Easy-going, safe and infinitely hospitable, Zimbabwe is a perfect introduction to Africa – it's hard to imagine not having a good time here. With an extensive tourist infrastructure and good transport links, it remains a straightforward place for visitors to negotiate, despite economic troubles – the country suffered a currency crash in 1998 and inflation levels are high. Many people combine a trip to Zimbabwe with a visit to Botswana's Chobe National Park and the Okavango Delta which are, for that reason, covered in this guide. Zimbabwe is best known for its excellent and accessible game reserves and the Victoria Falls – the adventure-sport capital of Africa, which draws backpackers and adrenaline junkies from across the globe. For unadulterated excitement, whitewater rafting below the Falls is a must, but there are numerous other ways to scare yourself witless, including bungee jumping off the Victoria Falls bridge, skydiving or riverboarding. Elsewhere in the country, you can track big game on foot with an armed guide, and there's some superb mountain hiking in the Eastern Highlands. In terms of game viewing, Zimbabwe, along with Chobe National Park and the Okavango Delta, can hold their own alongside South Africa and Kenya and, if it's elephants you're after, the region can't be beaten. While elsewhere in Africa elephants are seriously threatened, in Chobe and Hwange parks they are present in a superabundance of tens of thousands. You'll also find the rest of the Big Five – lions, leopards, buffalo and rhinos – in respectable numbers (though black rhinos hang on only in intensively protected areas). Between them, Zimbabwe and Botswana possess virtually all of Southern Africa's 291 recorded mammal species, and birdwatchers will find six hundred species to get to grips with. The Okavango Delta in Botswana is unquestionably one of the world's greatest eco-tourism destinations, combining the unique setting of an inland delta with terrific game viewing.
Human culture in the region goes back tens of thousands of years. Zimbabwe has the greatest concentration of prehistoric rock art in the world; finely realized paintings of animals and people in everyday life, ritual and myth, are scattered about the granite rock formations that pepper the country, seen most easily at the Matopos Hills near Bulawayo. The fact that you can see in the wild the very animals that feature in murals from 10,000 years ago greatly enriches the experience. Also worthy of exploration are the stone ruins from the ancient states that once held domain on this great plateau – Great Zimbabwe is just the best known of several hundred complexes.
Physically, Zimbabwe is divided by the central highveld plateau, which is covered by massive granite outcrops called kopjes (pronounced like copies). Because of its malaria-free moderate climate and prime lands, the highveld became the white-dominated political and economic hub of what used to be Rhodesia. Rising from the plateau for 350km along the Mozambique border are the Eastern Highlands, peaking at 2400m in the narrow belt of the Nyanga and Chimanimani mountains. To the north and south, the plateau falls away through the intermediate middleveld plateaus, lying between 900m and 1200m, to the lowveld regions, which descend in the north to the Zambezi River Valley on the Zambian border and in the south to the Limpopo and Save River valleys on the South African border. These two lowveld regions share a similar climate and vegetation, quite distinct from that of the highveld; they have lower rainfall and are hotter. On Zimbabwe's dry western flank, the tree savannah of the Hwange area runs across the border to merge with the Kalahari sands of Botswana. It's in these low-lying areas that the major game parks are located, and where malaria is a problem. Across the border from Hwange is Botswana's Chobe Park, and west of here the country is watered by the vast Okavango Delta: 15,000 square kilometres of channels, oxbow lakes, flood plains and islands. Zimbabwe has well-maintained, lightly used roads which, combined with its relatively small size, make it a perfect country to tour by car. Otherwise, you'll find an inexpensive network of buses, trains and planes, with easy access from neighbouring South Africa or on to Botswana. Neither Zimbabwe nor Botswana is overrun by tourists, but in the last ten years Zimbabwe has developed a growing tourism infrastructure with good-quality accommodation for all budgets, ranging from well-run backpackers' lodges and self- catering cottages to bed and breakfasts and topnotch safari camps. There are also rewarding opportunities for staying with African families in villages. Good budget transport exists from South Africa and Victoria Falls to Maun, the launch pad for the spectacular Okavango Delta, as well as to Kasane, on the edge of Chobe Game Park.
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