By Phyllis Dawson
Part 2
Hwange, Zimbabwe

      We had an excellent late lunch at Hwange around three-thirty, and then were shown to our rooms. Four cabins stood on each side of the main lodge, with plenty of space between them for privacy.  The cabins had tent-like canvas walls and thatched roofs, and large screened windows that ran the full length of the room on the side facing the water hole. There were twin beds with heavy blankets encased in mosquito netting. The shower area was accented by zebra tiles, and had a good view out over the plain. There was a door out to a little verandah at the back, where we could sit in camp chairs and look out at the water hole. 

The Water Hole at Camp Hwange

       At four-thirty we gathered in the common area for the afternoon game drive. The staff had prepared a magnificent chocolate cake for afternoon tea, but we had just finished lunch so were too full to eat it. The cake looked delicious and the staff was amazed that we declined, and in fact later on I regretted not having had a taste. I hope the cook was not insulted.
I climbed into Adam’s vehicle, along with George, Rosemary, Nick and Gina, and the camp owner, David, went with us. Jineen, Mike, Sally and Mary (the birders) were in the other vehicle with Julian.   
We drove a narrow dirt track across the mopane-veldt, flat land covered with short scruffy mopane trees that had mostly been eaten off by the elephants. The air was crystal clear and the sky a deep blue. We crossed open plains of thick dried grass, golden in the sunlight, and went through several pockets of teak forest.  

     Right away we found a big herd of buffalo, hundreds of them. Formerly known as Cape buffalo, we learned that they are now known as African buffalo. They are massive, with thick muscular bodies and heavy curved horns - the big bulls can weigh up to 2000 pounds. We noticed that many of them had oxpeckers perched on their heads and backs. These medium-sized grey birds pick off ticks and parasites; I suggested that they should more properly be called buffalo-peckers.


     The big bulls at the front of the herd were snorting at us aggressively. Due to their unpredictable nature, the Cape buffalo is considered to be one of the most dangerous animals in Africa. David told us they are not really as bad as people think when in a herd, but that the older bulls can get very grumpy when they are on their own. 
A herd of elephants came into view in the distance, and behind them were a group of zebras. How incredible to be able to sit in one spot and watch all three species! Julian told us that both elephants and buffalo will defend wounded members of their herds from lions.


         We stopped by a small waterhole where several elephants were drinking. Adam drove near them, but Gina was afraid and did not want us to go any closer. She became very agitated, telling us that she had been on a game drive once where an elephant charged the vehicle. David got in the back seat to talk her through it; he calmed her somewhat but it was still evident that she was frightened. We found this surprising; we were not that close to the elephants and the situation did not seem to warrant fear.

        The sun was getting low in the sky, and Adam drove us to a spot where we could watch a lone elephant silhouetted against the sunset. Then we moved on to a large waterhole where we stopped for sundowners, an African tradition where you find a place with a lovely view and have a drink as you watch the sun go down.
There were hippopotamuses in the water, mostly submerged, with just their eyes, ears and nostrils showing above the surface as they watched us. Half a dozen elephants stood along the far shore drinking, and while we watched more came, and yet more again. They spread out around the water hole in the dusky light; before long there were over a hundred elephants surrounding the waterhole.  
We got out of the vehicle and Adam poured us each a glass of wine. The hippos stuck their heads up out of the water and called out in deep raucous voices. More elephants filed in – soon there must have been 150 of them all around us in the gathering darkness. As they moved around the waterhole, several of them came within 50 feet of us. The sky was a deep mauve, and bats flitted around overhead. Several big ellies moved even closer and David told us to get back in the vehicle; he said that elephants don’t see vehicles as a threat, but they might view humans as one. We watched them in the fading light, and listened in awe to their trumpeting voices. Sundowners with 150 elephants; who would have thought it!


     It was dark by the time we moved on, and Adam drove holding a spotlight, sweeping the beam back and forth searching for the glowing eyes of nocturnal animals. We got a fleeting glimpse of some springhares hopping through the dark – they are like a cross between a rabbit and a miniature kangaroo. We had a brief look at an African wildcat as it crouched in the tall grass. Then we got a radio call; a lion had been spotted!
We left the wildcat and Adam took off, driving fast to get to where the lion had been seen. But suddenly Julian’s voice came over the radio: STOP! Don’t come close, be careful!  A male lion had chased Julian’s jeep, and he was warning us not to approach. I was immediately envious; I wanted to have been in the vehicle that got chased by a lion!  We proceeded slowly, but as we neared where the lion had last been seen there was nothing but dense brush. David said it was not safe to go in any closer, because there was no place to turn around fast should the lion attack.   

     When we returned to camp and met up with Jineen, Sally, Mike and Mary, we learned the whole story. They had been driving along in Julian’s vehicle, searching with the spotlight for small nocturnal creatures, when suddenly a huge black-maned lion leaped out of the bushes and went for the vehicle. It was very close, and chased them as Julian hastily accelerated away. After a hundred yards the lion stopped and Julian turned to watch it, cutting off the motor.  
As the big cat lay down, Julian told them that this particular lion was very grumpy, and was known to be aggressive. His name was Nxaha, which means ‘one testicle,’ because he had lost the other in a fight - which might explain his bad humor. After a few minutes Nxaha got up and roared, then sprayed to mark his territory. Then he charged the vehicle again!
Nxaha covered the ground quickly while Julian hastily turned on the motor, did a fast U-turn and accelerated away. Mary had the presence of mind to take a photo of the lion coming at them. Nxaha chased the vehicle aggressively, running beside it, just feet from where Sally was sitting; it was exhilarating and terrifying for those involved. After a hundred yards or so the lion stopped the chase - at that point Julian radioed to Adam and warned him not to approach. I was really disappointed to have been in the other vehicle and missed it all!    
Julian told us that Nxaha was well known among the guides for being different from the other lions; he was unpredictable, and didn't give the usual warning signs before charging. He was famous for chasing vehicles when in a bad mood. He had formed a coalition with another male lion, Vusa, who was the opposite in personality, very docile and amenable (at least as lions go). Nxaha was getting old, maybe 13 or so, and was fairly thin. Perhaps he was feeling a little desperate.  

     Back at camp we had drinks around the campfire and discussed the lion adventure. We were served Amarula, a liqueur made from the fruit of the African marula tree; it was excellent, much like Bailey’s Irish Cream. I had recently gotten a new camera with a very high-powered zoom, and I played around taking photos of the moon; the magnification was so good you could see the craters.

     We had a very good dinner of roast pork. A woman had arrived at camp with her 13 year old granddaughter, bringing the guest total up to eleven. We sat around the table with our hostess Ruth, and with guides Julian, Adam and Quinn, and camp owner David, all of whom were white Zimbabweans.    
Dinner conversation centered on the Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) government. I had read about the conflict and strife this country has endured, so it was really interesting to hear what it was like from two of our guides, Julian and Quinn, who had lived through the farm seizures and ‘land redistribution’ of the past decades. It was evident that despite the government leadership problems, these guys were proud of their country. Quinn explained that when things had gotten really bad under Mugabe’s dictatorship he had thought about leaving the country like so many others had, but then he realized that if things were ever to improve it was up to people like him to make it happen. So he had stayed and done his part, working toward improving his country through promoting wildlife conservation and tourism. It was quite inspiring to hear him talk about it.
Quinn also discussed the elephant dilemma with George: in the past the elephants migrated across the continent, but in modern times they can’t because of loss of habitat. During the dry season game reserves such as Hwange pump water from bore holes for the elephants so that they stay in the park, but now there are more elephants in the area than the land can properly sustain. There are no easy answers; the food sources run low if the elephants stay in one place for too long, but there is no place left for them to go.

After dinner we sat around the campfire again. We could hear lions calling in the distance, and the high-pitched yipping of the jackals. Frogs croaked loudly just outside the dining area. Julian told us that when it came to the game drives, he and the other guides were totally motivated by FOMO, or the ‘fear of missing out.’ Nobody wants to be the one to miss the lions!  
Adam escorted Jineen and I back to our cabin. We could hear an elephant tearing branches off the trees as it fed, maybe 150 feet from the cabin; from the back verandah we could just barely glimpse him in the dark. We could hear the faint sound of the generator, running the pump through the night to keep the watering hole filled.
We shivered in the crisp air; African winter nights are colder than one might think.  Crawling into our beds beneath heavy wool blankets, we were delighted to find hot water bottles nestled under the covers.  We lay and listened to the sounds of the African night; the trumpeting of elephants and the soft inquisitive ‘whoop whoop’ of a hyena passing by. In the wee hours we heard the lions calling again, proclaiming their territory.

July 23
I had dreams of lions all night; they were coming for us in our tent! All of the guides and staff were huddled in the cabin with us, carrying pitchforks to fend them off. Heavy claws were scratching at the door, and we could hear sinister growling just outside the window. We knew the canvas walls would not hold them for long. A huge paw, with claws extended, slowly slid under the door . . . it was a relief when I finally woke up. 
A pleasant voice called good morning to us at 5:45 - our wake-up call. Jineen had seen some lights out by the waterhole before five; we later learned that it was Adam driving around scouting for the lions we had heard the night before. Whenever lions are heard in the night, the less experienced guides take turns scouting for them very early the next morning.
We had a quick bowl of porridge and set out on the morning game drive at 6:30. Again we took two vehicles; George, Rosemary and Nick and I rode with Julian, along with an apprentice guide, Stephen. July is winter in Africa and it was quite cold, so we wrapped ourselves in the heavy wool blankets provided in the open Toyota. As the sun rose, we drove along narrow tracks across the golden plains and through the mopane scrub, searching for wildlife.  

     There is plenty of wildlife in the game reserves in Africa, but finding it can be a challenge. The guides know the area well and know where to look for the animals, but there is no guarantee you are going to see them. The hunt is half the excitement, and there are surprises at every turn. 
We saw impala and warthogs right away; they were there on virtually every game drive of the trip. We searched for traces of the lions we had heard in the night. We hadn’t gone far when we noticed a cloud of dust in the distance; soon a huge herd of African buffalo came into view, moving in a line across the plain. Julian said they were going for water, and we would drive ahead to the water hole to wait for them - it turned out to be the one right in camp! 


     We waited in anticipation by the large shallow pond, and soon we could see the line of buffalo in the distance, coming our way. The other vehicle was there as well with Jineen, Mary, Sally and Mike. As the first line of buffalo reached the water their reflections were mirrored in the still surface for an instant, but the image was shattered as the huge beasts plunged into the water. They barged in by the dozen, pushing and shoving for space to drink, and we watched them in awe. A herd of buffalos drinking is a spectacular sight! Julian estimated there must have been about 350 of them, strung out in a ragged herd, taking turns in the water. There were a number of calves among them, staying close to their mothers’ sides. We watched them, fascinated - though I did notice that Sally was soon scanning for birds.

     When the buffalo finished drinking we moved on.  We hadn’t much luck finding the lions, but there were some amazing birds. We stopped to watch an African hoopoe, with its distinctive long pointed bill and tufted topnotch. A lilac-breasted roller sat on a branch; these magnificent birds display a veritable rainbow of colors. With a flash of iridescent turquoise it flew off, even more beautiful in flight. 
A grey go-away bird perched in a tree. He called out to us in his grumpy voice, Go Away! Go Away!’  It was obvious how these birds got their name. These somewhat parrot-like birds used to be called grey lories, but Julian told us that the biologists have officially changed their names to be consistent with world-wide designations; they have done this with a number of birds and animals.

Lilac-breasted Roller

Grey Go-Away Bird

     Francolins are another example; I was surprised to learn that these ubiquitous partridge-like birds are now called spurfowl. I asked Julian if francolins and spurfowl are the same thing - well, not exactly, it seems. Apparently all francolins are spurfowl, but not all spurfowl or francolins. Or was it the other way around? Sally would know.
A magnificent tawny eagle perched atop a tree. I wanted to stop for a photo but Julian was in a hurry; he said they were common and we would see others. I decided I would go with the birders on the next drive.  
We drove for miles through wide expanses of stunted elephant-eaten mopane trees. (Elephants have a lot to learn about conservation of resources.) We crossed flat plains covered with wispy golden grasses and patches of teak forest, shady and inviting. We compared notes on places we have visited; Nick said this was by far the most remote place he had ever been in his life.
Julian stopped by the road in a wooded area with many large rock outcroppings known as kopjes. Another vehicle was already parked there so Julian decided to have a bit of fun; he wrote a note saying ‘Spike, this is MY territory!’ and propped it on his friend’s hood with pieces of elephant dung. Then we set out for a walk through the bush.
It felt good to get out and stretch our legs. Julian carried a rifle, and we traveled single file through the scrubby forest. The apprentice guide, Stephen, brought up the rear, wielding a tool that looked like a cross between a caveman’s club and a tomahawk – it gave him the look of some fierce tribal warrior of old.

Stephen, apprentice guide, ready for action..

     Several impala stared at us in alarm before disappearing into the brush. We got a glimpse of a rock hyrax high up on an outcropping, and watched as the furry little creature darted into a crevasse. Julian showed us some cone-shaped holes in the sand that were made by ant lions; these tiny creatures are the larval form of lacewing flies, and they make the funnel-like holes to trap ants. Julian took a twig and gently brushed it along the rim and the little creature shot a stream of sand up, trying to knock an ant into the hole. It was amazing to watch.
Everyone is familiar with the Big Five; the lion, the elephant, the buffalo, the leopard and the rhinoceros, traditionally considered the most dangerous African animals to hunt. But now we were seeing one of the Little Five, which consists of the ant lion, the elephant shrew, the buffalo weaver, the leopard turtle, and the rhino beetle. Seeing the small things you might miss while driving is what makes a walking safari so special.
We came across the flattened ovals of elephant footprints in the creek bed, and Julian explained how one could tell the age of an elephant by its tracks. As they age they have fewer wrinkles, and their feet become worn smooth on the back, leaving a smoother footprint. 
We climbed a kopje and scanned the plain; Julian was searching for a lone bull elephant in hopes we could get near it on foot. We saw a band of female with babies in the distance; it would be far too dangerous to approach a breeding herd because they aggressively protect their young.  
Julian pointed out the conical lairs of the funnel-web spider, and trees laden with dozens of weaver bird nests. We came across a set of kudu horns, twisted and graceful - probably something had eaten their owner. Antelope have horns, which do not shed, and deer have antlers, which do – that is one way you can tell them apart. We also saw an ant crystalized in the sap of a mopane tree, sort of like the dinosaur DNA trapped in amber in Jurassic Park.  When we returned to where we’d parked, Spike’s vehicle was gone, elephant dung and all.  

     We drove through a network of small dirt roads, looking for whatever we might find – but the animals seemed to be in hiding. Julian paused to replace a sign that had been knocked down by the elephants. Then we went back to the blind at Masuma dam; this is where the action was! Crocodiles lazed on the shore while impalas and warthogs came down to drink. Guinea fowl scurried along the water’s edge, busy and quick.

     But best of all were the hippos. They floated serenely in the water with just their eyes, ears, and nostrils above the surface. Then the big bulls would raise their heads out of the water and laugh; the sound they made was a deep HA HA HA, both comical and somewhat sinister, reminding me vaguely of Jabba the Hut. It was a marvelous sound, and we couldn’t help but crack up each time we heard them.

     Hippos spend most of their time in the water, though they do come out on land to graze, mostly at night. Oxpeckers perched on their backs and heads, flapping up into the air when the hippos submerged and landing again as soon as they surfaced - I commented that they really should be called hippopotamus-peckers.
But when the hippos started to play-fight it was a sight to behold! They would rear up out of the water in mock battle, nose to nose, with mouths open wide displaying dagger-like teeth in apparent fury. It was amazing how far they could hold their mouths open, and their fangs were well over a foot long. At first we weren’t sure if they were fighting in earnest, but it became apparent that they were passing the time, perhaps practicing for future conflict. 


     We returned to camp all too soon for me - the other vehicle stayed out an hour longer. Julian’s wife, Ashley, was in charge of the food at the camp; at lunch she introduced us to their small baby. In the afternoon some of us washed our personal items in the shower; the camps have excellent laundry service but they don’t like to do one’s ‘delicates.’
We had a bit of time to explore the camp. Nick, who does marathons, was running back and forth the length of the camp to keep up his fitness. A lilac-breasted roller sat on the wall near the common area; one of the guides told us they were feeding him to entice him to stay around camp. I stalked a lizard that was hanging out on the woodpile. We reflected that we had come at the perfect time of year; the weather was lovely, warm with clear blue skies in the day but cool at night, and there were virtually no mosquitoes or annoying bugs.  

     Tea was served at four, with delicious pastry twists. (We never did find out what became of the chocolate cake from the day before.) We set out on the afternoon game drive at 4:30; I went in the birder vehicle with Mary, Jineen, Sally and Mike. Adam and David were guiding, and Gina joined us. Gina was sick - every time she coughed I imagined I could feel her germs spewing all over me.  
We took our time and looked for birds. We saw abundant francolins and guinea fowl, and an attractive brown, black and white bird called a coucal. We told Adam we wanted to get a photo of a magpie shrike and a yellow-billed hornbill, and he found both for us right away, posing in good lighting. The little bee-eater was one of my favorite birds, brilliantly colored in green and yellow. We saw several impressive birds of prey, such as an African hawk-eagle and a black-chested snake-eagle.


    And of course, there were the ubiquitous LBBs, or ‘little brown birds’. Alternatively, Sally called them LBJs, which stands for ‘little brown jobs.’ The bird watchers often spent considerable time trying to identify some nondescript LBJ, checking the bird books and using binoculars to see such distinguishing features as the color of its eyebrows or the underside of its tail feathers. I personally wasn’t worried about whether we were looking at a southern white-crowned shrike or a white-crested helmet shrike, but rather spent the time trying to get photos of the elusive little suckers. It was very clear to me that by slowing down and taking the time to identify the birds, we got to see a whole lot of things we might have missed otherwise, and had a much richer experience for it. 
However, looking for birds and other easily missed creatures  was a far cry from what happened next!

 ~ Continued on next page ~

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