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http://youtu.be/RGLNl_ApulM

 

 

I had originally planned a Mana-Gonarezhou trip for July 2013 but a brand-new career and company intervened, forcing me to put this safari on the back burner. In retrospect, that was just as well because I think we were able to put together a much more interesting and varied safari based on the information I gleaned from  excellent TR on Gonarezhou NP from last year. Due to Doug's unavailability for my preferred dates, I decided not to combine the northern and southern parks, and opted to take my chances on the Lowveld alone.

 

This meander took us from York House, a lovely guest house in Harare and a perfect overnighter after our long and arduous trek from DC, to Chishakwe Ranch in the Save Valley Conservancy. Then it was onto Singita Pamushana in the Malilangwe Game Reserve and finally to Gonarezhou Bushcamp with Ant Kaschula in GNP.

 

My takeaway is that the Zim Lowveld is a fantastic stand-alone destination, no less vibrant and no less exciting than the better known northern parks such as Hwange and Mana. I could easily have spent another week (or three) here. As for being remote and secluded - we were completely alone at Chishakwe, shared all of Malilangwe with 2 other vehicles but all our sightings were limited to just us, we briefly encountered 2-3 other vehicles in Gonarezhou - mainly self-drivers who went their way as we went on ours, but our sightings were alone. No shared sightings at all during the entire safari - a first for me, I must confess.

 

Chishakwe Ranch in the Save Valley Conservancy

 

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Fresh, fresh paw print at den site

 

As some of you may know already, Chishakwe Ranch hosts Dr. Rosemary Groom and her Lowveld Predator Project (http://www.africanwildlifeconservationfund.org/projects/lowveld-wild-dog-project/). Her ST interview is here: http://safaritalk.net/topic/12589-interactive-interview-rosemary-groom-field-projects-coordinator-the-african-wildlife-conservation-fund/

 

For those who follow Rosemary's blog posts etc., you will know that the Lowveld wild dogs constitute one of the last reasonably healthy populations of these magnificent animals in Africa. The project follows several packs within the SVC as well as several packs based inside Gonarezhou NP. Although the predator project also studies other endangered predators in the Lowveld, our focus was on dogs - specifically denning dogs. Many of the packs within the conservancy had denned in June - thereby making mid-July a pretty good time to catch the packs at the den sites.

 

http://youtu.be/TWeGr7ibh1o

 

 

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The Save Valley Conservancy: This enormous tract of land was originally a cattle farming area, but as a result of multiple droughts and soil depletion from over-grazing, a consensus was reached some 22 years ago to return the land to wildlife ranching. The conservancy's revenues are/were derived mainly from hunting but as I learned during this visit that they have always had a broader mandate to also protect endangered species like rhino. Subsequently, the conservancy has an excellent anti-poaching program, including well trained scouts and rangers etc.

 

Much as I am no fan of trophy hunting, I must concede (and the numbers show this) that the SVC's game management plan over the years has been sound. The conservancy is now home to over 3000 eles from an original 300 that were translocated here from Gonarezhou when the conservancy was started. Rhino numbers are healthy, as are populations of lion and leopard. Cheetah have not done very well here - possibly because the lion population is quite high.

 

The Save Valley was once Africa's largest privately owned and operated wildlife area, but with the recent political problems and re-settlements, the size of the conservancy has shrunk quite a lot. It was distressing to see small agricultural plots within the conservancy - and to hear about the large scale clearing of magnificent old mopane forests for subsistence farming. Anyhow, as a result of the ongoing political fracas, no hunting quotas have been issued for the past 2-3 years. This has left the properties scrambling for income and many of the ranches now offer basic photo safaris.

 

As a photo tour operator, I was very interested in seeing for myself the potential for photo tourism in the SVC . I was especially keen to see if photo tourism could co-exist with hunting - at least for the time it would take to potentially move entirely to photo tourism.

 

Chishakwe Camp is a small and comfortable camp located on the bank of the Msaize river. With its 5 simply furnished thatched chalets, it blends in beautifully into the countryside. The camp was hosted by Courtney, a learner guide who had spent his initial years on the hunting side of SVC. Courtney was ably supported in his role as host by a very capable staff of 4 and the adorable Boris, his Rhodesian Ridgeback mix puppy, who won all our hearts the minute we arrived in camp. Between Boris and the wild dogs pups, it was puppy paradise at Chishakwe! We chose to stay here because this is Rosemary's base. However, there are other ranches like Sango etc that are more upscale and may suit others better.

 

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Courtney and his devoted shadow, Boris - Boris was a highlight too!

 

(On another note, what a coincidence that Laikipia Wilderness Camp also had a Rhodesian Ridgeback pup called Boris when I was there last year! When I was introduced to this Boris upon getting out of the car, I had a most unreal moment of déja vu!)

 

Of puppies and dogs...

 

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Handsome adult at the den site

 

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With some of the most spectacularly artistic painted coats you can imagine

 

When we visited Mana in 2012, that was a safari specifically targeting wild dogs and we were really hoping that we would see pups too. Sadly, that was not meant to be. Although we managed to track two packs to their dens, neither of them felt comfortable showing their pups to us. Though very happy and satisfied with our magical dog encounters in Mana, puppy sightings have since remained high on my bucket list.

 

We were fortunate to spend several mornings and evenings (one den visit allowed per day - either morning or evening. We had 4 visits in all) at the Chishakwe den site, waiting for the pack to come back from their hunt to feed and socialize with the pups. We stayed for as long as it took for the pups to emerge from the den and until they were put to bed, so there were no time restrictions really, except to ensure that the dogs never felt uncomfortable or irritated by our presence. For this reason, we parked at the same spot each day so they could get used to us. They are quite habituated with the researchers and scouts so they quickly got accustomed to us as well. This pack had originally denned in a completely inaccessible area among some very rocky outcrops. But just a week and a half before we arrived, they (very kindly) moved to a beautiful, open site, rewarding us with fantastic sightings. The pack has 14 or 15 pups. We were restricted in being unable to access the rear of the den and so had to depend on the dogs coming towards us. Interestingly, Rosemary does not advocate approaching on foot. She believes that the dogs are much more comfortable and approachable if the humans are in a vehicle, so we did not get down from the car anywhere near the den site.

 

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Nursing alpha female

 

 

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Cute as two buttons

 

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Awww...

 

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A mess of unfocused puppies with two stern caretakers... So interesting to see their expressions when they're putting the little ones in their place. Mouths in a straight line, bent low and pointy noses scolding the pups.

 

http://youtu.be/2I4HdnF3ToI

 

 

Other than the adorable puppies, we saw two remarkable instances of wild dog resilience and caring/consideration. I had read about the successful field amputation of Flame, a young dog of the Mapura pack (http://zimbabwewilddogs.wildlifedirect.org/category/save-valley-conservancy/) (Read the Feb 5, 2013 entry). What a wonderful surprise to be greeted on our very first visit to the den site by Flame himself - he was one of the two watchdogs guarding the den site that afternoon. He looked healthy, watchful and completely comfortable on 3 legs. It was lovely to see this young dog flourishing though I can't find any photos of him at all.

 

On our second full day at Chishakwe, Rosemary and Jess, her research assistant, were kind enough to join us for dinner at camp for an evening of conservation, wild dog and general safari talk. I would strongly encourage anyone heading Zim-wards in the next month or so to make the time to stop by and take your chances with the denning dogs at SVC. We made a donation to the project and also paid $20 per person per visit to the den - a fraction of high season prices in other places that have relatively reliable dog sightings. The money all goes towards operational costs and every bit helps when the budget is stretched as tightly as it is. Please contact Rosemary/Jess if you can contribute with your time or your tourism to the project. I (as well as other tour operators, I am sure) would be more than glad to organize a photo safari for anyone who wants to visit the project and the SVC, with the proviso that there are no guarantees that the dog dens will always be at an accessible site.

 

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This fellow was curious, curious, curious about us but pretending great nonchalance. This is him sneaking a peek at us from behind the vehicle. He did not realize we were onto him!

 

That same evening, Rosemay & Jess asked if we had seen an injured dog that morning during our visit. We had not, but during their evening visit, one of the dogs had come back clearly mauled quite badly in what looked like a lion attack. She had deep bites and gouges all over her hindquarters and one of her legs looked broken. We saw Scarlet the next morning at the den - limping badly but still alive and being fed by one of the returning pack members. It is this type of cooperative and caring behaviour that makes these animals so endearing. I got an update from Rosemary a few days after we left saying that she was still hanging in there and that this was probably the best time to get injured since the pack was immobile. Fingers crossed that she makes it through. Each one of these dogs is precious and so important to the overall survival of the species.

 

It was very interesting to see how neatly the adults regurgitated for the adults and the puppies! I had always imagined that this would be a messy, heaving (and somewhat revolting to watch) affair but it was actually all quite neat and tidy :) The pups were still nursing though by now, they had also started to show interest in solids, as evidenced by this little beggar below:

 

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http://youtu.be/MqZssFz36og

 

The rains were very good this year so the bush was thick and woody - making all non-dog sightings quite challenging. Add to this that the animals are understandably skittish in a hunting conservancy. Our dog sightings here were so spectacular that we really did not care about not seeing much else, but I do think that with some good planning (i.e. radio contact with the rhino scouts for example) and great guiding (where you can walk into the bush following fresh cat tracks, for example), even a skittish SVC can provide an excellent and adventurous photo safari. For now though, most of the animals seem to have gone nocturnal.

 

Way forward for the SVC: I have conflicting feelings about the best way forward for the SVC. Almost everyone I met in Zim (including Rosemary and Ant) seemed to believe that the hunting model works well and that the proof of the pudding is in the healthy wildlife numbers within the conservancy. I can understand and appreciate the practical nature of this discourse but something deep within me rebels against the commoditization of animals for sport. The SVC is not a marginal, tsetse infested area where no one but intrepid hunters will ever go. It is an immense and beautifully variegated tract of land that, with some time and patience, can make for a fantastic Big 5 photo destination.

 

Having said that, I saw first-hand how in the absence of hunting, the conservancy is suffering from a serious lack of funding. In its prime hunting days, each of these ranches had a fleet of well-maintained vehicles and large anti-poaching, fence maintenance, road maintenance and other units. With no hunting quotas, they have been forced to pare their operations to a minimum and bushmeat snaring/poaching are certainly more frequent now than they used to be - not the outcome any animal-lover wants to see.

 

So what is the best way forward? I honestly don't know. I heard some talk about the SVC wanting to join the Peace Parks project. Other people want to continue with the hunting model. Still others (including some well known guides) want to start photo concessions within the conservancy. And over all of this looms the whole uncertaintly of resettlement and the dark shadow of political bigwigs who have lots of clout but no conservation knowledge or credentials whatsoever. Regardless of what happens, I do hope the powers-that-be realize that the SVC has played an invaluable role in conserving and protecting endangered species over the past two decades and fingers crossed that they are allowed to continue fulfilling this mission in the future.

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Wonderfully interesting insight into the Save Conservancy. What lovely times you must have spent with the puppie and I love the photos and video combo.

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You've explored a new spot for many of us and it seems to have appeared appeared on your radar when Plan A did not work out. How fortuitous! I am floored by the dogs and can only imagine how thrilled you were to find them and observe such fascinating behavior. Thanks for sharing the hunting aspects of this area.

 

Save Valley Conservancy! You've shown us what a special place this is!

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oh yay, I've been waiting for this! Love the start - great photos - those pups ARE cute as two buttons! And Boris too (so funny about the two Boris'!) I haven't been able to watch the videos yet but I can't wait!

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Stunning pictures of the dogs and puppies and great to see SVC being highlighted as a destination in its own right.

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@@Sangeeta

What fabulous sightings of the dogs. The puppies are indeed cute. I enjoyed your photos and the videos - being able to hear the dogs is great.

Very interesting thoughts about the future of the area also.

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I've now seen the videos - love them! The puppies are too cute! Would definitely love to visit this area, and sounds like you had such special, private sightings. How kind of the dogs to move their den to a convenient area just for you!

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Fantastic report, Sangeeta, absolutely loved the videos! How nice to hear the dogs´ extraordinary "chirping". Must have been a terrific experience. Really hoping for the three-legged dog making it!

 

Thanks for your very interesting thoughts on the conservancy and its future as well. Given your well-known opinon on this subject you´re probably the last person here I would have expected to (grudgingly) advocate hunting in any way whatsoever, but your reasoning is very sound.

 

Looking forward to more!

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Thank you everyone (Twaffle, Lynn, ZimGirl, SafariChick, TonyQ and Michael-ibk) for your very kind words - they encouraged me to work on the next installment! I just heard from Rosemary today that the dogs have moved again and that they have not yet located their new den, so we were indeed very, very lucky to be there when we were.

 

I am linking through here to a blog posted by a volunteer who spent some time at Chishakwe (and Sango) as an intern last year. Hope it's okay to do this (if not, please delete it Matt). It's a charmingly written candid account of her time as an intern on SVC. I loved reading it - she is so enthusiastic and happy to be in Zim! She has several entries about her time there and provides a much fuller picture of the endangered species work being done at the SVC.

 

https://zimbabwejourney.wordpress.com/page/2/

 

To give you an idea of costs - the properties on the SVC range from about $250 - $650 pppn, all inclusive. There are also houses on the ranches that can be leased for a week or 2 - and these cost about $300 per day for the whole house! I think with proper planning and coordination with the various teams and the help of a pro guide who knows the ins and outs of the conservancy, one could do a really fantastic photo safari here. For people looking for a more hands-on type of experience, volunteering is also an option. My mind is buzzing with possibilities :D

 

Yes, Michael, I sort of shocked myself with my own words about the hunting too. But while hunting is preferable to farming, I still don't think that hunting is preferable to not hunting. So instead of leaving the field open to the hunters, I say we jump in. Swallow our distaste but jump in so that we can build a viable alternative to the hunting. It saddened me to see that even giraffe and zebra have become nocturnal here - but hunters (not just at SVC but everywhere it seems) hunt everything - from warthog to civet to jackal to bushbuck - even tuskless elephants. The only way to protect these animals from the threat of hunting and subsistence farming is get non-hunters to visit these places. SVC is brimming over with wildlife and it is ready for non-consumptive tourism if we can push that to happen.

Edited by Sangeeta
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This is a great followup to Rosemary's interview. Thanks for sharing your photos and details on the area's management.

 

 

 

To give you an idea of costs - the properties on the SVC range from about $250 - $650 pppn, all inclusive.

 

This seems quite reasonable, especially to be at an actual conservation project.

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Great read, and great pictures and videos of the denning dogs.
Fascinating info and always great to see the dog project. Strongly agree with your thoughts too.

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Beautiful and evocative report. Sangeeta. Will save it this over the weekend on a big monitor. Thanks for posting this.

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How did you get from Harare to Singita Pamushana?

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@@Sangeeta the pups are so cute, and the dogs are so beautiful. your thoughts resonate with me. I do hope photo tourism can take off as a viable option to hunting too.

 

you are putting ideas into my head. i have to include SVC if i do go there (hopefully i do!). i checked out their pages, but can't find a link to the volunteering programmes.

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Wonderful report, seeing pups at a den is one of the most enjoyable things to see on a safari!

 

I was a bit curious about the following comment:

 

Interestingly, Rosemary does not advocate approaching on foot. She believes that the dogs are much more comfortable and approachable if the humans are in a vehicle, so we did not get down from the car anywhere near the den site.

 

They way you write it, apparently some people do advocate to approach wild dog dens on foot. There is only one reason I can imagine to approach a den on foot and that is to not create a track to the den, which might guide in hyaenas and/or lions. But creating a track can be avoided fairly easily. I'm curious as to who would recommend going in on foot to a wild dog den.

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Oh simply terrific start to your most excellent adventure! The pups are just adorable, as is Boris.

 

Love seeing them in videos.

 

I guess we were so fortunate in Bots to see pups at both Chitabe and LV. I guess I won't ever take that for granted again. Here's hoping Zim pulls through for us; but if not I will just return to your vids.

 

A real off the grid experience to check out photo safari opportunities. Between reading Rosemary's report and the enthusiastic intern's (ohh bats!), there seems definitely a place for non hunters to check out. I don't care what anyone says, I still hate killing for sport. If a family needs to be fed, I can understand, but nothing beyond that. Just imo as I know there are both sides on this. :wacko:

 

 

Can't wait for more :)

Edited by graceland
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Sorry for the late response - had a mad 2 days at work! Thank you for your encouraging comments, Marks, Big Dog and AKR1 :) Really nice of you guys to chip in.

 

Transportation Logistics (I am really bad at this, so anyone who knows better, please correct!):

 

@@Atravelynn - Lynn, we took a car from Harare to SVC (about 4 hours on good roads, through much of the empty breadbasket landscape. Then there is a turn off, and after a while you get to the SVC and it took another hour on a very corrugated dirt road after that to get to Chishakwe. This is the main road that runs north-south through the entire conservancy. From Chishakwe, we again arranged for a vehicle transfer to Pamushana. Chishakwe took us all the way down to what is called the 2nd boom gate where a Pamushana van was waiting to collect us. About 1.5 hours from Chishakwe to the boom gate and a further 1.5 hours or so to Pamushana from there, passing through big sugar fields (Zim is big into sugar cane based ethanol). After Pamushana, Ant picked us up in his vehicle from Malilangwe and it was a couple of hours of game driving through Gonarezhou to get to his mobile camp site. And when we were all done at GNP, he drove us to Buffalo Range (about 3.5 hours of reasonably paced game-viewing driving) to catch the scheduled FedAir flight to JNB. You can only take this flight if you have spent a min of 3 nights at Pamushana.

 

In terms of costs, unless you are a reasonably big group of 4+ at least, the charter costs into the Lowveld can be very high - about $1800 per leg. Our car cost to SVC was not cheap either - about $1000 or so, but still better than the charter. Chilo Gorge Lodge on the eastern border of Gonarezhou now runs a van service if you stay with them for a few nights. That is very reasonably priced at approx $300-$400 per vehicle for the one-way trip from Harare to Chilo. This may be a good way to access the park as well. The scheduled Singita FedAir flights are approx $500 pp from JNB (one way).

 

There is some talk of starting a puddle jumper flight that would service this area but nothing concrete in the works yet.

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Volunteering and Conservation:

 

@@Kitsafari - Kit, instead of the generic website, if you go to the website of each of the ranches, you can find some conservation related info at each of them. For ex - http://www.chishakwe.com/research.html. I think Turgwe Trust is a member of ST, though they they may not officially be a part of the SVC.

 

But you're right, not much easy-to-find info anywhere. Best to write directly to the projects and see. I will write to the AWCF and see if they can perhaps send us a list of people to contact for each of the projects and I'd be glad to post it here.

 

The pups were priceless!

 

@@egilio - Egil, in Mana it seems to be a relatively common practice to walk to the den site. We ourselves did that - the first time tracking down a den after a long morning of following dogs returning from a hunt and tracking their poo and their calls. Our guide was, of course, highly attentive to the dog's behavior and reaction and we did not return to any of the sites once we knew they did not want us there but I was under the impression that this was okay to do, provided we behaved respectfully. I don't think self-drivers are able to do this type of thing because it means walking deep into the mopane, but guided guests may still have this option. I don't think anyone advocates this (careless language on my part - sorry) but in places like Mana, with very limited driving tracks, people do a lot of activities on foot that they would usually not do elsewhere.

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@@graceland - you were indeed hugely lucky to see dogs and pups at 2 places in Bots! I am going to go back and reread your report and refresh my memory. I still remember your perfectly aligned walking dogs very well though!

 

I agree with you on the other stuff and I think we photo tourists really need to step up to the plate. In a conversation with Rosemary we heard that some people at SVC are able to raise tens of thousands of dollars per donation from their hunting base (even in the absence of hunting quotas) because they these hunters are a very loyal (and possibly also a very rich) group. As Rosemary said in her interview, photo tourists tend to be a lot more fickle. The big question is how to turn that around?

 

Wasn't the intern charming? I loved her little daily excerpts :)

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Wildlife in the Save Valley:

 

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Just quietly pottering about...

We reckon that we spent a total of close on 8 hours alone at the den site - when I think back on it, that is incredible! I would like to add a few words of heartfelt praise for Courtney, our guide. He let the dogs speak for themselves and did not insist on giving us a running commentary on the hunting, feeding and socializing habits of wild dogs while we were watching them, as so many guides may have been tempted to do. This ability to remain silent at the right times has become, for me, the indicator of a great guide. He answered our questions when we asked him - otherwise, he was quiet and simply enjoyed the dogs along with us. Our quiet time in the company of the dogs was magical. We could hear the leaves rustle, the twigs snap, the dogs twitter, the puppies scrabble - and I think the silence also allowed them to ignore us, thereby allowing us to observe them better. This is also one reason why we don't have as many photos and videos as we now wish we had. It seemed like such a shame at the time to break the silence with the chattering of a camera.

 

There was, however, a videographer visiting at the same time as we were. I believe he is making a promotional video for the project. Perhaps Rosemary or Jess can post that video here when they receive it, so that you can see what this place looked like through a professional lens.

 

 

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Who is this and what goes here...

 

There was a trail cam positioned by the project at the den. So interesting that even though it was tied to a tree and away from them, the adults all seemed to recognize it as a foreign object! How on earth are they able to do that? Judging from all the mug shots that are regularly produced by trail cams, it appears that dogs are not the only ones that are curious about trail cams. I have seen photos of lions and leopards standing on their hind legs to check these cameras out as well...

 

Other than the dogs, we saw a honey badger. Lots of shy kudu (first time I heard a kudu vocalize - it sounded very like a ship's horn!), impala, warthogs, giraffe, zebra, elephants, baboon and not a whole lot else. However, there were tracks of all kinds of animals everywhere we looked - evidence of lots of wildlife activity on the conservancy.

 

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The lounge at York House in Harare

 

Our journey to Malilangwe was a study in contrasts. After a last (and fabulous) den site visit, we jumped on the pick up - Nina and Niki and all our luggage in the back with Boris, the puppy, while I sat in the cab with Courtney. Soon after, we picked up 4 rhino scouts coming off a field training session, along with their luggage, field gear and assorted bundles and bags! By the time everything was adjusted to fit, I don't think there was an inch of empty space in the back. But Niki looks back on the next hour as one of the highlights of his safari. Wind streaming, a bright winter morning, Boris riding shotgun, everyone bending down in unison to avoid the occasional overhanging branches, dust clouds, stopping to say hello to an oncoming vehicle, wildlife on dirt tracks - can life get any better than that, he says?

 

Chishakwe has a dusty and cobwebby little curio shop that we entered hesitantly one afternoon when I was at the office using Courtney's Internet. Best decision we ever made because there, on those long neglected shelves, lay the work of a brilliant artist. Take a look at these...

 

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My own little dog pack from the Save Valley now roaming the wilds of Virginia! Seriously, these are not just your ordinary curio carvings but works of art, whittled by someone who has spent a long time observing these animals - their gait, their stance, their expressions are all perfect and each individual is different. These were my good luck dog talisman in Gonarezhou :)

 

At the boom gate, we said our very sad goodbyes to Courtney & Boris and transferred to the Pamushana van. Which looked like it was spanking new with its leather seats and cup holders and its cool box that even managed to produce a Perrier :) Japhet, who was to be our guide for the duration of our stay at Pamushana, had driven down to collect us and before we knew it, he had shifted gears smoothly and we were off on the second leg of our Zimbabwean journey.

 

*********************

 

 

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Ah @@Sangeeta you are up so late to report on your trip - thank you, I am enjoying it so much! You were so fortunate to have all that time with the dogs, truly, and the dogs you took home with you are so charming - what a great find! Looking forward to the next chapter.

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@@Sangeeta

It sounds a wonderul experience - silence except for the dogs. It is so important to be able to listen and concentrate on the natural sounds.

I like the dogs you have taken home!

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Beautiful dogs, both real and wooden! I imagine you'll smile with the memories every time you see them at home.

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I am really enjoying this TR!

 

The big question is how to turn that around?

Sorry @@Sangeeta for going off topic, but on the above note, have you guys seen what is happening at Zimanga? I think this might just be an answer?

Edited by Peter Connan
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