Having decided this year to forgo participating in the annual game count, we were delighted to be invited to join Australian friends out on a visit to Africa for a few days in the Park. Visiting the northern end of the park in the middle of October is not for the feint hearted but although it was very hot at times, it wasn't as unpleasant as we were anticipating. Our friends travelled through to Robins from the Falls and had an excellent one night stay at Big Toms before we joined them at Masuma for a two night camp. Travelling through to Sinamatella from Hwange, we were, once again, appalled at the coal mining going on and could not even begin to imagine what the devastation must look like from the air.
Arriving at Masuma, there were, as usual, several other day visitors and as it was still very hot, we left setting up camp until later in the afternoon. While watching a few comings and goings at the pan, we became aware of a couple of waterbuck and a herd of impala with heads up, very alert and after scanning around, realised that there was a pride of lion resting up in the shade some way off to the left of the hide. Of course, everyone now alerted, set off in pursuit! We initially came across seven of the supposedly 22 strong pride that commandeer that area - a large full maned male lying away from the others camouflaged against a termite mound, one rather thin cub probably a year or so old with a couple of teenagers and three lionesses sheltering in what little shade they could find. A few other members of the pride were seen by some of the game spotters a bit later in the afternoon.
Having been told that the elephants had seemingly disappeared after a bit of rain that fell earlier in the month, we certainly had a constant stream of elephant coming into the pan, appearing ghostlike out of the dry bush, with a few of the animals taking the opportunity for a good, splashy bath. Early in the evening, lion could be heard calling close by and there were periods of the night punctuated with sudden elephant bellows. The hippo from the pan had wandered behind camp for their nightly foraging and we could hear them moving about while emitting the odd grunt or their grumbly haw haw.
Next morning we took a drive along the Lukosi Drive and although we didn't see a vast amount of game, it was a pleasant drive through to Mandavu despite some of the rockier parts of the road. Our visitors wanted a quick look at the Sinamatella camp so we stopped off briefly to have a cup of tea at the restaurant. Down in the vlei there was an amazing sight of a herd of 500 to 600 buffalo as well as giraffe, warthog, zebra and impala and the restaurant manager pointed out another ten lion - yes, also resting up in the shade - which we could pick out with the aid of our spotting scope. A bateleur soared overheard and there was a constant stream of little birds alighting on the bird bath right in front of us. Stopping off at Mandavu to cook up mid morning brunch, we were so disappointed to see the place seething with fishermen. We are aware that fishing is allowed and of course, it being a Saturday morning, lots of colliery folk were obviously out. However, it was horrifying to see that netting was going on at the far side, in the back bay to the right of the hide. Mandavu is a place for loads of waterbirds, including the skimmers which we saw, so it is distressing to see that this is taking place and, we suspect, illegally. The camp and surrounds were pretty run down too and rather unkempt which was disappointing. We were supposed to camp there for one night the next day but decided against that, going through to Main Camp for the night instead. As we were packing up, one of the Wilderness vehicles came in with visitors and had a message to say a cheetah had been spotted on the Salt Pan road so we all headed off for a look. Lying pretty camouflaged in the shade was a dog cheetah (we think!) - gorgeous creature and not all that concerned about two truck loads of tourists and us looking at him. Back at Masuma in the heat of the day, we rested up and kept ourselves occupied watching the activity at the bird bath. So many birds flocking in and we also discovered a pair of red billed woodhoopoes darting in and out of a hole in one of the fence poles, obviously feeding young. We enjoyed a gorgeous sunset that evening while watching several elephants bathing, being kept amused by the crocs trying to catch doves, amazed at the speed with which they struck, hearing and then seeing the double banded sandgrouse flock in to drink and once again, close by, lion calling. Elephant were munching just outside the fence, within a few metres of our tent overnight.
We packed up fairly early the following morning and headed off through the park to Main Camp, stopping off at the various pans along the way. Water generally is still excellent, heartening to see at such a dry time of the year, with the solar units certainly doing their job. There is still a bit of natural water in Dwarf Goose Pan, Shumba was great as was Shapi, White Hills and Guvelala with the new pan at Boss Long One developing nicely. It has been many a year since we saw Nyamandhlovu so full of water. There were some vast tracts of the park that have succumbed to veld fires this year so we travelled through some pretty devastated areas. Hopefully the rains aren't too far away. Luckily the double lodge we'd booked for the following night was free so we were able to move in there - thanks to George in the booking office who went the extra mile to accommodate us. When it was slightly cooler, we set off for Caterpillar and Dopi - had to chase a couple of teenaged baboons having fun on the solar panels at Caterpillar! - and on through to Nyamandhlovu and Balla Balla before returning to camp. Nothing particularly spectacular seen but we enjoyed a beautiful red sunset at Balla Balla.
Next morning we set off for the southern reaches, down towards Ngweshla. Sadly, the Makwa platform was in a disgusting state as baboons had wrecked the place - someone had left one of the toilet doors open along with a bag of rubbish so it was in a filthy state with the cistern lid bust, toilet paper shredded and rubbish littered everywhere including several broken beer bottles, the chairs in the platform upturned and of course, liberally festooned by baboon defecating everywhere. How distressing that yet another fine asset is not being looked after. We stopped off instead at Kennedy One for a cup of tea while enjoying the birds coming down to the bird baths there. A Rovos Rail train was in so we passed streams of vehicles laden with passengers coming back from Kennedy Two on our way down. There was a pack of painted dog lying on the edge of Kennedy One pan, obviously FULL of food, and most of them appeared to have been in the water or were still sitting with their front paws in the water while they dozed. This was at about nine o'clock and they were still there lying in the same spot when we came back later in the day.
Unfortunately, having decided to take one of the loops into the erioloba forests on the far side of the vlei before Kennedy Two, we got bogged down in the sand and discovered that our Australian friends had not rented a 4 x 4 as they had thought! However, enough said and after spending a very hot hour or so digging ourselves out, we got to Ngweshla for our brunch looking like we hadn't bathed in several weeks! We all took a turn under the cold shower at Ngweshla, clothes and all! Under a very shady erioloba tree on the far side of the pan, we found Cecil's pride sans the big male, doing what lions do best, particularly in the heat of the day. Just as we were about to go back to the picnic site, having come to the conclusion that they wouldn't be moving, one of the young lionesses popped up and we realised that two zebra were slowly making their way through the bush very close to where the lion were sleeping. Two of the young lionesses started on a stalk and it was exciting watching the interaction playing out. One of the youngsters almost succeeded amid the scuffle, the zebra giving a hearty kick and making off in a cloud of dust. The rest of the pride all sat up, moved around a bit before settling back down again.
Our trip back to main camp was largely uneventful. In the evening, we went to Safari Lodge for dinner and were delighted to see that the whole place was looking good, the gardens had been smartened up and there were actually quite a few people staying. We all enjoyed a good meal, sitting outside in the evening cool. On returning to Main Camp, lion could be heard calling quite close to camp and our friends thought that they heard what sounded like a warthog being killed. Lion were heard on and off at close quarters overnight. Early the next morning, we saw the resident herd of impala outside our lodge, heads up and snorting away, looking towards the road and we got to see five lion sitting on the road just outside of camp, obviously having been there all night! A couple of the youngsters were having a great game of rough and tumble, stalking each other. Unfortunately, a rude fellow (idiot!), having obviously demanded to be let through the boom earlier than the six o'clock point, drove in at speed, straight towards the animals, and of course frightened them off into the bush while we were all still trying to watch them from the camp.
Once again, we have enjoyed a fabulous trip into the park and it was so good seeing all the water, especially at such a dry time of the year. Many, many thanks to our Australian friends for a wonderful trip.
John and Jenny Brebner