Dancing beneath the diamond sky
with one hand waving free
Like a broad, pale python, the Runde curved upon itself and swung
away from the plateau on its slow ramble to Mozambique and the warm
Indian ocean. Far away and to my right I could see two elephants,
dark, tiny specs of life far below me.
As I approached the edge of the plateau, a Black
eagle – disturbed by my presence – merely opened its wings and was
swept upward, soaring high above the riverbed, staring at me with
bright yellow eyes. As far as I could see, the Zimbabwe bushveld
rose to the rim of the distant horizon in the shimmering heat. I
heard the warm wind climb softly over the edge and rustle the trees
I stood on a narrow strip of earth jutting out from
the plateau, almost 200 meters above the Runde river. One slip –
just one easy slip of my foot on a loose stone as I moved around my
tripod to take a photographs to create a panorama – and I would
plummet a 100 meters down to the foot of the forbidding Chilojo
hills to be utterly broken on the sharp rocks far below.
I breathed deeply of the wild African air. It was
alive with the smell of the bush and I smiled.
again, I was on an annual pilgrimage with my friends to the last
wild places of Africa. This year, it is Gonarezhou in Southern
We never considered coming here because of our
extreme allergy to the Beit Bridge border post: hours of frustrating
waiting in the slow moving queues, lifeless eyes of border officials
and irritating runners (called fixers) wanting a bribe to take your
passport to the front of the queue to be stamped by their
We were pleasantly surprised to come across someone
who drove up through the Kruger Park, exited South Africa at Pafuri
into Mozambique, crossed the Limpopo and entered Zimbabwe at the
Sango border post.
We were going to do the same: in at Balule gate and
never leaving the game reserves of South Africa, Mozambique and
This is how we did it.
You don’t have to sing the Beit Bridge blues
We were up at 5pm in Nelspruit entered the Kruger
National Park at Balule gate. We slowly travelled north on the S1 in
the park: past Skukuza, had kudu roll breakfast at Tshokwane, ice
cream at Letaba and arrived for our sleepover at Shingwedzi in the
The next morning we were up before dawn and left the
camp as the gates opened. About 90 kilometers further north and we
were at Pafuri gate. An ancient Toyota pickup, piled high with
bicycles and plastic containers was undergoing a leisurely
inspection by a customs official.
Apart from the pickup, we were the only travelers at
the border gate and border formalities were finalized within
"Bom dia, Senhor!" On the Mozambique side, my
rudimentary Portuguese once again made a friend. The border police
were friendly and we were off again within a few minutes. Eat your
heart out, fixers of Beit bridge!
Now for the Limpopo.
Following the GPS tracks, we turned off the main
gravel road and wound through yellow fever tree forests to the
river. It was not long before we were stuck in loose sand but were
out after much arguing, wheel spinning and huffing and puffing.
Through the Limpopo in knee-deep water and we were
on the narrow, dusty 60-odd kilometer road to the Sango border post.
We saw no other vehicles, only concrete old water storage tanks -
now long disused - spaced at regular intervals along the road.
Our dusty 2-vehicle convoy travelled slowly through
the rural villages of Muamufichane and Mabuzana where curious and
surprised Mozambicans stopped their daily chores, smiled and waved.
"Landmine hazard!" my gloomy GPS warned as we
travelled safely through the Nuanetsi river and Tchale village.
We finally reached Chiqualaquala and proceeded to
the border post.
The officials were friendly as always.
"Tudo bom?" (everything alright?) I asked.
Time for the basic Portuguese to work its magic again.
"Normal, graca de Deus!" (Well - by the grace
of God!) he smiled back.
Now for the Zimbabwe side. We girded our loins.
"We need to see your engine number with our own
eyes" the well-dressed border official said brusquely. She had an
air of no-nonsense authority about her. "We do not accept what the
paper says. We must see it ourselves."
It is here at Sango that I observed two radically
different approaches to the Zimbabwe Visual Engine Number Inspection
Johan - always the diplomat - joined his two sons in
crawling under the vehicle, enthusiastically and noisily searching
for the engine number with their flashlights. The well-dressed lady
grunted encouragement from above.
They found nothing.
Kobus had a very different approach. He was veteran
of the Pandametanga border post in Botswana near Nata on route to
Hwange. When asked to see his engine number, he mumbled something
and pointed vaguely to the front of the vehicle. There was no way
that he was going to lie on his back under the dirty vehicle in the
The official was of the same conviction. Someone
else – and definitely not her - was going to be dusty. She stared
ferociously at the engine with the bonnet open as if willing the
number to miraculously reveal itself.
She turned to Kobus and was about to demand that
Kobus get under the vehicle and find the number. The official and
the medic’s eyes met and locked. They wordlessly came to a full and
immediate understanding: this would be a battle of the wills that
would be decided by patience and perseverance.
An hour later and Johan and his sons were truly
filthy. No engine number was found under the thick layers of dust
despite the regular and enthusiastic encouragement from the
Kobus, on the other hand, was happy and clean. The
only dust was on his shoes. He stared patiently at the far horizon,
whistled softly to himself and waited. Also no engine number so far.
When it eventually became absolutely clear to the
official that she would have to crawl under the vehicle herself to
verify the engine numbers, we were grudgingly given our gate passes
– still with all engine numbers unseen – and we were through.
We were now in Gonarezhou.
We reached our camp at Rossi Pools late in the
afternoon. Perched 50 meters above the river, the neatly thatched
lapa offered spectacular views over the Nuanatsi river. We saw
crocodiles, waterbuck, Impala, klipspringer and elephant.
Although there was no running water, we had access
to a "long-drop" pit toilet. We washed in the icy Nuanetsi river at
a carefully selected spot, too shallow for crocs. The fishing was
good, with a catfish caught and released and a few ferocious tiger
The charge was US $25 per person
Up through Gonarezhou to Director’s Camp
We drove north through the Gonarezhou on a faint
dirt track, carefully checking our position on the GPS. We saw
cheetah, kudu, impala, nyala, baboon, steenbuck – and even met a
road maintenance team of 4, one of the workers carrying a worn
Kalashnikov over his shoulder as protection against animal attacks
while the others used their pangas to clear the road.
We stopped at Gorwhe pan - about halfway up – and
later at Malugwe pan to scout for tracks.
After 5 hours and about 90 kilometers, we reached
Director’s Camp, our first camp in the north. It was too late to
late go to reception and started pitching our tents right away. To
our right and abou 5 kilometers away, the setting sun painted the
spectacular Chilojo cliffs yellow, red and pink.
The following day, we drove through the meter-deep
Runde to the other side and took the 40-odd kilometer trip to
reception to announce our arrival and pay our dues. We were helped
by two Zimabwe officials, Aaron and Shumba. They were friendly and
efficient and we had our documentation sorted out in a few minutes.
Again, the charge was US $25 per person per
The Frankfurt Zoological Society
"For the first few years our family lived in a tent
in the park. Now we have been given this house. This is much
looked down at her hands and I considered the commitment required to
live in a small tent in the wilderness for a few years – and that
with two young daughters in school.
Along with her husband Hugo, they are employees of
the Frankfurt Zoological Society – placed here to manage the
Gonarezhou Conservation Project which was established towards the
end of 2007 and consisting of a 10-year memorandum of understanding
with the Zimbabwean Government.
I looked out through the sliding door at the tiny
brown dachshund calmly drinking water in the pool, barely 20 meters
from the river where I could see a fat crocodile basking in the
morning sun. In Afrikaans a dachshund is a "worshond" - a
sausage dog, so named because of the short legs and long body. I
thought it was an appropriate culinary irony.
first dog was a terrier. It could not get over its own aggressive
nature and became lunch for the croc." She flashed a quick smile and
"We are working with ZPWMA to make the park more
tourist-friendly while maintaining the park as a true wilderness
area." Her dark eyes flashed with intensity as she used her hands
to emphasize her point.
"We are making progress. New roads, better rules and
more support. Tourism is increasing in Gonarezhou," she smiled: "and we are
planning more - much more."
Hugo and Elsabe have been pivitol in the
planning and establishment of new picnic sites, moving or improving
old camp sites, installing new toilets and creating new game viewing
roads. At 5,000 square kilometers, Gonarezhou is a quarter the size
of the Kruger – and to coin a phrase, this is no walk in the park.
But against all odds, here the Frankfurt Zoological
Society and two committed and courageous people are making a
Visit their web site
On these trips to the wild places with the men , we
speak about things that matter to our hearts. God, sex, money,
family and ambition - and generally about in that order.
We were on our afternoon game drive and waiting for
"What do you think?" Oom Koos looked back over his
shoulder at me at me from the front seat.
"You find out your wife has a secret lover. She
phones him on the Blackberry you bought her as a gift on your
anniversary. She drives to see him in the small Mercedes you got for
her 2 years ago and fills it up with fuel on your account.
"She buys him gifts on your credit card. She dresses
up sexy for him in the clothes you gave her on her birthday. Even
when she is with you, you can tell she is always thinking about him. You know she has sex with him at an expensive hotel
and pays for the room with your card. What do you do?"
Kobus is our driver, our wilderness medic and oom
Koos’s son. He opens his window and looks away to the Chilojo
mountains on his right to consider the physical damage he would inflict.
"I would take back the car and the card," Kobus said
through clenched teeth "and then she’s out of my life."
response was a little less Christian. "Me too. I would dump her and
probably shoot him in the knees - or I would place the shot a bit
Oom Koos moved in for the kill.
"You spend all your passion and energy on your new
project, your career, your reputation and getting more money. You
put your relationship with God second, using what He gave you to do
run after other things. How is that different from the unfaithful
Both Kobus and I are mission-orientated movers. I
saw his pale blue eyes watching me in the rear view mirror.
"You want to deal with the wife and the illicit
lover – but you expect God to be ok with that in your own life?
"Many people are like that - about their ministry,
their jobs, their reputations. You feel boxed in and nothing works
out for you. You can’t move forward or go back and you blame the
devil for it– but it is only God dealing with you to get your
It was quiet in the car as we followed the gravel
road as it wound slowly past a big baobab tree. A few kudu cows ran
across the road and disappeared into the bush.
The golden light was now just about right.
Moving to Chinguli
We arrived back at the camp to find everything in
disarray. A large male baboon had cleverly opened our containers,
all the eggs, bit holes in the milk boxes and ate whatever else
looked appetizing. The place was a mess.
We decided to celebrate with a glass of wine and a
moved our camp chairs to have a better view of the sunset on the
Having arranged with Aaron and Shumba to do so, we
moved our camp to Chinguli the following day for our final few
nights in Gonarezhou.
Chinguli is not a private camp, meaning that we the
camp had lapas about 30 meters apart, each being a camp site.
Because of this, the charge was about half - US $12 per person. The
upside is running water and hot showers.
Braving the riverbed which is strewn with large,
rounded boulders the optimists were up early every day, fishing for
tigers and "modderbekke" – translated mud mouths, presumably some
kind of fish. We stayed here for 2 nights.
To save time, we decided on not driving back to
Sango border post through the game reserve. At 5 on our last day, we
drove back to reception and crossed the Runde using the meter deep
The road running down the western side of the park
was good and we maintained a decent average speed. Kilometers of
previously productive lands lined the road on the left and right,
now not producing food for Zimbabwe. A couple of scraggly goats and
cattle occasionally crossed the road.
This route shaved 2 hours off or trip and we reached
the Sango border early, went through both border posts without
incident and arrive at the Limpopo, determined to find an easier way
through the river without getting stuck. We got through a 100 meters
downstream using a better known crossing point.
Apart from driving on diesel fumes and flipping our
trailer, the journey was without incident and we slept over at
Letaba before making our way home.
Dowload our GPS tracks by clicking here or on the
Click on the links below to see panoramas:
Don’t drive in the river.
Your vehicle will be confiscated but you will get it back after you
have paid a US$10,000 fine. You will want to avoid that.
Watch out for baboons.
They are cunning and ingenious. They will open almost any
container or freezer to get to your Windhoek lagers and biltong.
Watch out for wild animals like jackals or mongooses
They may have rabies and will bite when you get closer, transferring
the disease to your bloodstream in their saliva.
Know where your engine number is located on the
block of the motor. This will save you an hour and a battle of wills
at the Zim border.
Locate your engine number on the block of the
motor to avoid a delay at the Zimbabwe border post.
There is no fuel from Pafuri to Gonarezhou, so take enough.
Avoid buying fuel at informal stalls at Chiqualquala (the town at
Sango border post) as it may be diluted with who knows what. Once at
Gonarezhou, fuel can be bought at Triangle, about 30 kilometers west
Take water purifying tablets or boil the water for 60 seconds before
drinking. At Rossi Pools, Hlora and Directors the river is your
bath. Watch out for crocs.
Have your passport, insurances, permissions from insurance, and
vehicle registration papers ready. Zimbambwe often requires a police
vehicle clearance as well.
Zimbabwe only accepts US$ nowadays. Make sure you have small
Gonarezhou Fact sheet
Gonarezhou National Park (GNP) is one of the 11
areas designated as a national park in Zimbabwe. GNP is situated
in the southeastern Lowveld of Zimbabwe, and occupies a total
area of 5,053 km². The Park was proclaimed in 1975, although
various parts of it was designated as a game reserve as early as
Gonarezhou forms part of the Great Limpopo
Transfrontier Park which straddles the borders of Mozambique,
South Africa and Zimbabwe and joins some of the most established
wildlife areas in Southern Africa into a huge conservation area
of 35 000km². The GLTP forms the core of the Great Limpopo
Transfrontier Conservation Area (TFCA), measuring roughly 100
The mean annual rainfall is 466 mm, most of
which falls between November and March. Two severe droughts have
occurred since 1961 and the 1991/92 drought led to the death of
large numbers of wildlife.
Temperatures range from 27ºC in June to 36ºC in
January. The park experiences a short dry winter season in June
and July with temperatures below 30ºC and a hot wet summer
season from November to April when temperatures exceed 40ºC The
remaining months are hot and dry periods which precede and
follow summer rains.
The landscape is scenic as a result of various
sandstone incisions. The spectacular Chilojo Cliffs are more
than 180m high and are a result of the river incision of the
sandstones. Perennial and temporal pans are also a common
feature of the sandstone plateaus. Steep rocky gorges with falls
and rapids characterize the banks of the Save and Runde rivers.
Noticeable peaks in the north are the Makamandima (578m) and
Mutandahwe (571m) and in the south is Nyamutongwe (516m). The
Save Runde junction is 165m above Cape Town at sea level and is
the lowest point in Zimbabwe.
There are four main internal drainage basins in
the Gonarezhou – Save, Runde, Guluwene/Chefu and Mwenezi. The
Save and Runde rivers all drain into the sea via the Save and
the Guluwene and Mwenezi basins are part of the greater Limpopo
The pan system in the Gonarezhou is quite
extensive. Apart from the two extensive pans near the Save/Lunde
junction (Tambaharta and Machaniwa) there are a number of larger
pans which hold water well into the dry season.
No artificial water is supplied for wildlife,
with the exception of two historical weirs at Massasanya and
Benji. It is part of the recommendations of the newly revised
general management plan that historical artificial game water
supplies are not re-established, in line with the adopted
management policy of minimum interference in natural systems.
The vegetation of Gonarezhou is typical of the
semi-arid Colophospermum mopane zone, and consists predominantly
dry deciduous savanna woodlands.
Physiognomic types are woodland and woodland savannah (59%),
scrubland (40%) and savannah grassland (1%).
The plant checklist for the park includes 924
species from 118 families and 364 genera, with 265 trees, 310
shrubs, 55 woody climbers and 137 grasses. The list is regarded
as incomplete as no systematic survey has been undertaken.
Fifty fish species have been recorded in
Gonarezhou, primarily from the Save and Runde Rivers, but recent
declines in water quality and flow patterns of the major rivers
may have reduced this number. The killifish Nothobrancius fuzeri
has historically been only found in pans of the Guluene/Chefu
catchment, making it a Park endemic, but recent findings seem to
suggest that its distribution also extends into the drainage
system downstream into Mozambique, but the Park remains it’s
type locality, and probably contains the core of it’s range.
Other noteworthy species include lungfish that occur in seasonal
pans in the Guluene/Chefu catchment, and the Zambezi Shark and
Small-tooth Sawfish, recorded at the Save/Runde confluence.
The herpetofauna of Gonarezhou is unusual in
Zimbabwe, as it includes many species which typically occur on
the East African coastal plain. Reptiles and amphibians, being
poikilothermic and less mobile than higher animal groups, are
good indicators of bio-geographic boundaries, and their
occurrence in Gonarezhou illustrates the bio-geographic
importance of the Park. The Gonarezhou species list includes
about 6% of the Southern African endemics and 14 species of
special conservation interest
The bird checklist of 400 species includes a
further 92 species regarded as `likely to occur’. The bird list
includes 13 species that are rare or of limited distribution and
of conservation interest. The scrub mopane areas of the park are
one of the more significant breeding sites for the Lappet faced
vulture in southern Africa.
Mitchell is a bow hunter, outdoorsman and the author of
several books on African wildlife and survival
A total of 89 species of mammals in 71 genera and 31 families
have been recorded from the Gonarezhou. A further 61 species, mostly
insectivores or small rodents as likely to occur. Most of the work
on mammals was carried out in the 1960s and 1970s and there is a
need to re-evaluate some of the collections.. The Yellow Golden Mole
and Cape Hare are only known from Gonarezhou in Zimbabwe, and the
red squirrel only occurs in the southeast Lowveld of the country.