As I mentioned in my previous blog, I spent a lot of December exploring Zimbabwe. I knew I was interested in the country and was pretty sure I would like it but I have to say I was absolutely blown away, I LOVED it.
We did not to a typical safari circuit, for example we drove ourselves around quite a bit and did not go to Hwange or Mana Pools which are two popular and great safari destinations in Zimbabwe. At the same time by driving around we saw more untraveled sites in an already fairly untraveled destination and got some great insights into what makes Zimbabwe so unique and the challenges it faces.
Our trip started in Harare and continued on to the Great Zimbabwe Ruins (see picture below) before heading to Gonarezhou National Park. I had being hearing how amazing Gonarezhou is for years from Mark Homann, one the best safari guides I've worked with, so when my husband and I decided to head to Zimbabwe for our honeymoon I really wanted to include it in the trip.
If Zimbabwe is a relatively untraveled tourist destination in Africa (for now!) then Gonarezhou is the Zimbabwe of Zimbabwe. A less visited national park that is an incredible and totally uncrowded safari experience. Gonarezhou is situated in southeastern Zimbabwe and covers almost 2000 square miles. It is part of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park (GLTP), a massive Pan-African Park that also includes South Africa's famed Kruger National Park and Mozambique's Limpopo.
In the Shona language Gonarezhou means "Place of many Elephants" and that is a totally appropriate name, I have been all over Africa and I have never seen so many elephants in one place! One of my highlights during the trip was watching over 100 elephants coming over to drink by the river at sunset. It was magical.
In addition to elephants we had great game-viewing in general. This is particularly notable in that it was the "green" or rainy season. This is usually a less productive game-viewing time of year due to denser bush and because animals have easy access to water and don't have to concentrate around water holes. Despite that we had great sightings of lions, giraffes and rhinos. On top of great game-viewing the park is incredibly scenic, full of rugged and beautiful landscapes, a great place for walking safaris with the excellent professional guides for which Zimbabwe is known.
We stayed at two places in Gonarezhou, Singita Pamushana (it was our honeymoon!) and Chilo Gorge. They were very different but we loved them both. Singita Pamushana is by far the most luxurious property in Zimbabwe, with design inspired by the Great Zimbabwe ruins (I would recommend everyone to see the ruins first - we were in awe). Our room was probably twice size of my apartment in NYC. I had 2 showers, a bathtub and my own private pool. The "problem" is that the rooms are so nice that you almost do not want to leave, which is crazy considering the wildlife is so incredible. It is truly a special place in terms of the safari experience and the level service, it has a great combination of luxury (that is not stiff) and authenticity which is hard to come by.
Chilo Gorge is a totally different experience. It is definitely not a luxury property but the location of the camp, with stunning views over the Save River make up for it. My husband who loves the more down to earth properties fell in love with Chilo Gorge. The views, the staff and guides, the great game-viewing in the park and the price point make Chilo an incredible deal.
Both Pamushana and Chilo Gorge had great game-viewing, excellent guides and lovely, warm staff which gave them a welcoming, soulful feeling which I really prize in a safari property. They also both had lots of activities in addition to game-drives including bush walks, ancient rock art and village visits. Even if you spend a week in Gonarezhou your days will be full and varied.
For me the most important commonality between the properties is that they are both conservation success stories and models for ensuring community benefits from safari tourism. Singita Pamushana sits in the private Malilangwe Reserve which borders Gonarezhou and expands the protected area. Established in 1994, the Malilangwe Trust was, at the time, the largest ever single donor investment in Zimbabwe. Singita manages the lodge within Malilangwe on behalf of the Trust and all proceeds from the lodge go toward conservation and community development programs.
Similarly Chilo Gorge is owned by Clive Stockil, a conservation leader in Zimbabwe and Africa as a whole (in 2013 he received a Prince William Award for Conservation in Africa). He not only founded a rhino conservancy bordering Gonarezhou which is now home to one of the biggest rhino populations in Africa, but has worked tirelessly to include the surrounding communities in conservation efforts and in the financial benefits of tourism. These efforts to include the community are particularly important in Gonarezhou because a sizable number of people were displaced when the park was established decades ago (learn more here).
All in all I was very impressed with Gonarezhou both as a safari destination and as a conservation and community development effort. The people working in and championing conservation in Zimbabwe are often facing complex and challenging decisions as well an uphill battle with the government. I was really impressed and heartened by the individuals I met in Gonarezhou who are waging that battle and it contributed to my appreciation for Zimbabwe as a safari destination.
Another even more off-the-beaten track destination next time!