Otherworldly Gonarezhou National Park is one of the wildest, most beautiful parks in Zimbabwe, with its rich landscape of sandy terrain, woodland and sandstone cliffs stretching seemingly forever. What’s more, its lodges do some truly inspirational work for the community. Emma Gregg reports
’m thinking of writing a book called 101 Uses for Elephant Dung, or something like that,” says private safari guide Ant Kaschula, rattling off numbers one to eight while leading us through his supremely eco-friendly mobile camp. The path is springy, fragrant and pleasant underfoot. You can probably guess what it’s made of. To left and right, the bush looks as sandy as a swathe of coastal dunes. My head knows we’re a good 200 miles from the Indian Ocean but, with every step, my heart thinks: ‘Any moment, we’re going to see the sea’.
We emerge, not onto a beach, but onto the broad bank of the Runde River. The view is magnificent — an epic expanse of sand backed by woodland and the ochre ramparts of the Chilojo Cliffs. This is a stunning part of a beautiful national park, Zimbabwe’s second largest. Hwange may be bigger and better known, but for wild, scenic drama, Gonarezhou definitely trumps it. Its name roughly translates as the ‘place of many elephants’ but the vast herds here tend to treat people with disdain rather than indifference. Even the many antelope that graze the plains have a bold, daring look in their eyes. There’s a powerful sense that this is a region where animals, rather than people, prevail.
“We’ve had some extraordinary sightings while sitting right here,” says Ant, as we settle down to lunch under the jackalberry and wild mango trees that shade the camp. “We’ve watched cheetahs dash past after antelope. One night a leopard left her kill in one of these trees. I had to move it though. There were children around.”
Ant offers thrilling, grassroots walking safaris in which you choose what you’d like to do each day and nature sets the tempo. “Elsewhere in Africa, guides dream of the type of freedom we have here,” he says. “We’re not bound to timetables or to rules set by national park scouts. We can create our own adventures.”
Clive Stockil, the celebrated Zimbabwean guide who introduced me to Ant, smiles wistfully. He once ran a camp not far from this spot. It’s an area he’s loved exploring since childhood. Zimbabwe’s protracted tourism downturn has done Gonarezhou an injustice. The park gets busy with self-drivers during the local school holidays, but at other times it’s more or less deserted and revenue is thin. On our drive from Chilo Gorge, Clive’s superb safari lodge, we’ve seen only one other vehicle. But we’ve also seen mighty baobabs, feisty elephants, graceful antelope and a plethora of birds.
“Gonarezhou is rich in habitats, so the biodiversity is simply extraordinary,” says Clive. Now that fears of financial and political instability are ebbing away, he hopes it has a fresh chance to thrive.
This is my second visit to Gonarezhou in just over a year. On my first I was gripped by Clive’s life story. Fluent in Shangaan, he carved a niche as a community mediator. Under his guidance the residents of Mahenye, a village adjoining the park, created a sustainable framework for preserving animals rather than viewing them as a food source or a liability, long before others began doing the same. Clive’s dedication and vision earned him Tusk Trust’s first Prince William Award for Conservation in Africa.
That visit left me wanting to return — not only to see more but also to know how the next chapter would unfold. When I do, good news comes thick and fast. Over sundowners, under a blood-orange sky, I get the lowdown from Clive and his team. Mahenye has just secured EU funding to create a new conservancy, Jamanda Wilderness Area, which will extend the range of Gonarezhou’s wildlife by about 7000 hectares. “Elephants desperately need space,” says Clive, “and for them, this will be as enticing as a well-stocked supermarket.”
Gonarezhou is extremely remote, but its infrastructure is improving and its airstrip, Buffalo Range, is getting a facelift. You can already fly here from Johannesburg and, with rumours of additional flights from Victoria Falls, Clive hopes to create a safari circuit linking Chilo Gorge and its satellite bush camps with the Falls, Great Zimbabwe and coastal Mozambique. Falls, walls, bush and beach: it certainly has a ring to it.
The park’s workforce is also expanding. With support from The Frankfurt Zoological Society, 72 new rangers have been appointed, kitted out with bicycles and organised into anti-poaching patrols. Cycling seems to work. There’s only been one mishap so far, when an elephant charged. The man concerned promptly leapt off his cycle and hurled it at the advancing bull. “That did the trick,” says Clive, “but sadly the bike ended up pretty mangled.”
For those with deep pockets, there’s another way to safari in southeastern Zimbabwe. South African luxury ecotourism specialist Singita runs a lodge in Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve, a private wilderness adjoining Gonarezhou. I decide to extend my trip with a few days there. You know you’ve arrived somewhere special when you’re warmly invited for dinner on the helipad. “No rush,” says my host, manager Emily Capon. “We’re ready when you are.”
A few minutes later I’m ushered into a romantic, lantern-lit clearing that I’d never recognise as a place to park a chopper. Instead of the tang of fuel and the thunder of blades, there’s braai smoke on the breeze and magic in the air. Impeccably presented staff members glide forward with champagne. I’ve never been here before but everyone welcomes me by name. While I wait for the other guests to return from their late-afternoon drive, I chat to the chefs as they toss salads and stir sauces. So far, so impressive.
I’ve already been bowled over by my suite. Like a mini-Great Zimbabwe, it’s built of chevron-laid brick. Inside, it’s vast, with a private plunge pool on the deck, vintage maps in the living room and Shangaan-style murals and mosaics in the bathrooms. That’s bathrooms – plural. The effect is as opulent and distinctive as the average heli-safari guest might expect.
The next day, when dawn reveals the view, my jaw drops another notch. Unusually for a safari property, Singita Pamushana Lodge is perched on a hilltop. Far below, rocky outcrops and wooded slopes stretch away into the haze, framed by a huge sky and the glassy waters of Lake Malilangwe. At this time of day, the atmosphere on the hill is almost mystical. Dotted with ancient baobabs and rock art, Pamushana has been significant to the Shangaan people for generations. When it became private property, the owners had to consult local spiritual leaders before putting it to use, first as a cattle ranch and then as Zimbabwe’s most elegant eco-retreat.
The lodge is plush enough to please royalty and Hollywood stars — its past guests include King Juan Carlos of Spain, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones — but it doesn’t offer luxury just for the sake of it. This is a property whose raison d’être is to raise funds for The Malilangwe Trust, a non-profit community development and conservation organisation. Active since 1994 and backed by wealthy donors, the charity has real clout. Its successes to date include boosting local populations of key species such as rhino, Lichtenstein’s hartebeest, roan antelope, wild dog and hyena through translocation, captive breeding and research.
The trust also takes care of the reserve’s flora, turning a 53,000-hectare ranch into flourishing woodlands that positively glow in comparison with the deforested and overgrazed land beyond the park. We spend mornings and afternoons riding around in the most comfortable safari vehicles I’ve ever known, scanning the shade of baobabs, ironwoods and acacias for big cats. Birds seem to love this maze of trees, too: calls ring out from the canopy and colourful hornbills and rollers sweep from perch to perch.
Elephants appear often. As we watch a herd of females with tiny youngsters drinking from a lake, one adult trumpets in alarm. “Somebody’s not happy,” says our guide, Tengwe Siabwanda. “But I don’t think it’s us that’s bothering her. Maybe there’s something else around.” Our hawk-eyed tracker, Difficult Makumbe, gives a rapid signal. We lift our binos and, to our intense excitement, spot some wild dogs, skittering away along the shore with ears and noses alert.
One evening we spot a chopper hovering overhead. But it’s not delivering a celebrity guest — it’s helping translocate a rhino, an operation that’s testament to the success of The Malilangwe Trust’s anti-poaching efforts. They’re so dedicated to protecting rhinos that they’ll even chase hungry lions away from a calf or tackle a hostile human being. As a result, the reserve has an unusual problem: it has as many rhinos as it can handle and is busy finding new homes for some of them.
As if all of this wasn’t enough, absolute confirmation that Singita Pamushana is a remarkable place comes when I quiz the staff about The Malilangwe Trust’s Neighbour Outreach Programme. Modest to a fault, they don’t overplay it, but if you’re interested, you can spend a day in the community, visiting one of their several new beekeeping and irrigated gardening projects or simply chatting to schoolteachers.
With the trust’s support, rotas of local mothers and teachers provide 19,000 infants and pupils with a healthy bowl of porridge each day. “Once we started feeding children in schools, the attendance register just shot up,” says project coordinator Shepherd Mawire, with evident pride. The kids learn about wildlife and nature from an early age. “It’s paying off,” says Shepherd. “They’re thinking green. But we also want the cultural soul to survive into the next generation. It’s part of our mission to empower and support the community.” With this in mind, the trust provides school troupes with traditional Shangaan drums, clappers, costumes and encourages them to strut their stuff at national tribal dance competitions.
Relaxing at Pamushana, it seems astonishing that some still assume the Zimbabwean wilderness to be lawless, dark and dangerous. As I contemplate this paradox, I recall with a smile Clive’s pragmatic take on the matter: “If anyone doubts that this is a safe place to visit,” he said, “I would happily meet them at the airport and accompany them to Gonarezhou in person. The one condition would be that, when they go home, they tell everyone — and they tell the truth.”
• Getting there Fly to Johannesburg or Victoria Falls and then on to Buffalo Range airstrip. Emma Gregg travelled as a guest of Wilderness Safaris (www.wilderness-safaris.com) and Rainbow Tours (www.rainbowtours.co.uk), both of whom can arrange every aspect of your itinerary.
• Where to stay She stayed at Chilo Gorge Safari Lodge (www.chilogorge.com) and Singita Pamushana Lodge (www.singita.com). Ant Kaschula of Private Guided Safaris (www.privateguidedsafaris.com) and Gonarezhou Bushcamps (www.gonarezhou-bushcamps.com) runs bespoke mobile walking safaris in Gonarezhou National Park.
• What to do Other than going on safari, it’s possible to spend a day with the local community while staying at Chilo Gorge Safari Lodge or via The Malilangwe Trust’s Neighbour Outreach Programme (www.themalilangwetrust.org) at Singita Pamushana Lodge.
• When to visit The best time to go is between June and September, during the dry season, when you’ll get clear skies, low humidity and little rain. It’s also easier to spot animals as they congregate around the waterholes.
• Health Malaria is present throughout Zimbabwe, so precautions are essential. Check with your doctor or travel clinic for vaccination requirements, including yellow fever.
• Further reading Bradt Guide to Zimbabwe (2nd Edition) by Paul Murray; The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing
• More info For more information on Zimbabwe and Gonarezhou, visit www.zimbabwetourism.net