So I braved my first night camping in Africa, and survived unscathed. Well, slightly scarred by the lack of hot water to do the washing up with, but on the whole, OK. We were up and packing up by 6:00am, with a delicious breakfast of tomatoes and scrambled eggs on toast to set us up for the day. Admittedly the lack of hot water made me rue our cooked breakfast – scrubbing a scrambled egg pan in cold water at stupid o’clock is not my idea of fun.
We set off for Zimbabwe, via the border crossing at Beitbridge. Even saying the word “Beitbridge” gives me cause to reach for a large glass of wine. Caty had found a blog post about how to navigate the absolutely bonkers visa system at the border into Zim, and it saved our bacon. There’s no discernible logic to the process at all, and for people who go in blind, it must take years to get through. I have zero patience at the best of times, so was probably particularly irritable throughout this boring day.
I’ll spare you the details of the border crossing mostly because I can’t bear to relive it (read that blog post if you’re desperate for a better understanding of senseless bureaucracy), but all I will say is that it was depressing as hell. The area around the border on both the SA and Zim sides are desperately impoverished, and (from a perspective of enormous privilege, and to my shame) I could hardly bear to look. There were also donkeys all over the place at the crossing itself, looking forlorn (I know donkeys always look a bit glum, but these guys were breaking my heart) as they mooched around. Beitbridge is basically a huge car park, so how those donkeys were surviving I have no idea.
We eventually made it across the border and into Zimbabwe, absolutely cream crackered after a long day of driving and hanging around at Beitbridge. We realised we were never going to make it to our first stop, South Gonarezhou National Park, unless we drove through the night, and we had been advised not to do that. The reason for this being that the roads in Zim can be treacherous – full of pot holes, stray animals (anything from dogs to goats to donkeys), other people driving with broken head and tail lights, and all sorts of other fun things that none of us had the energy for that evening. Caty phoned her friend’s mother for advice, who lives in Harare, as to where we could head for that night instead. She recommended a motel called the Lion and Elephant, about 80km away from where we were. So off we went, into the gathering dusk, elated at finally being in Zim but ever so slightly apprehensive about the journey ahead of us.
The Lion and Elephant was surprisingly nice, given its proximity to the border, and the 3 of us shared a little chalet. We celebrated our safe arrival with a warm beer and then passed out.
Another hideously early start saw us back on the road by 6, heading for South Gonarezhou, around 4 hours away. The roads were pretty bad, and we spent an inordinate amount of time on a very ridged dirt track. I could feel my teeth loosening. At one point we (Charlie) risked a slight detour onto the adjacent farmland and that was kind of fun (though I was pretty sure we were going to be shot for trespassing at any moment) but the ground became crazy boggy and we didn’t fancy getting stuck. We drove past lots of farmland, and saw donkeys and oxen ploughing small tracts of land, but largely the land looked pretty abandoned. The roads were deserted, but of course as soon as we stopped to pee, a camper van drove up behind us and a very sweet German couple stopped to chat. Bit embarrassing.
We made it to South Gonarezhou National Park, where the entrance couldn’t have been more different to the slick Kruger operation. There was only one guy on the gate, and he took our entrance fee and names, and was very friendly, with no inclination to search our car. We drove along to the campsite to dump our stuff and find out more about the game driving in the park.
It happened to be the day of my grandfather’s funeral as well, so I tried to get some wifi to call home and ease my guilt at not being there. I managed to get hold of my mum, but she’s deaf and the internet was rubbish, so it wasn’t hugely comforting. Meanwhile Caty and Charlie had been doing what they do best – chatting up the staff to find out where we should drive to and what to watch out for.
The campsite was gorgeous, and we had it to ourselves except for the nice German couple who had caught us – quite literally – with our trousers down on the drive in. We set up camp on a bank next to the river, chasing the local monkeys and baboons away from our tent at regular intervals. There were toilets and showers (of a fashion) and a large stone slab and braai for us to prepare our food, so it was all terribly civilised considering we were in the middle of the bush. I had a minor heart attack at the size of the spiders in the toilet but they were all pretty dead, fortunately.
Gonarezhou means “place of many elephants”, so we supposed we’d see lots of ellies immediately, but our Kruger nightmares came back to haunt us, and we were soon grousing about the fact that all we’d seen were impala and waterbuck. (How quickly we forgot that we saw everything in Kruger!) We drove around for a few hours, not really seeing very much of anything, but then as the sun started to go down, things got pretty exciting.
Too exciting, really.
First Caty spotted striped hyena and black backed jackal, which was awesome, if fleeting. Then we saw one or two giraffe – very cool. Then the elephants put in an appearance. For me, seeing these huge animals up close and in the wild, and in such a stunning setting, was just a dream come true. But my much wiser friends got pretty twitchy about being so close to elephants as it was getting dark – apparently that’s dangerous… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ So, much like in Kruger but on much wilder tracks and in an infinitely more remote place, we found ourselves hooning back to our campsite, with only one sticky moment where a bull elephant stood directly in our path looking pretty grumpy.
We made it back to our campsite in one piece, and cooked dinner over the fire, and whiled away a lovely evening watching the sun go down, listening to the monkeys chattering in the trees around us, and getting steadily sleepier, before finally crashing out into our tent at 9:30. Rock and roll. Despite the fact that our very small tent was hotter than the sun, I slept pretty well, waking up only THREE THOUSAND TIMES because Caty shrieked every time she heard a noise outside. When you’re sleeping outside, you’re obviously going to hear things moving about. Caty was absolutely convinced that we were surrounded by lions, elephants, crocodiles and God knows what else, so she would kick poor Charlie awake each time and make him poke his head out of the tent to confirm that in fact, there was nothing there. The one time we all got a bit of a fright was when one of the wretched monkeys decided to throw our little kettle across the campsite, but he frightened himself more and didn’t try it again.