Chilo Gorge Lodge is on the North Eastern tip of Gonarezhou National Park, the Save River forming a natural boundary between the Lodge and the Park. The Lodge history is intriguing and inspiring, being the birthplace of CAMPFIRE (Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources). Below is a quote from Clive Stockil, founder of Chilo and of CAMPFIRE, that perfectly sums up the program
“I was asked to be an honorary officer of Gonarezhou at the time of independence in 1980. The park and the local community were at war with one another and poaching was a grave problem. In 1982, I was part of a meeting with 70 Shangaan elders. I told them I couldn’t tell the government what to do, that I was only a messenger, but that if we came up with a logical strategy, they might go for it. It took five or six years to get everyone to understand that the local community couldn’t be ignored – they needed to be able to benefit from their land. They grew their corn, spent months tending it, and then one night, a herd of ‘park elephants’ would cross the river, come into their land and destroy it all, leaving them hungry. They retaliated and hunted the elephants. When the government sent in a crack anti poaching unit, tensions just got worse.
“The government were really sceptical about my CAMPFIRE strategy, a director told me, ‘Had you chosen any other community in Zimbabwe, you might have a chance of winning. The Shangaan in this area are the most difficult and aggressive.’ I just insisted that until they saw benefits, we couldn’t expect things to change. There was no school in Mahenye then – they just scraped the bark off a tree and used it as a blackboard. They built their first school [that year] with money from the project, and that was the turning point. The following year, there were just nine arrests for poaching instead of 90. I went back to Harare with a smile. It was working.”
Over the years, guns have been replaced by cameras, and local people and visitors alike have learned to appreciate the animals as they should be; unmolested in their natural habitat. In recognition of his unswerving commitment, Clive was awarded the Prince William Award for Conservation in 2013.
“If you are a conservationist, your problem is all about space, so deal with human pressures first. CAMPFIRE has turned conflict into cooperation and everyone has benefited. The community is happy, the parks are happy and the animals are happy. Everyone wins. ”
With such a positive ethos, it is no surprise that the Lodge has a fantastic ambiance. Here’s our story.
We had just got back from Mana, and drove from Harare to Chilo. Its about a 7 hour drive, although its only 525 km. The first 130 km out of Harare is torrid. The Harare-Beitbridge road is busy, the driving is fast and aggressive, and the verge of the tar has a significant drop off to the dirt. Best advice is to just potter along carefully, let the buses whoosh past you and grit your teeth until the turnoff, which is directly after Chivhu. Further along, the Zaka road requires caution. Fortunately there is not much traffic, and generally the road is fine, but there are a few nasty potholes that suddenly loom out to be very wary of. After passing the Chiredzi and Chipinda Pools turn off, you cross Jack Quentin Bridge, which spans the Save River. Its quite impressive, although the river levels are very low for this time of year. Directly after the bridge, is the sign to Chilo and the road becomes dirt. Its 43km of gravel road that although does not require 4×4, definitely requires high clearance and a good set of tyres. Corrugations and rock make this slow going, an hour and a half to drive 43 km. There is an airstrip right next to the lodge – if you can afford a charter flight, it would be the best access option.
The rooms are set along the edge of the gorge, with the Save River flowing beneath. A few of the rooms are forest facing, but still do not disappoint. The natural beauty of this area is quite unique. The rooms are not airconditioned, but the steep thatch pitch ensures air circulates, with the aid of the fan. We were lucky enough to to stay in a luxury room, the difference from the standard room being a bar fridge, new linen and a totally refurbished bathroom.
There is so much to do at Chilo, three nights almost didn’t seem enough. A variety of walks and game drives either into the Park or into the sanctuary, cultural tours, sundowners on the beach, a visit to Chivilia Falls, a visit to the Save – Runde confluence (which happens to be the lowest point in Zimbabwe) and our personal favourite, the visit to the Palm Wine “factory” in Mahenye Village. The wine production was fascinating. The wine master works in a flood plain where there is an abundance of naturally occurring Ilala Palms. He cuts the base of the palm, and hey presto.. palm wine drips out. Its not actually alcoholic when it leaves the palm, but the cups used to collect the liquid are never washed, thus maintaining a particular bacterial balance, in effect, instantly fermenting the juice. It does come with a warning. Best consumed in very moderate quantities, within a few hours of collection. The longer it remains in the bottle, the more lethal it becomes and after 24 hours is guaranteed to leave no one standing. The wine is delicious (ours was barely 20 minutes old) and tastes exactly how you would imagine Ilala wine should. Slightly fruity with woody undertones. However the alcoholic kick was already evident, and we decided to take the rest home for consumption after dinner.
Clive informed us that the Mahenye community awarded a further 8000 hectares to Chilo, to use as a wildlife conservation area. During our visit, the fencing was going up (to keep animals IN, not people out) and a restock of game was about to commence. Clive had obtained funding from the EU in order to complete this project, and we look forward to visiting again soon to see the finished product.
The conference room at Chilo is new and air conditioned. It is the perfect venue for any small corporate conference, particularly one requiring discretion and no disruptions. The staff at Chilo were very amenable, and worked meal times and activities as much as they could around our clients timetable.
We found the 2 guides at Chilo – Lionel and Tom – very knowledgeable, with excellent people skills. The staff as a whole were very friendly, helpful, professional, and definitely rank as some of the best staff we have encountered in our travels. The food was also good, meals varied and delicious.
Our clients left Chilo full of praise, as did we, having thoroughly enjoyed our stay. We did the whole “safari” thing and saw amazing game, but we also learnt so much about CAMPFIRE, the ecology of Gonarezhou, history of the area and about the people that live in Mahenye village.
From Chilo we drove up to Zimbabwe’s Eastern Highlands.. but that’s another story..
Editor VF24, 19 February 2016