Chizarira National Park

Buffalo Chizarira National Park Zimbabwe by Jonathon Tichon ShutterstockChizarira is home to good populations of buffalo © Jonathon Tichon, Shutterstock

Zimbabwe’s third-largest national park encompasses no fewer than seven ecological zones and is home to the edible red-plumed Prince of Wales Feathers plant.

Chizarira weighs in at 1,920km², Zimbabwe’s third-largest national park. It’s in the northwest of the country, just south of Lake Kariba, and in many people’s eyes is the most scenically beautiful and dramatic park of all, with its escarpment, deep gorges and pristine forests. The average elevation is around 1,000m, rising to 1,433m at the summit of Tundazi Mountain. It was proclaimed a non-hunting reserve in 1958, and the national park was established to give sanctuary to wildlife driven out of the valley by the rising waters of Lake Kariba.

Chizarira shares a reputation with Gonarezhou as a true wilderness area. Its name derives from the Tonga word sijalila (‘great barrier’), a reference to the mighty and near-vertical 500m Zambezi Escarpment. The park encompasses no fewer than seven ecological zones, ranging from lowveld valley vegetation to highveld broadleaf woodland. From the escarpment the Zambezi valley floor extends southwards through rolling hills and valleys to merge with the low-lying Busi region. Springs and seeps provide water and surprisingly lush pockets of vegetation between ridges of mountain acacia and the red-plumed Prince-of-Wales Feathers plant, often cultivated for its edible seeds. Down on the floodplain you’ll find a remarkable similarity to Mana Pools, with towering evergreens and lush vegetation surrounding deep pans.

For all this, the park is little visited (part of its appeal to lovers of wild places), and before planning a visit you should consider the three main reasons why. The biggest obstacle is accessibility and the condition of the roads and tracks within the park (and to a certain extent the access roads). In winter, most are a 4x4 challenge, with indistinct tracks, washed-out riverbeds, deep ruts and rocky inclines – not helped by trees pushed over by elephants. In the wet summer months the park stays open for visitors but many roads and tracks are impassable, with generally only Muchene and Kaswiswe camps accessible. Having said that, the main road from the northern entrance south to Lesulu is well maintained throughout the year, as this is the main access route for rangers on anti-poaching patrols.

Accommodation is another limiting factor. Although there is a lodge just outside the park (Chizarira Lodge close to the park entrance), there are none within the park, so camping is the only option. Nevertheless there are some stunning places to overnight, and small thatched shelters at several of these sites mean that you can often do without a tent, at least in the dry season.

Finally, this quiet and somewhat cash-starved park gained an unfortunate reputation as a free-for-all for poachers. As in Gonarezhou, this has left the elephants in a pretty aggressive frame of mind, so they should be treated with even more caution than those in Hwange and Mana Pools. There used to be a large population of black rhino here but after most had been poached the few remaining individuals were captured and relocated to Matusadona. The good news is that efforts to bring the poaching situation under control are already bearing fruit, with a noticeable increase of game being seen here, and plans are well developed for a major cash injection specifically to boost the anti-poaching effort.

While this is not yet a park with heavy concentrations of game, there are good populations of leopard, lion and hyena, and plenty of food for them in the form of buffalo, impala, tsessebe, sable, kudu, roan and other buck. The park also features high on the list for enthusiastic birdwatchers, who come here to find, amongst its estimated 368 species, African broadbill, yellow-spotted nicator, Livingstone’s flycatcher and emerald cuckoo. The rare Taita falcon has been seen flying and roosting around the cliffs in the escarpment area, and it’s in the forested parts of the park near the entrance gate that the brilliantly colourful yet inconspicuous Angola or African pitta, almost a holy grail for birders, has occasionally been seen hopping around in the undergrowth. So Chizarira’s real strength is as a destination for hikers and others who want to experience one of southern Africa’s rapidly dwindling, truly wild and rugged places.

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