The Surprising Success of Gonarezhou
Words & Photographs by Scott Ramsay. Published in Getaway April 2017 Edition.
1. That Goosebump Wilnerness Feeling
We’d set up camp near the base of the Chilojo Cliffs, where the broad Runde River turns north to meet the Save River. Tired from the hot day, we drank cold beers and sizzled our meat on a mopane wood fire. Soon we fell asleep on our stretchers under a sparkling celestial ceiling. But not for long. The night’s silence was cracked wide open by a succession of baritone roars. My deep dreams ended abruptly as adrenaline surged through my body.
I shone a torch in the direction of the sound. A large male lion stood 30 metres away. Slowly he walked towards us with predatory entitlement. We quickly stoked the fire and flames shot into the sky. The big cat stopped a few metres away, then fortunately lost interest and walked down into the dry riverbed, leaving us for the night.
Sleep came surprisingly easily again, and at dawn we woke to three elephant bulls feeding on branches of a nearby apple-leaf tree, the leaves falling like confetti around us. Unlike the lion, the elephants ignored us and focused on their breakfast. I lay in my sleeping bag and watched them, then turned to admire the first rays of sun bursting into the sky above the Chilojo Cliffs. The red sandstone ramparts are spectacular, and shone luminously in the early morning light. It’s these visceral interactions with wilderness that make a visit to Gonarezhou special – and rare, in this increasingly commercial era of wildlife tourism. The park lies just across the border from well-trodden Kruger in South Africa, but it’s another world. There are no tar roads, fenced campsites or shops here. The park’s rugged terrain, poor roads and remote location give it an aloof allure. It’s a difficult place to get to, and to explore. Damn right. But it’s worth it.
2. Wildlife Numbers are Booming
For decades Gonarezhou was considered too remote, virtually inaccessible to tourists. Besides, visitors want to see animals, and most had been shot out by hunters and poachers. But today, wildlife numbers here are booming.
The name Gonarezhou is generally accepted to mean ‘place of the elephant’, an apt description of this brooding lowveld region of Zimbabwe. The 2014 aerial survey counted just over 11 000 in the park, up from 4 000 in 1994. Gonarezhou has more elephants than the whole of Mozambique, and one of the highest densities in Africa (at about two per square kilometre). And it gets better: the tuskers of Gonarezhou are the biggest in Zimbabwe, clearly sharing DNA with the famed large bulls in Kruger.
In 1979, Kabakwe was the legendary bull that was the first to be given special legal protection from hunting. One of the biggest of recent times (tusks of 45 kilograms each) was shot in the Malapati hunting area adjacent to Gonarezhou in October 2015. So the bulls with big ivory are still here, only there used to be far more of them.
Gonarezhou is not just about elephants. In 10 days we saw lion four times and heard their roars most nights, as well as the howls of spotted hyenas. We also saw a pack of seven wild dogs and several pups; Gonarezhou has one of the strongest populations of these endangered carnivores, a dozen packs.
‘I never saw a lion or leopard for the first three years here,’ says Hugo van der Westhuizen, the park’s conservation manager for the past decade. ‘You’d wake up early in the morning and there were hardly any animal sounds. It was depressing.’
Now, thanks to stringent anti-poaching measures, the animal statistics makes for reassuring reading. The last predator survey in 2015 showed that there are approximately 125 lions, up from just 31 in 2009. Other predators have also increased significantly: 642 spotted hyenas (from 407), 279 wild dogs (from 30) and 90 cheetahs (from 22).
All herbivore species have increased significantly too. At the last count in 2014, there were 8 000 impalas, 1 700 kudus, 6 000 Cape buffaloes, 1 300 Burchell’s zebras, 900 wildebeest, 500 giraffes and 500 hippos. Roan and sable have never recovered to former levels, and black rhinos and Lichtenstein’s hartebeest are now locally extinct, but on the whole things are much better. If all goes to plan, the increase in tourism revenue will allow the reintroduction of rhino, which Hugo says could happen as soon as 2018.
3. A Sense of Place
Mana Pools has its albida forests alongside the Zambezi River. Gonarezhou’s Chilojo Cliffs elicit a similar sense of wonder. Rising 200 metres above the floodplain of the broad Runde River, the 13-kilometre sandstone rampart is magnificent. It’s the defining feature of this remote wilderness.
Here the Runde flows south and seems to bump into the cliffs, then has to flow north to meet the narrow, powerful Save. Together, these rivers give the northern part of the park a unique sense of place. From the top of the cliffs, Gonarezhou’s diverse landscapes are clear to see.
Most obvious are the extensive floodplains alongside the Runde, which reminded me a little of those at Mana Pools at the opposite end of the country. The large Tembwahata Pan lies near the confluence of the two rivers and draws plenty of elephant, buffalo and other wildlife during the hot days. The nearby and smaller Machaniwa Pan is just a few hundred metres south of the Runde River, and a superb place for spotting saddlebilled storks and fish eagles, who prance around the muddy waters scooping up unlucky catfish.
Vast mopane woodland dominates the basins and plateaus on either side of the Runde. The scene is grand. ‘Gonarezhou has diversity of habitat that most other parks don’t have,’ says private guide Anthony Kaschula, who has been running a mobile campsite here since 2009. Few know Gonarezhou better than he.
‘On a typical five-night safari you’ll see rocky gorges and waterfalls, impenetrable ironwood forest with floodplains and pans, big swathes of mopane and huge areas of sandveld woodland. You’ve got the Chilojo Cliffs themselves and wide, sweeping sand rivers. It’s incredibly diverse, and very photogenic.’
The park could also be Africa’s epicentre of baobabs. There are thousands of these arboreal grandfathers. Near Tembwahata Pan, we counted 60 within sight of us.
4. Not a Tourist in Sight (Almost)
Anthony believes Gonarezhou’s best feature is its lack of tourists. ‘It’s still off the tourism map. While there are other places in Africa that are also very wild, many of those are overrun with visitors.’ There are only three camps in this 5 000-squarekilometre park, with tented chalets or ‘developed’ campsites offering basic thatch-and-stone shelters and ablutions. The rest are just GPS co-ordinates on a map, with a long-drop toilet, and can only be used by one group at a time. All of these, 26 in total, are far from each other.
‘We think Gonarezhou is a secret success story,’ Hugo told me in his office at Chipinda Pools, near the northern entrance to the park. ‘But please, don’t tell that to anyone!’
About 7 000 visitors come to the park annually. This may seem paltry compared to Kruger’s one million, but just a decade ago almost no one visited. ‘Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy tourists are returning,’ he said, ‘but we didn’t anticipate how quickly this place would turn around.’
Near the end of our 10-day visit, Hugo and his wife Elsabe invited us to camp with them at the top of the Chilojo Cliffs. As the elephants have done every night in winter for thousands of years, they descended the escarpment via one of the few passes to quench their thirst at the Runde River below. The full moon rose. In prayerful silence we stood on top of the cliffs and watched several breeding herds negotiate the steep pass below us. A warm wind picked up and carried our whispers and wood-fire smoke away from the matriarchs.
These elephants were doing what they’ve always done, oblivious to our presence. At Gonarezhou, you get the feeling that the animals are in charge. And as parks go, it is once again one of Southern Africa’s finest.