I must confess that until recently I was ignorant of the details of hair extensions (due to reasons that are apparent if you follow this blog!) and I was surprised to find out that hair extensions similarly to wine and other products can be marketed based on provenance! The following sign in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe provided my first insight into the, clearly more complex than I expected, business of hair extensions. I did not know that hair from various countries would be on offer until we came across this sign offering them to the ladies in Bulawayo.
This complexity was even further evident when a few days later we came across the below headline indicating that just like in other products, once in a while a bad batch appears with potentially adverse consequences for the end user!
I did not followed-up the issue further so I am unable to tell you in which way hair can be “harmful” and why this happened with Brazilian and not with hair from another origin!
This Christmas we decided to spend it in Zimbabwe, camping at Masuma dam and Robins Camp in Hwange National Park.
Already in the rainy season our expectations of a green Hwange were confirmed, a marked change from our usual visits that take place in September, during the dry season. We also knew that the animals would not be so dependent on the permanent water holes and that they would be scattered in more remote and unreachable areas of this very large park. Finally, there was a good chance of having daily showers. Despite these drawbacks, it was a suitable time and place for a family reunion so, we took the challenge.
We prepared well for a wet camping experience adding a large awning to our usual dry season gear and packed our rainproof jackets, just in case. As it happened, the latter precautions were only useful for the first two days when we had a couple of showers as, luckily for us (but not for the park!) the weather continued being dry over us although there were some spectacular rainstorms around us.
We counted twenty-three hippos and about half a dozen crocodiles at the dam as well as a large population of geese (both Egyptian and Spurwing) as well as a few Knob-billed ducks. The few resident Senegal thick-knees were there, busy protecting their nests against the threatening advances of the monitor lizards.
Numerous impalas, waterbuck and greater kudu frequently visited the dam, mainly to graze on its now lush green shores as they were drinking in safer places, avoiding the dam´s crocodiles. So, we did not witness any of the crocodile ambushes to drinking herbivores that we had witnessed before (See: https://bushsnob.com/2015/02/22/hippos-from-hell/ and related posts). Below there are pictures of some of the animals we saw:
Although the elephants did not come in the we see in September, they still came, particularly during the days when fresh water was pumped into the dam, either they had a way of knowing this by the pump noise or they exhibited an amazing sense of smell! The later is more likely as the pumps are operated by solar energy and they are quiet!
Although we spent many hours at the water edge, we failed to see any predators coming for a drink or a possible kill. We did see a couple of young lions mating near Kapula Camp, and a family of two lioness with four cubs and a male on a buffalo kill, just opposite the Shumba picnic site. We heard them and hyenas almost every night at camp and Mabel heard the unmistakable rasping cough of a leopard while it walked up and down the new (rather weak) fence that now encloses the picnic area.
We had some nocturnal excitement on our first day. After midnight Flori and her boyfriend Giacomo (new at camping in Africa) were rudely awakened by very loud banging noises coming from the ablution area. The following morning a large hole was found in the fence through which an elephant had entered the enclosure, probably in search of clean water. His adventure got interrupted by the appearance of the camp attendant that stopped it from doing more damage. The elephant retreated, not through the entry hole but crashing the gate!
We needed to work hard to find large game but luckily had more luck in the bird department. We were able to watch and photograph a shaft-tailed wydah, a bird that we had not seen for years. We also watched several bee-eaters, rollers, and orioles, among other small birds. We were happy to see several groups of ground hornbills, including one feeding their young at a nest.
Finally, on Christmas day we had some of a reward for our efforts. Flori, Giacomo and I went to have a look at Little Toms, a small stream near Robins Camp. I did not have much hope to find anything special based on earlier experience. I was wrong! Perhaps two hundred metres before we got there, we caught a glimpse of many elephants in and around it. Although we approached the water very slowly, to our dismay, they started to move back to the bush.
We were disappointed but we remained very still and quiet, waiting. After a few minutes of uncertainty, a few of the larger animals turned and started to come back. Soon we had a couple of hundred back at the water.
As I am not able to do justice to what we witnessed, I present you with two videos that Flori and I took of this truly magical thirty minutes!
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”!