For those that have not visited Hwange in the dry season, let us set the the scene:
Leafless trees stretch their branches to the cloudless sky in a silent plea.
Stubby grass tufts and dry twigs crackle and snap underfoot. Carpets of crunchy leaves, red, orange and brown dance and whirl like mini dervishes in the wind. The heat at midday is breathless, when temperatures soar and even the birds stop their endless song and busy foraging for fat seeds and hapless insects. This is Hwange dry season.
Elephants dominate the pans and water holes. They are at the top of the drinking chain due to their size of course. They start arriving about midday, a flow of breeding herds, 20 or 30 in a group, endlessly coming and going. They get ridiculously excited as they approach the pan, picking up speed, churning up dust until they can plunge their trunks into the water for that first delicious slurp. The tiniest calves gambol ahead, unable to contain themselves, and if they’re lucky will even get the chance to cavort and play in the mud. The bulls are much more stately; they hang in a group round the pipe where the water emerges like men at the bar. They love the fresh cool water straight up out of the ground.
If there is sufficient water in the pan for everyone, this delightful scene is a joy to behold. But in a dry year, when the pans are reduced to a splodge of sticky black mud, and the only water available is a puny stream from the ground, all hell breaks loose. Tension hangs like a pall of black smoke in the air, animals push and shove, yell and groan, stamp and shout in an effort to get a trunk attached to the end of the pipe. It will blow up visibly like a long balloon, and once removed another will take it’s place amongst many that search and quest for every precious drop. If this is not heart rending enough, it’s even worse when the engine runs out of fuel and that steady beat that means water and life stops. Animals of all species stand patiently waiting, listless, heads hanging. And if the engine is not started up in time simply lie down and die where they stand. It is heart breaking to witness a herd of buffalo 500 strong approach a pan from the bush after a hot, arduous trek only to find it dry. They have no option but to rest a while, then trudge on 10 miles to the next water hole in the faint hope of being rewarded there. We once watched an elephant matriarch walk to the silent engine, raise her head and scream her abuse. We swore then never again!
In 2005, at the height of the dry season, when the engines had been silent for weeks, we finally managed to rally enough parts for repairs, and find fuel to re-start the pumps. The sight of animals all shapes and sizes pouring out of the bush for a drink was enough to reduce the hardest of men to tears. These animals know that the key to survival is held in that sound of the pump – the heartbeat of Hwange.
Please help us avert these scenes of distress. Every dollar donated really does make a difference.