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Author: FOH Team

Zambezi and Hwange National Park – June 2017

Zambezi and Hwange National Park – June 2017

Main Falls-Victoria Falls
Low maintenance lawn mowers

Taking advantage of our annual timeshare at Lokuthula, we had a wonderful week up at the Falls. What a treat! As we arrived we found the low maintenance lawnmowers out on the lawn as usual – a sounder of warthog in the company of a huge boar with an impressive set of warts and massive tusks and a trio of dainty bushbuck.   As it was marathon Sunday the second day we were there, accommodation was packed to the rafters and the town was seething, not only with tourists but some 2000 marathon participants. We decided to absent ourselves from all the marathon hype and took ourselves off along the river for breakfast, through the Zambezi National Park. It is evident that the rainy season did a fair amount of damage to the roads in the park but fortunately, where we wanted to travel, had been recently graded despite some spots where the grader obviously had very little impact. We stopped off at fishing spot number 10 for coffee and fruit while watching a herd of impala, a large flock of white-fronted bee-eaters darting in and out of the bank, an Egyptian goose sunning itself, a pied kingfisher noisily looking for breakfast too and two pied wagtails twittering away near a pair of sun loving wire tailed swallows.   A couple of white crowned lapwings spectacularly and acrobatically harassed an African harrier-hawk (gymnogene) out over the water who did some equally spectacular acrobatic flying to escape! Later an osprey flew by but didn’t linger to be admired.

Elephant herd drinking – Zambezi National Park

After another short drive further along but before the road got too bad, we started back to find a fishing spot for our breakfast. Number six which also has a lovely vista was pretty closed in with fallen trees across the road, and a herd of elephants were fast approaching so we withdrew to another spot further down which was just as beautiful and where, from a safe distance, we could watch the herd drink.

During our week, we had several forays into the park, along the river as well as along Chamabonda Vlei, and had a mixed bag of sightings during those drives – some large herds of buffalo, elephant, warthog, impala, kudu, spotted hyena, a fleeting glimpse of some eland, baboon and vervet monkeys. We even came across lion one morning attempting a buffalo hunt.

Lioness in Zambezi National Park

However, with a disdainful look from some of the outriders, the herd crashed off into thick bush and the lions retired to sun themselves on an anthill. A short while later, hearing what we thought was a heavy vehicle approaching, we realized that the buffalo were stampeding towards the now resting lion. It was quite spectacular as we watched the seething sea of black thundering through the brush, a rolling, bellowing tide of jostling bodies, startled oxpeckers and dust flying, chasing the lion off!

Buffalo cow – Zambezi National Park

Chamabonda vlei is very well maintained thanks to the efforts of Trevor Lane and Bhejane Trust who have put in a number of solar units all along the vlei. There is a new hide at Timots pan which is looking good. Towards the bottom end near the camping platform, the grass is very long and rank as no mowing has yet been done so we didn’t see any animals except for a couple of warthog. We did see two Kori bustards, one of which took to flight like an overloaded, lumbering boeing, and along a particularly sandy patch of road, a large number of little bee-eaters were obviously attracted by something as the road ahead of us was littered with them before taking off at our approach. Birding was great and waiting for a lift one morning, we had a delightful hour bird watching near the Zambezi River drive entrance, walking up to the small dam next to the elephant ride place and through the boat club car park, adding to our list with a great variety. We were staggered at the many, many coveys of Swainson’s spurfowl that we came across – chicks of all ages including some two inch tiny tots scuttling off into the bush.

The Zambezi River is flowing very fast and is full, full, full so walking in the rain forest was extremely wet and viewing was fairly limited! The Victoria Falls as always was an awesome sight once we’d trudged our way through all the masses! We dried off in the sun at the Lookout Restaurant overlooking that spectacular view of the gorges below the bridge while having lunch and watching some of the adrenaline junkies take on the gorge swing and the zip line as several others took their turn bungi jumping off the bridge. Yet again, Victoria Falls Safari Lodge did not disappoint. One evening we called in for a drink and were treated to a spectacular sunset as a herd of buffalo with some very young calves came in to drink, trailing a large red dust cloud, lit up by the late evening rays.

Sunset from Victoria Falls Safari Lodge balcony

We also enjoyed a delicious lunch there one day so we could watch the vultures being fed which is always quite a sight drawing many oohs and aahs from the tourists. The lodges are very well maintained and the staff throughout the complex so friendly, helpful and above all cheerful which makes staying there such a pleasure.

Planning on spending the weekend in Hwange, we took the road less traveled – through the Matetsi area past the border crossing turn off to Pandamatenga and on to Robins. It’s a fairly corrugated route, rattling the old bones not only of the passengers but our trusty much-traveled vehicle, but it winds through some rather picturesque country. After having had such a fabulous and luxurious time at the Falls, getting to Robins seemed a huge come down. However, on reflection, although we have visited Sinamatella often and thought how badly off that camp is, Robins must surely be the runt of the litter when it comes to it receiving any financial assistance to maintain the place. The staff there were very welcoming and pleased to see us, helpful and friendly. The chalet assigned to us was “not operating” so we were given another across near the camping ground. The chalet was spotless with comfortable beds but the less said about the ablution facilities the better with only one of the two ablution blocks semi-operable. We went off for an afternoon drive, starting off with visiting Little Tom’s which is a sorry sight since it was burnt and has not been rebuilt. However, the water there was plentiful, the surface dotted with purple waterlilies. Again, the rainy season had obviously wreaked havoc with the roads but some had recently been graded although there were a few trickier spots that were a bit dodgy. We could just make out the backs of elephant in the long grass of the vlei while traveling through to Big Tom’s where we had our lunch, the platform there having fairly recently been revamped.

Calm old fellow munching by the side of the road

The water level was excellent and we had a nice quiet time  bird watching with the spotting scope. The number of Bateleur eagles we saw in the Robins area is amazing and at one point, crossing one of the salt springs, seven Bateleurs of varying ages took off from the spot where they’d been paddling. While at Big Toms we watched an adult black chested snake-eagle interacting with a juvenile. Both birds were spectacularly marked and their aerial display quite something to watch. Sadly, there were disappointingly few birds at Salt Pan but we did get to see five black storks, their glossy plumage shining metallic maroon and green in the sun with bright red beaks and legs. We traveled on a newly graded road to Dolilo pan where the borehole has just been revamped and a solar unit recently installed before turning back to camp. Interesting country but aside from several ostrich which fluffed up at our approach, we didn’t see much. The Robins area has always hosted large flocks of helmeted guineafowl and the birds have obviously bred very well again this year. We also came across some tiny double banded sandgrouse chicks being herded along by a handsome set of parents.

Double Banded Sandgrouse male – Robins area

Provided with a nice stack of firewood, we enjoyed a braai under a star studded sky, continuously serenaded by barn owls, scops owls, the odd hyena and bats swooping around. Our night was punctuated by barn owl chicks ensconced in the roof of our chalet – we knew when one of the parents was approaching with food as the chicks started hissing and screeching until we heard the thump as the parent landed and the stamping around as the chicks were being fed, the noise dying down as the parent fluttered off again.

The following morning, we set off a little after six just as dawn was breaking, a gorgeous roseate flush on the horizon, followed by a crimson orb that popped up very quickly, turning a startling yellow in no time at all, washing the eastern horizon a soft lemon. We stopped off at Deteema to have a look – the water there is great and the Mike Edwards hide is very well maintained. A small herd of impala were grazing quite contentedly close by but there was evidence of recent lion activity. The camp attendant at the site, said that lion had been heard at four that morning, there were huge pug marks on the road between the camps and to one side, a bit of bloodied bone being picked over by a hooded vulture. On then through to Main Camp, stopping off at the various pans along the way. The water all along the way is phenomenal for this time of the year and so heartening to see. The new hide at Shumba has been well built and overlooks the brimming pan where we watched a pair of mating hippos while the rest of the pod kept a safe distance. Dwarf Goose pan was a delight with a flotilla of 15 teenaged spurwing geese and a pair of fussing Egyptian geese with three downy goslings, a few little grebe and two African jacanas also with youngsters. The natural pans along the way still hold quite good water in places and the level of water at Danga, Shapi, Whitehills, Guvelala and Boss Long One is high. Danga – not an FOH pan – is still being pumped with a diesel unit, and although there are still those skeptics who bewail the fact that solar is “unsightly” and “looks out of place”, seeing the pump unit there, despite being enclosed in green shade cloth, belching out smokey fumes and noise with the surrounds coated in black sludge, makes us even happier that solar is becoming more prevalent. Nyamandhlovu is very full and the vlei there was full of animals – zebra, wildebeest, black backed jackals, baboon, waterbuck, the usual enormous crocs out sunning themselves and hippo in the water. Along the loop road some of the depressions were obviously still damp as several sounders of warthog were down on their front knees, butts in the air, rootling around with their snouts.

An obliging crimson breasted shrike

Having settled into our lodge, we took a largely uneventful drive down to Kennedy One and back, not seeing a great deal. That evening, we had a tasty supper at the Waterbucks Head while John and Gary caught up with the chat.

On Sunday, John went off for an early morning drive and had a hugely successful time driving through to Caterpillar, Dopi, past Nyamandhlovu and returning to camp via Balla Balla. He saw an obliging side striped jackal that stood for a bit to be admired, a lovely herd of roan with some small babies, elephant, kudu and impala and just as he turned for camp via Balla Balla, he came across a group of lionesses. Judging by their pace and single mindedness, it was obvious they were out hunting and we heard later that this was a group of lionesses that did have small cubs, evidently hidden away somewhere while the moms went in search of food. The water all along the route was, again, lovely to see and although Gary told us there was a problem with one of the the solar units  at Kennedy Two and at Ngweshla, we have subsequently heard that they are both fixed up and working well again. It certainly was great to see so much water at the onset of the “big dry” – and it is great that much needed funds do not have to be used on endless supplies of diesel.

Once again, a huge thank you to all interested parties, to the donors, those doing such great work in the park and in particular, Gary who is having a hard time of it trying to get fire breaks done before its too late!

John and Jenny Brebner

Hwange at Easter – 2017

Hwange at Easter – 2017

It was great having the opportunity to go to Hwange Main Camp over the Easter weekend. Having not been up since December and before the main rain had fallen, it was wonderful to see the park so lush and green with water still lying everywhere. Most of the natural pans were filled with grasses and sporting beautiful purple, pink or pale yellow water lillies.   On closer inspection, most of them also had bobbing heads of water birds and their young – several flotillas of white-faced and knob-billed ducklings as well as one lot of white-backed ducklings, red billed teal and little grebe chicks, three lesser moorhen chicks being overseen by a watchful mother, several African jacana chicks of varying ages, two fluffy Kittlitz’s plover chicks being herded along the road by the parent birds near Nyamandhlovu, Egyptian geese with goslings and a few teenage spurwing geese were seen. All along the roads we came across coveys of game birds with varying aged young and the groups of helmeted helmeted Guineafowl we saw had also bred well with lots of young birds amongst the crowd. We have never seen so many Southern ground hornbills swanning around the open vleis. At Makwa there were at least six black-headed herons plodding about and although we saw several pairs of grey crowned crane, we only saw one youngster near Livingi. Food looks plentiful at last and the Acacia erioloba trees are absolutely LADEN with pods so we are sure that will be a big draw for the elephant herds later in the season.

 

We spent our first full day driving down to Ngweshla. We had a rather uneventful trip down, passing a few giraffe, a big breeding herd of elephant in the forest just before the Sinanga turn off, several zebra and impala herds, watching two large bull elephants emerge from the tree line to munch away in the Kennedy vlei, one of which had an impressive set of tusks, and admiring a black backed jackal which had dug a comfy hole for itself at the K2 pan and was sleepily catching a few warm rays. The Ngweshla vlei was surprisingly quiet, with not much to be seen although a large herd of buffalo had apparently just moved off towards the Wilderness area. Finding out from other game viewers that the road through the Mangas had been fixed up and as we had wanted to check up on the water particularly at Manga One, we returned to Main Camp via the “back route”, which has been fixed up and was pleasant going for a change. Again, we didn’t see much apart from another big breeding herd of elephant but the water at Manga One is good and the solar units there doing their bit. Jambile waterhole has filled up nicely and people staying there over the weekend ended up having lion shambling around camp in amongst their tents during their last night! One of the solar unit pumps at Dopi was hit by lightning but was speedily repaired, and both units are doing a great job with the pans nice and full. We had heard that a leopard cub had been seen at Caterpillar in the morning but didn’t expect it to be still hanging around as we arrived at Caterpillar in a bit of drizzly rain. To our great surprise, there was the young cub walking along the road and on seeing us, it went off into the grass on the side of the road. After coming very close to the vehicle and inspecting us with a yellow glare, it shambled off to take cover from the rain under one of the ebony trees. What a beautiful animal with a magnificent coat! We felt sure that it was waiting for its mother to return and although several other vehicles came and went, it didn’t seem too perturbed. We were rewarded after about an hour when the cub started moving off towards the teak forest on the far side of the pan and we finally saw the mother wedged motionlessly in a tree, obviously having called to the youngster who was now bumbling through the long grass and weeds towards her. We soon lost sight of both of them but oh, my goodness, what a treat! Getting back to camp, we had an armada of eight giraffe sail past our lodge just on the other side of the fence, their long necks and heads silhouetted against the last of the evening light.

 

The following day we had another fairly uneventful morning driving down to Boss Long One. The new solar unit there is pumping into a small pan while the large natural pan at the back is full of water. Over a cup of coffee, we watched two combating giraffe having a necking session, a small herd of zebra with one very pregnant looking mamma and two black backed jackals loping around before settling down in the sun. On our way back just before the Nyamandhlovu turn off, we came across a lovely Roan female looking a bit nervous and only realised as she moved off that she had a very young calf with her – in the long grass, we could just make out the long ears bobbing along close behind her. At Nyamandhlovu there were always zebra, wildebeest and impala present as well as a growing herd of waterbuck, one of the dams had a really small baby that spent a lot of the time nursing. And we got to see an incredibly beautiful boomslang (if snakes can be “beautiful”!!) draped motionlessly in a batch of blue bush right next to the road. We also saw the Martial eagle on the nest near the turn off and she is obviously incubating at the moment. Along the loop road we came across the smallest baby steenbok we’ve ever seen, standing on wobbly legs in the middle of the road. We only had a fairly fleeting glimpse of it before a panicky mother shot out of the long grass and shepherded her youngster back into cover. In the afternoon we went down to Makwa in the hopes of seeing lionesses with half grown cubs that had been seen on and off over the previous few days but had no luck. According to one of the guides with his group of tourists, we apparently missed seeing a pack of 14 wild dogs seen at Sinanga where we had just been and seen nothing!

 

On Easter Monday we decided to go lion hunting again to see if those illusive lion would come to light. On our way through the gusu, a side-striped jackal ran along the road ahead of us for some way, obviously reluctant to go off into the long wet grass. In an open area just before Makwa, we came across a herd of sable with calves – one of which was very young – along with a small herd of zebra and two black backed jackals. Arriving at the main Makwa pans, we were greeted at the baboon spa as the primates sat in the early morning sun, preening and gleaning with rapt expressions on their faces while some of the youngsters got up to mischief. A couple of giraffe glided past as a large herd of impala came out of the scrub along with two wildebeest. A dainty mother warthog with two youngsters trotted across the road in front of us and later we saw a grumpy old boar with a HUGE set of tusks. One of the crocs was out on the bank sunning itself, the pans were bustling with waterbirds and game birds while a group of seven ground hornbills were perched at first in an old dead tree, having a good preen before setting off with their doop, doop, dooping around the place. The area was teeming with activity but….no lion! Not that we were disappointed – we had a brilliant and entertaining morning.   In the afternoon, we went along the Whitehills road to check out the water along that route. Mabuya Mabena was looking great and although the pan is fairly grassy, there was a lovely batch of waterbirds hustling and bustling. Again, we didn’t see an awful lot but it was a very pleasant drive. We were sad to see that the Guvelala platform was once again in a tatty looking state with one of the doors ripped off. However, the pan was nice and full although devoid of any game and very little in the way of birdlife.

 

On our final morning, before packing up to return to Bulawayo, we took another drive down to Makwa. This time, the pan and surrounds were pretty empty of any game but we did have a honey badger scuttle across the road in front of us. While having coffee up in the platform, a small group of impala emerged reluctantly and took to standing on a high point, nervously looking about before finally settling down. We wondered if perhaps the dogs had been about with the lack of animals around. We thought we’d try our luck again and travelled back past Caterpillar and Dopi but saw nothing much except a duiker.

 

It was fabulous being back in the park and wonderful to see it so flush. We were astounded at all the youngsters we saw – both animals and birds. It was also great to see so many families with children enjoying the park, it being school holidays as well as Easter. There is still a lot of hard work going on in the background and once again, we should like to thank all the folks responsible for the sponsorship, donations and continued support.

 

John and Jenny Brebner

 

 

Hyena Snare Removal – Hwange National Park

Hyena Snare Removal – Hwange National Park

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Darted hyena

While investigating the carcass of a dead elephant in the Guvalala Pan area we noticed what appeared to be a snare around the neck of a hyena that was lying in the waterhole to cool down during the heat of the day. It was difficult to be certain it was a snare because the mud had obscured visibility around the neck area and the hyena ran off before we could get close enough to confirm.

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Snare clearly visible

 

It seems that the adult female elephant had died a natural death probably as a result of old age compounded by lack of adequate food as well as heat stress due to the soaring ambient temperatures. Her death however had provided an ideal “bait” to attract hyenas and hopefully an opportunity to find and dart the animal with the snare.

 

With the help of Ranger Antonio we returned after dark to try to find the unfortunate hyena. It is difficult and dangerous to dart a free-ranging wild hyena. Hyenas are incredibly intelligent and seem capable of quickly differentiating between a harmless photographic tourist and a person trying to shoot darts at them. Once they realize your intention they keep their distance and stay out of range of the dart rifle making it almost impossible to get close enough for the shot. If you are fortunate enough to get a dart in, the hyena will generally take off at a run for the 4-6 minutes it takes before the immobilizing drug takes effect. During this time the well-camouflaged and fast disappearing backside of a hyena can be exceptionally difficult to follow at night with a spotlight and binoculars as the animal races through long grass and scrub vegetation. Any attempt to follow the fleeing animal in a vehicle only serves to speed up the chase.

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Cutting the snare

For this reason the vast, open stretches of Kalahari sands surrounding Guvalala Pan with such open visibility at this time of the year provided a perfect landscape for this darting operation.

 

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Lioness visiting the Pan

 

The next important considerations were for the security of the darting team and the safety of the immobilized hyena. These concerns were validated soon after the sun had set and herd after herd of thirsty elephants materialized from the darkness and silently made their way down to the Pan to drink. In no time there were more than 100 elephants drinking, wallowing in the mud and milling about in the open area around the Pan. If this danger wasn’t enough, a lioness also appeared for a drink of water and wandered around the Pan for some time before disappearing into the surrounding tree line.

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Some difficulty removing the snare

After carefully weighing up all these risks and safety concerns the snared hyena suddenly came into range and without hesitation a light plastic Daninjet dart was dispatched and lodged gently into her exposed shoulder.

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Cutting out more of the snare

The snare wound was an old one that had healed almost completely around the neck except for a few areas where the buried steel wire was still protruding out of the skin. It took some time to delicately cut and remove the snare from under the skin and clean the wound.

 

Many people might think it crazy to work until midnight on Sunday evening in a dark and remote area of the Park near an elephant carcass surrounded by an unknown number of lions, 17 hyenas and more than 100 elephants but for us it was a privilege. Despite receiving a number of very close visits from curious hyenas and inquisitive elephants throughout the evening they were never aggressive and it was only while treating this immobilized hyena that we experienced how gentle and understanding all these wild animals can be. We never once felt threatened and we soon learned that their approaches could easily be deterred with a few gentle and respectful words…. Fortunately we never had to try this on the lioness, as she didn’t reappear.

 

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Treating the snare wound

The entire operation was carried out without disruption and the hyena woke up soon after the antidote was administered. She immediately ran off with members of her clan to continue feeding on the elephant carcass.

 

As is often the case when darting carnivores, this hyena chewed up and destroyed our Daninject dart and needle. These essential pieces of equipment need to be replaced as soon as possible but this is easier said than done as they’re not available in Zimbabwe and will have to be sourced in South Africa.

 

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Administering the antidote

We extend grateful thanks once again to the Friends of Hwange Trust and the Hwange Conservation Society (UK) for kindly providing the wildlife immobilizing drugs and necessary wound cleaning solutions used.

Paul and Stéphanie de Montille

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jericho has Died

Jericho has Died

prince-jerrico-c
Jericho
Image taken by Chris Collyer

 

We are very sad to confirm the death of Jericho. We are still waiting for the details, but don’t believe there was any foul play involved.  He was a majestic old lion that lived and died in the wild – just as it should be. Adieu old fellow, you will be greatly missed by the many fans and visitors to Hwange that knew you and followed your life.