I went along to the planning meeting anyway. Why would I want to camp in a dome tent for 7 days, in a game reserve that has seen better days, where the facilities are rudimentary at best, in Zimbabwe, a country that has more than a few PR problems ? It will be fun, they said, cooking breakfast in the bush, lazing by the river, terrific sunsets, identifying birds that you can only see there, the staggering views.
So six of us, in three 4 X 4 vehicles equipped with all-terrain tyres and full safety gear, with refrigeration facilities for the food and rubber tyre mats for getting out of river beds, we set off on the 500 km drive through the northern part of the Kruger Park, through the fever forest and across the Limpopo into Mozambique. This mighty “river” was wet in places, lots of loose sand, but thankfully not in full flood. “We’ll take the short cut to Gonarazhou”, our self-appointed tour guide announced. “We won’t have to struggle with delays and officialdom at the main border”. I did know that Beit Bridge is probably the busiest and most chaotic border post in Africa and best avoided so all I could do was nod.
I really didn’t want to go. The route chosen was a challenging one, 60km along a dirt track parallel to the Zimbabwe border, it’s not formal enough to be shown on any maps! Then for the second time in one day, we had to deal with another encounter with African-style border facilities, the usual set-up, 35 deg C and no air-conditioning in the shed. We entered Zimbabwe and went north to enter the game-reserve-less-visited, Southern Gonarazhou. After 10 hours on the road, despite frazzled nerves and some expletives, we managed to set up camp before it got dark.
It’s Tuesday, I’m here and there is no way I can go home. We are the only people here except for the man on the gate. Deciding to make the best of it, I stood in camp, half-naked under the nearest tree, using our Heath-Robinson shower affair constructed from a high-class black plastic sack and a garden sprinkler. The sun was shining, the drinks were cold and I have to say it got better every day from then. By Thursday, I was more relaxed and was open to most suggestions and I even had a quick dip in the fast-flowing stream whilst keeping an evil eye out for stray hippos.
Getting to Northern Gonarazhou entails leaving the reserve and cutting across tribal lands and re-entering from the north. I had been told that this section was more developed and has more annual visitors and that the facilities lean towards the more luxurious. I can tell you that this term is relative, I could not make a favourable comparison with any known game reserve in Southern Africa. Despite the offer of a place in Chipinda Pools campsite, our intrepid leader decided that we would camp in a wilderness area, near a very scenic pan called Machinawa. There is an “undeveloped camping site” in this area, which you rent for a reasonable fee, this consists of a pile of wood and any flat piece of ground that may look inviting. The Gonarazhou brochure says that it is one of the last parks in Africa that you can still enjoy an African camping safari as it was 100 years ago. They are not wrong.
Don’t be put off by my carping, it is a truly magnificent place. A highlight is the view over the Runde River from the top of the sandstone Chilojo Cliffs. Below in the valley along the river bed you can see herds of nyala and the smaller suni antelope and of course, many of the 7000 elephants in the park. I just loved the hundreds of magnificent baobab trees, they look like they have been uprooted and turned on their heads. The elephants rub up against the bark and strip it off to eat so the trunks of the trees are rough and pale yellow.
As it wasn’t really an option for me to decline to join the group on this outing, I went reluctantly but with an open mind. Sometimes a person needs that little push. I left the park feeling that I had experienced something special.