Buried somewhere in my memories of childhood is an image of that broken ridge deep in the hazy distance during fire season, as the family drove between Chipinga and Melsetter sometime in the early 1970s. Those were the days before the war, before convoys, landmines, ambushes and all the rest of it; when the Chimanimani National Park became inaccessible, and slumbered under the occasional boot of an army patrol or a wandering band of comrades. Then in the 1980s, after the dust had settled and Zimbabwe was born, the gates of the National Park reopened, and with the ginger fear of left over landmines, civilian visitors began to spread out again, and pick up the threads of this beautiful mountain mythology.
One of the unique features of African mountaineering
The Chimanimani Mountain range is a geological feature pertaining to that rent that runs from the Cape to the Levantine, and is known along most of its distance as the Great Rift Valley. It marks the collision of two tectonic plates, and is poised at the apex of several local ecological zones. The featured of the range are clearly old. There is a gnarled, Tolkienesque venerability in the many, many cracks and fissures, gorges and gullies, lakes and rivers. It is a wonderland of the unique and unusual. An extraordinarily beautiful landscape.
Practically, however, the Chimanimani National Park is one of the more accessible mountain wilderness preserves in Africa. It does not have the inherent dangers associated with free range hiking in the Drakensberg, nor the restrictions of places like Kilimanjaro or Rwenzori. A person can sign in at the main gate and thereafter range freely without let or hindrance. This is fairly unique in Africa, and it relies on individual responsibility in terms of conservation and good wilderness practice. This has not always been respected, but so far the mountain has not suffered for the liberty that is offered to individual hikers.
Another aspect of the Chimanimani that is unique is the ease with which a modestly equipped hiker can survive. Caves abound, so carrying a tent is unnecessary. Conditions underfoot are reasonably benign, so no heavy footwear is required, and weather conditions very rarely require a fleece or raincoat. This is shorts and t-shirt country, and if a little physical asceticism is your interest, then a morning plunge in one of the lakes or pools that litter the mountain will certainly wake you up.
Chimanimani has not avoided some of the more pernicious problems of Africa. In recent years large sections of the mountain have fallen victim to a rapacious local gold panning epidemic. The matter has been settled somewhat, and it seems the worst of the effect has passed, but tremendous damage has been done to the fragile ecology by a complete lack of regulation, principally in Mozambique. However, this is still one of the most beautiful corners of the African highland spectrum, and as an evolving society and natural environment, the Chimanimani Mountains are certainly one of the jewels of the southern African eco-travel crown.
What to see & do in the Chimanimani Mountains
Chimanimani National Park is ideal for both day and multi-day hikes. There are two principal access routes, Bailey’s Folley, leaving directly from the Mutekestwane Base Camp, and perhaps best described as the short, sharop option, getting you to hut in a breathless, and breathtaking, hour and a half. Then there is the more moderate Banana Grove Trail that follows the firebreak west of camp for a short while before meandering pleasantly up into the high plains.
Within a day’s walk of base camp is the gorgeous Bundi Plain, where a day of swimming, sunbathing and exploration is usually followed by a slow walk down. Features include Digby’s Falls, Skeleton Pass, and if you are particularly energetic, a summit of Binga. All of these are easy to navigate, although mounting Bing and back in one day can be a biot of a push.
One of the great features of Chimanimani are the caves. The best known of these are Red Wall, close to the Hut, and Peterhouse, just a little further on down the Bundi Valley.
Further afield lies Terry’s Cave, a beautifully situated overhang that can sleep a good number of packs, and which is ideal for a secluded stay in one of the most idyllic quarters of the mountain.
About as far south as any casual visitor would ever want to trail are the Southern Lakes. This series of deep, dark and clear pools make a wonderful day stop and campsite (in dry weather) for those with an appetite for plunging into a quintessential mountain lake.
From Southern Lakes a superb and reasonably easy trail makes its way back to Base Camp via Banana Grove, and the expansive high plains that are the signature of the Chimanimani.
Maps are available locally to pinpoint all these worthwhile locations
As with all mountain environments, the weather is unpredictable and disorientation possible. Keep your wits about you as you walk, and make sure you have logged your direction if you strike out off the trail.
Chimanimani National Park is located along the frontier with Mozambique. Without expert local guidance it is very unwise to wander into Mozambique. Seek advice locally before you consider this
Otherwise welcome to this paradise in the Eastern Highlands. Treat it with respect, take care and have a wonderful experience…!