Tucked away in the relatively remote South-East Lowveld of Zimbabwe, spreading over more than 5 000 km², Gonarezhou National Park is the country’s second largest national park, after Hwange National Park. It forms part of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, a peace park linking Gonarezhou with the Kruger National Park in South Africa and the Limpopo National Park in Mozambique, with animals moving freely between the three sanctuaries.
Due to its vast size, covering 5 053 km² of some of the most impressive views in the region, the rough terrain and being tucked far off the major tourist routes, large expanses of Gonarezhou remain an untouched wilderness. The Park’s landscape is extremely diverse, varying from the broad natural water pans including Chindhlambai and Tembahata, the wide sandy riverbeds, Bengi spring and the Chiviriga falls, rocky ridges and gigantic Baobab trees, as well as the iconic red sandstone Chilojo Cliffs overlooking the picturesque Runde River valley. Three large rivers flow through Gonarezhou, the Save forming the northern boundary of the Park, and the Mwenezi River.
Living up to its name, Gonareazhou, which means “The Place of Elephants” the national park is home to about 11 000 elephants. Known for its unique wilderness character, Gonarezhou’s repute as a leading destination for quality wildlife sightings is also growing with about 150 species of mammals, including giraffe, hippopotamus, the Cape buffalo, zebra, wildebeest, black and white rhinoceros, lion, leopard, cheetah, hyena, the Cape wild dog or painted wolf and the Nyala antelope found there.
The four river basins of Save, Runde, Guluwene/Chefu and Mwenezi and the large pans that hold water well into the dry seasons as well as the dry deciduous Savanna woodlands, with their wide-ranging plant populations, offer habitation for a unique population of reptiles and amphibians like the blue tailed skink, birds like the Lappet faced Vulture and fish including the Lungfish, Turquoise Killifish, Zambezi Shark, Freshwater Goby and the Black bream. Gonarezhou also preserves scenic expanses of Ironwoods, Acacia Albida and Mahogany trees which are some of the significant breeding sites for the birdlife.
As Gonarezhou is isolated and remote, it is fairly inaccessible, with the roads often very bad, especially in the wet seasons, requiring a good four wheel drive vehicle. However, visitors may access the Park either from Chiredzi to Chipinda Pools, following the A10 towards Mutare, turning right at the Chipinda Pools sign post, driving for 50.3 km then turning left, driving further for 55 km then turning right and going for 55.6 more km to the camp site; or from Masvingo or Beitbridge, turning off the A4 Beitbridge to Masvingo Road at the Mwenezi Police Station turn-off, about 19 km south of Rutenga then proceeding down the dirt road for about 3 km, turning left at the entrance to the Police Station, driving for 60 km to Chikombedzi Business Centre, turning right after entering the Business Centre at a 4-way intersection, driving for 77.3 KM then turning left at the Gonarezhou sign post. One would then follow this road, going around a small dam for 83.6 km, past the Zhou School turnoff, drive for 86.9 km past the Gonarezhou National Park boundary, 109.2 km past the road joining from the left, then driving for 111.4 km until reaching the Warden’s Office at Mabalauta.
For a quicker and less cumbersome way, some operators can organise chartered flights for visitors and an example is of the Federal Airlines, working with Pamushana Lodge, which runs scheduled flights from Johannesburg to Buffalo Range International Airport twice every week. Road transfers from the airport to the lodge would then take around 45 minutes. Robert Mugabe International Airport and Victoria Falls Airport are also points of arrivals for most safaris with the safari packages will usually including travel arrangements for the visitors.
Where to stay
There are some beautiful safari lodges within the park. For those who want to experience comfort and luxury in the midst of the jungle Chilo Gorge Safari Lodge is a good option.
Mabalauta Camp, situated eight kilometres from the warden’s office, overlooking the Mwenezi River, offers thatched self-catering accommodation facilities. For those who are interested in camping, Swimuwini at the Mabalauta Camping site offers the services, together with ablution facilities. Visitors with caravans on tow can also camp at Swimuwini and use the same facilities for standard camp sites. There are also numerous picnic and braai sites located in the Park.
Chipinda Pools has many camping facilities but no self-catering accommodation facilities. There are nine camp sites at the Chipinda Pools Camp, each with basic shelter, braai and ablution facilities. There are also five camping sites in the Runde sub-region at Chinguli similar to those at Chipinda.
Gonarezhou Bushcamps operates a seasonal tented camp at Chilojo, which is operated on an exclusive booking basis and requires a minimum group of four adults for a minimum stay of three nights.
Other camps with minimum facilities include Chilojo, Chamaluvati, Chitove, Nyahungwe. These can be booked by a single party of up to ten people, and since there are no attendants on hand, visitors are expected to bring their own water and collect dead wood in the surrounding area for firewood.
Best Time to Visit
Mild, dry winters and hot, wet summers, with temperatures sometimes exceeding 40⁰ C are experienced in Gonarezhou. Though Mabalauta and Chipinda areas are open throughout the year, Monday to Sunday, 6 am to 6 pm, access to certain parts of the Park is restricted during the rainy season, from November to April. Therefore, the best time to visit Gonarezhou and Malilangwe is during Zimbabwe’s long dry period from May to August where daytime temperatures are gentle and nights are cool. Though in September and October temperatures can be extremely high, the game viewing is spectacular and though the rains falling from November to March make game viewing difficult, the bird watching at this time of the year is amazing.
Other Safety Considerations
Bilharzia is prevalent in all Lowveld rivers and visitors to the Park are urged to follow proper preventative measures. In addition, Malaria is also a real concern in the region and visitors are advised to take certain precautions in order to prevent it, including prophylactics, mosquito repellent and covering exposed skin in the evening. Visitors are also expected to get all the required vaccinations before traveling to Zimbabwe.
Gonarezhou is generally safe and the guides at the Park are highly skilled when it comes to conducting walking safaris and accidents including wildlife can be prevented by simply listening to the advice from the guides. As it is a remote and secluded destination, visitors planning a self-drive safari are supposed to take safety measures, including driving in a procession with other vehicles. However, if this is not feasible, they should arm themselves with a proven GPS, good directions and a map. One is recommended to carry spare tires and a jack for the vehicle, water and food for the night in case of a breakdown as well as a shovel and tow ropes in case of getting stuck in the mud.