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Part 4 – Matusadona National Park
Matusadona National Park which lies between the Ume River and Sanyati Gorge along the shore of Zimbabwe’s massive Lake Kariba is not one of the country’s most-visited reserves, at least not by international tourists. It should be. It is unquestionably beautiful with almost too many visual elements competing for attention. A golf course-like expanse of yellow-green panicum grass along the lake-shore. Acres of thick jesse and mopane bush just behind that. The shimmering surface of Lake Kariba itself. And of course the jagged Matuzviadonha mountains which dominate the skyline. Put it together, add wildlife such as elephants or buffalo in the foreground and you have a natural masterpiece which is gorgeously lit usually twice a day, every day, at sunrise and sunset.
Doing nothing at a safari camp in Matusadona is ok. If all you want to do is sit in a comfortable lounger and take in the view and enjoy the balmy climate, nobody will mind. They might offer you a cup of french-pressed coffee or a gin & tonic, depending on whether it is early or late. If your camp of choice is any good, there will be a sparkling pool likely just meters away, for a quick splash if it gets a little too warm for your liking. And at night – if you are lucky – a lake breeze will agitate the surface of Lake Kariba, creating the best white noise of all, the sound of waves crashing on the shore.
Most people come to Lake Kariba and to Matusadona expecting to do stuff. They won’t be disappointed. Almost as many things as you can see, you can do. Being on the edge of the lake clearly boating is the most obvious of these and taking a boat cruise on the lake is a pleasant and relaxing activity. It is often planned for the late afternoon to best enjoy the views of the sun setting over the water. All you have to do is watch, drink in hand. With snacks on the side.
One step up from that would be to mix in some fishing for either bream or the elusive but highly sought-after Tiger Fish, Africa’s top freshwater fighting fish. A Tiger weighing in at 10 pounds and up is a trophy fish – something to talk about. But of course this is catch and release, no animals harmed in the process. Mostly it’s the person with the fishing rod in hand which gets his or her pride dented as Tigerfish will get rid of a spoon or an artificial fly almost 8 times out of 10. If a Tiger doesn’t strip or break the line, it will jump clear of the water surface while shaking its head violently, in the process usually dislodging whatever it had bitten down on.
For the keen photographers, a couple of game drives along the Matusadona lake shore will deliver some of the best elephant photography they may ever experience. Matusadona has lots of elephants and they show themselves off to their best effect when feeding on the nutritious panicum grass along the lake in the late afternoons. This is your opportunity for that once in a lifetime ‘screen saver’ shot with a perfectly lit herd of elephants in front of a multi-layered, colorful background including grass, lake, mountain and sky. It does not get any better or easier than this.
The Matusadona elephants are totally relaxed and will feed right around a stationary vehicle; even females with very small babies show absolutely no fear or signs or agitation. You won’t need a very long lens as they will get very close! The Matusadona elephants are on average slightly smaller in stature than most other African elephants but many of them have long, elegant tusks. Their hides are a deep golden brown color, caused by their close association with the Lake Kariba mud. Other than elephants you may be pointing your lens at zebra, impala (capture them jumping!), buffalo, a variety of colorful birds including several large birds of prey, bee-eaters and kingfishers.
On my third visit to the area over the last 10 years, the three things that are essential to any good safari magically happened. I found the right camp, went at a good time of the year and was fortunate to have a superb guide. I had returned to the area for a third time to check out a new property – Changa – and to see if we could finally start to include Lake Kariba in more of our clients’ Zimbabwe trips. Our two previous visits to the area were enjoyable but not compelling to the point where I wanted to tell the whole world to go there. This time around, the overall experience was fantastic and yes – Matusadona should be high on everybody’s list of places to see and things to do in Zimbabwe.
Changa Safari Camp is a relatively small (10-room) tented property close to Fothergill Island, right on the edge of Lake Kariba and with post-card views in every direction and from every room. Flying in from Hwange we landed at nearby Fothergill Island airstrip and it was a brief 15 to maybe 20-minute drive from there to the camp. When Lake Kariba has more water the trip may be done by boat which would make it even more special.
The rooms at Changa are comfortable but not overly luxurious; my standard room had a king size bed with 2 overhead fans, adequate but not exceptionally good lighting, plenty of shelf space to unpack clothing and other stuff. A bonus: an outdoor bath and a terrific front verandah with a hammock. On the minus side, the towels can do with an upgrade.
On my first afternoon at Changa I joined three other guests and our very competent guide on a pontoon boat outing on Lake Kariba. With the lake being as low as it was at the time – about 33% of full capacity – there were stark black ‘tree skeletons’ all along the edges of the lake, lending a slightly eerie edge to what would otherwise be a fairly innocuous outing. Seeing the massive dead Lead-wood tree stumps sticking several meters out of the water, prominently edged against the blue sky, inevitably makes one think about doing a similar boat trip when the lake is full. I will never be able to go flat-out in a motorboat on Lake Kariba in future, without remembering those sharp dead tree limbs reaching up from below. As it turned out the only excitement of the trip was what we could generate mentally as the fishing itself was a bust with just a few ‘rubbish fish’ (Squeakers) being landed. It’s not always like that; fishing is unpredictable and all you have to do is try again. Plus it gets better later in the year when it becomes warmer, from September onward.
The following morning I was up early at 5:45A for a 2-hour foot safari. From camp, I drove out about 15 minutes or so with Bruce Cronje, a Zimbabwe professional guide. Bruce is an impressive young man, seemingly always totally in control, and clearly fearless. I felt very confident walking with him, even in terrain where unpredictable animals such as solitary buffalo bulls may be encountered. It ended up being a pleasant walk mostly through mopane scrub, through a couple of dry creek beds and eventually out onto the open floodplain, currently very extensive due to the low level of Lake Kariba. From a distance, we saw some elephants emerging from the edge of the tree-line, and a bit later found ourselves very much in their midst, by this time back in the vehicle. I was particularly impressed by a hefty elephant bull with massive tusks, seemingly fixated on one of the females and doggedly following her around. The rest of the breeding herd peacefully passed around us, barely taking notice of the two of us in the open vehicle. It was an exhilarating experience.
Later that day we were alerted to the fact that a pride of lion was present in the Changa Camp area. The Matusadona Lion Research Project monitors the movement of collared lions in the area and passes on the information on an informal basis to the Changa guides. This does not mean that the lions are just out there to be seen. Far from it – as we soon discovered. Upon hearing the news of the lions being around, a few of us grabbed our cameras and binoculars and jumped into a vehicle with Bruce. Even getting close to the GPS coordinates of the spot where the lions had last been recorded, proved to be a mission. Had I been driving, we would not have made it one quarter of the way there. The track was barely passable and in fact we did get momentarily stuck but was able to free the vehicle with a bit of effort.
Having reached a spot where we could drive no further, we got out of the car and the three of us followed Bruce on foot, in search of lions. Walking into lions is high on my personal bucket list, having tried to do so several times previously, without success. I was hoping mightily that this outing would end differently. Just knowing that lions are actually around or had been recorded in an area recently, adds a lot of excitement and even some apprehension to walking in dense bush. Your every sense is in hyper-mode; your breathing rate and heartbeat are elevated and your adrenaline is starting to pump in anticipation of what might happen, good or bad. Just like earlier that day I was more relaxed that I probably should have been, simply because we had a ZimbabweProfessional Guide leading us. Ultimately the outing failed because the lions had already moved out of the area, even before we got there. This became clear later in the day when we picked up their tracks somewhere else. It would have been great to find the lions but I can’t say that I was disappointed. Just being there in a situation where a pride of lions might be right around the next bush, was enough. For an hour or so I thought about nothing else but coming face to face with a lion – or more than one – in a situation where I would be decidedly vulnerable. I would have had to face a potentially dangerous animal in its own habitat, on foot. Control my fear, refrain from giving in to instinct and running away. Listen to and follow the instructions of the guide. It was good practice for the next time when the lions might actually be there.
Our late afternoon game drive along the tree-line and eventually out onto the floodplain or lake shore, was one my best in several years. The light was fantastic and the backdrop was beautifully layered, creating a canvas so good that the framing became almost irrelevant. This is where you close the aperture in your lens to f8 or smaller and try to impart as much of the depth of the scene as you can. Of course no matter your level of photographic skills no photo or video can recreate the scene or come close to the impact of being there. One after another, several small breeding herds of elephants slowly made their way from the lake towards the treeline, crossing this huge open expanse of grass, with the water and the mountains behind them. They were not walking purposefully as elephants often do. They were feeding on the panicum grass, lingering here and there, the prehensile tips of their trunks seeking out a bite-size tuft of grass, dislodging it with a twisting and plucking motion, raising it up to their mouths and repeat.
Meanwhile a very young elephant calf was prominent in the herd, clearly reveling in the experience of being out there in this land of plenty. The baby was being visibly pampered by other members of the group who would put their trunks lightly on it, pay obvious attention to it, and subtly but clearly protect it from threats seen and unseen.
For serious photographers, I would put Matusadona high on the list of Zimbabwean areas to visit. Even on a relatively short stay you will be practically assured of getting some of your best ever elephant photographs. The only other African destination where elephants can be photographed as effectively and strikingly as at Matusadona is Amboseli, in Kenya. The elephant experience alone makes it worthwhile traveling to Matusadona National Park and I will definitely recommend it for inclusion in any longer Zimbabweitinerary. Ideally of course one should include Hwange, Victoria Falls, Matusadona (Lake Kariba) and Mana Pools.
Matusadona is also a ‘must visit’ park for birders. The park has an extraordinarily diverse range of habitats which of course attract and sustain a wide variety of birds. At Matusadona you’ll see lots of birds around and over the lake such as African Fish Eagles, various kingfishers, terns, ducks and wading birds, plus of course the species which favor the grasslands (plovers, coursers, pipits, lapwings, guinea-fowl etc.) and the huge variety of birds which favor the thick bush and wooded areas including several birds of prey.
In summary, Matusadona National Park is a much under-rated national park with a unique (for Zimbabwe) mix of grassy lake-front, bush and mountains and an above-average range of activities including boating, fishing, game drives, excellent walking & hiking opportunities, superior bird-watching and a near-perfect setting for photography, particularly of elephants. Having visited several different properties in the Matusadona area over the last several years Changa Camp delivered the best overall experience by far. In terms of location and guiding – the two most important factors predicting the success of a safari – it is definitely tops. Add to that comfortable rooms, delicious food and great all-round hospitality and friendliness and you have a winner!
Continue to Part 5, Mana Pools
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