By Phyllis Dawson
Part 4
Hwange and Imbabala, Zimbabwe

July 25 
Our wake-up call came at 5:30, and we were on the road by half past six. It was time to leave Hwange. On the way to the gate Mary, Jineen, Sally, Mike and I were in Adam’s vehicle; Julian told us to be sure to ask him to stop often and back up for birds, just for old times’ sake.  
We watched the sun rise as we drove across the flat, open plain. There were more animals around this morning; impala, warthogs, zebra and giraffe. A mother elephant stood in the bushes not far from the road, shielding her small baby from our view. A rock hyrax darted across an outcropping, and a tawny eagle perched high in a tree. We stopped briefly at the Masuma blind; it was nearly deserted - there were a few birds down by the water but no animals. 
Moving on we saw cheetah prints in the dusty road, and a square stone signpost with cheetah scat on top of it. Adam explained that cheetahs had become very rare and we were unlikely to see any; very sad as they are one of my very favorite animals. We photographed the dung on the signpost - it ended up being the closest we got to a cheetah on the whole trip.

Baobab Tree

      As we neared the gate we went through an area of steep ridges crowned with ancient baobab trees. Two big kudu bulls ran across the road, with magnificent twisting horns over three feet long. A troop of baboons paraded beside the road, unembarrassed by their ugly bald butts. A dark-chanting goshawk perched in a baobab tree. Adam spotted a lone lioness; she was lying in the shade of a fallen tree, well camouflaged, a hundred yards from the road. 


     We said goodbye to Adam and Julian at the Hwange gate, and boarded a small bus which drove us two hours back to Victoria Falls. There we transferred to yet another bus, which took us to the Zimbabwe/Botswana border station. It was not time to cross the border yet; Imbabala Lodge was nearby on the Zimbabwe side. We were met by our guide Stan, who took us to the lodge just in time for lunch.   

Imbabala looks down over the Zambezi River; we could see Zambia on the other side. It was a very nice lodge, a bit fancier than Hwange. The main building had a comfortable lounging area and a bar. It had Wi-Fi; Nick was in heaven! We teased him a bit – how could he live without being connected? But in truth we were all glad to use email to touch base with the folks back home.
The lodge was surrounded by a manicured lawn, landscaped with flowers and shrubs, and shaded by many large trees. Water sprinklers worked overtime to keep the grass green. Our rooms were really nice individual rondovals with thick thatched roofs. They had raised front porches with patterns of native tile in the floor. The door had hand-carved wooden handles, and the room keys were attached to little animals made of beads.

     The dining table was out under a huge tree, with a brick walkway and patio beside it. There was a row of chairs nearby with a good view down over the river. We could see hippos in the distance, grazing on the far shore, and also a long-horned cow down by the water. A wart hog sauntered across the lawn, and from a nearby tree a go-away bird called out its non-welcoming refrain. ‘Go away. Go Away!’


     In the afternoon Stan took us for a game drive. His vehicle had three tiers of bench seats, so all eight of us fit with no problem. We started out down along the floodplain by the river.  We passed the mandatory impala, warthogs and baboons right away. 
The river flat was a birder’s paradise. Along the water there were egrets, spoonbills, a squacco heron and a goliath heron. A white-backed vulture perched in a treetop, and a pair of African skimmers flew above the reeds. As we continued through the scrubby trees Sally added a tropical boubou, a bronze-winged courser, an African stonechat and a glossy blue Burchell’s starling to her list, among others. At the start of the trip Mary had expressed disdain for starlings in general, but seeing the beautiful, colorful ones in Africa had soon changed her tune. A red-billed hornbill perched on a branch, backlit by the sun, his red beak glowing in the afternoon light.

Burchell's Starling

     A herd of African buffalo grazed near the edge of the floodplain; they eyed us suspiciously as we approached. Further upriver we came across a herd of waterbuck; they look like a larger and furrier version of our white-tailed deer. They have a perfect white circle on their hindquarters like a target, and the males have beautiful spiraled horns. Stan told us they live near the water so they can go in it to escape predators.     


     Leaving the floodplain behind, we crossed the main road and followed a track through the local game reserve. The park was a long narrow strip that went along the border; we drove in Zimbabwe but Botswana was just to our right. A fifty foot swath had been cleared of vegetation along the border, and on the Botswana side we could see houses and businesses. As far as being out in the wild goes, it was disappointing - especially coming after Hwange.
Despite the lack of isolation, there were a lot of animals in the park. A group of elephants stood near the road with a small baby. We spent quite a while watching the youngster; he was experimenting with waving his trunk and his front leg around, trying to figure out how they worked.

     Several giraffes strolled by, but they were on the Botswana side of the border so we couldn’t get close. But a bit further on we came across more, and this time not only were they in Zimbabwe, but they were close to the road – we were thrilled to have our first good close-up giraffe encounter. We stopped for sundowners and had a glass of wine while watching the sun set behind an acacia tree. Vervet monkeys played in the upper branches.

     It was quite dark by the time we headed back, retracing our route along the border. Stan drove slowly while holding a spotlight, sweeping it back and forth looking for the glint of eyes. A rabbit crouched near the road, an African hare - quite probably the animal I would least want to be in Africa. Not long after, we saw a jackal, out hunting in the dark. 
Suddenly the spotlight caught a flash of tawny movement; four lions, on the prowl! There were three males and one female, stalking through the bush, hunting. Stan guessed that they were heading to the river to wait for the buffalo herd to go down to drink. We followed the lions all the way to the paved road; they crossed it in single file and disappeared into the night.    

     Back at the lodge, we had dinner under the tree, joining about eight other guests. The food was good, but not as outstanding as at Camp Hwange. A herd of impala grazed near the lawn sprinklers, attracted by the fresh green grass. Jineen stealthily stalked them to see how close she could get, but they took off when she came near. 
There was a campfire, but it had died down to just a few glowing embers. Nick and Jineen got it going again, and we sat around it sharing some liqueur and talking. It was not like Camp Hwange, where we sat at the campfire with the guides, listening to their stories and hearing the lions and elephants call in the night. We all agreed that Imbabala was more luxurious than Hwange, but far less wild.
That evening, we learned via the internet about the shooting of Cecil the Lion in Hwange National Park. We were horrified. Personally I find the concept of trophy hunting abhorrent, and when involving rare or endangered animals it is truly incomprehensible to me. Later, upon hearing the tragic news of Quinn’s death, we had cause to wish that it could have been Nxaha that was shot instead of Cecil.

July 26 
Stan took us out for the morning game drive as the sun came up. It was quite cold; we spread the ponchos provided in the vehicle over our laps. A squirrel chattered down at us from a nearby tree, leaping from branch to branch. As we headed down to the floodplain we had to stop because a herd of buffalo was blocking the road - rush hour in Zimbabwe. A fish eagle surveyed the scene from the top of a dead tree. Hippos floated in a pink river in the sunrise. 
All of the usual suspects were there; warthogs and waterbucks wandered across the floodplain and a group of impala were silhouetted against the water. Several white-backed vultures sat in their nests in the tops of trees; through the binoculars we could see flies buzzing around them. A large baboon tried to walk underneath a kudu bull while it was nibbling from a tree; the kudu wasn’t having it and chased the baboon away.

White-backed Vultures

     Stan took us to the quadripoint where four countries come together: Zimbabwe, Botswana, Zambia and Namibia. We could see trucks lined up waiting their turn to take the ferry across the river to Zambia; Stan told us that sometimes the line gets so long they have to wait for days.
We crossed the paved road and took the same track along the border as the previous evening. We added several new birds to the list, such as the brown-crowned tchagra, the red-billed firefinch, and the white-bellied sunbird. A kori bustard walked among the bushes; these attractive turkey-sized birds are Africa’s heaviest flying bird.

Kori Bustard

     We came across a group of seven giraffes, eating leaves from the treetops. Before long they were joined by four more, one with a young baby. A big male seemed to be courting one of the females. We delighted in watching these graceful gentle creatures.


     We stopped for tea under an acacia tree. Vervet monkeys ran up the tall trunk and peered down at us from the upper branches. I collected some of the curlicue acacia seedpods that had fallen to the ground.
We headed back, retracing our route along the border. There were lion tracks along the dusty road; surely these were made by our friends from the night before. We traced the prints back to the lodge, where they turned off just before the buildings.  

     Because the morning game drive at Imbabala finished before eleven, we had arranged for Stan to take some of us back out mid-day for an extra drive. George, Rosemary and Nick stayed at the lodge, but Sally, Mike, Jineen, Mary and I, went ‘birding.’ It was a chance to really focus on the birds, and take as much time as we wanted watching and identifying them. We started at 11:30 and stayed out for three hours. Although initially I was more interested in photographing the birds than identifying the different LBJs, I soon found myself becoming increasingly interested in learning which was which - though I do have to admit I prefer the colorful ones to the LBJs.
     We started out along the river flats, where there was an abundance of waterfowl. We saw glossy ibis, green-backed herons and a black crake. Several large crocodiles lounged by the river with their mouths wide open to dissipate heat, and to our amazement white egrets stood unconcerned just inches from those powerful gaping jaws. We watched an open-billed stork fly past, the origin of his name evident by the gap in his beak. Some of the new birds for Sally’s list included the white-faced whistling duck, the coppery-tailed coucal, and the brown-hooded kingfisher. Best of all, we also saw a tiny malachite kingfisher, brilliant with a metallic blue back and rufous breast. 

Brown-hooded Kingfisher

     Moving away from the river, we followed a dirt road among the trees and scrubby brush. We passed an elephant carcass; the meat had been eaten but the skeleton remained, bound together with tough sinew and skin. Several kudus hung out in the shade, and we watched a troop of baboons. A black-backed jackal sauntered past, and a vervet monkey silently regarded us from a termite mound.
There were an amazing variety of birds; robin chats, crested barbets, wagtails, and the beautiful, colorful white-fronted bee-eater.  We saw a grey hornbill and a Bradfield's hornbill. Trying to get photos of lilac-breasted rollers in flight, we would focus our cameras on these vibrant birds, and then Stan would open the vehicle door to make them fly – even so it was almost impossible to be quick enough to get the shot, and we ended up with many photos of unfocused blurs of color and empty twigs.

White-fronted Bee-eater

     Back at Imbabala, we had several free hours to fill. At our rondoval, I watched as an ant struggled to drag a dead moth, twenty times his size, across our porch floor – several of his friends joined him to get the job done. I walked around the grounds. Doves drank from a tiny water hole beneath the trees, and blue-eared starlings pecked on the lawn. A tropical boubou perched in the big tree by the dining table. A bushbuck wandered past, unconcerned by my presence. A staff member cautioned me not to go too close to the underbrush along the edge of the lawn, as who knew what might be lurking there.
Exploring camp, I was able to get quite close to a warthog; to my surprise I saw that he had a porcupine quill stuck in the center of his face. He grazed on the lawn, kneeling to better reach the grass, the quill protruding from his forehead like a horn. Later I showed a photograph of him to Stan and told him I had sighted a new animal - the rare and elusive African Unicorn!

A Unicorn!

     At 4:30 we went for an evening river cruise on the Zambezi River. We walked down the path to the river and boarded a small barge with a flat deck. Though it probably would have comfortably held 20 people, there was just our group on board – minus George, who was not feeling well. We sat in deck chairs, and could move about the boat easily. It was a beautiful evening, and the cruise was very relaxed and peaceful. We were sorry George was not there to enjoy it with us.

On the Zambezi

     There were hippos in the water, and baboons along the shore. Swallows circled round us – Stan said they build their nests on the outside of the boat. We watched a pied kingfisher as it hovered and dived. A white-browed robin chat hopped along the riverbank, and a brown-hooded kingfisher perched on a tree root. Sally was keeping a bird list – by the end of the day she was up to 146 new birds for the trip. A small crocodile floated in the shallows; the young ones are far more colorful and beautiful than the adults.


     A little bushbuck walked along the riverbank, and a group of waterbuck browsed among the reeds. Some two hundred African buffalo came down to the grassy floodplain near the river to graze. Stan stopped the boat and brought out wine and gin-and-tonics, and served biltong, dried strips of surprisingly good meat jerky. We had Sundowners with the buffalo.


     We turned around and headed west toward the setting sun. The boat glided smoothly across the glassy water as the sky turned from pastel to deep rose. A pair of ibis flew across as we watched the sun go down behind an acacia tree.


     We had dinner back at the lodge, and afterwards Stan took us out for a night drive. George was running a fever so he didn’t come, and Rosemary and Nick stayed with him. It was very cold again; this time we wore the ponchos provided in the vehicle. 
As we went out the driveway Stan’s spotlight found several hippos that were lying down sleeping in the bushes just behind the lodge. We were surprised to see them so far from the water, but Stan told us they will travel up to 15 or 20 kilometers from the river at night if the grazing is good, returning to the water by daybreak. 
Scanning back and forth with the light, Stan spotted a well-camouflaged brown bird crouching down in the grass - a fiery-necked nightjar, another new one for the list. We turned up the familiar road along the border, and for a long while we saw nothing except the occasional impala. We passed a few elephants and a couple of giraffes, but having seen these in the daytime we didn’t pause – we were looking for nocturnal animals. Just when we thought we wouldn’t see anything new Stan’s spotlight found a civet; we got a brief look at this sleek lithe-bodied animal which looks a little like a cross between a cat and a weasel.  A bit further on we got a quick glimpse of a white-tailed mongoose as it dove into the underbrush; this is the largest member of the mongoose family, tall and handsome with a long bushy white tail.
Again Stan’s light caught the gleam of eyes, and we could faintly see several shadowy shapes moving beneath the trees. Hyenas!  It was a group of five, prowling along on the Botswana side of the border. Stan turned off the motor and the lights. ‘Bleeaagh!’  he suddenly called out into the night, imitating the high-pitched sound of a buffalo calf in distress. We waited, and Stan called again. ‘Bllleeaagghhh!!’  After a few minutes he turned the light back on - and hyenas were right there, just behind our vehicle! These unattractive scavengers were eagerly looking for an easy meal of wounded buffalo calf. We were impressed. Stan the Hyena Whisperer!  

     Back at Imbabala we heard a hyena calling - had they followed us home? I sat talking with Nick in the lounge area after the others had gone to bed. He had brought his laptop and was downloading his photos; I was a bit envious - I would have to wait until I got home to look at mine. Suddenly we heard a commotion outside; loud raucous voices seemed to be yelling, ‘Ow! Ow! Ow! ‘ We realized it was a troop of monkeys in the big tree just outside the bar.
     In the cabin, Jineen and I listened to the rhythmic sounds of the night birds. We heard the soft ascending whoo-oop, whoo-oop of the hyenas as they called to one another. Then in the wee hours of the night we heard a loud shrill noise. We couldn’t figure out what made it; it didn’t sound like a bird - was it a monkey?  We found out in the morning that it was the camp’s motion detector alarm; George had come out of his cabin and accidentally set it off. Our previous camp at Hwange had definitely been more remote and wild than Imbabala. But not as wild as where we were going next!

 ~ Continued on next page ~


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