Memoirs

Episodes of my life in Africa.

Magical time

This Christmas we decided to spend it in Zimbabwe, camping at Masuma dam and Robins Camp in Hwange National Park.

Our camp at Masuma.

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.

Senegal Thicknee vs. Monitor lizard. Picture by Julio A. de Castro.

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!

A general view of the elephants at Little Toms.
Amusing young elephants.

Surrounded by elephants

Our next step of our Botswana tour was Elephant Sands [1], 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.

Our tent.
The elephant highway passing between the tents.

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.

The main lodge from our tent.

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.

A close-up of the ellies.

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!

Our car showing signs of the elephant inspection.

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!

Elephant sucking from the pipes. Note the anti-elephant measures (spikes and electric fence).

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!

[1] For info on African Sands, see: https://africageographic.com/stories/benny-elephant-mike-touching-african-story/ and https://africageographic.com/stories/water-for-elephants-botswana-safari-africa/

What on earth?! (2b)

The theme of the security companies continues and here is a brief post.

Searching for pictures for this section of the blog I found this photograph I took in 2015 in a street of Edinburgh during my son´s graduation.

This company has no name. However, apart from being effective, it offers it offers companionship and fun!

Surrounded by baobabs

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!) [1] 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.

[1] 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!

Signs in the sand

The Covid pandemic left a backlog of bookings in most national parks in Africa and Zimbabwe was not an exception. For this reason we could not get our yearly spell at Masuma dam in Hwange National Park (HNP). We did manage to get a few nights at Kennedy 1 and Main Camp followed by four more nights at Robins Camp in the northern part of the park.

This time we were lucky to have our two children with us, our son´s girlfriend Pat and a couple of friends that visited Africa for the first time, Brenda, and Roberto from Spain. We rented another car to accommodate all of us and the rather impressive amount of luggage, camping gear and food that we took with us.

As usual when traveling to the HNP we divided the trip in two parts. During the first day we got to Bulawayo traveling at a slower pace than usual to allow our visitors to see the place as well as to adjust to driving on the left side of the road. We got to the Hornung Park Lodge (http://www.hornung-park-lodge.com/) where we were hosted by its friendly owner Fredi (Rita was away). The lodge is very nice and quiet, and we were treated very kindly by our host.

The following day, after an early breakfast we moved on and managed to arrive at Kennedy 1 in mid-afternoon to set up our camp. As we needed four tents, preparations took quite a while before we had our camp ready. The two new tents and additional gadgets brought by our children took some time to assemble and we finished just before nightfall.

Yellow hornbills watching us preparing our camp.

At my ripe age I refuse to sleep on the ground, so I carry a camp bed for these occasions. Its assemblage is now “infamous” with the family as it requires quite an effort. So much so that four of us climbed on it while trying to fit all pieces together, something that finally happened with a “twang” that indicated success! This time there were no injured fingers.

While camp was being prepared, we noted many lion footprints in the sand and Terence, the nice and young camp attendant, informed us that lions had visited the camp during the night and that they were still close by. Despite our efforts to break the news of the footprints gently to our first-time campers in Africa, the idea of “sleeping with lions” did nothing to build up their confidence on the protection offered by the tents. The situatiation did not improve when they saw the condition of the camp perimeter fence!

Ground hornbills and a crimson breasted shrike visiting our camp and surrounding area.

After we were done with the camp it was too late to look for animals so we focused on dinner. As usual Mabel produced an amazing dish of pasta with pesto and green peas, and we uncorked a bottle of South African red to end a great bush day hoping for a great bush night. We were not disappointed as the hyenas called early and then the lions roared frequently, just to reminded us that we were staying on borrowed ground!

The following morning, surprisingly Kennedy 1, 2 and Ngweshla had no elephants and almost no other game. Luckily a male ostrich decided to perform some kind of solo courtship that included the usual wing balancing act with the addition of mad fast runs of a few hundred metres each that showed its speed but that seemed rather useless in the absence of a female! Perhaps it mistook pour car for a potential partner?

Rather surprised by the absence of large game we headed back to our camp. We were lucky to find a couple of young adult lions that, like us, were coming to Kennedy 1 for a drink. We stayed watching them until late in the afternoon until it was time to return to camp for a BBQ followed later by more lion roaring, still respecting our space.

All pictures were taken by our son Julio A.

Zimbabwe (post Covid)

The two years we spent confined to our farm in Salta, Argentina, increased our desire to come back to the African bush. Luckily, we got vaccinated and, gradually restrictions were lifted and we started planning our exit from there by the end of 2020.

To get from Salta to Uruguay, apart from crossing the Argentina-Uruguay international border you need to traverse four Argentinian provinces: Santiago del Estero, Chaco, Corrientes and Entre Ríos (each one of them about the size of Uruguay!). Usually, the trip is long but trouble-free but during the pandemic situations differed in each province and it was only in September 2021 that all places were open to private cars, if you carried a negative PCR.

Eventually we found ourselves in Uruguay where we spent a month with the family before journeying to Rome to visit our daughter and later to Spain to have a long desired family Season holidays.

Finally, the 8 January 2022 we left Europe and travelled to Harare where it was great to see Nic, Gabriela and Ana Lucía again as all our earlier plans for travelling in Zimbabwe with them were dashed by the pandemic. So, we soon found ourselves plotting some joint safaris to recover the wasted time!

After searching for options and considering that we are in the rainy season, we settled for meeting at Masuma Dam in Hwange National Park. With Ana Laura, a Mexican visiting friend, they would come from Victoria Falls. We would travel earlier and spend a few days at Robins Camp [1] where we got a good special offer for a few days stay.

As usual when we travel to Hwange, we spent a night in Bulawayo after driving the first 440km. The next morning we continued to the park by following the main road to Victoria Falls. Although the trip was rather uneventful, we noticed that our car engine coughed a few times while on the road to Bulawayo but it kept going. We did not think much about it as we thought that the car was suffering from some fuel dirt accumulated over the two years we did not use it.

As we were going to the southern part of the park, this time we turned into Hwange town. We found that the area adjacent to the park is now dominated by coal mining and these activities had changed the road layout. As a consequence, while traversing the various mining fields, a sight belonging to the industrial revolution rather than today’s modern world, our Google maps stopped showing us our road and we took a wrong turn.

After a few kilometres we realized that we were heading back to Hwange town! We stopped one of the coal-laden lorries and the driver confirmed that we needed to go back and follow the road until we reached a boom that would be open for us to cross. To make matters more interesting, our car started to misfire again, something I attributed to the rough road shaking the fuel tank and sending dirt up the fuel line.

A superficial check-up, as it is normal in these cases, did not show anything obviously amiss (meaning that the engine was there!) so we decided to go on as the fault was not constant. After negotiating the boom, the road reappeared in our Google maps and then we followed it until we got to Sinamatella to report our arrival. Another 60km further we finally reached Robins camp, almost at gate closing time!

The National Parks office at Sinamatella. Unfortunately, the camp is derelict at the moment.

We had not seen Hwange as green as it was now since an earlier visit in 1999 at about the same time, when it was not only green but also very muddy and we got stuck in a couple of spots trying to reach some of the waterholes around Robins. The dense tree growth and very tall grass did not bode well for animal viewing. In fact, we only saw a handful of zebras and a few impalas, and we only heard an elephant when it trumpeted, scared by our car and giving us a fright back. Luckily, it did not charge!

To see the park so green added to our enthusiasm for being back as it seemed that trees were re-growing after the heavy damage that the elephants had given them during early severe dry seasons. Despite the abundant of vegetation, almost entering Robins camp we spotted a leopard walking on the road Infront of us.

It was probably a young adult by its slender appearance and it wasted no time in disappearing in the tall grass. We enjoyed a moment of joy at such a find at the end of our journey that we thought bode well for our stay. It also made us forget, albeit briefly, of our spluttering car engine!

Five minutes later, at the camp, we mentioned our encounter to the National Parks lady ranger in charge of the Robins office who expressed her surprise. Before we left the office she said: “Please, come back tomorrow so that you can enter this in our sightings book!”

We settled down at Robins and we were its sole guests, so we had all attention to ourselves for the first two nights and then four more people arrived! Our room was not luxurious but it was what we needed after the long journey.

A view of Robins camp. The tower, where the small museum is found can be seen behind the trees.

The presentation of the room offered some lovely details such as the great towel arrangements with our bath towels, courtesy of Ntombizodwa, our kind room attendant.

Herbert George Robins [2] farmed in this area until his death in 1939 when he bequeathed his 25,000 acres “to the people of Southern Rhodesia” He lived alone, with his loyal staff and great Dane dogs. At the start of WWI, he bought “Little Tom’s Spruit” in the northern part of HNP today (Little Tom today). Although despondent with his purchase at first, Robins persevered and managed to keep 1700 head of cattle between 1915 and 1925 when he decided to convert his cattle ranching into a game reserve that was very popular at the time.

This initiative greatly helped the establishment of Hwange National Park (HNP). A controversial figure, Robins fought for Rhodes’ British South Africa Company against Lobengula in 1896 and in 1902 ventured into the then Belgian Congo and Angola in search of minerals and diamonds. Eventually, Robins paid the price for this adventure suffering from sicknesses related to the hardship he endured.

Robins was, undoubtedly, a character with his abundant bushy beard that gradually turned white as the years passed. He was not concerned about what he wore and did not change his clothes often. He was frequently seen with a knitted white cap, a pyjama shirt, khaki trousers and high boots. He would wear an old Stetson and shoes when going to town!

A small museum still keeps some of Robins belongings and the large telescope and pictures of him looking down a microscope indicate that he was involved in some studies or observations although I do not know of what precisely although astronomy is an obvious one.

Gradually Robins became tired with the visitors and their attitude. In addition, his health was deteriorating and, in 1933, he signed a document donating his land to the Government and he got more isolated. He eventually died on 28 June 1939. His homestead became the present Robins Camp and he was buried in the camp.

Robins grave at the camp.

Although we visited the camp briefly in 1991 while living in Zambia, we only stayed in Robins about eight years later. We returned to the camp in 2018 when its renovation was being completed by its present private management. Unfortunately, the new camp could only function fully for about one year when the Covid 19 pandemic shut all tourism activities in Zimbabwe.

We found the lodge very comfortable, and we had a room with a double bed and en suite toilet. The abundant hot water coming from a solar geyser. The garden was kept in great shape and, although there is a waterhole nearby, being the rainy season, the grass was very high to see much in terms of animals coming to it.

We were looked after by very helpful staff headed by Lazarus, the new Manager. He kindly let the camp mechanics to help us to keep the car going. So, after a few scares when it just stopped, we kept going, hoping that it would not die at a remote place as we did not see another visitor driving around during all the time we were there!

The park in general had a new look for us because we are now at the end of the rains and the foliage and grass were rather exuberant, in marked contrast with our earlier visits during the height of the dry season. The roads to Little and Big Tom’s were too muddy until our third day at camp when we were told that it was possible to reach the former.

We toured the area following the track that crossed several swampy areas with treacherous black cotton soil that had been used by elephants during the rain and transformed it into an elephant road where the car juddered along while we tried to avoid the deeper footprints. We knew that the elephants were there but we could not see them because of the tall grass so we focused on saving the car! Amazed by the depth of some of the footprints, we stopped to peer down some of them and it was clear that the ellies had been buried up to their bellies.

Rather frustrated with Little and Big Toms, we decided to explore an area known as Salt pans where we had better luck. Although elephants were still absent, we (or rather Mabel) spotted two cheetah and a few hyenas as well as many vultures feeding on a buffalo carcass by the salty water. So, there was action at that spot!

The salt pans.

Coming back to the camp (rather late as usual) I was startled by Mabel telling me the usual “stop!” followed by “reverse” to what, also as usual I replied, “what is it?” “I saw a cat in the grass”, she replied. I reversed looking for a large cat but did not see any, but she had seen it and she now had it in her binoculars. “I think it is a wild cat” she said [3]. I still could not see anything although I had now stopped looking for a lion!

“Knowing you, you will need to look through the roof hatch to see it” she said. I manoeuvred inside the car to perform this operation at my age! Eventually I managed to get in place and, following Mabel´s instructions, I just saw a brownish outline in the grass that, after intense observation through my binoculars became a small cat, slightly larger than a domestic cat! It was indeed an African wildcat (Felis lybica).

It was another feat by Mabel that spotted such a small and well camouflaged animal in thick grass while driving at 40 kph! While watching the cat, we were surprised that it tolerated my spastic movements inside the car that took place about four metres from it, I became convinced that Mabel can find anything. When I asked her the (silly) question of how she saw it, she simply said “I saw its ears”. I had nothing much to add apart from admiring her eyesight yet again.

Before departing Robins we got the fuel filters cleaned and we set off to find our friends Nic, Gabriela, Ana Lucía and a friend of theirs from Mexico called Ana Laura. We headed for Masuma dam, our favourite place in Hwange where we had spent some amazing times in the past [4].

Before leaving Robins, a kind driver gave us the contact of a mechanic at Sinamatella that he was sure would help us and, expecting an issue with the filter, I asked our friend Nic to bring a new one from Victoria Falls. So, I got in touch with Musa the mechanic and arranged to meet him the following day at Masuma dam to see what could be done with the engine before returning to Harare.

So, we travelled to Masuma still suffering from the spluttering engine, but we got there and met our friends at the right time to set up our camp for the next four nights. Because of the absence of visitors, we were allowed to camp overlooking the dam and there we set up our tent as well as Ana Laura´s. Despite not having experience camping in Africa, she was very relaxed and survived the experience without hitches.

Gabriela, Ana Lucía and Nic slept on their car roof tent, and they had the advantage of moving their “bedroom” to a place of their liking. Apart from some excellent Mexican tortillas brought by Ana Laura, food was mainly pasta (by Mabel) and barbeques (by Nic). As usual, the smell of the roasted meat attracted hyenas that called nearby but too shy to approach us, to Ana Laura´s disappointment that had not seen them before.

The dam was the fullest and greenest we had seen. As usual the hippos were there but, unusually, we saw very few elephants (not more than twenty the whole time!) and those that came did so very briefly and drank as far from the viewing platform as they could!

We entertained ourselves watching other animals, particularly a small flock of Crowned cranes that had taken residence at the dam and that, every so often, flew across it, probably in search of food. However, the absence of elephants drinking day and night while disappointing was a good sign that there was abundant water and food all over and that they had dispersed throughout the park.

Eventually Musa the mechanic arrived and dealt with the car. It was “bush mechanics” at its best! Apart from being nice, he came with the necessary tools and soon he had diagnosed the problem: the second filter was too old and blocked (it was not replaced at the recent service) and the diesel would not flow through it normally. Anxiously I asked if he could fix the problem to what he replied, “If the problem is between the tank and the engine, Musa can fix it, if not we are in trouble”. He did mend it and the car is still going well at the time of writing, a month later.

Game drives still did not show elephants but one morning we had a beautiful view of a leopard, again spotted by Mabel, that was relaxing on a rock by the side of the road but still hard to be seen. Unfortunately, Nic, Gabriela and Ana Laura, not surprisingly, drove through despite my attempt of calling their attention flashing the car lights. Luckily, their daughter Ana Lucía was with us during that drive and enjoy the sighting as she was looking forward to finding a spotted cat!

A close up of the young leopard.

On the day of departure, it was our time to miss a pair of lionesses spotted by our friends. When they told us what had delayed them, we immediately turned around and, following their indications, we found them resting under the shade of the mopane bushes. I am not sure how we missed them this time!

Portrait.

From Hwange we drove to the Matopos National Park, a place we have visited in the past and that we usually overlook despite its beauty. We stayed two nights at the nice Big Cave lodge [1] that offers an amazing setting, having been built on the actual rocks and making use of them as part of the buildings.

The Bushsnob writing this post at the lodge.

The service was excellent and the staff helpful and pleasant. Our room offered a magnificent view to the rocky hills, particularly beautiful at sunset (see above).

We had our sundowners high up on the hot rocks that were, apparently, very good to relax the tired backs of those who tried laying on them between beer sips. That, combined with some great sunsets followed by some amazing stargazing when the clouds allowed, had a positive impact on the team members.

Mabel, the Bushsnob, Ana Lucía, Gabriela and Ana Laura enjoying sundowners on the “warm rocks”.

We drove into the game area of the park mainly looking for rhino and found a rock formation known as “The mother and child” and later a group of rangers on patrol. We arranged to take two of them with us to try to find some white rhino that they had seen earlier that day. They went off on foot looking for the animals while we waited for their return having our lunch.

Mother and child. An amazing rock formation at the Matopos National Park.

Eventually one came back to inform us that the animals had moved. We parted company with the now “lone ranger” as he was sure that his companion would return to find him there. He was right as we found the second ranger walking back towards his colleague a couple of km further.

We left for Harare, as usual, wishing that we could stay longer and we made it back without problems, our car preforming normally after Musa´s intervention.

[1] The opinion about Robins Camp (https://www.robinscamp.com/) and the Big Cave (https://www.bigcavematopos.com/) reflect our independent views and they are not an endorsement from our part.

[2] Data on H.G. Robins taken from Haynes, G. (2014). Hwange National Park. The forest with a Desert heart. The Hwange Research Trust. Gary Haynes, 2014; all rights reserved. 226p. This is the best account of the creation of Hwange National Park that I had seen.

[3] See: https://bushsnob.com/2022/03/31/spot-the-beast-82/

[4] See: https://bushsnob.com/2019/10/08/elephants/, https://bushsnob.com/2019/10/09/dust/

Time to move

The previous post on Lake Tanganyika was the last dealing with our first spell in Africa that, at the time, we did not know if it was the only one! The field programme I was working on came to a renewal time so it was time to leave Zambia.

As the technical officer in charge of ticks and tickborne diseases at FAO headquarters retired, I was assigned to cover that post in Rome.

From the field I saw this as a wise move in order to take a new, albeit difficult, professional challenge, particularly to follow Paul, one of my main mentors. However, that is life and someone had to do the job. I still remember his words when discussing the move: “remember that it is more important to listen than to talk!”.

So it was that we sold household items and we packed the rest for our stay in Rome that, in principle, would be for three months but that, with hard work and a bit of luck could be extended beyond that time. In restrospective, I was so excited about the move that the thought of my contract stopping after 3 months in Rome did not cross my mind!

Apart from the work aspect, it was also a good time to move to Italy for other reasons: the education of our children (then 3 and 2 years old respectively), . Our kids´education was of prime importance as well as to fulfill Mabel´s wishes to come to Italy, the country of her ancestors!

So, full of enthusiasm, we embarked in this new stage in our lives that I will be referring to in the next few posts.

Christmas at Kasaba Bay – Departure

Our plane to Lusaka was leaving at 11am so we got up early to prepare for the return journey. We needed to get back to Kasaba Bay, so we all got on the double cab, babies, toddlers, and nannies inside and adults at the back. We got there in good time and, after saying our farewells, we joined other passengers at the thatch-roofed wall-less terminal to wait for our Zambia Airways plane to arrive.

The crowd included our former companions from Ndole Bay that, I must say, looked more strained than us! We still had not forgotten that they had nicked some of our fish, so we just gave each other disdainful looks! We focused on entertaining our children during the wait.

Soon we heard the plane arriving and we got ready to board and queued with the rest, trying to get to the front of the line on account of our youngsters. While we were moving, we were approached by a visibly mortified Zambia Airways staff that informed us that there had been a problem and we were not on the flight!

The news left us shocked and speechless as we could not understand what had happened. The plane looked the same as the one that brought us seven days earlier so we did not comprehend where the ten extra people came from, unless there were members of the President´s entourage left behind? We did not enquire about their origin so we will never know what created “the problem”.

One more week at Kasaba Bay was not in our plans as we needed to go back to our project and, at the time, I was the Organization’s Representative in the country as well! We all used our strongest arguments such as “We cannot be left here with our babies” “It’s got to be a mistake” “We have confirmed flights” “We must go back to our work!” but none had the desired effect. We were grounded and told to move aside while the other passengers boarded. I thought I saw our former co-hosts at Ndole Bay board with a smirk, or perhaps I just imagined it…

The airline representative also told us that we would be accommodated at Kasaba Bay lodge with all costs met by Zambia Airways. When we asked when we would get another flight back, he said: “the next scheduled flight is next week, but please, do not worry, they are working on another plane to come to fetch you all tomorrow” and then added “keep checking with the control tower here for news”. The next thing we saw was his back while boarding the plane. The door was shut, and we were on our own! We looked around for the control tower, but we only saw a small room with a radio adjacent to the thatched terminal. Rather frustrated, we decided to tackle them later!

It was a beaten group that arrived at the lodge to spend the night. We did not know how many days we would be there! Luckily, the presidential party had vacated all the rooms and we were among the few guests present. We were taken to our chalets, settled down and, slowly, the importance of the bad experience started to fade as we realized that we were still at a nice place, we had food for our children and the lodge would provide for us free of charge. “Not too bad” I thought, trying to look at the bright side.

After a while, we decided to explore our surrounds. The lodge consisted of a large block with a reception and lobby areas and an adjacent dining area and kitchen. Guests stayed in chalets that were lined up at about fifty metres from the water edge with a view of the lake and its hazy mountainous frame. The lodge grounds were well kept, and it was clear that some work had gone into gardening. There was also a nice swimming pool and a bar was next to it. President Chiluba had chosen a nice place!

We were heading for the bar when we heard a woman shouting “go away, go away…” adorned with some other invectives that I prefer not to publish here. Then a very large elephant, tail up, was coming straight at us but luckily it veered off while we also tried to take cover. Behind the pachyderm came a tough looking stocky lady wielding a broomstick. The large bull was carrying a large chunk of a bougainvillea that it was clearly not allowed to take! It was a truly surreal and funny sight as the elephants we knew from East Africa did not interact with humans in that way.

After the elephant experience, our lunch and siesta, Bruno and I decided that it was time to tackle the radio room to find out what was taking place regarding our departure as well as to put some pressure on them so that our situation could be solved as soon as possible. The people were very polite but had no idea of the future. They knew the same things we did.

I was particularly insistent -assuming my Head of Agency status- and I mentioned that I needed to get back to Lusaka as I oversaw our organization’s main office and had diplomatic tasks to fulfil. While I was proffering my solemnest possible speech, I noticed that Bruno walked out of the room. Once I finished with my diatribe, I got the usual polite promise that they would try their best.

Rather annoyed I left the room and found Bruno outside, laughing loud. “What do you find so funny?” I asked him, rather upset at his apparent lack of solidarity. He looked at me and still laughing replied “Julio, I wish you could look at yourself in a mirror” and went on, saying: “who on earth is going to believe that you are the Head of an international agency looking like that!” Then I realized that I was rather scruffy after a week of bush life: dirty shirt and shorts, untidy beard and hair and a floppy hat. I realized that he was right, and I also burst out laughing. As often, Bruno had a good point!

After our control room futile visit, we went back to our lodge and spent the rest of the afternoon with the family. While at our bungalow, I spotted a large elephant coming towards the lodge following the lake shore. It walked a few metres from us, and I noted that it was a male with only one tusk. I brought the children to see it and told Bruno about it.

Our daughter Flori comes to know what elephant dung is!

Oblivious to our presence the elephant walked close to us and continued towards the lodge. After a while we heard a mighty noise coming from the kitchen area followed by loud shouting. The elephant re-appeared scurrying back to where it came from! We decided that it was a good time to enjoy the pool.

Before dinner it was time to get our toddlers back to our rooms for an early dinner and sleep while we got ready for a visit to the bar for a Mosi beer. The bar was a large rondavel with a thatch roof and no walls, very adequate for the place as the breeze made it very pleasant. There we joined other guests and we were enjoying the courtesy drinks from Zambia Airways when the barman announced that “One tusk” was coming for his drink!

We realized that we knew it when we saw it coming. It was huge. Immediately, a soda was poured on a rather large ashtray on the bar counter. Unaware of what was happening we waited. The elephant came very close and stuck its rather large trunk through the glassless window straight to the soda that had been poured for it. It sucked it dry in a second while we watched, rather concerned as we knew the power an elephant. As if to confirm our fears, after drinking it started waving its trunk about looking for more and forcing all patrons to congregate at the centre of the rondavel, away from the reach of its proboscis! This continued for a while until the barman -clearly used to the visitor- managed to chase him away.

The following day, a Sunday, we went back to the control room to make our case heard again to the company and continue keeping pressure up regarding our return. We were informed that two flights were expected that morning but no other details were available. We were cautiously hopeful and went back to the lodge to pass on the news and have breakfast. We decided to pack and be ready while waiting for the promised flights.

A plane arrived at about 10 am and we rushed to the airstrip only to be told that it was a flight going to Dar es Salaam and only stopping to drop some mail and food for the lodge. Our hopes dimed and we were starting to abandon the airstrip when the purr of another plane became louder and louder. It landed and out came a smiling plump pilot dressed in a tracksuit that introduced himself as Mr. Chizonda and informed us that he was there to take us all back to Lusaka on his 12-seater plane with the apologies of Zambia airways for leaving us the previous day.

We were elated and did not make him wait to get on our specially chartered plane back to Lusaka!

Christmas at Kasaba Bay – The mutiny

A great map of the area produced by Ndole Bay lodge. Nkamba Bay lodge is at the bottom left of the map. Copyright of Ndole Bay lodge (http://www.ndolebaylodge.com/)

After breakfast, we noted that the lodge employees congregated near the kitchen and that they were attentively listening to the manager. After a while, a heated discussion started. Apparently, it had something to do with the wages although we did not follow the deliberations with any attention.

We had already made up our minds to explore other accommodation located in the area and Anders had already gone to search for a better alternative. The ongoing mutiny had only reaffirmed our desire to leave. All we could do now was to wait for Anders, so we decided to spend sometime in the beach.

A couple of hours later Anders returned with good news. The Nkamba Lodge, sited about two hours from ours, at the Nkamba Bay, was a great looking place. Luckily, they had accommodation and Anders had already booked the last four rooms available, starting from that day! We quickly left the beach, packed and, after saying our farewell to the Manager and staff, we all climbed in the pick-up and departed. From now on, the other guests at the lodge would need to do their own fishing to survive!

Nkamba Lodge was built on higher ground and, at least for us at the time, it was a very beautiful and comfortable place that offered a magnificent view of the lake where we could see fishing boats moving in its clear waters.

The lodge was well run and that offered game viewing and Nile Perch fishing as its main attractions. What did we need! The lodge was in the Sumbu National Park where the rare Sitatunga and the Blue Duiker are found although we did not see them. We had spotted zebra and wildebeest from the car and we were told that lots of animals frequented the beaches, including Buffalo and, occasionally, Elephant, Lion and Leopard.

We also learnt that this side of the lake was teeming with Crocodiles –some up to six metres in length- so swimming was obviously not advisable and we tried hard to forget that we had been doing this for the last three days at the other lodge! We were also informed to “beware” of the Hippos that often emerged at night around the lodges on grass mowing duties. Birdlife was also plentiful and, apart from the spectacular Fish Eagles, we saw Skimmers and Spoonbills. We were also told that Palm Nut Vultures and Pel’s Fishing Owls were also occasionally seen but we were not lucky enough to spot either.

We decided that, apart from lounging in the pool and beach we could try our hand at fishing so the next morning, Anders, Bruno, and I departed before sunrise aiming towards the open lake where we were informed our chances were best, both of fishing and finding strong winds. Our skipper was the teenage son of the lodge Manager. The peace of the early morning was –regrettably- broken by the annoying sound of our outboard and the waves we created cut through an otherwise mirror-like lake surface.

We reached the chosen spot in a few minutes and started to fish for bait. This consisted in catching the Tanganyika Sardine (Limnothrissa miodon), locally known as kapenta. A small fish that rarely gets larger than 11 cm and that migrates vertically in the lake at different times during the day and night. It is fished by throwing a deep line with several hooks and subsequently pulling hard to foul hook them. If you are lucky –or hit a good shoal- you get several at once, if not, it can be hard work. Anders immediately became a “kapenta terminator” and supplied us with all the bait we required.

Once we had accumulated enough bait we moved to a spot where the large Nile Perch were known to live. There we baited large hooks fitted with steel trace and we threw our lines deep and waited. Not much happened and then we moved to another place where, again, our kapenta offers were ignored. Seen that we were getting rather impatient our skipper said: “I will call the fish” and without further explanation, removed his t-shirt and jumped into the lake!

Horrified, we watched him swim a few metres away from the boat while, aware of the six metre crocs that were supposed to be present, our eyes immediately started looking for water ripples that would indicate that one was coming. Our skipper stopped at about five metres from the boat and proceeded to repeatedly hit the water with both arms, splashing vigorously. He did this about ten times and then swam back very fast to the boat. Once onboard he explained that the technique worked for both Nile Perch and crocs, hence his fast swim back! It was clear that he had done this before but we declined to perform the attraction manoeuvre ourselves when he suggested it!

After a few minutes his trick seemed to work as Anders -again- got a mighty pull and our first –and only Nile perch- emerged. Not as large a monster as we expected but a rather babyish fish of about 5 kg that did not do much apart from letting itself being brought to the boat and immediately released as it was considered too small for the pot.

Soon it was lunchtime and, as we had no more bites, it was unanimously decided that it was time for a dip in the pool, a good lunch, and some resting on the beach. We agreed to return in the afternoon as both Bruno and I wanted our fish as well.

We went out again at about 16hs when the heat of the day had lessened and this time we saw a few large crocodiles so our skipper did not perform the earlier trick again! Perhaps because of that, we did not catch anything.

We started our return after sunset and then our engine stopped! All attempts at repairing it failed and we got stranded almost at the mouth of the bay. Although our skipper assured us that his father would come to our rescue, it was a weird feeling being alone in the lake with no lights and aware of being surrounded by large crocs so we kept our hands clear from the water. Luckily, Anders produced the brilliant idea of firing the flash of his camera at regular intervals and, after a while, we started hearing a boat engine that preceded the arrival of the lodge owner who towed us back to safety.

The following day we were due to catch our weekly flight back to Lusaka from Kasaba Bay while Anders and Birgit would continue with their Tanzania leg of their journey.

Christmas at Kasaba Bay – At the lodge

After our bad bar experience, we went for an early dinner of stew and rice and we went to bed thinking that the following day we would have a chance to do some sightseeing and perhaps a bit of fishing if we could rent one of the lodge´s boats, provided that these were available. Not a bad prospect considering what we had gone through. The rooms were fresh, and we slept well under our mosquito nets and, our both children and nannies were exhausted, sleep was very good.

The following morning started as a very luminous and warm day, perhaps we were well rested and very cheerful, and we headed for breakfast. The meal was served at the open-air restaurant area, and it was a simple affair: coffee or tea with toast, margarine and some kind of jam. The service was friendly but when we ordered more toast, the waiter informed us that if we get more bread now, tomorrow’s ration would be reduced! Having seen the supplies that came with us, this was not surprising but, nevertheless, the news sent strong alarm signals to our wives that had four children to look after!

The first measure that we decided to take with Bruno was a visit to the kitchen to make an evaluation of the availability of food both quantity and quality. So, led by the Manager we entered the place that looked as clean as it was empty, except for some egg crates on a bench but we did not spot or heard the chickens! Not seeing much food, we asked where it was kept, and we pointed at a freezer and fridge, but we refrained to press the cook for more details.

As we were leaving, the Manager pointed towards a mound on the table and, he said it was our dinner. Clearly it was a large chunk of beef that was being defrosted and it looked the worse for wear with some shades of green starting to appear. “Our cook will prepare a beef curry tonight,” said the Manager. We thanked him and the cook and completed our visit, more concerned than before.

Once alone we agreed that that the curry was going to be edible as, usually, it requires prolongued cooking and this, combined with the hot chilli peppers used would get rid of any possible threats to our health. However, we were both concerned about the food situation and we agreed that we needed to take some action to remedy it.

Our only available food source, apart from stealing food from the other guests, was the lake so we decided to try and harvest something from it.

Aware that the news would create unnecessary concern to our already worried family members, we decided not to mention the true result of our investigation and we focussed on booking a boat for the next day and the following so that we could go fishing. It seemed that it was either getting fish or going on a very low calory diet! So, all other recreational plans were shelved and we went straight to the jetty to find a boat that could take us to the lake the following day.

We negotiated a fee for a boat and a skipper and we agreed to an early start the following morning. Afterwards, we went back to our rooms to organize our fishing gear. We hoped to catch something but if we failed, we trusted that we could buy fish from the local fishermen so that we could have enough for the ten of us! Luckily, the chickens appeared for lunch and the curry, despite our misgivings, was rather good!

Next day, following the advice of our hosts we started our fishing trip very early. Not a ripple disturbed the lake, and it was a pity that our engine broke the magnificent silence of the dawn. It was a perfect start and, although later the wind picked up, the day continued to be nice and warm. We trolled for a few hours and, luckily, we managed to get some fish and we bought some more (the majority in fact!) from the lake fishermen that were very happy to get some cash from us! So, by lunchtime we were back, pleased and feeling like heroes. We took the fish to the kitchen and asked the cook to grill them for dinner. We could now go to the beach and relax with our families.

Dinnertime came and the fish were brought to the table. We waited for more to come as we knew what we had brought but nothing else came. Clearly, the amount on the table did not match our numbers! Then, in dismay, we noticed that our fellow Japanese guests were also served fish! A simple addition revealed that someone had decided to share our fish with our lodge companions! We knew that complaining would have been a futile exercise and quietly ate our “share”.

The following day was Christmas Eve and we expected Anders and Birgit´s arrival from Lusaka so, again, we booked another fishing trip for the morning but made sure that we would have our own fish roast at one of the BBQ places in the garden. We also hoped that Anders would bring some food and drinks to alleviate our situation.

This time we came back with enough Tanganyikan Tilapia (Oreochromis tanganicae) for all of us, including the visitors we expected. Again, I do not recall whether we fish them or we bought them from the local fishermen (as the day before) but I recall having intercepted a few local boats and negotiated for fish with them. In any case, to our survival purposes, it did not make a great difference. Once we felt “food secure”, we returned, cleaned the fish, seasoned them and took them to the kitchen ourselves to avoid any “losses”.

We heard Anders´ car a long way before it arrived, and we all went to greet our visitors. As expected, after a trip of well over one thousand kilometres in a Hilux pickup, they looked rather battered despite their young age. Birgit, still wearing her journey dress, was hardly able to walk while trying to take in the situation.

We learnt that she had come from Copenhagen to Lusaka, the pick-up and to the bush, still in her travel dress. They had spent the night somewhere on the way but the going had been tough, perhaps too much for her. Bravely, they still had plans to go on to Dar es Salaam after Lake Tanganyika… But it was Christmas Eve, and we did all we could to enjoy it.

We prepared a great BBQ and, this time, we roasted all of our fish that tasted delicious as most tilapia do in Africa. Our visitors did not disappoint us as they brought fresh provisions, both liquid and solid as well as presents for the kids. It all contributed to anice and merry atmosphere.

Over dinner we briefed our visitors on our situation the reasons about our situation and agreed that the major activity on Christmas Day would be to find out if there was room at another lodge so that we could enjoy the few days that we had left of our vacation.