19 April 2018

Zimbabwe: Gonarezhou National Park - Zimbabwe's Best-Kept Secret

Photo: 263Chat
Gonarezhou National Park

Those in the know call it Gona: a piece of wild Africa where a safari means something more than a queue of camera-toting tourists in minibuses clustered around a bored lion.

It is a place where crystal-clear rivers meet, 8,000 elephant roam and iridescent birds dart among trees in an untouched forest -- and yet a lucky few visitors can enjoy it all in absolute comfort after an easy journey from London.

Gonarezhou National Park, to use its full name, is a stunning place to visit but also an uplifting one, a conservation success story in a country sadly better-known for its difficulties. Tucked into the bottom corner of Zimbabwe, it lies just to the north of South Africa's famous Kruger National Park. There, tourists queue on tar roads and the lodges are packed. In Gonarezhou, you can see wild Africa for a fraction of the cost of many less exclusive destinations.

The key to this secret is Chilo Gorge Safari Lodge, where the airy, luxurious cabins sit in a beautiful garden high above the banks of the Save River. You could spend a week here, perched on the deck next to the swimming pool, glancing down at the gorge below to see leopards eyeing up eland and nyala antelope as they come to drink, and crocodiles drifting lazily in the shallows. At dawn, a bronze sun bursts above the bush, but this is not wild camping: the food is magnificent and plentiful, from home-made scones to grilled buffalo steaks for dinner, the bar well-stocked and the staff delighted that you are there.

Zimbabwe's reputation puts off some English visitors -- but not those from other countries, who know that despite its politics it is still home to some of Africa's finest landscapes, plentiful wildlife and the best-trained guides. Any doubts vanish as soon as you arrive at nearby Buffalo Range Airport, which now has a direct flight to Johannesburg for connections to London. Zimbabweans are delighted to welcome visitors back and for all its troubles the country has a quiet, almost old-fashioned air and feels safe.

There is another good reason to go to Chilo Gorge, too, as I found out from Clive Stockil, who was born on a farm nearby, brought up speaking local languages and has devoted his life to saving the animals of Gonarezhou and helping its people. He founded the lodge and took us deep into the national park it overlooks -- but he started by telling us the story of the Jamanda project. With his help, local villagers are creating a new wildlife reserve from little-used land, funded by jobs at the lodge and a small levy on visitors. By coming here, you help the people and preserve the wilderness. In place of conflict between humans and animals, there is hope.

Stockil led us through the new Jamanda land, every bit the hardened former hunter, telling us tales of how he once faced down a buffalo in the forest. He knows every inch of the place, and so do his team of guides, who visit the national park to take visitors past 1,000-year-old baobab trees, across riverbeds and up to the top of spectacular red cliffs in a wild landscape like no other.

Gonarezhou means 'the place of elephants' and its herds are famous and well-protected. The best way to see them is to book a night or two at the tented camp that the team from Chilo set up in the park -- although the word tent hardly does justice to our grand accommodation, with a river view, full private bathroom, dining room and bar.

Returning to the lodge, we gathered for dinner, exhilarated. Herons fished in the river below, the sun set, glasses of whisky and soda clinked and, by the fire, we toasted a magical place.

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