Hwange National Park was not a place that we heard a lot of hype about. Overall it has a good reputation but we also heard some negative experiences. We were curious to check it out for ourselves.
As we neared the south/east entrance gate, Garrett by chance spotted a sign reading “Panted Dog Conservation Center”. We drove past it but then decided we should turn around to check it out. So glad we did! This place was awesome. You first enter a large round room that guides you through the story of “Eyespot” the wild dog. His story is told from birth to adulthood via storybook images that paint a picture of the trials and tribulations he faced just trying to survive. Information about the climate, flora, fauna of the park is weaved into the fairy tale-like story of how Eyespot triumphed against all adversity. Everything is in English and the local language. I have never seen a conservation center present information in this way and I thought it was ingenious, compelling and inspiring!
After you look through the information center, you can also visit the wild dog rehabilitation center. The biggest problem facing wild dogs in this area is snares. Even though snares are not being placed to catch wild dogs, they end up getting accidentally caught in snares being laid out by poachers trying to catch antelopes for meat. The dogs run low to the ground so their necks get caught and they cannot escape and they slowly suffocate. The center has started placing steel collars on collared the dogs that they rescue to try to prevent snares from chocking them, but they don’t always work. The center picks up injured dogs and slowly nurses them back to health before reintroducing them. They also rescue orphaned pups or keep dogs that cannot be rehabilitated. One such dog, Roman, has been living at the center since she was a pup. She didn’t have parents so could not learn how to hunt or mate so she lives in captivity and gets fed raw meat daily. We got to hang out with Roman and feed her.
I was so impressed by the initiatives that the center has been taking to educate the local community. They have gotten all the surrounding communities involved so that if any dogs are spotted that are hurt or struggling – the center can come and assist. They provide jobs to the local community and expend great effort to teach all ages in the surrounding areas about wild dog conservation. They have made a huge impact on the health of the wild dogs in the area who used to get needlessly killed by locals who feared that they would harm them or their livestock. You can read more about the center here!
We then entered Hwange National Park through the Main Gate. This is where we finally discovered that we had been pronouncing it wrong. Apparently it is pronounced “Wankie” – who knew! The park office was decorated with pictures and placards that looked like they had been up since the 40s. I loved the retro vibe!
We spent our first night at Guduavala platform which is an elevated game hide that also serves as a campsite. Hwange has an awesome system of game viewing hides that are (for the most part) in great condition. During the daytime all park visitors can use them but after 6pm they are reserved for booked guests. Most of them have basic ablutions – a toilet and shower. The Guduavala platform looked like it had not been maintained for a bit – there was a birds nest on the toilet and the shower was just a pipe shooting out cold water. But the location was great.
The waterhole at the platform brought some nice visitors. Large herds of wildebeest, buffalo, zebra and the biggest surprise was a huge herd of at least 50 elephants that came by to drink. It was a great experience to sleep out in the wild with no fences or other people anywhere nearby.
The next day we drove to stay at Kennedy pan camp. This was a well maintained camp with nice ablutions, hot showers, and a covered boma. There was even an attendant at the camp to assist with starting fires and setting up the donkey boiler for hot showers. There are two sites at this camp so you may have to share the space but we were lucky to have it to ourselves. We enjoyed cooking a big potjie meal over the fire without having to worry about monkey thieves!
Next, we drove to the other side of the park to stay at Datema Dam. This way by far the best campsite. It had a covered hide with benches right on the water and a nice full ablution block. The dam creates a large lagoon that houses hippos and many birds. We were treated to the most beautiful sunset over the water. It was amazing to have the whole place to ourselves and feel like we were the only people for miles.
We had initially planned to spend about 4-5 days in the park. Even though it was beautiful and we enjoyed the campsites, the animals were sparse so we headed out of the park on day 3. On the way out, we visited Sinamatella Camp which has a nice overlook to the valley below but was otherwise nothing special in terms of the accomodations. I would definitely choose staying at the individual game hides/campsites over this one where you are in a crowded area.
The western part of the park what much more wet and wild. The roads started getting really muddy when we passed Masuma Dam. We tried to drive out to Tom’s Pan which is supposed to be one of the best game viewing areas but had to turn back when the road turned into a river!
To exit the park on the east you have to drive through Robins camp which honestly looked like it had been abandoned! It was pretty shocking. We couldn’t even find a single person on the property. Looked like no one has stayed there in quite a while.
Hwange was super empty during our visit in April. We saw maybe 2-3 cars a day. It was easy to book our campsites onsite when we arrived. I am told that in the busy season it is packed and all of the campsites get full. You usually have to stay outside the park during these times. The sites inside the park were around $25-30 per person – not cheap but it allowed you to be enveloped in the wilderness.
Animal sightings in the park were not easy. The wet season makes things particularly hard in Hwange because it is a huge park and animals scatter and migrate to areas that you cannot drive to. Hwange is famously known for its large elephant population, but in the wet season you could spend a few days without seeing a single elephant. Which is kind of crazy! We had some good sighting of lions, an African wild cat and hyena but no other major predators. Also elephants, wildebeests, zebra, giraffe, buffalo and lots of bird life.
If we were to return I would try to stay for a few days at Kennedy Pan because that is a hotspot for cheetahs. However, I don’t think I would enjoy the park as much if it was packed with tourists. For us, the magic of Hwange was being able to pull up to observation decks and enjoy game viewing in solitude. It is pretty awful when there are groups of 20 people filling up the decks and making lots of noise.
My favorite part about Hwange was the extensive system of viewing platforms and waterholes. It was awesome that these platforms were all open to be used as campsites – this is pretty unique. In other parks, like Kruger, only a few hides can be used as campsites. Otherwise, you really only have the option for camping in large, crowded and highly regulated campsites. I liked feeling closer to nature and having privacy. The park clearly isn’t as well kept up as other major game parks in southern africa but I found this to be charming. I like a bit of authenticity and nostalgia. Not everything has to be new and modern. Its nice to keep things simple and practical.
As you exit the park on the northwest side you can either head up to Vic Falls (which most people do) or head towards Botswana via the Panamatanga border post. The road is in good condition to the border – which was tiny! It looks like they only get a few cars a day. Crossing into Botswana is always easy but this post was so small it was extra quick. We had planned to take the Hunter’s Road down from the border but decided against this because of time. It was a good decision because Hunter’s Road got badly flooded and was still very soggy. That would have been a slow miserable slog for us! The main tar road from the Panamatenga border was fun to drive on because there were quite a few elephants in the area. They were busy walking along the sides of the road and frequently crossing.
We had been looking forward to crossing back into Botswana and finding some of our favorite and more well stocked grocery stores – like Woolworths! But sadly northern Botswana is even more remote and rural than Zimbabwe! There was only a single tiny gas station store that had a few choices of soft drinks, some staple items and a few choices for meat. The worse part was no cell service! Sigh…..more off the grid time ahead!