AFRICA 2015

By Phyllis Dawson
Part 3
Hwange, Zimbabwe

 
 
     We were searching the area where the lion had been the night before. We saw his footprints in the dusty roadway, and once we heard a distant roar – the sound can carry for up to five miles. Looking out across the plain, Adam spotted a bull elephant in a small pool, and he altered course to get near it, parking behind a concealing clump of trees. It became clear that the guides had a plan – we were to approach this elephant on foot!
    
David asked Mike if he would be able to walk a hundred yards or so with his artificial leg. Mike, always remarkably agile climbing in and out of the vehicle and getting around, gamely said he was up for it.  David briefed us on what to expect - he even talked Gina into it. 
    
As silently as possible we crept past the trees, walking close together and trying to avoid stepping on the crackly leaves. We stopped beside a large termite hill about 75 yards from the elephant. He was still standing in the pool, calm and relaxed, eating some marsh grasses. We watched him in awe.

  

     Presently the elephant started walking in our direction. Amazingly, despite his huge bulk his footsteps seemed to make no sound. As he moved silently toward us he suddenly became aware of our presence, and he did not like it. He quickened his pace aggressively, waving his trunk and flapping his ears. We marveled at his enormous size as he closed the distance to us; everyone knows elephants are big, but you don’t truly appreciate how big until you are standing on the ground as one charges at you. I felt a surge of excitement, but I totally trusted the guides; I continued to photograph the elephant as he loomed closer and closer in my viewfinder. When he completely obliterated the frame I started to wonder if I should be afraid.

    When he got to within twenty feet of us, he side-stepped, raised his trunk, and trumpeted confrontationally. At that point Adam stepped up, holding his rifle, and spoke to the elephant. ‘Hey big boy, that’s enough.’  At the sound of his voice the elephant, startled, quickly veered off and hurried away. 
     We compared notes excitedly, high on adrenaline. We all agreed it had been an awesome experience. David explained that when the elephant first saw us standing in a group he didn’t necessarily recognize us as humans, but saw us as a possible threat. When Adam spoke, the ellie identified us as humans and moved away.  He told us that when an elephant charges with his ears flapping and trunk raised, it is a mock charge, designed to intimidate. When he attacks in earnest he will pin his ears straight back against his body and tuck his trunk up between his front legs to protect it. Good to know.

     Leaving the elephant, we resumed our hunt for lions. We went to the area where we had heard the roar earlier, and immediately David spotted a large black-maned male lion, lying in the tall grass on the far side of a clearing several hundred yards away.  We had found Nxaha, the bad-acting coalition brother, who had chased Julian’s vehicle the previous night. We were too far from him to get a good look in the fading light, but David wouldn’t let us go closer. Julian’s vehicle joined us, with George, Rosemary and Nick, and we all settled down to wait and see what the lion would do.

 
Nxaha

     Nxaha got up, yawned and stretched like a housecat, and sprayed to mark his territory. Then he started walking toward us purposefully, his manner threatening. It was obviously his intent to chase us off, and he succeeded; as he picked up speed Adam moved the vehicle to avoid an attack. Apparently content that he had made his point, the lion lay down again. Julian moved his vehicle closer so the others could get good photos, but Gina was freaking out so Adam couldn’t take us nearer.


Nxaha

     David said that Vusa, the other lion in the coalition, might be nearby as well. Sure enough, we soon found him sleeping in the tall grass. David explained that Vusa was placid and calm, not aggressive like Nxaha. Adam drove closer to the sleeping lion, but again Gina freaked out. This was getting ridiculous! The other vehicle drove right up beside him, but because of Gina’s fears we could not. David tried to calm her down but she was frantic. Going on safari seemed an odd choice for someone so afraid of animals. 
    
Then Vusa stood up, had a yawn and a stretch, and walked forward. He had a tawny coat and a caramel-colored mane. One does not appreciate how large a lion is until you see one up close. He was magnificent! Suddenly he stopped and let out a mighty roar, his whole body straining with the effort. He gave a long series of bellows - a fierce, mournful sound that reverberated through the night. There is nothing quite like the roar of a lion; it is the sound of raw power. When you hear it you know that you are in the presence of greatness. There is a reason they call the lion the King of the Beasts! 

 
Vusa

     When Vusa finished his impressive performance, he lay down and closed his eyes. We left him sleeping and headed back to camp for drinks and dinner. We recounted the day’s adventures and compared notes; George, Rosemary and Nick had also approached an elephant on foot with Julian, and had an experience much like ours. Between the elephants and the lions, it had been an outstanding afternoon.
     Jineen had been in the other vehicle in the morning, and had gone walking with David. He had told them a story:  When God created the hippopotamuses, God wanted them to live on land but the hippos wanted to live in the water. They couldn’t agree, so God made a compromise. He said the hippos could live in the water, but since the crocodile already lived there and ate the fish, the hippos were not allowed to eat fish, but must come out of the water and eat the grasses at night. And to make sure the hippos kept their end of the bargain, He made them have very soft runny poop and spread it around by flicking their tails, so that God could check to make sure there were no fish bones in it.  
    
Sitting around the campfire, we heard the lions calling again, the quintessential sound of Africa.
There was a half-moon shining, and Venus and Jupiter were bright in sky. We asked our guides about their scariest ever wildlife encounters, and all of them told stories involving lions.
  
     Later in our cabin we could hear the elephants going by. From our verandah we could see them in the moonlight, walking past not far from our cabin, and we could barely make out more shadowy shapes by the water hole. We heard the lions in the night, distant, and again much closer in the wee hours of the morning. The most exciting sound in the world, and my enduring memory of Africa.

July 24

    
Our wake-up call came at 5:45 again; normally I hate getting up that early but in Africa I never mind – I can hardly wait to see what adventures the morning will bring. Today we had arranged to pack a lunch and go on an all-day game drive. Sally, Mike, Jineen, Mary and I climbed into Adam’s vehicle, and Julian came along as well.  George, Rosemary and Nick were feeling a little tired, so they planned to go on a morning drive with Quinn, and then stay in camp for the afternoon. Gina was leaving that morning, so we didn’t have to worry about her phobias. 
    
It was very windy, and for quite a while the plains were deserted, with not so much as an impala to be seen. Julian said that when it is windy the animals tend to hunker down and not move around much, making them harder to find. But we did see a great many birds, and spent some time identifying and photographing them. A few of the new ones we saw included the southern white-tailed shrike, the fork-tailed drongo, the red-billed teal, and the Cape turtle dove. An African hawk eagle soared overhead. I won’t attempt to name all the birds we saw, but Sally kept an accurate list which I will include at the end as an appendix. 
    
Sally had started the morning with 81 new birds for the trip, and David had promised she would get to 100 by the end of the day. Adam predicted 120. We were making a good start. Often, glimpsing an unidentified bird as we went by, we would call out to Adam, ‘Stop! Back up!’ Then we would spend a good while with the binoculars, trying to distinguish between the LBJs (little brown jobs). Was that an arrow-marked babbler or a southern pied babbler? The only difference might be a tiny stripe under the bill of the color of its eyes. I found myself increasingly fascinated with identifying the different birds.

    
We entered the teak forest, where we were surrounded by lovely tall trees - it was much prettier than the mopane-veldt where the tops of the stunted trees had been eaten off by elephants. The dry leaves were a medley of yellow, rust and red, like autumn foliage. We passed a number of large termite hills; when Mary asked Julian about them he gave us an interesting lecture on the life cycle of termites. The queen is around 7 inches in length, and lives up to 10 years. All of the others are workers, and each has a specific task catering to the needs of the queen. The workers are only about 2 inches long and live for just a few weeks. Julian told us about how they construct their mounds and farm food in them; it was fascinating to hear about their life cycle. 
    
We got a good close look at several yellow-billed hornbills, perched in a tree regarding us with tilted heads. With their long black and white tails and oversized curved beaks they are a quintessential symbol of Africa. Often they flew alongside the Toyota in distinctive swooping flight patterns.


Yellow-billed Hornbill

     Julian told us that the female hornbill finds an abandoned burrow to make a nest in, and then molts all of her feathers to line it. The male then seals the nest closed, and she stays inside, safe from predators, to hatch the eggs and raise the young. Her mate feeds her and the chicks through a small hole, only opening the nest and letting them out once the babies are old enough to fly.  
    
A dainty double-banded sand grouse crossed the road in front of us, with a tiny chick by her side. They were exquisite. The fuzzy chick crouched down in the leaves, perfectly camouflaged, and was instantly almost invisible. Julian carefully parted the grass so we could get a close look at it. 


Double-banded Sand Grouse

     Suddenly Adam stopped the land cruiser and pointed out an African Barred Owlet perched high in a tree. It is amazing how the guides can sight elusive birds and animals while driving! This lovely little owl peered down at us with a wise expression. A bit further on we saw a purple roller, much less common than the lilac-breasted variety. A Gabar Goshawk perched on top of a tree.

 
African Barred Owlet

     Three southern ground hornbills were running through the underbrush by the road. These large black birds forage for food on the ground and can live up to 30 years. Julian told us they are endangered, and have become quite rare. They are cooperative breeders – each pair is assisted in raising their young by at least two other birds. With vivid red patches of skin around their faces and throats, they are not very attractive.  
    
We came to a crossroads, and a Hwange vehicle was there waiting for us – the driver had brought Julian a spotting scope. We stopped for tea at a campsite under the trees. Arrow-marked babblers splashed in a birdbath, and a squirrel peered out at us from a hollow tree.  

 

Tree Squirrel

     At last, the animals!  Having seen none all morning, suddenly in a few minutes time we saw impala on the right, baby warthogs in the left, zebras in the road, and elephants crossing just behind them - all at the same time! The elephants drifted off and disappeared in the bushes, but we stopped and watched the zebra for quite a while. I couldn’t get enough of these brightly striped horse relatives, with their big round ears and Mohawk manes. 

 

     We moved a short way to a nearby waterhole, which was inhabited by some ducks and Egyptian geese. A blacksmith lapwing waded near the shore, another bird whose name has been changed by the biologists – it was formerly known as a blacksmith plover. These handsome black, grey and white birds are named because of their alarm call, which is said to sound like a blacksmith’s hammer hitting an anvil.


Blacksmith Lapwing

     We saw a crested barbet, an emerald-spotted wood dove, and a brilliant blue-eared starling. An African hawk-eagle flew overhead, soaring in lazy circles as he rode the air currents. While Sally and Mary tried to identify another LBJ, I continued photographing the zebras out the back of the vehicle. 

     Further on, we encountered more elephants. A large female with crooked tusks mock-charged us; she flapped her ears and waved her trunk to intimidate us into yielding the right-of-way. It worked. She was the herd matriarch, protecting her family. More than a dozen elephants crossed the road in front of us, and we realized they were clustering around a young baby, shielding it from our view.  
     
There was a flash of movement, and a dainty female steenbok darted under a bush; these petite antelopes are less than two feet tall. A few minutes later we spotted her mate lying in the grass, camouflaged among the rust-colored mopane leaves, sporting tiny spiked horns. A dwarf mongoose perched atop a termite mound. This handsome little mammal is somewhat weasel-like in appearance, lithe and slinky, brown with reddish eyes.


Dwarf Mongoose

     We stopped at the Masuma blind again and there was plenty of action; the variety of animals to be seen there was amazing. The hippos were playing, rearing up out of the water in pairs, mouths open wide as they grappled with each other. A troop of baboons came down to drink, bringing several small babies with them. Several large crocodiles lounged along the edge of the water, and we spotted a baby croc on the far shore. A big monitor lizard walked along the bank. A group of impala cautiously approached the water, warily putting their heads down to drink, but jumping back fearfully at any real or imagined threat. Several waterbuck joined the impala, drinking side by side with them. An elephant waded in the shallows, drinking and splashing to cool off. We saw another new bird for Sally, the water thick-knee. If we had more time we would have loved to spend a whole day there, watching whatever came down to the water.


Impala

     We went on to the Mandavu dam, the large reservoir we had stopped by when we first came in to Hwange. As we arrived we saw five giraffes on the ridge, the first we had seen since the sunset cruise the first night. They were not very near the road, but we watched from a distance as they browsed in the trees, their nimble lips neatly separating the leaves from the thorns.

     Coming down to the edge of the water, we could once again observe an incredible variety of wildlife from one spot. Ahead of us a narrow island was inhabited by a raft of sleeping hippos, half a dozen huge crocodiles, and several yellow-billed storks – they were all very close together  and apparently unconcerned with each other. A dead tree stood out in the middle of the reservoir, and two fish eagles perched on a stick nest high in the top of it, tending their chicks. These regal black birds with white heads look very much like our bald eagles, but with the white extending further down their chests.

   A goliath heron, the world’s largest heron, waded in the shallows, along with egrets, sacred ibis, and African skimmers, among others.  We watched a pied kingfisher hunting out over the water; this amazing black and white bird would hover in place almost like a giant hummingbird, and then dive straight down into the water to grab a fish.
    
A small group of buffalo came down to drink, along with a family of warthogs, and a waterbuck dozed nearby.  A baboon watched us from a nearby tree. We could see a herd of elephants on the far shore, drinking and splashing at the edge of the water.  The giraffes we had seen earlier made their stately way along the ridgetop in the distance.
    
We followed a narrow track through thick woods to the opposite end of the reservoir; there was a much greater variety of trees this near the water. A huge candelabra tree stood near the road, like an overgrown cactus, and a little tree squirrel peered down on us from on top of it. A rock mongoose darted over an outcropping, small and quick.  Spotting an unfamiliar bird, once again we asked Adam to stop and back up - it was a green wood hoopoe, another one for the list.

 
Mongoose

     At the far end of the reservoir there was a picnic area set on a high balcony overlooking the water. Bleached skulls of an elephant, a hippo and a buffalo decorated the platform. Julian and Adam brought out a delicious lunch the Camp Hwange staff had packed for us, and we ate while gazing out over the water. Using the spotting scope, we could see spoonbills and herons on a small island far out in the reservoir, and spy on the fish eagles in their high nests. With binoculars we watched the elephants on the far side of the water. Some very large crocodiles swam in the water straight down below us.  
    
Adam drove us down to the very end of the reservoir. An African harrier hawk walked along the shore, picking his way through the mud. We were much closer now to the elephants on the far shore; when they finished drinking they turned and filed quietly away in to the trees. 
    
Heading back through the woods, there was an impressive array of birds. Blue-faced waxbills, yellow-fronted canaries, a black-backed puffback and white-browed sparrow weavers. And wait; stop, back up Adam – a Bennett’s woodpecker, tapping on a tree!


Blue Waxbill


White-browed Sparrow Weaver

     We heard the ascending whistling notes of a pearl-spotted owlet. ‘Watch this,’ Adam told us as he stopped the vehicle. He whistled, imitating the call, and sure enough the little owl swooped down straight at us. The tiny pearl-spotted owls are very territorial, and this one was ready to challenge what he perceived as a rival encroaching on his territory. We were in awe of Adam’s owl-calling abilities.  
     We were running late; Adam said we had to make the gate at the blind by six o'clock, but we kept seeing interesting things to stop for; a family of warthogs by the road, kudus near the reservoir, and a buffalo rolling in the edge of the water.


Warthog

     The giraffes we had seen earlier were continuing along the ridge, and there were zebras silhouetted against the skyline. Finally Adam coaxed us to leave Mandavu by telling us, ‘This is good leopard light.’         
     We stopped again at the Masuma blind on the way home. This time there were dozens of elephants there, lining the whole far bank. We could only stay to watch them for a few minutes, as Adam said that if we weren’t through the gate before six we would be shut out. Further on we saw yet another group of elephants, making their way along a dry riverbed beneath a red sun setting. 

     As we neared camp we met up with Quinn driving the other land cruiser with George, Rosemary and Nick. ‘Wait - weren’t you all planning on taking the afternoon off?’ I asked them? ‘FOMO,’ Nick answered succinctly. Fear of Missing Out. 

     Gathered around the campfire back at Camp Hwange, we recounted the day’s adventures. Sally reported thirty new birds for the day, bringing the total to 111. George, Rosemary and Nick had gone on a walking safari with Quinn, and Nick’s GPS showed they had covered six miles. We’d had a great day, but I was sorry to have missed that!
    
We all sat around the long dining table and had an excellent meal. I pulled two ticks out of my hair, despite Julian saying it was the wrong time of year for them. They were quick little buggers, a bit of African wildlife I hadn’t bargained for. 
    
After dinner we sat around the fire a while longer, and then the guides escorted us to our cabins. We paused for an elephant that crossed in front of us as it walked right past Mary’s room. During the night we heard the elephants again, very loud, trumpeting and splashing at the water hole. We listened to them for a long while.

Later:
    
Several weeks after returning home, we learned the tragic news that Quinn, one of our guides at Camp Hwange, was killed by a lion while on a walking safari. He was leading a group of guests on foot when they came upon a pride of lions. Nxaha, the same lion who had chased our vehicles, got up and moved toward the group. At Quinn’s instructions his guests made noise to deter the lion, and it turned away. Quinn let off a loud noise-making device to be on the safe side and the lion backed off even more. But then, suddenly and without warning, Nxaha turned and charged. With no time to use his rifle, Quinn moved between the lion and his guests. The lion attacked him, biting him severely, and tragically Quinn was killed.  He was a fascinating person who cared deeply about conservation and wildlife. We mourn his passing, but take some comfort from the fact that he died doing the job that he loved.

 ~ Continued on next page ~


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