A motorcycle trip to Zimbabwe confirms what makes this country such a special overlanding destination. In the Savé Valley Conservancy, you can ride your motorbike past big game, while the waterfalls and views of Nyanga National Park are remarkable. By Tim Tucker and Carolyn Williamson
To explore Zimbabwe by motorbike or 4×4? Having just purchased a Toyota Land Cruiser 79 and loved travelling in it through the Richtersveld a couple of months ago, we faced a dilemma. We had to make a serious decision whether to take the Land Cruiser on our upcoming trip around Zimbabwe or our two GS1200 motorbikes.
However, we all remember our high school literature: “Four wheels good, two wheels better!” (With apologies to George Orwell’s Animal Farm.)
So off we went on a three-week adventure, after shipping our motorbikes from Cape Town to Johannesburg. We decided to visit some of the places we had not seen before on previous trips and headed to Beitbridge before doing an anticlockwise lap around much of Zimbabwe’s circumference.
We have now ridden 13 African countries on our bikes, from Angola to Rwanda, and loved them all. When planning an adventure motorcycle trip in Southern Africa, one of the challenges remains getting into Big Five game parks. We have ridden through quite a few: in Tanzania (Mikumi, Saadani and Katavi national parks) and in Uganda (Queen Elizabeth National Park). But Zimbabwe National Parks does not allow motorbikes in parks such as Hwange and Gonarezhou. So, plan other places, such as ‘conservancies’ and the national parks without animals.
Crossing the border at Beitbridge
Getting through Beitbridge was a treat compared to previous journeys through the same border. There’s a remarkably improved infrastructure now on the Zimbabwean side of Beitbridge, but the level of inefficiency and administrative obfuscation remains a challenge. Having been through so many borders before, we initially resisted the assistance of the many informal agents ready to help one through the process. But eventually, after clear hurdles, we used the service of Frank, who was able to get us our online registration for two vehicles and steer us through the strange system. (This is the only border we have ever crossed where a prior internet-based code is required to enter with a vehicle… uggghhh.)
In our experience, don’t be put off by informal assistants. Frank provided a professional service for a relatively limited fee in a system which is difficult to manage. Also don’t bother about the fact that it may take anywhere between two and four hours to get through Beitbridge. What you get on the other side is truly remarkable and worth waiting for far longer for: the joys of Zimbabwe.
The delights of Savé Valley Conservancy
We headed up the A4 highway, which varies in quality from superb to very poor in places where there are major road works underway. We navigated using our Garmin 590 motorbike unit, with downloaded Tracks4Africa maps. We’d pre-prepared some routes on the laptop, while others we managed on the unit itself.
Having previously motorcycled through Masvingo and seen Great Zimbabwe, we turned east at Ngundu this time. We had that blissful feeling of immersing into the beauties of the southeast as we passed the stunning dolomite rock formations towards Chiredzi. The size of the sugar plantations in the southeast is remarkable. The road through Triangle and Chiredzi areas is good quality tar and relaxing, as you pass endless sugar cane farms interspersed with villages and smaller farms.
We’d chosen this route as we wanted to ride through the Savé Valley Conservancy from south to north. Although Savé allows motorbikes, it is a Big Five private nature reserve, with bucketloads of game. In fact, they are currently relocating thousands of animals to other game reserves in Zimbabwe around Lake Kariba which have been victims of wholesale poaching. Top tip for adventure motorcyclists: if you want to feel really alive, motorcycle through a Big Five game reserve and see what it does to your levels of vigilance. The dirt roads were good quality and we had a great time getting to our overnight stop, Mokore Camp.
Chilling at Mokore
We chose to stay at Mokore for two nights. Being exhausted after a hectic few months at work, we just hung out on the deck reading books, having a beer, spotting birds and watching the game come down to the river in front. Thank you, Penny and Emma, for that bottle of red wine that was even more delicious after being rattled all the way from Johannesburg to Mokore! The accommodation was great, the meals excellent and it is a good place to hang out, whether you want to actively search out game or relax while reading a book and having a drink. The huge baobab tree – supposedly the largest in Zimbabwe – is well worth a visit.
Views of Nyanga National Park
We exited the Savé Valley Conservancy at the northern gate and traveled further northeast over the Birchenough Bridge. Our destination: Nyanga National Park, with three nights in a cottage at Punch Rock. These well-maintained self-catering cottages near Juliasdale are located among beautiful flat-top acacia trees. We had not been back to Nyanga for decades, and were once again struck by the incredible beauty both inside and outside the park boundaries the spectacular rock formations, winding roads and the incredible red, yellow and orange colours of the msasa trees in spring.
On the first day, we rode into the park and spent a wonderful morning at Mutarazi Falls. We enjoyed the Mutarazi Falls Skywalk, with water flowing hundreds of metres down below to the Honde Valley. Highly recommended, with the dirt road great quality.
Waterfalls and rocky roads
Climbing back on the motorbikes, we rode towards Pungwe Falls further north. Be warned, the road to the Pungwe Falls lookout point is very rustic. But we were delighted that we took it because the view into the valley is quite astonishing. However, getting to the falls themselves was more difficult. We found the final 500m of the road down into the valley and along to the falls almost impossible to ride with our 1200cc bikes. The Land Cruiser would have made the last section, but been challenged.
Most of the roads around Pungwe have not been repaired in years and many are deeply rutted, eroded and very rocky. The road out from Pungwe towards Claremont was ‘interesting’. It felt like riding bucking broncos as we navigated deep ruts and big rocks. In fact, the ruts were so deep in places, that had we toppled into them, the bikes would have been suspended by the side panniers and the back tire off the ground. But, what fun – we were very happy that we did it! We returned to our cottage at Punch Rock exhausted and needing a beer, but exhilarated after a physically challenging day in the most astonishing beauty.
Heading further north into Nyanga
The following day, we took the more northern road into Nyanga National Park up to the base of Mount Nyangani, the highest mountain in Zimbabwe. It is strikingly beautiful; and the road to it and Nyamuziwa Falls in great condition. There were relatively few visitors on that day, apart from a couple of cars and a bus load full of Zimbabwean visitors loving the sights of their own country. The day trip was made even more special by a side loop to Nyamuziwa Falls.
However our plan to exit the area and ride north within the park to Troutbeck Inn was not possible, as the road has not been maintained for years and is essentially washed away. We therefore had no choice but to travel back to the same park entrance before taking the tar road further north to explore other areas including World’s View. When planning a Nyanga trip, it is probably fair to expect these two sections described above to be unmaintained for a while.
In Zimbabwe on two wheels part 2, the trip continues to Lake Kariba and back to South Africa via Hwange. Tim and Carolyn also share valuable tips for other bikers looking to take on adventure trips.