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Part 3 – Hwange National Park
To the casual observer or first-time visitor, Nehimba Lodge in north-central Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe seems to have been built in a non-remarkable area. There’s not a view to speak of in any direction, a mountain in the background, no river to be seen or even much in the way of impressive vegetation. Spend a day or two there and you will no longer have to guess why the camp is where it is.
On my first visit there one cool April night, my unasked question about this was answered in the form of several huge bull elephants that came lumbering out of the darkness to quench their thirst at a pumped fresh water source a few meters off the wooden deck. Nehimba is located in this spot because that is where subterranean water was found.
My friend Bob Pattan and I from Houston and two other guests – sisters from Australia – were wide-eyed and animated, shrugging off jet-lag and travel fatigue as we excitedly pointed at the approaching beasts, marveling at their size, their ivory and their simply unbelievable ability to walk around so nimbly and quietly. Like great grey ghosts in the brilliant moonlight, they approached the watering point and either timidly or boldly – depending on their dominance ‘ranking’ – dipped their trunks into the clean pumped water again and again. We watched as they lifted up their trunks and heard the liquid gurgling into their stomachs. Imvelo Safaris’ MD Mark (‘Butch’) Butcher reminded us that there were still many ponds of water out in the woodlands so the elephants did not ‘have’ to come to the camp’s water source. Just like us they may simply prefer clean pure water over the murkier version from a natural water hole. Or perhaps they like the minerality of the pumped artesian water.
On this evening – and the following one – we watched the night-time elephant activity for the better part of two hours, impressed by the seriousness with which they approached the water hole, particularly when there were other elephants present. There were a lot of meaningful stares, loaded glances and the occasional bump or two, but nothing overly serious. It gets a lot more hectic of course later in the year when the competition for dwindling water resources heats up considerably.
In the dry season it becomes all too clear that Hwange is in fact all about reliable sources of underground water. This Switzerland-sized reserve in far western Zimbabwe – on the edge of the Kalahari – does not have any rivers to speak of, except in the far northern area of the park. The erratic summer rains which usually fall from about December through March fill up some of the pans and leave behind scattered ponds and water holes. They don’t last long. In a month or two most of the pools of fresh water are consumed by the animals, drain away or evaporate. From July through October and often stretching well into November and even later, much of the wildlife in Hwange and particularly the elephants depend on pumped water for survival. If it weren’t for the approximately 65 or so artificially maintained water holes scattered throughout the park elephant numbers would likely crash dramatically and Hwange would become far less hospitable a place for wildlife. Not so much over the few wet months of summer but definitely during the long dry season or in years when the summer rains are sparse or fail altogether.
Water has been pumped in Hwange for more than 80 years ever since the first warden Ted Davison drilled the first bore hole in the park in the 1930’s, in an attempt to provide a year-round source of drinking water for the animals. His program has proven to be wildly successful to the point where Hwange now has 30,000-plus elephant seasonally moving into and out of the park. This puts a lot of pressure on the water holes and in the dry hot months of September and especially October, camps like Nehimba and many others experience a non-stop parade of elephants coming to slake their huge thirsts. Which can be stressful for the animals but a boon for visitors who are treated to some of the best close-up views of dozens and sometimes hundreds of elephants, often in large breeding herds with lots of babies, a good indicator of the degree to which the animals are thriving.
Last April we found ourselves in Hwange just a couple of weeks or so after some substantial and widespread rains had fallen. Even though the rain was late by historical patterns, it was welcome and likely averted what may have been a catastrophic drought in much of the park.
It does have an effect on game-viewing though. Over the course of several days at Nehimba and Camp Hwange in mid-April, it became clear that the northern part of the park – which is dominated by mopane trees – is not at its best in the wet season. Several times we found ourselves driving around aimlessly during the early morning and late afternoon ‘golden hour'; the time of day when any serious photographer wants to have his/her lens trained on a perfectly lit subject.
That is not to say that we did not enjoy the time spent at Nehimba and Camp Hwange; in fact we had a marvelous time there. Even so, they are best visited later in the dry season, from about June or July onward, through October and November. At this time of the year the water holes at both camps as well as at the natural seeps which are found in the area, and at pumped water holes such as Shumba, are hives of wildlife activity. Visitors can be assured of viewing and photographing a good number and variety of animals including of course elephant, buffalo, wildebeest, giraffe, zebra, eland and many more. Plus good predator activity including lions and with a bit of luck, African Painted Dogs.
An outstanding feature of a visit to Hwange National Park – it applies to all of the Zimbabwe parks – is being in the presence of or better yet walking with a Zimbabwe professional guide. On average, it takes someone about 5 to 7 years to obtain the qualification which is without doubt the ‘gold standard’ for guiding throughout Africa.
Becoming a Zimbabwe Professional Guide
In an interview with Safaritalk, Zimbabwe Professional Guide Julian Brookstein described the process and requirements for qualifying as a Zim pro guide; what follows is a summary of Julian’s much more detailed description. The process of becoming a Zimbabwe pro guide is complicated and demanding. It starts with a written exam for a learner’s guide license which covers habitats & animal habits, firearms and legal issues among others. With this license and basic first aid training you can guide, but only in a vehicle. You then take up an apprenticeship with a safari company which takes from three to four years but can be up to ten years. During this time, while gaining experience and knowledge, a learner guide also has to hunt at least four dangerous game animals; this is usually done in a situation where a problem animal has to be eradicated. Over this entire apprenticeship period, learner guides have to keep a logbook of everything from camp maintenance work to drives taken, walks in the company of fully licensed guides, approaches to dangerous game – in fact anything and everything to do with guiding.
Once a learner guide is at a stage of proficiency where his/her mentor thinks the person is ready to move forward, he/she has to complete an advanced first aid course, and then a shooting exam which tests the applicant’s speed and accuracy under conditions simulating an animal charging or the pursuit of a wounded elephant or similar.
The last two steps – which are the also the toughest – is an interview for final proficiency and then the actual proficiency test. During the interview for proficiency as many as 10 qualified guides will test your knowledge of mammal skulls & skins and any other matters relating to guiding. Passing this test comes with an invitation to proficiency, which happens once a year in the first week of October. The aspiring guide usually teams up with another apprentice and sets up a full fly camp to host at least two examiners. The camp is expected to be fully functional with food and beverages to be provided (you can take in a camp hand or two to assist). After a camp inspection, the next week is taken up with small groups of apprentices and examiners spending hours out in the bush and the applicants having to answer questions on all aspects of the fauna and flora, tracks etc. Most importantly, guide applicants will be put in a situation where they have to successfully shoot and drop an elephant with a single shot. After all this, a guide will be fully qualified as a Zimbabwe Professional Guide and only then will he/she be allowed to lead guests on foot, in any of the Zimbabwe National Parks.
What does this mean to visitors? It means that you can get out of the vehicle and follow your Zim pro guide on foot with the greatest of confidence. They are trained specifically to be able to protect you under any and all circumstances. The guides try to avoid potential danger but if something unexpected happens, you will know exactly what to do because your guide will have already properly briefed you. It is on foot where Zimbabwe pro guides really shine and are best able to demonstrate their skills and knowledge. So if you find yourself at a safari camp and someone asks if you’d like to do some walking, say yes. It may end up being one of your best ever safari experiences!
Over the next week, I spent two nights each at several Hwange safari camps; here are some impressions:
Friendly, hospitable staff and management, casual atmosphere. Huge rooms with comfortable beds, old-fashioned bath & outdoor showers. It was nice to have an electronic device to alert camp management when you were ready to be collected from your room. We were guided by one of the most experienced Zimbabwe pro guides around (the MD of Imvelo Safaris) and experienced a good close encounter with a bull elephant while on foot. Highlight was undoubtedly the elephants coming to drink right by the pool & deck at night. Great food including a memorable traditional meal on the day of arrival, with three types of meat, sadza (local version of polenta), morogo (traditional spinach), a bean salad and more. Wonderfully remote and peaceful area – highly recommended for particularly elephant aficionados. WIFI = Yes.
Exceedingly well-run camp with superior guiding staff. Everything was spotlessly clean and in perfect working order including the vehicles which had nice special features such as an interior roof light which is useful when arriving back in camp after dark. Highlight was seeing two male lions in perfect light near Shumba Pan on our last morning there. An all-day outing to the Sinamatella area was educational – we saw a part of the park which we had never traveled in previously – but ultimately disappointing due to very thick bush conditions making animal viewing difficult. All three guides with whom we interacted namely Julian Brookstein, Spike Williamson and Adam were extremely knowledgeable, friendly and tried their very best to find animals for us. We enjoyed a couple of memorable meals at Camp Hwange which had the highest occupancy of any of the camps we visited. WIFI = Yes
Currently the most luxurious camp in Hwange, by a significant margin. Absolutely no comparison with the ‘original’ Somalisa Camp; the only thing the two have in common is the location. The new Somalisa has beautiful and expansive common areas and deluxe rooms which are huge, elegant and luxurious in every way, complete with old-fashioned bath and shower.
The camp has easy access to Ngweshla which is one of Hwange’s best game-viewing areas, bar none. Always something to be seen; over a couple of visits there we experienced great views of eland, zebra, impala, colorful birds and much more, previously we had also seen roan there. Our afternoon game drive out of Somalisa with our guide Lewis was one of the best of the trip with great views of breeding herds of elephant with lots of tiny babies, among others. Plus delicious meals including a memorable pita lunch with lamb meat balls, a variety of salads and couscous. WIFI = Yes
This new Wilderness Safaris property is a sleek, well-designed new camp in the southern part of Hwange, close to Ngamo Pan. I like the spacious, well-equipped rooms (overhead fan and efficient standing fan), excellent lighting, nice view over a nearby pan, mini-bar and indoor-outdoor shower with great water pressure. The food was superb. This camp delivered the best overall game-viewing of any of the Hwange Camps we visited this time. Ngamo Pans is a jewel of a place for the green season and this camp – or Wilderness Safaris’ Little Makalolo or Davison’s Camp – is a great choice for the summer months.
A worthwhile side-trip was a visit to Ngamo Village where the local Headman Johnson Ncube (aka Mr. Johnson) and his wife Dorothy showed us around the neat little village and their private homestead.
Many game-viewing highlights with our professional guide Bulisane Mathe (‘Buli’) such as a fantastic viewing of a herd of Sable antelope seen in good light inside a simply gorgeous Rosewood forest; a small pride of lions at first light near camp and a spell-binding sequence of events when a few elephants chased away a couple of lions at sunset. Our last morning game drive out of Linkwasha produced the first good viewing of eland on this trip and I captured a couple of good images, one showing the relative size of these giant antelope quite clearly, compared with a diminutive impala. WIFI = No.
In summary, Hwange is one of Southern Africa’s most underrated wildlife sanctuaries. Those of us who know it and who visit it regularly know only too well that Hwange delivers a fantastic African safari experience, time after time. For one thing the abundance of elephants almost guarantees a great safari. Everyone loves elephants and even on a slow day, you’ll see more than just a few. But Hwange isn’t just about elephants. They are the highlight but over the years we’ve had some brilliant sightings of lions, cheetah, buffalo, giraffe, sable antelope, roan, eland and many more – plus fantastic birdlife.
Add to that the best guiding in Africa, top-quality camps, relatively few other visitors at practically any time of the year, a good road network and you have the recipe for an amazing safari experience. Don’t rush it though. Hwange is best experienced slowly so take your time and spend at least three or four nights at one camp and by all means do some walking with a Zimbabwe pro guide. Take some time off from game drives, sit and wait at a water hole and observe and magical things will happen.
A few practical hints:
- If you are a serious photographer, take a long lens (300 to 400mm) as off-road driving is sensibly not allowed inside the park. The road network is good and most of the animals are seen at or near waterholes so there is no need to drive right up to them. However occasionally you will need a good long lens to capture some of the smaller mammals and birds away from the vehicle.
- Hwange gets very hot in the southern African spring and summer months from about October to March or so, yet it can be bitterly cold with temperatures right down to 32F in winter (June, July & August).So go well prepared depending on the season: layering is essential in winter, as are gloves & proper head-cover. In summer the lightest of lightweight clothing would be appropriate and at any time of the year you will need a good hat and plenty of sunscreen.
- Hwange combines well and easily with several other Zimbabwe parks & areas.You can start a Zimbabwe trip in the Matobos (rhino, Rhodes’ grave-site at the View of the World & San cave art) & then go by road transfer (about 3.5 hrs) to Hwange. Hwange is also a drivable distance from Victoria Falls (5 to 6 hours depending on what you see along the way inside the park) but better to fly. For a longer Zimbabwe trip consider combining Hwange with Matusadona National Park (scenery, Lake Kariba boating & fishing, excellent elephant-viewing) and Mana Pools (remote, atmospheric, good game-viewing, very diverse range of activities).
Continue to Part 4: Matusadona
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