Hwange Mid-November 2015
We arrived to sweltering, sticky heat, and a hot, stifling wind. Clouds built up throughout the day with the magnificent promise of rain in sunsets streaked with glorious colour. But morning revealed clear, blue, cruelly cloudless skies. Huge numbers of elephants arrived in waves to suck up precious water in the pans, many of which contained pools of dark, undrinkable, liquid mud. There was fierce competition round the pipe yielding fresh, cool water from deep underground. Animals stood round listlessly, heads drooping, lacking the energy to move off and forage.
The water holes in the Main Camp area seemed to be holding up – just – thanks to efforts from Gary, Patrick and the Parks game water staff to keep all pumps possible working flat out and some pans still contained small pools of drinkable water. The variety and number of animals sighted was amazing – elephants by the thousand; graceful herds of impala; plump, belligerant zebra; pink-eared kudu; stately sable, roan and waterbuck; warthogs with litters of mini piglets; inquisitive giraffe; lions of all sexes and sizes; long-limbed cheetah; spotted hyaena; a herd of buffalo 2000 strong at Mandavu – and the list goes on. We were surprised that the water holes with solar units performed relatively well in a season that’s been particularly harsh and dry, and it’s clear that installation of more solar units is the way forward in the coming months ahead. Elephants destroyed the pipes of the windmill at Shapi, a catastrophe for small animals in that region, and one angel from HLR stopped there and poured some water into a bowl for some very thirsty vervet monkeys desperate for a drink. Shumba Pan was uplifting; the 2 solar units there are clearly coping well. But Masuma, which FOH does not manage, was worst of all. The pump was down due to broken pipes, the pan contained nothing but murky, thick sludge and the trough was empty. We watched with heavy hearts as a troop of baboons desperately licked at the damp concrete, and several kudu turned this way and that perplexedly, unable to understand why there was no water. A small herd of elephant screamed their anguish, and we, who are hardened to the toughness of this place, could take no more and drove away.
That evening at Sinamatella we watched the clouds build into a dark mass, stark and beautiful with shafts of sunlight piercing through to the ground. Lightning flashed in the distance, and we woke in the small hours to the sound of thrumming, drumming, pelting rain. Again the following night at Mandavu Dam, we lay in our beds and listened to the fierce gusts of wind tearing at our tents followed by a torrential, lashing downpour. The heavy rain was widespread from Sinamatella to Detema Dam and Robins, and on down to Masuma and Shumba. There was not an elephant to be seen – they simply took off overnight and vanished.
Tiny red shoots burst forth on the Mopane bringing promise of recovery and new life. In the Main Camp area, some elephant herds remain; painfully thin, they are too weak to start on the long journey west and south, and need to build up strength before heading off to pastures green. A devastating and widespread fire from Mbiza and Broken Rifle though to Kennedy 2 had destroyed much needed vegetation, but shoots of green grass have already pushed through the blackened earth, and clumps of tender leaves and shoots are magically unfurling on bare branches.
There have been casualties. Sad dried up piles of skin and bones are scattered round many of the pans. Predators, sleekly fat and thriving have feasted on free bounty, and vultures too have done their job of cleaning up the carnage. But the vast majority of animals have hung on and made it through the drought.
Although we are still pumping water into the pans, we are cautiously optimistic that the worst is over for this year. The water in Guvalala is still very low, and Dom and Nyamandhlovu need a good downpour. But there are puddles all over Ngweshla, good water in the pans at Kennedy 1 and 2, Makwa has pools of standing water all around and more rain is forecast in the coming weeks ahead. And before leaving the park, we spied a tiny, perfect, newborn impala fawn – a wonderful symbol of hope and re-birth.
To Gary and his men, we salute you. Your passion and commitment are boundless.
To all our many wonderful supporters, without you we would surely have a different tale to tell today. Our heartfelt thanks and gratitude go out to you all.