A true wilderness off the tourism map
There’s a spot in south-eastern Zimbabwe that’s so magnificent, so unique and so replete with wildlife, it’s astonishing to learn that it’s still a virtual secret. This hidden gem is Gonarezhou National Park (which means “place of the elephant”), a genuine wilderness area that’s teeming with wildlife and diverse, photogenic landscapes. But Gonarezhou’s best feature of all is its lack of tourists.
On the edge of Gonarezhou National Park sits Chilo Gorge, a luxury safari lodge with extraordinary access to this pristine wilderness. We asked director/owner Howard Russell to tell us more about Zimbabwe’s best-kept secret. Shhh, don’t tell anyone…
Need to know about Chilo Gorge
Where is Chilo Gorge?
“Chilo Gorge is the main operator within Gonarezhou National Park. Gonarezhou is located in south-eastern Zimbabwe, bordering South Africa and Mozambique. Gonarezhou is the second-largest national park in Zimbabwe, and part of the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area.”
How do you get there?
“Gonarezhou/Chilo is in a relatively remote part of Zimbabwe, and so most international guests arrive by plane into our own airstrip (Mahenye). There are seat rate charters from Harare to Mahenye. And also seat rate charters from Johannesburg to Buffalo Range, from which we provide a free road transfer. For the more adventurous self-drive clients, Chilo fits well into a self-drive itinerary starting in Harare, to the Eastern Highlands, to Chilo, to Great Zimbabwe Ruins, Matopos, Hwange and finishing in Victoria Falls.”
When’s the best times of year to visit?
“High season – May to October – which is the dry season. For the more experienced Africa traveller, November to April is also an amazing time due to the abundance of young animals, the lushness of the park and the amazing birdlife. But the temperatures are hot and humid.”
What five words best describe Chilo Gorge?
“Wilderness, solitude, comfortable, welcoming, authentic.”
What sort of accommodation do you offer?
“Chilo Gorge encompasses three accommodation options. Firstly there’s Chilo Gorge Safari Lodge, an “old Africa” four-star lodge with stunning views over the Save river and Gonarezhou. There are 10 chalets, doubles or twins, two of which are interconnected by a balcony and are perfect for families. Smaller children stay on camp beds with parents.
Then there’s Chilo Gorge Tented Camp, a rustic “old Africa” tented safari camp with four tents, each sleeping two people and with an en-suite shower and toilet. Finally, the Ivory Trail Adventure features a basic but comfortable mobile tented camp, with three tents. Each tent houses two people, plus there’s a shared bucket shower and long-drop toilet.”
What’s special about Chilo Gorge?
“The lodge, tented camp and fly camp are all wonderful products, with a great community story underpinning them, but what makes Chilo really special is the fact that we are currently the only operator providing international guests access to the amazing wilderness of Gonarezhou. With its diversity of landscapes, wildlife and birdlife, and the small number of visitors, Gonarezhou offers a true wilderness experience which is increasingly rare in Africa.”
What facilities do you offer?
“We have a shaded swimming pool, a sumptuous lounge, a library, a bar, dining rooms and a conference room, all surrounded by beautifully tended garden.”
What other things can people do here?
“In addition to game drives, game walks and cultural trips, we also take guests to visit the local palm forest and meet the resident palm wine maker.”
What’s your favourite spot on the property?
“Sunrise Deck at the lodge, where we eat breakfast and lunch. It’s a beautifully shaded deck area, with stunning views down the Save River. Hippos, elephants and crocs cool off in the water below the deck, and game comes to drink at all times of day. It’s easy to spend hours on this deck, coffee in hand, watching the day wake up.”
And your favourite thing to do?
“Personally, I love the Ivory Trail fly camping experience or staying at the Tented Camp. Gonarezhou is a true wilderness. It’s possible to spend days in the park without seeing another vehicle or human. So when you camp in the park, and there’s not another human sound or light source to be seen, it’s a truly amazing experience.”
What are the most incredible natural features guests will see?
“One of the key distinguishing features about Goanrezhou is the diversity of landscapes and topographies within its boundaries. The most famous feature is the Chilojo Cliffs – towering sandstone cliffs cut over centuries by the Runde River. However for me, it’s the variety of landscapes that you see as you travel the park, combined with the absence of people, that’s the most exciting natural feature.”
What animals are they likely to see?
“The main species that guests will see are elephant, buffalo, kudu, eland, nyala, waterbuck, wildebeest, giraffe, zebra, impala, duiker, steinbock, hippo, lion, leopard, wild dog, black-backed jackal and hyena. There are also 452 species of bird that have been recorded in the park, and our guests see huge diversity of birdlife during their time with us.”
What sort of conservation initiatives do you have in place?
“My co-owner, Clive Stockil, has spent the last 40 years working with the local community to reduce human-wildlife conflict. Between them, they started the very first CAMPFIRE project, which is all about ‘community-led conservation’. Thanks to his many decades of tireless effort, Clive has been awarded international recognition for his work in conservation by everyone from Prince William, on behalf of the charity TUSK, to former President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the Chicago Zoological Society. Some 95% of the staff at Chilo come from the local village, Mahenye; we raise money for community projects from our guests; and we work with our local community in many other ways to ensure they see the benefits of community-led conservation.
Also worth mentioning is the work of the Gonarezhou Conservation Trust. GCT is a co-management model between Zimbabwe National Parks and Frankfurt Zoological Society. They run and maintain the park, and because of the structure of the GCT – especially the fact that every dollar raised goes directly into the park – have managed to raise sufficient private funding to help ensure that this park is now the best-run in Zimbabwe, and probably one of the best-run in Southern Africa.
Together, these two initiatives are a very rare and powerful combination for travellers who genuinely care about longevity of the places and communities they are visiting.”
Do you offer any special cultural activities?
“Absolutely. As Chilo was built as part of a community-led conservation project, and community is at the heart of much of what we do, we strongly encourage our guests to include a tour of the local village during their stay with us. We visit the school, clinic and CAMPFIRE buildings, as well as the cultural village, where some of the villagers demonstrate the traditional customs.”
There’s something for everyone…
Honeymoons and couples
Is Chilo Gorge geared towards couples and honeymooners?
“If the honeymooners like to explore remote parts of the world, and have an authentic safari experience, then yes! If they want rose petals in the hot tub, then probably best to go somewhere else!”
In your opinion, what’s the best room/suite/tent/cottage for couples, and why?
“Room five. It’s the most secluded and it has the best view.”
What’s the one activity couples should not miss?
“I would suggest fly camping near the Chilojo Cliffs. The setting and scenery are truly magnificent. And then hike to the top of the cliffs in the early morning, and enjoy seeing as far as the eye can see, without any humans around.”
Where’s the most romantic spot a couple can enjoy a dining experience for two at Chilo Gorge?
“We have a beautiful spot down on the Save River where we normally do our sundowners. We can do a dinner set up for two, next to the fire.”
Do you offer any special “extras” for honeymooners or couples celebrating a special anniversary?
“A bottle of champagne, and dinner set-up, as above.”
What are your top “insider” tips for a couple staying at Chilo Gorge?
“Be clear about why you’re coming to Gonarezhou. There are a thousand lodges in Africa, and many will have honeymoon special deals with spa extras etc etc. We provide a pristine wilderness experience which is increasingly rare. But if that’s what you’re interested in, then we’re confident that you’ll have an amazing time. Also note Encompass Africa has a great package bush and beach style with Santorini in Vilanculos in Mozambique, which is a great beach destination for the final few days, and they have special honeymoon experiences aplenty!”
Families and children
Is Chilo Gorge geared towards families and children?
“Yes. Every school holiday / half-term we run a ‘Focus on Children’ weekend where all activities are completely tailored to kids. This means our guides and staff are very familiar and used to dealing with families and children of all ages.”
In your opinion, what’s the best room/suite/tent/cottage for families, and why?
“Rooms two and three – they have an interconnecting balcony and are ideal for families. Kids under 12 stay on camp beds in the chalet with their parents.”
What’s the one activity families should not miss at Chilo Gorge?
“A tour of the village, especially the clinic and the school. Mahenye is one of the most remote villages in Zimbabwe, and as a marginal community, also one of the poorest. Interacting with the local kids, and seeing their way of life is as important as seeing the wildlife (to me, anyway!). Plus seeing how ‘community-led conservation’ works in practice, understanding its many challenges, and understanding what role we can all play in this, is a vital lesson we need all of the next generation to be interested in.”
Where’s the best spot a family can enjoy a meal together at Chilo Gorge?
“Sundowners and then a braai on the Save River. The kids can play in the sand and roast marshmallows, while parents enjoy the sunset with a drink in hand.”
Is there anything special that you’d recommend families pack for an African safari that they might not have thought of?
“Something to donate to the school or community.”
What are your top “insider” tips for families staying at Chilo Gorge?
“Gonarezhou is a huge national park, and there is a lot to do. Ideally give yourselves at least three nights – ideally four – otherwise there won’t be time to do all the activities that you’ll want to do.”
Is Chilo Gorge geared towards solo travellers? How?
“We have one (Aussie) traveller who generally spends at least four weeks a year with us – so, yes!”
Do you offer any special “extras” for solo travellers?
“We do not charge single supplements. The only thing to be mindful of is seat rates on planes may require a min of two passengers.”
What are your top “insider” tips for solo travellers staying at Chilo Gorge?
“Give yourself some time to really explore some of the park. Three nights is the very minimum, and even that is rushed. Even our visitor who stays for four weeks every year complains that he didn’t get to do everything he wanted to!”
Is Chilo Gorge geared towards older travellers and/or travellers with physical limitations?
“Chilo lodge is located on some cliffs overlooking the Save river, and there are a number of steps to many of the rooms. For this reason, we would normally place older travellers, especially with physical limitations, in room one. Rooms nine and 10 are also good options, as we can drive the guests close to these two rooms, and the pathway is relatively flat.”
What’s the one activity older travellers should not miss at Chilo Gorge?
“We can do game walks to suit any level of mobility and fitness. And in addition to game drives, we would recommend trip to the local village. We also take guests on picnic lunches to some of the pans where we can sit and enjoy the wildlife coming to us.”
Do you offer any special “extras” for older travellers and/or travellers with physical limitations?
“We don’t have a set itinerary for activities or meal times, so if guests want to specify certain departure times or meal times, it’s totally fine by us.
Groups of friends
Is Chilo Gorge geared towards or suitable for groups and friends travelling together?
“Absolutely. The more the merrier!”
What are the best rooms for friends and groups travelling together?
“Rooms one, two, three and four are all located in one part of the camp, and so work well for up to eight guests (plus kids if they’re sharing with adults). For larger groups, it’s easy enough to allocate rooms so that the members of group are located near each other.”
What’s the one activity friends and groups should not miss at Chilo Gorge?
“This will somewhat depend on the size of the group. But Gonarezhou has some wonderful walking experiences, so we would definitely recommend that for the more adventurous groups.”
Where’s the best spot a groups can enjoy a dining experience together at Chilo Gorge?
“Sharing sundowners on the Save river bank with a braai and a fire is a wonderful experience. We also organise bush lunches for groups at some of the water pans.”
Do you offer any special “extras” for groups?
“Not at the moment, but we’re always happy to consider it. We are a small, stand-alone lodge, in a remote location, in a country with plenty of challenges – so we are always open to negotiating with Encompass Africa if it can help convert a good booking!””
What are your top “insider” tips for friends and groups staying at Chilo Gorge?
“If the group is made up of eight guests or fewer, we suggest they do a combination and spend some nights at the lodge and some in the seasonal tented camp. It’s a great mix.”