Each year, the anticipation and excitement around Bulawayo of the up coming Hwange game count is palpable and wherever one goes during the weeks leading up to it, the question is asked “Are you going on the count this year?” Well, would we miss it? Not if we could help it.
We were amazed at how much drier the park had become in the month since we had last been up there. Just about the only green that could be seen were the beautiful Acacia eriolobas – covered in new green leaf, most already showing a fuzz of yellow pompoms, they offered welcome, deep shade at midday for the elephant – and the delicious looking but lethal patches of umkauzaan (Dichapetalum cymosum), or gifblaar as it is also known. There were a few Lonchocarpus nelsii out in bloom, covered in a haze of delicate lilac. Otherwise, it was dry, dry, dry. On our way down to Ngweshla to join our party, we stopped off to admire the new platform that is now up at Makwa. We passed a huge herd of buffalo, numbering around 900, just off the road, the outriders all fast asleep and mounds of bodies trying to shelter under what little shade the Ordeal bushes (Erythrophleum Africanum) afforded or for the lucky ones who had found better shade under a few enormous Umtshibi trees. (Guibourtia coleosperma).
Driving through to our pan in the Wilderness concession the following morning, was a little better organized than last year and no vehicles appeared to falter in the deep sand. Our team had been delegated Scotts pan and we found a suitable spot under a very nice shady tree for the duration. On arrival there was a herd of 33 sable antelope lying in the vlei, having already had a drink and they only left later in the afternoon as it was cooling off. Elephant came down in droves, of course, and around the periphery of the pan were some herds of zebra, a couple of herds of impala as well as a troop of baboons. One group of zebra had a tiny new born foal afoot and there were several occasions during the count that the poor harassed zebra mother had to protect her baby from some aggressive males seemingly from another herd, obviously trying to get at the foal, each time causing a huge ruckus, dust and hooves flying. Overnight we saw three huge eland and two porcupines along with spotted hyena, duiker and a lone male giraffe in amongst all the elephant coming down to the pan. A leopard was seen just after dark trying to sneak in for a drink but was initially chased off by the elephant. It was spotted again having another attempt but unfortunately, a Wilderness vehicle with guests out on a night drive came along and interrupted its quest. We could just make it out in the headlights streaking off into the bush some way off. On our first day, we were kept entertained by an amazing number of raptors popping in for a foot dabble and a drink at the pan. We enjoyed the sight of a lovely Tawny Eagle, and at one stage had nine Bateleur eagles visual. There was plenty of interaction in the air, on the ground and perched in the trees. Two males, one at the water and one balanced in a tall tree close by were certainly showing off, fluffing out their wings, puffing up their chests and throwing back their heads to call. There were several juvenile birds in various stages of maturity and plenty of aerobatics with some spectacular diving and jousting on the wing and more vocalization – what stunning birds they are. On the second morning of the count a strong wind blew up, making most of the animals nervous. Four roan antelope, two females and two youngsters, tentatively approached the pan along with a magnificent sable bull but they were soon sent flying back into cover when a vehicle full of tourists drew up. Another herd of roan came in while a few kudu cows drank – the whole lot being put to flight by one of the zebra altercations. As we were leaving, the same four roan and the sable bull were making a second attempt to come in for a drink.
Getting back to Ngweshla was a rude shock as there were SIX safari vehicles FULL of guests in camp, with one of the vehicles parked RIGHT in front of the gate blocking off all other traffic. Another lot of visitors, mostly counters, were sitting in the shade of the eriolobas just outside of camp. Fortunately, it quietened down after a while and we could return to camp for a much needed shower and a late lunch. We had a rather noisy night with streams of elephant continually visiting the pan. We did hear lion and early in the morning, six adult lion were seen moving silently past, round towards the back of the camp. We had the most amazing sighting of some of them, particularly a stunning female with two tiny cubs, probably only a month to six weeks old. Mother lion was lying on an anthill with the two cubs playing and tumbling around her. A second lioness and a young male lay along a game trail close by affording everyone a great photo opportunity before they all moved into some blue bush (Diospyros lycioides), where they were all but invisible. Our trip continued at Kennedy One for two nights, again hearing lion, most likely Jericho as he was in the area. The first evening while watching at the pan, a group of about seventy elephants were suddenly spooked by we know not what and dashed off at an alarming pace. Its amazing how there was very little noise as they galloped off and which of the animals had given off the alarm? On our last afternoon, we went through to Mbiza, mainly to see how well the solar unit is working there. The water level is great and although we didn’t see much in the way of game, it was still an enjoyable drive.
We are sure we are preaching to the converted but we just have to say that we were very disappointed and dismayed at the continual criticism of the solar units that have been put in place throughout the Main Camp area in particular and at Sinamatella and Robins. We really would appreciate it if those criticizing would take into account the huge amount of effort and finance that has gone into drilling new boreholes so that there are two solar units at each pan if possible and then putting up the solar units themselves along with all the casing, piping, stone, cement etc., etc., that is needed for the site, not forgetting please, that all this has to be transported up to the Park as well. Most people obviously have NO idea how much finance was put into trying to keep Parks supplied with diesel in the past, often only to have it stolen from the engine sites. Parks was, unfortunately, not keeping up with the supply so a vast amount of donor money was being spent on supplying fuel. In the past, as soon as the count was finished, the pumping would stop, because there was no fuel available. Yes, we are aware that the solar units don’t work at night but…at least there is SOME water instead of none and why not use one of our most valuable natural resources! Two solar units at each pan pump the same, if not more water in a day than an engine running 24/7. And think how much less pollution is emitting into the atmosphere and the surrounding soil. There is a LOT less maintenance involved once the unit has been erected with no more refueling to be done. It does remain to be seen how the pans cope during the next couple of months but once again, better some water than none. It should also be remembered that the Park has experienced a particularly harsh year or two as the rains have not been good.
Most of the Main Camp visitors/counters will have seen the new platform at Makwa. Here again there has been a lot of criticism about it but hey, everyone…surely it’s a step in the right direction and SOMETHING has been achieved. Plans are going ahead to resuscitate the Guvalala platform with work having started there and hopefully with a better supply of water once the two solar units are sorted out, it will become a popular overnight stop once again. Please spare a thought for all those amazing people who are working their guts out to keep things ticking over in the park.
Thank you to the organizers of the count and hopefully we will see everyone back next year!
John and Jenny Brebner