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Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe


white stork

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white stork

I was fortunate enough to do a 20 day trip round Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe in late August / September and as Zimbabwe always provides its fair share of interesting stories I thought it was worth letting the rest of Safaritalk what we saw.

The trip composed of myself and my friend and it was self-drive and camping the whole way. Zim being Zim we had to bring all food, beers and fuel for our trip from Day 1 although luckily we know the owners of one of the lodges around Main Camp so we were able to leave half of the above items there and picked them up again at the half-way point of our trip.

We spent our first 3 days in the park at Kennedy campsite. For those of you unfamiliar with Hwange the Kennedy area is very close to where The Hide safari lodge is situated. This area proved very productive for game viewing; the first animals we saw when we drove into the park were 4 beautiful sable bulls, 2 of whom were having a right old tussle. The water-hole close to the campsite (Kennedy 1)was frequently visited by a honey badger who seemed completely unperturbed by our presence, he (honey badgers always seem masculine to me) once strolled in to take a drink from the pan even with us standing 10 metres away as we helped the pump attendant to fix the pump for the pan (yes that’s Zim for you!).

 

 

 

We also had a great sighting of a cheetah. We spotted it quite close to the road and were fortunate enough to witness a chase on some impala but no kill. This was my first sighting of a wild cheetah in southern Africa so I was very happy. Lions were plentiful in the area and on our first night we heard a hell of a lot of lion noise which The Hide guys told us was new males moving into the area. It turned out to be 4 huge males who killed an elephant right behind The Hide lodge and sat gorging on that for the next few days. The Hide have their own private concession so we were unable to see the males but the morning after they moved in we saw a lioness with 2 roughly 15 month old male cubs right by our campsite. She seemed to be quite anxious so possibly she was on the run with her boys from the new males. This area is also great for bat-eared foxes and every morning we saw a couple foraging on the open areas. This was my first sighting of these beautiful little critters.

 

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On our last afternoon at Kennedy we got word that there had been a lion kill close to Main Camp so we drove the 30ks or so in that direction and sure enough found 2 huge males (known locally as the Dynamite Boys as they are the residents of Main Camp) and 2 females sitting on a zebra kill. They were pretty lazy by then so we headed on to Nyamandhlovu water-hole close to Main Camp and saw the evening procession of over 80 elephants coming for a drink. On our way back to Kennedy we checked the Kennedy water-hole just in case and got a 5 second glimpse of a leopard being chased off the water into the bush by a grumpy young bull elephant. It wasn’t a great sighting, it was dusk and the leopard was far away but if we had only been a minute earlier we would have seen the leopard drinking and the whole chase, guess that’s game viewing for you! The mood in camp was quite subdued that night as we both realised that may have been our best leopard sighting opportunity (they are HARD to find in Hwange). We were cheered slightly by the resident lesser bush-babies playing chase in the trees above our heads as we ate our dinner. That night, like every night we spent at Kennedy, we heard the lions roaring extremely close and when you are sleeping on your own in the bush in a small two man tent with a fence obviously last maintained when Rhodesia was around it certainly makes it more real!

 

 

 

The next morning we packed up the camp and moved 25ks down to the road to Ngweshla. This is a beautiful spot in the park and is close to the Makololo Lodge private concession. The place was obviously being well looked after and Makololo, like The Hide, seem to be doing a great job of looking after their patches. Both these lodges seemed pretty busy so it was nice to see someone else in the park apart from us. At Ngweshla in the afternoon we saw plenty of elephants around, but they all seemed quite nervous. We all saw nice herds of roan antelope, in fact we did everyday at Ngweshla, there are plenty around there. There were also plenty of waterbuck, zebra and giraffe around and even a 40+ strong herd of buffalo. That night at the campsite we were treated to the sounds of elephants fighting and competing to be the first to suck the water out of the pipe that pumps the water hole.

 

 

 

The next morning we were up bright and early and the first animal that strolls down to the waterhole is a rather rotund lioness. We followed her on her return journey and about 500m from our campsite right along the road she leads us to a fresh buffalo kill. It must have been about 2 hours old. There were 4 females sitting round the kill and one male just finishing his portion. Once he saw us he skulked off into the bushes leaving the 4 females to resume their meal. We spent the next 3 hours just sitting and watching them as they were just 5 metres from us and, this is the beauty of Zimbabwe at the moment, there wasn’t another vehicle around for the whole time. We went back to grab a quick lunch and then spent the rest of the afternoon sitting by the lion kill, watching the females and the gathering vultures. When we went back for lunch we had told a passing Makololo lodge vehicle about the kill (in exchange for them charging our camera batteries as our inverter had broken) so their vehicles came to have a look in the afternoon. But we had spent basically the whole day at the lion kill (6-6) and saw at most 5 other vehicles in that time, so for those of you who find Kruger a bit too much of a tourist trap, maybe give Zim a try!

 

 

 

The next morning we went back to the kill and the 4 females were just starting to move off. We watched the jackals and vultures fight it out once they had gone and one rather feisty black-backed jackal took a bite right out of the ass of a white-backed vulture, causing it so scream out in anger, and us in laughter. The rest of the time at Ngweshla we saw many more eles, although they didn’t seem to like coming to the water-hole until sundown, a couple of eland, a few sable, more herds of roan and the usual selection of other antelope. It was also a nice place for raptors with martials, bateleurs, and black-chested snake-eagles flying overhead at regular intervals. We left Ngweshla quite content as it is a famous spot for lions and we certainly saw them in force. We hadn’t even heard, let alone seen, a hyena as yet which is probably because of the large numbers of lions in this area. One of the guests we met who was staying at Makololo lodge (they used our campsite as a loo stop) said it was her first time in Africa and from the lodge she had watched a pride of lions take down a buffalo one day, and the next day had seen a lone lioness take out a wildebeest calf - beginner’s luck!

 

We headed from Ngweshla up towards Jambile. The road up there was pretty barren save for a few elephants and all the waterholes on the way (Manga 1,2 &3) were bone dry as they had obviously fallen into disrepair. Jambile itself was pretty dry with only a small bit of water around although it was now pumping. We speculated that the park had only started pumping there because they knew we were staying there. As a result of this waterhole possibly being dry for a long time there was not much game around and all we saw that afternoon were some warthog, some giraffe, some big bull eles and a few nice steenbok. The next morning was pretty much the same story although we were treated to the spectacular sight of a black sparrowhawk catching a dove right in front of us. There seemed to be a pair of these birds in the area and they certainly were voracious, on another occasion as we drove back to camp we disturbed one on the road and as it flew off we drove past the remains of a guinea-fowl it had recently hammered. My friend does falconry and had always told me a black sparrowhawk was one of the best birds to have as it could catch francolin and guinea-fowl like a cheetah catching goats so it was nice to see him proved right. Hwange birdlife is certainly rewarding but in particular the raptors, we saw bateleurs (plenty), martials, tawnys, brown snake-eagles, black-chested snake-eagles, dark-chanting goshawks, gabar goshawks, shikras, black sparrowhawks, secretarybirds, yellow-billed kites (abundant), black-shouldered kites and a fair few more we were unable to identify!

Now at Kennedy and Ngweshla we were the only guests staying at the campsites (in Hwange only one group at a time is allowed to book the sites) but at least there had been a pump attendant and his wife to look after the pump and the campsite. At Jambile there was no pump attendant and so it was just us at the site in the middle of a thick teak forest which has a rather sinister look at night. On our 2nd night there just as we were about to doze off we suddenly hear my favourite sound of the African night, the ‘ooooooooo-wuuppp’ of hyenas and they were close. We could hear them pacing back and forth in the dry leaves just outside the campsite. Now hyenas don’t really scare me at all (I see them really as inquisitive, comical creatures rather than the vicious killers that they can be) so I wasn’t too bothered but if we had had a first timer in Africa with us they may have been slightly perturbed to hear a large hyena clan pacing no more than 10 metres from our tent, with us being 15ks from any other people, and with only a frying pan to defend ourselves – but that’s why you go camping in Africa!

 

The next morning we waited at the Jambile waterhole for a few hours and sure enough one of our hyena friends came down for a drink. After a few more giraffe and warthog also showed up we packed up camp and headed for Main Camp. On the way we past Dopi and Caterpillar waterholes which were both completely dry – National Parks aren’t doing such a good job of looking after some of their pans it seems. We were at Main Camp for four nights which we use to re-supply on food, beer and fuel as well as visit some of our friends in the area. We ran into the painted dog team a fair bit but they were all quite down as they haven’t seen any of their dogs in over a month. They’ve resorted to flying over the park to look for them but still no luck. Hopefully they’ll turn up soon, we all know how far those things travel sometimes.

One of the painted dog team has spilt from their organisation to form his own anti-poaching unit in Hwange. He is a Dutch guy who used to be part of the Dutch special forces protecting their royal family so he certainly has the right qualifications. He seems to be doing a great job in the local area and everyone speaks very highly of him. He has hand-picked his own APU from guys from the local area and he goes on patrols, especially in the south of the park where snaring is a major issue (it’s a major issue everywhere but worst there) for up to about a week at a time with his guys. They seem to have got through a phenomenal amount of work already. The link to his website is http://www.all4ap.org/ so if anyone is interested please take a look and possibly even donate some money. He says his main costs are fuel for his vehicle and food for his team and from what I’ve seen any money donated will certainly go straight to operations on the ground.

Around Main Camp the game was not as prolific as it had been around Kennedy/Ngweshla. We did see the Dynamite Boys on another zebra kill which was nice and this time there were 4 females in close proximity. We also saw a beautiful herd of female and young sable which must have had at least 8 adult females and 5 youngsters born this year. There were a few roan bulls around and we also witnessed some hippo boxing at Nyamandhlovu as a big bull let a younger male know who was the boss. It’s frightening to see a big bull hippo in an aggressive mood and he tore up the youngster pretty badly. The young bull obviously got the message as the next day he had moved to a pan down the road (Dom Pan).

 

From Main Camp we headed to Robins camp. The first thing we noticed about this part of the park was that there was plenty of water around. The Deka River was still flowing (extremely unusual for this time of year) and all the waterholes around this area were very full. This was a good sign as we head into October and the worst of the dry season when sometimes in Hwange there are terrible water shortages. However from a game viewing point of view this made it more difficult as the game was more dispersed. Around Robins we saw some nice buffalo, including a herd of 250+ animals, a pair of reedbuck, some more bat-eared foxes, and the usual Hwange selection of zebra, kudu and impala. There were many more impala at this end of the park than down by Main Camp which made us think that the dogs might be up here as well, but we didn’t manage to spot them. However, much of the game around Robins was very skittish and often the only photo opportunities we had of them were them running away, which was worrying. The noises around Robins Camp at night were fantastic with plenty of hyenas, hippos, scops-owls and the occasional roaring of a lion.

 

After Robins our last stop was Sinamatella camp. This site is based on top of a beautiful hill and has wonderful views of the surrounding savannah but like all the camps in Hwange it has fallen into disrepair in the last few years through lack of funds. There was another large herd of 250+ herd of buffalo in the vicinity. On our first evening at Sinmamatella we met up with the rest of the guys from WEZ (Wildlife and Environment Zimbabwe) to sort out pans for the 24hr game count which we were all participating in. For those who don’t know teams of volunteers sit by different waterholes in the park and count for 24hrs to try and get estimates of game in Hwange. We got a spot on the Deka river in the far north of the park near Bumbusi camp. The next morning we set out bright and early for Bumbusi (after being woken by an big bull elephant feeding outside) and were in place for the count by 10am. Our spot however, was not ideal due to the large volumes of water present in this area and in the end we only saw around 100 elephants, 100 impala and a slender mongoose in the 24hr period. We returned to Sinamatella and for our last game drive we headed to Masuma which is a beautiful spot where we saw some more buffalo, elephants and a resident crocodile who had taken to catching doves – we saw him get 2 in a half hour period.

 

And that was that. Returning to real life in Zim and the money problems, power cuts etc was very difficult after a tranquil 3 weeks in the bush. Hwange is still a fantastic national park although in some places the wildlife is very sparse and scared of people, which is a shame. Any national park in Zim suffers from heavy poaching and Hwange is no different but wild animals are hardy things and they should make it through to see better times in Zim, with its people. It truly must have been a wondrous place in its heyday. Of course the fact that nobody goes to Zim any more means there is a strange pleasure in driving round a park without meeting other vehicles for hours on end but the other end of the spectrum is that there is no money coming in and the park is in urgent need of some TLC. I’m sure this famous old park will one day return to its former glory, there are enough people left in Zim who care about it. Any more tourists would be most welcome though so if any readers want any info. please feel free to get in touch.

 

WHAT IS THE BEST WAY TO POST PICTURES ON HERE? I DON'T WANT TO ATTACH EACH TIME!

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Great trip report, white stork. Thank you for sharing this.

 

Last year I made some walks in the Sinamatella/Mandavu/Masuma area and also stayed for another five days at Somalisa, so most of the places in your report sounded quite familiar to me and brought some good memories back.

 

Posting images? Best would be if you first create your own gallery on Safaritalk. Game Warden has posted an informative topic how to do this, look at Creating your gallery album and uploading images. Please try to keep the size of your images small (100K-150K). Another helpful post explains how to put photos in your text, see Posting images in the text.

 

One question: did you see anything that looks like an airstrip at Manga 3?

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white stork

Thanks Nyama. Yes Sinamatella, Mandavu and Masuma is a beautiful part of the park. I defnitely don't recall seeing anything resembling an airstrip at Manga 3 although that doesn't mean it's not there, we just drove past all the Manga pans as they were all dry.

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Atravelynn

Great Hwange report. If your own sightings were not enough to produce a little jealousy, the lucky 1st timer's couple of lion kills watched from camp were. Hyenas in camp, how exciting, along with the dove catching crocs, and everything else. Thanks for posting!

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madaboutcheetah

What a fantastic report! Thank You!!!

 

Have to get to Hwange next year, I hope!

 

Can't wait to see your photos. Thanks in advance.

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Great report.

 

My 2008 plans may be changing... I am longing to return to Zim. Its such a great country.

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