Wilding Camping in Gonarezhou National Park

Reading Time: 5 min

We arrive at Gonarezhou National Park around 4pm after a 10km drive through the Save Valley Conservancy. In this 110kms we undertake our first river crossing; What a thrilling experience this is. Nick stops the car to survey the river which is about 20-30m wide and flowing fairly calmly. He lunges at the prospect of our first crossing, while the fairer sex not as much, but keen all the same. Nick tip-toes the car slowly as the wheels splash into the water. From here momentum is key, but tough to maintain. The car pitches and rolls as the wheel’s crash into large submerged boulders. Then it’s out the other side and both team members are grinning like crazy.

At the park gate we peruse a map of the potential campsites on offer to us. We settle on two nights wild camping at Chilojo campsite no 2. When given the price we are gobsmacked. I guess one pays a premium for the true feeling of solitude in nature, with no one else at the site but you, a couple of hornbills and a lone bull elephant. Who knew a long drop toilet and concrete fire pit means luxury? (no complaints whatsoever here, we would pay this again in a heartbeat over the cheaper option of hot showers, electricity and a friendly camp neighbour). We purchase some rather expensive firewood as you are not allowed to collect in the park (this is truly a good thing) and set off for our campsite across the river from the Chilojo Cliffs. 

© Nicholas Philipson | Woza Rafiki

A slow drive, bird watching, encounters with lots of game and an incredible sunset see us arriving at our WILD camp a little later than initially planned. With the last rays of dusk’s light, we set to work putting up the tent. We make a fire and prepare dinner in the dark. Not long after we have begun tending to our veggie curry (standard camping meal) we hear our first set of impala alarm calls. Cause for concern? Nahh. Kate resumes gently stirring the bubbling hot curry as Nick scans the bushes with the spotlight to ID any potential toothed visitors. Just as we have sat ourselves down and begin work on remedying the pit in our stomachs, a hair raising sound emanates from the bushes only a few hundred meters away. LION!!! Not one but 3 (we think) all around our camp. We begin systematically gorging ourselves on the still piping hot curry in an attempt to finish dinner quickly! We are on EDGE! constantly scanning the bushes with our spotlight while the lions groan and roar nearby.

As we make a start on washing the dishes, the groans get more frequent and louder. They can be washed in the morning! We jump into our tent and listen to the lions groan the entire night away. Ahhhh Africa. After the long drive the day before, we struggle the next morning to get an early start for a game drive. The lions are still roaring around 7pm while we pack up our rooftop tent. We spend the morning trying to track them. We can see fresh paw prints along the road but no such luck! The bush is too thick and warming up with the rising sun.

© Nicholas Philipson | Woza Rafiki
© Nicholas Philipson | Woza Rafiki
© Nicholas Philipson | Woza Rafiki
© Nicholas Philipson | Woza Rafiki

Our game drive comes to an end around lunch time and we spend the day reading and relaxing by the campsite. We cook an earlier dinner with the setting sun and hop into bed with the moon lighting up the dry river bed below. We are determined to have an early start to track the lions but tonight we cannot hear them.

The next morning, we wake up far earlier and set out to find the lions… again no such luck! Instead, we venture down a road that has no sign of recent vehicular activity with thick mopanie forest on either side. We come across a waterhole with a lone elephant bull having his morning drink. It is a wonderful sighting to behold! We are in elephant country this morning.

© Nicholas Philipson | Woza Rafiki

As we continue to drive along, we come across a bull elephant walking along the road. We cut the engine (as we have found elephants to seriously dislike the sound of our engine) and decide to let him move on before we pass as there is nowhere to go should he decide to charge us. Instead, he gets closer and closer to our car, quietly eating to the left and occasionally looking at us and flapping his ears. He is curious. A bit too curious for our liking and we are starting to fret. The rear and back side windows of our cruiser are blacked out. Amongst the mopanie woodlands it would not be an easy feat reversing should this bull elephant decide he doesn’t like us. Also, we have just poured piping hot tea.

As he starts moving further away and we think we might be able to start our engine and move off, a second bull pops out of the bushes and joins his companion. This one walks right in our direction, lifts his trunk and gives us a big sniff. This makes us more un-easy and we’re not sure what to do. Not long after, a third bull comes walking down the road with such determination and his eyes on us. Nick quickly turns the ignition. Luckily, this scares the elephants and they run trumpeting off into the bushes. These ellies were frightened off at least. Later, a mischievous looking bunch of bull elephants, charged our car as we started the ignition after enjoying a pleasant cup of tea whilst watching them drink at the waterhole. Sadly, the elephants in these lands are very unpredictable and on edge because poaching in the area is rife.

© Nicholas Philipson | Woza Rafiki

At Fishan’s Causeway, we crossed the Rhunde River, yet another interesting and fairly large crossing with a river of roughly the same size as the previous one but a much wider dry river bed of about 100m to contend with. Getting stuck in the sand here would not be fun. We make it through with no worries at all and Rafiki effortlessly meanders through the thick river sand. We are making our way up to the Chilojo Cliffs for a view across the vast lowland bush of the reserve before heading back to Harare.

© Nicholas Philipson | Woza Rafiki

Along the drive out the national park, we bump into a few more bull elephants. With each encounter we are weary, not really understanding elephant behaviour enough to know how to respond if a bull does decide to charge – we have since bought a book in Malawi on elephant behaviour. We’ve had a relaxing and wonderful bush experience at Gonarezhou, although only exploring a small portion of the park, this park is a definite must for any one visiting the area. Not as famous as Mana Pools or Hwange National Park but extremely incredible nonetheless.

© Nicholas Philipson | Woza Rafiki

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8 Responses

  1. Haze says:

    Exciting times. Enjoy. Love Haze xx

  2. Bernie Krone says:

    Hi Katy & Nick,
    Well written informative post. Beautiful pictures! Generally with elephants if you take the initiative they will give way, if they take the initiative you give way. Generally!? Like you say they are unpredictable. Enjoy, lots of love Dad (no pressure Nick)

  3. Jeff Brown says:

    Hi guys. Please keep up the blogs. We really love to read them. Keep enjoying your adventure

    • Nick and Kate says:

      Thanks Jeff!
      Unfortunately, wifi is almost non-existent in Africa so we are struggling to keep up to date with all the posts! We have a lot to update regarding Malawi. We will hopefully post them soon.

  4. Elaine Philipson says:

    Looks like amazing adventures..

  5. Sharon Kersten says:

    The photos are a joy! Enjoying the sense of freedom you portray in the writing.

  6. Yvonne says:

    WOW. What beautiful writing . Such an adventure. Such great memories . Can’t wait to see Malawi xxxxxxx love ti you both from yvonne and angie

    • Nick and Kate says:

      Thanks Yvonne and Angie. Much love to both of you! We’re struggling to keep the blog up to date but more to follow soon. xx

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