Tucked away in the southeast of Zimbabwe is a game reserve called Gonarezhou National Park. This wild gem is a transfrontier park that shares borders with Mozambique and South Africa. Being remote and a bit out of the way from Zimbabwe’s other main attractions, it probably doesn’t get as many visitors as it deserves. If one skips it on a trip to this country, it is a sad omission because the park has a lot to offer.
On a recent tour, we ended our trip with a visit to Gonarezhou. The tour guide told us that many people are afraid to explore new parks in an African country because they don’t know the conditions, or whether it would be safe to drive alone. He believes in taking short tours to the parks to show people that it is possible and to encourage them to feel confident enough to go on their own, or with one other vehicle.
We were grateful to be shown the park because we had always thought that it wouldn’t be possible to do it alone and we now know that we definitely can do it solo. For birders, like ourselves, going alone gives us the opportunity to spend as much time as we like watching birds without having to bore fellow travellers who perhaps aren’t as enthusiastic about them as we are. Having your own time frame and agenda is very liberating and makes the trip so enjoyable. I’m not denigrating company; some of our best trips have been with family and friends, but we know how painful it must be for them to sit for hours while we watch birds.
We left Masvingo, where we had visited the Great Zimbabwe Ruins, and made our way across to Gonarezhou, which was only a few hours’ drive away. The roads on our route were very good, and we passed many colourful towns and villages along the way. We arrived at the park entrance and Reception in the early afternoon, where we stocked up on firewood before making our way to our first campsite, the Chilojo Cliffs campsite. Our site, situated perfectly on the banks of the Runde River, was big enough to take four vehicles and one caravan.
Before I go any further, I must say that the campsites in Zimbabwe are not cheap and Gonarezhou is no exception. The sites are priced according to their popularity and not facilities, and we had to pay well over US$100 for a campsite with nothing more than a wooden long-drop as a toilet. No water, electricity or braai pit. What also hurts is that they charge for six people regardless of whether only two campers occupy the site. This is only forgivable because of its situation, which is priceless, and the Zimbabwean Parks Board is milking it to the extreme. We found the same at Mana Pools on the other side of the country. Campsites generally shouldn’t cost more than a hotel room at a decent hotel, so it does hurt, especially for South Africans with a dreadful exchange rate. It’s therefore better to go in a group so that you can split the cost between you to make it more affordable.
The campsite gets its name from the iconic Chilojo Cliffs that stand majestically across the river. These sandstone cliffs not only are beautiful to look at, but at sundown when the sun hits them, they turn a bright golden colour. It is the most amazing sight, made even more beautiful when elephants wander down to the water below, and the cliffs form a golden backdrop to the scene. All thoughts of expensive campsites are lost, and one just stands and marvels and the spectacle below.
The next day we took a drive to a viewpoint above the Chilojo Cliffs, where we could see the African bushveld stretching out forever below us. The hillside was dotted with baobab trees ,and we could even make out our campsite in the distance across the river.
To get to the viewpoint, we had to cross the River Runde. As the road was submerged, we only had a barrier of rocks to guide us across. One doesn’t want to stray too far over, as a wheel positioned in the wrong place could end in disaster. To make it more exciting, the river is inhabited by crocodiles and hippos, so doing a vehicle recovery is not an option, or at best, it is a very dangerous option.
Our second campsite was at Chipinda Pools, further along the river and closer to the entrance to the park. It was cheaper as it didn’t have the amazing cliff views, and we had very nice ablution facilities. The birdlife around the campsites was abundant and we enjoyed spending time photographing them and updating our birdlist. From this campsite, the sunsets were just as spectacular as at Chilojo Cliffs, as here we had the painted sky silhouetting a giant baobab tree. It was a typical African sunset.
The park is home to the Big Five and lots of antelope and other animals, but you won’t find them under every bush. You will have to look long and hard to fine them, which is also one of the drawcards as it feels less like a zoo than a wilderness area when you have to really search for the animals. It actually doubles the gratitude and pleasure when you do come across the animals.
I can highly recommend this beautiful park that has so much more to offer than we were able to experience during our short stay. It is one of the very last wilderness areas in Africa, and one hopes that it will stay that way for many decades to come.