A great CRAAAACK! in my subconscious woke me with a start. I sensed, rather than felt, KC sitting up beside me in the blackness; he leaned close and I had to strain to hear him whisper into my ear, “He just pushed over a tree. Do you want to get in the car?”
I took the “HE” to mean that KC was referring to the bull elephant we’d heard trumpeting nearby when we climbed into the rooftop tent an hour earlier. Now he’d wandered into our camp and was either expending frustrated sexual energy by pushing over trees, or at the end of a very dry winter, he was resorting to knocking them over to reach the tasty-looking leaves that still clung to the top branches. Maybe a little bit of both.
Either way, he was only 20 feet away and there was no way I was climbing out of the tent, so I suggested to KC that it’s better to be at eye level with an elephant than tusk level. Especially in a park where the elephants have witnessed way too much carnage at the hands of poachers and are reputed to be aggressive as a result. So we stayed put and kept quiet.
Zimbabwe has been on my list for many years. It was long recognized as a success story in Africa for its agriculture, health provisions, education and literacy. Sitting on a high plateau and protected from the extreme temperatures of surrounding regions, it’s blessed with some of the best weather in southern Africa. And it’s home to some crazy-beautiful things to visit, including Mosi-oa-Tunya (“smoke that thunders,” aka Victoria Falls) and national parks that are described with phrases like “intricate network of chattering rivers cascades from the bowels of a chain of wild, jungle-draped mountains.”
But Zimbabwe was turned upside down when the Fast Track Land Reform Act was passed in 2000 and 99.6% of white Zimbabwean farmers and their farm workers were forcibly removed from farmland which had, in earlier colonial generations, been forcibly taken from native Africans. The evictions were often violent, perpetrated by war veterans and homeless Africans frustrated that the government’s promise of land wasn’t forthcoming, but effectively sanctioned by the government. (This wasn’t President Robert Mugabe’s first spree of violence; in the early 1980’s – two years after independence – Mugabe’s ZANU party began a systematic program of harassment, killings, and “disappearing” members and supporters of the opposition party and the only other large tribal group in Zim. Twenty thousand were murdered.)
Hyper-inflation followed along with the empty grocery store shelves and day-long petrol queues that go with such economic collapse, the infamous trillion Zim-dollar notes were printed, and of course there’s the violence and fraud that continues with each passing election. Its known as The Lost Decade, and tourism ground to an immediate halt.
So when we arrived in Africa earlier this year and began hearing that overlanders (visitors arriving by vehicle) are trickling back into Zimbabwe, my ears perked up: In 2011, Zimbabwe requested and received assistance from the United Nations to develop a master tourism plan with hopes of reinventing the crumbled sector. I read a tourism industry journal declaring that “it’s time to start taking guests back to Zimbabwe.” In 2008, Zimbabwe switched to the US dollar and inflation stabilized. The man who sold Snoopy (our car) to us reported that his Zimbabwean wife heard from her aunt in the Zim police force that they were being instructed to leave the tourists alone (read: no more bribes), and he himself was moving his family back to Bulawayo.
Clearly, it’s time to check out Zimbabwe!
That’s how, a few weeks ago, we found ourselves on the other side of the Beit Bridge border crossing and shortly thereafter, we were pulled over at one of Zim’s infamous police stops along the major “freeway” between South Africa and Harare, Zim’s capital and largest city. Instead of asking us for a bribe or searching our car for any excuse to fine us on the spot (as we’d read might happen), the friendly police woman wanted to chat with “the lady of the car.” After some pleasantries and a cold Coke from the cooler in the back seat, she pointed to 2 other officers under a shade tree and said they were trying to get to the next town to deliver a computer to the police headquarters and asked if we had room for them. We rearranged our camping gear and off we four went to Masvingo. The two young police recruits were friendly and pointed out the best place for petrol, the most likely bank to have a working ATM, and the turnoff we would take to the ruins. They also waved at all the other police along the way, ensuring that we were never pulled over at any of the road blocks.
The ruins were a highlight and we were delighted to find a passionate young historian and archaeology student whose studies were interrupted when the economic crisis hit Zim and he could no longer afford university. KC wrote about our visit here.
The next day we wound our way to Gonarezhou National Park and saw firsthand the beauty of Zimbabwe’s southeast corner. It’s rural and very poor; in fact, Zim was recently ranked the 2nd poorest country in the world. People live in traditional houses and draw water from wells. But every village had a primary school (Zimbabweans we’ve met are proud of their education and tell us that each student graduates with a trade or skill) and we saw much evidence to suggest recent reports are correct: the redistribution of farm land after the violence of 2000 is replacing large agri-industry with local farming and ownership.
Gonarezhou is Zim’s 2nd largest national park and is part of the 37,000 km2 (4x bigger than Yellowstone!) Limpopo Transfrontier Park, where three parks congregated around the borders of Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa have removed their fences to form an international “peace park” and animals are free to follow more traditional migration patterns. We could tell immediately that we were in a wild and remote park: the animals are shy! Even the ubiquitous and normally impassive impala ran for their lives when we came around a corner.
On our first night we stayed at Chipinda Pools Rest Camp near the north entrance of the park. All of the campsites in Gonarezhou are unfenced, and hippos and elephants were nearby all night.
The following morning we woke early to avoid the heat (it hit 104⁰F that day…) and drove to Hlare campsite, an “exclusive” camp (read: wilderness with nothing but a long drop (outhouse) and a concrete fire pit, but the entire riverbed to ourselves) at the base of the park’s famous Chilojo Cliffs.
We had to cross the huge riverbed of the Runde River, mostly dry after a long winter without rains. (The park closes annually from October 31 – May 1 because this river is impassable in the rainy season, cutting off the majority of the park.) Here’s a video of the river crossing (on our way out the following morning) for other campers interested in the state of the crossing at this time of year (late September 2013).
Which brings me back to the rowdy (or peckish) elephant who spent the night with us here (and didn’t even offer to share the $50 camping fee). Being so near an elephant is exhilarating: terrifying and thrilling at once. I told myself that he clearly knew where we were and didn’t seem inclined to push a tree on top of us; that helped me to relax and lie back to enjoy the show, in a manner of speaking. Elephants don’t like lights in their eyes so we resisted the temptation to watch him and let his lip-smacking tell the tale.
CRAAAAACK!! A branch broke off.
ZIPPPPPPP! He pulled it through his teeth using his trunk to whisk it from one side of his mouth and out the other side, stripping all the leaves.
GRINDGRINDGRINDGRIND. We were close enough to hear his molars doing their thing.
S — I — G — H — He wooshed out a big exhale before going back for another limb. A moment later his breath reached the tent; it smelled like my mom’s hay barn.
An hour and a half later he wandered off into the bush. The rain woke me at four and we could hear him further off in the bush, still snapping branches. Concerned about the beginning of the rainy season and being on the wrong side of a riverbed (hey, we lived in New Mexico; we know about flash floods), we slid out of our tent in the dark, stopped to watch 5 springhares hop kangaroo-style back to their lairs, shivered at the large, steady luminous eyes staring at us from 50 yards away, then quietly packed up and pulled out of camp. We didn’t get to take stock of the uprooted tree, as by the time the sun came up 90 minutes later, we were already back on the other side of the river and headed home.
To see fabulous photos of the national park featured in this post and read a hilarious article about one of its (completely incompetent) rangers, click here.