In January 2009, at the height of the rainy season, I was investigating one of the more exciting stretches of flooded black cotton soil in Zimbabwe's Mana Pools National Park. I had a good vantage-point, since I was up to the knees in the stuff. "We'll give it a go," I called to Sally, my wife, who - wisely - was sitting in the comfort of our 80 Series GX Cruiser, parked on more solid ground. "Forget it," she shouted back. "We're the only people in the park, and the warden hasn't got any fuel. We'll be stuck here 'til April!" Ye of little faith, and all that. But the GX was new to us; I hadn't got round to fitting a winch, and stuffing around with high-lift jacks might've got us through before April, but wouldn't be a great way to watch a sunset. We went off and found another of Mana's many delightful sundowner spots.
Sal had summed up the park's situation well enough. No visitors equals no income equals no fuel, not even for essential anti-poaching work, let alone for heaving idiots in 4x4s out of the mud. And no food for the staff, either, we found out later. And probably also no wildlife, if things go on like this for much longer.
Since then Sally and I, plus various friends, have driven a ton of maize meal, beans, rice and other staples into Mana Pools every month. We've also given the park 3 000 litres of fuel. This is great, in a purely selfish way, because it's given us an excuse to get down there, and most times we've had Mana more or less to ourselves. But first prize would be for these places to be able to stand on their own two financial feet again, and that means bringing back the visitors.
This seems a good time to try and put Zimbabwe back on the map. There's more optimism up here than there has been for over a decade, and 4x4 owners, in particular, are almost by definition an adventurous lot. But maybe we need to look at a few facts...
One: you don't have to catch cholera. Even if you do, it's easily treatable. Also, the epidemic has now declined.
Two: you can now get fuel in all main centres, usually for cash in US dollars or South African rands.
Three: with regards to safety, well, we up here are fairly petrified of visiting South Africa! Think of all those Zimbos hijacked on the N1!
Four: Zimbabwe is full of beautiful places; and
Five: these places are in serious trouble.
I can say all this with confidence, because my wife Sally and I actually live in Zimbabwe. We haven't got cholera, we haven't been shot at, and we've always been able to get fuel. And if more 4x4ers from South Africa come here to enjoy the bush and the wildlife, they'll help get a few dollars into the pockets of the many wardens and rangers still doing an extraordinary job against huge odds.
The Zambezi Valley is my own personal love. Maybe more relevantly, it's the region I know best, so I tend to focus on it. There are some very beautiful wildlife areas up here in northern Zimbabwe, such as the Mana Pools National Park on the Zambezi, or the Matusadona National Park beside Lake Kariba, as well as some equally lovely stretches of wild country outside the parks. To the east of Mana Pools, for example, there's an amazing dinosaur trackway,
fossil forests, fishing camps on the Zambezi and plenty of opportunities to explore parts of the Zambezi Valley not often seen by other visitors.
The easiest route to this particular area is through Harare, and there's also some pleasant overnight camping beside Lake Chivero at - for instance - the Jacana Yacht Club, which provides opportunity for visitors to enjoy a day's sailing in unspoilt surroundings with the possibility of sighting white rhinos.
These areas can also be accessed from the west after entering through Plumtree, Kasane, Victoria Falls or the little-used Pandamatenga border crossing, the latter giving near-direct access to the Hwange National Park. From there, it's possible to drive down the graveled Karoi-Binga road, which will take you from the Victoria Falls or Hwange areas through to the main Harare-Chirundu-Lusaka road.
You'd need a vehicle with reasonable range to do it, as there are 700 mostly fuel-less kilometers to travel, and quite a few more if you make some side trips along the way. The first is into the Chizarira National Park, which very few people have ever visited even in the tourist boom times. Chizarira doesn't have huge numbers of animals, but the scenery is magical, and there are campsites in the park and a nice little self-catering lodge on the access road.
Then, about 170 km from Karoi, there's a turnoff to Tashinga, the headquarters of the Matusadona National Park, which is beautifully sited on the Lake Kariba shoreline. The 70 km Matusadona access road is quite rugged - and sometimes impassable in the rains - but runs through magnificent hills until it emerges into the mopanes of the Matusadona flatlands. This is a black rhino area, and you stand a good chance of sighting one or more of these sorely endangered animals.
Right now I'm trying to find a way of ferrying vehicles across the lake from the Matusadona to Kariba itself, as this would replace 300-odd kilometers of driving with a pleasant, four-hour ride across the lake. You'll need to backtrack to the Karoi-Binga road, and continue eastwards to the main Harare-Lusaka road, and then to Mana Pools, which has one of southern Africa's finest concentrations of wildlife.
Once there, meander around in your vehicle on (but, please, not off!) the serviceable roads and tracks, or get out on your own two feet and walk; it's about the only national park in the region where you can do this.
It depends what you want to do, of course, but by and large Zimbabwe isn't nearly as wild and woolly as a lot of places that the more adventurous 4x4 people like to visit. You can have a fantastic time here with most standard 4x4s with low-range, and still a great time with a reasonably tough 4x2 pick-up in good condition. This may be an anti-sell for the double-rugged, but an encouragement for those 4x4 owners who possibly read accounts of gung-ho adventures north of the Limpopo with mounting horror. There's rough, tough stuff to be had, certainly, but I'm guessing that right now many people will be happy just to enjoy the country's wilder parts and a bit of low-range work without ending up inverted in a riverbed.
Speaking of vehicles, I've been driving around these places for 30 years now, starting with a countrywide tour of our national parks in 1979 in a clapped-out Series IIA diesel Land Rover. The bush war was still raging, but I didn't get shot at even then, possibly because God looks after foolhardy British immigrants. Over those years, though, I've been privileged to spend a lot of time with the pro's - the photosafari and hunting guys here - whose focus is on practicality rather than street cred. Their vehicles tend to lose weight over time as non-essential items break or fall off, rather than gain it with bolt-on bling, the ultimate being the two-seats-and-a-chassis working vehicles - many of them old IIA models - you still see running around places like Kariba.
Obviously I'm not suggesting anyone goes that far, but they do give an insight into the essentials: sensible tyres and suspension, sound engine and transmission, and a good strong frame or chassis. The rest is mostly a matter of practicality and choice. Like most of those guys, I run on standard 7.50 x 16 split-rims and tubed skinnies, which get Sally and I through most things while reducing the sidewall damage on some of our sharp-stoned gravel roads. Range is always good to have; I can get around 1 100 km out of the GX, which is generally enough for most purposes here. Otherwise, though, I like to keep my vehicle weight light and low, and don't usually carry much more by way of vehicle-related gear than two spare wheels and tubes, jack, puncture kit, a tyre compressor, jump leads, spare belts and hoses, shovel, machete and basic tools.
I don't enjoy towing a trailer as I can't stand all that clattering going on behind me on the corrugations, but if you do need one, make sure it's a well-built 4x4 job. The road to Mana is littered with the wreckage of those ducky little numbers with tiny wheels and springs to match.
Use a rooftop tent if you like, or - in the dry season - just sling a mosquito net from a handy tree and sleep on your roofrack. However - and at the risk of provoking a major outbreak of Professor Sodde's Law - in 30 years of camping at ground level in wildlife areas I've never had a problem with lions, elephants or anything else. Hyenas have nicked my cooler box a couple of times, but that was down to sheer stupidity on my part, as Sally keeps reminding me. But I do like to get my vehicle mobile without having to dismantle a small canvas city, especially when I hear lions away in the bush somewhere and want to go and find them. So bring portable electric fences, generators and all the rest of the paraphernalia if you feel you must, but reserve the payload for the real essentials - any fool, as they say, can be uncomfortable in the bush.
Top of the list is an adequate supply of whatever you fancy for sundowners beside the Zambezi, while watching the elephants crossing the river and the egrets flying to their roosts, with the sound of lions hunting in the woodlands at your back.
Dick Pitman was founder-chair and then director of the Zambezi Society, which focuses on wildlife and wilderness conservation in the Zambezi region. He stepped down from the directorship in late 2006 to concentrate on wilderness writing, photography and bush travel, and in 2009 started his own self-drive wilderness safari company Zim4x4. He is the author of several books on Zimbabwean wildlife and conservation, ranging from Wild Places of Zimbabwe (1980) to A Wild Life, a personal memoir published in the UK in 2007 and the USA in 2008. He has driven 4x4s in the Zambezi Valley area, mainly on conservation business, for more than 30 years. His other interests include wildlife photography and sailing, and he was also a volunteer pilot for Zimbabwe's Parks Department, flying Piper Super Cubs on radiotracking,elephant radiocollaring, and biodiversity survey projects.