If you want to see elephants there are many choices in Africa, but if you want to see astounding numbers there can be no better place than Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe.
The Park is said to have an estimated population of 30,000 elephant and visiting at the peak of the dry season as we did in October this year meant the chance to see herd upon herd gathered together in very small areas as they would drink at the waterholes each day.
The best way to describe Hwange National Park is that it is a park built by nature lovers for nature lovers. At all the major waterholes platforms have been erected. These platforms are raised on stilts so that you can admire the view and wildlife all around you. The roofs are made from thatch to keep the blistering sun off, and you’ll find chairs inside too! They have created a park where one can camp out for the day and just sit and immerse oneself in the wildlife that comes down to drink. It is without doubt one of those very special places in Africa.
The political problems in Zimbabwe are well known and I don’t need to go into too many details. However, suffice to say all national parks in Zimbabwe have suffered hugely from the situation. Due to corruption badly needed funds are not reaching the parks, nor the staff that work here. And added to this many tourists are hesitant to visit Zimbabwe and as such visitor numbers are low.
Since 2005 a very dedicated group, Friends of Hwange Trust, have been instrumental in keeping Hwange going. The animals here are almost completely dependent on waterholes being pumped for water during the dry season. Friends of Hwange took on the job of servicing diesel pumps as well as making sure diesel was available and sent to the pumps.
A change since we visited last year is that most major waterholes have now been installed with solar pumps and there are now constant and reliable working waterholes. If it hadn’t been for these initiatives I shudder to think what would have happened during this drought stricken time.
An Emotional Visit
Our first stop in Hwange was to be Robin’s Camp which is one of three main camps and situated right up in the north of the Park. It is one of the quieter camps but I was still surprised to find on arrival that we were one of only three other groups staying here. The staff member who greeted us was extremely friendly and well informed so I took the opportunity to ask how many staff worked at Robin’s.
The answer was 32!!
I expressed surprise at how large the staff was, especially since hardly anyone was staying here and he just looked at me and very solemnly said:
“We have to be here to keep writing the story…”
When we got to our chalet it was obvious that there hadn’t been any upgrade since probably the 80’s but it was so clean you could have eaten off the floor, and what really got me was the animal print curtains they had hung up matching the animal print bed covers. They were all trying so hard to make things work.
I just felt so emotional and thinking about all the people involved here and all the animals trying to survive I quite honestly just sat down and cried.
It’s a very personal moment to share but I think it’s important for everyone to know that we need to keep visiting and most importantly support these places. They are essential to the survival of the wildlife of Africa.
Once the crying was done we got down to the business of game drives! There had just been a huge veld fire and about 70% of the bush area around Robin’s camp had burned. It was a significant piece of land and we found that most of the animals were extremely skittish.
We were lucky to come across a small pride of lions who had just killed a roan antelope right next to the road so even though they were shy we were able to see them very well.
The elephants were tricky and we found that the only way we could get up onto a platform to watch them was to undergo a clandestine operation of sneaking up to the stairs, crouching the whole way up so that we didn’t break the shape of the platform and then not moving a muscle whilst viewing from the comfort of the chairs!
I have to say it was with somewhat of a guilty pleasure that we were able to spend two afternoons completely on our own at one fantastic waterhole just watching herd after elephant herd come down to drink.
From this same vantage point we watched a pride of twelve lions stalk up to within 5 meters of three grazing warthogs. We thought undoubtedly that it was game over for one of the three little piggies but, ever alert, one of the pigs picked up on the lead lioness just as she was about to spring. A short but frenetic chase ensued but the amazing pigs outmanoeuvred their formidable enemy to live another day.
Predation at Masuma Dam
Our next stop was an exclusive camp site called Masuma Dam. This means that it would just be Chris & I camping here at night although during the day other day visitors could visit the beautiful hide here that overlooked Masuma Dam.
The thatched hide provided great shade and made it cool enough to sit the entire day here and watch as the many interactions and dramas played out before us.
The most fascinating was how the many predators were benefiting from the Cape turtle doves that at this time of the season were in a particularly emaciated state. This would have been due to food stress caused by the peak of the dry season as well as fires and as such they were flying at much slower speeds than when they are in prime conditions.
Their primary predator were the many yellow-billed kites that had congregated here. The kites would initially try to catch the doves in the air but they didn’t always get it right. If one did succeed the other kites would harass it until it dropped its prey and a mid-air battle would ensue. A couple of times the dove would be lost mid-air and fall into the water.
The moment it hit the dam the sound and vibration signalled the crocodiles, who made a beeline across the water and gain an easy meal.
The crocodiles were not always opportunists but hunters themselves and would very patiently line up, submerge under water and wait to catch an unsuspecting dove as it drank, by launching shark like out of the water. We also saw two bizarre dove predations.
On one occasion a dove being chased by a kite flew into an elephant that was drinking by the water and of course then crashed into the dam. Again, in no time a croc was onto it.
An extremely unlucky dove was able to evade a kite by flying into a thorn bush next to the dam only to have a leguan (nile water monitor) leap out of the bush and catch it.
Honestly, it was like the doves were under siege…
Another time a dove landed on the ground after two kites were fighting over it mid-air and the next minute I see a large male baboon sprinting over on all fours and grabbing his share. The baboon then sat there tearing the feathers off and eating what looked like chicken wings.
The predation behaviour and inter species relationships were captivating to watch. The days here passed very quickly, but it was the nights that brought something extra special…
Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, How Many Elephants Do You Think There Are?
During the Hwange 2016 Game Count 700 to 800 elephants were counted at Musuma Dam over a 24 hour period. This is a phenomenal amount of elephants and makes Masuma Dam very special indeed.
From about 5pm every afternoon the elephants would begin to arrive in numbers for their evening drink. The interesting thing here was the solar pump would work during the day and because it was such a well-used waterhole the pump would be switched over the diesel so that it could operate at night too. Usually between 4 and 5pm the solar pump would stop pumping but the moment the diesel pump started with its tell-tale tuk-tuk-tuk the elephants would start arriving on mass, obviously recognising and linking the sound of the pump with a fresh water supply.
On our first night we began putting up our tent late when out of nowhere the wind began to blow. The dust was flying everywhere and the hair on my arms was standing up as I would brush against the tent. The atmosphere was charged as a thunderstorm began to roll in.
Even with the noise from the storm we could hear the elephant sounds emanating from the waterhole.
We got the tent up as quick as we could and made our way to the hide. It was new moon and cloudy so visibility was virtually nil. Although we could barely see the elephants the noise was incredible and we could feel the tension in the air.
Elephants were trumpeting, head shaking and ear flapping. Low, deep rumbles synonymous to elephant conversation were rumbling all around us; the atmosphere was electric with lighting crashing and the wind howling!
I’m actually quite happy we couldn’t see well because the experience of using just our sense of sound to experience this huge gathering of elephants was incredibly unique and I have to say more exciting than sight!
The little bit of sight we did get was each time the lightning struck the entire dam would be lit up and we would be given an eerie moment to witness hundreds of grey shapes spread around the waterhole as they drank their full.
Eventually we went to bed but throughout the night and right up to 04.30am we could hear the noise of the elephants. They just kept coming and coming but by 06:00am there wasn’t an elephant in sight, and it was as if magically nothing had ever been there. The drama of the night was now just a distant memory.
The following night we were well and truly ready for the next show! Chris had had good success trying to photograph the elephants in the lightning storm and now that we had a clear sky and no moon the stars were about to put on a spectacular show. We just needed the elephants…
We were not to be disappointed. We estimated about 200 elephants drinking over a three hour period and being under a new moon the stars appeared as if they were hanging lanterns. It was a spellbinding sight. There was also not a breath of wind and the night air was completely still.
The atmosphere was tranquil and serene and in stark contrast to the night before, the elephants were calm and almost silent. The dominant sounds now were of the water being slurped and drank, and then thrown being thrown over their backs to cool down.
When I was growing up my Mom taught me to count a second using the word elephant. So, saying the words “one elephant” was equal to 1 second. Instinctively I always count using this method and it is accurate by the way!
When Chris was trying to photograph the elephants under the night sky I was tasked with counting the number of seconds for the exposure. As I was counting I became aware of the irony of the situation as I was using my elephant counting trick. It was a lovely way to be thinking of my Mom at such a special sighting.
The Daily Routines at a Waterhole
Our last stop was to be at Ngwelsha waterhole. As I mentioned before we normally like to drive around and find things but as everything is so waterhole focused over the dry season there really wasn’t any need to drive around.
It was so interesting to spend 24 hours at a waterhole and we began to notice that it was the same animals coming to drink at virtually the same times every day.
One of the highlights was a daily visit by a herd of five male Sable as well as their female counterparts. For me the Sable is the most beautiful of all the antelope and their huge back sweeping horns really elevate their impressiveness. They are also rare and there are not too many places where you can see them easily, so it was a real highlight to see them every day. The dry harshness of the place also gave cause to some interesting photographs.
We also had a very shy male Roan antelope who was just as skittish each day that he came in. Again this is not an animal easily seen so it was a great privilege to watch each day.
The same herd of zebra would come in as well and it was very easy to get used to the routine of it all. I was also fascinated by how predictable it all was. I did say to Chris that perhaps we needed to switch our modus operandi and just spend our time sitting at waterholes all day but as a hyperactive person all he did was give me a funny look, so I guess that is off the cards for now!
The elephants were also fantastic here, but because we had found a very small waterhole about 30kms away that was being frequented by huge herds we decided to spend a few afternoons here.
The numbers were again off the scale and each afternoon we estimated about 200 to 300 elephants. What made Manga Pan so impressive is that the water source was very small and all the elephants crowding around in such close proximity to one another was unique. It made for such an impressive sight.
Each time a new herd could be seen approaching we would exclaim in amazement…surely there was no more space!
The behaviour around this small space was interesting. Almost all the elephants were well behaved and extremely respectful of each other. Each herd would have their turn to drink at the prime spot and then quickly move on. Every once in a while there would be a little skirmish but considering the amount of elephants it was infrequent.
The crowded waterhole could be likened to a large herd of cows gathered around a feeding trough and as the elephants throughout the park were so prolific we starting referring to them as “Grey Impala”. They were virtually the only animal we would see driving around so there was plenty of opportunity to create some interesting photographs.
We had come to Hwange with the main objective of spending time with elephants and we certainly had not been disappointed.
A Lion Alarm Clock
Ngweshla waterhole is also home to a lion pride of two lioness, two tiny cubs and three young males. An absolute highlight of our entire seven week trip was the unique lion alarm clock that this pride provided to us every morning. Every morning from about 04:00am onwards we would wake to the sound of a lioness calling her pride, the deep low belly call resonating through the African bush.
We only saw them on one occasion but just hearing them call each morning was more than enough and actually enhanced the sighting when we did finally see the pride.
On the occasion we did see them it was just before sun up and the three young males were sitting on an anthill perfectly poised to catch the early morning sunrays. The lioness with the tiny cubs had already walked past our tent and had melted back into the bush. The remaining lioness was lying at the waterhole.
Just as the sun was coming up a giraffe sauntered down to the waterhole completely oblivious of the pride. In that moment the lioness froze and went into a belly crouch. The giraffe looked around none the wiser and continued to the waterhole. The lioness remained frozen.
Believe it or not a film crew was at the same sighting and for some unknown reason their guide got out the car and started walking around. The lioness lifted her head to look and the giraffe spotted her. You don’t want to hear the language that was flying around in our car!
Immediately the giraffe began to run and even though there was no chance of the lioness getting close she still gave chase.
It was no surprise that she didn’t get close and she soon gave up in frustration. Despite the human interference changing the situation it was still a great sighting.
This pride has quite a history and its lineage stems from the famous male lion, Cecil who was illegally shot by hunters in 2015.
This particular lineage has a history fraught in tragedy. Perhaps most prides have the same fate and it’s just that this pride has been so closely monitored over the years.
In the 1990’s it was a Super Pride and incredibly consisted of 33 lions. When at this size four of the males were shot (I don’t know the circumstances) and the pride then split.
After this nine pride members were poisoned when they ventured out of park boundaries and into cattle lands. They then split again and we had just spent the last four mornings listening to the roars of the descendants of half of this split.
We were very privileged to see the remains of the other half of the split, and this was the pride of the famous Cecil. I can tell you that Cecil’s strong genes shine though in an exemplary manner. I have never in all my wildlife watching seen a lioness as big as this “matriarch”. She is truly exceptional and one of the most glorious specimens I have ever seen. Cecil’s cubs are now sub adults and are doing well. Long may his genes carry through many generations…
And it was on that note that we ended our special stay In Hwange. Next, a true adventure awaited us as we headed to the eastern side of Zimbabwe and into the wild Gonarezhou National Park.
Read about last year’s trip to Zimbabwe here:
Zimbabwe 2015 Part 1
Zimbabwe 2015 Part 2