Posted on Saturday, 20 October 2012
After a long Great White shark season Chris and I are often very ready to spend time in the bush. Not that we are wanting to get away from the sea but very often the season has changed bringing strong wind and unpleasant conditions in Cape Town. So, for this reason we normally try to spend some time in the bush with terrestrial predators. This time period is also the peak of the dry season and after many months of no rain some interesting situations can develop between predators and prey.
This October we decided to spend one month at two Zimbabwean Wildlife parks; Hwange and Mana Pools. October in Zimbabwe is known as “suicide” month due the extreme temperatures and the unrelentingly uncomfortable conditions. I thought I had prepared myself for this but once we were in it we all found it to be extremely oppressive and there was just no way of getting away from it.
Day temperatures were between 42 and 46 degrees Celsius and at night it barely cooled down to 35 to 38 degrees Celsius. With no break from the heat I often found myself irritable (sorry Chris) and at night it was virtually impossible to sleep.
Needless to say our discomfort level gave us a very real indication on what the wildlife were experiencing.
Hwange National Park
In both Hwange and Mana Pools the locals told us this was the driest they had ever seen the Parks. Water is not a problem as waterholes are pumped at Hwange and Mana Pools is located on the Zambezi River. It was food for the herbivores that was causing much stress for the animals.
In Hwange we found the elephants to be in very poor condition, a direct result of no food. Driving around this was extremely evident. I can only describe the bush as a war zone. Trees had been stripped bare and there was no grass to speak of. Everything that could be grazed had already been grazed.
When herds of elephant gathered around the waterholes to drink they were extremely aggressive towards each other and there were daily fights that ensued. The elephants were also forced to forage throughout the night as they were not getting enough food during the day. Each night I would lie awake listening to intense elephant scuffles. There was much screeching, screaming and trumpeting as I guess they fought over the resources. The night air also sometimes punctuated by a roaring lion.
Just listening to these night noises really sent my heart racing, and even though we could not see the animals the whole listening experience was extremely raw and intense, a very different wildlife experience.
Hunting Fish Eagles
One of the highlights of Hwange was spending time at Makwa Waterhole. A pair of fish eagles had set up camp here due to a readily available food source. The barbel in the waterhole had started spawning and as they came to the watery grassy area to lay their eggs the fish eagles would swoop down to catch them. They would do so a number of times a morning so we patiently sat watching their every twitch. The time spent here provided some dramatic moments of fish eagles soaring across the water whilst hunting. What was interesting to note was that one fish eagle seemed to be the more “dominant” hunter and would always be the one to initiate the first hunt. As soon as he was successful the other fish eagle would automatically swoop down, almost like a knee-jerk reaction; if you are hunting, then so am I!
At this same waterhole there was also a very aggressive and territorial male Egyptian Goose. I nicknamed him “Super Goose”. He became quite visibly upset when other animals would come down to drink. He would fluff up his chest and make a really raucous noise. A herd of kudu were particularly disturbing to him and his chest puffing turned into a full scale attack as he flew into one kudu a number of times. As he did so the kudu tried to get away from the goose and hurtled right into a large crocodile that was sleeping on the bank. The croc got such a fright that it reacted with snapping jaws as it was startled by the kudu.
All these unique interactions were amazing to watch and it is definitely behaviour like this than can make time spent patiently waiting so worthwhile.
For the second part of the month we headed a few hundred kilometres north to Mana Pools. This was my first visit here and I can tell you that it provided to me some of the most unique and exiting African wildlife experiences yet. In Mana Pools you are allowed out of your vehicle to walk in the bush. I at first felt pretty uncomfortable and wary doing this, you kind of feel like you need to check each and every bush every few meters! But, being here during the heart of the dry season meant that the bush was very open and you could see clear ground around you. Also, the animals here are used to people walking and are far more relaxed than in other areas. The elephants especially were not bothered at all. Of course we still had to be cautious on every occasion and only approach an animal after carefully making sure the animal is relaxed and that we would not be disturbing it.
The Magic Tree
The first few days were quiet in terms of seeing predators but we had come across a very large Fig tree that was dropping its fruit. As such a huge variety of animals consisting of elephants, impala, eland, baboons and warthogs were reaping the benefits of this fruit bounty. In fact we called it “The Magic Tree”.
We would arrive here just before sunrise each morning. All the animals were already gathering at the base of the tree to feast. The baboons would be feeding in the tree and as such much fruit was dropping as a result of their disturbance.
The sun was rising behind the tree so all the animals were backlight in a soft red and orange glow and as they would walk around the dust would rise around them creating a soft hue around them. As the fruit dropped to the ground puffs of dust would rise up and it appeared as if golden drops of rain were falling. It was quite intensely beautiful.
The noises were also incredible. The baboons were constantly fighting and aggressive males would chase each other up and down the tree. The screeching noise at times was sometimes quite harrowing, especially when a pursuer was caught, and the background to all this was the occasional fish eagle cry and the low base sound of ground hornbills calling. To me this was the true essence of Mana Pools and this kind of experience was in the same league as seeing predators in action.
We probably had our best ever elephant experiences in Mana and although there are many that I could tell you about I only have space to share a couple. Our camping area seemed to be in the middle of an elephant highway down to the Zambezi River and every day we would have many different elephants walking past our tent. There was a particular herd of four elephants that would come every day around lunchtime. I took to calling them “Mrs Stumpy Tail and her friends”. Mrs Stumpy Tail had most likely been attacked by a lion at some stage and had more than half her tail missing, so this group was very easy to identify. They must have been very used to people as we could stand easily within ten meters of them as they would casually saunter by or stop to feed on our huge shady tree. It became a little routine that I would look forward to their visit every day, and there was always huge excitement as soon as we spotted them in the distance.
We also had a very close encounter with a tiny baby elephant. We were actually sitting watching all the animals under the magic tree when we came across a mom and very young baby elephant. It still had very pink ears indicating that it was not more than a few weeks old. It seemed it was just old enough to start exploring its surroundings. Chris was out of the car, lying on the ground taking photographs. The baby elephant became very curious of our car and it seemed intent on approaching for a closer look. It is never a good idea to be too close to a mother and calf (the females can sometimes be aggressive) so I started moving our car away from it. It kept following me to a point where a lodge vehicle had stopped in front of me and I could not go any further. The baby elephant saw its chance and ran up to our front left tyre, and began rubbing and scratching itself against it. I couldn’t move anywhere and I definitely became nervous when the mom started moving towards me. She stopped about three meters away but was actually really relaxed with the situation. My heart was racing and it definitely was a unique encounter that I will remember for a long time.
We were also able to watch an elephant mother with an even smaller calf, maybe only a few days old, over a period of four days. Because the calf was so young they could not travel very far and in the tough conditions the tiny baby needed to rest very often. The reason I mention this pair is that it was incredibly endearing to see how well this mother looked after her baby. She was highly protective and very nurturing and caring when the calf needed help with anything. Just a very special bond to have witnessed.
Wild dogs are endangered animals and there are not too many parks in Southern Africa where you have a good chance of seeing them. Mana Pools is famous for wild dogs but that doesn’t always mean you will get to see them. When we first arrived the locals had not seen the pack that regularly comes here in three weeks. We therefore thought that our chances would be good as at some point they would be coming through the area again. Our first week yielded no dog sightings, but the second week was brilliant.
We found them late one afternoon and for the following five days we were able to spend time with them every morning and afternoon. The great thing about spending time with wild dogs is that they are always doing something. They form packs that are highly social with each adult dog having a specific role. All roles eventually contributing to the wellbeing of the pack. This pack was twenty five dogs made up of fifteen adults and ten pups that were of “pre teenage” age.
It is amazing to watch the interactions in the pack and I certainly feel that we as humans can learn a lot from them in terms of how they are not selfish and are always looking at the bigger picture. Even though they are predators they were not at all aggressive towards us when we were sitting close to them. Yes, when they hunt they are lethal but this is only in order to survive. For the rest of the time they are actually very relaxed and really like to have fun playing with each other, just like our dogs at home!
We were able to walk in the bush with them and on three occasions when they had successfully caught impalas we were able to sit ten to fifteen meters away from them, as they fed, with absolutely no problems at all.
They normally rest during the middle of the day and then as late afternoon approaches the pack will slowly start to wake up. The pups will start by doing a funny routine where they beg for food from the adults. They make a high pitched whining sound and then adopt a submissive posture right in front of the adult dog with their tails madly wagging. The adult may then regurgitate food for the pup. Sometimes all the pups will engage in this behaviour at the same time which makes for an incredible noise to emanate through the bush. Shortly after this the pups will start to run around and chase each other. Sometimes they will pick up sticks or leaves and a game of chase begins. Invariably the adults will also be roped into the game.
At some point during this playing the lead dog will walk away from the pack and silently stand surveying the immediate area. It is time to hunt … A signal is given and immediately the whole pack converges and set off at a fiery and definite pace, they know exactly what needs to be done. It is always difficult to keep up with the pack while they are on the run. They move incredibly fast through the bush and it is very easy to lose them. Their greatest weapon is that they can keep up this speed for long periods of time and their average success rate is 70%, extremely high for a predator.
One evening they emerged onto the flood plain and almost immediately four dogs began chasing two impala and two warthogs. The four animals that were being chased burst out of the bush at intensely high speed, each with a dog in hot pursuit. The two warthogs dived down a den hole and the other two impala managed to get away. The scene was complete mayhem and I didn’t know which way to look. It was all over in the blink of an eye.
Dancing Elephant and Wild Dog Interaction
But I am saving the best interaction for last …
One of the mornings we had left the pack about one kilometer in the bush. They had not hunted in the morning so we planned to get there in the early part of the afternoon and just wait with them. Just as we were about to settle down with them (they were still sleeping) I heard an elephant feeding in the tree behind us. I looked behind me just to make sure we were ok, and I noticed that it was one very large elephant! Some of the large bulls in Mana have become very famous for standing up on their hind legs in order to give themselves higher reach in order to reach the best leaves of the trees. At the moment there is only one elephant in Mana that currently is able to do this … and here he was! I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, the chances of finding him were so small and here he was, right next to the wild dogs and he was doing his “dancing elephant” trick.
We immediately went closer to him and managed to see him getting up on his hind legs about eight times. It almost looked like he had to psyche himself up to do it. He would bring his front legs back and then almost assume a squatting position before hoisting his front legs into the air. From there they would dangle as his trunk reached as high up as possible. It was such a jaw dropping sight, kind of like seeing a huge shark breach out of the water.
As he moved off from feeding on this tree he almost walked into the pack of wild dogs that were sleeping under another tree. Immediately there was tension… There is no way a pack of wild dogs could threaten a large bull elephant but he still didn’t like them much and straight away he mock charged them. The whole pack stood up as one and the alpha male took a stance in front of the charging elephant. This dog was so brave and completely stood his ground in front of the pack. The elephant did a number of charges that just increased the energy in the pack.
The dogs were scattering around the elephant, almost like they were teasing him. Dust was flying and the elephant was trumpeting like crazy. The scene before us was almost unreal and definitely the best bit of wildlife behaviour that we saw on our month long trip.
I can’t end off this trip report without mentioning something about the special Zimbabwean people… Many of you would know that there has been political instability for many years now and as such people are not keen to visit here. Despite this we found the wildlife in the parks to be amazing, in fact we are already planning our next trip back. But, all the Zimbabwean people we met were extremely friendly and helpful. We met some wonderful people and this certainly was a highlight of our trip too.