Hwange National Park: Cecil the lion and other press
Hwange National Park has been a relatively well kept secret of Southern Africa—at least it was, until recently. You likely remember reading about Cecil the lion and his unfortunate death in July during a reportedly illegal and unethical trophy hunt on the outskirts of Hwange National Park by a US citizen and his local guides. The story touched on a collective nerve and went absolutely viral, to the point that Hwange became the most talked about park in Africa. Before the furor over Cecil abated, Hwange was in the news yet again in August when a lion attacked and killed an unlucky safari guide who was leading guests on a walk through the bush.
Hwange suffers under President Robert Mugabe
Given the vast negative coverage of Hwange recently, how about some of the good news? Well, to be honest, Hwange’s greatest feature for wilderness lovers—its low visitor numbers—involves a little more bad news. You see, Hwange is Zimbabwe’s largest game reserve, and it used to be one of the best-known and most-visited parks in the region. Over the past two decades, the policies of Zimbabwe’s long-serving president, the infamous Robert Mugabe, who has been in charge since independence in 1980, have resulted in visitor numbers drying up. Forced and often brutal land redistribution, failing agriculture, a crumbling economy, and human rights abuses have wreaked havoc on tourism. Yet visitors willing to brave the shaky political situation will find a country full of friendly, helpful local faces, happy for the business that tourists provide and eager to share Zimbabwe’s rich cultural and natural heritage.
Hwange, at nearly 15,000 square kilometers, covers a huge swath of arid savanna habitat on the edge of the Kalahari Desert. It’s famous for its hugely abundant elephant herds, one of the largest wild dog populations in Africa, and of course, its lions. Leopard, hyena and cheetah are present as well, and birders will enjoy a wide variety of species. Hwange has very little natural water, so a network of man-made dams and waterholes attract incredible numbers of wildlife. In the dry season, visitors can relax in one of several nice hides overlooking the dams and watch elephants and other animals come to drink by the hundreds if not thousands.
The park is a dream for well-equipped self-drive visitors. Besides three main camps, there are nine picnic sites open to all during the day, but overnight campers can book them for an exclusive wilderness camping experience. It’s really something special. A camp assistant at each site provides fire wood and hot water for the showers, but other than that, you’re on your own in the bush. Picnic sites must be booked ahead through the National Parks office. Besides the park facilities, there are a number of privately operated camps and lodges, which offer a more upscale experience. Many feature their own private waterholes which attract wildlife right into camp.
Hwange doesn’t have river frontage, but it shares similar habitat and the huge elephant population of the very popular Chobe National Park located directly to the west in Botswana. But comparing the Chobe experience to Hwange is like night and day. Chobe, though offering fantastic game viewing, can feel downright crowded at times. Hwange, because of its much lower visitor numbers, feels much more wild and remote.
Give Hwange a try—you’ll enjoy the solitude and the Zimbabweans will be happy to host you.