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Sunday on the Save

1150
VIEWS

Words and pictures by Patrick Cruywagen

The fine red grains of river sand are like millions of tiny glowing coals, burning my so , pink feet.  There’s almost a cooling sizzle when I step into the Save River. Over a hundred metres away lies the river’s southern bank, where our Isuzu bakkie is supposed to exit the crossing. I begin to walk across.

At times the sand is so soft that my feet disappear. How much deeper will our bakkie sink? When the water starts to tickle my privates, I decide that this crossing point might be a bridge too far for our stock standard Isuzu.

Referring to the T4A mapset on my GPS I see that this is where locals cross on foot. We’re in a rather remote part of Mozambique and if we don’t manage to cross here, it’ll add a few days to the journey to Parque Nacional de Zinave and Parque Nacional de Banhine. I decide to return to Mavue, the nearby village, to find some help. I can’t find anyone who speaks English but a few lads try to impress me with broken Afrikaans. They say they’ll show me where vehicles can cross the Save.

It’s normally only around June that these rivers become crossable by vehicle. We’re here in May. It’s way too early but our schedule is tight. The spot they show us is a little further upstream where the sand seems fi rmer. Th ere aren’t any vehicle tracks visible going into the river but someone has placed several poles in the river to show drivers the line they must take.

I walked this crossing several times and feel relatively comfortable that we’ll make it. The water level is just under hip height at its deepest and my travel companion, Lambert Ludick, claims confidently that he’s done much deeper crossings in his Defender. I cross to the other bank with my cameras and we’re ready to roll.

The Isuzu enters the water slowly and then Lambert gets the speed up until there’s a nice bow wave going in front of the vehicle. Textbook stuff . I think back to a few years ago when I had a little mishap in the Caprivi Strip while attempting a rather more serious water crossing. If anything should go wrong here we’d be pretty buggered, especially without a sat phone, and the only way out would be on a donkey cart.

Suddenly, things start going pear-shaped. The rear of the Isuzu drops into a hole and the vehicle stops moving. I drop my cameras and run into the water. “Why the hell did you stop?” I shout. “The Isuzu will not move anymore,” replies Lambert as he climbs out the driver’s window. I take a peek inside the cabin and see my wallet and important documents fl oating about.

I shout instructions to a few of the locals who have come to have a look, but in my head I’m busy formulating my letter of resignation. I get Lambert back behind the steering wheel; he makes sure the diff-lock is engaged. We’re a motley bunch pushing the rear of the Isuzu: a mother with a baby attached to her breast, two boys who can’t be a day over 10, an old lady, two men and me. On the count of three we push and Lambert gives gas.

Nothing happens at first but then the Isuzu begins to inch forward, and soon it gets more grip and pulls free. Two of the volunteers don’t anticipate this and fall face flat into the river, including the mum and baby.

Once the Isuzu is out of the river our whole party lets out whoops of delights and it’s time for hugs all round. Lambert opens the door and water pours out of the Isuzu. He opens his wallet and starts to hand out money as an off ering of thanks. Our Engel fridge is still whirring so I grab a beer and go sit in the river. I’ve aged about 10 years in the last fi ve minutes. To its credit, the Isuzu didn’t miss a beat for the rest of our adventure.

In our November ’10 issue we published an article about Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park, a park that with the help of an American donor is on the mend. With this trip we decided to focus on some parks which are a little closer but less developed and less well-known.

We began by driving through Kruger National Park into Mozambique via the Pafuri border post. Normally one can drive across the Limpopo not far from here, but people who’d been through the area the previous week told me that the river was still too high and so we moved on towards the crossing near Mapai. My same sources told me that there’s a new pont here and for about R400 they’ll ferry your 4×4 across the Limpopo River. One can sometimes drive it, but only once the water levels have subsided sufficiently after the summer rains.

The pontoon which was anchored next to the riverbank hardly looks sturdy enough to transport a cow, nevermind a 4×4. Five young chaps approach us, each with a beer in hand. The leader speaks fluent Swahili thanks to the beer and demands R550 to take us across, which makes this one of the most expensive river crossings on the continent. I suppose that in a few weeks’ time the water levels would be low enough to drive it and people would no longer need their services, so for now they’re cashing in. I tell them that it’s too expensive and we drive away. It’s all part of the negotiations. Besides that, the light is too harsh for good photographs so we drive about two kilometres and enjoy a cool drink. But they hold all the aces, because if we don’t use their pontoon we have to drive via Massingir, a massive detour.

With the sun closer to the horizon we go back to try and renegotiate the fee. They’re still not budging, which is surprising because by the looks of things they’ve run out of beer and should be in a more desperate state of mind. So we have no choice but to pay the R550, although I only give them the cash once we reach the northern bank. Despite the wonky-looking pontoon, the crossing goes smoothly and we’re soon on our way.

As we follow the railway line north towards the Sango border post to Zimbabwe we realise we’re not going to reach it by sunset. So we veer off into the bushes to find a camping spot for the night. When doing this it’s important to choose a spot that passersby can’t see from the road. This is one of my favourite parts of overlanding, sleeping wherever, sitting around the fire debating the continent’s workings and woes, while in the background some Karoo chops sizzle on the braai. Could life get any better?

From here it’s a short drive to the border post. I’m told that the Mozambique frontier town of Eduardo Mondlane has become a modern-day Crooks’ Corner. Our visit coincides with the arrival of the weekly train from Maputo so the town is packed; hundreds of people stand alongside the train to collect goods and trade. Out of the blue a policeman in a Land Cruiser, with siren blaring, barges his way through the crowds. He has come to collect the station’s weekly rations and has right of way. Because of the train, the border post is busier than usual; the guy standing in front of me has a fridge he’s just collected from the train. We have to pay the regular carbon tax, road tax and third-party insurance, but no-one tries to charge us extra for importing beer or fuel. It takes us about 10 minutes to get through both sides.

Before we head off to Gonarezhou we make a quick detour to Malilangwe, a private game reserve which lies just north of the national park. I’d heard some good stories about their rhino and wild dog populations and wanted to have a look for myself. Th e reserve’s resident filmmaker is Kim Wolhuter but he’s away so we spend some time with his sidekick, Mark van der Merwe, who’s busy shooting a documentary on wild dogs. Within minutes of setting off on our game drive we spot some rhino; they stand majestic in golden light and I struggle to understand why anyone would harm such a beautiful creature.

We also see some lion and elephant that fi rst evening but no wild dogs. Th e next morning we head off at 04h30, determined to fi nd them. It’s freezing on the film vehicle but the sunrise and early morning smells and sounds make the cold worth bearing. After a couple of hours we find the wild dogs. After 10 years of game drives and much time in the bush, it’s only my third sighting – they’re about as rare as a Currie Cup in the Western Cape.

From here it’s a short hop, skip and a jump to Gonarezhou National Park. As this is one of the more remote and lesser known Zimbabwean Parks the entrance fees are cheaper than those at Mana Pools and Hwange. Experts tell me that this park was hard hit by a drought which seriously aff ected animal numbers. Today, elephant are on the recovery but find me a person who has seen a lion in Gonarezhou and I’ll buy you a case of beers.

Before heading off into the park we stop off at the offices of the likeable Hugo van der Westhuizen, who works for the Frankfurt Zoological Society. I ask him who normally comes to the Gonarezhou and why. “Our biggest market is definitely the South Africans with the biggest attraction being the Chilojo Cliffs. This is the wilderness and you won’t encounter too many tourists here, which is a good reason to come,” says Hugo.

The best months to visit are from June to August so we’re a little early. Nevertheless we take the hour-long drive to the campsites at the cliffs. We cross the Runde River to get to Directors Camp where you get to sleep under the imposing red cliffs. Two elephants occupy the spot we where we’d like to put our tents so we wait patiently for them to move on.

Once the camp is set up it’s time for a sunset game drive where we run into the only other visitors in the park. “You look familiar,” comments the elderly gentleman in the Pajero. “I’m the Bush Editor of SA4x4 magazine,” I reply. He stops his vehicle. “No ways, I keep all my copies and love the magazine,” says my new best friend John Taylor. He’s been coming to the park since ’65 and even had the honour of drowning a vehicle here many years ago. He and his wife Dot have chosen a campsite on the other side of the Runde River, where they can look up at the cliffs. “I just love the solitude of this place; it’s a proper wilderness, not commercialised or developed – just what we like,” explains John. We decide there and then to join John and Dot for a sunset drink. It strikes me how crazy it is that such a massive park has only four guests, and yet we still manage to run into each other.

Our campsite has no facilities other than a long drop and a braai place. With views like these it doesn’t matter. As the day turns to night the place comes alive. The impala are in the middle of a game of Weakest Link with the dominant males vying for the upper hand; it’s a noisy process as they bark like mad. Then the birds and baboons join in. I look up at the skies to see a million stars. Our time in the Zimbabwean section of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park has been short but memorable.

Those of you who’ve read my past writings know I’m not someone who likes to drive the same road twice. Our next destinations are the Zinave and Banhine Parks in Mozambique. The quickest way to get there would be to cross the Save River in Gonarezhou, near the confluence with Runde, and then head into Mozambique (even though there’s no official border post). Obvious legalities aside, the river’s still too high so this is defi nitely not an option. We decide instead to head north-east towards Chimanimani, but before we get there we’ll cross into Mozambique at the Espungabera border post. We take a slight detour to the town of Chiredzi where we buy some fresh bread and Lion Lagers, one of the must-do things when visiting Zimbabwe, even if it’s just to remind you of the ’80s and ’90s in SA!

The scenery changes rather dramatically the closer we get to Zimbabwe. It reminds me so much of the mountainous parts of Rwanda and Burundi, bright green hills covered in tea plantations. Soon this is replaced by Knysna-like forests. I so wish we could head further into the mountains and the eastern highlands but we have to turn off towards the border. I make a mental note that this will be the place I visit during my next Zimbabwe trip.

It’s already dark by the time we reach the border post and so the Zimbabweans stamp us out without batting an eyelid. Not so on the Mozambique side. The border officials smell as if they’ve been swimming in a sea of beer all day. Gift s are solicited, but I refuse to give in and pay just the official fee. So what if it takes us a few minutes longer – it’s not like it’s going to get any darker.

We drive for a couple of hours before we camp alongside the overhanging pylons. Once again no-one disturbs us. Aft er our Save River crossing we reach the village of Massangena where there’s a brand new fuel station. Zachariah Masango from Zimbabwe is in charge and speaks the most beautiful English. Th rough the Isuzu’s windscreen he sees my copy of Tim Butcher’s latest novel, Chasing the Devil, which got soaked during the crossing, and straight away asks if he can have it. As I’ve only just started reading it I say no. Opposite the fuel station is the Zinave entrance and I ask Zachariah if it’s worth a visit. “We don’t have lions, we don’t have rhino and we don’t have buffalo, but we have ostriches. You know the big black bird? The one with the small head and long neck,” he says. The problem with Zinave is that they have villages in the park so you’ll be lucky to even see a hare. Zinave is situated in the Inhambane Province and in the ’60s it was proclaimed a hunting area; this changed in 1972 when it became a national park. The Save River which we previously crossed forms the northern boundary of the park.

We drive in and while the miombo forests and woodlands might be impressive all we see between them are villages and no animals. Aft er a couple of hours we put up camp between the trees. Th e following morning we decide to take the same road back again. At the garage Zachariah is waiting for me. He’s bought me a present, a Laurens van der Post Classic,  the Lost World of the Kalahari. I’m humbled. It’s one of those unexpected pearls of travel and so I give him my book that he asked for. Even before we leave he’s reading it – clearly there aren’t many libraries around these parts.

By now we’re literally driving on donkey tracks as we make our way south; thankfully they’re marked on our GPS and the new T4A Mozambique paper map which was launched just prior to our departure. We don’t see any other vehicles other than in and around largish settlements or villages. We turn off the main track as we want to enter Banhine from the north-east as this will allow us to see some of the pans. Not far from the park’s HQ we’re most surprised to fi nd the loveliest tented camp which costs less than R100 for the night. They also have fl ush toilets and showers so we take full advantage aft er days of washing in the river or not washing at all. This is all so very diff erent from Zinave where they only have campsites – we didn’t spot any of these during our day in the park.

The Banhine National Park was founded in 1972 as an attempt to protect and save the ostrich, hence the use of this big bird on its badge. Situated in the Gaza Province it falls within one of the most arid parts of the normally green Mozambique. The park receives less than 400 mm of rain per year. Although they tell us they have some lion near one of its southernmost villages, we once again don’t see much wildlife other than a few antelope and a hare. With all the black cotton soil mud this place can be rather tough to travel through during the rainy summer months.

We go find a flat open area where we park our Isuzu for our last sunset in the bush. As the sun sets Lambert spots a bush pig. The part of the park we are in becomes a wetland during the rainy season where rare fish species such as the lungfish and killifish thrive. For now it’s bone dry. We’ve visited three remote parks and I have to think carefully about whether or not I would recommend this trip. For Gonarezhou, I say yes, without a doubt. As for the two Mozambique parks, well that’s a difficult one as they’re more paper parks than anything else. There’re hardly any animals but one has to be sensitive to the region’s history and the fact that their government has different priorities right now. Why do we travel? Is isolation, remote tracks and sleeping under the stars enough to make us drive thousands of kilometres? Or do we have to hear that lion roar or see a leopard in the tree to make the trip worthwhile? If the latter is true for you, then don’t go to Zinave or Banhine because you’ll be disappointed. But for us, just getting there was an adventure and one we thoroughly enjoyed. We only saw two tourists in all three locales. These truly are Africa’s empty parks.