Don’t let the news from Zim­babwe de­ter you, be­cause this coun­try is rich in his­tory, scenery and wildlife. And it’s all just a lit­tle north of our coun­try.

Don’t al­low the news from Zim­babwe to de­ter you – this coun­try is rich in his­tory, scenery and wildlife. And it’s also just over there...

Go! Camp & Drive - - CONTENTS - Text and pho­tos Evan Naudé

Zim­babwe is of­ten in the news for the wrong rea­son, but this coun­try has re­cently had a ma­jor po­lit­i­cal up­heaval and, slowly but surely, there’s more light at the end of the tun­nel. Re­gard­less of pol­i­tics, it re­mains a unique coun­try that’s in­cred­i­bly rich in nat­u­ral beauty, with res­i­dents still wel­com­ing vis­i­tors with open arms.

Just think: this is a coun­try that lies be­tween two of south­ern Africa’s largest rivers: the Lim­popo to the south and the Zambesi to the north. You’ll cer­tainly know of the Vic­to­ria Falls.

And then there are 10 more na­tional parks as well as at least 10 other smaller na­tional con­ser­va­tion ar­eas that in­clude spec­tac­u­lar caves, awe­some lakes and beau­ti­ful botan­i­cal gar­dens. And, if you’re an an­i­mal lover, pack your bags as Zim­babwe’s game re­serves are world-renowned for their wildlife.

Mpafa Travel of­fers a 13-day self­drive sa­fari tour through Zim­babwe, stop­ping at as many of its high­lights as pos­si­ble. When we heard there was a spot avail­able, we didn’t think twice. We were out the front door... head­ing straight for our neigh­bour!

Rhodes’ fi­nal rest­ing place

The tour group con­sists of 12 ve­hi­cles plus two Mpafa sup­port­ing ve­hi­cles. We meet at the

Big Cave Camp just out­side the Ma­tobo Na­tional Park, about 35 km out­side Bu­l­awayo. It’s a long way from home, and we spend two evenings here so we can thor­oughly ex­plore the park the fol­low­ing day.

Ma­tobo, which means “bald heads”, gets its name from the char­ac­ter­is­tic gran­ite hills in the area that were formed more than two-bil­lion years ago. The park, a UN­ESCO World Her­itage Site, cov­ers 424 km² and is the largest in the coun­try. It was orig­i­nally >

founded in 1926 as the Rhodes Mato­pos Na­tional Park. It’s be­tween these hills where the Sec­ond Mata­bele War raged and even­tu­ally ended when Ce­cil John Rhodes per­son­ally met with the Nde­bele.

The area so charmed Rhodes, that he re­quested in his will to be buried here – an event that hap­pened in 1902. To­day, you can visit his grave on top of a hill called “View of the World”. The view is in­deed im­pres­sive and beau­ti­ful in the last light be­fore sun­set.

It’s no sur­prise that the San lived in the area cen­turies be­fore the Bri­tish and the Nde­be­les. In the park, there are more than 3 000 reg­is­tered spots with rock art, and the best ex­am­ples are in caves in the park. Un­for­tu­nately, the draw­ings in the Pomongwe Cave near the Maleme Dam were badly dam­aged in 1965 when an at­tempt was made to try and pre­serve the art­works with lin­seed oil.

Rather aim for the Nswatugi Cave to the west of the park – you’ll find a whole wall of draw­ings in great con­di­tion. But be warned: it’s a short but steep climb up­hill to get to the cave.

Where it all be­gan

From Ma­tobo, drive back to Bu­l­awayo (35 km) be­fore turn­ing east on the A9 in the di­rec­tion of Masvingo (280 km). This town isn’t spe­cial in it­self, but only 28 km south of there is surely the most im­por­tant his­tor­i­cal site in the coun­try: The Great Zim­babwe Ru­ins.

If you set off from Ma­tobo early enough you can have lunch at Great Zim­babwe, and use the af­ter­noon to ex­plore the ru­ins. Like count­less other ru­ins, the finer de­tails of this an­cient city re­main a mys­tery.

But what arche­ol­o­gists do be­lieve is that it was built by the Shonas be­tween the 11th and 15th cen­turies as an ap­par­ent royal palace. The coun­try even­tu­ally gained its name from this palace after in­de­pen­dence in 1980, as Zim­babwe lit­er­ally means “House of Stone”.

The golden bird on the coun­try flag is a pic­ture of one of the eight soap­stone stat­ues, the Zim­babwe birds, found on the premises. These stat­ues, prob­a­bly rep­re­sent­ing fish ea­gles, are in the small mu­seum near the en­trance.

Take your time here and don’t for­get your cam­era. And it’s a good idea to hire a guide to walk you through the dif­fer­ent parts of the city and bring its his­tory to life. Don’t miss the Great En­clo­sure, a spec­tac­u­lar cir­cu­lar fort with stone walls up to 11m high.

And, even if you’re not in top-notch shape, do your­self a favour and walk up to the Hill Com­plex for a great view of the en­tire ru­ined city. It’s es­pe­cially beau­ti­ful just be­fore sun­set when the last rays of sun­shine bathe the stone walls and nar­row cor­ri­dors in soft golden light.

We stay till after sun­set be­cause our overnight stop isn’t far away. The camp­fire has been lit when we ar­rive at Norma Jeane’s Lake­view Re­sort on the banks of the Mu­tirikwi lake.

Rap­tors and caves

The fol­low­ing morn­ing, we hit the road early and drive back to Masvingo. From here, our route turns north to the peak of the tour: the Mana Pools. The to­tal dis­tance is 680 km and we plan to do the trip over two days. This way, we have enough time to stop at two in­ter­est­ing places along the way: the Kuimba Shiri Bird Park and the Chin­hoyi Caves.

The A4 main road is an­other rea­son why you should rather take your time as this is the road hordes of big trucks from Harare use to drive to the Beit­bridge border post. The dis­tance be­tween Masvingo and Kuiba Shiri on the Chivero Lake out­side Harare is around 320 km, but it takes six hours to drive there in con­voy. For­tu­nately, there’s a restau­rant with cold beer to cool that heat un­der the col­lar caused by the truck drivers.

Kuimba Shiri was estab­lished 20 years ago as a re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­tre for rap­tors. To­day, you can sleep over, camp, go horse rid­ing or fish­ing and even take a boat out on the lake. The owner, Gary Stop­forth, is an ex­u­ber­ant man whose love for birds of prey is clear when he wel­comes you. He has had a fas­ci­na­tion with birds of prey all his life and knows ev­ery­thing there is to know about these species. In the past, he was even in­volved in the train­ing of ea­gles for BBC doc­u­men­taries. Ev­ery af­ter­noon at 4 pm, Gary presents a show where he teaches you about owls, fal­cons and ea­gles. One of the high­lights is when a fish ea­gle catches its prey in the lake a mere five me­tres from us. >

The next morn­ing, we’re on our way again, bright and early, first in the di­rec­tion of Harare and then with a short­cut on the edge of the city to the A1 where our con­voy turns north­wards. Our goal for tonight is the Mana Pools but, late morn­ing, we first visit the Chin­hoyi Caves.

The caves are like a minia­ture ver­sion of the Cango Caves, but holds a trump card you don’t see ev­ery day: a cobalt­blue pool with wa­ter that’s so bright your friends will think you have been doc­tor­ing you pho­tos. This pool is called the Sleep­ing Pool and, although it’s beau­ti­ful, it has a some­what omi­nous rep­u­ta­tion. Leg­end has it that a killer threw his vic­tims into the pool be­fore a Shona chief, one Chin­hoyi, got rid of him – hence the cave’s name.

A sec­ond story claims that the tra­di­tional name of the caves is Chi­ro­rodiziva, which means “Pool of the Fallen” be­cause the An­goni tribe drowned peo­ple here in the 1830s, too.

Laz­ing about at the Zambesi

On the A1, it takes about 185 km to get from the caves to reach Maron­gora on your left. The park’s of­fice is here and you have to pay your Mana Pools per­mit here. When you’re done, drive 5 km fur­ther on a wind­ing moun­tain pass (watch out for trucks again) down to the park’s en­trance gate. Here you have to stop at a boom to write your de­tails in a book – it also gives you the chance to let some air out of your tyres for the dirt road ahead.

It’s not a 4x4 track, but the road is cor­ru­gated in place and softer tires will save your kid­neys. Also, get rid of any fruit in your car and do­nate it to the guards as they’re banned in the park. The rea­son? Well, if an ele­phant’s gets a sniff of them in the camp­site, there won’t be much left of your car or tent.

Just over 30 km fur­ther, you will get an­other boom and an­other sag­ging book to fill in. Stretch your legs as the dirt road isn’t quite done with you yet – the Nyamepi Camp lies an­other 45 km

fur­ther. Head pretty much straight north to the mighty Zambesi River and one of the most beau­ti­ful camp­sites in all of Africa.

It’s just be­fore dusk and the Mana Pools wel­come us with their dis­tinc­tive late-af­ter­noon light rays shin­ing through the branches of mas­sive trees, im­mers­ing the world around us in a golden glow.

Just as ev­ery other evening, our tents are al­ready set up thanks to the Mpafa team who sets up camp in ad­vance; so, the main thing is now to place a camp­ing chair on the banks of the Zam­bezi and re­lax with a cock­tail. Be­sides, there’s more than enough time to make a nest – we’re here for the next three nights.

Three days are only just enough to ex­plore the Mana Pools. From the Nyamepi Camp, you don’t have to drive far to see many an­i­mals. The pools or wa­ter holes that gave the park its name are close to the camp.

The Chisas­iko Pool, Long Pool and Chine Pool are es­pe­cially great places >

Fruit is banned in the Mana Pools park be­cause, if an ele­phant gets a sniff of them in the camp­site, there won’t be much left of your car or tent.

to sit and wait in the early morn­ing with a cup of cof­fee for the an­i­mals to come drink wa­ter. The park doesn’t have rhi­nos, but the rest of the Big Five are all present and you may also see a chee­tah or leop­ard.

The ele­phants here are known to get onto their hind legs to reach the high tree branches – see if you can get a pic­ture of this. And, if you don’t get to see them in the park, chances are good they’ll come to the camp­site.

Talk­ing of the camp­site, en­sure your ve­hi­cle and tents are closed prop­erly, even when you are in the camp. The blue mon­keys and ba­boons are ter­ri­bly ir­ri­tat­ing and the camp rangers warn us the ba­boons have even learnt how to open tents. Mana Pools is one of the most spec­tac­u­lar con­ser­va­tion ar­eas on the con­ti­nent and there are few other places where you can re­lax as com­pletely as this in na­ture.

When you sit next to the mighty Zam­bezi at sun­set and watch ele­phants and hip­pos stand­ing half­way in the wa­ter while munch­ing away, as a huge croc­o­dile lies on the shore and a fish ea­gle flies by with its dis­tinc­tive call, a deep peace en­gulfs your heart.

Where Nyami Nyami keeps watch

No­body is re­ally eager to leave the Mana Pools, but there are still a few lovely des­ti­na­tions ahead. Our next one, the Kariba Dam, is for­tu­nately not too far and we have some time for break­fast after a last early morn­ing wildlife trip.

It’s back to the same park gate where we came in and we pass Maron­gora be­fore turn­ing west at the town of Makuti. It’s about 70 km to Kariba from here. The Kariba Dam is a great piece of en­gi­neer­ing. The 280 km length of wa­ter is held by a dam wall of less than 600 m. It’s im­pres­sive and def­i­nitely worth a visit. Vis­i­tors may walk on the bridge, but you must re­port at the im­mi­gra­tion of­fice for a per­mit be­cause the wall forms the border be­tween Zim­babwe and Zam­bia. Pop in at the vis­i­tor cen­tre (GPS S16.522972 E28.766878) for a view over the dam wall.

Here you’ll see a statue of the Zambesi River god, Nyami Nyami, watch­ing over the wa­ter mass. >

Till the next time

The fi­nal des­ti­na­tion of the tour is the Hwange Na­tional Park, about 260 km north of Bu­l­awayo on the A8. The dirt road be­tween Kariba and the A8 is in very bad con­di­tion and you’ll strug­gle to go faster than 60 km/h. So, make sure you leave early to tackle this 480 km as it will def­i­nitely take you all day. On this tour with the con­voy, we de­cided to do it in two days, and so we spend a night in Binga be­fore leav­ing for Hwange.

Hwange is the largest na­tional park in Zim­babwe – look at a map and you’ll soon re­alise there’s no way you could prop­erly ex­plore the whole park on a sin­gle visit. Nev­er­the­less, it’s packed with wildlife and the many wa­ter holes al­most guar­an­tee you’ll see a good num­ber of an­i­mals.

If you stay close to the main camp, head to the Makwa Pan early in the morn­ing and do the cir­cu­lar route past the Kennedy pic­nic site, the Manga and Dopi wa­ter­holes, and end at Nya­mandhlovu. Pack some food and charge your cam­era’s bat­ter­ies – you’re go­ing to be busy all day. Dur­ing our visit, we en­coun­tered a pride of lions, gi­gan­tic ele­phants and beau­ti­ful gi­raffes in short in­ter­vals and even saw two croc­o­diles de­vour­ing an im­pala in the wa­ter.

We say our good­byes the next morn­ing with heavy hearts. Not only be­cause this group of strangers now parts as friends, but also be­cause, de­spite its rep­u­ta­tion, Zim­babwe has stolen ev­ery­one’s hearts.

Next time we read the hor­rid head­lines, we’ll know at least that there is a dif­fer­ent Zim­babwe. And that’s a place we’ll soon visit again.

AN­CIENT WORK­MAN­SHIP. The bricks (above right) on the wall of the “Great En­clo­sure” were packed by hand and with­out ce­ment to form a cir­cu­lar fortress (insert). In­side , a maze of cor­ri­dors (right and mid­dle above), lead you to the in­ner rooms.

OR­PHAN­AGE FOR FEATHERED FRIENDS. Dur­ing Gary Stop­forth’s rap­tor show at Kuimba Shiri Bird Park, he in­tro­duces vis­i­tors – El­marie van Wyk is pic­tured here – to re­ha­bil­i­tated birds in­clud­ing the cute barn owl (top), demon­strates how a fish ea­gle hunts (mid­dle), and even how a lan­ner fal­con makes a meal of a young chicken.

EERY WA­TERS. The bright blue and deep pool of wa­ter at the Chin­hoyi caves re­mains a mild 22°C year-round. You can view it from a van­tage point out­side as well as un­der­ground.

AMONG THE AN­I­MALS. You’re never too far from wildlife at Nyamepi Camp (main pic), be­cause ele­phants come visit of­ten (top right), while im­pala and hip­pos seek the re­fresh­ment of the nearby wa­ter­holes (mid­dle and be­low).

THE USUAL SUS­PECTS. Peace­ful ele­phants be­tween dense trees (top), gi­ant baob­abs in the mid­dle of the road (be­low), and marabou storks next to wa­ter­holes (mid­dle) are typ­i­cal scenes at Mana Pools.

WHERE THE ZAMBESI PAUSES. After the con­struc­tion of the 128 m high Kariba dam wall (top and mid­dle) in the 1950s, kapenta was in­tro­duced in the dam. At sun­down, the fish­ing boats head out for the night.

GREET THE BIG GUYS. Tuskers Camp near Hwange Na­tional Park is wor­thy of its name when you’re perched in the hide late af­ter­noon and the ele­phants come within me­tres of you to drink wa­ter and splash around.

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