By Elizabeth Willoughby
The sun is setting, the Chilojo Cliffs of Gonarezhou National Park are growing dark and I'm dragging my chair over to the campfire to join my five companions. It was a long day when anything that could go wrong did go wrong, but we made it.
We only had 300 kilometers of main roads to drive today, Day 19 of our three-week road trip around the country, but driving becomes slow going once you enter a game park. Zimbabwe's 1,950-square-mile Gonarezhou offers visitors a remote game-viewing experience and provides only a handful of campsites within its vast borders. It abuts Mozambique's Transfrontier Park to the southeast, and to the south it meets Mozambique's Limpopo National Park and South Africa's Kruger National Park. Combined, this reserve area is enormous.
It's the end of September, the last days of the dry season when most foliage lies on the ground and game is easier to find because of the limited water sources. We reserved the park's best exclusive campsite, Hilaro, nearly a year ago in preparation for today. Overlooking the almost-dry Runde River below the red escarpment, we're the last to use Hilaro before this area of the park is closed for the rainy season. But first we had to get here.
We left Masvingo, 3.5 hours north, early this morning so that we would have the better part of the day to bounce and bumble through Gonarezhou to our campsite. The 45 minutes' driving between the park's first gate and the reception hut are on gravel, but the rest of the roads are sandy substrata. Gray sky turns blue with billowy clouds while we pay the balance owed for the campsite and tie down bundles of firewood to the pickup's roof. Then our convoy of two begins the 17-mile trek, which we estimate should take about an hour.
While our truck and trailer slip and slide left and right and the four-wheel drive grinds into gear to ascend hills and releases for descents, our eyes are glued to the windows. We see various antelope, magnificent baobab trees and the elephants for which this park was named, and for the first time on this trip we see a giraffe, normally abundant, and a klipspringer — the tiny nocturnal antelope that stands on the tips of its hoofs and hops across rocks to escape danger.
Ninety minutes on, our pickup is making noises that it shouldn't be. We stop and the mechanically adept among us look under the vehicle. The trailer's right brake is stuck on. It is sweltering outside and we feel vulnerable in this little valley. Four of us fumble about trying to look useful and eyeball the surroundings while the brake is removed and the wheel put back on without it. An hour later we are pleased to be lurching and squeaking on.
Our relief, however, is but seven minutes long. Rounding a corner, we come upon the wide Runde that we must cross, but by this time of year it has been reduced to only a stream. We drive down the rocky bank, across the riverbed floor, through the stream, across more sand, and there our tires start spinning. I watch for crocodiles while our second vehicle tries pulling the stuck truck forward. Fail. We dig the sand out from around the tires and try again. Fail. We dig more, set aside rocks that we uncover from under the vehicle and let some air out of the tires. Success! There is no shortage of elation, and on we trek.
The day is waning when we reach our campsite, where one more surprise awaits. Five Afrikaner families are setting up their camp on our site, and from their perspective, since they arrived first, we should move on. We present our documentation to show that we have paid for the site. We try to reason with them and they eventually agree to leave.
We quickly set up camp and get dinner cooking. Relieved that the interlopers are gone, we congratulate ourselves around the fire. We breathe in deeply and exhale slowly. Then we watch as an elephant plods across the riverbed toward us.
The previous weeks have been no less exciting, though a flat tire, getting stuck in the mud while surrounded by crocs and a broken shock absorber were better spread out than today's challenges.
The Masuma Dam site in the Hwange park included a lookout over a watering hole where animals came and went from dawn to dusk: elephants and hippos, impalas and kudus, warthogs, baboons, crocodiles and lizards, flocks of birds and birds of prey. Tracks around the camp each morning suggested that some also visited at night.
We viewed wildlife from the water during a houseboat cruise on Lake Kariba and visited Earth's highest waterfall, Victoria Falls. We did game drives in Mana Pools, where elephants challenged each other while their calves play-wrestled, crocodiles sunbathed on muddy shores and African wild dogs hunted at dusk as we retreated to our campsite along the Zambezi River.
An unexpected find was Great Zimbabwe. A largely unheard-of UNESCO World Heritage site, it's the A.D.1300 ruins of the largest southern Africa walled stone city. Built by the Shona, its planning and construction are impressive.
There is little of the country that this 3,400-mile trip didn't cover. Sometimes we were surrounded by nature that doesn't play by man's rules, but the joy is that modern life hasn't touched this ancient environment.
WHEN YOU GO
Elizabeth Willoughby is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.