Extraordinary Safari

David Peddie
March 2013 / August 2017

In March 2013, I left from the Amakhala Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape of South Africa (where I was living at the time) on an open ended “safari”, without an itinerary, but with the intention of travelling via Cape Town, up the west coast and into Namibia through the new Sperregebiet National Park. Should time and circumstance allow, I hoped my route might wander into northern Botswana and Zimbabwe before heading back to KwaZuluNatal. However, all things change with the wind and my travels were, at times, pleasantly erratic. I planned, and managed, to visit colleagues and conservation and rural development projects in the field, including a number in which I had an ongoing interest. As anticipated there was much to stimulate, and I hoped, at the time, that some of what was documented would help to bring attention to conservation and rural development issues and highlight some of the work that was / is being done on the ground in southern Africa.

Amakhala to Plettenberg Bay
The morning dawned cool and clear; the Hilux was packed and all it needed was a cup of coffee to get me on my way. Red-necked spur fowl strutted around the lawn and raucously called a farewell as I drove slowly out of the Amakhala Game Reserve, where I have a base in an old, converted stone barn. This journey along the south-east coast to Cape Town and then north to Namibia promises to be one filled with fascinating places and interesting people. My aim, apart from enjoying myself and taking pleasure in all that I shall see and learn, is to highlight the people and projects that are conserving the southern African environment and it’s wildlife, and creating sustainable development options for rural communities.

Not long after leaving the windy city of Port Elizabeth along the N2 highway, the Outiniqwa Mountains began to loom out of the smokey haze created by the early autumn veld fires. As I drove I could not help but think of how scenically beautiful the whole Garden Route was. This, despite the destruction of so much of the indigenous vegetation and wildlife habit to make way for pine tree plantations and the vast grass paddocks of the numerous dairy farms.


What struck me, however, was just how well the indigenous vegetation along the verge of the highway had re-established itself after the land had been so altered by the construction of the road. Once again it made the point that even where Man has to use the land to produce food and other products, it is still possible to plan and use it in such a way as to ensure that it does not lose all of its biodiversity and wildlife, and continues to provide many of the ecosystem services that are vital to our long term survival. The latter being particularly important to the maintenance of consistent and clean water supplies.

Realistically, we know this will not happen on any scale unless the landowners have some financial incentive to do so. This is where the Government and the large international environmental financing agencies have a role to play. Quite how a scheme to encourage landowners to reconsider how they use their land could work, is something for a more detailed investigation. Yesterdays drive, however, reminded me that the concept of a landscape mosaic in which numerous objectives are optimised is something we still need to give urgent attention to.

In simplistic terms, the farmers and foresters only have to protect the vleis (wetlands) and riverlines by keeping out domestic stock, and retaining and/or planting indigenous vegetation to create interlinking corridors along these natural water drainage systems. In this way the multiple objectives of agriculture, forestry, protection of biodiversity, wildlife and water management could all be largely achieved.

Quiet Heroes
There is a group of people around the world who are the "Quiet Heroes" of conservation. People who go about doing what they believe in, what they know is right and what they know needs to be done. Not on a large scale and without fanfare or recognition, they live their lives and pursue their passion at a local and individual level. Although many know nothing of the others who make up this significant group, they each make their trickle of a contribution that, together, becomes the stream, that becomes the great river.

I am privileged to know some of these people, and the first stop on my journey has been with Anthony and Ann Salusbury at their beautiful 35ha property in the hills above the Keurboomstrand Village, overlooking Plettenberg Bay. When they bought the property and built their retirement home, they committed themselves to conserving their little piece of fynbos and coastal bush. Although the construction of their house obviously has a footprint in the landscape, it was minimised wherever possible. Much of their water supply is rainwater runoff from the roof and service cables were buried and the trench rehabilitated to fynbos. Their lovely home is unobtrusively set back from the skyline, but still provides magnificent views over Plettenberg Bay and north to the Mountains.

Knowledgeable and keen amateur botanists and birders, they set about removing all the alien vegetation from the land and replanting indigenous shrubs and trees. At the same time a number of beehives were introduced to ensure active pollination of the fynbos - something which has also become a fascinating hobby and a supply of delicious honey for friends and family.

Birdlife around the property is prolific and a number of specials can be regularly seen. These include scaly-throated honeyguide; Knysna and olive woodpeckers; forest buzzard and white-starred robin. The area around the home is always busy with red-necked spur fowl, fiscal flycatchers; Cape wagtails; Southern boubous and Cape and chorister robin-chats flitting in and out of the shrubs. Bushbuck and caracal wander in and out and a leopard was reportedly sited by forest workers last year. ……………….. just two of the Quiet Heroes and Custodians of the Land.

West Coast Transformation
What an exquisite morning to leave Cape Town and head north to briefly explore the West Coast. The sky was cloudless; the breeze light; visibility to the horizon and the Tablecloth drifted over the northeast of the Mountain. After a quick stop near Bloubergstrand to admire the classic view of Table Mountain, I drove slowly up the R27 to the West Coast National Park at Langebaan. I was pleasantly surprised at how much of the land seems to be covered with relatively natural dune shrub. However, the number of impenetrable game fences was a cause for concern. Although the logic is understandable, I hope the various landowners will come to an arrangement to cooperate and remove fences between their properties.

         

Langebaan and the small fishing - perhaps that should be ex-fishing - villages, such as Paternoster have obviously changed character drastically over the past few years. Huge homes and holiday cottages populate the Langebaan landscape and Paternoster is undergoing a rash of construction. Chic cottages and resort communities are expanding all over Paternoster transforming it into a holiday village, albeit one that has retained the basic building aesthetic of the fisherman’s cottages. 

What effect this has had on the original fisher-folk, I am not sure. There were locals selling packets of crayfish from the street and one hopes that the changes have been to their benefit - even if the old way of life has been changed to some extent.

Change with the Wind
When I thought that the itinerary for this trip should flexible and that all things change with the wind, I did not expect to have to divert on my first day in Namibia. This time though it wasn’t wind, but rain in the Fish River Catchment over Easter Weekend - more in a couple of days than during the past year. The road along the north bank of the Orange River - my intended route - has been washed away. Along with it went my plan to spend a quiet day or two fly fishing for yellowfish in a place where thoughts of cell phones and the internet only intrude in nightmares.

Instead, I spent a pleasant afternoon driving through the spectacular landscapes of the Ai-Ais National Park and the private reserves bordering the Fish River Canyon - Namibia’s answer to the Grand Canyon. The Ai-Ais Resort is based around a sulphur hot spring, but apart from the grandeur of the hills on the drive in, I could not find anything to recommend about the Resort. Scruffy, poorly maintained and unwelcoming staff - any thoughts of spending a night there soon evaporated. As luck would have it I continued north, having decided to visit the Fish River Canyon View Site, and found comfortable lodgings at the Canon Roadhouse about 15 km from the View Point - which I shall visit early tomorrow morning when the sun rises.

Not only did I have three good sightings of Mountain Zebra on the drive, but, in one of those happy coincidences, the first person I met on walking into the Roadhouse was Johan van Schalkwyk, the new manager. Johan is a friend and colleague from the period in the 90’s when I lived in Namibia and someone I have not seen since. It has been a pleasant evening catching up on his experiences in the Caprivi as a lodge manager in one of Namibia’s best big game locations. The accompanying frosty Hansa beer and an oryx steak completed a welcome return to Namibia.

Dawn on Friday morning - I made it at dawn to the Canyon View Point and I have to confess, with a little embarrassment, that I could not help myself exclaiming “Wow!’ as I stepped onto the platform. The vista that spread before me was quite awe inspiring and one of those things that one has to see for oneself.  

                                        

Oysters, Fences and Bat-eared Foxes
The drive from the Fish River Canyon to Luderitz is about 300km. The day was hot, but the road was almost empty; the sky cloudless and the vistas endlessly fascinating and changing. Approaching Luderitz the wind was blasting sheets of sand from the dunes across the road threatening, in places, to engulf it. The sight drew my attention to a new railway line that is being laid to accommodate the port traffic. Wind-blown sand was already building up and it reminded me that, as always, Nature will have the final say in this and all our endeavours.

The town of Luderitz is all about diamonds, fish and, now, off-shore gas. The “Ghost Town” of Kolmanskop is a reminder of the heyday of “diamonds in the sand”, while the buoys in the rocky bays reveal that oyster farming is now big business - and they really are delicious.

Unfortunately, I was unable to meet Dr Ingrid Wiesel who runs a long-term study on brown hyena in the Luderitz area and the Sperregebiet National Park. Anyone interested can visit the website at www.strandwolf.org or contact her at strandwolf@iway.na .

After a quiet evening camping on Shark Island, watching fishing and marine research ships come and go, I left for the NamibRand Nature Reserve, a few hundred kilometres to the north. The area south of NamibRand had some of the rain which washed out the road below the Fish River Canyon, and there is a flush of green grass through much of the Tirasberg Mountains. Consequently, large numbers of oryx (gemsbok) and springbok have gathered and made for some enjoyable  game viewing. Sightings of Ruppel’s korhaan and Ludwig's bustard also added to the pleasure of the journey.

       

Although much of Namibia is under some form of wildlife conservation management, there are still many kilometres of fencing along rural roads and between farms. While obviously necessary in many cases, fences, particularly in arid and desert areas, are a barrier to the free movement of wildlife. They force unnatural confinement and prevent age-old migrations that once allowed animals in these arid areas to take advantage of the variable distribution of rainfall.

Fences are also the cause of numerous mortalities to the large, wild herbivores such as oryx, springbok, hartebeest and zebra when they try to move across them. This is particularly true along fenced, rural Namibian roads. These ungulate species occur widely, and animals trapped on the road between fences panic when approached by vehicles. Being a proponent of wildlife management as a key aspect in optimising land use in arid areas, I have a strong aversion to fences.  The growth of Conservancies and initiatives such as NamPlace, which strive to link large areas of State, communal and private land under single management protocols and remove fences, has been significant and should continue to alleviate the problem.

The day ended well when, on the drive through the NamibRand Nature Reserve to the Wolwedans Lodges and Camps base, I was greeted by an unusual sighting of eight bat-eared foxes cavorting close to the road in the early evening light. This species seems to have been remarkably successful throughout the Reserve. Primarily a termite-eater, the little fox was once persecuted by sheep farmers who mistook it for a meat-eating predator.


NamibRand Nature Reserve - Genesis Revisited
The NamibRand Nature Reserve (
www.namibrand.com), located in southern Namibia, originated in 1984 as the dream of Albi Brückner. That dream was to convert a large number of failed livestock farms, created in a well-intentioned, but misguided, attempt to settle the area after World War II, into a private wildlife sanctuary. A sanctuary that would integrate with the Namib-Naukluft National Park and reestablish an ecosystem extending from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Kalahari Escarpment in the east. 


Using his own funds to purchase adjacent farms and persuading some like-minded neighbours and investors to join his dream, Albi has overseen the rehabilitation of these former livestock farms into a single contiguous conservation area. The land covered by the Reserve now extends to some 250000ha.

Populations of oryx, springbuck, ostrich, cheetah, leopard, Hartmann’s zebra and other desert animals have thrived. A number of tourism lodges and mobile safari operations (e.g. www.wolwedans.com) have been established and provide the Reserve with the funding to maintain itself. A highly successful environmental education centre (Namib Desert Environmental Education Trust - NaDEET) and a hospitality training scheme have also been established. Research projects and ecological monitoring programmes are conducted from the NamibRand Desert Research and Awareness Centre (NRCA).

The NamibRand Nature Reserve was registered as a private nature reserve in 1992. All landowners belonging to the Reserve have signed agreements and adopted a constitution which sets the land aside for conservation - now and in the future.

One of those quirks of fate that we all experience from time to time, gave me the opportunity to join Albi in establishing the Reserve in the early 1990’s, and then to help with updating the Management Plan some years later. Returning to the Reserve as the guest of Albi and his son, Stephan, in October 2012 proved to be most humbling. To see the success that they have made of their “dream”; it’s impact on the Namibian environment and the benefits it has brought to a large number of local people, made knowing that I had played a very small part in something so significant, quietly gratifying. 


The process of regeneration is set to continue through a concept known as NamPlace. Landowners on all sides of NamibRand are negotiating an agreement, between themselves and with the Namib-Naukluft National Park (including Sossusvlei), to lift fences and place the whole area under a single environmental management protocol. This will result in a vast landscape - as envisaged by Albi, stretching from the ocean to the escarpment - functioning once more as an ecological entity.

(Albi passed away in December 2016. He now rests alongside his wife, Anche, in the dunes of NamibRand. They leave a remarkable legacy.)

New Ideas and Old Friends
After leaving NamibRand at dawn and saying farewell to the thousands of springbok, oryx, zebra and hartebeest now grazing the flush of fresh, green grass on the open plains, I drove through to Windhoek. The day was, once again, warm under a clear blue sky and the road almost empty of traffic.

When you enter Namibia by road there is a Road Tax of R220.00 to pay. It is one of the best taxes you will ever pay - the roads, and particularly the extensive network of gravel roads, are well maintained. Although I have to mention that driving up the Gamsberg Pass on the way to Windhoek, the road was loose and badly corrugated, forcing me to crawl up in second gear. My concern, when I came over the top, was for the poor grader driver I met a few kilometres further on. Nothing would persuade me to drive that machine down the Pass!

In Windhoek I spent a few days with Martin Webb-Bowen, an ex-Green Jacket and owner of Ultimate Safaris, catching up on things "mobile safari" and their plans for the future. Their pragmatic optimism is infectious. This attitude was carried through to the Tou Trust (now the Conservation Travel Foundation) with Tristan Cowley’s enthusiasm for the work they are doing. Tristan is Martin's partner and founder of the Trust.

The Sindisa Foundation handed over its Namibian funds and projects to Tou three years ago. I have remained a Trustee and was keen for an update. The Trust is now supporting a number of projects, including the work of Dr Flip Stander who, in cooperation with the local communities, works to protect the growing population of desert adapted lion in Damaraland; Grootberg Primary School development; the rhino conservation programmes of Save the Rhino Trust (SRT) and the Ministry of Environment’s Custodianship Programme, and the carnivore rehabilitation work of AfriCat.

                                           

While in Windhoek I met Dr Russell Taylor, a friend since university and our days as ecologists in Rhodesia and Zimbabwe National Parks. Russell now works for WWF Namibia and is the Trans Frontier Programme Coordinator. After catching up on personal news, the subject turned to the Kaza Trans Frontier Conservation Area. There is no doubt that the concept is potentially far-reaching and progress is being made, but it is still beset with problems of coordination and the development of coherent and workable policies across five countries.

There would seem to be three levels of planning required. Trans-national; national and local landscapes, including down to detailed community level planning. All levels need common policies and approaches to wildlife conservation; rural community development; agriculture and forestry; water management; mining and infrastructure development. Given that each country has its own legal system and a differing range of resources and cultures, the task of pulling all of this together in a rational and fair land-use and economic development programme - that has ecosystem conservation at its core - is obviously complex and extremely challenging. The need for expertise, in all five participating countries, to undertake both the planning and the implementation is obvious. That there is a shortage of suitably qualified people and adequate funds is also apparent at the moment.

Russell, and others like him who are at the forefront of managing this ambitious programme, needs support at every level, from the political to the community on the ground, if the concept is to succeed. It really needs to. The TFCA concept applied as an economic development strategy, with conservation as both its base and its objective, has the promise of transforming the lives of many rural people and ensuring the conservation of ecosystems, and the wildlife that is part of them.

However, in my opinion, there is a burning issue that needs to be mentioned and dealt with openly and without negative inference. The human population in many parts of the Kaza TFCA is increasing rapidly. Under the objectives of the TFCA concept, these burgeoning human populations probably constitute the greatest threat to the opportunity for the same rural and village people of Kaza to achieve a long-term quality of life.

Cranes, Ghostly Elephants and Wild Dog
With pleasant memories of renewed friendships, Windhoek and the Khomas Hochland highlands disappeared from my rearview mirror as I travelled north along the B1 through Okahanja, past the Waterberg Plateau to Otjiwarongo and Outjo and finally to Okaukuejo in the Etosha National Park.

The Waterberg Plateau National Park is ecologically fascinating, as well as scenically beautiful. From the scrub of the surrounding landscape to the "forest" on the pediment up the red sandstone cliffs to the sandveld savanna of the 800 sq.km plateau itself. The Park serves as a reservoir for a number of rare and endangered species including the Cape vulture; roan antelope and black rhino. Unfortunately my appointments in Etosha meant I had to forego a visit this time, but the Waterberg is certainly worth taking the time to stop off at.

                        

Birgit Kotting is an ecologist with the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) working out of Okaukeujo Camp in the Etosha National Park. One of her portfolios is monitoring the Rhino Custodians Programme, through which black rhino from the Park are distributed in breeding groups to private and communal landowners to expand their range and maintain their breeding rates. Her husband, Shane, is the Okaukeujo Warden. After a short briefing and discussion with both, it was on to Halali Camp to meet the group working on the three species of cranes which occur in Namibia. The lateness of my afternoon drive through the Park meant that there were few other vehicles around and the low evening sunlight provided a golden glow to the large groups of grazing animals.

Not far from Okaukeujo I came across three, very large "Ghosts". The sight of these elephant bulls in the scrubby landscape was incongruous, almost surreal, but amazing and beautiful at the same time. The chalky soil of the Pan and its surrounds means that when elephant mud bath and spray dust over themselves for protection from sun, flies and parasites, they dry to a ghostly grey-white. Just one of the many curiosities of nature that this great wildlife sanctuary offers the visitor.


Dr Ann and Mike Scott are conservationists, and the Ecologist and Warden at NamibRand Nature Reserve, with whom I have been corresponding on an oryx and springbok research project in the NRNR area. However, they also have other interests. One of which is the status and protection of the blue, crowned and wattled cranes that occur in the more northern areas of Namibia.

They, with a small team, were in Etosha to try and place a satellite tracking collar on a fledging blue crane chick. The aim is to understand the movements of the cranes across the region and so identify key breeding and feeding areas for protection. When I found them at the campsite in Halali Camp, they were all feeling a little disappointed. The timing and amount of rain had meant that the breeding success had been low and the chicks they thought might be suitable had either died or already flown. So they were faced with the likelihood of having to wait until next breeding season to get the tracking device on to a bird. As research ecologists these are the realities of working with nature and something that one accepts with a degree of philosophical frustration!

The lack of success did not prevent us from having a most enjoyable evening around the campfire and a lively discussion on a range of conservation subjects. Subjects on which we all had opinions, resulting in much laughter - perhaps it was just as well that we were camped a long way from any other campers.

Early the next morning, I drove through the Park to Namutoni Camp on the eastern border - more good sightings of kori bustard; giraffe bulls sparring and jackal trotting home after a nights scavenging. It was while at Namutoni that I heard from another old friend living in Victoria Falls and who owns the Musango Safari Camp on the shores of Lake Kariba in Matusadona National Park. Steve and Wendy Edwards are ex-members of Zimbabwe National Parks, with Steve ending his career as a Provincial Warden. He is now rated as one of the best wildlife guides in Africa. I am impressed, but will most certainly not tell him that!

They are about to run the accommodation and logistics for a large South African film crew out of the Camp, but were in Victoria Falls for a few days organising supplies. Not wanting to miss them, I decided to press on to ensure that I arrived in the Falls before they left. The drive from Namutoni to Katima Mulilo along the length of the Caprivi Strip is some 1000kms. A long day, but well rewarded when I saw two packs of wild dogs in the late afternoon. The first was a sighting of three - possibly more unseen - hunting along the verge of the road. They quickly disappeared into the teak forest. The second, about 50kms further on, was only two animals, possibly a break away from a pack. Interestingly, both sightings were within a few hundred metres of a village settlement.  The photo is a cheat - it was taken in the Save Valley Conservancy by Dr Rosemary Groom.

                                          

The Bwabwata National Park, which lies along the narrow portion of the Caprivi Strip, is well populated with people. Most of the villages appear to be along the main tar road running between Rundu and Katima Mulilo. This sort of “ ribbon” development is what Russell Taylor was talking about when he said that there were still challenges in ensuring free movement of animals, particularly elephant, between Botswana, Namibia, Angola and Zambia. It is a reminder of the effects of growing human populations, not only on wildlife, but on the options and prospects for the people of these areas.

The Chobe River and Lake Liambezi are full and the bridge crossing at Ngoma border post into Botswana gave cause for a break to watch the waterbirds and fisherman going about their business. The drive through both the Chobe National Park in Botswana and the Zambezi National Park in Zimbabwe on the way to Victoria Falls, revealed that the whole area has had good rain and the bush is still very green. Much to my surprise, given the numbers of animals we know are in the area, I did not see an elephant in either Park.

I am now in Victoria Falls staying with Steve and Wendy. They are an example of the resilience of many Zimbabweans, particularly in the wildlife and safari industry, who continue to pursue their lives and passion despite the difficulties presented by a less than helpful Government. Somehow they keep going and continue to contribute to the conservation of the land and wildlife that made this country famous for its safari experience. They also make a substantial contribution to the economic development of the rural people they work with - but more of that later.

“Smoke That Thunders”
Most people, who are fortunate enough to have some geographical knowledge, have heard the story of Dr David Livingstone and the “Smoke That Thunders”. When he was told about this strange phenomenon, while travelling in the area in 1855, by the local people, he set off with his guides in a dugout canoe to see for himself. After feasting his eyes, he wrote his famous saying : ".... scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight". He then promptly, like all good British colonial explorers of the time, named them after his Queen. They remain, the Victoria Falls.

Livingstone’s comment has been much abused by modern tour operators with their noisy helicopter flights, inappropriately called "The Flight of Angels". Let’s face it, no self respecting angel would put up with such an unpleasant intrusion on what must be one of the world’s great sights. 

                                                                      

                                                            

The immediate environs of the Victoria Falls on the Zimbabwe side are a National Park. Aptly named the Victoria Falls National Park. The whole site of the Falls is now a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site. The greater area surrounding the Falls and the town, which bears the same name, is the Zambezi National Park. No fences exist between the Park and the town so, as a result, wildlife wanders freely through the area. There are few places, that I know of, where wild elephant reach over garden walls - often with the inevitable consequences for the wall - to grab a tasty, green morsel. Not to mention drink water out of the junior school swimming pool!

The Elephant Hills Golf Course is a great place to go for a game viewing walk. If you are thrashing that frustrating little white ball while walking, then you had best keep it out of the water hazard where Crocodylus niloticus awaits the unwary. Waterbuck, impala, bushbuck, warthog, buffalo, and the occasional lion, join the elephant in keeping visitors amused, and sometimes terrified.            

On a more serious note, the Zambezi National Park is an area of diverse habitat bounded on the north by the Zambezi River with tall riverine trees and floodplains. It stretches south through black basalt grasslands and broken hills to a low escarpment of Kalahari sand and teak forests. As is to be expected, the Park holds a wide diversity of wildlife of every description. Tourism in the Victoria Falls area obviously plays a major role in the economy of the town and the country, and the Falls is one of the key components of what attracts people to Zimbabwe. The other is the countries wildlife. Ensuring that the wildlife, and the ecosystems it inhabits, are protected and continue to function "naturally" while providing visitors the opportunity to enjoy that wildlife, is a difficult balancing act.

With the number of visitors to the Falls, lodge and camp operators vie for access to the Park and for prime sites on which to build their lodges and camps. The Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority is a parastatal which has to fund itself and is, thus, always under pressure to find that funding. Providing Concessions within the Park for private operators to build lodges and camps is one valid way to do that. The danger is over subscription, with detrimental impacts on conservation objectives and on the visitor experience. 

Zambezi National Park, in my opinion, is approaching that saturation point for commercial lodges and camps. I hope that from here on, it is "Proceed with Caution”.

Brave Terriers and “Rich” Country
After spending the week helping Steve and Wendy Edwards with their plans to either re-invest or sell Musango Safari Camp, I took my departure from Victoria Falls at dawn on Monday. Like every beautiful morning on this trip, it was cool, yet cumulus clouds were soon starting to fluff up and float across the sky.

This is home territory for me. I grew up in the town of Wankie (now Hwange) where, in my early years, elephant used to regularly raid my mother’s vegetable garden. My first posting as a young ecologist in the Department of National Parks and Wildlife was to the, then, new Matetsi Safari Area. So when I stopped for a steaming cup of coffee - laced with sweet, condensed milk - at the Matetsi River bridge, as the sun was rising and looked at the remnants of the old causeway and the wood sleeper road bridge, wonderful memories of another era came flooding back.

                                                        

One of which was the “Legend of the Grave”. Twenty metres off the national road, north of the bridge on a hillock, hidden by years of bush growth and neglected over the years, is a small grave with a rusted metal cross. It has been there since I can remember, and the legend is that it is the grave of a brave little terrier. The story goes - at least the one that I was told - that his owner, while fording the river, was attacked by a crocodile. The terrier, without hesitation, leapt onto the croc forcing it to release his owner. Although the dog got back to the river bank, it had been bitten and died. The grateful owner buried the dog on the hillock overlooking the site of its sacrifice, marking the grave with stones and a metal cross.  

The gravel road traversing the Matetsi Safari Area to Robins Camp in Hwange National Park, takes you through some of the richest wildlife habitat in the country. The land is underlain by deep, basalt igneous rock which has resulted in a mosaic of vleis (grasslands along water drainage lines); low, rocky hills covered with mopane trees and combretum shrubs, and of bands of evergreen “forest” along the numerous streams that flow through the area and around the natural pans - pans formed by the hooves of buffalo, zebra, eland and sable over the years. The whole area is also intersperse with deep patches of Kalahari sand lying over the basalt. On these remnants of the retreating Kalahari Desert grow magnificent teak (Baikiaea plurijuga) and mukwa (Pterocarpus angolensis) forests - or at least they did until the teak and mukwa trees were clear cut.

Thousands of guineafowl and spurfowl were everywhere along the road, calling raucously from every direction whenever I stopped to drink in the atmosphere of that wild place. It must have been an excellent breeding season. Now, with autumn and the dry season starting, they face the inevitable struggle to survive the onslaught of predators with declining cover and food resources, until the next rains. The drama of the bush is everywhere - not just with the lion and the leopard.

Much to my surprise and pleasure, I came across two roan antelope in the basalt woodlands a few kilometres before reaching the National Park boundary. Roan were common in this area during the relatively recent past and I recall seeing herds of 20 - 30 during my childhood and early working career. Whether hunting, poaching or habitat changes are the cause, it appears that the species has declined to the point where, today, they are rarely seen and, then, only in small herds.

Hwange NP - Passion and Commitment
Hwange National Park is a vast wild area; a Park considered by many to be Zimbabwe’s flagship wildlife conservation area and one of Africa’s great game reserves. It is a place that stirs deep passion in many and has done since Ted Davison started it in the late 1920’s.

Rangers and ecologists of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife have, over the years, given much to its conservation in, quite literally, blood, sweat and tears. Frequently without adequate financial backing, dedicated men and women did what needed to be done with minimal budgets and with little reward or recognition. If roads or tourist facilities needed repair or maintenance, they would do it, and do it with their own tools and materials, if necessary. If anti-poaching patrols needed to go out or research needed doing in the field, it would be done, regardless of whether there was money to pay the “subsistence and travel” allowance that was due.

So, it is something of a disappointment to find that there has, in some quarters, been an apparent change in attitude to getting the job done. While acknowledging the financial challenges, the lack of commitment to get that job done is evident in the state of the roads and tourist facilities, such as camps, picnic sites and platforms. It also seems to be evident in the application of ecological management. There are, obviously, those in the current Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (PAWMA) who are dedicated and doing the best they can. I do not mean to be disparaging to their efforts.

In this regard, it is proper that I mention the camp and picnic site attendants. Many of the facilities are abandoned, badly run down and require considerable investment. Yet the attendants charged with keeping the few that are still functioning, clean and working, make the most amazing effort to do just that. With few materials, rooms are spotless, beds neatly made (even if the covers are a bit threadbare), toilets scrubbed and firewood cut. At Mandavu Dam picnic site where I camped overnight, the attendant had not been paid for months; had no uniform or overalls and had to, somehow, find his own rations - yet the place was as clean and tidy as it could have been. The thatch roof was gone from some of the buildings and the shower was a makeshift outdoor affair, but the water was hot. The more senior members of PAWMA might take a leaf out of their book.

  

This could be a lengthy discussion. There are many reasons for my concern and it is not my intention to be unjustly critical, but rather to draw attention to an urgent need. It is evident that PAWMA is in dire need of more qualified and quality leadership and management; of training and motivation at all levels, and, not least, of funding. Funding to help it firstly, achieve its conservation objectives; secondly, contribute directly and indirectly to the national economy, and, thirdly, to play its part in the rural development of those communities sharing the borders of the land over which it is the Custodian. 

Noisy Lions on Moonlit Nights
After checking in at Robins Camp, I wandered along the road to Big Toms Platform via the Little Toms vlei, hoping to see more evidence of the larger mammals than I had last October. I was disappointed - nothing, and little evidence of anything except elephant. The road, like most that I encountered in the Park, was in a poor state. Be warned - should you visit Hwange, ask detailed questions at the Tourist Office about which roads are passable for your type of vehicle. The information is not volunteered and, if you go in the wet season, you could find yourself spending some time on your own in   a muddy and lonely place! 

Big Toms Platform was an example of the lack of maintenance I mentioned previously. However, I did see a group of ground hornbills close by. The best part was yet to come, and I was particularly pleased by the fact that the road from Big Toms to Piccadilly Circus (a junction of game viewing roads) had been graded. Even better, I bumped into a large (200 plus) herd of buffalo and a herd of breeding elephant of some 30 animals.

Salt Pans, with its dam full, had black storks and flocks of cattle egrets lining the shore and squadrons of dabchicks scurrying across the surface. A lone Squacco heron stood immobile in the grass on a tiny island, trying to convince all and sundry that it really wasn’t there.

The drive from Salt Pans to Deteema Dam produced few sightings. The lone hippo at Deteema, however, gave a good account of himself - grunting loudly and displaying his massive teeth in a wide mouth display, challenging all who cared to look. Considering his nearest rival was likely at Mandavu Dam some 30km away, he was probably quite safe. A few impala and zebra grazed lazily across the flats in the rather warm midday sun and a Bateleur cruised, rocking with precision grace, through the empty sky.

As I approached Mandavu Dam, I was rather sleepily thinking of finding a shady spot for a siesta when I found myself staring into the “amber eyes” of a large, although quite young, male lion. Actually that is not quite true, he and three lioness were lying under a mopane tree 15 meters off the road, but I was taken by surprise and it immediately had me wide awake. As it turned out, the pride was one of nine and they had recently made a kill which lay in the scrub mopane out of my sight. Nothing was going to motivate this bunch, so after admiring them for a while I continued to Sinamatella Camp.

Sinamatella is located on a high ridge with views south that truly give one an impression of the scale of this wild land. The camp has had some renovations done to the cottages, although I did not get to see inside. The old restaurant, sadly, is in a sorry state. Baboons have damaged the thatched veranda roof and birds have moved into all the suitable nesting sites. However, on closer examination the deterioration seems superficial and, with the return of a little more tourist trade, the place should be back in business without much difficulty. I look forward to the day when I, and you, can sit on that veranda and admire the view with a cold beer in hand. 

                                           

I returned to Mandavu late in the afternoon to find the pride of lion gone, but the vultures now in numerous attendance. As I pulled up there was a flash of spots and a curved tail as, what appeared to be a young leopard sprang away from the carcass and slipped into the cover of the mopane scrub.

That night, lying on a stretcher under the most amazing sky and a huge, almost full, moon, three prides of lion roared their challenges and statements of territorial ownership across the waters of the dam. Added to the perpetual grunting and snorting of the ten or twelve hippo; the whooping of spotted hyena and the early morning yelps of black-backed jackal, the roars were a real reminder of what I miss when I am not in the bush.

Roads to the Future
The next leg of my journey through Hwange NP also began early. Just after the sun rose, I was once again met on the road by the pride of lion from the day before. The two males, with their harem and two yearling cubs, led the way towards Masuma Hide without giving me too much attention - none actually. I was left with the feeling that I was of absolutely no consequence; which, of course, I was.

                

At Masuma I met a charming young, and very adventurous, couple on honeymoon. They were travelling through Zimbabwe via the National Parks of Matopos, Hwange, Chizaria, Matusadona and Mana Pools. The route is, in places, remote and the road difficult. However, I have no doubt that they will finish their safari having seen amazing places and wildlife; met interesting people and will remember their adventure for the rest of their lives.

The Painted Dog Project in Hwange conducts research into the wild dogs of the Park with a view to devising management strategies that will ensure their survival. It also runs a successful environmental education programme from its base on the Park border. Initiated by Dr Greg Rasmussen, who remains the principle researcher, the project has, through Greg, expanded its work to look into the effects of the growing elephant population on the ecology of the Park.

As any ecologist will tell you, all things are connected, and as elephant are major vehicles of change, their influence on the Hwange ecosystem will inevitably have ramifications for wild dog. I had planned to see Greg while in Hwange, but unexpectedly met up with him at Shumba Picnic Site in the middle of the Park. A welcome cup of tea and some biscuits led into a fairly detailed discussion of the investigation Greg has been conducting.

In essence, the vegetation of the Park is changing and adapting to the pressure exerted by the 40000 odd elephant that now inhabit it. The changes appear to be a decline in palatable species; an increase in tannin and thorn protection mechanisms by plants and a decline in the amount of browse and grazing available to all herbivore species. Both this and other research seems to be indicating that the high density of elephant is probably having negative effects on both plant and animal biodiversity and numbers in Hwange. The upshot is that, for the space available, there are too many elephant and the problem is not a shortage of water, but a shortage of food.

Last year before the rains arrived, and they arrived “early”, elephant (numbers unconfirmed) died of starvation. Not enough to dent the population, but enough to indicate the reality of the problem. How to solve the issue?

Well, one of the most important options is to be able to implement the Kaza Trans Frontier Conservation Area Project. This means working with the rural communities to the east and south of Hwange NP to develop a new land management programme that supports a wildlife-based economic development model. The details are for another discussion, but such a programme would allow elephant to migrate into large, relatively unpopulated areas with minimal conflict with humans. The same applies with adapting the safari hunting model applied in the Matetsi Safari Area north of Hwange NP to one of more game viewing tourism, and thus less disturbance to elephant movement.

It is gratifying to see just how much is now (2017) being done in the Zambezi, Kazuma Pan and Hwange National Parks to rectify some of issues identified in this travelogue and support the Zimbabwe National Parks Authority. Organisations like the Bhejane Trust, the Victoria Falls Anti-poaching Unit, Wildlife & Environment Zimbabwe, and many of the safari lodge concessionaires operating in and around the National Parks are investing time, expertise and funding into both the Parks and the surrounding communities.

Full Circle
The title to this note is quite literal. I am now back - rather sooner than intended - at the Amakhala Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape, where I began this journey in late March. The old stone barn at Woodbury in the Reserve, which I converted into a rustic, but comfortable, abode, was rather welcoming when I arrive on Friday evening. What an arrival. At my back, as I descended the Oliphants Pass, was the most vivid crimson and pink sunset, played out against a distant bank of lumpy cloud; while in front of me a huge orange moon rose slowly over the darkening horizon. Photographs and descriptions never do these occasions justice - you really do have to be there!


I had left Hwange National Park before dawn on Wednesday, stopping at the border of the Park to savour the cool of the morning; sip a last cup of bush coffee and to listen to the Swainson's spurfowl call in the light of a new day. With a brief stop at the Bulawayo Club, I pressed on to the Beit Bridge border between Zimbabwe and South Africa - it is a place I dread. Hundreds of huge transport trucks and thousands of pedestrians, never mind the normal civilian and tourist traffic, pass through this border post every day. A lack of organisation; incompetence; corrupt officials and the general mess, make this an experience to be avoided. I was fortunate, however, and was on my way to Johannesburg without a hitch and in good time.

After a day in the city to see family and meet a friend for a discussion on the rhino and elephant situation, I was on the long road south again. The hours on the road were well compensated for by the expansive and dramatic scenery of the Karoo - reminiscent of southern Namibia - and by that spectacular approach to Amakhala in the evening. Now, it is time to follow up on all that happened over the last few weeks. However, I am extremely fortunate - something I cannot but be aware of. Right now I am writing this sitting on the deck of the Woodbury Tented Camp and looking out over the evening light at the end of gloriously sunny day.


Curriculum Vitae                                                   Conservation    Community    Commerce    Culture                                      © David Peddie 2017