Part 15: Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe

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Over the last three days of my Dec 2014 educational trip in Southern Africa, I checked out a trio of lodges in Hwange National Park, which we last visited in Nov 2012 – (Little Makalolo).  On my most recent visit, I spent one night each at Camelthorn, The Hide and Somalisa and did a site inspection at Bomani Tented Camp.
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All of these camps are already in the Fish Eagle Safaris rotation, and based on what I saw and experienced on this trip, we will be sending more of our clients to this spectacular park.

Game-viewing in Hwange is at its best in the dry season from about May through October and early November when sometimes huge concentrations of elephants can be seen at the water holes which are artificially maintained with a mix of diesel and solar powered pumps.

What I saw last December in the way of game-viewing under very wet conditions on this trip, confirmed some earlier impressions which can be summarized as follows:

*  Game-viewing in the green season can be slow or quiet at times, but if visitors spend three or four nights in a specific area or camp, they will see an abundance of species.
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*  What is more, they will get to experience Hwange at a time when everything is literally bursting with new life.  The elephants are not as densely concentrated as in the dry season, but they are practically giddy with the delight they take in the abundance of fresh water, emerging tufts of grass and fresh leaves.

*  Without exception the mammals are in good condition, there are lots of baby impalas, wildebeest and zebra around and this stimulates predator activity.
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*  As open areas like the Ngamo flats and the ‘vlei line’ from The Hide up to Mgweshla Pan green up with emerging vegetation from mid-December through March & April, the open areas become magnets for impala, kudu, wildebeest, zebra, giraffe as well as roan and sable antelope.  We even saw a few eland out and about.  And always elephant, just not in great big numbers as later in the year.

*  Hwange is an exceptionally good area for predator sightings and if you spend 5 or so nights in total in the area, split between a couple of camps such as one in the far southern area and another one further north, you’d stand an excellent chance for lion and cheetah with leopard and African painted dogs being seen every few days as well.

Each of the camps I visited had something special to offer and any one of them can be included in a Hwange itinerary, to good effect.
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My guide at Somalisa was Michael who turned out to be the best of any of the guides on the entire trip – quite a character.  I had not seen any cheetah on my Southern Africa trip and had pretty much given up hope of doing so, only to find them on my very last game drive out of Somalisa, on Dec. 22, and again the next morning on the way to the airport at Hwange Main Camp.  So the trip definitely ended on a very high note!
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Somalisa is a no-frills, low-key tented camp located on the edge of a private concession and within easy driving distance of Mgweshla Pan, one of the very productive open areas in this part of Hwange.  My tent in Somalisa Bush Camp was comfortable and well equipped, the food was tasty and well-prepared and the small dining room/lounge tent looks out over a water hole which likely sees a lot of activity in the dry season.
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My brief stay at The Hide – from where game drives often also head along the vlei line past the Kennedy water hole to Mgweshla – was likewise very pleasant.  The family style dinner – with everyone seated around a long oblong table – was particularly convivial, the food was good and even though my tented room was nothing special it had enough space, a nice view over the pan, and it was just a short walk to the main lounge & dining room area.  The only game drive I had time for at The Hide delivered preciously little in the way of wildlife but that is sometimes how it goes in the green season – another couple of days there would have made a big difference.  Of course in the dry season there is a lot of activity at the waterhole right in front of camp and the underground hide is the place to be.
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My Hwange experience started with a drive from Vic Falls, which was a first as we had previously only flown into the reserve.  Of course it takes much longer – depending on the camp you are headed to as much as 4 hours or so, but not an unpleasant experience particularly if you want to see and experience a bit of the countryside.  The road from Vic Falls winds through well-wooded, undulating terrain.  Once you are past the  the hills around Hwange town itself – where the unsightly effects of surface mining for coal are all too evident – it is not too far to Halfway House where we entered the reserve proper and made our way along an isolated track to Camelthorn Lodge.

Camelthorn and the property adjacent to it – Bomani – are both excellent choices for accommodation and safaris in the far southern portion of Hwange.  They have access to a private concession where night drives can be done, there are ample opportunities for walking and the ‘piece d’resistance’ is a superb sunken hide, much frequented by elephants and other wildlife in the dry season.  I could see that the experience there would be akin to being in the stable with the horses – no need for a telephoto lense!  From both Bomani and Camelthorn guests can also undertake an authentic village visit.  The range of activities include game drives, pump runs (to check and service the pumps at the water holes and enjoy game-viewing along the way), foot safaris and just sitting and observing the wildlife from vantage points at the various water holes.

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The hospitality, food and accommodation at Camelthorn Lodge were of a high standard.  The brick and mortar rooms are quite large with very high ceilings, designed to be cool during the hot summer months and warm and cozy in winter. My room had a large en-suite bathroom with a bath and window overlooking the woodland, a large shower, separate toilet, fireplace, an outside deck, as well as an upstairs area with hammock and day bed.

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The very impressive main lodge is dominated by a huge ancient Camelthorn tree that covers a massive outdoor dining area- perfect for al fresco meals.

It is quite noticeable that the lodge is inside one of Hwange’s last remaining patches of acacia woodlands, on the edge of the south-eastern corner of Hwange National Park.  The many elephants which frequent the area do not have direct access to the lodge grounds due to the nearby buffalo fence and other impediments, so the grounds and surrounding forest have largely avoided their bark-stripping, tree-killing activities.

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Camelthorn and Bomani are close to the Ngamo Plains where abundant wildlife is present year-round.
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In conclusion:  We have been sending our clients to Hwange for 20+ years without interruption and will continue to do so – it offers a fantastic safari experience with excellent game-viewing, top of the line guiding, the friendliest people imaginable and all in a very relaxed, peaceful environment.