There is no doubt in my mind that Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe is one of the best places we have visited. Despite having the “Big five”, you are allowed to walk and animals are everywhere, including your campsite. Among several close encounters, we vividly remember the time a buffalo bull was killed by lions a few metres from the entrance to our bungalow posing some problems to our planned movements!
Despite this, we were not prepared to have an elephant welcoming comittee outside the reception!
It was also curious to see that the pachiderms in Mana Pools are exempt from the majority of the rules as can be seen below:
Our next step of our Botswana tour was Elephant Sands , a place located over fifty km North of Nata, on the way to Kasane so, we needed to return to Nata and take the road North. Based on our previous experience with the arrangements for this trip, we had some misgivings on how the place would be as we suspected that this was another one-night stopover for the heavy tourist traffic that moves to and from Chobe National Park, Victoria Falls and Namibia. We agreed to give it a try as the travel agency again insisted that it was worthwhile and that we should spend two nights.
The entry sign says “Elephant Sands. Where elephants rule”. I confirm that this is true. The tented camp is built around a water hole that seems to be on an elephant highway between Botswana and Zimbabwe with little available water. We stayed in one of the tents that are built on stilts. It was very roomy and comfortable, offering an unobstructed view of the elephants at the hole.
It is in the main lodge area, next to the water hole, that people congregate to watch the elephants at close quarters. The latter are a few metres away, only stopped from moving into the camp by an electric fence. There we had our meals. Unfortunately, the place was very crowded for our taste. On the positive side, to have elephants very near and great weaver birds’ activity (mostly ignored by the tourists) offered a compensation, somehow.
Water is the essence here. It is pumped to the water hole until 2200hs when it is closed so all water-related activities must be done before that time or the following morning. During the first night we had heavy elephant traffic and the available water was clearly not sufficient, so tempers became hot and there was quite a lot of pachyderm pushing and shoving to get to the trough where the clean drinking water was pumped to.
After dinner we sat to watch the elephants, and both enjoyed their presence while, unavoidably, breathing and eating a lot of dust! Our Covid face masks helped but we remember them too late! After a while we decided to retire to our tent. Although during the day we walked to and from our tent, at night we brought our car to the main lodge to be safer.
There were elephants all around the tents, so we were pleased to be in the car. As it is natural, before sleeping we needed to get on with our natural needs. It was Mabel´s turn to use the toilet while I was getting dry after a shower. Suddenly, I heard some noise that I can only compare to the noise pipes make when you apply a plunger to clear an obstruction. It was almost instantly followed by a very loud “uuugh!” accompanied by some strong language coming from the toilet! Then I heard Mabel saying “This is disgusting, the toilet splashed me!”.
Unsure of what she meant I went to investigate and confirmed that the residual water in the toilet was not there and that she had already rushed to the shower, still abusing the culprit! Still puzzled by such a rare event, and trying not to laugh loud, I lowered the cover of the flush toilet and we agreed to leave it alone unless we had a truly urgent need later!
The noise coming from the pipes continued intermittently until I went to sleep, only to be woken up well after midnight by Mabel shaking me to tell me that there was an elephant rubbing against the car and that she had heard some loud noise! She had already chased it away earlier, but it had returned. She was worried that it had broken something in the car so she decided to call me. Half sleep, I offered to go out and chase it away but then, remembering where I was, I quickly withdrew my offer!
We decided that all we could do was to shout at the large beast and, funnily, every time we did, it stood still like a naughty child having been discovered doing something forbidden only to start again after a couple of minutes! Eventually, the large bull left us in peace. It had smelled something tasty inside our car or perhaps our water container and it wanted it badly!
The following day we checked the car and we were happy to see that it had survived. It showed signs of having undergone an elephant “inspection” and resisted its (I am sure, polite) attempts at getting at its contents. They, however, left behind not just dirt on the windows but also a small dent!
That morning we had the lodge to ourselves for the whole morning and it was nice to leisurely watch elephants and the fascinating activity that weaver birds do when building their nests.
Watching the elephants we realized that the night before the pumped water had not been enough for all the elephants and the old ones resorted to syphon out the tents´ sewage system, causing Mabel´s unpleasant moment the night before! Reading some of the background books found at the lodge and talking to the people there, we learnt that it does not matter what they do to protect their pipes, the elephants will find a way to get to any available water, regardless of its origin!
Late in the morning it started to rain, providing elephants with much needed water and us with some respite against the intense heat. Unfortunately, three busloads of loud tourists also arrived! We decided that we were going to stay away from the main lodge and walk around. The two somehow tame banded mongooses followed us during our walk, searching for food and showing a high level of activity. We were warned that one of them was naughty and it could bite so we were careful. Despite this, the “bad mongoose” picked on Mabel (usually is me they pick!) and gave her some trouble!
Luckily the rain provided enough water to the elephants that, at least that night, forgot about blowing the pipes and inspecting our car!
When living in Mozambique we drove a couple of times to Swaziland (from 2018 renamed Eswatini) to spend time in its national parks. Among these, we visited the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary where we spent some time walking as there are no dangerous animals, except crocodiles as the following sign warns.
Checking the waters edge, we did find a couple of large crocodiles and another sign that was rather confusing.
Usually wildlife has right of way but to prohibit members of the plant kingdom is baffling! I wish to believe that there is a missing line in the sign that should have said “Removal of …”
After this surprise, I Googled for a definition of the word wildlife and what I found both in the Oxford and Webster online dictionaries was very similar: “Animals, birds, insects, etc.that are wild and live in a natural environment” and “living things and especially mammals, birds, and fishes that are neither human nor domesticated” respectively! So, it seems that plants and trees are not part of wildlife!
But things do not end here! In 2020, Carly Cowell (1) of the Kew Gardens highlighted our inability to recognise plants as wildlife known as “plant blindness” and discussed the consequences of this for the conservation of the plant kingdom!
Interestingly, confusion between members of the animal kingdom also seems to exist as this sign from Hwange National Park shows:
I believe that the intention was to repace the word “mammals” for “animals” to make the message clearer to all visitors of the potential negative impact of such practice!
Our journey through Botswana took us to Nata, usually a one-day stopover on the way to some of the several national parks that Botswana has. We stayed at the Nata Lodge for the night and, before continuing our trip to Gweta, we visited the community-run Nata Bird Sanctuary, renowned for its birdlife, particularly the flamingoes. Usually a dry area, at the end of the rains it was very dry and the Sowa pan´s water had receded far away from the viewing platform. We spotted the pink ribbon a few kilometres into the pan, where there was still water. Through the binoculars we could appreciate that there were a truly large number that brought back fond memories of lake Nakuru in Kenya.
We continued our journey and we got to Gweta where we spent time sightseeing before it was time to check in our next lodge. Before we got there, we found the most amazing baobab, not because of its size but its shape. Clearly baobabs never stop surprising you.
It was truly hot, probably over 40°C. Luckily, before leaving Harare, preparing for the worst, I got the car air-condition fixed. Although, usually, we are quite indifferent to the air-conditioning in the car, this time we were defeated, and we used it all the time.
In Gweta we stayed at a weird place called Planet Baobab that we have seen before and avoided as; from the outside it looked rather odd. This time, following the strong recommendation of our tour agent we decided to spend three nights there. It was an error that we started regretting from our arrival.
For some reason, although we had booked the place, we had no written proof of it as they would not issue vouchers without an advanced payment. Uncertain of having a place to sleep in Gweta, we had -by luck- met the owner of the Gweta Lodge while in Nata and we had, tentatively, booked a room there as plan B.
So, we got to the Planet Baobab without knowing whether we would find a room! We were not too optimistic as the lodge seemed to be rather full. To our relief, we had a room for the night but the second night we were booked to sleep “under the stars”, somewhere in a pan (that we agreed that at our age would not be necessary as we have seen many starry skies before!)  Then, we could have our room back for the third night.
After some debate we managed to evade the second night outdoors and we got confirmation that all was well a couple of times before we accepted to stay and spent the rest of the afternoon walking about the camp and admiring the beautiful baobabs that surround the place. The room had two single beds and it was very hot at night. Unfortunately, the cord of the fan did not allow it to blow air to both of us that were in opposite sides of the room, so it was a hot night!
The following morning, we left early to get to the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park (MPNP) where we had been before, once in the late 90´s when the Boteti River was not flowing and, more recently, when it was. I have read that thousands of zebra and wildebeest migrate from the river to the Nxai Pan every year and calculated that they should still be at the western part of the area at the water of the Boteti River until the rains started.
We drove leisurely the 70 km that separated us from the park entrance and found lots of zebras crossing the road in the direction of Nxai Pan and hoped that they were not the tail end of the migration! We got to the entrance of the MPNP and found no one at the reception office. We waited for about thirty minutes and then decided to search for someone to charge us the entrance fee!
Eventually, Mabel spotted a really friendly lady brushing the floor at the back of the office and she came to tell us that there was no one so we should just enter and pay on return. This was a first for us and we did so (we did pay before leaving).
We drove through a sandy road for about 60km until we got to the river when the temperature was soaring. The view was truly spectacular as thousands of zebra and wildebeest were grazing at the river´s bed while elephants drank from the pools and hundreds of vultures rested at the water´s edge. Our enthusiasm made us forget the heat and start searching for the predators that were surely lurking at the river edge waiting in the shade for an opportunity.
We were contemplating this live documentary that rolled before our eyes when our musing was rudely interrupted by a loud bang. “A tire burst” said Mabel that was looking through the side window. “No, it was in the engine” I replied while I switched it off because I saw smoke coming out of the bonnet. We got out of the car and saw that the tires were intact. Luckily, there was no more smoke! So we could be in a tight spot as we had only met one more car carrying a single tourist lady!
I opened the bonnet to have a look and find what the problem was (not that I am any good at mechanics!). All large components of the engine seemed in place but we saw some yellowish stain around the radiator. Mabel spotted a burst hose that had clearly released whatever it was carrying! Seeing that there was no other damage, I started the engine, checking for some light that could indicate the cause of the problem such as “replace engine”.
All gauges were showing normal values, there weere no lights and we had the engine running smoothly. The 4WD, power steering and brakes were working so we relaxed and started our slow return to the lodge, still not knowing what had happened. After about twenty minutes driving, we started feeling hot and realized that we had no air-condition. We stopped and checked and confirmed that this had been the problem! Although it meant that we would have a hot journey back to Harare, the relevant bits of the car were fine.
We were hot by the time we got back to the Planet Baobab, much earlier than we had planned. On arrival, we were greeted by the same receptionist that had confirmed our second night. As there was no need for this to happen, it meant bad news, I thought. I was correct, he informed us that there had been a mix-up between the reservation office (in Gaborone) and the lodge. The result was that our night would be spent under the stars as our room was booked!
By now, following a similar incident earlier while at the Tuli block we had acquired some experience on how to deal with these situations and, aware of our Gweta Lodge booking, we refused! Our reply created some more consultations and, eventually we were allowed to stay and we cancelled our tentative booking at the Gweta Lodge.
The following day, without air-condition, it was too hot to attempt another trip, so we decided to relax at the swimming pool, getting ready for our departure the following day. While we were there, we witnessed the return of the open-air sleepers. They were mostly young tourists on their first trip to Africa. They looked rather battered, clearly dehidrated and sunburnt, and we congratulated ourselves for having avoided the experience.
 Later we learnt that we would have left at 1400hs, taken to one of the salt pans, allowed to drive quad bikes for 45min or wait in the car while the others did it, then visit a place to see tame meerkats, sleep in the open and return to the lodge at 1100am the following day. By then we would have dried up beyond recognition!
While walking in our Harare neighbourhood I spotted this discarded package that, on close inspection, was a HIV Test Kit.
It was a reminder that HIV is still a serious health challenge for humanity that, unfortunately, rarely appears in the headlines.
It is true that the disease situation has improved, particularly, when I recall the dramatic epidemic that ravaged Africa and Zambia (where we were) in the 90’s. Antiretroviral therapy and diagnostic kits have contributed to the control of the disease, reducing its transmission. While this is great, an undesirable spin-off is that the disease is less obvious and there is a risk that control measures are relaxed. In addition, the Covid-19 pandemic has monopolized our attention, making us less aware of HIV/AIDS.
We no longer see billboards on preventing HIV such as the “ABC of AIDS control” I saw in Gaborone  or this fight between warriors and an imaginary and “plurilegged” AIDS (SIDA in Portuguese) monster!
 It meant: A for “Abstain”, B for “Be faithful” and C for “Condomize”!
For many years I have wondered how the Tuli block came to being. How could such a perfect semi-circle be added to the border between Zimbabwe and Botswana? Why not just follow the Shashe River all the way?
Apart from seeing it in the map, we had driven through the Tuli block a few years back when travelling to South Africa. So, we decided to go and explore it. With little knowledge about the area on the Zimbabwe side, apart from comments that it was a hunting block, we decided to return to visit the Northern Tuli Game Reserve (NTGR) in the eastern part of Botswana.
Briefly, based on the history of the block from http://www.notugre.com, the first European explorers and missionaries arrived early in the 16th century and the area was used for hunting, trading and mission work among the peoples then living here. In 1890 Cecil John Rhodes commanded the “Pioneer Column” to annex Matabeleland and Mashonaland for the British Crown and established Fort Tuli (in Zimbabwe). At the same time, the Bangwato and Matabele tribes of the area were involved in a power struggle for the land until Chief Khama of the Bangwato tribe won control in 1895.
It was Chief Khama that, with other Chiefs went to England, saw the Queen, and stopped Rhodes ambitions. An agreement was reached that only the Tuli Block be given to the British South Africa company for their use to build the rail link and that later it would be divided into farms to protect the Bangwato and Botswana from the expansion of the Boers from the Northern Transvaal.
Much more recently, in the late 50´s and early 60´s, probably realizing that the area did not have much potential for livestock (my comment), ranchers in the area decided to literally “block” their lands into a large area for wildlife conservation and tourism. Today, 36 properties form the NTGR with an area of over 70 thousand hectares.
Clearly, the NTGR is much less known that the classic Botswana wildlife areas we had visited earlier such as the Makgadigadi and Nxai pans, Chobe National Park, Moremi Game Reserve and the Kalahari reserves, to name the main tourist areas. However, our aim was to see how the Tuli block was.
We usually are independent travellers but this time -strangely- we arranged the trip through a travel agency. Our search for accommodation quickly ruled out the well-known lodges such as Mashatu and Tuli for economic reasons but we found a much more reasonable place called Serolo Safari Camp located in the NTGR where we booked self-catering accommodation (see: https://tulitrails.com/?page_id=38).
So, with the NTGR as our first destination, we put into practice one of the advantages we saw when we bought a house in Zimbabwe: to be able to travel to several neighbouring countries. We headed South-east, first to Bulawayo for the night and the following morning drove the 100 km to the border at Plumtree and then to Francistown, just a further 90 km into Botswana.
We were happy to see that very few people intended to cross the border that day and we made plans for an early arrival in Francistown that would allow us more time for shopping. Things did not work out as planned… However, before I give you more details, let me explain that, this time, I travelled with two passports: the old one that would expire while we were in Botswana and a new one that I obtained a few days earlier, aware that this would happen.
Our visa for Zimbabwe was expiring the very day we crossed, and it was in my old passport. I was not concerned as I expected that the immigration would have looked at my visa in the old passport and place my exit stamp in the new one. It was not to be! The officer, insisting that the old passport was still valid, placed the exit stamp in it and, immediately I knew we were in trouble!
My fears were confirmed when we arrived at the Botswana side of the border, sited after about 2 km of “no man’s land”. A kind immigration officer explained to us that the Zimbabwe immigration should have stamped my new passport! So we were sent back! We were about to know something I had always wondered: how do you go back half-way through a border crossing! Well, the answer is with difficulty!
We turned around and, of course drove against the flow of traffic all the way back trying to be extremely friendly and greeting people and saying “sorry” every time we faced a car coming head-on towards us, not expecting to find a car going the other way. Eventually we arrived back at Zimbabwe, did a completely illegal manoeuvre to get the car pointing towards Botswana again and, trying to appear as calm as possible, we entered the building, again.
We explained the situation to the immigration officer that was still reluctant to stamp my new passport until a higher authority gave its clearance. Clearly the answer was positive so, after quite a wait, my new passport was stamped, and we managed to complete our crossing without further difficulties.
We arrived at Francistown later than expected, and rushed to buy the essential stuff for our self-catering stay at Serolo Safari Camp as well as getting new Botswana SIM cards, an essential item these days! Despite being a Sunday, we managed and, after a restful Sunday night at Francistown and a good breakfast on Monday, we headed for the NTGR, located at about 290 km to the South-east. We drove up to Serule and we turned for Bobolong and later Mathathane. Soon after the asphalt ended, and we headed in the direction of Platjan, the border post with South Africa, and turned into our camp following the signposts.
The area was very dry but, unlike other areas of Botswana, it was quite hilly and rocky although some greenery in the distance revealed the passing of the Limpopo River, not that far off. We both thought that it would be difficult to spot game in this terrain, but we decided to wait and see and continued until we got to the camp a handful of km farther on.
It was very hot but the camp had some magnificent large trees that provided with good shade, particularly around the central part known as the lapa . There were five not so shaded tents overlooking a ravine where we were told game passed and one concrete hut at the back, not so nice as it overlooked the tents’ car park! Our hearts sunk when we were told that this was the accommodation for self-caterers. We looked at each other and knew that we would not stay there. It was a change or looking for another place to stay!
We presented our concern to the manageress and, after a few phone calls a solution was found. Another couple would be moved from a tent to the self-catering unit with the lure of the latter having air conditioning and we could have their tent, provided we paid the difference between self-catering and full board that, luckily, was not very high. We accepted.
I would call Serolo a no-frills lodge that could host a maximum of ten people on full board and two more on self-catering so it was never crowded. Staff were extremely kind and attentive and we enjoyed the cooking of Kennedy, the Chef, that managed to produce some truly good food in the bush.
We were not allowed to go on game drives in our car, but the accommodation included two game drives per day. To our horror, we needed to be at the lapa by 05:30 hours for the morning drive. Luckily, the afternoon one started at the very civilized time of 16:00 hours, after having enjoyed a “high tea”.
We are not used to be driven as part of a tourist group, so we needed to adjust to the new methodology. We did this with some degree of difficulty as clearly the aim of the drive was to find big cats, particularly leopards. Elephants were watched from a distance and birds were almost ignored. Luckily the intense heat made driving on an open car very bearable.
By the second game drive it became apparent that the area was more restricted than we expected, and we just repeated our route day after day. Part of the drive touched the Limpopo River with its beautiful riverine forest. There we saw abundance of impala and greater kudu grazing under some truly large trees. Ficus and Acacia species were the outstanding ones and we contemplated them in awe while enjoying their dense shade during the heat of the day. As it was the dry season, the river was not flowing (at least on the surface), but we saw still some large pools and probably abundant water under the sand.
The rest of the driving was done through dry, often bare earth areas with patches of Mopani trees (severely damaged by the elephants). Several rocky formations were clearly ideal places to find leopards but, unfortunately, we had to be satisfied with klipspringers. Our drivers tried hard to find cats and they often drove through rough roads that involved a lot of low gear efforts by the aged Land Rover Defenders used by the camp.
It was in the hilly area that we spotted five lion cubs, the offspring of two resident lionesses that were sired by one male lion. Later, we found one of the females resting by an old eland kill, showing signs of being very hot. Mabel caught a glimpse of the second lioness but the rest of us did not see it. During a later drive, we found the male lion resting and surrounded by the other members of the family. Probably the whole group was together, but we could not see them in great detail as they were far and hidden by both rocks and bushes on the other side of a gorge where we could not get to.
During the second day of game driving, we found an injured male impala. One of its hindlegs was in an unnatural position and it was unable to stand up. Interestingly, a black-backed jackal was lying down a couple of metres away. We agreed that the impala’s future appeared grim as it would have been an easy prey for a leopard or hyena, and we thought that the jackal was waiting for a larger predator to arrive and benefit from the leftovers. After waiting for a while, we left the pair and made a note to return in the evening, but we run out of time, and we did not know what happened until the following day.
First thing the following morning we returned to the impala and found it dead and the jackal (we assumed it was the same we saw the previous day) was feeding on it. Although we cannot know how the events unfolded, judging by the injuries that impala showed, I believe that it was killed by the jackal during the night. Jackals are ruthless killers, often tackling prey much larger than themselves.
We saw elephants at a distance and our drivers seemed to be very wary of them keeping a good distance, perhaps because of the cars being open. Oone night a few elephants visited the waterhole adjacent to the lapa and leopards walked past the camp a couple of times but, of course, we were out on a game drive when that took place!
Oh, I forgot about the Tuli block semicircle. Well, it was not easy to find out the reason but, eventually I did. It happened in 1891 when then Mashonaland districts were established and Tuli was given jurisdiction over a 16km radius of the village, a perfect disruption to what otherwise would have been another river border between two countries!
 A lapa is usually an open structure that generally consists of a thatched roof sitting on wooden poles. These are usually used as entertainment areas in southern Africa.
My lack of posts is due to an on-going trip in Botswana with little access to internet. Although I will write about it in the coming days, I present you with an interesting shop being advertised at Nata.
I see it as quite an ambitious undertaking to which I would like to suggest soon adding a “Chicken.com” subsidiary!