It has been, once again, a great privilege to be part of a team taking part in the annual 24-hour wildlife population census in Hwange National Park. We were invited to join our party for the week before the count, a bonus thoroughly enjoyed by all. It's just a pity that it all went by so fast!
It's the dry time of the year, with bursts of hot wind periodically blowing up billows of dust. Middays were breathlessly hot and still and trying to spot animals in the distance through the shimmering heat haze was not easy. Most of the trees were still winter leafless, stretching up grey and drab-brown into a washed out blue sky but the Acacia Eriolobas! Wow, they were like green beacons, some with incredible spreading branches, all in full leaf brightening up the dry bush - ancient, gnarled, beautiful. During the hot, middle-of-the-day hours, small groups of elephant could be seen sheltering under some of them, enjoying a bit of respite from the searing heat; ears slowly flapping, some of the youngsters lying down and one or two of the older pachyderms resting weary foreheads against the massive tree trunks taking a quick midday nap. The Lonchocarpus nelsii were all starting to bloom, taking on a mantle of pale lilac as were some of their sister trees, the Lonchacarpus capassa, and in several places the shrubby, rather untidy common gardenia (Gardenia spatulifolia - we think!) were already in full flower, white blooms turning to yellow as the flowers age. We saw several giraffe with heads buried amongst the bushes, obviously enjoying feasting on the blooms.
As we set up camp at Ngweshla for our second night, a curious posse of arrow marked babblers chattered their way through camp and it wasn't long before a friendly crimson breasted shrike was making our acquaintance, hopping around inspecting the trailer hitch and wheels to see if it could glean any tit bits. A yellow billed hornbill was also getting in on the action and the two bird baths had a constant stream of visitors coming and going, the most breathtaking of which were the violet-backed starlings and the male scarlet chested sunbird. We had a thoroughly enjoyable and action packed morning there before moving back to Kennedy One for the next part of our adventure. We had discovered an adult Verreaux eagle owl on a nest and eventually managed to confirm that she was vigilantly guarding a chick as we saw its little head bob up and down. We had noticed another nest way in the distance with a dark 'blob' sticking up and soon discovered that the blob was actually a nearly fledged tawny eagle chick, almost as big as the parent birds but still very white and fluffy underneath. Spotting a black backed jackal trotting along, we noticed it was following the progress of an adult tawny that was feeding on what looked like a steenbok fawn. We followed the bird as it flew from tree to tree, carrying its grisly cargo; tiny legs and head sadly dangling down before it eventually flew up into the nest, allowing the fledgling to snatch up the prey and greedily guzzle the remains. Kori bustards were all over the place - we saw eight - and one of the cock birds spent the whole time arrogantly and constantly strutting his stuff, neck fully inflated, black crest up and tail feathers splayed. A pair of ostriches, - the male was a particularly handsome, jet black with his bright pink shins and feet - kept a wary eye on thirteen chicks, the chicks' new growing feathers looking very hedgehog like, as they wandered along, pecking away. At one stage mother ostrich stretched up her neck, looked around in alarm, fluffed out her wings and puffing up to double her size, took off at speed towards three bat-eared foxes which had appeared out of nowhere. We weren't sure if they were after a baby ostrich breakfast, it being quarter to nine in the morning, but mother ostrich was having none of it and saw them off in no uncertain terms. Daddy ostrich took very little notice!
Not only was there a constant flutter of birds looking for water, animals were continually streaming into the pan for a drink. Strings of wildebeest, impala and zebras in small groups, four stately kudu gents and a delightful small herd of roan antelope plodded down. Two sable antelope bulls disturbed the peaceful scene, galloping down to the pan, bucking and snorting and we were treated to some amazing animal behaviour as one bull chased the other right into the water and refused to allow him to leave. They were having a serious confrontation and stood glaring each other, huffing and puffing before charging each other in a spectacular clash of horns and heads accompanied by some shrill vocal screaming. After a while, the bull out of the water sauntered off away from the pan until we could hardly see him while the other one in the water kept an eye on him, gingerly edging his way closer to the edge of the pan. Satisfied that his opponent was far enough away, he started walking off in another direction. A small group of ellies had arrived at the pan and were peacefully enjoying a morning drink when the sable came galloping in once again - the bully had obviously spied his adversary walking off and it seemed that he hadn't given his permission for the poor picked on fellow to leave. In they roared again, quite upsetting the herd of elephant and much bellowing and yodelling was the result, clouds of dust billowing up from elephant and sable alike and adversary was back in the pan with bully giving him the eye from the bank again! Quite astounding and some of those magical bush moments we were fortunate enough to observe.
And so on to Kennedy One for four nights with the rest of our team. We all had a very brief obscured view of Jericho the Lion who had been seen hanging around close to K1 but he was doing what lions do best - sleeping the day away in deep shade. He was heard roaring during our first night there and huge pugmarks seen close to the camp gate the next morning undoubtedly belonged to him! The second night was also punctuated by lion calls and more spoor seen but none of us got a glimpse of any of the felines. Coming back in the late evening a herd of elephant were walking rapidly away from the pan when a leopard was fleetingly spotted dashing across to the road. Sadly we were unable to follow its progress in the dusky light as it disappeared into the scrub. Drives along the loop roads were also enjoyed and we eventually managed to find the elusive racquet tailed rollers near the end of the one of the loops. One afternoon we headed on down to Mbiza to have a look at the water situation there where the solar panel is keeping a reasonable amount of water in the pan. While there a fairly large herd of buffalo came down with several elephant and the pan was surrounded by a huge troop of baboons digging through the elephant dung, some dexterously climbing up and down the Ilala palms, youngsters cart wheeling and playing on the various anthills while a grumpy young dog baboon stood atop an anthill barking his head off. We enjoyed a spectacular sunset before returning to camp, and later learned that Cecil's pride, the cubs and their mums ,had been seen not far off, safe and full as ticks after feeding on a zebra. Another day everyone headed off in different directions but all eventually managed to see a cheetah at Makwa. Going through to Main Camp for a meeting, two of our party had prime viewing of the lad drinking from the pan very close to their vehicle and as we went through to resupply with ice, we had a lovely view of him lying on an anthill before he slouched off on a hunt. Unfortunately, shortly after we left on our ice mission, we missed seeing the animal take down a young kudu and the next time we saw him, he was almost in the middle of the Makwa pan on a bed of weed, feasting on his ill-fated catch. He was extremely muddy and tatty looking, not at all like the sleek, glorious cat we'd seen earlier! Another morning we all took a hot, dusty trip through to have a late breakfast at Jambile. That part of the park obviously didn't enjoy a very good rainy season and was extremely dry. After enjoying a good cook up at Jambile where we chatted with fellow counters we'd met the previous year, we went to have a look at the state of Manga One. Water there was not good and the pan was crowded with elephant, some of whom were getting a little touchy and grumpy, stress levels from lack of water starting to take their toll. Coming back through to Caterpillar, we had the most fantastic view of a bateleur eagle dipping its feet in the pan while it drank and a little while later the most gorgeous female white headed vulture dropped down showing off marvellously for the paparazzi.
Moving back to Ngweshla on Saturday we set up camp with several other counters and again enjoyed watching the birdbaths with their crowd of visitors and the succession of animals coming down to the waterhole. The camp was bustling with anticipation on Sunday morning as all readied themselves for the coming adventure and after we had packed up, we waited for various the teams to arrive before setting off in convoy. The Wilderness concession must surely be the prime concession in the park and some of the country travelled through was awesome. The start of the drive was rather chaotic and it became a bit of a rodeo show as some vehicles became bogged down in the deep Kalahari sand. But as we progressed and counters peeled off to their respective pans, the going became easier. Our team had been allocated Ngamo and after assisting another team to find their counting spot, we settled in for the duration, having been warned by Pat Cox who did the pre-game count fly over, that there were several large and small pans in the immediate vicinity.
The massive open plain in front of the main pumped pan where we based ourselves was quite daunting for animals to cross to find water and there was certainly no cover for the skittish ones. Two zebra could only just be discerned in the middle of the vlei as the midday heat haze shimmered and swam. The whole time we were there, numbers of vultures and yellow-billed kites swooped around but because we were quite a way from the tree lines, birding wasn't as good as usual. Two grey crowned cranes were busy around a second waterhole behind us and were joined the following morning by a saddle-billed stork. There were, we estimated, well over a hundred blacksmith lapwings at the pumped pan we were facing and in amongst them was one lone African wattled lapwing. Fossicking around the edges of the pan were several wood sandpipers, one Kittlitz's Plover, a little stint and a common greenshank. There were several capped wheatears darting about and we were kept amused during a quiet period watching an adult flitting from one mound of elephant dung to another, gleaning food to feed a begging youngster. A couple of kori bustards were seen, the cock bird was puffed up and strutting his stuff and two long legged secretary birds could be seen stalking around the vlei. Elephant plodded in in dribs and drabs during the day, and overnight a few larger herds of twenty or so came in. All the animals were fairly calm except for one herd of elephant that came down shortly after midnight with some tiny babies and were obviously spooked by something at the last minute, as they dashed off in a cloud of dust with noisy trumpeting. During the 9 - 12 shift, two lionesses were spotted some way off and they probably drank at one of the smaller natural pans. Every now and then, black backed jackals vocalised with their eerie cries - one starting up then others joining in. Several spotted hyenas were around, occasionally whooping, and some stately giraffe also came along to the pub. Baboon, impala and warthog came and went during the day, as well as small herds of wildebeest, some of the older male gnus lying down making black blobs in various spots around the vlei. Although the 'blood' moon eclipse was quite spectacular, sadly the count was rather spoilt by the lack of light from almost quarter past three until nearly five o'clock early in the morning. It was almost impossible to pick up anything in such dull light. During the darkest moments, it was eerily silent - no nightjars called, the jackals were quiet and even the crickets seemed to stop chirping - until the peace was shattered at about ten to five by four Egyptian geese having an altercation.
The following morning a herd of a hundred impala crossed to drink at a smaller natural pan down in a dip which we couldn't see and shortly after we were treated to a large herd of sable with a magnificent bull crossing to drink at the same small pan. Two of our party had a good sighting of a lioness when they went to collect another team of counters at the end of the exercise. Unfortunately, by the time they had returned to call the rest of our party, the lioness had been disturbed and only some of us had a fleeting glimpse of her as she moved off into thick bush, delivering a deep-throated snarl as she departed.
Driving back out of the Wilderness concession was more organised and only one vehicle became bogged down briefly. We stopped at Samavundhla pan to take photos of the lone great white pelican that was paddling around on the water. Having a damaged wing and unable to fly with its family, it is now confined to the waterhole. And so back to Ngweshla, which was crowded with counters regaling their adventures, and after unpacking, we were all very happy to head for the shower. The following morning on a leisurely drive back to Main Camp, we were treated to a wonderful last sighting of between four and five hundred buffalo tramping in to drink at Kennedy One pan. It was impressive seeing the seemingly endless line of black emerging from the tree line, making its way almost in single file along the vlei before reaching the water.
Many people commented on the lack of water in the park - mainly in the Main Camp area. Unfortunately, National Parks are not providing much diesel for game water at the moment. Most, if not all, the fuel to pump water for the animals is currently being provided by sponsorship and donations collected and dispersed by Friends of Hwange Trust, with some help from WEZ Matabeleland, Bhejane Trust and some of the concessions. The solar units are doing a great job but in some areas cannot keep up with the numbers of animals needing to drink. Gary, employed by FOH, has to do the majority of the work with the pumps and engine units as well as refuel them asides from all the other work he is expected to carry out in the Main Camp area. He works closely with the Parks team and has a very good working relationship with them. There is little point sitting back and complaining. We KNOW nothing is going to change. If we want to continue to enjoy our visits to Hwange National Park and the stunning array of creatures and flora it can offer, we HAVE to get on with it and do everything we can to preserve this wonderful heritage. Please, have a look at the Friends of Hwange website www.friendsofhwange.com and see what they are currently doing for the cause. For a small donation, there is a lovely new map of Hwange with fabulous pictures and a write up which has been produced by FOH. These are available from John Brebner at Acol in Bulawayo, or from Dave Dell in Harare.
Written by John and Jenny Brebner