Gonarezhou – Place of Elephants
In September 2020 we travelled to Gonarezhou National Park, to see for ourselves why this is fast becoming one of Zimbabwe's favourite national parks. Below is a very brief summary of what we experienced.
Gonarezhou - Place of elephants
7 October 2020
Gonarezhou in the south-east Lowveld of Zimbabwe is a true wilderness area. Covering just over 5000 km2, it boasts some of the country's most spectacular scenery, including the iconic 180 metre high Chilojo cliffs and the wide meandering sandy riverbeds of the Runde and Save rivers.
The Iconic Chilojo Cliffs
Gonarezhou National Park (GNP) means the "Place of Elephants" and certainly lives up to its denotation with almost 11 000 of these magnificent animals residing there.
Elephants congregate in large numbers in Gonarezhou
GNP has sadly for many years been ravaged by humans, suffering initially in the 1960s and 1970s during the bush war of the then Rhodesia, but followed thereafter by many years of illegal hunting and poaching.
It was truly in danger of being destroyed forever until a new management partnership was entered into between the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZPWMA) and the Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS).
This partnership formed the Gonarezhou Trust. This innovative new model and alliance is responsible for the management of the park for 20 years. It became fully operational on 1st March 2017 and since then the park has seen radical improvement and the wildlife is recovering rapidly.
Gonarezhou has long been on our bucket list of game parks to visit but because we are spoilt with fantastic wildlife parks around our home town of Victoria Falls and the fact that it's quite trek to get there, we have kind of just never gotten around to it.
However, in September 2020, with a bit of extra time on our hands due to the Coronavirus pandemic, we headed off to the east of the country filled with excitement. September is the perfect time to go there, with temperatures not yet reaching the intolerable highs but with game viewing at its absolute best.
To be honest we didn't really know what to expect on any front but were totally blown away with firstly the absolute stunning beauty of the scenery, secondly the biodiversity of the flora and fauna and thirdly by the efficient management of the park.
Baobabs are plentiful in Gonarezhou
The parks oozes a sense of raw wilderness, admittedly because of the corona pandemic there are no international tourists around but still, we only fleetingly saw 2 other groups of vehicles. It felt as though we had this enormous wilderness all to ourselves.
The first 3 nights we spent at Fishans campsite, situated overlooking the Runde River and close to the Chilojo cliffs. On arrival at the campsite, we spotted 2 wild dogs trotting quickly across the sandy river bed, after quenching their thirst from the clean waters of the Runde River.
The campsites are exclusive and basic with nothing supplied except a shady tree and a long-drop toilet. Everything else, including water you need to have with you.
Fishans campsite - Gonarezhou
The Chilojo cliffs can only be described as spiritually evocative. Photographs, even the best I have seen, cannot fully capture their beauty and enormity. We felt mesmerized by their splendour and didn't want to leave.
Mesmerized by the splendour of the Chiljo Cliffs
Chilojo Cliffs in the late afternoon sunlight
Of surprise to us was the diversity of the soils and trees. We had not expected to see beautiful flood plains, reminiscent of Mana Pools. This area had received an early downpour of rains, about 2 weeks prior to our arrival and the absolutely dry and barren landscape had been transformed into carpets of short green grass, which the impala and others grazers were relishing.
It's not called the "Place of Elephants" for nothing. These ubiquitous animals adorned the landscape wherever you looked. They have a reputation of being quite cheeky down in Gona's, which is the result from generations of human harassment, and although the bulls were quite calm and relaxed the cows in the breeding herds lived up to their reputation. There were several quite tense occasions where we had to accelerate quickly to get away from an angry female, for seemingly no reason at all.
Elephants crossing the Runde river
At night we had lions calling very close to camp, on the opposite bank of the river. In the morning we managed to locate the pride, which had a beautiful big male, several females and some cubs.
The wide expanses of scenery seem to be vast. In every direction one looks there are several species of wildlife in the scene, peacefully going about their daily business. It's nature unfolding naturally in front of you.
Considerable work has been done to repair the roads and make them ready to handle the rainy season. However, one needs to get from one side of the Runde River to the other to access different sites. It's strictly 4x4 country as crossing these rivers is through water and soft sand riverbeds. We enjoyed these crossing immensely, taking time to have a quick swim and also to refill our water tanks. As the water levels rise with the onset of the rains, I can imagine that these crossings would become impassable.
Driving in the dry season
From Fishans, we moved further to the east and stayed at Pokwe campsite for another 3 nights. This area has two large natural pans named Machaniwa and Tembwehata. There was less grazing in this area, but the game was just as plentiful if not more than at Fishans, as they seemed to like to drink at the natural pans.
Tembwehata Pan with elephants on the far bank
The birdlife at Machaniwa was quite remarkable and we managed to notch up several new species for our bird list. The birding, on the whole, was fantastic and it's definitely is a bird-lovers paradise with many endemic species.
There is a limited range of accommodation options within the park and self-drive camping certainly offers the most options. As the park was almost devoid of tourists, we were able to stop in at all the various campsites along the way to see which ones are better than others.
From knowing nothing we feel we now have a comprehensive understanding of the options that this park has to offer, which is part and parcel of what we do when travelling around so that we can help and advise our clients on what best serves their interests from first-hand knowledge of a destination.
Our last night was spent at the more developed campsite of Chipinda Pools, which has ablution blocks, running water, a small thatched Gazebo and some cheeky hyenas. One such individual dragged off my kit bag in the middle of the night and enjoyed ripping up some of my clothes. Chipinda is close to the entrance of the park which then made it possible for us to drive back home to Victoria Falls in one day.
We were very sad to leave but felt very privileged to have done this trip, to see and learn more about this incredible park, a place that has become very special to us and where we will now definitely return to regularly.
Tony enjoying the view from the top of the Chilojo Cliffs