Posted by on Jul 26, 2012 in Field Notes

Through Hwange and back to Botswana

The plight of Zimbabwe has dominated African headlines over the last decade and more. Sadly, these have mostly been about the ways of despotic politicians and how their political expediency tore a country’s political, social and economic fabric apart. The ruling party, ZANU PF, had every right to deal with long-simmering land issues that had been central to the disenfranchisement of the majority of the population. But, it’s an indictment on them that they only played this card as a way of clinging to power, and they did it in a manner that brought the country to its knees.

With this recent history so freshly in our minds and the fact that before entering the country, we had been requested to make endless lists of anything and everything a customs official could construe as having value, there was some apprehension amongst the TRACKS team as we headed for the border post.

Well, any lingering concern was immediately put to rest – with the assistance of a Wilderness Safaris representative, our crossing at Victoria Falls was seamless with only friendly faces on view. It was then onto the famous bridge spanning the gorge, and after a few snapshots, we hit the road to Hwange.

Without doubt, the general consensus on Zimbabwe amongst the team has been an immensely positive one. Granted, Victoria Falls and Hwange, because they are the two premier tourist destinations, are not necessary the best indicators of Zimbabwe’s overall health, but from what we have seen, the country is on the road to recovery. And despite the ongoing machinations of the political elite, it’s a process that is seemingly being driven by the ‘man-in-the-street’ – citizens that have endured so much. They are tired of telling stories of ruin, tired of the queues, tired of a worthless currency, tired of waiting for another election, tired of making do with poor leadership, and tired of getting through on dark humour – there is now a sense healing, a willingness to forge ahead with optimism, come what may.

With regards to our work, there have only been highlights with our time in Hwange being nothing short of extraordinary. This was in no small part thanks to Courteney Johnson and Ron Goatley, and their staff at Wilderness Safaris (www.wilderness-safaris.com ) who treated us to two days of splendid hospitality at Davisons Camp.  Special thanks also to Sibs, Temba, Bee, Nicolas and Dougie. Superbly located on the edge of a magnificent teak forest overlooking one of the region’s largest waterholes, time in this great camp was a welcome break for all. We also owe Courteney huge thanks for the role he has played in facilitating our entire Zimbabwean trip.

Amidst the stories detailing the country’s political turmoil have been many predicting the demise of the national parks. Well, we are extremely happy to report that with regard to Hwange, these are way off the mark – in fact, there is a very visible vitality about the Park.  Much of the credit for this must go to the operators that stayed to endure the darkest days in the mid 2000’s. Prior to the onset of unrest, there were over 20 camps and lodges operating in and around the Park, but after a few years of plummeting occupancies, only three operators remained. It is absolutely true to say that the continuous presence of Wilderness Safaris, The Hide and Somalisa Camp has played a major role in keeping Hwange going. There were also some brave and dedicated souls amongst the Zimbabwe Parks authorities that stuck to their tasks – remember that in the worst years, the costs of getting to work were far greater than your salary, so many chose simply to stay at home – these people, with the financial support of the private operators and The Friends of Hwange, have also been instrumental in securing the Park’s future.

We also sensed that the fortunes of the government-run establishments are now firmly on the up. While still well below their heyday status, Main Camp, Sinamatella and Robins show the tell-tale signs of painters and cleaners at work, and in each, we found the staff extremely courteous and helpful. And most importantly, visitors are returning in numbers with many of the smaller sites fully booked.

In general, the wildlife sightings have been prolific with some in the group seeing their first sable and roan antelope. However, it has been the elephant sightings that have most impressed us. Game-viewing in Hwange is about spending time at the many waterholes, and from midday onwards, almost every one has its collection of family groups, while at the larger ones, the procession is continuous as herd after herd seeks a turn at the water’s edge. At times there were between 50 and 100 animals milling about – as Ian McCallum noted with a smile, “They have certainly come out in full force, hopefully in honour of TRACKS”.

And how do I explain the unbelievable privilege and joy it has been to cycle this great park with all this wildlife about? It’s extremely difficult to convey in words – the best I can do is relate how excited we were to get going each morning, and confirm that this leg has been our most rewarding on the bicycles. For this, we thank Mr Jura, the Park Warden, and Trust Ndube, the ranger assigned to take good care of us while on the road.

For us, the story of Hwange National Park is not complete without a comment on two issues. Firstly, while the waterholes have become so integral to the game-viewing, there are signs they are playing a significant role in altering the ecological landscape. We heard suggestions from various stakeholders that initial research is showing the high number of waterholes may be having the same detrimental impacts seen in the Kruger National Park. Easy water makes for more sedentary habits amongst the high-density species such as elephant and buffalo, which in turn effects the vegetation to the extent that the low-density species such as roan, sable and hartebeest suffer. And the wild dog population has also suffered – waterholes cleared of cover increases the risk of death to lions whenever they approach to drink. Maybe it’s time researchers and park officials got together to review the waterhole policy of Hwange.

Secondly, I would urge the Zimbabwean authorities to follow the Botswana example of phasing out trophy hunting; and turning over the Matetsi hunting blocks to the National Park’s authority would be a great place to start. On the kayak leg down the Zambezi River, barring a single impala, we saw no other wildlife on the Zimbabwean side where hunting takes place until we reached the Victoria Falls National Park. And once we had left Robins Camp gate for Pandamatenga, the 30km cycle through hunting blocks turned up a single giraffe with a youngster and a small herd of skittish sable – incorporating the entire Matetsi region into Hwange needs serious consideration.

While in the region, we also took time out to visit two wildlife centres. The Wild Horizons Trust, a short distance outside Victoria Falls, is a rehabilitation project run by Roger and Jessica Parry. They have a great record returning animals to the wild, and more recently have established as genetics lab in support of the various local scientific researchers.

Further south and within 10 kilometres of Hwange’s eastern boundary is the Painted Dog Conservation centre run by Greg Rasmussen. Here, wild dogs are the focus, but Greg is also passionately involved in conservation issues in general – his drive and commitment are nothing short of phenomenal, and he has created a research and education centre of the highest quality. Much of his work involves running vital awareness and education programmes, both from the centre’s own Children’s Camp, and through village visits. Many thanks to Greg, Wilton and their staff for the warm hospitality and for organizing and hosting a successful mini-conference on our second day there.

We would also like to express our sincere appreciation to Dr Andy Loveridge from Hwange Lion Research for finding an hour in his tight schedule – Andy got to the Painted Dog centre, sat for a 45-minute interview, and then whizzed off to catch a flight to the UK. And many thanks also to Alan Sparrow from the Peace Parks Foundation for all the work he has done for TRACKS.

Lastly, as has been the case with every rest day, there has been the customary changeover in the back-up crew, and new additions to the cycling and walking team. Last night we bid our farewells to Martin Peterson who quickly established himself as the core man in our bush kitchen. Many thanks to Martin for his efforts, and hugely positive approach to every task – and we look forward to you rejoining us for the final leg in iSimangaliso.  Lihle Mbokazi, Experiential Education Manager for the Wilderness Leadership School in Port Elizabeth will be taking over Martin’s apron – a big welcome to Lihle.

We have also been joined by Team McCallum: Ian’s two daughters, Alison and Michelle, his brother Roy, a well-known chiropractor and ex-Springbok rugby player based in Cape Town, and brother-in-law, Steve Moubray. Steve is also a great long-time friend of mine, and the group is completed by Peter and Joan Berning, great friends to both of us from Plettenberg Bay. It’s going to be one hellava fun-filled ride to Nata and then through the Makgadikgadi Pans before we end this leg at Serowe.