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An Adventure through Botswana and Zimbabwe, September 2014 - by Safaridude and Game Warden - Part 2, Zimbabwe


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To read the preceding Botswana section of the trip report, go to: http://safaritalk.net/topic/13350-an-adventure-through-botswana-and-zimbabwe-september-2014-by-safaridude-and-game-warden/


Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe – Camp Hwange


Seventeen years have passed since I was last in Zimbabwe. A sense of dread was beginning to percolate then. The country had just begun its descent into “Zim Bob’s Way”. As I land at Victoria Falls Airport though, I appreciate that not much has changed, at least from a tourist’s point of view. That is not to belittle the hardship the country has endured, but a sense of stoic resilience of the Zimbabweans – and perhaps even a smidgen of optimism – is palpable.


Speaking of a smidgen of optimism, a smiley Game Warden, all pith and hair, waves to me from behind a barricade. He just arrived in Vic Falls yesterday, and we are to now share a Zimbabwean adventure. Medicated appropriately to the hilt, Matt successfully keeps his breakfast in his innards during our flight to Hwange. Minor victory #1.


Hwange National Park Airport, located just outside the park, is as overly capacious as it is underutilized. A countless number of lodges and camps in Hwange closed during Zim’s lean times; we are the only arrivals this afternoon. Stephen from Camp Hwange picks us up, and we are off on a three-hour game drive to camp. The first obvious stop is Nyamandhlovu Pan. Being close to Main Camp, Nyamandhlovu is the most popular waterhole in Hwange amongst tourists, but big, noisy crowds I remember from 1993 and 1997 are thankfully missing. Nyamandhlovu means “meat of the elephant” in Ndebele, and, fittingly, what can only be described as an orgy of elephants, a truly astounding concentration, seizes the pan. A regal, full-maned lion is found relaxing not far away.



This photo does not do justice to the tremendous number of elephants watering at Nyamandhlovu Pan



A regal lion found not too far away



A typical Hwange scene


Nyamandhlovu Pan is a good reminder that Hwange is a park dependent on artificial waterholes to function, as in dry years, natural surface water in Hwange can vanish completely. In the past, the animals would migrate to the Zambezi River or the Chobe River for water (some, like elephants, still do, though not without some difficulty), but a growing number of human settlements began impeding the animals’ movements, and a decision was made long ago to drill for water inside the park. Whether these artificial waterholes should exist at all or not is a moot question: Hwange’s animals would be finished in a couple of seasons without them. How many waterholes, which waterholes, how much water should be pumped, how in general the park should be managed – now, that’s a lively debate.


We come to Hwange at an interesting time. Hwange received almost twice the normal rainfall this season, and some natural depressions that hold water only until July or so are still glistening now in late September. This normally translates to sparse and widespread game and less action at the waterholes, but Matt and I are up to the challenge. So is Camp Hwange, it turns out. Julian, managing the camp along with Ashley, would guide us tirelessly for the three days.


A unique aspect of Hwange is that safari operators can hold private concessions within the park boundaries. Camp Hwange leases exclusive rights to traverse a piece of the park just south of the main asphalt artery of Hwange (guests of Camp Hwange have access to “public” sections of the park as well). The camp is situated in the heart of what is probably the most diverse area of the park. (In Hwange, you basically get mopane, teak or grasslands. Camp Hwange has all three.) Open only since 2011, Camp Hwange still exudes that fresh energy.



Camp Hwange


Our first morning, we follow the overnight roaring of the lions to find Vusi and Naxha (pronounced gutturally, "Nagha"), two pride males normally of the neighboring Nehimba Concession. These two lions periodically wander over to flex their muscles against three young males in charge, only sort of, of the lionesses in Camp Hwange’s concession. According to Julian, the lionesses appear to be “hedging their bets”, ostensibly being “with” the three males but also flirting with Vusi and Naxha when they visit. Vusi is as magnificent as any lion. His face is handsome and remarkably unscarred, his locks more blow-dried chow chow than ordinary mane. Naxha is the temperamental one, Julian warns. Indeed this schizophrenic lion is relaxed in front of the vehicle one moment, and then out of nowhere mounts a charge toward us. I’ll tell you, you haven’t lived until you have been charged by a male lion! It’s all fluttering mane, furrowed brow, agitated tail, exposed teeth and dust, accompanied by a dog-like growl/bark. Thankfully, Naxha screeches to a halt just shy of the vehicle, freezing with his shoulders raised, chest out and head held back.



Vusi, the magnificent












Naxha, relaxed one moment...



And then charging us the next...


One of the pleasures of a Zimbabwean safari is walking with the best-trained guides on the continent. Zimbabwe’s Professional Guide License has rigorous requirements including a two-year apprenticeship before one is even considered for a license; it is only obtained by an elite few. Julian, one such elite, leads us in a close encounter with a bull elephant. The following photos tell a story better than would words.



Last minute instructions













Our second full day at Camp Hwange is one I will never forget. It begins with a long excursion northwest to the Robin’s Camp area. Memories come flooding back as we skirt Deteema, where I camped in 1993. Near Big Tom’s, a surprisingly approachable herd of nine roan, with a stately herd bull, is seen relaxing – a definite highlight for me. We settle in for a too-good-to-call-it-picnic-lunch (Julian has brought a portable cooking thingamajig and grills us wors!) at the Big Tom’s viewing platform when we notice vultures descending not too far away. Our investigation on foot reveals a fresh buffalo carcass and then tawny shapes flickering in the nearby bush. Several lions scurry away, but one female remains, her burning gaze targeting the backs of my retinae. “If she comes, just stand still. Don’t move.” Ok, I ain’t movin’. Tense moments pass as the female slowly relaxes.



A stately roan bull



Buffalo carcass at Big Tom's



"If she comes, just stand still. Don't move."


We end up at Masuma Dam late afternoon to an endless procession of elephants. Dust devils kick up, providing surreal photo opportunities. Impalas, waterbucks and magnificent kudu bulls wait their turn, but elephants monopolize the water. What is it about watching elephants – how time flies? We begin heading back to camp, satisfied to call it a good day, not knowing that things are actually about to heat up. As we come back to the vehicle after another close on-foot approach to a bull elephant, the radio blurts out, “wild dogs near the main road west of Shumba, relaxed.” This is a rare treat in Hwange. Julian guns the vehicle, and I bruise a couple of ribs on our way to the dogs. We get there just in time, as six almost-adult dogs (juveniles belonging to a larger pack) mill around for just a few minutes before setting off on an evening hunt.



A dust devil at Masuma Dam



Wild dog sequence









Off they go


We then end up at Roan Pan, on the edge of the private concession, to watch elephants water in the fading light and call it a great day. Matt begins to indulge in his G and T and declares, “the only thing that would top this day off would be some lions”. Normally, that would be followed by an innocuous “ha ha”. But we are talking about Game Warden. (He might be supernatural… he had a moment like this in Kenya.) Literally, and I crap you negative here, a second and a half later, “aoooh, aoooh, aoooh, ughhh, ughhh, ughhh, ughhh.” (Poor Matt had to dump out half of his G & T, so as to not spill on the way to the lions.)


It’s Vusi and Naxha engaged in a vocal skirmish with one or two of the three male lions of Camp Hwange’s concession. It is nearly dark now, and confusion reigns. Even with the spotlight switched on and in the presence of two other Camp Hwange vehicles with their lights on, it is difficult to make out exactly what is going on. Vusi and Naxha begin to pursue, but we never spot the fleeing lion/lions. Pitch dark now with the cats in the thick bush, we rely solely on our hearing. I even close my eyes to heighten my other senses. Then suddenly, the faint rustling of the bush is replaced by a bevy of startling shrieks and shrill trumpets. One or more of the lions had apparently crossed paths with a group of elephants, and the elephants would have none of it. This moment of sonic explosion and excitement eventually results in a timeout. The submissive lion/lions flee, and Vusi and Naxha settle at the pan for the night.



Vusi again




In all, even with the challenges of overwatered conditions, we do extremely well at Camp Hwange. It is great to see Camp Hwange and the neighboring Nehimba Lodge claim this once popular but forgotten corner of the park. It is emblematic of Zimbabwe rising. I sense that we could get even a lot more out of this area with an extended stay. But it’s time. It’s Benson time. Mr. Benson, having just returned from a safari in Tanzania, shall be waiting for us at Main Camp, getting psyched up, perhaps performing a Haka himself, to show us the other side of the park.



Zebras on the move



A jackal pup – as cute












Rocky hills near Masuma Dam






Elephant happy hour



A bull sable in the concession

Edited by Safaridude
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More photos from Camp Hwange



Vusi at the edge of the concession



Main area



Dining area



A kudu bull near Deteema



A roan bull in the concession



A sable herd seen on the way back to Main Camp



The same herd



Adrenaline rush



Julian and Matt

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awesome stuff @@Safaridude

More dogs and lions. Sable and Roan too ( I never saw any of those)


your sightings have me wishing I was right back there now.


That @@Game Warden does seem to be one jammy B******

Edited by Soukous
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What a great start to the Zim leg of your journey. I see you were in Hwange 1993 and 1997. Is this your first time back since then @@Safaridude ? or have you been in between?

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Oh to bring back the memories of Camp Hwange; thank you @@Safaridude...your photos captured the essence of Hwange that ended our Zim journey :D


I loved the golden grasses, the massive herds of elies and buffalo, the roan, sable and of course all the lions!


We missed the dogs, but were so thrilled fearing our stay would be a less than stellar experience because of those rains; obviously it certainly did not deter you nor Matt from a most excellent beginning.


So sorry to have missed youall, but I see the camp brought out the "fancy" dinner settings for youall. I guess they heard how clumsy I was with a glass of wine :wacko:


Looking forward to what is to come....

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Excellent photos and well written. It was 1997 that I last saw all those places as well.

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Sorry to have missed you, but you primed the game there for us!

The BIG Game was driving from Vic Falls and I missed the opportunity....they have no idea how upset I was to miss that chance...When again???who knows...

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Wow wow wow @@Safaridude - fantastic stuff! I really am having a terrible time deciding my next safari destination (after the two that are coming up that is :) ) and Zim is one of the few at the top of the list! This was really an amazing day you had and fabulous photos of it. Hard to call out any of them as better than any other but that jackal pup is just cute as a button!

Edited by SafariChick
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wow @@Safaridude. that dust devil is superb.


to see that large a gathering of elephants - how incredible that must have been. and that charging lion - you can see his face all set and determined to challenge you guys.


I love that galloping roan shot, so carefree. and that jackal pup is cute as can be. and dogs. am i gushing? hell, yea. it's a brilliant start.


i'm surprised you took 17 years to get back since you return to Africa so often. what took you so long, and why did you decide to do it this year?

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Been looking forward to the Zim part of your trip.

I haven't been back to Hwange since 2011, but your outstanding photos are making me wish I had.

Love that jackal pup, and the fantastic Sable and Roan.

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A prelude to Hwange. The pith helmet arrives in Vic Falls...


Excitement tempered by an all enveloping tiredness: sleep had come on the flight over but fitfully, an airhostess had dropped water into my lap, my neighbour her coffee, twice waking me. (It had become somewhat of a tradition, to arrive in Africa with a damp crotch thanks to slopped drinks.) But it didn't matter - I was enroute to Africa, Zimbabwe and two weeks on safari with @@Safaridude. All change at Joburg and the stress of international transfers, one chap on the desk to clear a queue of perhaps 200 people, it took an hour and a half. Passport stamped through to find the flight to Vic Falls, I was almost there...


Trying to keep eyes open a chore but the vast expanse of Zim was unfolding below me, descending into land, ochre and tan, khaki and burnt sienna, scrubby trees divided by the criss crossing of game trails: I was about to arrive.




The old charm, "shabby chique" of the original airport terminal is overshadowed by the looming skeleton of its soon to be replacement which would see long haul flights arriving at Victoria Falls International Airport and I for one would be glad when returning. It is one of the many indications I would see on this trip reaffirming to me that Zim was recovering, tourism returning en masse: that it was becoming the hot ticket. But then, we, as Safaritalkers knew this already...


I was through customs quickly, my passport, so many years barren of African stamps receiving one more: this was the start of another tale to tell in years to come. Polite and good natured, smiling and receiving like responses from everyone I spoke to - perhaps it's the beard, perhaps it's the pith. Perhaps they just think I'm mad. Bags dumped upon the floor: Vic Falls baggage reclaim. And before leaving the building, having to put them through an X-Ray scanner, the conveyer belt of which forced them into a pile in a log jammed corner. It made no sense but then some things never do in Africa - it's just another part of the adventure...


A long road, straight: warning signs, wildlife, "Painted dogs - slow down." I kept a look out but saw nothing bar vervet monkeys grooming each other: they were such a common sight to any safari goer and yet even so, I had to fight back the urge to say stop. We were on the main road to town.


Duncan, my driver had worked for Wilderness Safaris for 14 years: he loved his job. He'd worked in Mana Pools - knew Benson, Stretch, Humphrey Gumpo, Doug. Duncan thought my itinerary to be a very good one indeed...


I'd barely slept in more than 30 odd hours of travelling: was it the Malarone already seeping into my system and setting me up for restless nights to come? My eyes were dry and bloodshot butt cheeks numb and my head ached. I daren't take a sniff of my armpits, dark patches on my shirt. We passed signs for the Victoria Falls National Park, Stanley and Livingstone Private Reserve - places I'd previously read about. Vic Falls itself lay dead ahead, we turned left into the town and I was surprised - I was expecting something more grand, more imposing.


My first view of The Victoria Falls Safari Lodge was as a collection of thatches nestled into the hillside below which opened up the Zambezi National Park. We rolled up to the entrance, an impressive thatched lodge, baobab trees but sad to see so many names and dates carved into the bark of that immediately opposite the main entrance. Warthogs paused momentarily at our passing, looking up at yet another tourist who'd take pictures of them. (And so he did...)




Main Entrance


View from my balcony: all rooms overlook the waterhole and sunset.




I was tempted to don the Mankini and go for a dip...



But instead found the bar and settled in with a G&T.

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This was a great read - sounds like you had a fantastic time!

Some really great pictures too! :)

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Perhaps they just think I'm mad


(Who ever would have that thought?)


or a David Livingstone re-creation looking for the "Smoke That Thunders"



& having too much of a strange :huh: smoke upon landing.




Looks like a great beginning to the adventures with the 'Dude~

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It took me 17 years to go back to Zim, because of the economic hardship the country went through. In hindsight it would have been fine, but there were years when I was told that one ran a slight risk of the infrastructure temporarily running out of necessary supplies. All this changed in a heartbeat when the troubled Zimbabwean dollar was abandoned a few years ago. Now, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend Zim as a destination.

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Having settled in and sunk a little into a G&T haze I then spent an hour or so discussing conservation, tourism and Safaritalk with Jono Hudson, the lodge's general manager, (look out for a ST interview soon) over tea and biscuits. Jono is very knowledgeable about Zimbabwe and its wildlife, his enthusiasm for the lodge is contagious and he's very involved in the activities in Victoria Falls itself. Vic Falls really is a close knit community I learn where everyone helps each other in times of need - it proved to be very beneficial under the difficult conditions of recent years, pre US dollarisation. Everyone looks out for everyone else.



Everyone's keen to try on the pith...


Watching the sun slide slowly down from the bar area.



It's important to reserve a table early for the Lodge's Makuwa-Kuwa restaurant: it's a popular place to eat, and latecomers without a booking will not be seated. (In addition is The Boma, a lively African themed party venue more of which later in the report...): the restaurant was already full and I think that when I was taken to my table, later at 7 pm staff had squeezed in an extra one just for me and I was extremely grateful. I was quick to befriend George who was the head waiter I believe - he heartily recommended the warthog, kudu was also on the menu and upon my request and at no extra charge a fillet was added to my order for me to taste. A chicken salad starter, a carafe of red wine and that was my dinner coming to 39 US $ which I thought to be good value - quick service with a smile, well cooked and presented meal and with a great atmosphere in the restaurant.



"Chief" George. He told me the pith was the village chief's hat: perhaps the reason I was treated with so much respect...


By the time dinner was over it was dark: the waterhole was lit with subtle lighting from under the restaurant and bar and I sat on a stool, watching elephants coming to drink and listening to the buzzing of Zimbabwe at night. I slept soundly: it had been a wonderful first day back in Africa and was a gentle introduction to the rest of my stay.

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Morkel Erasmus

@@Game Warden @@Safaridude - fully on board with this one - some great photos already and Hwange is still very high on my to-visit list!

Roll on with the rest of the adventure!

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I forced myself awake at 6 am: I wasn't yet on safari but felt it prudent to make an early start, this time tomorrow I'd already be out on a game drive and a grumpy tired Game Warden doesn't make great company. I was keen to get to the restaurant, (now where breakfast is being served), to ensure a table on the veranda with a clear view to the waterhole. Breakfast at Vic Falls Safari Lodge is a big affair - a large continental breakfast set up and freshly made cooked breakfasts to order. (Accomodation is bed and breakfast, therefore, I was keen to start the day with a big feed.) Again George was on hand from the night before and took my order. Coffee mug in one hand, binos in the other as I surveyed the landscape of Zambezi National Park. Throughout the morning there was a steady stream of wildlife coming to the water: impala, kudu warthog, guineau fowl, red billed stork, great egret, hornbills and so on. It was a great way to get into the safari mood, a long lingering breakfast and taking everything in. Patronage of breakfast fluctuacted: those who were going off, transfers, people spending a lazy day after a safari, comings and goings: I watched it all but always the tables by the guardrail were most popular.


I took a stroll up to the Victoria Falls Safari Club, part of the hotel complex but a private area for members only - those staying in the suites. It had a much more exclusive feel to it, certainly the atmosphere was very much more subdued. Certainly good for privacy: I took a stroll through having obtained permission to take a few photos... but whilst more secluded, the views to the waterhole are much better in the lodge bedrooms.







But always on my mind was the approaching hour when I'd have to leave the lodge and head back to the airport, for that's where I'd be meeting Safaridude and where the real adventure would begin...

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The last animal to grace my mornings sightings was an impressive Kudu bull which strode up to drink. Safaridude would be happy to have seen this one, and, thinking of the 'dude, I slung my pack over my shoulder, tilted the pith back upon my head and made up for the reception to settle up. A hearty goodbye to Jono and his team and I hopped into the Wilderness vehicle which was to take me to the airport. It had been a short but sweet stay at the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge and it was a shame I had to leave but greater things were awaiting me. And first of them was "The Big Tree" which I'd asked Last, my driver to take me too. It was just a couple of minutes out of our way but worth the detour...




Last and then your's truly posing by the tree...

I was early to the airport and I'm through to internal departures quickly: I pay 15 US $ and put my gear through an X-Ray machine: I pose for photographs with the officer at the security desk, we have our photo taken on her Ipad. She digs the pith and the beard, I know it - she's smiling and has never seen such a big beard. Really I grow it just to cover my double chin but don't tell her that...


I am alone in departures. It's a depressing little room with a door to the outside chained shut. Occasionally someone opens it, comes through, I say hi, they, hello, shake hands and then they are gone again. I look out willing every little plane that lands to be the one carrying the 'dude, the one that will take me to Hwange, the one in which, hopefully, I won't vomit up that hearty breakfast as I had done previously in Kenya. Minutes tick by, I guess, there's no clock. I see a couple of international flights arrive and disgorge their passengers, many look as excited as I was the day previous. I'm an old Zim hand now, whilst they are just arriving. I have an interesting conversation with a chap who unlocks the padlocked chain and comes in to ask if I am a preacher. No I say, but he says I look like one. I'm not, I assure him but he says I should be: it's the beard he says. Don't preachers have beards? I have no idea so I tell him and we while away a good half hour talking about religion, his, my lack of. I tell him what I think about life, he tells me what he thinks. I expound upon my theory of trying to be nice to everyone, to smile and joke with everyone. He leaves me after we shake hands and give each other a hug. You should still be a preacher he tells me which makes me laugh. See, you are doing it I tell him, making people smile. He nods, and in thought, thanks me for giving him a contrasting but interesting viewpoint to his own. It's little interludes like this in my life that make it worth living. I think he'll go off and make other people smile today, not just me...



The arrival, the 'dude has landed.

Seems everyone is amused to see me. The pilot looks over and smiles. I give Safaridude the traditional hug and gripped wristed handshake. There's no puke chunks in my beard this time. I hope he is pleased to see me. I've been waiting a long time to see him again: it's my genuine good luck to have met him through Safaritalk. I already see him as somewhat of a wildlife mentor - compared to his, my knowledge is akin to that of a child, especially when it comes to antelope... I'm not going to be sick. I'm not going to be sick, (despite having downed a travel sickness pill along with my morning's malarone), a repetitive mantra in my head: the 'dude says not to talk about it, nay, not to even think about it. I take the co-pilot's seat and it's with the firing up of the engine, the increasing whine of the prop, we are moving and taxying down the runway ready for take off. And then we are nose up, leaving the ground, sweeping out over Zimbabwe countryside. It's not a long flight to Hwange, I close my eyes, it's too noisy to talk and within minutes I'm asleep, banging my head against the window, dribbling into my beard as the aircraft bumps gently through the sky...

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