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Trip Reports

Gonarezhou National Park

written by Monique Fallows

Wild dogs in Gonarezhou National Park

Posted on Monday, 5 December 2016

Zimbabwe, October

 

On our previous visits to Zimbabwe the locals have always spoken so highly of Gonarezhou National Park and we had received so many recommendations to visit here that this time round we couldn’t give it a miss. So upon leaving Hwange we headed across the eastern part of Zimbabwe and into a remote and wild area of wilderness.

 

About Gonarezhou National Park

Gonarezhou has had a very difficult past fraught with poaching and political interference. If it hadn’t have been for a number of very dedicated and passionate people whose strong leadership and dedication kept the Park going over the past few decades, Gonarezhou’s current existence is sure to have been in jeopardy.

In more recent years The Save Valley Conservancy & Melilangwe Trust has proclaimed wildlife areas buffering Gonarezhou, but more importantly both entities are diligently and successfully dealing with the poaching problems. Added to this Gonarezhou has also in the last few years received significant outside funding, and through great leadership the Park is going from strength to strength protecting its wildlife and making significant upgrades to all aspects of the Park.

 

Chris & I were very excited to be spending a week here but of course I didn’t know what to expect, so went with no preconceived ideas and no expectations.

My first comment about Gonarezhou is that without needing to add any superlatives, it is just simply beautiful.

The habitat is hugely diverse ranging from rocky, boulder strewn areas, mopane & acacia woodland, huge open pans, flood plains and to top it off the most spectacular red cliffs. The famous Chilojo Cliffs overlooks the Runde riverbed and each day many elephants complete the scene as they come for their daily drink.

 

 

Gonarezhou is most famed for 2 iconic species.

Huge Baobab trees dot the landscape and are everywhere you look. In many areas just one baobab tree is a feature but here you look out at almost forests of these hundreds of years old imposing and character filled trees. Each one is unique and standing beneath them one can almost feel their energy, and I tried to imagine the story’s each one could have shared. They are a mightily impressive living organism.

The Park’s second iconic species is ironically hell-bent on destroying the baobabs.

The destroyers … a population of 12,000 elephant! And these are not just any elephant. Some of them carry the ever-receding Tusker gene and in years gone by it was not uncommon to see an elephant with 100 pounds of ivory.

Tragically poachers as well as trophy hunters have worked hard at leaving behind a legacy that is now almost devoid of any large tuskers. In 2015 one of Gonarezhou’s most famous bull elephants was shot and killed by a trophy hunter. His ivory weighed just over 120 pounds. A tragedy and as far as I am concerned, a senseless waste of an iconic individual and yet another link in that all important gene pool now extinguished. Hunters claimed that the bull was past his breeding age but conservationists have hit back saying this 35 year old elephant was in fact still in his prime.

 

Due to this checked past I think the elephants here have an inbred fear and hatred of humankind. Not only do they run when they see a vehicle, they turn and aggressively run towards you! We had been warned to be very careful around Gonarezhou elephants but this was on a scale we could not have imagined!

Carrying on from our Hwange “grey impala” theme we began to refer to the Gonarezhou elephants as “Angry’s Grey Impala, and they were to be avoided at all costs! The 2014/15 rainy season had been poor, the knock on effect meaning less vegetation to eat and the elephants were understandably food stressed. As careful and conscientious as we were, and as polite as we could be whenever coming across a breeding herd, we were almost always subjected to angry head shakes, trumpeting and mock charges. Actually, the entire herd including the tiny calves would participate in the charges.

Even though it was pretty stressful we did joke at the time that our game drives consisted of being on high alert from elephants, and then driving away in the opposite direction!

 

 

Into the Wild

We spent our first five days in the very Eastern part of the Park right on the Mozambique border. It was here that we had a true and memorable wilderness experience. In fact we didn’t see another tourist vehicle for five days! How rare in this day and age to have the opportunity of getting away from it all and at the same time to be surrounded and immersed in wildlife.

Our campsite was set under a magnificent natal mahogany tree overlooking the Save river and nestled in a mountain-like boulder strewn hillock. Our view was of a hundred baobab trees and elephant’s drinking just across from us on the other side of the river.

There were no electrical points and no running water. The river below and a starry African sky were great replacements… just perfect! 

 

 

Two seasonal Pans in this area supported a vast amount of game. Impala were prolific but we also came across healthy herds of eland, zebra, nyala, waterbuck and of course elephant.

Massive crocodiles and day-walking hippos made it interesting collecting water from the river each day, and it must have made a comical sight of me watching diligently for crocs as Chris went down to the water’s edge.

The game was however very nervous and skittish, and an added reason to what I have already spoken about must be because so few people spend time in this remote part of the park. It certainly didn’t matter though and just being in the wild was an absolute highlight for me.

When we moved to the central, more frequented part of the Park the game was definitely more approachable so I think the above stands to reason. We even managed to see two different lion sightings which is fairly difficult in Gonarezhou so we were thrilled with these short glimpses.

 

I have spoken at length about the crazy elephants and it is my hope that you will thus be able to appreciate the couple of stories I am about to share.

On our second night, and before I had gotten used to the mad elephants something woke me close to midnight. It was an elephant standing under our camp tree.

I was looking at him through our tent door which is nothing more than a mosquito net and very quickly the fear closed in on me. I had visions of the elephant smelling us and then immediately charging and trampling our tent, with us stuck inside.

He saw the tent and then lifted his trunk to sniff. I held my breath as his trunk twisted and turned towards us trying to get a better scent. As he confirmed our human smell he violently shook his head and I thought we were done for!

Fortunately he then turned and strode away from our camp in defiant steps leaving me to try fall back into a not very restful sleep!

On our second night, and before I had gotten used to the mad elephants something woke me close to midnight. It was an elephant standing under our camp tree.

Rock Climbing Elephants

On our last night we had just finished our dinner and were sitting admiring the night sky when Chris heard a soft sound behind us. As we looked up two elephants were quietly walking behind our camp. Our immediate reaction was to head for the safety of our car and whilst hiding behind the side of it we nervously watched as they approached within a few meters of us.

They had only one thing on their minds and that was the clump of nutritious bushes that were precariously growing between the rocks up the hill that bordered our campsite.

We had walked up this rocky area just the afternoon before so I can tell you that it was pretty tricky going. To our complete disbelief, and as we crouched behind the car, we watched as the elephants went rock climbing!

Whilst bent on their knees we watched as they used their front legs to haul themselves upwards inch by inch… they were physically climbing and we watched in fascinated surprise. Honestly neither Chris nor I would ever have thought an elephant could be so dexterous.

Their reward was a great feed that lasted most the night. We eventually went to bed and just lay listening to them as they gorged themselves on a very well deserved meal.

 

Wild Dogs

There are said to be nine different wild dog packs here and as they are amongst our favourite of all terrestrial animals we eagerly tried to track them every day. Sometimes your luck runs with you and other times not. During our week here we did spot two dogs from very far but for the rest of the trip it was literally a wild goose chase. Most days we found fresh, fresh tracks but never the promised prize at the end of it.

I wouldn’t say we were disappointed but it would have been great to spend some time with the dogs here.

However Gonarezhou had one last trick up her sleeve and on our last morning, after we had already left the park and were driving through the Malilangwe Trust area we rounded a corner and there before us was a pack of thirty plus wild dogs running towards us.

We were speechless! And what a beautiful pack they were with their multitude of white markings. They came right by us as we pulled over to the side of the road and we were able to follow them for a short distance before they peeled off into the bush.

I think this was definitely a little message from Gonarezhou telling us to come back again soon!

 

 

Photo Dreaming of Elephants under a Baobab Tree

Any photographer will tell you that one spends a lot of time dreaming up the perfect set of images they would give anything to capture.

For Chris one such image was of a clean shot of an elephant under a massive sprawling baobab tree, representing two iconic and mysterious species in Africa. It is very difficult to get a clean shot with few bushes or obstructions around the tree and although we have seen elephants close to or around baobabs before, the clean shot of both icons had eluded us.

You never know when the opportunity may present itself but it is normally with careful planning, and then when you completely don’t expect it, if that makes any sense?

Chris thought there may be a chance in Gonarezhou and exactly 3km’s from entering the park for the first time we drove up a very steep pass. As we admired this great big baobab in front of us three bull elephants popped around the corner.

I have never seen Chris get his camera out so fast and in the elephants’ hesitation of seeing our vehicle they spent a few short moments standing almost perfectly under the baobab.

The baobab had a lovely clean background and as it was still on the upward part of the hill Chris had a very good lower position from which to shoot.

Even though this took place in first 10 minutes of the trip I mention it last because it really was the photographic highlight of the trip.

 

 

A Park to Watch

In closing I can’t speak highly enough of the potential of Gonarezhou. It has a tremendous habitat diversity, healthy and varied game and bird life, it’s spectacularly beautiful and it has a fantastic team running the Park. They are vigorous with their anti-poaching methods and with more regular visitors the wildlife will become more habituated. Although having said that the wildness of the place does definitely have a certain charm about it right now.

The Frankfurt Zoological Society has just donated a vast sum towards the running of the Park and African Peace Parks will be taking over from Zimbabwe Parks & Wildlife.

Watch this space. Gonarezhou will become one of the great parks of Africa…

 

 

Our final stop for this trip, and one of our most loved spots on the Planet, now awaited us; Mana Pools National Park…

 

 

Read about visits to other parks earlier in this 7 week trip:

Etosha National Park

Hwange National Park

Tags:

Elephants, Gonarezhou National Park - Zimbabwe, Wild Dogs

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