The truck was finally packed and our party of six was on the way to Gona~re-zhou game park in Zimbabwe. The journey up to the border was spent discussing what actually happened in lnhaca and tall stories of ESSA trips or should I say car breakdowns, Hyperbole was stimulated by copious quantities of liquid refreshment; Paul's stories always sound better after six beers!! Drinking was probably a very good plan because
night one was spent at the Beit Bridge border gate. This is a very homely and interesting spot with a multitude of toilet and diesel smells. Sleep is punctuated by regular wake up calls of "how much money you wanna change, boss". Dawn could not come soon enough. Packed, ready and waiting we joined the row of taxis and trucks, motors revving, for the Kyalami style start to rush the 4 metre wide border gate. ESSA can be
proud of our intrepid bunch -first in and first out in under 30 minutes - papers stamped and no hassles, not even from Graham (Phew!!)
lnto Beit Bridge and the purchasing of basic necessities, Zimbo beers and half a cow' followed by breakfast with black pudding ?? Did we cross into Yorkshire? A clandestine rendezvous with a petrol attendant in the toilet saved a visit to the bank and business concluded the only thing between us and Gona-re-zhou was open road. Gona-re-zhou is situated in the SE portion of Zimbabwe close to the triple border with RSA and
Mozambique. The area is colloquially known as Crooks corner due to the high incidence of poaching. "Gona" is Zimbabwe’s second largest National Park. A large amount of the 4964 km area is stretched for over 100 kilometres along the country’s south eastern
lowveld boundary with Mozambique. The term Gona-re-zhou means the place of the elephants in Shangaan and the park boasts some of the largest tuskers in Africa.
Our destination was the Mabalauta camp site. lt is located in the SW corner of the park (Malapati area) on a meander in the Mwenezi river known as Buffalo Bend. The owner of the trading store suggested the "best" road to Mabaluata. This proved to be a debatable point as there were more corrugations than dirt. The bumpy road played havoc with beer consumption and the structure of our canopy. The science of canopy development, analysis of stress and strain vectors and the scientific frontiers pushed back by Roamer Rand were discussed ad-nauseam. Graham twitched nervously as he contemplated imminent canopy destruction. Luckily the corrugations ended, we survived the aerodynamic discussion, and the canopy remained intact.
The first impression of the park during our inward journey was of a dry, parched landscape of Mopane, ironwood and baobab vegetation. l don't think I observed a baobab where the lower bark had not been partially stripped by elephant. Malabuata was not as rustic as we expected. There were running toilets, rubbish bins and braais. The camping area is not far from the warden's house, offices and generator. However our particular site gave an excellent view of the river and Hyena and Lion were regular nocturnal visitors. Birdlife was plentiful and twitcher Graham provided additional entertainment by calling up nocturnal visitors in the form of the Pearl spotted and White Faced Owls. The camp also boasts plenty of excellent game walks and ours were guided by Paul Marais.
ln front of the Warden's office is a collection of about fifty elephant jaw bones. This is the sad story of Gona~re-zhou. The park was particularly hard hit by Zimbabwe’s worst drought in living memory during the period 1990-1992. The drought resulted in severe devastation of the animal and vegetation populations. Available figures are frightening. Hippos were reduced from 650 to 20, Rhino from 150 to 3 and elephant from 8500 to 1500. Most boreholes became inoperative and water was only available from limited river sources. Migration patterns were adversely affected and water areas were stripped bare of available vegetation. The Zimbabwe Parks board introduced a programme of re-location encouraging local game ranchers to help themselves to Buffalo, Hartebeest and elephant calves all of which were dying form starvation.
The elephant population proved to be particularly problematic. The ideal population for the park is 6000 but prevention of culling saw this rise to 8500 during the climax of the drought. All herbivores competed for limited food supplies in small areas where water was available. This excessive competition was compounded by the large elephant population. The result was starvation and death on a scale not previously witnessed in this area.
The rains finally came in January 1993 and since then the bush has shown amazing signs of recovery. Game is very skittish and nervous of man. Even the impala fled rapidly from our approaching vehicle. Game spotting is mainly rewarded by patient vigil at the few remaining water holes. Our best elephant siting was a herd of 23 at the Manyanda hide. ln our case it was good timing. Arriving at 6pm, we settled nicely into sundowners to be greeted by the arrival of the herd. This was particularly annoying to the 17 volunteers of Operation Raleigh who had manned the hide for six hours without seeing zip!! Their frustration was compounded by our drinking since they had undertaken a vow of abstinence during their six month research project. Life can be tough in Africa.
We all enjoyed the trip to Gona-re-zhou immensely. It was relaxing, peaceful and the air was a lot better than Johannesburg. The park has great potential for development but requires some cash input and a few good years of rain. From an exploration viewpoint scenery is spectacular and game most plentiful in the NE portion on the plains surrounding the Flunde river. This area is remote, unexplored and hosts the large elephant herds including the big tuskers. An expedition would have to be properly planned and requires a full week. Petrol is a problem with the nearest station over 200km away at Chiredzi. Anyone interested ??
By Dave Reading