Gonarezhou National Park

C. Fraser Claire

Gonarezhou: Place of Elephants and Giant Landscapes

Gonarezhou: Place of Elephants and Giant Landscapes

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Gonarezhou National Park: Place of the Elephants and Giant Landscapes | What To Pack For Gonarezhou National Park | Quick Travel Tips to Gonarezhou National Park

Gonarezhou National Park by The Safari Store

Wide open spaces have the power to fill us in amazing ways. I went to Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe with an idea of the famous Chilojo Cliffs with their almost watermark patterns – tree growth rings for the landscape. I had an idea of the snaking mercury flow of the Runde through the dry riverbed. I had an idea of hundreds and thousands of elephants. But nothing could have prepared me for the blast of feeling that came from being there.

Steve choreographed my first sighting of the cliffs in the most astounding way. How is it possible to keep something of such sheer enormity so hidden? It’s nature’s sleight of hand, a card trick where the reveal has an astounding clap of drama.

The cliffs are, without question, a monument to the destination and the experiences to be had there. To look at them from their base is to become miniscule, alongside dwarfed elephants and giant trees. To look at them from the top is to feel the wonder of satellite and microscopic views at the same time – a privileged perspective. As you explore the area around the cliffs, every now and then, they appear in a vista, as a panorama, as a prospect.

There is some monastery element to them. Perhaps it is the silence. Perhaps it is the Jordanian terracotta hues. Perhaps it is the bird and wildlife scenes playing out in front of you as if they were living frescoes. As the wildest natural world so often does, perhaps it is the feeling of the divine, the metaphysical co-ordination between reality and being in the places that are free of our interference.

In observing the cliffs, somewhere there is an echo with the landscape that becomes the Zambezi and Victoria Falls. Zimbabwe really is a nation of natural treasures. Within Gonarezhou National Park itself, the different areas show off the beauty of the place in different ways – and that is why venturing beyond the cliffs will always leave you rewarded.

It was the high heat of October – just before the rains. The temperatures were searing and the winds were like a southern mistral signalling that the seasons were about to change. We slept beneath the nets in a chalet at Swimuwini on our first night and in the beautiful tents at Chipinda Pools on our last night. The nights in between were spent in a small tent which pulsated with each blast of the October wind - so much so that at times I imagined that I was inside a beating heart at night. →

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Chilojo Cliffs, Gonarezhou National Park - by The Safari Store

The Earth Ages In Slow Motion
These fixtures and fissures are Africa's smile lines and frown lines - the jagged script of the landscape's storytelling.

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Gonarezhou National Park, Place of the Elephants - by The Safari Store

Gonarezhou, the place of elephants, lived up to its name. We watched herds of these incredible animals drink and splash and move on. We watched herds meet with herds with the occasional upset on the fringes. We drove over sand with constellations of elephant tracks – with navigational accuracy not unlike the stars.

Camping at one of Chilojo’s exclusive campsites is nature’s finest drive-in movie. We watched the colours change. We watched the elephants come and go. We watched the flames of our campfire knowing that the darkness held height and depth and wild wonders.

We crossed rivers on game drives and lapped up the relative cool under the thatched shelter at our new campsite in Chinguli Campsite. Elephants crossed the river in front of us, with a hint of Chilojo on the horizon. I flipped through my bird book, excited at the prospect of seeing as yet unseen species that had become familiar on paper from years of paging past.

The days were hot and the air quivered in an almost whitewashed haze. Buffalo beat the dust in retreat – whole herds disappearing behind unleafed mopani as if part of some hologram.

We drove from one open, unfenced campsite to the next – some little more than a clearing (read ‘perfect’) – trying to rank our favourites. The endeavour took us through tall forests, where we watched elephants become part of the understory, part of the riverbed, and part of the distance. →

Buffalo in Gonarezhou National Park by The Safari Store

Who's Boss?
Herds of buffalo almost become a single entity as they shuffle the dry grass en masse - but the power of the individual is not lost in the buffalo stare.

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I’d seen the view from the top of Chilojo in the afternoon, but I ached to see her morning colours. We stayed, watching the light change on the patterns of the river below. We saw raptors flying between the fingers in the rock and scanned the bush for movement – the day’s wild stories playing out in miniature.

We drove right across to Benji Weir and on to the Runde Gorge – areas that are remarkably different from the cliffs. I spotted the deep lapis lazuli on a Blue-Spotted Wood Dove, the paddled fronds of the Racket-Tailed Roller - giving new definition to ‘birding party’ after time filled with hope and searching.

We drove down into the haze of the gorge at the Runde River bridge and I felt, yet again, lost in the world in landscape that felt familiar as biblical or mythical or legendary, but can more certainly be classified as extraordinary. Three elephant bulls took their time at the river. Every minute as an onlooker was an honour. I would argue that the everyday rituals of these incredible beasts should be regarded as sacred – and time disappeared in the lulling consistency of the ear flap, the pendulous swing of the tail, the fern-like curl and uncurl of the trunk.

Black Eagles flew overhead and the rocks had splintered into sharp and jagged crystalline orbs along the river’s edge. The bush faded blue into the distance and baobabs dotted the hillsides. →

Blue-Spotted Wood Dove in Gonarezhou National Park by The Safari Store

The elephants rounded a bend, right at home in big landscape.
View from Chilojo Cliffs, Gonarezhou National Park - by The Safari Store

Framed Memories
The height and outline of the rocky outcrops at the top of Chilojo give everything below a new context - putting the 'ants' in 'elephants' at times as if in some hocus pocus of size.

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Gorwe Pan, Gonarezhou National Park - by The Safari Store

Another day, we had lunch alongside what was left of the water left in Machaniwa Pan. This was the quietest part of the park, but the surface of the pan moved with birdlife. Elephants lined the rim of the marshy pan’s edge. This was the last of the green in the dry season.

We drove down to the river’s edge and looked across into Mozambique. Gonarezhou is a transfrontier national park and game has the freedom to move into the wild places of Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and the northern part of Kruger National Park. The only limit to those freedoms are humans and the names we give our boundaries.

Looking out onto that horizon creates the most profound sense of space – akin to taking a deep breath after drowning in the world’s busyness. The riverbed stretched ahead in a junction – a spool with silver threads of water trailing ahead, behind, and around – a helix connecting everything despite country names.

The heat seemed to reach its climax on the day we were camping at Hlaro. The campsite is on top of the high walls of the dry riverbed and we positioned our chairs in the shade to watch wildlife move backwards and forwards in front of this angled view of Chilojo. I walked to the edge to find myself a short distance away from an elephant bull in the riverbed below me. Freeze! As he walked past, an arm’s length or two away, I heard his breath and stomach rumble. His eye was just visible below the river wall – garnet red behind wire eyelashes. As he reached me, he stopped and a moment was filled with maybes until he carried on his way. I shared breath with that bull for a minute and, while it is certainly closer than I will ever be comfortable with an elephant on foot, it is one of my most exquisite memories. →

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Chilojo Cliffs view, Gonarezhou National Park - by The Safari Store

Height and Horizons
Looking out on horizons that hover in pale blue at the edge of sight from the top of Chilojo, length and breadth and height create a formula for depth of experience.

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It was an afternoon filled with elephants - and a chance encounter with lion. We got into the car to make the short drive for a shower to Chinguli and had hardly rounded the bend when two lions walked into the clearing behind camp. They made a clear trajectory for the river – the male at the back hesitant in our presence.

We went back to camp and down to the river wall to watch the water’s edge from the campsite. One lion flopped down with his belly in the shallows. We watched the second through shared Swarovskis as it watched us straight back from the bush. Eventually, we were less enticing than a cool belly and he joined the other one. It was my first time seeing lions on foot.

We pulled our chairs out and watched the lions from the distance of the camp. There’s nothing like the sun going down on your campsite with two lions but a few metres away. We drank some bubbly drinks and watched their every move until they loped into the far distance. On days like those (and I’ve been lucky enough to have a few), I often think that whoever you are, wherever you are, no matter how much money you have spent, few experiences rival the purity of mine on those kinds of days in Africa. They defy the ages and make time so powerfully stand still.

The tops of the cliffs were lit with lightning that night and the wind peaked in intensity. Sleepless, sandy, and so very happy we made our way to Chipinda Pools for our last night in the park. It was beautifully cool and I stalked little birds into thickets around camp and let hippos set the tone of the narrative for my last night. →

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Lion at Hlaro, Gonarezhou National Park - by The Safari Store

Lions at Hlaro Campsite, Gonarezhou National Park - by The Safari Store

Riverfront Views
We were humans watching lions watching humans on our final afternoon of camping at Hlaro. Lions at last light give darkness a different dimension - a nighttime energy that asserts the true order of things.

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Elephant at Hlaro Campsite, Gonarezhou National Park - by The Safari Store

Sand and Elephant Susurration
Sand and giants conspire to what seems an implausible silence but, even in the open, elephants can sneak up on you.

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Crocodile in Gonarezhou National Park by The Safari Store

Current Events
Even in the shallows, it is worth checking twice for crocodiles.

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Elephants near the Runde River Bridge, Gonarezhou National Park

Rock Stars
The different landscapes and the power of elephants made every sighting something special in this 'Place of Elephants'.

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Waterbuck in Gonarezhou National Park by The Safari Store

Go Your Own Way
Standing in one country, looking at another, Gonarezhou so wonderfully preserves this wild patch of Africa.

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Zimbabwe Safari Links:
Gonarezhou National Park: The Place of Elephants and Giant Landscapes | What To Pack For A Safari To Gonarezhou National Park | Quick Travel Tips for Gonarezhou National Park | Falling For Victoria Falls | Quick Travel Tips For Victoria Falls | What To Pack For Victoria Falls | What To Pack For a Safari To Hwange National Park | Hwange National Park Quick Travel Tips | Hide and Seek in Hwange National Park | Gonarezhou Bushcamps | Zambezi River Expedition |

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