leopard and wild dog here. You can’t compare the off-season to Botswana as Mana Pools shuts down sometime in November and reopens in May.

    Hwange is a year round destination. The camp you mentioned above in Hwange is Little Makalolo. It is one of my favorite safari lodges in all of Africa. Although you must remain on the road network here, the land is still a private concession. The “action” in my experience seems to be around the large grassland pans were the animals congregate. Also, Hwange is generally considered to be the most mammal diverse park in Africa with over 108 species. This is because it is the transition zone between the Kalahari and Mopane Woodland of Zimbabwe.

    A lady with the profile name TKDBB on Trip Advisor has been to Botswana and Zimbabwe twice in the past nine months. You could possible ask her or read her post here: http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowTopic-g293766-i9284-k5663304-o10-Should_I_add_Zimbabwe_and_cut_out_a_stop_in_Botswana-Botswana.html#49335707

    If cost is a factor, a peak season safari is Zimbabwe is about half the cost of Botswana for comparable lodging and, in my opinion, experiences. Again, it will depend what you are looking for. This cost statement is based on the fact that there are two lodge chains that have lodges in both countries: Wilderness Safaris and African Bush Camps. The Wilderness Safari classic camps in Botswana are approximately double the cost of their classic camps in Zimbabwe during July-October.

    I hope this helps. If you have more questions feel free to ask.

    Craig Beal – owner – Travel Beyond
    2011 & 2012 Travel & Leisure A-List agent for Botswana and Zimbabwe

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    Thanks so much, Craig. This is a great response. The Kalahari element of Hwange was what really grabbed me. It is possible to see oryx, springbok or other desert species staying at Little Makalolo?

    Could I also ask if you could compare Hwange to South Luangwa? Or as an additional park to visit in a safari that includes Vic Falls, Mana Pools and Hwange?

    Last question - have you been to Singita Parmushana? Any impressions of the game, if so, and whether it is worth visiting?

    Is this is too much to ask, no worries, and thanks so much for your original response.

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    Hi There,

    I doubt you will see many Oryx or Springbok that far NE in Hwange; I never have. If you want a "guarantee" of Springbok you would need to go to Central Kalahari NP/GR Botswana. When I went I stayed at Wilderness Safari's Kalahari Plains Camp. I saw Springbok and Oryx in huge numbers on every game drive. You will also almost certainly see these species at Tswalu + Meerkat. Keep I mind the best time for Kalahari is Dec-Mar.

    I have not been to Singita Pamushana. Darren Humphreys, owner of Travel Sommelier, went there last year and thought animal viewing was good. He said service was out of this world. I have had similar comments from clients.

    South Luangwa would be an EXCELLENT pair for Mana and Hwange. Because of logistical considerations, it is hard to have a full morning activity in Mana or Hwange and then be at South Luangwa in time for the afternoon game drive UNLESS you use a private plane so perhaps plan a nigh in Vic Falls and do it this way: HRE >> Mana >> Hwange >> Vic Falls (cross border spend night in Livingstone) >> South Luangwa with a connection in Lusaka.

    Since I am feeling lazy today (it is too sunny outside) you can read my comparison of Zimbabwe and Zambia and Botswana here (recycled from full paying client emails):

    Animal Diversity: In my opinion (IMO), a June-October safari in South Luangwa (SLNP) and Lower Zambezi (LZNP) will result in more total mammal species seen than a safari during the same time period in Botswana. Hwange (Zimbabwe) will still offer the greatest mammal diversity (total unique species observed) than all of them but has an overall lower density of many species, except elephant and buffalo. Hwange has no hippos or crocodiles. Add Kafue and you will see almost all major antelope species except the Kalahari varieties.

    Animal density: The Chobe River systems, including the Selinda, Savuti, & Savute channels have the highest concentration of elephants on earth in the dry season. You will also see many elephants on every game drive in both SLNP and LZNP. Averaged across all species, non-predator concentrations are comparable in all these ecosystems: SLNP, LZNP, Mana Pools, Hwange, Chobe/Linyanti/Selinda and the Okavango Delta. SLNP has the highest hippo density in Africa purportedly because of the undisturbed river and the effect it has on flood plains, ox bows, and other lagoons. All these natural river features create food sources and alternate habitat for hippos. Because of the undisturbed Luangwa River which allows for natural spawning processes, the fish population in the Luangwa Valley is very healthy and therefore the crocodiles also occur in arguably the highest density in Africa.

    Unique ecosystem: Many people visit the Okavango Delta for the unique, undisturbed ecosystem. Botswana has done a great job marketing this attribute and guests will often note the Delta as their core reason for visiting. The South Luangwa River is one of the largest undammed rivers in Africa. It is the largest undammed river that flows through a major wildlife area. This makes the ecosystem in the Luangwa Valley unique in not so subtle ways. Undisturbed by man, the River is allowed to go through its natural flood cycle beginning in December to March which creates rich and fertile flood plains. These flood plains subsequently dry out, beginning in April. The peak water level is usually in March and the River quickly lowers in level when the rains stop. This process leaves rich, fertile, and nutritious flora on seasonally dry flood plains ideal for June-October game drives while retaining enough water in pools, ponds, or center-line channels to have many hippo and crocodile pools throughout the park (and concentrated drinking water). In my personal experience, the hippo and crocodile hide at Luwi Bush Camp was an exceptional afternoon activity and the view of the flood plain in front of Chindene and Lion Camp was outstanding.
    There are also many oxbow lakes and lagoons created by the ever changing course of the river. One of them, in front of Lion Camp, was just formed in 1978 when the River changed course and the now mostly dry ox-bow that was created provides diverse sightings directly in front of the camp. On the contrary, the damming of the Zambezi at Lake Kariba in 1954 has greatly altered the effect the Zambezi River has on Mana Pools and LZNP (again, Zimbabwe and Zambia respectively). In addition to no longer changing course so dramatically or flooding annually, the dam has also disrupted the fish spawning cycle as the floods now occur in February instead of May (when Victoria Falls peaks) and create a different annual temperature profile for the water. The dam flood gates are only opened in February (thereabouts) if the engineers anticipate heavy rains will fill the dam in May. The dam regulates the lows and highs of the Zambezi and since the dam is there to provide electric power there is significant thermal pollution in the river below the dam (not to mention complete destruction of the Delta where the Zambezi empties into the Indian Ocean). In a dam, hydroelectric turbines are built at the lowest possible level to maximize pressure from the dam-side water in turning the turbines to make electricity. The water at the bottom of Lake Kariba is 20-30F colder than the natural water temperature or surface temperature and this is the water that feeds the river below the dam. The regulated floods and cold water both effect spawning and the cold water causes crocodiles to spend more time out of the water which has increased their human interaction rate which is never good for the crocodile. Don’t get me wrong, the Zambezi offers a very unique experience that can easily be juxtaposed against the Okavango Delta. You also MUST consider LZNP to get a complete Zambia circuit. I am simply providing this extra information that is seemingly negative on Mana Pools and LZNP to further illustrate that the Luangwa River is equally authentic when compared to the Okavango and it is more authentic (or natural) than lower Zambezi. You can’t find a place as undisturbed as the Luangwa Valley anywhere else in Africa because of dams and man-made influences.

    Weather: SLNP is going to be hotter than most other major Southern Africa wildlife areas in October. Nighttime temperatures can become uncomfortable starting around mid-to-late September and daily highs will be 105-115F by October. Heat-averse guests should avoid this last month of the peak season. Rates also drop on October 1 at many lodges because of the heat. On the contrary, SLNP has the mildest winter so June and July safaris are great for cold-averse guests that are considering Botswana during this time. Animal dispersion may be a bit higher in June and July compared to August or September but the scenery will be slightly greener for good photography. SLNP’s night time temperature in the coldest months is only around 50F. This is, on average, warmer than most other ecosystems of Southern Africa that time of year. You can contrast this to the near freezing temperatures in Botswana and Hwange at the same time of the year. The three mornings I had in Hwange in July 2011 were 33, 29, and 33F. Hwange sees temperatures in July around 20F for a few mornings every few years. Mana Pools and LZNP are the same weather as they are on opposite banks of the Zambezi River in sight of one another. The coldest mornings are around 40F in June and July. Both Mana Pools and LZNP will be over 100F in the day during October.

    Luxury Camps: LZNP has luxury camps on par with Botswana. Baines River Lodge is in the same league as South Africa’s ultra-luxury lodges and a Singita Guest could go here. Sausage Tree is on par with luxury lodges in Botswana including Mombo and gives all South Africa properties a “run for their money” except perhaps Singita. Puku Ridge in SLNP and Shumba in Kafue compare well against many luxury lodges in Botswana but, in fairness, is a small step below Zarafa, Jao, Mombo, Kings Pool, and Vumbura Plains. Lion Camp in SLNP and Chiawa in LZNP are on par with any of the best new classic Wilderness Safari camps and have a more comfortable and luxurious common area than any classic camp. With a few aforementioned exceptions, generally, the rest of the accommodations are more rustic than classic Wilderness Safari camps and some are much more rustic.

    Safari Vehicle Density: Although both LZNP and SLNP are national parks with no private concessions, the vehicle densities are incredibly low and lower than most private South African game reserves. LZNP does have a high use area around the Mfuwe Gate where camps like Flat Dogs, Mfuwe Lodge and Kapani game drive. These can easily be mitigated in itinerary planning. Many of the bush camps have a “mother ship” camp near the Mfuwe Gate as well (for example, Bushcamp Company owns Mfuwe Lodge and Norman Carr owns Kapani both with 18 beds). This does exacerbate the high use zone near the Mfuwe gate as previously mentioned. On top of this, the loops and road network near Mfuwe are not made in the best manner which does create more vehicle sightings than many or our clients would prefer. Remote lodges like Shenton Safaris grate their own road network at the beginning of the season to maximize sightings. Vehicle density IS NOT AN ISSUE in SLNP because all the camps I recommend are in the southern or northern part of the park far away from the gate. There are no self-drive camp sites in the park and all guests not staying at a permanent camp have to be out by 8pm. It is almost impossible for a self-driver to be near any of the bush camps owned by Bushcamp Company, Norman Carr, Robben Pope, Shenton, or Remote Africa safaris as they simply can’t get to the game drive areas from the gate in less than 2 hours and usually more like 4. The lodges are incredibly remote and therefore private. Tafika is on private land adjacent to the park and they game drive in the Nsefu sector and walk in the northern part of SLNP. On drives throughout the southern and northern part of the park I would see one or two vehicles per day on our drives but often it was from the same camp or the same company. I saw much less vehicles per game drive in SLNP than I have ever seen at a private lodge in the Sabi Sands and the sightings are comparable to Botswana. We never queued for a sighting or were disturbed in any unpleasant way. In LZNP, because of distance, it is almost impossible for a guest from a lodge in the west-side GMA (Chongwe, Kasaka, Baines, Royal Zambezi) to get to the game drive areas of the camps in the LZNP except they could possible get to the Chiawa area for a brief period of time in the middle of the activity period before having to turn back. Sausage Tree and Old Mondoro are impossibly far from the gate and also from each other so you will rarely, if ever, see other vehicles except from the same camp. While on a Chongwe game drive I did see Kasaka and Baines vehicles at a lion sighting in the western section of the LZNP. The guides are all from the same local area and they text each other with the prime sightings.

    Activities: When it comes to activities, LZNP and SLNP have a major advantage over all major wildlife areas of Southern Africa with the exception of Mana Pools. SLNP offers hiking and game drives at all camps. Several camps have excellent hides for daytime use and Tafika offers micro-lighting and biking. LZNP offers hiking, fishing, game drives, boating, and canoeing at all properties I recommend. These diverse activities can easily extend the number of nights on safari from 7-9 up to 10-12 for typical first time travelers.

    Craig Beal – owner – Travel Beyond
    2011 & 2012 Travel & Leisure A-List agent for Botswana and Zimbabwe

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    RIC,

    Listen to Safari Craig as he's said it better than I'm about to say it but here has been my own experience....

    Following the great places you've visited in South Africa and Botswana, I do think you are setting yourself up for a letdown in Hwange and Mana Pools, or at least that was my same experience. Perhaps it was the time of year I was there (mid July) but the predator sightings were far and far between and for the cost, the accommodations were lacking. I did enjoy canoeing in Mana Pools but on the Zim side of the river, at least during my visit of 5 years ago, there was not an option for motorized boats so that eliminated the opportunity for sundowner cruises and Tiger Fishing, two of the highlights of a safari on the Zambezi River.

    I was really rooting for Zimbabwe to be a great safari destination but maybe I was spoiled by the same types of places you visited and spoiled by what lies right across the river in Lower Zambezi so Zimbabwe (Hwange and Mana Pools) was somewhat disappointing and the only thing that saved that trip was that it was the first half of my trip and I was doing Zambia afterward.

    But, the Zambezi River is amazing and you would be wise to consider some of the lodges on the Zambian side of the border. Given your past safaris, Chiawa Camp would be the most appropriate and you'd find it right up there with the best you've visited but better as it doesn't feel like it is manufactured but rather authentic Africa.

    South Luangwa National Park has some great choices, as well, and the pairing of South Luangwa and Lower Zambezi would be far far far superior to Hwange / Mana Pools.

    My heart aches right now as I plan my next safari as I am not able to visit my favorite park in Africa, Lower Zambezi, as I will have my infant daughter (and wife) along for the ride and I have not been able to find an acceptable Lower Zambezi camp to my standards that will allow an infant.

    So, instead, I will be limited to South Luangwa for my Zambian safari at a new and unfamiliar lodge.

    But, sometimes it is location location location, and after introducing my wife to the Sabi Sands and Madikwe on our last visit at the finest possible lodges, I am excited to now show her the "Real Africa" as Zambia bills itself, with South Luangwa National Park and its infinite number of hippos and Nile crocodiles, incredible birding and plentiful predators and elephants.

    Wherever your travels take you on this safari, have a great trip.

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