Self-drive Gonarezhou National Park - a recce experience

Self-drive Gonarezhou National Park - a recce experience from African Adventure Club

By: African Adventure Club  08-22-2010
Keywords: Corporate Events, Team Building, safari


African Adventure Club, Finding new adventures in Gonarezhou National Park.

This was a route I have been dying to explore for some time now and it became a priority to pack the beast of burden, my faithful Toyota Land Cruiser and go play.

My motivation to undertake this journey was to open up a self-drive route that would satisfy an appetite for the less frequented parts of Southern Africa’s wild places.  A good friend of mine, Bernard, eagerly volunteered his services as a welcome second pair of hands.

Our expedition started at the Pfuri border post situated in the north east of Kruger National Park. We spent the first night camping in Kruger at Punda Maria and took advantage of the camp’s last refuel point before we headed out to our first destination, Gonarezhou National Park - “the place of the elephant”.

 My plan was to exit at Pfuri and follow the Limpopo River south to the mapped crossing point near the small town of Mapai and onwards to the Chicualacualo border post. The Mozambique border officials suggested that, as I was in a Cruiser, I would have no problem crossing the Limpopo River at an undesignated point just outside the small border village, near Crooks Corner. Taking this route, would save us considerable time, bypass the town of Mapai and the need to travel a really bad road. We would later experience just how bad the road actually was on our return journey back to Pfuri.

The Limpopo stood before me, considerably less intimidating than I have seen her on previous occasions and a local fisherman gestured that we should cross without hesitation, however, I know better!

I was following a set of tractor tracks left in the soft sand and so far, we were the only other vehicle on the track that morning. We walked the intended river crossing and found the sand bank that the tractor had taken before us. From the well driven exit point on the bank across the river, this was obviously a trip the tractor driver undergoes on a regular basis. The children playing on the riverbank and in the shallow water was a comforting sight to see, as I was sure that I could outrun them in the event of a stray Kruger flat-dog taking any offence to our presence.

We lowered tyre pressure, climbed into the cruiser and without the need to create a bow wave, as the sandbank was only knee deep, crossed over about two thirds of the river when the soft sand beneath the cruiser gave way and slid off the sandbank, coming to rest on her belly, sand quickly burying all four tyres in soft river sand. The water was an inch or two below the doorsill and we removed the high lift jack and poitjie pot lid, which makes a perfect jack base for this exact scenario and started jacking. Lifting the wheels one by one, allowed the sand to rush back into the voids that our tyres had left in the soft river bed. Returning the vehicle to higher ground, a little more air out of the tyres for added traction and we were soon on the other side.

We followed the tracks made by the local travellers and as is the case with most rural village roads, they change with the seasons and you will always have a multitude of choices to make. We came to a village where roads went off in all directions and asked a local for directions to “”Zimbabwe” making the mistake of not being more specific as to where exactly in Zimbabwe we wanted to be. The GPS confirmed the general direction that we were shown and off we went.

After some time it was evident that we were going to cross over the international border line depicted on the screen of the GPS, sans the presence of an official border fence or post. The track had taken us to the southern most entry point of Gonarezhou at Malapati and we had arrived at our first destination earlier than expected. So far, not another vehicle in sight the entire day. Not wanting to explain our illegal entry into Zimbabwe with a police or army patrol, I drove through the park to the Boli gravel road which dissects the park and leads straight to the Sango / Chicualacualo border post. It took some time to explain to the Zimbabwe immigration officer that although we were going, we were in fact coming, thankfully some adventure bikers had taken the same route earlier in the year and the official satisfied with our explanation, happily accompanied us to the Mozambique control point to this time, help explain, how we were coming but actually going.

The border post is seldom used other than around month end when Mozambiquans travel to Zimbabwe for supplies. On both our entry and exits through this post the immigration officials were summoned via cell phone by the border guards that were on duty and in a short while came to our assistance. In a matter of minutes we were over and done with all the formalities and on our merry way. Vehicles are scrutinised and goods inspected in a friendly and efficient manner.

Legally in the country, I headed for Mabalauta, the main camp and headquarters for the southern section of the park. It was already late and the sun had set when we reached the park head quarters. We were met by a game guard who promptly went off to call the tourism officer. Stanley appeared, smile on his face and ready to unlock his office and book us in. We both agreed to rather complete the formalities in the morning and proceeded to set up camp in an otherwise deserted campsite.

We spent the next three days exploring the various tracks within the southern region of the park. The Mwenzi River, along which most of the activities of the southern park takes place, runs its winter course through countless rock pools and boasts some really big crocodiles. The Park’s only permanent accommodation is situated on the banks of this river and consists of a few neat self catering chalets.

On day four, we drove across the Guluweni Chefu Wilderness Area and arrived late afternoon at the Chinguli camp, situated on the banks of the Runde River, the main water source for the northern section of the park.

Gonarezhou covers just over 5000 km² and is divided into two sections, north and south, each with its own headquarters and warden. The southern section is again divided into two parts by the Boli gravel road, which runs alongside a main railway line and serves as the main entry point into Zimbabwe and the park from Mozambique in the south east. To the north of the road lies the Gulweni Chefu Wilderness area, a large portion of the park which is rarely visited and has no current facilities or official camp sites. The northern section of the park is again divided into two by the Runde River, which can be easily crossed in the dry season, however once in heavy flow, the river becomes impassable by vehicle and the camps on the southern bank are cut off from the headquarters on the northern side of the river. The main concrete bridge on the Chiredzi road that was destroyed during the floods of 2000, has not yet been repaired. In the rainy season, rural communities must travel vast detours to reach even minor towns for supplies.

I was expecting a desolate park void of visitors, run down and in dire need of repair. What I found was a welcome surprise, amenities are being repaired and maintained and main camps are neat and clean with either solar or donkey geysers providing hot showers.

“Here be visitors” - We met a number of local Zimbabweans who were enjoying the park and even the odd foreign traveller makes the effort to experience the remoteness that the park offers. One thing was clear, although the visitor’s book is certainly not empty, the park desperately needs a lot more visitors through the gates.

The park has some 1500km of tracks and as we explored deep into the park, tracks became game paths and some disappeared completely taken back by the bush over the years of isolation. The current printed map of the park is based on a 1982 aerial survey and some of the marked sites and tracks no longer exist. According to local rangers and not too long ago, during a flight over the park, a vehicle was spotted with two ladies frantically waving to get some attention. When rangers arrived at the distressed travellers, they discovered that they had been stuck there for four days after experiencing car trouble.

My mission was to explore the park so as to return with self drive adventurers in the near future and thus we explored a vast amount of tracks within the park in order to familiarise ourselves, some 1000 km. The park boasts the world famous Chilojo cliffs and from this viewpoint one can see for ever over the Pombadzi Wilderness Area to the north.  Exclusive campsites along the river are shared with hippo and crocodile. At one of the camps we stayed, we shared a pool in the river with 25 hippos of all sizes and a multitude of crocodiles that baked in the sun at regular intervals along the river bank. Tiger fish inhabit the river and some very large specimens have been caught in the past, a permit can be arranged to fish within the park and fish eagles will curiously perch to survey your endeavours and then eloquently show you how it’s done.

The park has an over healthy population of elephant, while exploring some minor tracks, we discovered the carcasses of three elephant, shot and their ivory removed. Unfortunately what we saw was only three of the ten elephant recently poached in the remote northern reaches of the park. Elephant in this region are nervous and will charge, as two lone vehicles discovered and shared their experience with us. Towing a trailer to the park is possible but testing. Driving the park with trailer in tow is not advisable, should you encounter an elephant on a track and a charge takes place, you will have a tough enough time trying to reverse a vehicle without a trailer let alone with one tied to your bumper. Although game is very skittish, we saw large numbers of zebra, impala, waterbuck, kudu, nyala, eland, buffalo and a number of smaller species of antelope. We never saw lion, however they moved close to our campsite during the evenings and vocalised continuously throughout the nights. Due to conservation efforts, the last of the rhino have been removed from the park. We met a ranger and an ecologist wandering through the bush, busy with research to establish the sustainability of vegetation to support the reintroduction of some of the vanished species, a glimmer of hope, one of many we encountered.

There are some magnificent baobab trees in the park and we found one with what appeared to be a canon hole right through the centre of its massive trunk, a reminder of what took place in this wilderness park prior to independence in 1980.

The future success of the Park lies in marketing its remote location, unengineered network of tracks and wilderness experience that only Gonarezhou can offer. I met with Head Warden of the northern section, Norman Monks, recently transferred from Mana Pools and with over 30 years of experience with Zimbabwe Parks, Norman and the staff he commands are passionate and enthusiastic people, it was surprising and welcoming to find such friendliness and helpfulness from staff, some who have not received salaries for months.  Norman shared some of the exciting future plans for the park and confirmed that although the park needed to attract more visitors, the wilderness appeal of the park would not be sacrificed.

It was time to move onwards and we arrived at the dam wall of Lake Kyle just as a perfect sunset presented itself, one of many picture postcard moments we experienced. After a night on the lake shore, we travelled to Masvingo to stock up on supplies and then head off to the Great Zimbabwe Ruins, we decided to climb the hill to the Kings Quarters that afternoon and survey the entire site from this vantage point. Looking over the Great enclosure and nearby cultural village, I noticed a number of school busses and literally hundreds of school children being educated as to the Shona history of the site. The kids were exceptionally well behaved and courteous and it was heart-warming to hear them utter in an almost Sandton accent,  “amazing, wow” each time they turned a new corner and discovered a new spectacle before them. There were kids holding veld-skool in the cultural village within the site and their distant laughing and playing brought the site back to life, this is true living history.

In the morning we wandered around the Great Enclosure and the museum and spent some time debating the history of the site with a very interesting curator. I have arranged for some special attention when we return in convoy and guests can expect to sit well into the evening having questions about the site and its former inhabitants, answered by highly informative local historical guides.

It was time to move on and without much debate, we decided that we had not done justice to Gonarezhou and returned to the park for another 5 days of exploring. Our route taken back to Chipinda Pools head quarters was via some of the most spectacular scenic tracks one can experience, and each bend in the road presented another jaw dropping moment in time.

In order to test the alternative route back to South Africa, we took the Mapai road to the crossing point of the Limpopo River. The first half of the route ran for 85 km in a straight line parallel to the main railway line. Besides the soft sand that had accumulated on the road surface, the road was a pleasure to drive especially after two weeks of hard driving. After crossing the Limpopo river, this time the water running through the cab, we were faced with another 85 kilometres of what I can only describe as simply horrible road. Speed was reduced to a slow crawl through a never ending series of wash aways resembling a military test track, obstacles tackled any faster would send the rear end of the vehicle into what resembled a bucking bronco.

It was late afternoon when we crossed the river and pretty soon we were driving in the dark. The cruiser has enough candlepower to light up the track including all its surroundings. The roof mounted spots place a clear beam within five meters of the vehicle making obstacles visible which otherwise would be missed with only high level beams and bumper mounted spots.  Six o’clock in the evening had come and gone, the closing time of the border post. The last 50km to go became a formality and I resumed at idling the cruiser through the continuous dips and heaves that the road had to throw at us. We arrived at the Pfuri control point and the border village was already alive with liquor. After an exchange of old clothing, specially packed for such an event, we were given refuge and the protection of the restricted border station. We made coffee, finished the “”pad kos” and found a less comfortable position to endure the night.

This particular catered, self-drive adventure, extends over 10 nights and 11 days and will appeal to individuals wanting to experience camping in unfenced, remote African wilderness. There are no supplies available within the park and everything you require for the duration of your stay must be carried in and out of the park. We will cover some 2000km during this adventure and vehicles must carry provisions to travel around 700km between refuelling points. Travelling around in the park is typically done at 15 to 20 km/hr and it can take most of the day to complete a relatively short distance of track. As this is a rather demanding route, we will provide meals and camp staff, so as to minimise the arduous chores of cleaning, cooking and packing camp, allowing for sufficient rest, socialising with other tour members and simply enjoying the isolation of the bush.

Paul is a qualified instructor and Seta accredited assessor with African Off-road Academy.  If you would like to get even more out of your safari, Paul can provide off-road driver training as part of the adventure experience. Guides are qualified 4x4 instructors and accredited SETA assessors with African Off-road Academy and facilitate both Unit Standard 125135 and 254154. Modules are tackled over the duration of the safari and advantage is taken of the practical scenarios that present themselves on a daily basis, making the learning experience an exciting exercise for driver and crew.

If you would like to know more about the Gonarezhou self-drive adventure or begin planning your next trip into the African wilderness, visit or e-mail

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