Zimbabwe | Breakdown in lion country
They thought precision planning would ensure a hitch-free trip to Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe. But the spare part that saved the day, writes Ron Martin, won’t be on any overlander’s list …
W e felt quite safe in the tent when the first lion started roaring at about ten.
It was after all a lovely sound and we guessed it was quite far away – about 2 km − from where we were sleeping under a huge wild fig tree in the north of Gonarezhou National Park.
But when, about three hours later, the roars had closed the gap and were either 500 m or 50 m away (depending whose estimation you use), my wife promptly decided that being enclosed only in canvas barely a metre above the ground didn’t offer nearly enough protection.
Shanon executed a perfect evacuation from the West Wing and was sitting, fully dressed, in our Disco by the time I joined her, barefoot and dressed in shorts only.
After about an hour, with the lion still roaring intermittently, we decided that the West Wing (the rooftop tent attached to the front of the Hugh’s Oryx bundu caravan), would be safe and much more conducive to a good night’s rest.
We heard the next morning that Denise and Hugh had also reacted to Shanon’s evacuation order (Denise was fully clothed and even had her boots laced up in about ten seconds) and had also spent an uncomfortable hour in their Defender.
We all had a good laugh about the evacuation the next morning, but the busted diesel hose would be no laughing matter …
Not for the faint-hearted
After meeting our long-time friends Hugh and Denise Temple in Lydenburg six days ago we had set off on a three-week expedition to Gonarezhou via the Kruger National Park and Mozambique.
Our expedition would take us to Gonarezhou’s southern Mabalauta region and then on to the northern Save-Runde region and the Pombadzi Wilderness Area.
Part of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, Gonarezhou is in the southeastern lowveld of Zimbabwe.
Gonarezhou is more than 5 000 km² in size and is best-known for its edgy elephants and photogenic Chilojo cliffs.
But be warned: a very arduous and slow trek over very bad roads and tracks makes this a trip not for the faint-hearted.
Shanon and me in our 2002 Discovery 2 Td5 and the Temples in a 2007 Defender TDCi with a newly refurbished Oryx camper with all the bells and whistles in tow, entered Mozambique through Pafuri Gate in the extreme north of the Kruger.
From there we drove southeast for a few kilometres before cutting through the some half-a-metre-deep Limpopo River and turning northeast onto a rutted rural track running along the border between Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
After leaving Mozambique through the Chicualacuala border post, we entered Zimbabwe at Sango, where to our surprise we weren’t charged levies on our six jerry cans of diesel.
We then headed for the southwestern part of Gonarezhou where we spent two nights in Mabalauta rest camp.
The staff there were most helpful. When I donated a new hacksaw blade to the workshop in return for the foreman giving us a bolt and washers to repair the Oryx, they were so grateful you’d have thought it was a complete toolbox.
Pg 2 | Tracks? What tracks?
Hey, where’s the track gone?
From Mabalauta we set off for the northern part of the park. To get there one needs to exit the park in the west, drive through desolate rural areas and then enter the park again at Chipinda Pools in the northwest.
As there was only one other vehicle in the park, we could pick any campsite.
We decided on Lisodo campsite, to the east on the Runde River.
A park official handed us a detailed map of the area that indicated campsites, causeways across the Runde River, main routes, as well as game ranger tracks.
Maybe because he is an honorary game ranger, Hugh (with the help of T4A) decided the game ranger track through the Pombadzi Wilderness Area was the one for us.
The track started out as a well defined, if very rough, road (as the track follows contour lines, we had numerous steep, rocky dongas to negotiate).
After travelling about 17 km in four hours, Hugh’s Garmin and T4A still indicated the track, but no tracks were visible on the ground!
We stopped for a powwow and after fruitlessly scanning the area for about half an hour, we decided to set up camp under a huge wild fig tree as the sun was already dipping low.
The Oryx was set up in a jiffy and we had an early night in anticipation of the tracking and bundu-bashing the next morning.
And then the lion started roaring …
An applicator to the rescue
After scouting around the next morning, we came across a faint track about 500 m from our campsite.
My “city” Nuvi 710 indicated a track in the vicinity that would take us to the main road along the Runde River. We bundu bashed and about half an hour later Shanon located a fairly clear track that we followed to the main road.
We had just passed the turn-off to the causeway across the river to Chinguli camp, when the Disco stopped abruptly − the main diesel hose had burst about a metre from the fuel tank.
Because I regularly stopped for happy-snappies, Hugh and Denise would carry on and not wait for us. So meanwhile, the Temples had merrily carried on to Lisodo campsite …
After chocking the wheels and jacking up the vehicle, I slid in underneath the Disco and cut off the burst section.
I had a length of replacement hose, but the only joiner I could lay my hands on was of a very personal nature − it was a plastic syringe-type applicator Shanon offered me. I promptly cut off a section and used it to join the hoses.
By now the Temples had come looking for us.
While I was fitting the joint the jack started to tilt on the soft sand.
I shouted that the vehicle was falling on me and like superheroes Denise and Shanon grabbed the more than 2-ton Disco to try and save me.
Fortunately, other than a slightly bruised arm and ego, no harm was done as I had only jacked up the vehicle to gain a few extra centimetres of clearance.
I completed the connection and we decided to set off to Chinguli, the closest camp. However, the joint lasted about 5 km and then popped the plastic joiner.
(Reminder: Must contact the manufacturer of the applicator and suggest a stainless steel model.)
After we had made a new connection with a piece of pipe from Hugh’s spare gas regulator, we crossed the Runde River, but 20 m on the other side, the diesel hose burst at the connector on top of the tank. Hugh towed us the last 3 km into Chinguli.
Replacing the diesel hose took about half a day as, to drop the tank, Hugh and I had to remove the towbar.
This involved sawing off its supporting stays as the locknuts on the tow plate wouldn’t budge.
We then replaced about a metre of diesel hose with the gas hose, which solved the problem. We also carried out further repairs to the damper on the Oryx’s tow hitch, removing the damper and fitting a section of steel pipe as a collar.
These relatively small problem
s highlighted that one needs to be self-sufficient when travelling in Africa and that a group is the more sensible way to go.
Pg 3 | Chop wood, carry water
Chop wood, carry water
In the end we spent two weeks at Chinguli. Apart from views stretching towards the famous Chilojo cliffs, about 10 km away, the riverbank camp is a stone’s throw from lots of rock pools and running water.
There is an ablution block but unfortunately the pump had been removed for repair – about a year ago. This meant we had to carry water up from the river to use in the toilets. Drinking water was also carried up from the river, put through a purifier and stored in the Oryx’s 60-litre water tank.
The ladies made use of the gas/battery-operated portable shower and Hugh and I bathed in the river. As the river and pools are home to a number of crocodiles and hippos, the bathing exercise was conducted in fairly shallow running water among the rocks – with regular, anxious glances over the shoulder.
The early part of the evenings was spent sitting outside, listening to the night life and sorting out the world’s problems. A chorus of hippo grunts, elephant breaking foliage nearby, hyena calls and distant lion roars entertained us most nights.
Night-bird calls were identified by our resident expert, Hugh, a hard taskmaster who regularly questioned us on this subject. I will submit our list of possible name changes to BirdLife South Africa in due course. Speckled became freckled, spectacled, spotted or “that one on page 15 you showed us yesterday”.
Daily game drives on temperate, sunny days (which kept the solar batteries well charged) were our main activity at Chinguli.
We saw a number of skittish elephant and had close sightings of waterbuck, kudu, impala, blue wildebeest, crocodile, hippo, baboon and a plethora of birds, including many raptors.
One afternoon we came across about 70 vultures sunning themselves on the sand in the river and in the surrounding trees. And a klipspringer family regularly visited the river across from the campsite.
We also visited the Chilojo cliffs on a number of occasions, including the viewpoint on the top, and each time it presented a different picture.
We have enough … for today
Near the end of our stay we had two other visitors to “our” camp. Nigel and Jenny Horrocks, retired British teachers who had been working in Ghana for two years, had been on the road for four months on a trip to Cape Town when they stopped over in Gonarezhou.
We treated them to a typical South African braai and gave Nigel some basic
sand driving tips. The day they left, Nigel deflated the tyres of his old diesel Pajero, followed Hugh and myself across the very sandy Runde River and then sheepishly admitted to us that he had forgotten to engage low-range! Only momentum, deflated tyres and St Christopher ensured he did not get stuck.
All too soon it was time for us too to pack up and go home. From Chipinda Pools we drove to Chiredzi, about 70 km away, where we refuelled and were pleasantly surprised at the price of diesel. We had heard horror stories of R16 per litre but paid only about R9.
When asked about the availability of fuel, the petrol attendant replied, “No problem, we have enough … for today.”
From Chiredzi it was a straight and uneventful run along the A10 (the road was in very good condition) to Beit Bridge and South Africa.
Yes, a very arduous and slow trek over very bad roads and tracks makes this a trip not for the faint-hearted, but it was the best holiday I’ve ever had. I can’t wait for our next adventure.
Pg 4 | I want to go too!
Best time: Temperate July-August when it’s cooler
Stay at least: Two weeks
The Chilojo cliffs, lions roaring at night, the wildlife and no contact with the rest of the world.
Cape Town: ±2 300 km, Jo’burg: ±850 km
Gonarezhou – Zimbabwe’s second largest game reserve after Hwange – means “elephant’s tusk” in Shona.
I want to go too!
Best time to go?
Temperate July-August when it’s cooler and there aren’t any mosquitoes. No, or very little, rain makes camping a lot more pleasurable and the rivers fordable. Sitting outside in the evenings doesn’t require more than a tracksuit top, while shorts-and-T-shirt weather rule the days.
How long should I stay? At least two weeks
4×4 or 4×2? Positively 4×4
What must I take along? You have to be completely self-sufficient.
What not to miss? The Chilojo cliffs at sunset
Spend a few days in the Kruger on the way up and then two days at Mabalauta camp in southern Gonarezhou.
In northern Gonarezhou take day trips to Chipinda Pools and the Chilojo cliffs.
You are allowed to take in all the necessary provisions, but you may not bring back any fresh produce such as meat, fruit, vegetables and milk products.
Is Zim safe?
Very safe. And we found fuel when we needed it, but one should rather take along as much as you will require for your visit.
How much are the park and camping fees?
Park entry: US$20 (about R146) per person;
Camping: US$10 (about R73) per person
Do I have to book? We didn’t, and it wasn’t necessary.
Closest fuel? Chiredzi (± 70 km)