Journeying by Train into Hwange National Park

Written by Megan Gilbert

Nothing could hinder our excitement as the train neared the great Hwange National Park. We had been traveling from Pretoria to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, and a game drive in Hwange promised to be one of the most exciting highlights of the journey.

There’s nothing like the experience of whisking through a national park, glimpsing some of Africa’s most stunning wildlife by train; it’s an experience so unique that it’s reminiscent of another time.

From the observation deck of the train as it entered Hwange, we spotted wildebeest, giraffe, impala, zebra, and in one stretch, a pod of hippos tucked beneath the water of a murky, green pond.

Once the train reached a halt, my husband and I boarded a game vehicle excitedly for a game drive into Hwange.

The sky was so blue and stretched far above our long, winding track.

On one end, we could see the beautiful green line of the Rovos Rail waiting for us, parting the game reserve with one of the longest stretches of rail line in the world at 174km.

On the other side, the great Hwange National Park, 14,650 square kilometers and the size of Belgium, stretched on before us beneath a soft pink sky dotted with clouds.

Hwange is remarkable for its vastness and incredible population of wildlife. Around 45,000 elephants freely roam the Park, along with 10,000 buffalo, 700 lions, and the highest population of wild dogs in Africa.

In winter, the Hwange bush is dry, making for excellent game viewing.

As our game vehicle headed into the reserve, the wispy ends of grass shone in the golden light. Steenbok with their brilliant large eyes, ears, and small horns, darted between the grass, almost indistinguishable from the bush except for a pair of beautiful, large eyes watching us from a distance.

Our game vehicle approached a watering hole, and we spotted a hippo out of the water on the right, foraging in the cool of afternoon. Hippos mainly leave the water at night to avoid the harsh sun on their skin.

In front of us, two bull elephants drank directly from the pump refilling the watering hole. The two bulls watched us, while they dipped their trunks in and out of the blue water. A Southern, yellow-billed hornbill darted on the ground amongst them, looking for seeds in their waste, a natural “cleaner” of the bush.

For another couple on the game drive, this was their first-time seeing elephants in the wild. The experience is nothing short of magic.

As we traced tracks in the sandy paths of Hwange, the sun began to fade into a creamy orange smudge on the horizon, painting everything in the bush a brilliant gold hue.

At that last golden hour, brilliant lilac-breasted rollers rested on top of trees, spectacular in their array of almost-impossible colors.

Young baboons climbing trees to find rest for the night became silhouetted; the edges of their fur reflected gold light.

As the temperature dipped and the sun began to set brilliantly on the horizon, we made our way to a shady grove beside a wide, open field for sundowners.

Camping chairs had been set up circling campfires beneath the boughs of acacia and camelthorn trees. A spread of biltong, braai kebabs, samosas, and other local snacks awaited us. Good news, one of the sommeliers on the train, mixed cocktails, shandies, and poured Aperol Spritzes.

Other guests arrived from their game drives, chatting excitedly around the campfire, clinking glasses, and laughing with the freedom of being on holiday. Many of them talked about the thrill of seeing lions for the first time.

From the edge of the field, my husband and I had a wide view of the sunset, as we watched warthogs dart around in the bush, and listened for the beginning of night in Hwange. Dry yellow grass darkened in the sun, and long black shadows spread out across a dry landscape. Hyenas called to each other, bats made wide arcs against the pink sky, and antelopes searched for each other in the dimming light.

Hwange National Park hadn’t been our first safari, and it wouldn’t be our last, but this experience of magic in the bush is one of our most memorable in all of Africa.

Megan Gilbert traveled with the Rovos Rail from Pretoria, South Africa to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. She is a travel writer, photographer, and a full-time traveler. Since she married in January 2023, she and her husband have visited eleven countries together. They can usually be found in Southeast Asia or driving around southern Africa in their 4×4. You can follow their adventure @meganthetravelingwriter and read more of Megan’s writing at meganthetravelingwriter.com

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