A contemporary safari camp in an iconic African landscape, Linkwasha sits on the edge of the renowned Ngamo Plains of Hwange, Zimbabwe’s largest national park. A staggering 5 657 square miles of diverse habitat, Kalahari sands seeping into teak woodlands and golden savannah grasslands, Hwange serves up some of the best game viewing on Earth, year-round but especially rewarding during the dry season. Linkwasha has access to the exclusive-use Makalolo and Linkwasha concessions, incorporating the Plains, dotted with vleis and ilala palms and home to an ever-changing wildlife parade.
Potential Linkwasha highlights: in winter, particularly, welcoming uncountable numbers of dust-kicking buffalo and many of the park’s 40 000 majestic elephant at a waterhole, perhaps from a walking safari, or spying from a hide; following the herds, and predators in their wake, on a day game drive, and at night searching for the more elusive pangolin, caracal, lesser bushbaby, or honey badger; sleeping out in a Star Bed, secured in a tree, blanketed by the sky as the night’s creatures roam below (a guide sleeps nearby); toasting the day, and each other, to sensational blood-orange sunsets or dramatic summer thunderstorms, sound and light shows flashing across the plains.
Nine elegant tents, coloured the neutral tones of the environment in their contemporary but timeless décor, nestle under ordeal and leadwood trees, fronting a waterhole where the wildlife spectacle perpetually amazes and entertains. On many evenings, you’ll be joined for dinner – perhaps just drinks – as the local elephants siphon their fill from the pool, then rumble off into the darkness…just as the stars come out.
We recently spoke to Joe Hanly, Linkwasha Camp Manager, about why he’s loved being here for the last five years and what the camp has to offer…
What are the highlights of a stay at Linkwasha for your guests?
Linkwasha is set in the game-rich south-eastern corner of Hwange National Park, surrounded by 523 square kilometres of private concession. The concession is home to large herds of elephant and various plains game, including roan and sable antelope. A thriving lion population, with at least two established prides, roams the wide-open plains, also home to cheetah and painted dog. With solar-pumped waterholes sustaining the wildlife population, dry-season game viewing around the concession’s 15 water sources is mind-blowing.
At Linkwasha, panoramic views of the plains allow guests to feel immersed in the bush, as a steady stream of elephant, buffalo, wildebeest, zebra, sable, eland, and other game make their way past the ground-level rooms to the busy waterhole in front of the main area. Game drives with our six experienced guides are fun and educational, tailored to guests’ interests. The guides’ world-class training and wealth of knowledge ensure that our guests discover the wonder of Hwange’s wilderness spectacle.
Walking safaris allow guests to learn about the smaller details that they may not stop for on a game drive, and there is nothing more exhilarating than seeing big game with the African soil underfoot. The Star Bed is an unbelievable experience, allowing guests to enjoy the splendour of the African sky from a raised platform overlooking a popular waterhole.
What do YOU most love about Linkwasha?
Linkwasha brings your senses alive. Gazing into the vast openness, or reaching for some binoculars, one can always spot life. A quick scan of the area, and inevitably you’ll see something resting in the shade nearby or making its way towards camp. There is always something to see, to watch. Even at night, when the unmistakable shapes of elephant en route to the waterhole, moving through camp just a few metres from the campfire, bring conversation to a whisper. Dinners at the pool are often interrupted by the splash of trunks plunging into the fresh water, sloshing as they fill before their owners turn and wander off back into the darkness.
Only the elephants’ scent and the sound of them feeding remind us that they are still there, just out of sight. The sounds, especially at night, travel effortlessly across the open vlei; every rumble seems closer than it might actually be. While the waterhole provides the stage, the cast and its chorus change nightly. It could be the elands’ peculiar clicking step, or the heavy hooves of hundreds of buffalo, bumping and barging, bellowing, and horns clattering, as they too make their way to the Linkwasha waterhole. Is it the chomping jaws of a hippo grazing in the shallow water, or elephants trudging through the pond? Is the elephant calf having a tantrum, or is its life in danger? Sitting around the campfire on a clear, starlit night, the cacophony of sounds stokes the imagination – but the lion’s call through the darkness is always the star of the show.
What makes Hwange National Park special?
Hwange is home to some of southern Africa’s last great elephant, buffalo, and sable herds and plays an important role in a network of southern African conservation areas. Making up 3.6% of the entire park, Wilderness Safaris’ private concession offers exceptional year-round game viewing. Game count statistics from the past eight years indicate that significant numbers of Hwange’s game – 32% of the park’s elephant population, 31% of buffalo, and 85% of wildebeest – can be found in our concession in the dry season. During that period, the resilience of Hwange’s wildlife is tested to the limit. As there are no perennial rivers in the southern part of the park, wildlife must rely on the rain water collected in natural pans during the short rainy season, November to March. Since 1935, these pans have been subsidised by diesel pumps, extracting water from underground aquifers to ensure that the animals have a year-round resource.
Fifteen pumps within our concession, of which eight are now solar, are maintained daily to provide a vital water supply to wildlife. From early April, the pumping season gets into full swing with the pumps running continuously until the end of November or sometimes into December, when the summer rains arrive. The pumps each provide about 70 000 litres of water in 24 hours, barely enough to meet the elephant demand.
What are some of the key bird species that guests can expect to see?
More than 400 bird species have been recorded in the park. The best time for birding is after the migrants start flocking back, usually around the end of August. Once the rains start, though, the real birding spectacle begins. Food is abundant, and hundreds of raptors swirl through the sky above, including an array of eagles, buzzards, falcons, and kites. It is incredible to witness a brilliant blue sky filled with raptors, flocks of storks dotted across a lush carpet of green grass, and bursts of iridescent colour from the bee-eaters and rollers that dive off tree stumps and branches, hawking insects in a remarkable display of speed and vision.
How does the Hwange experience compare to/differ from that of Mana Pools – and why would you recommend that guests visit both places while travelling with WS?
While Hwange is mainly Kalahari sands, flat, wide-open vistas encompassed by Zambezi teak woodlands, and natural waterholes subsidised by pumped water from the ground aquifers, Mana Pools lies along the lower stretch of the Zambezi River. With the backdrop of the escarpment, coupled with floodplains along the river, the riverine vegetation and forests provide some of Africa’s most iconic wildlife scenes. The game is rich in both areas, though in Mana Pools you can take your game viewing to the river and watch from the boat. Experiencing Africa on foot, while possible in both areas, is more iconic in Mana Pools.
What’s your favourite time of day in camp and why?
At Linkwasha, the best times of day are the early morning and the late afternoon. The waterhole in front of camp is beautifully lit and any game in front of camp is swathed in the most flattering light. Also, it’s always exciting to see what has been happening during the night, through the evidential tracks left behind by their activity. Hyaena, lion, and leopard might be some of the more obvious tracks, but porcupine, civet and honey badger are not uncommon either. As the sun begins to drop, in the later part of the day, the waterhole becomes increasingly busy. It’s also the perfect time to hop into the sunken hide. The sun sets directly in front of camp, so guests can enjoy their sundowners, if they wish, without going further afield.
These projects have become more viable due to interest and support from Linkwasha’s and other Wilderness Safaris guests – at least before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The village visits are hugely popular with guests, who get to experience normal life in Zimbabwe, to meet with the village headman and visit one of the homesteads. They may also visit the school nearby, where they can see the work CITW and all its donors have been doing over the last 20 years to uplift the communities we work with.
Tell us about the Olympus photography experience at Linkwasha.
Guests have access to two Olympus kits to use during their stay at Linkwasha. The kits have a full range of lenses, and the innovative technology of Olympus cameras, to ensure that any incredible moments are captured perfectly. Both pros and novices are able to develop their photography skills in the best possible environment, with the ultimate models and scenery, and with the help of guides and managers who have been trained to use the Olympus system.
The sunken hide is the perfect location for a brief lesson, as you can learn and shoot without any pressure of moving on to a different sighting. The animals come so close that you can really put your creative instincts to the test, while also enjoying the unbelievable experience of observing the details of their social interactions, their movement, their textures or coat, and their gaze.
With tripods and wide-angle lenses, on star-filled nights guests can also have a lesson in astrophotography, to capture the splendour of the African night sky. On leaving camp, guests will return the camera kit, but leave with the SD card and all their amazing photographs. A voucher card from Olympus also allows them discounts on Olympus products bought through the website, a percentage of which goes towards the communities around Linkwasha.
What items are essential for guests to bring while on safari there?
Guests travelling over the winter months would definitely be wise to bring good winter gear, including gloves, scarves, and hats to keep them warm while the sun is down. It’s essential to pack warm gear and not to underestimate how cold the morning and evening drives can be. While there are binoculars in camp and on each vehicle, it is also quite handy to have your own pair.
While smartphones have cameras, and pretty good ones these days, they may leave you regretting not investing in a proper camera. Not all sightings are close enough to record without being able to zoom. It is worth investing in a digital camera with a good optical zoom, or to take a look at the Olympus gear which offers amazing discounts to our guests. A sun hat and sun cream are also essential for every guest.
Tell us about the camp’s underground hide – why is it so special?
The hide offers a unique, ground-level perspective on any bird or animal that comes to the waterhole to drink. There is nothing more memorable than an elephant drinking within touching distance, or the intimate access you get as you watch the young calves splash and play in the water, with the rest of the herd keeping a gentle eye on them. There is no better way to capture their interactions on camera. The hide is well appointed, with two day beds, a mini-bar packed with drinks, tea, and coffee, charging points, camera rests, and fans. Best of all, it is quiet and supremely peaceful, and when the animals come you don’t want to leave.
What are your favourite areas to visit around the concession and why? Which spots are guests’ favourites? Which places are best for sundowners?
Backpans, a five-minute drive from camp, has the most incredible sunsets – looking out over a waterhole, with a vast, open area scattered with palm trees that become silhouettes in the setting sun. Scott’s Pan has the Star Bed, and is a hive of activity in the dry season. From all directions, elephant herds march to the water in front of the Star Bed, providing the perfect vantage point to witness the 360-degree scene. Roan and sable antelope, and occasionally gemsbok frequent this waterhole, a short drive from camp. In the rainy season, the Ngamo Plains are very busy with lots of new life, colour, and energy.
Please talk about the décor/design at Linkwasha, as well as the dining experience/menu.
Nine luxurious tents offer an eclectic mix of contemporary interiors and Ndebele culture. The walls of Linkwasha are painted in a fresh Ndebele pattern, similar to the homes in the nearby communities, often decorated in light pinks, yellows, and browns. The vibrant Ndebele pattern also appears in the handmade, embroidered cushions, which add a colourful touch to the natural hues, and locally sourced baskets enhance the furnishings in the bar area.
The food offering is healthy and fresh, catering to all dietary needs. On safari you tend to eat quite frequently, so we have a team of chefs to keep everyone healthy and happy. On nights that we serve a traditional menu, we serve fire-roasted bread, spicy corn soup, sadza (a staple starch), sugar beans, braised meat (including prime Zimbabwean beef with a local relish), and, for dessert, Amarula chocolate mousse.
And your favourite season there? Please give us a sense of the difference between the seasons, in terms of landscape, weather, wildlife sightings etc.
It’s a magical time in the bush when the rain finally comes, transforming months of struggle into renewed health and energy. The rainy season in Hwange is full of life and vibrant colour. The Ngamo Plains transform from a dust bowl to a lush pasture, home to large herds of wildebeest, zebra, eland, and impala. The animals finally get a break from the unrelenting heat, from the exhaustion of finding little nutritious food and having to walk long distances to find water. The waterholes during the dry season swarm with game; elephant dominate the pans. There can be lots of aggression between individuals and between species. Predators, lions in particular, exploit the situation by lying in wait to take down the weakest individuals. Stressed, exhausted, and desperately thirsty, the game show little resistance.
When the rain comes, the relief is palpable. At the peak of the dry season in October, the vegetation is exceptionally dry and sparse, the Kalahari sand glints in the extreme heat – often at least 43°C. The temperature drops at night, though, so during the day the pool is very popular. The winter months, from May to August, are much cooler, though also dry. Temperatures in the winter range from 2°C or 3°C most days to 23°C in the middle of the day. The rainy season sees the complete rejuvenation of vegetation across the landscape. The fossilised river systems, now the plains, are often completely waterlogged by February, much to the delight of the water birds that appear in the summer.
While the dry months are characterised by hundreds of elephant visiting a waterhole each day, as well as large herds of plains game, the wet season sees this game spread out a bit more. Surface water remaining from the rain means that they do not need to concentrate around a waterhole, and the replenished vegetation means there is ample food around. Herds of wildebeest, zebra, and impala gather in the summer at the renowned Ngamo Plains, close to Linkwasha, in preparation for calving season. With game all over this expansive space, raptors flocking in the sky and storks and egrets patrolling the plains, the scene is quite incredible.
What kind of community and conservation work is WS doing and supporting in the Linkwasha/Hwange area? That you are involved in?
The Scorpion Anti-Poaching Unit (SAPU), which works in partnership with the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZPWMA) and Wilderness Safaris in Hwange, provides manpower and resources to remove snares and arrest poachers along the boundary regions of the park. Wilderness Safaris has been directly supporting SAPU since 2012, taking over all its operations in 2015. To date in 2020, the team has covered 1 819 km on foot, while 96 vehicle patrols covered more than 2 662 km, removing a total of 151 snares. Since its inception, SAPU has removed 2 546 snares during 1 690 patrols. Their anti-poaching operations remove fewer and fewer snares each year – demonstrating improvements in local conditions, effective educational efforts, and a successful partnership with the neighbouring communities that border the park.
Wilderness Safaris’ non-profit partner, Children in the Wilderness (CITW), and many other donors work closely with the schools and communities that lie on Hwange’s borders, providing everything from classrooms, clinics, and libraries to stationery and equipment. CITW for the area is based at Linkwasha, so we provide most of the logistical and operational support for many of their projects. Teacher training, and establishing and supporting community initiatives, are also part of this uplifting programme, along with material provisions, Eco-Club conservation lessons, and a nutritional programme providing each child with a meal every school day at five schools bordering the park. While education is at the heart of the partnership, providing a sustainable, long-term future for the whole community has become equally important.
Many of the people living in the communities are unemployed, with only limited job prospects available in the tourism sector. Linkwasha currently provides employment to 42 people from local communities, but many more community residents have benefited from their engagement in local projects, initiated by CITW, such as basket making, glass recycling, and sewing clubs.
What makes you most proud of the camp, and working there?
We have a dedicated team of staff, all focused on ensuring the guests have the most incredible time at Linkwasha. The staff come from diverse backgrounds, which we take great pride in and celebrate, as we are all proud Zimbabweans. We celebrate Zimbabwean culture at least one night a week, when we offer guests local cuisine, and many staff dress in traditional attire, sharing cultural stories around the campfire.
From managers, to guides, to waiters, chefs, housekeepers, and maintenance staff, we are all committed to providing the best possible experience. The quiet times of year are used to refresh our staff on annual wine and dining service training, team building workshops, and guide and chef training. These sessions are often run by external experts in their field, so that our staff can continue to strive for excellence, and we can ensure a polished service to our guests – so that their life-changing journeys are filled with lifelong memories.
Written by Melissa Siebert
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