Animals of Hwange

Hwange is really wild. You aren’t allowed out of your car at this park but even if you did get out the animals would all runaway before you got anywhere near them anyway. You really feel like you’re in Zimbabwe the way Zimbabwe used to be before any development hit. There are times that you drive through the park, the grass is above your car on either side and even down the center of the track that makes you questions the essence of what it means to call something a “road.” At any moment an elephant could charge out of the reeds next to you and you’d never see it until it was right in front of you. Then again, it is too afraid of the noise of the car. It is long gone before you get anywhere close to it.

Despite the car-high grass at times and a few cases of disappearing roads (or roads where bridges inexplicably collapsed but it still somehow finds a way around) we did see some animals while we were here.

Hwange is known for its massive amount of elephants (over 40,000 by official counts) and the elephants certainly did not disappoint. We saw herds upon herds of the largest land mammals. Eating, drinking, playing, scared, angry, pooping, running, walking, young, old. We saw it all when it comes to elephants. All except reproducing I guess. That one remains on the elephant bucket list even after this park…

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Elephants using the road to get where they need to go

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Two young elephants playing at a waterhole

Besides elephants we of course saw the usual suspects of buck: impala, zebra, wildebeast, waterbuck, kudu and all of their antelope friends. Typically we saw their butts as they charged off away from us but I was certainly able to add to my photo count with some great pictures of things other than elephants. And don’t forget the giraffe, crocs, buffalo, jackal, warthogs, ostrich and birds upon birds upon birds upon birds. Now that we’ve got a professional bird book we could even name a few of them.

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Giraffe looking dapper

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Jackal posing nicely

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Lilac breasted roller hanging out

We didn’t get to see any of the large cats (not yet at least, we still have this evening and tomorrow’s drive out of the park) but Michael and Lisa did spot 3 cheetah on their way out of the park yesterday morning. I guess our bad luck when it came to big cats trumped their good luck until they separated from us.

Not to disappoint though we did see some really cool and unique animals while we were here. Cheryl and I came across a caracal (small cat but totally awesome) on a mid-afternoon drive from one camp to another. Unfortunately this one will have to just live in our memories as I missed a photo of it. We approached an animal lying in the middle of the road and from afar it looked like a jackal. Since I already had 50 solid jackal pictures I decided not to force another one through a dusty windscreen and I left my camera off and on the seat next to me. As we got closer the animal got up, turned and snuck off into the woods. When we saw its profile it was clearly not a jackal. It was a caracal. Rarely seen. Always striking.

Our luck continued the next day when we came across 3 bat-eared foxes lounging and playing in the road. These don’t really live in South Africa so we had never come across them before. (One of the rangers called them Aardwolfs but we later figured out he was incorrect when we read up on them.) This time I didn’t wait to see what the animals on the road were as we saw them ahead of us and I snapped three shots through the dusty window. Not pretty but they are clearly visible.

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Bat-eared foxes hanging out in the road

Then, last night we were joined around the dinner table by two bush babbies hopping between the trees. It’s amazing how far those little critters can jump. Right before going to sleep we were also joined by a hyena trying to drink from the water remaining on the ground where we washed our dishes. It was dark but I got fuzzy photos of both. Count ‘em!

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Night time visit from a bush baby

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Hyena trying to drink from where we just washed our dishes

The last night we said something that I thought we would never say. “Gosh, these hyenas are annoying!” They kept coming to our camp to try and take our food. They ran away with tail tucked between their legs when shooed (the bright spotlight was also used once they got really annoying) and we quickly got over it when we just wanted to sit back and enjoy the enormous fire we had built to use up the last of our wood. Who would have thought?

Camping in Hwange

Hwange is a very large park situated in western Zimbabwe on the boarder with Botswana. It has three main camps in the park with many satellite camps and picnic sites scattered around them. Although people are able to visit these picnic sites during the day, if you book one for camping you have it all to your self at night. Naturally, we went for picnic sites.

When booking Hwange we knew nothing about the campsites that were there and what they were like. We left our fates in the hands of Christina and Choice from ZimParks and they picked us 3 of these picnic sites for the first 5 nights and Cheryl and I chose to stay in one of the larger main camps our last 2 nights. We worked our way from the South-East to the North-West of the park over the course of 7 nights.

We started by driving to the South-easternmost point in the park and camped at Ngweshla (spelling is different depending on who you ask.) Here we saw the largest herds of game, especially elephants. The site itself was great with Brian, the camp attendant, lighting a cooking fire for us (what luxury to have someone do this for you so its ready when you get back from your game drive!) He also lit a fire under the water heater so we could take hot showers. What service. There was a small fence around the campsite but I think this was more to keep the people in rather than any animals out. We really enjoyed Ngweshla and if you really forced us to do this trip again (like just saying “want to go again?”) we would spend more time at this camp. During the wet season (which we are just at the end of now) the game tends to be more plentiful in this area of the park. We didn’t know this at the time of booking so we only spent one night at this lovely spot.

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Herd of elephants on the way to Ngweshla

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Sunrise on my birthday at Ngweshla

From there we moved to Masuma Dam, more centrally in the park, for the next 3 nights. The site itself is more of a dirt parking lot with a braai area and some toilets on the other side but the locale boasts a beautiful hide overlooking a well-used waterhole. We spent most of our time there (when we weren’t cooking) in the hide and looking out over the water. We saw some great game there. During the dry season we were told this water hole sees up to 1000 elephants per day. Hard to believe but I’m not surprised it’s a high number. There was only one unfortunate part to this hide: it was so nice that during the day it was frequented by each of the 20 or so visitors that are currently staying in the park. (Yes, I am not exaggerating, we saw max 20 other visitors the whole time which is really unfortunate because you can see how such a beautiful park is not economically sustainable for the country and the people who live in its surrounds. Zimababwe in general is hurting for tourists but they don’t make it easy to be here. The sad part is that this will inevitably lead to the slow demise of the park, its facilities and the animals that live here if it continues.) All the people left after looking for animals but we didn’t have the isolation that we enjoyed to-date on the trip.

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Sundowners in the hide

Tents pitched for the night in the “parking lot”. You can see the thatch roof to the hide on the right and the dam itself between the two vehicle. Great view from the tents.

The third site we stopped at was Deteema Dam. We really enjoyed this site. When Cheryl and I first arrived we set up the awning and sat next to the dam enjoying some elephants drinking and playing. We cracked open a few beers and I penned a few of these posts. We spent most of our time outside the hide here because the fences that once prevented people from viewing the dam from other parts of the camp had long-since fallen down so we chose instead to stay in the comfort of our own set-up. We liked this place so much that Cheryl and I came back to spend the day a couple of days later. (Hence this post is being written…)

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Cheryl reading in the shade of our spot

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It wasn’t a hardship to sip a Zambezi lager and write these posts

The last site we stopped at was Robin’s camp. Upon arrival we were given the tour of the camp including a view from a fire tower which looks out over the whole park. Beautiful. In the visitor centre our host Prosper showed us some photos of 3 cheetahs that were taken that morning. He was very proud. He then showed us the book to show who had taken those photos. It was Michael and Lisa. They had left us that morning to begin their trip back to Joburg. We shook our heads in disbelief. Lucky devils.

Robins camp has a large campsite and some chalets. They claim to have a food store but the only ‘edible’ things there were some tinned sardines and canned beef that looked like it was from the 60s. We decided to pass and stick with our pasta for the evening. They did have a well stocked bar that was showing a Manchester United game though. We skipped the football but purchased some beers to enjoy while doing some clothes washing (needed after 16 days in the bush.)

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Clothes hanging to dry at our spot in Robin’s Camp

That evening was kind of eerie. We were the only people in the site (which had over 20 spots). It feels more eerie being in a large camp and being the only people vs. being in a remote campsite where you know you are the only ones. We also felt like we were part of a bad horror film when we went into the ablutions. Upon entering you were greeted with a loud bzzzz of mosquitoes. 100’s of them. Needless to say, we didn’t use the toilets or showers any more then we had to and when we did we made sure to put on a thick layer of bug spray first. Before showering I took my fly swatter and went to town. I barely made a dent. It was a quick shower.

Now we head out of Zimbabwe and into Botswana. Looking forward to the shops being full of groceries, the price of diesel decreasing by ~50% and the police road blocks stopping. Zimbabwe was a great experience and I place I would definitely love to return to. There were few other tourists and we really felt like we were “off the beaten path.” It’s sad how it has declined since it was known as the Breadbasket of Africa, but we hope that its fortunes will turn in the coming years.

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Beautiful spot overlooking the Salt Pan Dam

The road to Hwange

After an exciting 7 nights in Mana Pools it was time to move on to the next part of our foray into Zimbabwe. Having decided not to take the ferry through lake Kariba because of the price and the fact that it only may or may not run on the specified day, we opted instead to make a 3 day drive mostly along dirt roads. Our trip would take us from Mana Pools to Gache Gache lodge on the first day. Then from Gache Gache to Chilila Lodge in the town of Binga on day two and from Binga to Ivory Tree lodge and Tuskers Campsite, just outside Hwange on day 3. Seems like a nice, easy, relaxing, drive: so we thought.

Taking the 75 km drive out of Mana Pools it was like we were on a different road then we came in on. The massive mud holes had dried out after 6 days without rain and the road was relatively easy except for the ruts left in the hardened mud. We quickly found ourselves back on tar roads cruising at 100km/hour on our way towards Kariba. After getting passed by a bus careening around a corner pushing the definition of “in control” we had to step on the breaks. Another road block. This time instead of the police trying to give us obnoxious fines (ask Cheryl about how much it costs to carry luggage in the passenger compartment. Answer USD 15.) we were halted by two lions who decided it was the appropriate time to cross the road. We watched the male/female pair scamper up a hill on the other side until they disappeared back into the bush and we were back on our way. We weren’t even in an official national park at this point. Incredible.

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The lioness looking back over the road after she scampered up the hill a little way. Maybe 15 meters from us.

Our GPS told us to turn off the nice tarred road onto some gravel. After 20 kms the wide gravel road that lead to a mine ended and became a single track path that lead through the thick bush. We still had over 100kms to go. Since we figured we’d be going 60+ km/ hour the whole way the steep hills and washed out roads took us a bit (read: a heck of a lot) longer then expected. We did make it to Gache Gache in time for sundowners and a hot shower (which felt heavenly after 7 days in the bush with at most cold showers, at medium a bush “shower” where we washed our feet and faces with our trusty solar-heated water bag, and at worst a baby wipe when necessary). The girls made a delicious chicken pasta dinner and we headed to bed early after a couple of beers and our remaining white wine.

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Relaxing after a tougher drive then expected

The next day saw us back on dirt tracks which eventually turned back into a wider dirt road. We cruised passed many villages and homesteads and passed a total of 6 cars during our 10 hours of driving. We brought two boxes of old clothes with us that we handed out along the way. People were often quite confused or nervous when we first pulled up next to them in our rumbling rigs but that quickly turned to excitement once we handed out some clothes.

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Passing some people along the way

The road went from being very nice gravel to treacherous rock outcroppings back to gravel, then red clay, sand, and something that resembled tar but you really had to stretch the imagination to believe it. The roads for the day were summed up by the GPS. One of the directions read: “In 500meters, leave the road.” Another read; “Drive 130kms on ‘4wd required – gravel’ then turn right onto ‘potholes’” Luckily we only had around 15kms on ‘potholes’ before we turned off for camp.

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Michael and Lisa needing a tire pressure check

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Most infrastructure was still quite good. Luckily this bridge was one of those that wasn’t collapsed like we came across in Hwange a few days later.

We definitely wouldn’t recommend staying in Chilila’s “cabins” as they look like they haven’t been kept up since the 70s and have fallen into disrepair with moldy mattresses and bathrooms filled with spiders. This is why we’re glad we’ve got our own rooftop tent and kitchen setup. We did leverage the thatch roof of one of the patios to shield ourselves from the rain and used the restroom inside but we didn’t hang around in there for long.

The next morning we were off for Hwange after a quick tour through Binga to stock up on provisions. That was the plan at least. We found the one working fuel station in town and the grocery store had meager supplies. (At least that was our opinion at the time until we saw the amount of supplies in other stores the next day. Only then did we realize how good this store actually was. They had boerewors, for example.) We bought what we could but only bought a half night’s worth of vors. We should have bought more as it was the last place that stocked anything resembling edible meat that we found in Zimbabwe.

Tuskers campsite at Ivory Tree lodge was really nice. We had hot showers again and they gave me a hose to clean out all the mud from under Fiona (name for our Hilux). We had sundowners at a hide they had built overlooking a water hole and were greeted by a heard of 40+ elephants that came for a drink and a nibble on some fruits and salt that lodge put out for them. We were literally two meters from some of them. It was awesome to see them interact and to be so close to such powerful animals. Having watched them for almost an hour just on our own, we left the hide when another group of tourists came in. What a sighting.

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Elephants at the hide.

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A little dark but you can see how close we were.

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Elephant close-up. I have 100s of these photos.

After a great night’s sleep we were off into Hwange the next day.