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Gonarezhou & the Kingdom of Giants


Driving over the Tropic of Capricorn, the landscape slowly changes, becoming dry, hot and arid. It was late in the day and the sun was setting. The roads challenged our focus with potholes, yet around us we were gifted by the sight of the most magnificent baobabs – the giants among trees. Little did we know that this was just the beginning of many other African giants we would encounter.

After a long day’s drive, it was a balancing act between managing our speed to ensure we did not damage our vehicle in the huge potholes and arriving at our stopover before darkness descended. The roads were quiet and we did not see another vehicle for a while. In the distance we did see a hitchhiker – a young lady dressed in national parks attire. She stood alone in the heat of the day. We stopped to pick her up and she happily jumped aboard. She was en route to the same destination as us and was grateful that she had found transport. She explained that she has been waiting at the roadside for 6 hours and then shared information about her two children and the work she does at the Mapungubwe National Park.

As we entered the gates of the park, we give a little shriek of excitement at the wonders before us. We were at the door to the Land of the Giants. There were baobabs everywhere, large and small baobabs as far as the eye could see. These giant ‘upside-down’ trees, which can grow up to 20 metres tall, painted wonderful silhouettes across the horizon in front of the setting sun. We felt humbled to find ourselves surrounded by such beauty with its long history and interesting heritage. Mapungubwe National Park forms part of the Greater Trans-Frontier Conservation Area. The park protects the old capital of the Mapungubwe Kingdom as well as wildlife and ravine forests around the Limpopo River. It is truly a magical place full of beauty and history.

The accommodation in the park is a perfect combination of rustic seclusion and comfort. The cabin we stayed in was simple, with netted sides to keep mosquitoes and unwelcome wildlife out. The natural ventilation that blows through the cabin offered welcome respite from the heat. Our camp was on a hill and overlooked a beautiful valley. We were able to soak in the view and watch a heard of zebra and buck that had come to welcome us to this World Heritage Site. When darkness fell, we heard the many sounds of the bush and when we bravely stepped onto our balcony we were by an expansive twinkling blanket of stars. We could hear elephants that were close by too.

The next morning, we set off to the Beitbridge border hoping to get there before the queues got too long. Driving out of the park, trailed by a cloud of dust, we took time to soak up the vistas of that magical place. We were stopped in our tracks and stared in awe at a perfect marriage of two of the ‘African Giants’, an elephant and a baobab stood rubbing shoulders before us.
Our plans to get to the border early were dashed when we drove over some barbed wire just before reaching the park’s exit. After repairing the punctured tyre, we had to stop in Musina to replace our spare tyre and purchase final stocks before entering Zimbabwe, a country where shops are stocked only with basics.

At the border we were reminded to be patient. Even the hardiest of travellers can be tested at this border. We stood in a long line in the heat of the day. Some people held umbrellas over their heads to protect themselves from the burning sun and we used a water spray bottle for cooling down. Many hours later, exhausted by the crowds and confusion of the border, we drove into Zimbabwe. There is a big roundabout that is well signposted and this is where we hit our first toll. We didn’t have Zimbabwean dollars or Bond notes but luckily, they were very happy to accept Rands at a negotiable exchange rate. Thereafter, the roads become barren and there are no more road signs. We were now completely reliant on our GPS navigation in the vehicle and on our phones. The GPS has its limitations and we took many wrong turns along the way.

A combination of semi-reliable technology and friendly Zimbabweans whom we asked for directions, ensured we arrived in the beautifully Shona named ‘Place of Elephants’ – Gonarezhou National Park. We were within the heart of the giants and according to the information provided, this national park houses about 11 000 of these African giants.

The Gonarezhou National Park is 5 035 km² and is the second largest in the country. After periods of closure for many years, the park reopened in 1994. They experienced hardships with droughts, poaching and various other economic hardships. Only in 2007 after some re-investment by an international conservation organisation, did rebuilding in the park commence. Currently the park is under the management of a trust and when we arrived, we were pleasantly surprised by new signage, new fencing and the completion of the tented camps for ‘glamping’ tourists. It was pleasing to see that the place was being well-managed and that there is concerted effort to protect the flora and fauna in this area.

We were able to navigate our way to the park gates from the border in about 5-6 hours. Enveloped within the mopane, the acacia, the iconic baobab trees and the ancient wilderness, the park can be found in the lowland region of south eastern Zimbabwe. We decided to spend our first few days close to the river at Chipinda Pools. The campsites are well-managed, large and have good ablutions and shade. There is running water, firewood for sale and a shaded table area for individual use.

It is situated by the Runde River which is alive with diverse birdlife and other wildlife. The pools are home to many hippopotamuses that kept us entertained for hours. The camps are unfenced, which makes them even more magical. On the way to the ablutions, we were stopped in our tracks by a huge lone elephant that had lost half his trunk, possibly in a fight. We backed away slowly and stayed well out of his way. Later, we watched this lone elephant cross the river and upset some bathing hippos in his path. Bush buck roamed and grazed freely around us and below, the hippo noises was music to our ears.

From the luxury of the shaded pools at Chipinda, we headed further into the park to the gigantic and rugged 180 metre tall Ntambambomvu red-stone natural walls called Chilojo Cliffs. Taking the advice of the park rangers, we came well prepared with extra water and firewood, as it is an isolated camping spot that has only 2 campsites. The enormous cliffs form an awe inspiring backdrop and there is no running water or electricity. There was a very basic fire pit and a long drop toilet. Although it was only a 30km trip, due to the bad road surfaces, it took hours to negotiate. The roads require a 4×4 and the journey requires patience.

Before arriving at the campsite, we were presented with a wonderful sight that looked like it was straight out of a magical fairy tale. We are surrounded by thousands of speckled red butterflies (Acarea Violarum) that fluttered around us and families of elephants satisfying their huge appetites on foliage right before us. We sat for about an hour, unable to proceed as these large gentle animals claimed this space. We were humbled by the beauty and sat calmly while we waited for permission from the giants to enter the Chilijo Cliffs campsite. After some time, we were granted access as the gentle giants decided to let us proceed. The cliffs rose before us with their vast and rugged countenance, washed in a pink hue by the setting sun. With the Malvernia Sand Beds of the Mwenezi River Valley below, we sat on the hill and looked out at our Mozambique neighbours.

We found ourselves alone on the cliffs and made a large fire to mask our fears, feel a little safer and ward of any unwanted visitors. We watched herds of the majestic elephants walk along the valley’s river before calmly heading up the cliffs. At dusk, a lone fox came to drink at the river. As night fell, the sounds of the wild cats and other wildlife could be heard. It’s a place of great beauty, of vulnerability, adventure and mystery. It’s the Land of the Giants.

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