In inky-black, stingingly fresh pre-dawn August air I clambered into a very overburdened, twenty-plus year old Toyota VX. A little fed up with the daily hustle and grind, wondering what was the hell was the point of it all and really looking forward to some time away from my regular routine, I grumpily (and silently) questioned how on earth we would get everything repacked at the end of the trip, and indeed whether we would even get there at all. Driving through the deserted streets of Harare, I felt a little unnerved at the prospect of heading into ‘unreachable’ territory with three other girls and sincerely doubted any of us would be able to effectively deal with a engine/ tyre problem without the luxury of calling Road Angels for help. Nevertheless, while Michal drove, with Ashley and Becky giving soft girlish snores, I, sitting shotgun, kept these concerns to myself as the VX laggardly moved beyond the city limits.
Travel by road in Zimbabwe can be a stressful endeavour. Renegade drivers in menacingly large and unstably fast trucks or full buses tend to overtake in the most inopportune moments. Break lights and head lights are not always a given. AWOL cattle and donkeys straddle the roadside, occasionally choosing to risk life and hoof by stepping out onto the road. And of course, there are potholes and police. Oh the police. The thought of the umpteen road blocks that stretched out between us and our destination was probably more foreboding than the prospect of dealing with a flat tire. That said, I can happily and surprisedly report we were not stopped once the whole way there and only fined once on the way home due to faulty break lights (like I said, break lights are not always a given and ours had jiggled free of their connection on the park roads). I am pretty sure the police were far too alarmed by the volume of luggage that would need to be removed in order to uncover the required triangles, reflectors and fire extinguisher. Either that, or they were too impressed that four girls were heading off (for what looked like forever) without a male escort.
A word of advice that I sincerely believed saved us at least $20 in fines and a couple dials on the blood pressure gauge – go through Gutu and avoid Masvingo. I whole heartedly recommend the Harare- Gutu- Zaka- Nandi route. The road was quiet with hardly any large sized trucks or careening buses. The road side grazers consisted mostly (but not wholly) of goats – everyone knows you can never hit a goat – and the street food Chibage (fire roasted mealies) stops were rewarding. When we turned off the road to Nandi without a single fine or haggle with a policeman, I knew this trip was going to be good.
On arrival at head office, the lady behind the desk took one look at Becky, an Irish girl through and through, and handed her the the rules and regulations pamphlet which was read thoroughly, front to cover. Apart from a little detour off of the Fishans Causeway track during our first crossing (thanks to being in what we discovered was the completely wrong gear in 4×4 drive) we were the ultimate law-abiding visitors.
Unbeknownst to us and contrary to the information on the issued pamphlet, firewood can only be brought from the Main Gate. Thus we arrived at our campsite in Chinguli Pools to find we were without both firewood and as it turned out, a working gas stove. The prospect of not being able to cook or woe and behold have a cup of tea was rather alarming. That is the thing about camping – something is always forgotten. It is part of the adventure. The other thing about camping is it is still entirely acceptable to pop next door and politely ask for sugar, toilet rolls, or what ever it is you have left behind. Balm for the soul, camping takes us back to simpler times when you either did without or asked a friendly neighbour for help; it creates a sense of camaraderie amongst strangers and is a strangely empowering endeavour.
A big thanks to Aron*, the camp attendant who kindly gave us enough firewood for the first night (at the promise that we wouldn’t tell a soul at the main gate) and to Alan of Fence Africa, Harare. Alan and his well prepared friends whipped out a spare thingy to replace our blocked thingy and hurray! The gas burner burst forth a dancing blue flame. I shudder to think of Michal’s coffee withdrawal symptoms had it not been for our prepared-for-anything neighbours. Alan and friends departed the next morning, kindly leaving behind all their spare firewood and water for us. Thank you!
*names have been changed for protection of the individual 😉
Having clearly made a good impression on the ladies at Reservations in Harare, four young women and more kit than a VX should be able to carry anchored down in the best campsite of Chinguli Pools (ask for site 3 😉 ). As the Chinguli Pools turned a rich taupe colour and the camp was cloaked in gently glowing gold-pinks, our tent was assembled and feet propped up while the celebratory tea was boiled. “Ah yes,” I thought, “this is what life is all about”.
There is something very primeval and deeply alluring about Gonarezhou National Park. It feels as if you have quietly stepped, 4×4, tent and all, into a time long gone. Ruggedly beautiful and wildly breathtaking, the park comprises of 1 951 square miles of bush – the size of Luxembourg, Mauritius and Grenada combined with 31 square miles to spare. Translated as ‘Place of many Elephants’, the vastness of Gonarezhou beckons you in, gently cradling you like a mother would, reminding you of your smallness and vulnerability and yet inspiring within you a belief in the potential and goodness of the world.
The next morning with overnight soaked oats and flasks of tea in tow, we set out to explore our surrounds. Having established how to correctly use the 4 wheel drive, Fishans Causeway was crossed with ease and we slowly picked our way to Chiljo Cliffs picnic site 1. There we stayed. Sipping on tea. Eating Mandy’s delicious homemade rusks. Listening to the White-fronted bee-eaters ‘tic-tic yuurlp and yurrl’. A male baboon effortlessly (and precariously) leaped and galloped up and over the opposite cliffs, while barked at from behind by his pursuer. We watched with a reverent hush as a beautiful Nyala bull shyly walked down to drink. I could feel my nervous system absorbing the pace of that place. I could feel my heart beat slow, my mind steady. I could feel my whole body surrendering to a space and time where nothing needed to be done and nothing was expected. I suppose the word I am looking for is peace. I was utterly and completely at peace.
Dinners in our campsite were a candle-light affair with a rustic main meal and standard bar of chocolate to follow. Aside from firewood and the gas thingy, we had thought of it all. That beautiful, old Toyata had space enough to pack a plug-in portable fridge, kitchen dish rack, and so much more. I am not saying we where nearly as kitted out as our South African neighbours with their matching outfits and magically appearing tents, but we were rather sorted with a clothes line up, pegs too and get this – a bath mat lain across the entrance to the sleeping section of our tent for feet whipping of course. Oh, yes, we were rocking it.
After dinner, silence would gradually set in. The happiness of a full belly and the lulling of the full bodied red wine results in the deep need to sit quietly and take it all in. Life in all its glory continues around you. Roaring lions. Responding Hippos. Hooting owls. Singing nightjars. Shooting stars. Scurrying dormouse. Ashely’s scream. Becky, Jo and Michal’s giggles.
A good chunk of our last full day in Gonarezhou was spent on-top of the cliffs getting too much sun, eating left-overs for lunch and philosophising about the meaning life. The creation story tells that once upon a time, a long, long time ago, after six very long, laborious and creatively demanding days, God rested and was very pleased. Take my word for it, Chilojo Cliffs View Point 1 would certainly be one the best possible spots for God to stop, take stock and marvel at the magnificence of it all. The vastness of the Chiljo Cliffs and the sweeping valley below, whisper of things unexplainable and untamed. The view is achingly beautiful. From where we sat with the Lunde River below, the elephants lazily going about their afternoon drink looked like nothing more than dark smudges. Talk about a reality check. The sheer size of Gonarezhou and the hundreds of species of birds, wildlife and fish within it are a reminder of how startlingly small we human beings sometimes live our lives.
I don’t think you go to Gonarezhou for the game (of which there is plenty). I think, you go for the vast, unbroken space. My three days in the park were equal to that of an a retreat into a Native American sweat lodge and I cant recommend it enough. For a total sum of $40 accommodation (local rate), Gonarezhou sorted my sulky ‘whats the point of it all’ demeanour and put me right back on track. Best $40 I have ever spent. Getting out of our usual routines and usual places, dropping the facade of a made-up-face and stepping into something different, something bigger, simpler and just straight up real works like a spring clean of all the rubbish in your head. Taking a time out, allows us to make space for that which we cannot control or understand. Gonarezhou shook me up, stood me straight and sent me back to Harare with energy, emotion and feeling all filled up.
Take it from me and take a trip to Gonarezhou. Oh and yes, we had the tire thing down!
P.S – Thank you to Ash and Becky for the pics and to Colin and Mandy for the VX.