“Is the focus of many South Africans self drive 4X4 enthusiasts not going to move from a more and more regulated and costly Botswana to a more affordable, open hearted and open minded Zimbabwe?” That is the question that I asked myself and this is what the group experienced:
On day one the group of 15 people in seven well prepared safari vehicles left South Africa for Francistown in Botswana where they stayed the first night at freezing cold Woodlands, ten kilometer north of the city. The bureaucracy at the Beitbridge Border Post brought about the decision to enter Zimbabwe at the very small and informal Matsiloje border post. I did the welcoming around the campfire and shared some information with the group before they all went to bed early awaiting this new and almost uncertain adventure into this much controversial African state.
The convoy stopped in town the next morning to fuel the vehicles, long-range fuel tanks and all the Jerry cans. The Zimbabwe “Fuel Phantom” was still very much around and every body was still very concerned about the availability of fuel across the border. The small, but very neat and efficient Matsiloje border post – 40 kilometers east of Francistown was a breeze and in no time we found ourselves at the Mphoencs border post on the Zimbabwean side. The polished floors and overall neatness of the building immediately impressed every body. We were the only people in the building, there were not even any customs and immigration officials and it was clear that this border post is not used on a regular basis. After about five minutes the officials start to arrive and in less than an hour all the passports and vehicles were processed. Every body knew their job and was very efficient. What impressed me the most was the fact that the Carbon Tax ($30), Third Party Insurance ($30) and Road Permit ($10) were all payable at one counter. After registering the vehicles at the police desk the convoy was ready to depart when a civilian dressed gentleman arrived and claimed that he is a policeman and I had to accompany him to his office. I quickly explained to him that every thing is already done and that he arrived too late for the party. Without any further delay we tackled the first 88 kilometers to the tar road en route to the Matopos National Park. The road is reasonably good and quite scenic and winds through typical Zimbabwean villages. At the entrance gate we paid vehicle fee of $10 per car and the park entry fee of $12 and camping fee of $8 per person before heading for the lovely campsite at Maleme Dam. Every thing is working; there are clean hot water showers, flushing toilets and even electricity for charging batteries etc. That night we made a huge fire and it very quickly became clear that this group are going to blend excellent and will have a ball of a time.
The next morning we took it easy in camp and enjoyed the beauty of Maleme Dam and the surrounding areas. There can be fewer finer examples of the beauty and mystery of the natural world than in Zimbabwe’s Matobo Hills. Add to this the intrigue of man’s existence among the balancing rocks and bald hills, and you will see why the Matobo should be on every visitor’s itinerary. The visit to the grave of Cecil John Rhodes was filled with the most beautiful scenes and views and the early morning light on the huge boulder rocks and the green lichen provided excellent photographic opportunities.
The next morning we broke down camp and left for Bulowayo. Bulawayo is the second largest city in Zimbabwe after the capital Harare, with a population in 2009 of 1,500,000. It is located in Matabeleland, 439 km southwest of Harare, and is now treated as a separate provincial area from Matabeleland. It was a Saturday morning and the streets were surprisingly quite. We got fuel without any problems and while the men were attending the vehicle’s needs, some of the women popped into a small SPAR across the street.
Now it was time to head for Hwange. With 13-year-old memories of Robins Camp and Shumba platform, we couldn’t wait to go back again. The largest National Park in Zimbabwe (formerly called Wankie) and the size of Northern Ireland was once one of the most popular parks in Africa, drawing thousands of tourists to see its large herds of elephant, buffalo and other plains game.
The Park’s animals are supported artificially by several boreholes that pump water from the massive amount of ground water beneath the sand. Without this water the big herds of elephant and buffalo would probably migrate away from Hwange during the dry season. However, fortunate for wildlife enthusiasts, organizations like Friends of Hwange have kept the boreholes running through some of the worst economic times. It makes for some of the best wildlife viewing in Southern Africa, and most of the time, you will be the only visitors for miles around.
On our way to the turn off to Hwange National Park, we had to go though a couple of police roadblocks. We didn’t have the slightest sign of aggression or experienced any problems with bribes.
The convoy pulled in at the reception at Main Camp shortly after noon and was pleasantly surprised with the friendly and professional attitude of all the staff. The Park entry fee is $15 per person and $10 per vehicle. This is a once off fee while the camping is $25 per person per night. Although the buildings are old, it is in a much better condition than the infrastructure that one get at the entrance gates of the National Parks in Tanzania.
Roads are gravel, but still in a better condition than the roads in some of the other parks in Africa. The infrastructure in the campsites is old but every thing is working and is kept in a good condition with the minimum resources. We drove in a southerly direction through some of the most beautiful Rhodesian Teak forests to Jambile Campsite. Joseph is the pump attendant at Jambile and the place is obviously his pride. Apart from pumping water, Joseph raked the camp, cleans the kitchen and the ablutions and looked after the wood and the campfire. That night a big herd of elephants came to the water hole at the camp and trumpeting and sounds coming from there tummies entertained the group around the fire till late at night.
The next day we did a game drive to Kennedy 1 and 2 and Ngweshla…….what a beautiful place! Although there are not as much game as in parks like South Luangwa, we still had some interesting sightings of Elephant, Giraffe, Zebra and Kudu.
The next morning we said good-bye to Joseph after giving him a hamper of surplus tinned food and other goodies from the well-stocked vehicles. We went to Main Camp for the night, as we had to leave very early the next morning for Mlibizi. We spend the afternoon on the platform at Nyamandlovo and when the big herds of elephants, kudu and giraffes arrived, the 600 mm and 400 mm camera lenses also appeared. We left just in time to be back in camp before closing time of the gate at 6h00. That night we all dined out in the Waterbuck’s Head restaurant at Main Camp and every body agreed that they had a fantastic meal from the menu that varied from Spaghetti Bolognaise to T-bone Steaks. For adventurous self-sufficient 4X4ers, Hwange is heaven.
M’libizi to Kariba This was an early morning. The ferry at Mlibizi is 135 km away and we had to be there at 8h00. We arrived well in time and Alan, the Captain of the Sea Lion, welcomed the convoy at the dock. We quickly removed the roof racks of two of the 4×4 vehicles that were too high to fit into the bottom berths. There are only three open berths with unlimited vehicle height. The rest of the berths are limited to a vehicle height of maximum 2000mm. The group of, by now, close friends relaxed in the spacious panoramic windowed saloon, lazed in the open deck and enjoy the upper shaded deck whilst someone else did the driving.
The Voyage took approximately 22 hours during which time we were served with three nourishing meals together with the morning and afternoon tea or coffee, which is included in the tariff. There is a fully stocked cash bar aboard and the crew could not do enough to pamper the group.
The Sea Lion arrived at Andora Harbour in Kariba at 7h00. The men unloaded the vehicles from the ferry and put back the roof racks on the vehicles before the group left for Kariba town to get fuel. We paid a visit to the Look Out Point and also drove down to the dam wall. One of the sluice gates was open and we were privileged to see the mass of water released out of the Lake. We stopped at TM, a well-stocked supermarket about 13 km out of Kariba on the road to Makuti. Every body in the group was surprised with the variety, quality and the prices of the items on the shelves.
From there the road took us via Makuti to Marongora where visitors to Mana Pools have to report before they can proceed to the Park. This is also the end of the tarred road. From here it is 31 km of corrugated dirt road to Nyakisikana Gate where one will enter the Park. We drove another 47 kilometers of good sand road to the Park head quarters where we had to register and pay the entrance fees. The Park entry fee is $20 per person and $10 per vehicle. This is a once off fee while the camping is $20 per person per night. From here we drove to the close by Nyamepi Camp where the group was booked in for the next three nights. It is a beautiful shaded campsite under huge Sausage Trees on the bank of the Zambezi. The ablutions are in good shape and a very friendly and helpful camp attendant looked after the fire in the boiler and did some washing for the group. He even offered to show us the lions…at a small fee.
The word Mana means “four” in Shona and refers to the number of permanent pools in the Park. We spent three nights in Mana Pools and used our days exploring the area all the way from the Vundu Private Concessions in the west to Mana Mouth in the east. The place pumped with wildlife. In the dry winter months the animals come in search for food and water near the Zambezi. We were rewarded with great wildlife sightings of all kinds and some members of the group even came upon a fresh Wild Dog kill. The resident elephants, hyenas and hippo in camp became part of our stay and one night when the group was still sitting around the fire, a whole commotion started up in camp when two lions walked roar, roar through the camp…memories are made of this!
On the final morning on our way out of the reserve, we came upon a pack of Wild Dog who came to the road to say goodbye. The whole group was touched by this sighting and left Mana Pools with their emotions very nearby the skin.
The road took us via Karoi, Chinhoyi and Banket to Harare. This use to be a very productive tobacco producing area and Banket used to be the breadbasket of Zimbabwe. It was very sad to see the ruins of the tobacco sheds and driers, the huge empty grain silos and the hundreds of huts of the War Veterans and A1 squatters that took the place of the big old farmhouses. On arrival in Harare we drove to the suburb of Highlands where we stayed over at the character full old colonial Aintree House, owned and run buy the Parvin family. The panhandle connecting the estate to Aintree Road is long enough to accommodate a convoy of eight vehicles with ample safe parking behind the big steel gates. We were welcomed and treated on a typical old English Saturday after noon High Tee before we were shown to our rooms.
Eastern Highlands – Nyanga National Park
After a full English breakfast we quickly settled our bills ($70 B&B per room plus $10 for the lovely dinner) before leaving for the neighborhood SPAR to do some last minute shopping before we proceeded to Nyanga.
Nyanga National Park is situated in one of the most scenic areas of Zimbabwe’s Eastern Highlands. Rolling green hills and perennial rivers transverse the 47 000 hectare Park. Altitudes between 1 800 and 2 593 meters provide cool weather and fresh mountain air, perfect for rest and relaxation. With its stunning mountainous views, numerous waterfalls, varied activities and unique flora and fauna, Nyanga National Park really provides tourists with an unforgettable experience. There are three camps in Nyanga National Park namely Udo Camp, Mare Camp and Rhodes Camp. We stayed in the spacious thatched self-catering lodges set in amongst the Pine forest at Rhodes Camp overlooking the tranquil Rhodes dam for two nights. They have a fully equipped kitchen, refrigerator, stove and cooking utensils and camp attendant tends to the fire in the fireplace and other domestic duties continuously.The group could not wait to explore the area and places that we visited include the Mutarazi Falls. This is the highest waterfall in Zimbabwe and the second highest on the Continent. We left our vehicles at the car park and took the short hike to the edge of the escarpment for spectacular views of the waterfalls and the Honde Valley, some 800 metres below. We also viewed the Pungwe Falls from the scenic Pungwe viewpoint and drove down on a very scenic 4X4 track through the Pungwe Drift for a closer view of the river and lush forest areas around.
The highlight of Nyanga was undoubtedly the visit to the lovely old Troutbeck Inn. The first time visitor will be forgiven if they had thought Troutbeck Inn to be in the Scottish Highlands, rather than in the Nyanga moutains of Zimbabwe. The log fire in the reception area of hotel is a firm favorite, and guests enjoy the gentrified “country club” atmosphere of this premium destination in Nyanga. Build in 1950 it has all the character of an old English colonial establishment. The furniture, paintings and even the mannerism of the staff dates out of this magic area. We had dinner at this fantastic place and were spoiled by the well trained and experienced staff. Remember…..the trout is to die for.
As we pointed the noses of the vehicles in a southerly direction, we all knew that our safari through this wonderful country is slowly coming to an end. We traveled via Mutare where we did a quick repair to a radiator hose of one of the vehicles and filled the convoy with fuel. About 20 kilometer east of Masvingo (previously known as Fort Victoria), we turned left on a small gravel road towards Lake Kyle. After another couple of kilometers we ended up on a narrow, but very scenic tar road crossing the dam wall before ending up at The Great Zimbabwe Ruins.
At a fee of $20 per person, we were in an entertaining and very informative way guided through this World Heritage Site. Formed of regular, rectangular granite stones, carefully placed one upon the other, they are the ruins of an amazing complex. The structures were built by indigenous African people between AD 1250 and AD 1450 believed to be the ancestors of modern Zimbabweans. The ruins at Great Zimbabwe are remarkable; lofty, majestic, awe-inspiring, timeless. The quality of the building in places is outstanding. It was built by craftsmen who took a pride in their work. There is nothing to compare with it in southern Africa.
We stayed over in the campsite at Great Zimbabwe and on our final night together, everybody around the fire shared his and her views about this, to awaken, country with the rest of the travel companions and every body agreed that Zimbabwe was ready for what to come it’s way and that the Zimbabweans do have the character to rebuild their country from a tourist point of view to what it was many years ago.