On the right track


hr_geoffreydean_dsc5372It’s great to hear of a national park that is thriving, and whose challenges are the result of its successes. So we sent Geoffrey Dean to Hwange for an enviable visit to see what kind of experience is on offer.

The three lionesses had been snoozing contentedly in the shade of an anthill near Ngweshla Pan. It had been a hot day, but as the sun prepared to set and the temperature dropped one of them wandered over to some thick vegetation fifty metres away. There she made her call. Seconds later, the cubs emerged from their den, delighted that their enforced hours of hiding were at last over. There were eight of them.

They can have been little more than two months old, born within just a week or two of each other, and they were as keen to play as they were to suckle. Soon, they were clambering all over the anthill. Finally, one made it to the top. Peering down anxiously, it took it several minutes to pluck up enough courage to make the descent. Predictably, it landed in a heap on one of its siblings.

Then, apparently from nowhere, two huge males appeared. It would have been a dangerous moment had they been interlopers. But the bigger of the two was their father, a massive, magnificent black-maned specimen. Named Cecil by the Hwange Lion Research Project team, he is thought to have the largest head ever recorded in southern Africa.

Wandering over to the cubs, he growled good-naturedly. Then, when two of them started to play with his tail, he back-heeled one gently out of the way, like a Springbok number eight rolling a rugby ball back to his scrum-half.

We watched this scene for nearly an hour. At last the light started to fade, and the eight cubs were led away by the five adults.  The group padded past our vehicle so close we could almost have leant out and touched them. We were the only vehicle there, and we had been privy to a sequence that wildlife film-makers would have died for.

This scenario was the first of several. We came across the same lionesses and cubs on two other days, although never again with the males. Such has been the rise in lion numbers in Hwange in the last fifteen years, in contrast to the worrying fall elsewhere in Africa, that over twelve days, in many different parts of the park, I enjoyed multiple sightings.

Hwange offers an abundance of wildlife experiences. It is vast, covering 14,600 square kilometres, and supports up to 40,000 elephants depending on the time of the year. One of the most exhilarating walks I ever had in an African national park was with one of Zimbabwe’s top guides, Nic Polenakis, a director of African Bush Camps.

On that occasion, leaving Little Makololo lodge at around 5pm, we thought we might encounter a few elephants on their way to the pan by the camp. We ended up being encircled by several breeding herds and a number of lone males. In the thick vegetation few of them could see us, but those downwind would have taken our scent, and it required a cool head and notable judgment calls from Polenakis to find a gap. Picking our way past a couple of large males, who flapped their ears somewhat theatrically at us, we carefully extricated ourselves, making sure that one chap in particular, a big male in musth, remained upwind and unaware of our presence.

An unusually long encounter with two cheetahs came at The Hide. The pair – a mother and her fully-grown male offspring – came down to drink at the waterhole in front of the lodge at around four o’clock one afternoon. They then decided to hunt for bushbuck in the long grass right in front of one of the tented chalets. Stalking stealthily for twenty minutes or so, they provided us with some wonderful photographic opportunities before decamping to an anthill near the pan. From there, they could survey Kennedy vlei and any wildlife open to ambush. In the event nothing came down, but for a full hour before they wandered off I was able to observe them barely 40 metres from my verandah.

Rewarding wildlife encounters never seem far away in Hwange. It has the highest diversity of mammals (well over 100) of any national park globally, plus over 400 species of birds. Driving out from Davison’s Camp early one morning, we encountered a black mamba on the dirt road. On the huge open area that is Ngamo Plain we watched two lions mating. Later we found what looked like a dead zebra foal in the middle of a track, only to notice it was still breathing. In fact, it was sound asleep, with its mother grazing unconcerned twenty metres away. We watched it for a while until it woke up, took fright at the sight of the vehicle and bolted back to its mother.

Wildlife is so plentiful in the northern and eastern regions of Hwange that there are more conservation projects here than in any other park in southern Africa. Studies are being conducted on numerous species – lion, leopard, cheetah, hyena, wild dog, zebra and elephant.

Hwange possesses nearly half the elephant population of Zimbabwe (estimated at 82,500 last year, in the continent-wide census sponsored by Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft). However the park’s population density of three elephants per square kilometre compares worryingly with the figure of one per square kilometre considered optimal to avoid potentially irreversible impact on the physical environment.

Similarly, the park’s lion population has now reached carrying capacity, in the view of Jane Hunt, who has overseen the Hwange Lion Research Project since its inception in 1999. In that year there were an estimated 200-250 lions in the park, a figure that has happily risen to between 400 and 500. A total of 15 prides, as well as 12 male coalitions, are being observed using radio telemetry.

Predation of livestock by lions in areas surrounding the park, especially on the eastern boundary where villages are directly adjacent with no fences, has led to intense wildlife and human conflict there. In 2014 lions killed 60 livestock. However that figure was down from the 80 recorded in 2012, after the adoption of the Long Shields lion and livestock guardian programme.

Offending individuals have been collared, allowing the research team to warn villagers if they stray out of the park. They have then been chased back into it with the use of vuvuzelas, which found fame in the 2010 football World Cup in South Africa. “The lions can’t stand the sound of them,” revealed Brent Stapelkamp, the head of Long Shields, who himself employs an old British Railways foghorn for the same purpose.

The over-abundant elephant and lion populations have prompted the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZPWMA) to redouble efforts to make a success of the KAZA-TFCA (Kazungula-Zambezi Trans-Frontier Conservation Area). The idea behind this huge combination of land masses, which stretches over five contiguous countries, is to provide corridors between a succession of ranges that are large enough for elephant and lion in particular. It comprises numerous national parks aside from Hwange: in Botswana, Chobe, Moremi, Nxai and Makgadikgadi Pans; in Zambia, Kafue; in Angola, Luiana; and in Namibia, Bwabwata in the Caprivi Strip. Also included are national forests, hunting concessions, conservancies and pastoral/agricultural areas.

Although wildlife from Hwange is slowly dispersing within KAZA-TFCA, the park still faces one major issue: the question of water. The problem is not insufficient water but the distribution of it. Hwange has only three small seasonal rivers in the northwest of the park, plus some natural springs and seeps. The remaining water is provided by natural ephemeral pans in the early dry and wet seasons, and from 60 pans supplemented by boreholes and pumps. These can come under severe pressure in the dry season, particularly from elephants requiring up to 200 litres of water each per day.

The key long-term question for Hwange is whether the water supply is drawn from ancient fossil reserves or recharged by rainfall. Data analysed so far by Professor Gary Haynes of the University of Nevada points to recharge alone being insufficient. Further research, though, is required to be absolutely sure. A recent park management plan, drawn up by Ian Games in 2014 (and supported by the African Wildlife Foundation), stipulated that the redistribution of water should be achieved by the rehabilitation of old boreholes rather than by drilling for new ones. The cost of restoring old boreholes, as well as maintaining current ones, has to be borne largely by safari companies, since ZPWMA is so cash-strapped. Just how much of the funding  it will receive from the controversial sale abroad of young Hwange elephants last year remains to be seen.

Understandably, safari companies are looking at ways to reduce the cost burden involved in pumping water. Due to low rainfall in Zimbabwe at the start of 2015 pumping had to start unusually early, in late February. Solar-powered pumps are increasingly in evidence, as they are much cheaper to run than diesel models, as well as having a smaller carbon footprint, but they can deliver only 35,000 litres  per day. Diesel, by contrast, provides 100,000 litres daily. At the popular Ngweshla Pan, the Friends of Hwange charity have paid for two solar pumps that yield a total of 70,000 litres per day.

Notwithstanding the inevitable depletion of vegetation around the pans, there is still a richly varied habitat in Hwange, including expansive teak forests and mopane woodlands. Above all, it offers many different experiences in different parts of a park that is, after all, roughly the size of Belgium or Wales. There is accommodation for all budgets – from luxury to self-drive camping – and you can visit it at any time of the year. Indeed, many prefer it in the wet season when it is at its most beautiful. Such as me, for one: I wouldn’t have seen my playful cubs if I had visited later in the year.

With special thanks to African Bush Camps and hosts at Wilderness Safaris, Imvelo Safari Lodges and Sable Sands.


Accommodation in Hwange

A good selection of facilities are available for all budgets and types of travel. Here’s Geoffrey Dean’s thoughts on the camps he visited.

Sable Sands: the Queen and Prince Philip stayed here in 1991. Great location at the eastern end of Sikumi vlei. Owner-run, relaxed, homely atmosphere.
Miombo: mid-priced treehouse-style tented chalets. Newly-built stables to offer riding safaris.
Khulu Ivory: super-luxury tented chalets in stunning location overlooking vlei. Elephants come to drink from the swimming pool.
Ivory Lodge: attractive cottages with good viewing hide.
Camp Hwange: high-quality set-up deep inside the park, two hours northwest of Main Camp. Specialises in walking safaris.
The Hide: award-winning lodge operating since 1992. Ideal location on Kennedy vlei. 30-metre tunnel built last year from main verandah to pan, giving guests remarkable close-up views of game. Night game drives possible.
Somalisa: superb camps that have been rebuilt this year. In one of the best locations in the park, near Ngweshla Pan. Outstanding guides include Albert Paradzai, ex-park warden. Supports Mambanje School, near Dete, and Main Camp School.
Bomani: located outside southeastern entrance to park. A hide hidden in a buried old railway container gives guests superb close-ups of wildlife. A tram transfers guests from Main Camp, 70km away. Delightful. Strong support for local communities.
Camelthorn: new uber-luxury lodge in forest 5km from Bomani.
Little Makalolo: delightful, first-rate small tented camp in a fine spot in front of big waterhole. Good game viewing; Ngweshla Pan and Ngamo Plains within striking distance.
Davison’s: not far from Little Mak, slightly smaller and less luxurious tents. Named after Ted Davison, the first warden when the park was designated in 1928.
Linkwasha: completes the triumvirate of Wilderness Safaris properties. Due to reopen in May 2015. Ultra-luxurious with fantastic location on Ngamo Plains.

More information
There is some remarkable research and community work taking place in and around Hwange. Here are links to a few of the projects worth checking out:
African Bush Camps Foundation   www.africanbushcamps.com
Cheetah Conservation Project   www.cheetahzimbabwe.org
Painted Dog Conservation   www.painteddog.org
Hwange Lion Research Project   http://www.satibtrust.com/en/projects/hwange-lion-research/
Friends of Hwange   friendsofhwange.com

First published in Travel Africa edition 70, Spring 2015