Gonarezhou National Park
Posted on Monday, 5 December 2016
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!