Wanderlust Travel Magazine (UK) - - Contents -

Ready to rise from the ashes – meet Africa’s soon-to-be sa­fari hot spot… and its 44,000 res­i­dent ele­phants

Just a few me­tres away, hun­kered down in the dust, was a herd of snort­ing African buffalo. There was noth­ing but a thin veil of spiky aca­cia between us and a group of half-tonne bulls that served as the herd’s rear­guard. I was aware that there was only one high-cal­i­bre ri­fle in the im­me­di­ate vicin­ity and I was do­ing my very best to po­si­tion my­self in between the man hold­ing it and the po­ten­tially bel­liger­ent crea­tures.

There’s some­thing about the sheer, wild im­men­sity of Hwange Na­tional Park that makes you feel very small in­deed. Nowhere on the planet can you im­merse your­self in such an im­pres­sive con­cen­tra­tion of large an­i­mals; the bio­di­ver­sity of Zim­babwe’s big­gest park (cov­er­ing an area about twice the size of Devon county) is sur­passed in Africa only by the Serengeti and Kruger. But whereas the crowded Tan­za­nian and South African giants each at­tract close to 2 mil­lion vis­i­tors a year, Hwange sees fewer than 40,000. With the long-awaited end of for­mer pres­i­dent Robert Mu­gabe’s dic­ta­tor­ship, vis­i­tors are slowly start­ing to re­turn to Hwange; for the mo­ment, though, it still of­fers that rare chance to ex­pe­ri­ence an African wilder­ness where ele­phants out­num­ber for­eign vis­i­tors by al­most 200 to one.

Ever since I had en­tered Hwange, af­ter a three-hour road-trip from Vic­to­ria Falls, we’d been sur­rounded by ele­phants. At this mo­ment, how­ever, my fo­cus was on the shad­owy forms of the buffalo that were star­ing in our di­rec­tion and sniff­ing nois­ily at the air. Zim­babwe is fa­mous for pro­duc­ing the best guides in the sa­fari in­dus­try and I was grate­ful that mine, Ty Hurst, had vast ex­pe­ri­ence of bush-walk­ing. “We’ll be fine if we keep down­wind of them,” he whis­pered over his shoul­der. “But the wind’s swirling a bit.”

And if they did catch our scent? Hurst read the ques­tion in my eyes be­fore I had a chance to voice it and replied with a phrase that I’d heard a thou­sand times over the years in Zim­babwe: “We’d just have to make a plan,” he shrugged.

Noisy neigh­bours

Ty Hurst is head guide at Ne­himba Lodge, near the cen­tre of Hwange and bor­der­ing a zone known as the South­ern Wilder­ness Area. Since the lodge is in a pri­vate con­ces­sion, the usual strict rules of a sa­fari in a na­tional park are waived, so Hurst and his fel­low guides are able to lead guests on adrenalin-charged walk­ing safaris through a re­gion that is known for its great pop­u­la­tions of buffalo, lions, leop­ards, wild dogs and, of course, ele­phants.

The lodge build­ing over­looks a wa­ter­hole that at­tracts so much wildlife that you can of­ten see as much from your own ve­randa as you can from a sa­fari ve­hi­cle. There was also an en­tic­ing-look­ing swim­ming pool, built for the use of hu­man vis­i­tors – at least that was the plan.

‘In Hwange Na­tional Park, ele­phants out­num­ber for­eign vis­i­tors by al­most 200 to one’

Zim­babwe’s riches ( clockwise from this) Wilde­beest gather at The Hide wa­ter­hole; kudo; Ty­ron Hurst, head guide at Ne­himba Lodge; ze­bra

⊳ “The ele­phants en­joy the cool, clean wa­ter from the tiled pool,” said Hurst, a smile break­ing out, “so ev­ery night they drink it dry.”

Wa­ter is a con­stant pre­oc­cu­pa­tion for pretty much ev­ery liv­ing crea­ture in this arid part of Africa – es­sen­tially an ex­ten­sion of the mighty Kala­hari Desert. Lodge guests may be de­lighted to sip their gin and ton­ics while, just a few feet away, six-tonne pachy­derms mus­cle in on the pool. But, for the park’s wildlife, nat­u­ral sup­plies of wa­ter are scarce and it is only through man-made sources – in the form of scores of bore­holes rather than swim­ming pools – that they sur­vive.

It wasn’t al­ways the case, though. When Hwange (then known as Wankie) was first es­tab­lished as a game re­serve in 1929, Ne­himba Seeps was the only per­ma­nent wa­ter source in the en­tire re­gion.

“Ne­himba means ‘place of dig­ging’,” Hurst ex­plained as he eased his Land Cruiser past the cracked earth of the pans that af­ter­noon. Sure enough, as we came over the ridge, a huge bull ele­phant was kneel­ing on the baked earth, snorkelling wa­ter up from a deep trough it had ex­ca­vated with its pow­er­ful feet and tusks. Be­hind him, on the edge of a thin­ning for­est, we saw the bulky forms of count­less oth­ers, break­ing branches and bat­ter­ing trunks to get at the suc­cu­lent mopane leaves.

When the first pump-driven bore­holes were cre­ated here, there were just 1,000 ele­phants in the park; now some 46,000 dom­i­nate Hwange’s forests and sa­van­nah. The bat­tle the park faces to­day is to bal­ance the needs of the an­i­mals they push out with the de­ple­tion of dif­fer­ent kinds veg­e­ta­tion and the de­struc­tion that so many ele­phants bring.

In the ran­sacked bush, we watched as kudu, roan, sable and other brows­ing an­te­lope plucked the green­ery from branches the ele­phants had brought down. Oc­ca­sion­ally the young bulls would wave bro­ken branches at us in ju­ve­nile tem­per tantrums or try a mock charge. When Hurst cut the en­gine near a shrink­ing wa­ter­hole, we could hear the rum­bling of a dozen huge spec­i­mens slak­ing their huge thirsts.

In the back­ground, gi­raffe, ze­bra and wilde­beest waited ner­vously at the tree-line for their over­bear­ing neigh­bours to move away. But

fur­ther across the sa­van­nah a ma­tri­arch was al­ready lead­ing her herd towards the wa­ter­hole. Amid the tan­gle of trunks and shuf­fling legs, a cou­ple of calves could be seen, their legs go­ing dou­ble-time to keep up.

“There’s a trick to es­ti­mat­ing ele­phant num­bers,” our guide quipped with a smile. “Just count the legs and di­vide by four.” I knew he was jok­ing but a glance across the great plain, speck­led with black dots, told me that there were at least 150. While their num­bers have be­come a prob­lem for some res­i­dents of the park, the lions have their own so­lu­tion and have come to see ele­phants as a part of their diet.

“The lo­cal pride that hunts around Ne­himba Seep have be­come real ex­perts in ele­phant psy­chol­ogy,” Hurst ex­plained. “They will usu­ally make a dummy at­tack on the youngest baby in the herd. When the ele­phants – lov­ing par­ents that they are – rush to pro­tect the baby, the lions change tack and quickly bring down one of the ado­les­cents.”

We weren’t dis­ap­pointed to move on from Ne­himba be­fore we saw that. Be­sides, I was still to visit the park’s So­ma­l­isa Camp, on the edge of a great chain of pans that are fa­mous as the hunt­ing grounds of some of Africa’s big­gest lion prides. That was all to come.

Chang­ing of the guard

This was my fifth trip to Zim­babwe, and ev­ery time I’d ar­rived in the coun­try with very dif­fer­ent feel­ings. But my first visit, rat­tling over the bor­der from Mozambique in the back of a lorry, was an unadul­ter­ated case of love at first sight. The rolling hills, stud­ded with rock kop­pies (small hills), seemed to epit­o­mise ev­ery­thing that I’d read about Africa.

Back then, at the start of the mil­len­nium, the coun­try was al­ready slip­ping from its pedestal as the ‘bread bas­ket of South­ern Africa’, yet ev­ery US dol­lar I changed still bought me eight Zim­bab­wean dol­lars. Less than a decade later, the same trans­ac­tion would make me a lo­cal tril­lion­aire (15 times over) as things fell apart. Now, with Robert Mu­gabe very ef­fec­tively re­moved from power by the mil­i­tary – in the coup that wasn’t a coup – there is great hope for the fu­ture again.

⊳ I re­called the words of a long-suf­fer­ing Bu­l­awayo con­ser­va­tion­ist I’d met when things were at their worst: “You only re­alise just how rich this coun­try is,” she’d said, “when you see how much has been ripped out of it, for so long… and there’s still so much left!”

From the Mana Pools in the north – one of the most con­cen­trated wildlife habi­tats on the con­ti­nent – to the Great Zim­babwe Ru­ins fur­ther south, the largest me­dieval stone city in sub-sa­ha­ran Africa, there is cer­tainly plenty to see. Yet, for scenery, you can’t beat the west.

Be­fore vis­it­ing Hwange, I picked up a hire-car in Bu­l­awayo and drove out of a city that seemed al­most se­dated by the hazy bloom of jacaran­das that arched over the av­enues. Western Zim­babwe has tra­di­tion­ally been the home­lands of the Mata­bele peo­ple and was, un­til re­cently, a mag­net for much of Mu­gabe’s ha­tred and vi­o­lence. Only now are vis­i­tors re­turn­ing to re­dis­cover one of the most beau­ti­ful parts of Africa, ris­ing from the tin­kle of the Lim­popo River at the South African bor­der to the crescendo of Vic­to­ria Falls at its north­ern tip.

Within an hour’s drive I was among the rock domes of Ma­tobo Na­tional Park. The Mata­bele call this area ‘Bald Heads’ – af­ter its smooth boul­der-topped kop­pies – but the ar­dent im­pe­ri­al­ist Ce­cil John Rhodes thought of it as ‘World’s View’ and loved it so much that he chose to be buried here. I ex­plored its land­scape for a few days, and the play of the light on its rock was so hyp­notic that I woke be­fore dawn ev­ery morn­ing to watch the sun work its way down the val­ley. Tiny rock hyrax (clos­est rel­a­tive to the ele­phant) and nim­ble-footed klip­springer an­telopes joined me to en­joy their own mo­ment of sun-wor­ship.

To­gether with a guide, we worked hard track­ing Ma­tobo’s pro­lific leop­ards but wildlife is no­to­ri­ously hard to spot in this area. Eas­ing the car through the bush with my cam­era bal­anced op­ti­misti­cally in my lap, there were mo­ments of ex­cite­ment when we stopped to pho­to­graph the off­spring of a ze­bra that had crossed with a don­key (‘De­bra the zon­key’, I named her). Then, late one af­ter­noon, I was re­warded for

⊳ my pa­tience. I skid­ded to a halt as a white rhino crashed out of a thicket and rum­bled into the bush with her baby dash­ing ahead.

Pride be­fore a fall

Ma­tobo might be the best place on the con­ti­nent to ex­pe­ri­ence the seren­ity of the African wilder­ness, but Hwange is still the set­ting for the most dra­matic wildlife en­coun­ters. I’d been drawn here not only by its ele­phant herds but its great preda­tors.

True to form, the park’s elu­sive painted dogs evaded us for a solid week of track­ing. Then, one night, a pack of ten in­sti­gated a noc­tur­nal squab­ble with a small herd of ele­phants, right in front of our tent at The Hide camp. The area’s big cats, how­ever, weren’t any­where near as shy: we had four good leop­ard sight­ings and, in the course of a sin­gle game drive one morn­ing, we saw half a dozen hyena and no less than 22 lions.

It was the lat­ter that caught the world’s at­ten­tion in 2015 when a lion was lured out of Hwange at a spot not far from The Hide, to be shot by Amer­i­can den­tist Wal­ter Palmer. Un­for­tu­nately for Palmer, that lion was Ce­cil, the undis­puted su­per­star of Hwange – known for his spec­tac­u­lar size and oblig­ing habit of pos­ing for pho­to­graphs. Even to­day, vet­er­ans of the park still en­thuse about him.

“He re­ally was ex­cep­tion­ally huge,” Robert Chadyen­dia, one of the guides at my next stop, So­ma­l­isa Camp, whis­pered one morn­ing. “When Ce­cil roared, you felt your ve­hi­cle shake from the tremors!”

Chadyen­dia had good rea­son to keep his voice down: we were sit­ting in an open Land Cruiser just a few me­tres from Bhubesi. The word means ‘big male lion’ in Zulu, and he cer­tainly looked the part. He was draped across a sun-baked hum­mock on Ng­weshla Pan and was hun­gry. Bhubesi took over the pride af­ter Ce­cil was killed, and his bat­tle-scarred nose gave him the air of an old war­rior. But Chadyen­dia, who was there when Ce­cil is­sued many of those badges of hon­our, main­tains he was never a match for the ill-fated King of Hwange. Nor was the new lord of the sa­van­nah look­ing too happy this morn­ing.

“He hasn’t eaten for days but it serves him right,” said Chadyen­dia. “Bhubesi is an old bully. The fe­males do the hunt­ing and then he steals their food. He’s been roar­ing all night for his ladies; it’s no won­der they don’t an­swer.”

We knew ex­actly where they were. Less than an hour ago, we’d turned a cor­ner to find our­selves in the mid­dle of a dozen prowl­ing li­onesses. They passed so close to my seat in the Land Cruiser that I cursed my long lens. The click of my shut­ter drew their pen­e­trat­ing am­ber eyes towards mine and I felt the hairs on the back of my neck prickle.

Once again, it struck me that Hwange has a habit of mak­ing you feel very small. It’s a healthy sen­sa­tion – one we should all ex­pe­ri­ence from time to time. The park is also ar­guably the best place on Earth to en­joy that sense of hav­ing a wilder­ness to your­self. As the coun­try read­justs and vis­i­tors slowly re­turn here, that may change. But se­crets al­ways es­cape in the end. You just have to cher­ish them while you can.

‘When Ce­cil the lion roared, you felt your ve­hi­cle shake from the tremors’

Muddy wa­ters Ele­phants at one of the con­tro­ver­sial bore­holes that are of­ten cred­ited with help­ing turn Hwange NP into a suc­cess; ( left) gi­raffe

Kings & queens ( clockwise from this) The grave­stone of Ce­cil Rhodes in spec­tac­u­lar Ma­tobo NP; li­onesses prowl; jacaran­das shed over the path

The new king Tak­ing over the pride that once be­longed to the fa­mous Ce­cil, Bhubesi’s name means ‘big male lion’ in Xhosa

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