Southern Africa Road Trip 2022: The monkeys stole our lunch

Updated: Oct 4

Well, not quite lunch but a brand-new, unopened plastic container of cashews. I was holding it, but looked away and the vervet monkey stole it right out of my hand. I screamed loud enough that the other campers nearby came running to rescue the damsel in distress.

By that time, we were all waving our fists at the monkeys, to no avail. Nice lunch for them and unfortunately some unintended plastic litter in the park.

This is day 4 of out trip, first full day camping at Mana Pools National Park, in Zimbabwe.

Our group is in 2 cars: one Toyota SUV with a tent on the roof and a VW pickup truck (called a Bakkie in South Africa) decked out with a canopy and a collapsible tent on top. Each vehicle also has a refrigerator or freezer that feeds off the car battery.

There’s a lot of prep involved for these road trips through several countries (South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique).

  • antimalarial medicine ( in the USA you need a prescription, but in most if not all African countries it’s off the counter. In this case we needed to pay and pick it up the next day).

  • Groceries and toiletries shopping. Perishables and non-perishable, and some items are forbidden in some countries or locations. For example, alcohol is not permitted to enter Zimbabwe. Meat is not allowed into Mozambique. At the Mana Pools National Park. Fruit is not allowed, because of the stealing baboons and vervet monkeys. As we found out, they don’t mind stealing whatever else they can snatch. They tried running off with a container of milk, but it was too heavy.

  • Strong insect repellant. Some areas such as Mana Pools used to have many tsetse flies, and there are blue and black warning signs. Fortunately the flies are few and far between nowadays at the park.

  • Insect repellant (in South Africa the brand is Trabad)and anti-itch cream (there are various types).

  • We had to buy some clothing in other colors. Apparently the tsetse flies like dark colors, blue and bright colors, which was what we were traveling with. Thank goodness for the South African Woolworth stores, which stock good quality cotton clothing at a decent price. The fabric should not be too thin.

  • Filling the vehicle tanks with diesel fuel, and a few jerrycans just in case.

  • Cash in USD for Zimbabwe. Unfortunately the local currency has been deflating for years, and it’s the only way to pay for anything.

This year, the Johannesburg GoCamp workshop was fully staffed and it only took 45 minutes to set up the canopy, tent, and freezer unit. The vehicle already had an extra battery unit.

I borrowed a couple of sweaters; I had mostly brought summer clothes. It’s early spring in the Southern Hemisphere mid-September.

Our hosts and co-travelers have been doing these trips for 20 years. They have it down to a science. They travel with a propane tank with a burner on top, a solar panel, extra wheels, a folding table, collapsible crates for the food, repair tools for the car, a tarp, folding chairs, plastic drawers for their clothing, a clothesline with pegs… we made the beds in the tents before leaving.

The tents are comfortable and boast zip-up mosquito nets, so one can sleep bug-free while keeping the air flowing. There is also a small canopy at the back and a fold out large canopy when needed.

Getting to Mana Pools is a long trip, requiring 2 all-day drives and 2 overnight stays along the way. We set off from south of Johannesburg before 6 am to try to avoid the worst of the Johannesburg-Pretoria weekday morning traffic. We drove north for about 7 hours, only stopping for gas and a short hygiene stop.

The Zimbabwe border compound at Beitbridge appeared promising, with a brand-new building. Unfortunately it was extremely confusing; upon arrival a person who apparently had no official status guided us around, whether we wanted it or not. And after a couple of hours they were three, and successfully fleeced us out of qt least $50 (good money in these parts). But we were finally out of there, the Americans with visas in their passports, vaccination status checked, and cars not searched.

Another 80 km and we reached our first stop, the Lion and Elephant in Bubi. It’s an “old-school” motel, with thatched bungalows and creaky plumbing.

First things first: a drink at the bar, and WiFi. We ordered dinner from the barman who was the waiter in the restaurant, also. Maybe he was the cook too, as it took quite a while to have dinner ready.*

We took off after a quick breakfast from our provisions around 8:30 am. The first part of the road was smooth, but it soon became a dirt road detour (and it was drizzling) and then a very potholed road. I had never driven 1. On the left 2. On a dirt road 3. Through potholes 4. Overtaking trucks; after 2 hours I was ready to either cry or throw up, and passed the wheel to my partner, who has a lot more experience.

We bought a Zimbabwe Simcard, i.e. chip, at Econet in Gwiru. We continued in to Chinhoyi to Secret Garden, a bed and breakfast, where we stayed in an entire apartment with bedrooms, bathroom, an open kitchen, and a living room. The garden is in the back. We were able to order dinner from a menu; portions were generous.

The next day I had confirmation that my data did not include phone calls and SMS, so after a bacon and eggs breakfast the next morning, I visited another Econet store to buy credit for those features. It’s very complicated. First you buy credit, then out of the credit you order a “bundle“ and as it is pay as you go, debits depend on whether you’re calling another Econet user or not, whether it’s off peak or peak hours, etc. The owner warned me of the treacherous roads ahead: potholed, with large trucks who might swerve off their lane to avoid a hole.

We set up the map in GPS and drove a couple of rather scary hours to the Park. First we requested a permit (free) at the Marongora Parks Office, 6 km before the first gate. We went through 2 different gates over dirt roads for about 1.5 hours before reaching the reception area in the Main Camp, where we signed in. Elephants, various types of antelopes (water bucks, impala), and baboons roam around freely.

It was a little tricky to find our camp site, and the “ablutions” building was rather disappointing (and dirty) compared to the one at Hwange Park we used last year. At least there was running water, albeit cold.

We set up camp, made dinner in the dark in the barbecue (braai) pit provided, and went to sleep in our tents. During the night., we heard various animals conversing, and at dawn we had a chorus of birds.

Photos to follow - WiFi access is not strong enough.

Zimbabwe parks:

  • I’ll post reviews of accommodations at TripAdvisor if the property is listed.

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