Going, going Gonarezhou

For tour guide George van Deventer of Trans Africa Self Drive Adventures and Tours, Zimbabwe is one of the most beautiful countries in southern Africa. He shares his recent adventure to Gonarezhou, the southernmost national park.

Zimbabwe, a landlocked county that borders South Africa, is rich in resources and spectacular landscapes, and it has magnificent wildlife parks, game management areas and plenty of hidden gems waiting to be found and explored. Despite political turmoil and more than enough negative propaganda, it remains a very rewarding travel destination. Our journey starts at Pafuri Rivercamp, a rustic secluded bush camp along the banks of the Mutale River, a tributary of the Limpopo River. This camp borders both the Kruger National Park’s Pafuri Gate and the Makuya Nature Reserve, so it’s the ideal starting point if you aim to reach Gonarezhou via Mozambique, after going through the Pafuri border post. The alternative route is via Beitbridge border post, which is always far busier, so for us that is only an option if the Limpopo River is in flood.

Slip and slide

After completing the border formalities, we make our way to the Limpopo River crossing which is about 1.5km from the border post. This crossing can at times be tricky due to the high and steep river banks on both sides. Usually from the third vehicle onwards it gets harder and harder to get up the steep bank, as each successive vehicle drops more water on the slope, turning it into a 4×4 “slip and slide”. Once on the other side, you make your way towards the Zimbabwe/Mozambique borderline road that takes you to the Sango border post. This 4×4 road is often washed away and takes a good five to six hours to complete. Please don’t pull off this road or go into the bush – this part of Mozambique was heavily mined during the civil war and although it’s been demined since then, you never know if they have missed a “sleeper” that could be waiting for you. Better to be safe than sorry!

The border crossing into Zimbabwe is quick and easy because this is not a commercial border post. Make sure your vehicle has the regulation white and red honeycomb reflective tape – this comprises two small white rectangular strips on the left and right sides of the front bumper, as well as two small red square strips on the left and right sides of the rear bumper.

If towing a trailer or caravan, you also require a red square on the left and right sides. Apart from this, you’ll also need two metal-backed warning triangles and a ZA sticker on the back of the vehicle. A trailer or caravan must also display a white T-sign on the front right side, and a red T-sign on the rear right side.

It’s not cheap to enter Zimbabwe, and you will need to pay the various fees and taxes in US dollars.

• Gate pass: $10

• Road Access Fee (Road toll fees): $10 for 30 days

• Third Party Insurance: $30 (vehicle) and $10 (trailer) for 30 days

• Carbon tax (applicable to foreign registered vehicles): $8.00 for 30 days

Gonarezhou – Place of Elephants

Once in Zimbabwe you only have to negotiate a 40km stretch of fairly wellkept dirt road to Mabalauta Rest Camp in Gonarezhou. The park’s name means “sacred place of the elephants” or the “horn of the elephant” as local herbalists stored their dried plants inside elephant tusks.

Probably one of the most underrated national parks, this 5 000 square kilometre stretch of pristine wilderness borders Mozambique’s Limpopo National Park and South Africa’s Kruger National Park, forming the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park – a vast area of more than 100 000 square kilometres.

Gonarezhou, which is Zimbabwe’s second-largest park after Hwange, was established in 1934 as a game reserve and proclaimed as a national park in 1975. Theoretically, all of the Big Five are present, apart from rhino, which are thought to be extinct in the park. There are plans to relocate some rhino to establish a new population. Animals in general tend to be quite skittish here, and densities are still recovering from years of poaching. You might however see large herds of elephant and buffalo, as well as a good variety of antelope – including the less common nyala, roan and sable antelope.

Large parts of the park are covered in endless tracts of leadwood and mopane woodland, protecting beautiful spreads of mahoganies, ironwoods and tall acacia albida trees. The baobabs are currently under threat of extinction due to the dense elephant populations that feed on them, but the park management are doing their best to protect these old giants. Some of the methods they use include wrapping the trunks with wire mesh and surrounding the trees with sharp stones. The Save River forms the northern boundary of the park, with the Runde River intersecting the Save just outside its boundary. The Mwenezi River flows along the south of the park, just before it intersects the Limpopo River in Mozambique.

Mabalauta magic

The park offers a variety of accommodation options, from remote wilderness campsites with no facilities, to the comfort of the chalets at Swimuwini Rest Camp. Our first night in the park is always at Mabalauta Rest Camp, a name derived from a hardwood tree species common in the region. The Mabalauta section of the so-called Mwenezi sub-region also includes the Swimuwini Rest Camp, or “the place of the baobabs” as it is referred to . This camp is situated eight kilometres from the warden’s office and overlooks the Mwenezi River.

Mabaulata is one of the three developed campsites in the park and offers multiple spacious, well-kept sites under big shady trees that boast running water, a braai area and access to shared ablution blocks with hot water and flushing toilets. Situated on the banks of the Mwenezi River, the camp has a special ambience, perfect for the first night of any adventure. There are usually lots of impala and nyala around you, though baboons can sometimes be a bit of a problem. You should never forget that you are in Big Five country, and that all camps are unfenced, with animals wandering through. Although fishing is allowed at designated spots and campsites in the park with the necessary permits, it’s not allowed at Mabalauta. The main roads around Mabalauta and the track down to the Chilojo Cliffs are accessible for 4×2 vehicles, but for travellers who want to venture a bit further off the beaten path, a 4×4 vehicle is required. The game viewing around Mabalauta is superb and you don’t need to venture far from camp to see most of the wildlife this area has to offer, which comprises lion, elephant, leopard, cheetah, the rare king cheetah, buffalo, giraffe, zebra and many species of antelope, including the rare suni. The suni (Neotragus moschatus) is a very small antelope that is found in the southeast of Africa. Adult sunis weigh on average 3kg and reach a height of about 40cm. The colour of the slender buck varies from gray to reddish brown, with a white chin and throat and is found mainly in areas with dense shrubs. The endangered African wild dog is also spotted from time to time and birdwatchers can look forward to over 400 species of birds in the park.

Chilojo Cliffs

After a day or two at Mabalauta it was time to make our way north towards Chilojo Cliffs and the campsite opposite, using the transit road via Malugwe Pan and the Chilogo Hills. Despite there being water in the pans and streams, and much evidence of spoor and droppings, the area was completely devoid of game. We only saw five elephants and three giraffes on this 100km stretch of road, indicating a trend in the area for most animals to move at night. This might well be the aftermath of the heavy poaching before March 2017 when management of the park was handed over to the Gonarezhou Conservation Trust. This is a co-management partnership between Zimbabwe Parks, Wildlife Management Authority, and the Frankfurt Zoological Society. Between them, these organisations have done extraordinary work and poaching has been reduced by more than 80%.

There are a few water crossings before reaching the Chilojo Cliffs campsite, of which the Runde River crossing is the deepest and longest. The path through the river is well lined with big boulders, though the last part can be tricky with large submerged rocks to get over. Once through the river you are almost home free, and can enjoy the last 7km to camp – probably the most spectacular in the park. It winds between ancient baobabs and huge leadwood trees, with lots of ellies and other wildlife roaming about. The magnificent Chilojo Cliffs dominate your view to the right, towering up to 180m above the Runde River. No description or photo can ever do justice to the beauty of these layered sandstone cliffs, which remain one of the signature attractions of the park.

This Chilojo Cliffs campsite is an exclusive area where you camp in complete privacy, with just a long-drop toilet and braai area giving you an authentic wild bush experience. You need to bring your own water and ensure you are completely self-sufficient. The campsite is unfenced, and we’ve had lion, leopard and elephant wandering through our camp on previous visits. So, it’s wise not to move around at night as the bush surrounding the camp is dense and provides ample cover for any predators that could be in the area. Our three days based in Chilojo felt too short as there is much to see and do from here. A drive to the top of the opposite cliffs is a definite must: the views over the Runde River and valley below will blow you away. You will forever think back to this place and the spectacle that unfolds before your eyes. An hour here feels like mere seconds, and, in the end, you’ll have to tear yourself away to get back to camp. This is an ideal spot for a bush brekkie and always a highlight on our tour programme.

Chipinda Pools

Leaving a piece of our hearts at Chilojo, we made our way towards Chipinda Pools, another developed campsite in the north-western part of the park. There are nine sites in this camp, all on the bank of the Runde River.

Each site comprises an open-sided thatched shelter with cement table and chairs, a braai area and a water tap (not safe to drink). The ablution facilities have hot showers. The 35km to Chipinda takes you past Lundi Gorge, Runde River Falls and Chivilila Gorge. All are worth stopping at and one could plan to have lunch at one of them. Wildlife viewing on this stretch is much better than on the road from Mabalauta to Chilojo. Once at Chipinda, be on the lookout for the resident ellie, who we named ‘Broken Leg’ or ‘the washing inspector’. This old elephant bull with his healed broken back leg is quite likely to give you a scare, though in fact he is a friendly, but curious fellow.

The bush nightlife here is amazing. We heard hippos snorting in stereo, hyena scavenging around camp, impala rams making their fearsome rutting sound and elephant feasting on nearby trees, with a lion roaring from time to time. This is also one of the camps where fishing is permitted, though be sure to obtain a fishing licence for every day that you intend to fish. A maximum of two rods per licence and a bag limit of six fish per day is allowed. Fishing is only allowed for 150m on either side of the specific campsite for which you have booked, and not from picnic sites or any other day visitor site. The park encourages catch-andrelease of all fish caught, especially of predator species such as tiger fish. You are not allowed to take any fish out of the park.

The Wrap

You can never have enough days in Gonarezhou. This is truly a wilderness destination, completely off the beaten track. We did not see any other vehicles or people the entire time we were camping there. That said, it is not a cheap park and all payments are made in US dollars, so you can expect to budget roughly R500 per person per day. This is offset by the spectacular wildlife, and the many scenic places worth exploring in the park. The roads vary from decent gravel to serious 4×4 tracks depending on where you drive. Wildlife viewing is most rewarding during the dry season from April to October, when the rains have ended and the vegetation has thinned out. During the more humid wet season from November to March, animals are harder to find.

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