Buffalo Chizarira National Park Zimbabwe by Jonathon Tichon ShutterstockAlthough Chizarira National Park does not have heavy concentrations of game, it is home to large populations of buffalo © Jonathon Tichon, Shutterstock

Walk and camp in the wilderness of Zimbabwe’s third-largest national park.

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 with its escarpment, deep gorges and pristine forests it is, in many people’s eyes, the most scenically beautiful and dramatic park of all. 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 the past several years, the condition of the roads and the high incidence of poaching were two limiting concerns for visitors to the park. The good news is that from early 2018, three organisations have committed to working with National Parks to bring Chizarira back to its former glory. UK-based nonprofit National Park Rescue and Zimbabwean non-profit Bhejane Trust are rebuilding the roads and training and assisting with anti-poaching patrols. The African Lion and Environmental Research Trust (ALERT) is leading a lion research project and assisting with the upgrade of some facilities. Several roads have been reopened and marked in the north of the park with plans to expand this upgrade throughout the park. A 4×4 is still recommended for all visitors and there are plans to create challenging trails specifically for 4×4 enthusiasts.

Although the condition of the roads is improving, most remain rugged. Indistinct tracks, washed-out riverbeds, deep ruts and rocky inclines, and trees pushed over by elephants all make for a difficult driving experience. 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. There is currently no lodge accommodation anywhere near the park so camping is the only option, and you need to be completely self-sufficient. 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, in times past, this quiet and somewhat cash-starved park gained an unfortunate reputation as a free-for-all for poachers. While the anti-poaching work is beginning to have a positive effect, the remaining elephants remain in a pretty aggressive frame of mind, so they should be treated with even more caution than those in Hwange and Gonarezhou. Much of the other wildlife is skittish and fearful. 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.

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, among 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 African pitta, almost a holy grail for birders, has occasionally been seen hopping around in the undergrowth. All in all, 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.

One of the best ways to explore this park is with a safari operator who will take you walking deep into the wilderness where few tourists ever go. The most experienced guide operating in this area is Leon Varley of Leon Varley Walking Safaris who considers this to be his ‘home park’. It’s also possible to hire a park ranger as a guide (it will be in your own vehicle), but to be sure of availability you should book in advance from National Parks headquarters in Harare.

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