Gonarezhou National Park

by Mike Cadman

Gonarezhou National Park

Gonarezhou, located in the remote southern-eastern corner of Zimbabwe, is a vast, wild area of baobab trees, broad rivers, elephants, and one of the best-known landmarks in Zimbabwe, the Chilojo Cliffs, which tower 180 metres (590 ft) above the broad Runde River for 15 kilometres (almost 10 miles).

Viewpoints at the top of ochre-yellow sandstone cliffs provide spectacular vistas over the northern sector of the park, the second largest in Zimbabwe. Viewed from a distance the colours of the cliffs change in intensity as the sun moves overhead until, at sunset, the sheer walls reflect varying hues of red and orange, the subject of many a photographer’s lens.

The park is part of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area, which is shared with Mozambique and South Africa, a huge tract of conservation areas interspersed with rural farming communities. Historically elephants moved between Gonarezhou, parts of Mozambique and the Kruger National Park (KNP) in South Africa, a pattern conservationists are attempting to resuscitate through the establishment of safe corridors through the region.

Gonarezhou, the name means “the place of the elephants,” (nzou is the local Shona people’s word for elephant), hosts more than 11 000 animals, as well as large herds of buffalo and a wide variety of antelope including sable, eland, and other species. Lions, endangered African wild dogs, cheetah, and leopard also occur.

Endangered Black rhino have also been recently reintroduced, for the second time, to the park, and are monitored in a high protection zone created to protect them from poaching. Gonarezhou’s black rhino were first shot to extinction in 1940 and, even though new animals were reintroduced between 1969-1979 and the population grew to about 150 animals, by 1994 poachers had again exterminated them.

Over 450 species of birds, 140 mammal species and around 120 species of reptiles have been recorded in Gonarezhou.

Although the Chilojo Cliffs are the central geographic feature of the 5053 km2 park, (almost 2000 sq miles) ) broad rivers, flood plains, ranges of rugged hills, permanent pans (natural waterholes) and a huge expanse of wild bush create Gonarezhou’s exceptionally varied landscape and biological diversity.

Three large perennial rivers, the Save, of which the Runde is a tributary, forms the north-eastern border of the park and the Mwenezi forms the southern boundary.

The confluence of the Save and Runde is marked by significant floodplains as well as the permanent Tembwahata and Machaniwa pans (water bodies) which attract large numbers of wild animals and birds, particularly in the dry season.

To the south of the Chilojo Cliffs the Naymtongwe Plateau, an ancient remnant of the cliffs, dominates the landscape which is fairly flat until the Chilojo Hills in the central sandveld (a type of vegetation adapted to sandy soils).

The Ntambambomvu Red Hills are the highest point in the south of the park.

The vegetation of the park is diverse and although mopane woodland covers almost half the area there are thousands of baobabs, ironwood trees are common, and large nyala berry, Natal mahogany and wild mango trees are found along the rivers.

The region has an unsettled history. Gonarezhou was declared a protected area in 1934, a decision which resulted in the Shangaan, (sometime known as the Tsonga), people who lived in the area being forced by the government to move elsewhere over a period of several decades. This caused significant resentment amongst those people who were moved.

Soon after the declaration of the park, Government officials also ordered the destruction of tens of thousands of wild animals in an attempt to control tsetse flies which feed on wild game animals and transmit disease to cattle and humans. The campaign lasted for 30 years but, not proving successful, was replaced by DDT (a virulent insecticide) spraying campaigns which had massive and damaging environmental impacts. Large areas of riverine woodland were also bulldozed in the belief that this would reduce the breeding areas of tsetse flies.

Much of the area that is today Gonarezhou was declared a national park in 1975, an achievement largely due to the work of Allan Wright, a government official in charge of the region, who believed that the area was best suited to wildlife conservation.

In his book “Valley of the Ironwoods” Wright records his efforts to convince politicians, senior government officials and large-scale cattle farmers of the value of his beliefs. Some farmers and agriculture officials at the time were opposed to the idea of a game reserve because they feared spread of diseases from wildlife to cattle and worried that predators may leave the reserve and kill livestock.

He also discusses political events in the area, including the removal of people from the park and the impacts of the liberation war in Zimbabwe which began in the 1960s and intensified until 1980, when the country won its independence. The area around Gonarezhou was particularly hotly contested and dozens of elephants became the unintended victims of the large numbers of landmines which were laid along the border with Mozambique in an effort to restrict the movement of guerillas operating there.

Wright notes that for hundreds of years the Save and Runde Rivers were used by traders travelling back and forth from the interior to the Mozambique coast 200 km (120 miles) to the east.

The ancient settlement of Great Zimbabwe, which traded in ivory and gold, lies to the north-west of Gonarezhou and the remains of very old wooden dhows and longboats found at the confluence of the Save and Runde reveal the importance of the trade route through the region. San rock art, revealing even earlier settlement, is also found at various sites near the park.

During the late 19th and early 20th century the area saw heavy hunting, much of it illegal, particularly for ivory. Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Mozambique share a common border point just south of Gonarezhou, an area known as Crooks Corner, so named because illegal hunters and others breaking the law would flee from one country to the other to evade authorities.

Although Gonarezhou has a difficult history, a ground-breaking agreement between Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZPWMA) and the Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS) signed in 2017 has seen improved conservation programmes and community consultation and a surge in tourism in recent years.

Significant effort has been devoted to ensuring that local communities participate in decision making in the park and spreading the benefits of conservation tourism.

Together ZPWMA and FZS have formed the Gonarezhou Conservation Trust which will manage the park for the next 20 years.

Gonarezhou is about 450 km south-east of Harare and can be reached by charter aircraft or road. There are also customs and immigration facilities at the nearby Buffalo Range airport.

There are chalets and a tented safari camp within the park and safari lodges nearby. Gonarezhou has a number of remote campsites, but visitors require a 4×4 vehicle to reach these and must be fully self-sufficient.

Summer temperatures often exceed 35°C (95°F) and in winter early morning temperatures sometime drop to a few degrees above freezing.

Mike Cadman

Mike has worked as a journalist for a variety of international and local media organisations as well as environmental NGO’s for the past 38 years and is the author of five books. During his career, he has covered all major news developments in southern Africa and has travelled extensively throughout many parts of the continent. He spends as much time as possible in the bush and has extensive knowledge of broader environmental issues as well as the creatures that live there.