A year of extremes: Safari to the Lower Zambezi Valley and Hwange National Park

Zimbabwe in August / September 2012

Zimbabwe's wildlife conservation areas are situated in a relatively dry part of our planet and depend on good annual rainfalls to balance out. Above average rainfalls may cause problems through regional flooding, but for most wildlife in nature reserves, real trouble starts when the annual rainfall remains below average. - As has been the case in the last rainfall period between October 2011 and March 2012.

Lower than average rainfalls mean that many plants will have to deal with draught stress. As a result of this, what is left for the herbivores to feed on is much less in volume and nutritional value than usual. To put this into perspective: When we arrived in Mana Pools National Park on 16 August, there was almost no grass left on the Zambezi flood plains. This would normally be the case during the month of October, just before the rainfalls start. But this year it probably means very serious starvation for many herbivores. Counting one or two dry years in a decade usually is no problem for nature to cope with. However, with climate change intensifying existing trends, wildlife densities in areas such as the Lower Zambezi Valley or Hwange National Park would drop sharply once four, five or even more dry years are recorded within a decade. To anyone airing cynical views about climate change and milder winters in the northern hemisphere: Go and visit today's biodiversity hotspots in dryer regions and have a look at what will be lost if we don't mange to turn this huge and growing problem around.

A baboon, walking on barren ground, is about to pluck a cattle egret it just killed

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zimbabwe rainfall patterns

Zimbabwe generally experiences a unimodal rainfall pattern (one rainfall season within a cycle of 12 months). Rainfall patterns correspond with the southward migration of the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone that follows the position of the sun. The rainfall Season lasts from October to March and in some years extends to April. Within a calendar year, the rainfall seasons are referred to as JFM (January, February, March) and OND (October, November, December). OND rains are usually first recorded in the Western parts of the country, while the South and East will still experience overcast conditions with light South-Easterly winds and drizzle during this period. For the coming rainfall season, normal to above average rains are predicted for Northern Zimbabwe and at present, average with a tendency to lower than average rains are expected for the South.

Read more on the Zimbabwe Meteorological Services Department website

Lower Zambezi Valley

The first nine nights we spent in Tailormade Safaris' private mobile camps. Six nights at Mucheni 4 camp site on the banks of the Zambezi to start with, then three nights further inland, at the legendary Chitake Springs camp site right along the almost completely dry Chitake river bed. From there we carried on to the Chikwenya Concession, a great area along the Zambezi downstream of Mana Pools, where we spent three nights at Chikwenya Safari Lodge.

When it comes to being close to nature in the African bush, there is nothing like a small mobile camp or bush camp setup. Tailormade Safaris camps are arranged in a comfortable and open way. Comfortable means: You get all you need. Great meals prepared on the open fire, excellent service by a super friendly camp team, a warm bucket shower at your request and a tent with proper beds for a good night's rest. Open menas: At any time of day and night, wildlife may move through camp. This can be very exciting and it is no problem, as long as guests stick to a few simple safety rules.

As a pride of lions move through camp, this young male briefly stands still next to a tent

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What is most fascinating about Mana Pools is that - with a professional private guide - it is possible to explore on foot the open riverine forests, the flood plains, the Mopane forests and the dense bush further away from the river. Even more fascinating is the way in which Humphrey Gumpo enables very close wildlife encounters through his guiding. With Humphrey, as with Dardley Tafuruka, it is never just about walking up to animals. Instead, the Tailormade Safaris stile of guiding means moving in a way that creates a stage for the wildlife around you. Often, animals will make use of this stage and come in very close, remaining completely relaxed. An absolutely enthralling experience especially for photography. Being able to sit down and to position the camera close to the ground creates a very interesting perspective through the lens.

Mana Pools

At this time of the year, the Ana tree Faedherbia albida is full of beautifully orange-coloured and very nutritional pods. Gusts will cause many of the pods to drop to the ground and where that is not enough, some of the more experienced elephants will give these trees a good shake, causing showers of pods around themselves. Since some of the private camp sites along the Zambezi, such as Mucheni 4 are set in in Ana tree groves, entire elephant families will move through camp day by day and pick up pods from the ground. Stay calm and the animals will come to within metres from your lunch table.

The orange-coloured pods of the Ana tree

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mana Pools again offered an amazing wilderness experience and, fortunately, a marvellous reunion right on the first morning. On this first outing we had just made it past the Mucheni camp site turn off, when we spotted a bachelor herd of elephants with the very confident and rather huge male, referred to as the Mucheni bull. This is one of the few elephants that is capable of standing upright on its hind legs while pulling down branches from high up in the trees with its trunk. We immediately parked the vehicle and continued on foot, following and observing the bulls for a while and then walking past them to sit down underneath an acacia tree in their path further along towards the river. A few moments later we were surrounded by the bulls. They were calmly pulling down branches and feeding on the trees next to us. Because this herd was so completely relaxed with us in their presence, we didn't even have to retreat (as would usually be the case) when a cow with her young calf moved in, strolled past us and started to pick up pods and twigs from the ground. - We would spend more time with this bachelor herd over the following days.

While in previous years we would quite often find packs of wild dogs hunting along the Zambezi flood plains, we didn't see a single wild dog on this excursion until much later, when we moved camp to Chitake Springs. Compensation was plentiful and intense, though. We had several close-ups with lions, found a herd of buffalo in the Mopane forest towards the Rukomechi river, then another one in the Acacias behind BBC camp and spent hours every day walking on the flood plains around Mucheni and all the way past Trichilia camp site.

Lion encounters on foot are a fantastic experience. Late afernoons in particular are ideal for this, as the cats will usually be resting at first and thus can be approached. They will sometimes start moving just before sunset and when that happens, the very low photographic perspective in combination with golden hour and later on with blue hour light creates a fantastic atmosphere. Again, getting close without provocing any negative reaction by the animals is the true art of guiding. Thanks again to Humphrey and Dardley! It is just such a privilege to experience this.

After sunset, this is one of the last images captured before a careful retreat to make our way back to the vehicle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One morning, a trough of low pressure caused strong easterly winds to blow up the Zambezi valley. This would be a normal occurrence in any other year, but with there being almost no grass left on the ground, the winds turned into quite a dust storm, causing an unbelievable atmoshpere in the sandy parts of the park. As these conditions with strong winds are ideal for daytime leopard observations, we carried on towards the Nyamatusi area, east of Main Camp, where harder ground meant less dust blowing around. On our way, in the are near Mana Pools airstrip we came across a scene with some kudu and impala standing still and staring into one direction, away from us. A typical sign of some of the animals sensing danger. We closely observed land and trees for some time, but couldn't make out a hunting cat. It was on the following day that Dardley with his group of visitors found a female leopard on an impala kill right at that spot...

A sand storm blowing through the Zambezi valley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After a last very noisy night at Mucheni we headed out for an extended drive along the river and eventually inland, towards Chitake Springs, while the camp team packed a light camp and moved ahead of us to set up at Chitake 3 camp site, right on the river bed.

Chitake Springs

An overnight stay at Chitake Springs (there are only three camp sites) is one of the greatest safari adventures to be experienced in Africa today. The river bed is almost completely dry, but a small source brings a bit of water to the surface and in August, this water will flow down the river bed for a few hundred metres. Past Chitake 1 and 3 camp sites, while camp site 2 is situated slightly elevated, further upriver near a large fig tree by the source. There is one relatively short path that leads from the camp sites past the fig tree at the source to a fantastic Baobab grove. A new route of about 8km has just been opened up to access a beautiful area even further up the river. (Prepare for serious Tsetse attacks if you decide to drive up that way.) But at Chitake, the vehicle is hardly ever used, as the area is best explored on foot.

Out here, everything is very wild. And very close. Wildlife will move up and down the channel day and night, coming to drink and heading back into the bush again. On the first night we had herds of elephants and two leopards drinking right next to camp. The next morning we headed out at sunrise and while Humphrey wanted to follow some fresh lion tracks into the bush, I opted to stay down in the channel near the source, to just sit quietly and enjoy this magnificent place in early morning light. Humphrey and the ladies found a lioness up in a tree a few metres away, but quickly returned after noting some dust being stirred up across the river bed. Just as we had taken cover behind some bushes near the bottom of the channel, ever so quietly a wall of horns appeared on the opposite bank. It was a herd of buffalo, probably close to 200 animals that had made their way to the ridge. After observing the channel for a while, they stampeded down, quickly filling the river bed in front of us. We were lucky enough to witness this two more times during the course of our stay at Chitake.

The gorge in front of Chitake source

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Since all the animals of this area have to drink at the channel at some stage during day or night, the two resident prides of lions will never venture far from the river bed. So when we opted to have our first sundowner at the fig tree near the source, taking the vehicle along was the obvious course of action. We had just started to pour our gin & tonics when we notice two, then three then five, six lions strolling down to drink at the source in front of us. From the source they moved up on our side of the channel and walked past us. Their contact calls were soon answered by even more lions that hat been resting a good hundred metres behind us. The sounds of that night I will never forget, as there was some serious interaction between that pride of lions and a herd of elephants. That interaction took place right around Chitake 2 camp sites, where we knew that two self-drive parties from South Africa would spend the night without much rest.

At the moment, however the lions of Chitake don't seem to hunt elephants. Unlike the ones at Hwange NP, as we later discovered.

The next morning we again headed out towards the source. Amazingly, we came across the fresh tracks of a leopard that must have moved through the area between camp sites 2 and 3 while the lions were in closest proximity. Carrying on up the channel, we had just made ourselves comfortable on the ground in a narrow gorge overviewing the source, when we heard the faint bellow of a buffalo. Although the sound seemed to come from quite a distance away, Humphrey immediately ideitified it as lion - buffalo interaction. It took us less than 10 minutes to track the place of this interaction and we walked in just as the young buffalo had been killed by the same pride of lions we observed and heard the night before. Later that day and night, the close wildlife enconters in the channel included elephant, buffalo, kudu, impala, bush buck, warthog, baboons, wild dogs, hyenas and, again right next to camp and extremely noisy, the second resident pride of lions. Chitake really kept all its promises on this visit.

The only piece of infrastructure: Singboard marking Chitake 3 camp site

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The drive from Chitake back to the Zambezi, past Nyamatusi and through Sapi safari area to the Chikwenya concession takes about three hours. It is a beautiful stretch of path (if you deduct the ever present Tsetse flies) and just as some of the times we travelled on this route before, we did come across rasps of Crested guinea fowl. Bright midday sun and dense jessebush do little for photography, of course. So one day I will have to spend some time along this road in good light.

The Chikwenya concession

Chikwenya Game Lodge is situated on the Zambezi, down river from Mana Pools and the Sapi safari area. At 28.2 km2 the Chikwenya concession is tiny by comparison. However, it has some fantastic forest areas and grass plains along the river front. And, of course, there is Chikwenya island in the mddle of the Zambezi.

Unfortunately, Chikwenya Game Lodge is all too obviously waiting for some touching up to be done. I have experienced this at other lodges in Southern Africa, when it felt like current operators might not be around for much longer and wouldn't invest in necessary upkeep of infrastructure and equipment. The kitchen was still excellent, tough and I hope that things will be back to normal by next year. This jewel of a place deserves nothing less.

One of the major attractions Chikwenya has to offer are the boat rides up the river and back down on the other side of Chikwenia island. Beautiful landscapes filled with wildlife can be observed from the boat. This is also a great place to get close to some birds, like kingfishers, weavers, bee-eaters and all sorts of herons and egrets. Afternoon boat rides will last until past sunset, sometimes providing excellent photographic opportunities in perfect light and contrast. And of course there is allways time for a sundowner to end the day.

The Chikwenya flood plain with its acacia groves was full of elephant, kudu, waterbuck, impala, zebra and eland. We also spotted bush buck, nyala and Honey badgers in the more densley grown over areas (lots of Wooly caper bush) and closer to the Sapi river bed.

Typical scenery at Chikwenya

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On a safari to the area three weeks before we arrived, Humphrey with his group of guests witnessed some spectacular interaction between leopard, impala and hyena. The private concession allowing night drives, we also headed out after dinner, getting very close to, but never actually spotting the cats. Still, to sit quietly in the dark and hear a leopard rasping somewhere nearby is very special. Even more so, if this is accompanied by the call of Fiery-necked nightjar and African scops owl.

Back in 2010 we spent a full day following a pack of wild dogs with no less than 11 pups. But now we had not come across the dogs on the flood plain and one morning, Humphrey decided it was time to explore a known den site in the area. It was just after sunrise on our last day when we reached the place where we would have to leave our vehicle behind, to follow an elephant path deep into the jessebush. A few steps into the thicket we noticed fresh buffalo and lion tracks, leading into the direction we were heading. Cautiously we carried on and after patiently negotiating right of way with several elephants that were travelling up and down their self-made highway, we could finally approach the den site. Very fresh spoor confirmed that the dogs had been around, but had abandoned the den probably no more than an hour before we got there. Most likely disturbed by the lions that must have been moving in front of us. We spent a bit of time sitting near the den, just listening to the sounds of the bush that was now filled with calls of Emerald-spotted wood doves all around us.

The moment had come for us to return to our vehicle and head back to the lodge, in order to pack and get ready for our flight from Chikwenya airstrip all the way across the country, to Hwange National Park.

To Hwange National Park

A light aircraft flight from Chikwenya airstrip to Manga airstrip inside Hwange National Park takes about 2 hours, depending on the type of aircraft used and weather conditions en route. (Manga airstrip was created in 2011, next to the Manga Pan 3 waterhole.) For this charter flight, Tailormade Safaris had arranged a Cessna C-208B Grand Caravan. This single turbine engine aircraft is somewhat larger than other bush planes, but as we usually exceed baggage weight restrictions by quite a margin with our camera equipment, we prefer to play it safe. When we don't have a plane to ourselves, we will inform the charter company about our excess baggage and this may result in us having to buy an extra seat. However, I think it is really important not to overload these bush planes.

The new airstrip at Manga Pan 3, Hwange National Park

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After take off at Chikwenya, the plane will follow its route along the Zambezi towards Kariba town, then cross lake Kariba in the direction of Matusadona National Park, past Chizarira National Park and eventually across the A8 highway and the railway line into Hwange. From Manga airstrip it is a quick 30 minutes through the bush and then along the vlei line to Somalisa camp, where we would spend the next five nights.

Set in a grove of Camelthorn acacia, the very comfortable Somalisa camp is the perfect base to explore the area along the Somalisa and Kennedy vlei lines and Ngweshla pan. (Kennedy Vley is named after Sir John N. Kennedy, who was Governor of Southern Rhodesia from 1947 to 1953.) This part of Hwange offers stunning open grasslands on the fossil river beds and pans, some dense savannah and bush, as well as beautiful acacia forests. However, at this time of the year, one could also just spend day and night on the deck next to Somalisa's pool to observe the fantastic variety of wildlife, and especially the many elephants coming to drink from the pool and from the waterhole in front of camp. During our stay at Somalisa, in addition to the elephants we saw impala, zebra, kudu, buffalo, steenbok and a beatiful male leopard right outside camp. At night, African scops owls would sing us to sleep from the branches above our tent, the bush outside lit up by full moon light.

Elephants in moon light at Somalisa camp

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At this time of the year, temperatures may still drop to below 10° C. at night. During early morning game drives the air will start to warm up after about 2 hours only. As opposed to Mana Pools, there are no perennial rivers in Hwange and the generally very little surface water mostly disappears between June and November. Before water management was implemented this meant that most larger animals would have to leave the area and migrate to places that would hopefully hold enough water. Today, parks management, private concession operators and the Friends of Hwange operate pumps at boreholes to try and sustain current animal densities. This is not an easy task at all. The widely used Lister diesel engine water pumps need regular maintenance and each pump will use up to 500l of diesel per month in the dry season. Although reliable, the Lister pumps are rather noisy when in operation and they certainly aren't much to look at. Windmill pumps are capable of doing some of the work, but only modern solar pump systems would be an ecologically viable and effective solution, capable of pumping enough water while not depending on fuel supplies and requiring minimal maintenance.

Solar panels at a borehole on the Somalisa concession

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some of the boreholes have already been fitted with solar pumps, but for now this only works in the central areas, as in more remote parts entire installations consisting of panels, inverters, control units, pumps and piping have been stolen. This is very unfortunate, as providing a reliable flow of water in more remote areas would enable the animals, and especially the elephants, to spread out a bit more in the dry months, thus reducing the pressure on plants around the more central waterholes.

Last night in the bush

Our time at Hwange had been very interesting, with several sithings of plains game, including sable and roan antelope. One morning, a guide arriving with new guests reported that a pride of lions had apparently taken an elephant at Naymandhlovu pan, near Hwange Main Camp. That same night we could hear lion - elephant interaction from the direction of Ngweshla pan. We headed out a bit earlier than normal the next morning and reached Ngweshla at sunrise, to find a pride of lions next to the carcass of a subadult elephant. A quick chat to the keeper of Ngweshla camp site confirmed that the lions had killed this elephant during the night. Besides these lions, no larger mammals were around for as far as the eye could see. Life came back to the pan much later that day only and we were privileged to enjoy more close-ups with these lions and with lots of wildlife visiting the Ngweshla waterhole.

The last day for us at Somalisa had arrived and, with our hearts and minds full of fantastic safari adventure impressions, we decided to take it easy, skip the afternoon game drive and just head out to the waterhole at Somalisa vlei where we would enjoy sundowners in the company of elephants and zebras. The sun had set as we were about to return to camp, when suddenly we heard alarm calls from a troop of baboons in the acacia trees near the water pump. The calls continued and we decided to investigate. It didn't take a moment for Humphrey to spot a female leopard about 200m metres away, in the tree line across the vlei. We managed to follow the leopard for a few minutes before it disappeard from our sight, but we caught up with this beauty moments later at the Somalisa vlei water hole. What a way to finish this safari!

Night visitor at Somalisa vlei waterhole - Becks will like this one ;-)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To Victoria Falls

Allowing time for some game viewing along the way and stopping for a cup of coffee at Kennedy Pan 1 (or as in our case, at Makwa Pan) the drive from Somalisa to Hwange Main Camp takes about 3 hours. At Main Camp, the game drive vehicle will be left behind and the journey to Victoria Falls continues in a normal road vehicle. Calculate another good 3 hours for the 195km from Main Camp to Victoria Falls, and a bit more if you travel in good light, as there is some stunning scenery and beautiful rural village life to be seen along the way. In our case, we travelled on that road in the broad midday sun, as we wanted to reach town in time to end this excursion with a visit to the falls, later that afternoon.

A rare sight: Elephants near the falls on the Zambian side of Victoria Falls

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We enjoy staying at Victoria Falls Safari Lodge. It is quite a large place, but service is very friendly and the restaurants offer good Southern African cuisine. It takes about 5 minutes by car to get to Victoria Falls National Park and to town with its shops and art galleries. There are a great many curio stalls and vendors offering all sorts of objects, but we particularly like to check out Prime Art Gallery at the Elephant Walk Shopping Village. The Sibanda twins always have a great selection of fine and fun pieces and they will gladly arrange air cargo shipments for larger stone sculptures and other art work, to be sent abroad.

The birds

My iPad with the Sasol eBirds app is a great companion to keep track of bird sightings. 72 species were identified at Mana Pools and another 37 species at Hwange, including a rare yellow morph of the Crimson-breasted shrike.

Travel information

We arranged this excursion through Tailormade Safaris Ltd. Again, planning and execution was perfect and we recommend Tailormade Safaris to any one wishing to experience a truly unique safari in Southern Africa.

Humphrey & Patrick, Chikwenya

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Air travel to Zimbabwe is quite easy. We usually fly on Swiss International Airways to Johannesburg and continue to Zim from there. Both South African Airways and British Airways operate daily scheduled flights and allow split segments (e. g. fly from Johannesburg to Harare and return from Vic Falls to Johannesburg). If a safari includes destinations in Botswana or Namibia, then Air Botswana and Air Namibia respectively can be included for flights between Kasane, Maun and Windhoek. Sadly, Swiss / Lufthansa, and especially the Miles & More people have given me quite a bit of trouble and stuff to think about for future travel plans. But as of 29 October 2012, KLM will begin operating three weekly flights from Amsterdam to Harare. In combination with their scheduled flights to Lusaka, this may become a very interesting alternative for safari travellers wishing to combine destinations in Zimbabwe and Zambia.

 

Patrick Meier - October 2012