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Like a broad, pale python, the Runde curved upon itself and swung away from the plateau on its slow ramble to Mozambique and the warm Indian ocean. Far away and to my right I could see two elephants, dark, tiny specs of life far below me.
As I approached the edge of the plateau, a Black eagle – disturbed by my presence – merely opened its wings and was swept upward, soaring high above the riverbed, staring at me with bright yellow eyes. As far as I could see, the Zimbabwe bushveld rose to the rim of the distant horizon in the shimmering heat. I heard the warm wind climb softly over the edge and rustle the trees behind me.
I stood on a narrow strip of earth jutting out from the plateau, almost 200 meters above the Runde river. One slip – just one easy slip of my foot on a loose stone as I moved around my tripod to take a photographs to create a panorama – and I would plummet a 100 meters down to the foot of the forbidding Chilojo hills to be utterly broken on the sharp rocks far below.
I breathed deeply of the wild African air. It was alive with the smell of the bush and I smiled.
Once again, I was on an annual pilgrimage with my friends to the last wild places of Africa. This year, it is Gonarezhou in Southern Zimbabwe.
We never considered coming here because of our extreme allergy to the Beit Bridge border post: hours of frustrating waiting in the slow moving queues, lifeless eyes of border officials and irritating runners (called fixers) wanting a bribe to take your passport to the front of the queue to be stamped by their profit-sharing partner.
We were pleasantly surprised to come across someone who drove up through the Kruger Park, exited South Africa at Pafuri into Mozambique, crossed the Limpopo and entered Zimbabwe at the Sango border post.
We were going to do the same: in at Balule gate and never leaving the game reserves of South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
This is how we did it.
You don’t have to sing the Beit Bridge blues
We were up at 5pm in Nelspruit entered the Kruger National Park at Balule gate. We slowly travelled north on the S1 in the park: past Skukuza, had kudu roll breakfast at Tshokwane, ice cream at Letaba and arrived for our sleepover at Shingwedzi in the late afternoon.
The next morning we were up before dawn and left the camp as the gates opened. About 90 kilometers further north and we were at Pafuri gate. An ancient Toyota pickup, piled high with bicycles and plastic containers was undergoing a leisurely inspection by a customs official.
Apart from the pickup, we were the only travelers at the border gate and border formalities were finalized within minutes.
"Bom dia, Senhor!" On the Mozambique side, my rudimentary Portuguese once again made a friend. The border police were friendly and we were off again within a few minutes. Eat your heart out, fixers of Beit bridge!
Now for the Limpopo.
Following the GPS tracks, we turned off the main gravel road and wound through yellow fever tree forests to the river. It was not long before we were stuck in loose sand but were out after much arguing, wheel spinning and huffing and puffing.
Through the Limpopo in knee-deep water and we were on the narrow, dusty 60-odd kilometer road to the Sango border post. We saw no other vehicles, only concrete old water storage tanks - now long disused - spaced at regular intervals along the road.
Our dusty 2-vehicle convoy travelled slowly through the rural villages of Muamufichane and Mabuzana where curious and surprised Mozambicans stopped their daily chores, smiled and waved.
"Landmine hazard!" my gloomy GPS warned as we travelled safely through the Nuanetsi river and Tchale village.
We finally reached Chiqualaquala and proceeded to the border post.
The officials were friendly as always.
"Tudo bom?" (everything alright?) I asked. Time for the basic Portuguese to work its magic again.
"Normal, graca de Deus!" (Well - by the grace of God!) he smiled back.
Now for the Zimbabwe side. We girded our loins.
"We need to see your engine number with our own eyes" the well-dressed border official said brusquely. She had an air of no-nonsense authority about her. "We do not accept what the paper says. We must see it ourselves."
It is here at Sango that I observed two radically different approaches to the Zimbabwe Visual Engine Number Inspection procedure.
Johan - always the diplomat - joined his two sons in crawling under the vehicle, enthusiastically and noisily searching for the engine number with their flashlights. The well-dressed lady grunted encouragement from above.
They found nothing.
Kobus had a very different approach. He was veteran of the Pandametanga border post in Botswana near Nata on route to Hwange. When asked to see his engine number, he mumbled something and pointed vaguely to the front of the vehicle. There was no way that he was going to lie on his back under the dirty vehicle in the dust.
The official was of the same conviction. Someone else – and definitely not her - was going to be dusty. She stared ferociously at the engine with the bonnet open as if willing the number to miraculously reveal itself.
She turned to Kobus and was about to demand that Kobus get under the vehicle and find the number. The official and the medic’s eyes met and locked. They wordlessly came to a full and immediate understanding: this would be a battle of the wills that would be decided by patience and perseverance.
An hour later and Johan and his sons were truly filthy. No engine number was found under the thick layers of dust despite the regular and enthusiastic encouragement from the official.
Kobus, on the other hand, was happy and clean. The only dust was on his shoes. He stared patiently at the far horizon, whistled softly to himself and waited. Also no engine number so far.
When it eventually became absolutely clear to the official that she would have to crawl under the vehicle herself to verify the engine numbers, we were grudgingly given our gate passes – still with all engine numbers unseen – and we were through.
We were now in Gonarezhou.
We reached our camp at Rossi Pools late in the afternoon. Perched 50 meters above the river, the neatly thatched lapa offered spectacular views over the Nuanatsi river. We saw crocodiles, waterbuck, Impala, klipspringer and elephant.
Although there was no running water, we had access to a "long-drop" pit toilet. We washed in the icy Nuanetsi river at a carefully selected spot, too shallow for crocs. The fishing was good, with a catfish caught and released and a few ferocious tiger fish bites.
The charge was US $25 per person
Up through Gonarezhou to Director’s Camp
We drove north through the Gonarezhou on a faint dirt track, carefully checking our position on the GPS. We saw cheetah, kudu, impala, nyala, baboon, steenbuck – and even met a road maintenance team of 4, one of the workers carrying a worn Kalashnikov over his shoulder as protection against animal attacks while the others used their pangas to clear the road.
We stopped at Gorwhe pan - about halfway up – and later at Malugwe pan to scout for tracks.
After 5 hours and about 90 kilometers, we reached Director’s Camp, our first camp in the north. It was too late to late go to reception and started pitching our tents right away. To our right and abou 5 kilometers away, the setting sun painted the spectacular Chilojo cliffs yellow, red and pink.
The following day, we drove through the meter-deep Runde to the other side and took the 40-odd kilometer trip to reception to announce our arrival and pay our dues. We were helped by two Zimabwe officials, Aaron and Shumba. They were friendly and efficient and we had our documentation sorted out in a few minutes.
The Frankfurt Zoological Society
"For the first few years our family lived in a tent in the park. Now we have been given this house. This is much better."
Along with her husband Hugo, they are employees of the Frankfurt Zoological Society – placed here to manage the Gonarezhou Conservation Project which was established towards the end of 2007 and consisting of a 10-year memorandum of understanding with the Zimbabwean Government.
I looked out through the sliding door at the tiny brown dachshund calmly drinking water in the pool, barely 20 meters from the river where I could see a fat crocodile basking in the morning sun. In Afrikaans a dachshund is a "worshond" - a sausage dog, so named because of the short legs and long body. I thought it was an appropriate culinary irony.
"Our first dog was a terrier. It could not get over its own aggressive nature and became lunch for the croc." She flashed a quick smile and continued.
"We are working with ZPWMA to make the park more tourist-friendly while maintaining the park as a true wilderness area." Her dark eyes flashed with intensity as she used her hands to emphasize her point.
"We are making progress. New roads, better rules and more support. Tourism is increasing in Gonarezhou," she smiled: "and we are planning more - much more."
Hugo and Elsabe have been pivitol in the planning and establishment of new picnic sites, moving or improving old camp sites, installing new toilets and creating new game viewing roads. At 5,000 square kilometers, Gonarezhou is a quarter the size of the Kruger – and to coin a phrase, this is no walk in the park.
But against all odds, here the Frankfurt Zoological Society and two committed and courageous people are making a significant difference.
Visit their web sitehere
On these trips to the wild places with the men , we speak about things that matter to our hearts. God, sex, money, family and ambition - and generally about in that order.
We were on our afternoon game drive and waiting for golden light.
"What do you think?" Oom Koos looked back over his shoulder at me at me from the front seat.
"You find out your wife has a secret lover. She phones him on the Blackberry you bought her as a gift on your anniversary. She drives to see him in the small Mercedes you got for her 2 years ago and fills it up with fuel on your account.
"She buys him gifts on your credit card. She dresses up sexy for him in the clothes you gave her on her birthday. Even when she is with you, you can tell she is always thinking about him. You know she has sex with him at an expensive hotel and pays for the room with your card. What do you do?"
Kobus is our driver, our wilderness medic and oom Koos’s son. He opens his window and looks away to the Chilojo mountains on his right to consider the physical damage he would inflict.
"I would take back the car and the card," Kobus said through clenched teeth "and then she’s out of my life."
My response was a little less Christian. "Me too. I would dump her and probably shoot him in the knees - or I would place the shot a bit higher."
Oom Koos moved in for the kill.
"You spend all your passion and energy on your new project, your career, your reputation and getting more money. You put your relationship with God second, using what He gave you to do run after other things. How is that different from the unfaithful wife?"
Both Kobus and I are mission-orientated movers. I saw his pale blue eyes watching me in the rear view mirror.
"You want to deal with the wife and the illicit lover – but you expect God to be ok with that in your own life?
"Many people are like that - about their ministry, their jobs, their reputations. You feel boxed in and nothing works out for you. You can’t move forward or go back and you blame the devil for it– but it is only God dealing with you to get your priorities right."
It was quiet in the car as we followed the gravel road as it wound slowly past a big baobab tree. A few kudu cows ran across the road and disappeared into the bush.
The golden light was now just about right.
Moving to Chinguli
We arrived back at the camp to find everything in disarray. A large male baboon had cleverly opened our containers, all the eggs, bit holes in the milk boxes and ate whatever else looked appetizing. The place was a mess.
We decided to celebrate with a glass of wine and a moved our camp chairs to have a better view of the sunset on the cliffs.
Having arranged with Aaron and Shumba to do so, we moved our camp to Chinguli the following day for our final few nights in Gonarezhou.
Chinguli is not a private camp, meaning that we the camp had lapas about 30 meters apart, each being a camp site. Because of this, the charge was about half - US $12 per person. The upside is running water and hot showers.
Braving the riverbed which is strewn with large, rounded boulders the optimists were up early every day, fishing for tigers and "modderbekke" – translated mud mouths, presumably some kind of fish. We stayed here for 2 nights.
To save time, we decided on not driving back to Sango border post through the game reserve. At 5 on our last day, we drove back to reception and crossed the Runde using the meter deep causeway.
The road running down the western side of the park was good and we maintained a decent average speed. Kilometers of previously productive lands lined the road on the left and right, now not producing food for Zimbabwe. A couple of scraggly goats and cattle occasionally crossed the road.
This route shaved 2 hours off or trip and we reached the Sango border early, went through both border posts without incident and arrive at the Limpopo, determined to find an easier way through the river without getting stuck. We got through a 100 meters downstream using a better known crossing point.
Apart from driving on diesel fumes and flipping our trailer, the journey was without incident and we slept over at Letaba before making our way home.
Click on the links below to see panoramas:
Don’t drive in the river.
Your vehicle will be confiscated but you will get it back after you have paid a US$10,000 fine. You will want to avoid that.
Watch out for baboons.
Watch out for wild animals like jackals or mongooses
Know where your engine number is located on the block of the motor. This will save you an hour and a battle of wills at the Zim border.
Locate your engine number on the block of the motor to avoid a delay at the Zimbabwe border post.
Gonarezhou Fact sheet
Gonarezhou National Park (GNP) is one of the 11 areas designated as a national park in Zimbabwe. GNP is situated in the southeastern Lowveld of Zimbabwe, and occupies a total area of 5,053 km². The Park was proclaimed in 1975, although various parts of it was designated as a game reserve as early as 1934.
Gonarezhou forms part of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park which straddles the borders of Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe and joins some of the most established wildlife areas in Southern Africa into a huge conservation area of 35 000km². The GLTP forms the core of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area (TFCA), measuring roughly 100 000km²
The mean annual rainfall is 466 mm, most of which falls between November and March. Two severe droughts have occurred since 1961 and the 1991/92 drought led to the death of large numbers of wildlife.
Temperatures range from 27ºC in June to 36ºC in January. The park experiences a short dry winter season in June and July with temperatures below 30ºC and a hot wet summer season from November to April when temperatures exceed 40ºC The remaining months are hot and dry periods which precede and follow summer rains.
The landscape is scenic as a result of various sandstone incisions. The spectacular Chilojo Cliffs are more than 180m high and are a result of the river incision of the sandstones. Perennial and temporal pans are also a common feature of the sandstone plateaus. Steep rocky gorges with falls and rapids characterize the banks of the Save and Runde rivers. Noticeable peaks in the north are the Makamandima (578m) and Mutandahwe (571m) and in the south is Nyamutongwe (516m). The Save Runde junction is 165m above Cape Town at sea level and is the lowest point in Zimbabwe.
There are four main internal drainage basins in the Gonarezhou – Save, Runde, Guluwene/Chefu and Mwenezi. The Save and Runde rivers all drain into the sea via the Save and the Guluwene and Mwenezi basins are part of the greater Limpopo catchment.
The pan system in the Gonarezhou is quite extensive. Apart from the two extensive pans near the Save/Lunde junction (Tambaharta and Machaniwa) there are a number of larger pans which hold water well into the dry season.
No artificial water is supplied for wildlife, with the exception of two historical weirs at Massasanya and Benji. It is part of the recommendations of the newly revised general management plan that historical artificial game water supplies are not re-established, in line with the adopted management policy of minimum interference in natural systems.
The vegetation of Gonarezhou is typical of the
semi-arid Colophospermum mopane zone, and consists predominantly
dry deciduous savanna woodlands.
The plant checklist for the park includes 924 species from 118 families and 364 genera, with 265 trees, 310 shrubs, 55 woody climbers and 137 grasses. The list is regarded as incomplete as no systematic survey has been undertaken.
Fifty fish species have been recorded in Gonarezhou, primarily from the Save and Runde Rivers, but recent declines in water quality and flow patterns of the major rivers may have reduced this number. The killifish Nothobrancius fuzeri has historically been only found in pans of the Guluene/Chefu catchment, making it a Park endemic, but recent findings seem to suggest that its distribution also extends into the drainage system downstream into Mozambique, but the Park remains it’s type locality, and probably contains the core of it’s range. Other noteworthy species include lungfish that occur in seasonal pans in the Guluene/Chefu catchment, and the Zambezi Shark and Small-tooth Sawfish, recorded at the Save/Runde confluence.
The herpetofauna of Gonarezhou is unusual in Zimbabwe, as it includes many species which typically occur on the East African coastal plain. Reptiles and amphibians, being poikilothermic and less mobile than higher animal groups, are good indicators of bio-geographic boundaries, and their occurrence in Gonarezhou illustrates the bio-geographic importance of the Park. The Gonarezhou species list includes about 6% of the Southern African endemics and 14 species of special conservation interest
The bird checklist of 400 species includes a further 92 species regarded as `likely to occur’. The bird list includes 13 species that are rare or of limited distribution and of conservation interest. The scrub mopane areas of the park are one of the more significant breeding sites for the Lappet faced vulture in southern Africa.
A total of 89 species of mammals in 71 genera and 31 families have been recorded from the Gonarezhou. A further 61 species, mostly insectivores or small rodents as likely to occur. Most of the work on mammals was carried out in the 1960s and 1970s and there is a need to re-evaluate some of the collections.. The Yellow Golden Mole and Cape Hare are only known from Gonarezhou in Zimbabwe, and the red squirrel only occurs in the southeast Lowveld of the country.
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