Safety is key when touring Africa. Help can be far away and medical attention can be even further. Small decisions can have cumulative affects and keeping calm and level headed will make all the difference.
I remember taking three Argentinean friends on a hastily planned trip to Gonerezhou national park in South Easten Zimbabwe. I have visited the region many times before but never in (rainy session) January. We left on warm summer Saturday morning in early January and hoped to return the following Saturday in-time for departure flights on the Sunday. We decided on one vehicle without a trailer for our adventure. At the time we didn’t have fancy roof top tents/fridges and packing systems so extras like sand tracks and high lift jacks didn’t come along. We left in high spirits in my fathers Toyota Prado.
We wanted to visit the southern side of the Runde river which I believed to be the best part of Gonerezhou national park. However I knew this side of the park would be in-accessible if we entered from the north. We made the unanimous decision to take longer drive on dirt roads and ended up on the south side of the river. This side of the river boasts the famous chilojo cliffs view point and fantastic camp sites under large Jackal berries trees. We had a fair bit of trouble when arriving as the park was closed due it being January/rainy session and muddy conditions. After lengthy negotiations and absolute assurance to officials that we would not get stuck in the mud due to extensive 4×4 experience. Ye right!
We had several days of absolute awesome game viewing and adventuring with the occasional muddy road causing some issues but nothing to write home about. We saw the park at its greenest. The baobabs were flowering, the abundance of greenery was absolutely stunning. Large flocks of migratory Carmine beaters decorated the sheer river banks in vibrant red. They nest in wholes, they dig about a meter in the bank. Large concentrations of game filled the riverine forests. We didn’t see many elephants which is what this park is known for, boasting over 12000 elephants in the area. They where most likely scattered around the now green park, But our blissful African experience was soon to be turned upside down.
On the Thursday, the day before our planned departure, we took a leisurely afternoon drive to the eastern most pans which are wedged between the confluence of the Save and Runde rivers and the Mozambique border. This part of the park is the most inaccessible at this time of year with a 4 hour round trip drive to the nearest help. The natural pans can be a over a kilometer in diameter when full. The bird life and mammal sightings here are fantastic. Baboon troops are often seen grazing for hours at the water’s edge. Hippos and crocs are a plenty and Jacana water birds dance on the surface of flowering lilies. Flocks of White faced whistling ducks gently whistle to each other while Spoon bills trawl the shallows for something to eat. As we drove around one of the large pans the road started getting muddier. I engaged low range but not difflock. This extended bit of muddy road was all black cotton soil which is the worst kind of mud. Its clayey consistency and apparently never ending depth makes it very difficult to drive through. The clay and its slippery properties clog up the tyres leaving one with almost no traction as it mud slipping on mud.
We made it about 400 meters through the section and in the last 10 meters the vehicle finally came to a halt. I hadn’t managed to maintain enough momentum. Unfortunately we had left the spade at camp but with enthusiasm and young masculine strength we started the usual procedures to get the vehicle out.
This did not go as planned, we pushed the car back and forth, trying rock it out but we sank deeper. We collected logs and placed them under the tyres. We dug with our hands until the clay wore away at our finger tips. The spade would have been useful at this point. But despite our efforts we sank deeper. We tried hard and then even harder but to no avail. I remember at one point late in the evening all the boys pushing against the bull bar with such force that the veins on the heads where showing and frothing mouths screamed in frustration.
At around 10.00pm I finally called it off and we resigned to sleeping in the car for the evening despite being covered in mud. At least the mud provided some sort of mosquito repellent/armor.
We woke at first light after a rather rough and cramped nights rest. I walked around the car thinking about what to do next. One of the guys had written FUCK on the door with mud the night before.
I decided our only option was to walk and find help. This was highly debated as some of the guys were extremely apprehensive of leaving the car to then fend for ourselves on foot. But I persuaded the group and assured them that I knew where I was going. I thought the best thing to do in this type of situation was to stick together and in theory we shouldn’t have left the car. Without suitable recovery equipment and satellite phones, but with my knowledge of the park and where to get help, we walked, only taking passports, identity documens and money stashed in a dry bag, secured to my belt.
We headed north-east to a known lodge some 20km away. This would mean crossing the flooding river, which we had been avoiding throughout the trip. One of the boys carried a kitchen knife in each hand while the other had a machete. The third just walked and I had the strategy of seeing before being seen. Our first major issue was swimming across the hippo and croc infested the river.
We arrived at the river and found a suitable place to swim across. We approach the river with caution and then sat down to watch the activity. When we arrived some Eland ran off and the hippos grunted in the distance. The current was strong but not turbulent. We figured that swimming directly across the 80 meter wide river was best, but calculated that we would end up about twice the distance down stream. With this in mind and confident that no crocs or hippos where near by we walked in slowly, without splashing and trying not to make any commotion. About half way across we could no longer stand. The Argentine with the machete had to abandon his weapon as he could not swim with it in his hand. The swim felt like it went on forever. The look on everyone’s faces, including mine, was one of real fear and determination. Finally we got to the other side and were faced with the immediate challenge of scaling up a shear sandy river bank. I was desperate to get away from the waters edge but one of the Argentines was absolutely exhausted. It took several attempts to get up the sandy bank as it kept crumbling away beneath us. Finally we managed to get everyone up the bank, where we rested. We still had 15Km of walking to do.
The rest of the walk was pleasant despite our wet and sandy shoes causing blisters quickly. We passed a herd of Buffalo, luckily some distance away. Baboons barked in the large surrounding Acacia trees, The view of the river from the higher banks was spectacular. Impala ate whatever the baboons knocked down from the trees.
We were making good progress. Until we encountered, potentially the worst thing possible. A lone Buffalo bull rose up from a muddy pit. Unfortunately we had surprised him, probably old, half deaf and appeared to be missing an eye. These are the most volatile beasts and often charge without warning. I ushered everyone behind me and assessed the situation. The old Bull just starred at us in that bovine blank way. I whispered to every one to move backwards and away while I stood ground and scouted for trees to climb. My plan if he decided to charge was to distract the old bull and climb a tree. Fortunately, I too could move away slowly, without incident.
At about noon we arrived at on the opposite bank of Chilo lodge which is on the Save river. The Runde and the Save confluence some 10km down river. Having already swum across one river we were not excited to attempt that again. We managed to raise someones attention by shouting like a troop of territorial baboons.
Once the situation was explained an enthusiastic and helpful team from Chilo lodges organised some recovery equipment, a few men and a boat to re-cross the Runde.
With the boat loaded on the roof of their game viewer we headed off. The game viewer could only get as far as where we had swam across ther Runde river earlier. While boating back across John from Chilo lodge shared his experience of the river and reported that a few very large crocs hang around the area. The Argentines and I smiled at each other with extreme relief. We had been very lucky.
This time getting the vehicle out the mud was easy. The sand tracks that Chilo lodge provided gave us traction and extra men pushing the vehicle made light work of our sticky situation.
The ease of getting out the mud with the right equipment shocked me. Never again will I leave home without the right recovery equipment.
Things I’d do in future
- Ensure recovery equipment is packed and know how to use it.
- Take a cautious approach to remote areas when traveling in one vehicle
- Keep 3 days provisions in the vehicle at all times, and lots of water.
- Never walk anywhere without a planned route and map of the area. Getting lost on foot is not ideal.
- Travel with great friends like I did.
- Do a 4×4 and survival course before taking on big challenges in the African bush with one vehicle.
- Keep a well equipped medical aid kit with you
- Tell someone of your planned day to day route and be sure not to deviate from the route.
A big thanks to my friends who didn’t question my decisions for a moment but only provided support and good ideas. And a big thanks to the Chilo lodge team for helping without judgment.