A log crumbles. Sparks fly, drifting up in the breeze and disappearing into the sunset. The sun continues its descent into darkness, gently sliding behind the horizon; its colours reflect off the river, with the burnt-oranges merging with the campfire. A pearl-spotted owlet has already started to call, a ‘Tu-tu-tu-tutu. Tu-tu-tseeutseeu- tseeu-tseeu.’ My mate Greg pauses from his fire-stoking. “What’s that? I know it.” He repeats the call and the owl responds. Pretty soon it’s closer, calling frenetically. “It’s a pearl-spotted owl,” he says. Then he tells me a story about why he remembers that particular call. And that strikes a chord with me.
Birds are memories. Seeing them, hearing them – they steal a spot in your mind. I can’t remember who was in my class at school, I forget people’s names all the time, I can’t recall the… I forgot what I was going to say there…. But places and birds are intrinsically linked in my mind. The sight of a bird transports me back to a place, and revisiting a place reminds me of a special bird sighting. If you ask me about my wedding, I’ll probably start by telling you about the secretary bird that circled over us as my wife and I said our vows. The mention of a green twinspot brings my late dad immediately to mind, and the many trips we made as a family in search of this elusive little bugger. He eventually did see one, but I’m still looking.
These days I don’t go birdwatching. I still carry binoculars when I fish or hike, and I still keep an eye open for green twinspots, but I don’t actively pursue ‘ticks’ for my bird list.
But a trip to eastern Zimbabwe reawakened my twitchiness, reminding me of the joy of discovering the unfamiliar, of gathering a few more notches on the birdwatching belt, and learning from masters of the trade.
En route via Kruger
While our Zimbabwean trip would begin at Gonarezhou National Park, we spent a night on the road at Punda Maria in the Kruger National Park. There is no better place in the Kruger for birding than the greater Punda Maria/Pafuri area, and few better in the entire country. We were there for only an afternoon, a night, and an hour or two in the morning, but we had time to wander the Flycatcher Trail inside the camp. Here we quickly notched up over 20 species, including a flock of a dozen crested guineafowl, the pretty white-throated robin-chat, the yellow-bellied greenbul and the terrestrial brownbul. And to prove we were on the right path, African paradise flycatchers flitted through the bush in front of us as we walked, joined by the occasional grey tit-flycatcher in pursuit of prey. We may not have spotted anything too uncommon, but the trail is such a nice way to loosen the legs after long days in the car, and spotting a guineafowl butterfly was an unexpected highlight. (Yes, I know that butterflies aren’t birds!)
One of the things I love about the Kruger is the camps at night. Strolling about after dark offers such a different experience, and Punda Maria has the added attraction of the floodlit watering hole, watched over by a hide. There we watched a little herd of elephants ghosting in, virtually noiseless, as fiery-necked nightjars swooped in front of them to snap up insects the jumbo scared up. Then, while we sat around the fire back at our campsite, a little family of five thicktailed bushbabies trooped along the camp fence in front of us, then leapt up into the trees to search for insects.
The real adventure starts
But the Kruger was just a preamble to the real adventure. Now, think of me as the guy who makes mistakes so that you don’t have to. Yes, I do research, but sometimes I take things a bit casually. For example, it was at about 9am that I decided I should probably have brought a GPS with Tracks4Africa along with me. At the Mozambican side of the Pafuri border, I asked for directions to Gonarezhou/Chicualacuala. “The turn is about 4km from here,” the official assured me. He didn’t say “You can’t miss it,” but his tone implied it. Obviously, we missed it.
About 2.5km from the border, a track leads off the bumpy dirt road and into some reeds. If we hadn’t missed the turnoff the first time, we would have been long gone by the time the local constabulary turned up, carrying their white plastic chairs. Luckily our encounter wasn’t a bad one – it just took time for them to inspect our car, ask what we were carrying, and hint that they could make life difficult for us. But they let us go, and returned to their chairs in the shade at the turnoff to wait for more lucrative passersby.
Crossing the Limpopo is a micro-adventure in itself, a little test for you and your vehicle, and a reminder that you’re on the road less travelled. (It’s also the reason why you can’t use this route in the rainy season.) Approaching the river is deceptively simple − a gradual sandy bank onto an expanse of hard sand. Before tackling the water itself, we put the car into 4WD low range with the diff -lock on and planned our exit. There are a few places you can exit the riverbed, so do a short recce before you enter the water – and keep an eye out for flatdogs.
We chose the most obvious route, even though it was steep; and thanks to driver-error, it took us three attempts to get up.
From there we followed the rocky and sandy track through beautiful bushveld for a few hours, passing through little villages where the arrival of one horse would have made the news. At each town we simply asked if we were on the right path. We got to Chicualacuala, hid our whisky (for some reason whisky raises eyebrows, and I’ve frequently been told I wasn’t allowed to take it across borders – go figure!), handed over our passports, and were through with a minimum of fuss from friendly officials.
VOLKSWAGEN AMAROK 2.0 BITDI 4X4 4MOTION HIGHLINE R573 000
Everyone is talking about the VW Amarok 3.0 TDI. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the one we took to Zim, much as we would have liked to. Instead, we took the updated 2-litre biturbo, capable of producing 132kW and 400Nm. It feels great on the open road, even with a load, but at low revs it still suffers from a little of the perennial small-capacity problem – turbo-lag. And it’s quite easy to stall.That aside, it is a cracking engine, both frugal and powerful, and we used an average of 9.6L/100km of diesel on our travels, which included a fair bit of off-road driving and with a roof-top tent adding significant drag. We achieved a range of about 830km from the 80-litre tank. Claimed average fuel consumption is 8L/100km, so we weren’t far off that.
The Amarok is now only available in double-cab configuration, with Volkswagen having laughed off the single cabs and focused on the lifestyle end of the market. It’s a sensible move for Volkswagen to have made, as they can boast the most comfortable bakkie with the most SUV-like interior on the market. It just never felt like a workhorse.
The 4MOTION system fitted to our Amarok is a part-time system, with the selection dial on the dashboard. Critically, it allows for shift-on-the-fl y from 2WD to 4WD High, which is brilliant for sandy and muddy areas. Ground clearance is an excellent 237mm, with wading depth of 500mm, and approach and departure angles of 29.5° and 23.6° respectively.
Interestingly, the V6 Amarok comes with an eight-speed automatic gearbox and permanent AWD, as well as a mechanically lockable rear diff.
As for tyres, our test unit was fitted with Pirelli Scorpion ATRs, and they handled very well – we traversed rocky, sandy and muddy terrain during our trip, and none of it was a problem. We also had no punctures to report. On tar they were excellent, with great road-holding and a comfortable, quiet ride.
Any problems with the car? Well, not really. The one thing I wasn’t wild about was the gearbox, for low-speed work. The change from first to second is clunky, which becomes irritating when you’re chugging around a game reserve all day, or battling through sandy roads and having to slow down for bumps.
The Volkswagen Amarok comes standard with a 5-year/90 000km service plan and a 3-year/100 000km warranty. Prices start at R487 700 and go up to the dizzying heights of R748 600 for the top-of-the-range 3.0 TDI V6 Extreme.
This is the question I was asked the most, and the issue I was most nervous about. How was it? For six days we had nothing but positives to say about the police. We were stopped often (up to 10 times a day), but the cops did their jobs by checking our licences and safety equipment. But, on day seven, the good times turned bad. As we got closer to bigger towns, the cops got more brazen, stopping us and trying to ‘fine’ us for indiscretions that were frankly invented. Using the vehicle’s headlights was one, not having enough reflective tape on the car was another, and speeding was a third, even though I had been careful to slow down to below the speed limit when I saw that I was entering a built-up area.
It’s a difficult situation, because, as visitors, we didn’t know the truth of the law and couldn’t argue all day. It makes travelling stressful, exhausting and tense. Would it put me off returning to Zim? I don’t think so, but it is expensive (the fines all seem to be $20) and tarnishes an otherwise spectacular holiday destination.
WHERE TO STAY
Gonarezhou National Park
I’ve wanted to visit Gonarezhou for decades, and I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to actually get there. The one thing I can tell you is that I will definitely be back, and next time it will be for at least a week. I absolutely loved it!
We stayed at the Chipinda Pools campsite, an unfenced campsite right on the Runde River in the northern section of the park. Campsites are spacious and allocated to you, and there are small ablution blocks shared between two campsites. Our ablution had a men’s side and a ladies’ side, each with one shower, one loo, and a basin. It seemed recently renovated, was nicely tiled, very clean, and had beautiful hot showers.
Camping fees per night were $35 per site, conservation fees $6 per person per night, and vehicle fees $10 for fi ve days. There is also a tented camp at Chipinda Pools.
In the southern section of the reserve is the Mabalauta camp, with camping, and selfcatering chalets at Swimuwini.
Another option is the misleadingly named ‘exclusive’ camps dotted around the park. They are exclusive in that you book them for your exclusive use, but certainly not exclusive in terms of what they offer. They offer just a demarcated fire pit and a long-drop loo – that’s it. But they are in some of the most spectacular natural settings, which you have all to yourself, and are more expensive than the campsites that actually have facilities.
Gonarezhou is best during the dry season (June to October), as there are large rivers fl owing through it, some of which have to be crossed, and large, very scenic parts (such as the Save-Runde confluence) become inaccessible during the rainy season (November to April).
GPS (Chipinda Pools): -21.2876, 31.9141
If you’re after something a little more upmarket, have a look at Chilo Gorge Safari Lodge. Set on the eastern boundary of the reserve, Chilo Gorge has the added advantage of expert guides – useful for a park the size of Gona, especially if you’re a birder after that special sighting. The next time I go back, I’m spending a night or two there!
+263 774 999 059
Kruger National Park
If you use the Pafuri/Mozambique/ Chicualacuala/Sango route, it really makes sense to spend a night at Punda Maria (our choice) or Pafuri. You know what you’re getting – the familiar comfort of the Kruger and all its amenities.
Seldom Seen, Vumba
The Vumba Mountains are one of Zim’s major birding hotspots, offering all sorts of specialities. Seldom Seen takes advantage of this, offering guided birding on the property and in the area.
Accommodation ranges from a campsite with incredible views into Mozambique, to three small cottages, and a large house.
+263 020 68482
GPS: -19.105475, 32.752656
Aberfoyle Lodge, Honde Valley
Aberfoyle is one of those special spots that doesn’t feel quite real, set in the midst of the Eastern Highlands Tea Plantations at the end of a long, windy road in the Honde Valley. And despite its remote location, it is a sea of tranquillity and relaxation that harks back to a time when the country club was the centre of life.
Accommodation is luxurious, the food delicious, and there are activities for everyone, from kids to adults. Guided bird walks are one speciality.
+263 783 883150
GPS: -18.294619, 32.968488
Great Zimbabwe National Monument
The municipal accommodation is not much to write home about. Luckily, it seems to be undergoing a process of renovation. There are chalets, dormitories and campsites.
GPS: -20.268177, 30.933787
Another option is the Great Zimbabwe Hotel, which has self-catering and full-board options.
+263 392 62274
Entrance to the Limpopo National Park in Mozambique costs R100 per vehicle. You have to pay this if you are driving through the park from South Africa to Zimbabwe. Gonarezhou cost $6 per person per night in conservation fees and $10 for the vehicle for up to five days.Great Zimbabwe cost $15 per person.
Petrol and diesel is expensive in Zimbabwe, at around 30% more than South Africa ($1.25/litre). Availability wasn’t a problem at all, although we did need to shop around to find 50ppm diesel, which was only available in large towns and cities. We filled up at Punda Maria, then at Masvingo, on the other side of Gona, then in Mutare and finally at Mussina.
WHERE TO BUY PROVISIONS
The shops in Zimbabwe do have fully stocked shelves, more or less, but many items are more expensive than in South Africa (where they come from). We bought our provisions from home, mainly because we were going straight into Gonarezhou, where there are no shops at all. But, up in Mutare, we shopped at the Spar and Pick ‘n Pay. If you can, buy fruit and veggies, honey, nuts and the like from local vendors – they need the hard currency.
A compressor and tyre pressure gauge are the first two items I pack when I go into a sandy area; followed by a spade. Other than that, I would recommend taking binoculars, a camera for the beautiful landscapes, bird guides and hiking shoes.
CONVOY OR SOLO
I felt very comfortable going solo, but there is always extra safety in a convoy. If you drive sensibly, you shouldn’t damage your vehicle in the sand, and if you get stuck, you can always dig yourself out. The one tricky spot on our route was the crossing of the Limpopo River, where we needed three goes at the exit up the river bank. Rest assured, though, there is a guy who makes his living pulling stuck 4x4s up the bank using his tractor. If you get stuck, wait – he will come…
Road conditions were variable. The roads aren’t as good or as wide as they are in SA, but they were in surprisingly good condition. The only notable exception was the A10 from around Chisumbanje up to Birchenough Bridge – it was flippen horrible and took hours. It was so full of potholes that we averaged about 30km/h, and often were driving next to the road, instead of on it. The tracks in Mozambique were good, other than the difficult crossing of the Limpopo River. In Gonarezhou, the roads were in good condition, but bear in mind that we were there in the dry season. I’m sure some of them get a bit sticky in rain. There isn’t evidence of quick maintenance though – we had to drive around a tree that had fallen across the road, and it had obviously been there for a while.
A 4×4 with low range is a definite must, mainly for the crossing of the Limpopo. We were in Gona during the dry season, but I have been told that the roads within the park are strictly 4×4 in the wet. As it was, any vehicle with decent ground-clearance and tyres would have coped.
MAPS AND DIRECTIONS
A GPS with Tracks4Africa installed is definitely the answer for navigating the tracks between the Kruger and Gonarezhou, and in Gonarezhou itself. However, we didn’t have one and we were fine. We bought a map of Gonarezhou from reception ($5), which was very useful although not as detailed as we would have liked. I battled to find a decent map of Zimbabwe and took along an Atlas of southern Africa, which did the job.
In Gonarezhou, you simply have to drive down to the Chilojo Cliffs. There are other roads in the reserve that are also supposed to be spectacular, but we didn’t have time to get to them. The Runde/Save confluence is one spot we’re sad to have missed, as is the view from the top of the cliffs. The roads around Vumba were all beautiful, and there are a number of viewpoints that should be used. (We saw a few great birds while supposedly having stopped for the views.) The road into Burma Valley is an experience, but we got lost again – it heads into forest and plantations and is quite an adventure. We took the back road to Great Zimbabwe, winding along Lake Mutirikwe mainly to avoid any more cops, and it was an unexpected pleasure. More a farm road than a real one, it looks down on the lake for a number of kilometres and crosses the impressive dam wall before eventually arriving at the ruins. Even the tar road from Birchenough Bridge to Masvingo is a beautiful drive.
The old jokes of ‘Zim dollars or US dollars’ are no longer valid. Somehow, the new Zim Bearer Bond Dollar is now pegged with the US dollar, at 1:1. So the prices everywhere are simply in $ and it makes no difference if you pay with Zim dollars or US dollars. Rands are SOMETIMES accepted, but you won’t get the official exchange rate.
The South African borders at Pafuri and Musina were faultless. Honestly, everyone was helpful and efficient and we got through quickly. The Mozambican side of the border at Pafuri was similarly pleasant and helpful. Customs asked to search our car and asked to see our fire-extinguisher. Crossing from Mozambique to Zimbabwe at Chicualacuala/ Sango was also a relatively pain-free exercise, on both sides of the border. No one was in a hurry, but they were friendly and didn’t take too long to get things done. (Although a friend of mine had a different experience on the Mozambique side, where it took him and a friend over two hours to go through, and they were the only two vehicles there!)The only bad border experience is the one at Beit Bridge, on the Zimbabwean side. There are hustlers trying to part you from your money, officials trying to part you from your money, and thieves looking for a moment to part you from your money or possessions. Be on the ball, be patient, and be prepared for officials trying to scam you. I was told I was missing a “blue import form”. For $120 they could make a plan. I knew I had the necessary documentation, so I told them to get knotted and the official laughed and stamped my form. Remember that you need $9 to leave Zimbabwe.
Zim must be one of the safer African countries to travel in. We felt safe at every stage of our trip. The cops might be irritating and corrupt, but they smile while they take your money and don’t come across as a threat. Obviously you need to be aware of your surroundings in the towns, but that’s true of everywhere. Likewise, be alert in Gonarezhou – the campsites aren’t fenced and all sorts of creatures wander through them.