Words by Patrick Cruywagen Pictures by Patrick Cruywagen and Alison Cole.
Zimbabwe is definitely back on the African overlanding radar. Over the last few years the trickle of South African visitors has increased to a steady flow; in fact we’ve been credited with keeping their beleaguered tourism sector going.
The global economic meltdown and the subsequent need to visit places closer to home has contributed to Zim’s ever-increasing popularity. What’s more, with a little research and bargaining, you can pick up very good deals. While on a recent visit to the Eastern Highlands, a friend encouraged me to take a little dirt road detour through the Save Valley Conservancy and spend a night at Savuli Lodge. Coming from Chimanimani, instead of taking the A10 to Beit Bridge, we hopped west onto the A9 which takes one across the Birchenough Bridge over the Save River.
This has to be one of the nest bridges in all of Africa; it reminds one of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, but scaled down. The similarity is no coincidence – Sir Ralph Freeman designed both. The bridge might seem like overkill, but as the river can rise up to nine metres here during flooding, it’s actually well-sized. It spans an impressive 329 metres and when it opened in 1935 it was the third-largest suspension bridge in the world. According to a small copper plaque positioned at the eastern entrance of the bridge it was named a er Sir Henry Birchenough, president of the BSAC at the time, who helped finance the bridge.
Not long a er crossing the bridge we turned on the tar and into the northern gate of the Save Valley Conservancy. A 117 km dirt road separates the northern and southern gate of the conservancy but a er 41 km we turned onto the west and tackled the last 13 kilometres to the lodge. After spending several days in the Highlands it was great to be in the bush of Zimbabwe’s Lowveld amongst the Big Five animals and the baobab trees.
The area’s history is fascinating. When the first settlers arrived they noticed that the surrounding grasslands easily supported the masses of wildlife which roamed the Lowveld. You can guess what happened soon after: the wildlife was eradicated and replaced with cattle. Droughts, irregular rainfall and the deadly tsetse They took their toll and the cattle farming operations collapsed. At the same time there was an urgent need to relocate rhino from the Zambezi area where they were being decimated by poachers. After the devastating drought of ’91 and ’92 a decision was taken to remove the cattle, and 21 farmers put one game fence around the area, making it one of the biggest privately-owned conservation areas on the planet; this is how the Save Valley Conservancy was born.
The conservancy has played an important part in protecting and growing the rhino population, but sadly they haven’t escaped the recent escalation in rhino poaching: six of these ne beasts had been killed by late November last year. A limited amount of trophy hunting does take place in the conservancy, which helps to finance conservation e orts and provides local communities with funds and employment. Of late the conservancy has su ered another threat: war veterans have moved onto small pockets of land and indications are that they do not share the same conservation ideals as other stakeholders in the area.
The Savuli safari camp is situated on the Gwezi River. On the river’s opposite bank lie several koppies. The camp sleeps 12 people. There are four twin-bedded A-frame thatches and a family-styled stone cottage. As I roar like a lion at night we stayed in the stone cottage so that I could have my own bed. Meals are enjoyed in a central thatched area; another favourite area is the riverside lapa. Savuli is far away from the other lodges, making it the perfect place to disappear for a few days.
The conservancy lies in Big Five country; other animals include wild dogs, cheetah, giraffe, wildebeest, sable, eland, zebra, waterbuck, kudu, bushbuck, impala, warthog and many others. Birdlife is proli c with over 200 species recorded, including Black, Crowned & Tawny Eagles which nest in the nearby koppies. A Narina Trogon has been spotted at the camp.
We’d been told that not far from the lodge lies the biggest single-stem baobab tree in the world. In my travels I’ve visited several sites which claim to host the biggest baobab so I was keen to go and see this one. During the drought of the early ’90s, water tankers were brought into the conservancy to save the tree. It worked and today it stands proudly, about 30 minutes from Savuli. ey say that it has a circumference of just over 30 metres, and it was only once we parked our vehicle next to it and stood under it that we got a real sense of the size of this granddaddy.
Our little detour to Savuli was a most welcome break; our FJ Cruiser got a break from the highway tar and sleeping in the bush is so much better than a night at some roadside lodge. I would’ve liked to have spent a few more days at Savuli but unfortunately we were on a tight schedule. I recommend that you stay at Savuli for a minimum of two nights so you can relax at the lapa and do a few game drives. When leaving the conservancy we headed south on the main road and got to see some of the land which has been occupied by war veterans. Some of them had cleared tracts of land to do subsistence farming.
Once out the southern gate it’s not far to the big town of Chiredzi where one can fuel up and buy supplies from the OK shop. A couple of hours later we were back at the Beit Bridge border post and another Zimbabwean adventure was over for us. I was glad that we’d gone via Savuli as it’d taken us over a rather remarkable bridge plus I had seen for myself one of the biggest private conservation efforts in Africa.