Zimbabwe is a location with multiple safari-experience accolades – it’s a place where you’ll never be short of fun and fascinating things to do, regardless of the season. Your only consideration when determining the best time to visit Zimbabwe on safari would be which activity speaks to you, and when that’s on the table.
As the country which established so many of the safari conventions which we know today as cherished traditions, you won’t be surprised to learn that, along with plentiful game, conventional wisdom stalks the savannah and woodlands of Zimbabwe.
That is to say, the best game-viewing conditions (limited water and vegetation) tend to be during the extended winter months of May to October. This typically applies across the region, so a multi-country safari can be an excellent option.
However, Zimbabwe more than deserves your undivided attention. As the great national parks begin to dry out, vegetation recedes and the animals are inexorably drawn to the shrinking water sources. This effect is perhaps most marked in Hwange, where huge herds of buffalo and elephant converge on – and compete for – dwindling opportunities to drink.
Some of the waterholes are pumped by Hwange’s luxury lodges, but you’ll find plentiful game anywhere that the besieged water holds out. Follow dusty game paths through the trees and across the savannah, and you’ll soon be in the midst of the herds.
The convoluted, meandering Zambezi River also shrinks during this season, withdrawing from the floodplains of Mana Pools and revealing a labyrinth of islands, channels and sandbars. Where the water retreats, the game can only follow, meaning that game drives along the banks can be incredibly productive. Canoe safaris (manoeuvring around hippo and crocodile) are another excellent choice.
Lower water levels in the Zambezi reduce the sheer force of Victoria Falls, but the reduced spray means that the experience is less about taking fun selfies and more about seeing actual ribbons of water, allowing you to form an unclouded judgement of this natural wonder.
From Victoria Falls, it’s a short plane ride to northern Botswana – this is also the best time of year to explore the Okavango Delta, Savute and Linyanti region. Expect to meet more fellow travellers during winter, and for standard lodge rates to apply.
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The gathering clouds that signal the onset of the summer rains in Zimbabwe lead to a general dispersal of game, and visitors. In other words, during the months of November to April you need to search a little harder for wildlife, but you’ll be one of relatively few seekers, despite the bargains and beauty on offer.
To see Victoria Falls at full throttle, come late in the green season once the rainwater has been captured by the mighty Zambezi. Of course, you may not actually see the ‘Smoke that Thunders’, but you’ll hear it and certainly feel it when the spray inevitably reaches your vantage point.
Both Hwange and Mana Pools are at their most beautiful during summer: fresh green shoots and all manner of unexpected blooms add colour, while wobbly infant animals contribute an endearing (and vulnerable) touch.
The rejuvenated vegetation can make smaller creatures (in particular) harder to spot, but should you find yourself out of sight of wildlife, there are dozens of species of migratory birds to look out for. Refilled and with a renewed sense of purpose, the Zambezi overwhelms many of the smaller sandbars and islands in Mana Pools, becoming again a wide, continuous ribbon of water on its way to the ocean.
Pans and waterholes in Hwange are refreshed, allowing the herds to break the hegemony of the pumped waterholes and move out in search of grazing. Even though prices are typically lower during summer, the reduced visitor numbers mean that Zimbabwe’s national parks will feel even wilder and remote than usual. Not, of course, that that’s a problem – you visit Zimbabwe for the rush, not the crush.