Hwange National Park game update

On our way to Masuma, we stopped off for lunch at Mandavu at Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe and were delighted to see that the dam still had plenty of water.

On our way to Masuma, we stopped off for lunch at Mandavu at Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe and were delighted to see that the dam still had plenty of water. A large herd of buffalo were on the opposite bank, just moving off after having drunk, while another much larger herd were crossing the road to the left and coming down to drink. All of a sudden, something spooked the herd and about half the animals thundered off a short distance. We initially thought that they had been scared by approaching vehicles but it was, in fact, a lone lioness that had been trailing the herd. While setting up camp at Masuma, in the hot afternoon, there was a never ending stream of animals coming down to drink and we automatically assumed that the following day’s count would be a busy one for us. Just before turning in, the resident lion pride were tuning up and we could eventually make out a large, dark-maned lion sauntering across the valley to the right of the hide, obviously off to join the others calling from behind the camp.

A bright pink sun was struggling up through the haze the following morning when, almost unnoticed, two lion were seen walking calmly down the dry stream on our left – a young male with a light ruffling beginning around his neck and a collared female. Some of the team drove out to watch them moving off but they were soon lost in the scrubby bush. So, with pens poised, the count kicked off but with hardly any animals anywhere near the pan, unlike the previous afternoon. There was some confusion over the number of hippopotami in the pan but the final consensus was that there were nineteen along with three rather large crocs. Most of the first visitors came gingerly and skittishly down to the spring in the river over to the right of the dam to drink and their behavior made us wonder if the lion were close at hand.

At about half past two, one of our team calmly announced that he was looking at a collared lioness, lying in the shade of a bush some distance from camp which sent some of the team off to investigate further as she was lying close to the road. They were rewarded with a languid yawn and a tawny glare before she plopped back down again, resuming her afternoon nap. Unfortunately, a little later, much vehicular traffic disturbed her and she could be seen moving into thicker bush.

As the hot afternoon continued, a slender mongoose, with an incredible ginger coat, kept popping out of its hole just below the platform providing some entertainment and a couple of raucous mopane squirrels kept venturing into the platform along with several equally vocal red winged starlings to see what they could find to eat. Two small herds of daggaboys came cautiously in to drink but they certainly didn’t linger. As the afternoon started cooling off, three dwarf mongooses fled their hot home in an anthill close the platform and could be seen lying flat out on their tummies, legs splayed as they obviously tried to cool down. Just before six our first elephant was spotted at quite a distance, kicking up dust and flapping his ears – in the direction of where we had seen the lioness earlier in the afternoon. Off went several team members to investigate. They were just returning to camp when four giraffe, which had taken most of the afternoon to approach the spring in the river for a drink, suddenly took off up the bank and were off, frightened by three half grow lion cubs playing on a high point. These cubs were followed by six lioness, eleven other cubs of varying ages and a large, collared, dark maned male, all of whom drank at the spring while another large, collared, dark maned lion sat atop a mound surveying his kingdom. By this time, it was pretty much late dusk and the cats were quite distant so photography was not good. We could just make out some of the felines settling down near an anthill and we waited in anticipation for some action!

Up until midnight, we had a continuous stream of elephant coming in. At about ten the lion pride started roaring and a couple of black backed jackals lustily joined in. We watched with bated breath as a lone elephant plodded towards the lions’ position but the charge fizzled out as the elephant just trumpeted, flapped his trunk and ears as we watched the ghostly figures of the lion changing position slightly. Later on, three hippos that had ventured out for food also approached the lion and suddenly all three charged towards the pride, once again, sending the ghostly figures scattering and moving into thicker bush where we lost sight of them altogether. Four spotted hyena skittishly approached the pan shortly after midnight and positioned themselves in a semi-circle around one of the baby hippos which had followed two of the adults out of the pan. Suddenly the round, little comical figure seemed to drawn itself up to its fullest height and torpedoed towards the hyena at speed, scattering the unsuspecting animals, sending them packing.

There were several “islands” in the pan left over from when the pan had been dredged and it was interesting to note that on the night before the count and the night after the count, the three baby hippo in the pod were seen lying like blobs of molten chocolate on one of the islands just below the platform, seemingly fast asleep. But on the night of the actual count, all three babies followed the adults out to feed. Did this have anything to do with the lion being in close proximity, we wondered? All was quiet from about one o’clock onwards apart from a few elephant, a lone waterbuck ram and a couple of scrub hare with the last elephant moving off the pan at about half past five.

From then on, there was a continuous stream of mainly kudu and impala, several warthog, Chacma baboon, some zebra, a plodding herd of daggaboys numbering twenty five and the resident waterbuck that were seen grazing the periphery of the pan area. Helmeted guinea fowl trilled down in single file by the hundred to drink while doves aplenty were drinking and a lone spoonbill spooned around in company with two sacred ibis. Sandgrouse – both Namaqua and double banded – came down in astounding numbers, both late evening and early morning. A Lanner falcon occasionally flew by, sending the flocks of doves scattering and several yellow billed kites also interrupted the drinking guinea fowl. We watched an immature Martial attempting some hunting, a male and female white headed vulture glided overhead occasionally and at least three different Bateleur eagle were seen. So birding was excellent and kept us occupied during dull moments. Although the Park is dry, it wasn’t as lunar landscape-ish as it sometimes is at this time of the year and some of the trees were just glorious. The eriolobas (Acacia erioloba) out in their full summer coats, were like green beacons amongst the drab grey and brown, the pod mahogany (Afzelia cuanzensis) up in the Sinamatella area were beautifully shaped and equally stunning. In the Main Camp area the Kalahari apple-leaf (Lonchocarpus nelsii) were most noticeable out in full bloom adding a delightful, delicate pale lilacy/mauve to the mix and the wild gardenia bushes were topped with their lemon yellow and creamy blossoms.

It was interesting to note that during the late afternoon after the count, several elephant were seen bathing in the pan. None of the elephant had previously done this. We also noted that several herds walked straight into the pan, seemingly cooling off their feet while drinking and overnight, there was plenty of sploshing and splashing which had not happened previously. In the early hours of the Friday morning, lion roars around camp had to be heard to be believed! Some of the team got up to try and see what was going on and one of the male lions was seen quite close to the platform, heading hurriedly in answer to roaring, once again, behind camp. His roars quite literally vibrating the air, scaring the hell out of most of us campers! Elephant and hippo added their voices to the cacophony of sound and there was much trumpeting, grunting, screeching, chortling and groaning around most of the night.

We were lucky enough to have an extra few days, spending the weekend down at Main Camp. Before leaving the area, we took a quick drive to see an enormous herd of buffalo grazing along part of the Lukosi River drive, numbering at least a thousand animals – and were very grateful that they hadn’t dropped by during the count! There were a couple of herds of elephant and several giraffe in the mix and two irascible warthogs were attempting to weave their way through a forest of legs, not at all concerned with the grunting and snorting from several of the large bovines. On our way through to Main Camp, we popped into Camp Hwange which looks beautiful and were amazed to find an enormous natural pan just before getting to the lodge, still quite soggy, teaming with bird life and on the way out, saw four reed buck grazing along the far edge. We took the White Hills road and at Garakamwe, we came across quite a crowd of white backed vultures bathing, wings hanging out to dry. We often see vultures there so have come to the conclusion that it must be the vulture spa!

The following day, we went on down to Ngweshla, stopping off there for a late brunch before going right through to the Mangas to check on the water situation down that end of the park. Manga Three is holding good water, thanks to Somalisa of African Bush Camps and Manga One, just recently having been refurbished had only just started being pumped again so was battling to keep up with the huge numbers of elephant milling around. Having had a hot, dusty drive, we almost decided against an evening drive, but were very glad that we did go out. On our way to Balla, we came across a lioness, sauntering down the road. It looked like she had been feeding as there was blood around her neck and face. She may also have been carrying a slight injury. On our way back into Main Camp a while later, very close to the boom, we suddenly saw a collared male lion and following his progress, we found eight other animals – another collared lion, six lionesses and a half grown cub. What an amazing sighting, watching them just walk along the side of the road and then onto the road, padding unconcernedly towards a safari vehicle!

Before leaving the following morning, we took a quick drive down to Guvelala as we wanted to check on the ablution renovations that are being done there. The Parks staff are doing the refurbishing of the facilities there and it’s all looking good. We just hope that it gets finished off properly. Unfortunately, the engine was not working so there was very little water in the pan.

Water supplies still remain an issue with the usual frustrations of limited or no fuel supplies and the water teams not having any transport, relying heavily on Gary in the Main Camp area particularly and Stephen Long at Sinamatella. Once again, we had a thoroughly enjoyable time, despite the heat and the whirlwinds billowing up great clouds of dust and as always, appreciated the privilege of being able to do the annual game count.

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Linda Hohnholz

Editor in chief for eTurboNews based in the eTN HQ.

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