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!

Gonarezhou three years later. Southern area

After our accidented Chipinda Pools stay, we got to Mabalauta in mid afternoon. By that time we were already famous, expected and treated like VIPs (or silly old folk?)!

A booking was indeed ready for us at the reception but, on arrival to the Swimuwini camp itself we noted that our favourite bungalow was available. Negotiations follow as it was more expensive and finally, through an additional payment, we secured it.

Not only the bungalow was comfortable but it was beautiful. It had a great view of the vast expanse of the Mwenezi River below and it also had its own “resident” baobab next to its entrance.

DSCN0151 copy

Our bungalow by the river and the views from it, below.

It even had the added and valuable bonus of a bush cellular phone signal! We have learnt that cellphone signals are often found at weird places such as under the third marula tree facing the river or by placing your phone inside a cut out shampoo container hanging on the pole holding the entrance gate of a camp! In this case, the signal was obtained in the center of the backrest of the middle veranda armchair and, capriciously, nowhere else! So we were connected.

Fungisai, the camp attendant we knew from the last time, was still there as helpful as usual. This time she sported a bigger smile and she was very happy with the new park management as they were getting things done fast and their salaries were now being paid in time. There was a busy atmosphere around camp with the garden being refurbished and the various bungalows re-built. A look at the ablution block’s brass fittings’ condition further testified to the staff willingness to get on with the work!

DSCN0196 copy

Taking good care of the brass fittings!

This time we had electricity and hot water at the ablutions block provided by a donkey boiler (also known as a Tanganyika boiler in East Africa) that worked great but that will soon be replaced by solar heaters. After enjoying its abundant hot water, we agreed with my wife that there are no better showers than these albeit their environmental friendship can be argued!

DSCN0198 copy

The donkey full blast.

Swimuwini (Place of baobabs) is one of the nicest national park camps we have ever stayed. It is not only small and beautiful but not many people stay there. For the first two nights we were alone and only then one more family arrived the third night. I believe that this will soon change when the on-going refurbishing work gets completed.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We spent some time exploring the camp admiring its plant and animal life. There are four bungalows that come with their own baobabs and a super tree is located at the staff village. In addition, the camp is splashed with impala lilies (desert roses in East Africa) that come in all shapes and sizes and are incredibly beautiful.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Another special of Swimuwini is the herd of Nyala (Tragelaphus angasii) that daily walks through the camp grazing and browsing on their way to and from the Mwenezi river. We remembered a rather large male from our previous visit but now, apart from it, there are at least two more young males and about ten females and young. They are tolerant of humans so we could approach them on foot and take a few pictures before they disappeared in the thicket behind the camp.

We drove many km carefully looking for game (we all know that my wife can spot anything that is there!). Impala were plentiful again but no Greater kudus were seen. A herd of about a dozen giraffe kept a prudent distance and they were seen mainly drinking in the distance down at the Mwenezi river (see above). This time we only heard jackals but did not see them but spotted three young hyenas walking around camp.

We saw a few elephant bottoms crushing through the brush and, eventually, caught a glimpse of two at the Nyamugwe pan. The sighting lasted for a minute perhaps and they were off! Clearly, despite the new management, it will still take time for the elephants to tolerate humans as it is clearly spelled at the sign that is found in Wright’s tower down the Mwenezi river, close to Malipati.


DSCN0225 wright tower Gon Aug 17 copyThe camp offered further entertainment in the evening as the baobab crumples were the home of bats that would come out and hunt for insects under our veranda light.

DSCN0405 copy

The first night the camera trap -a great new addition to our safari gear- pictured a genet looking for left overs around our bungalow. In the camera we saw that it had started visiting our place between 19:30 and 20:00 hours so we decided to wait for it during the second night. We were immediately rewarded with several visits and a few (bad) pictures!

STC_0045 copy

Albeit small, the Mabalauta section of Gonarezhou offers a nice drive along the river where a few river pools can be visited. Rossi pools offer a great view of the river where patience is rewarded with the arrival of different animals to the water. While you wait you will find entertainment counting the crocodiles either swimming or basking under the sun and, when the wind stops and the ripples settle, tilapia shoals can be easily seen moving about in the shallows while tiger fish patrol the deeper green pools in search of prey and the occasional terrapin surfaces to take a lungful.

DSCN0344 copy.jpg

Rossi pools.

A couple of kilometres further down the river the rather ugly Wright’s tower offers another nice view of the river. Searching for the origins of the tower I learnt that Allan Wright was a District Commissioner that was largely responsible for the establishment of the Gonarezhou National Park in 1975 so he probably built the tower [1].

DSCN0235 copy

It was also in this general area that S.C. ‘Bvekenya’ Barnard, the notorious hunter and poacher roamed during the early 1900’s avoiding the police by moving to different countries around Crook’s corner the point where the borders of Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe converge. Bvekenya’s errands have been immortalized by T.V. Bulpin in his book “The Ivory Trail”.

But that is a different story.


[1] Allan Wright described his time in Nuanetsi District in his books Valley of the Ironwoods. A Personal Record of Ten Years Served as District Commissioner in Rhodesia Largest Administrative Area, Nuanetsi, in the South-Eastern Lowveld (1972) and Grey Ghosts at Buffalo Bend (1976) both now out of print.



Baobab Teenager

Last week, driving around Chipinda Pools in Gonarezhou National Park, we spotted this baobab that reminded me of a youngster when growing so fast that the clothes that fit today do not tomorrow! It seems that the young and growing baobab needs another pullover to cover its belly!

DSCN0067 copy

In fact, elephants had damaged the base of the tree and the absence of bark contrasts with the intact part of the trunk that shows a healthy coppery colour further up.

Elephants badly damage baobabs, particularly when food and water are scarce as they get the latter from the soft trunk. Lots of baobabs are damaged in this way and the problem is particularly noticeable in Gonarezhou.

The examples below are from Tsavo West National Park, Kenya in the eighties and Mana Pools National Park a couple of years back.

Hollow baobab Tsavo West copy

Baobab damaged by elephants in Tsavo West National Park.


Another damaged baobab, this time at Mana Pools National Park.

Baobab myth?

I am sure that we all agree that baobabs (Adansonia digitata) are special trees. To see these true behemoths of the vegetal world in the African bush is always visually attractive and these trees have an important contribution to human as well as animal food security.

A large number of “famous” baobabs are scattered throughout Africa and Walker (2013)[1] has done a great job documenting forty special baobabs in Southern Africa while writing about his life devoted to conservation.

I have always regarded them as primeval trees that would take hundreds if not thousands of years to reach their monumental sizes. That is why what I saw after crossing the border from Botswana into South Africa shook the foundations of my baobab world…

This year we decided to do our annual trip to South Africa through Botswana for two main reasons: to avoid the normally chaotic border post at Beitbridge and to see more of Botswana. After spending the night in Palapye we crossed the border at Martin’s Drift and, after the event, we congratulated ourselves for the choice as, dealing with the border, only took a few minutes!

Still enjoying the “high” that an easy border crossing gives you we came across a farmstead with an access road lined by trees! Well, you would be thinking that the border crossing really affected my mind as most farms have such an entrance! Not so. The trees were fully grown baobabs! In addition, the land surrounding the farmhouse was also littered with the giants!


The trees I saw were not baby baobabs, not even teenagers! They belonged to my “adult baobab” category that includes trees that are hundreds or even thousands years old. Did early settlers plant the trees? Considering that the first Europeans arrived in the Limpopo Province (then the Transvaal) in 1836 via the Great Trek this could be possible. However, I believe that the trekkers had other more pressing activities than planting baobabs! This is confirmed by the finding of the first gold fields in the Transvaal fifty years later.

It was also unlikely that the trees, like the famous Morondava’s Avenue of the Baobabs in Madagascar were the remnants of a far greater baobab forest which existed in the past and not planted on purpose to grow as an avenue.

So, the mystery of the Limpopo baobab avenue remained in my mind throughout the journey through South Africa. It was only when back in Harare that I found time to Google the name of the farm and learnt that it is a hunting company[2]. Keen on finding out the origin of the trees I sent them an e-mail but I did not get a reply. I continued searching.

While looking up the issue, I remembered that a good Italian friend had bought really ancient olive trees that were moved from Southern Italy to his farm near Rome where they were planted! Apparently a trench is dug around the tree to uproot it, one side every year, then it gets pruned and, in about 4 years, it is ready to be “transplanted”. Could something like that be done with baobabs? The answer is yes!

There are 380 transplanted baobabs at the Lost City forest at Sun City, the heaviest weighed 75 tons at the time of the move! De Beers Venetia mine has relocated 110 baobabs to avoid them being damaged by its mining activities and, more recently, a large baobab in Musina, South Africa was moved from the new Musina Mall parking area and placed in a roundabout a few hundred metres away[3].

So, in the absence of a response from Choronga Safaris we can only say that there is a farm in the Limpopo Province of South Africa with an amazing baobab-lined entrance that, regardless of their origin is amazing but that we suspect that the trees were placed there rather recently.

I nearly fainted when, after this baobab revelation, I went out to have a look at the one I planted two years ago in a strategic place of the garden. There it was, about 60cm tall and starting to sprout. Although healthy, its growth is almost imperceptible and it still looks like a bonsai!

Seeing my pathetic project, I was tempted by a transplantation and a few baobab candidates I know came to mind! However, I abandoned the idea as it felt like cheating! I have planted the baobab for future members of the family to enjoy it and I will stick to this idea.

DSCN9951 copy.jpg

My “bonsai” baobab in Harare. The ruler is 30 cm long.

Well, to tell you the truth, the possible cost of a transplant really persuaded me not to do it so I will increase the amount of water it gets although I do not think that this will accelerate its growth. The only certainty is that I will not be able to drink tea under its shade.


[1] Walker, C. (2013). Baobab Trails. An Artist’s Journey of Wilderness and Wanderings. Ultra Litho (Pty) Ltd., Johannesburg. 287p.

[2] Choronga Safaris. Accessed on 7 October 2016.

[3] De Beers (2016). Moving story of a giant baobab tree. Accessed on 21 October 2016.

Zambezi sentinels

All baobabs are special but there are a number of “famous” ones. Clive Walker[1] highlights a number of them, some well known, some less but all interesting. I am sure most people keen in Africa and its nature have read or heard about Baines’, Green’s and Chapman’s baobabs in Botswana, the Pioneer’s baobab and the “Big tree” in Zimbabwe, the Sagole and Sunland giants in South Africa and the Toilet tree of Namibia to name some. We were lucky to visit Katima Mulilo in Namibia at a time that the toilet was still there and it was one of the unforgettable sights of our travelling life.

The "toilet baobab" at Katima Mulilo, Namibia.

The “toilet baobab” at Katima Mulilo, Namibia.

A close up of the "toilet baobab" at Katima Mulilo, Namibia.

A close up of the “toilet baobab” at Katima Mulilo, Namibia.

However, all baobabs that you see are special in their own way and have their own special features. I recall the sorrow felt by Carlo, an Italian friend that came for a safari to Gonarezhou, when he saw the damage elephants do to these wonderful trees. There was also a large baobab at Lochinvar National Park in Zambia that had its own cave!

The Lochinvar baobab and my daughter.

The Lochinvar baobab and my daughter.

The Lonchinvar baobab with a young bushsnob and Bruno in attendance.

The Lonchinvar baobab with a younger (and sillier) bushsnob and my friend Bruno.

Apart from the group of baobabs named after Baines, probably the better known, there are other groups such as the Prison trees in Botswana and the Baobab hill in South Africa. We discovered another one. Well, perhaps we just found it after many before us…

20150914_113034 copy

DSCN9447 copy

A fine baobab.

A fine baobab.

DSCN9441 copy

20150914_113212 copy

Signs of elephant damage are clear at the base of the trunk.

In my post “Chitake” I mentioned that on the morning of the second day we went for a drive and found a hill with baobabs. This was the location of Chitake 2 campsite[2] and -I believe- the place where Mr. Evergreen was killed by the lions. This windswept hill, apart from the trees, offers stunning views of the middle Zambezi valley, all the way to the escarpment.

DSCN9440 copy

The trees stand like sentries to the valley below and I would be surprised if it did not have some religious connotation to the early inhabitants of the area. It may be that the pottery fragments we found among them may have something to do with this but it is difficult to say, as we were not able to estimate their age or origin. A least to be there at sunset was a wonderful moment.

Some of the broken pottery found.

Some of the broken pottery found.

20150914_174617 copy

20150914_174449 copy

20150914_174853 copy

Searching the Internet I learnt that these baobabs, that are not in Walker’s book, are known as the “Twelve Apostles” but I was not able to find out more information about them. What I can say, though, it is that we counted thirteen! Was Mary Magdalene not counted?

Clearly this gives us an excellent excuse to revisit the place to do a proper baobab census!



[1] Walker, C. (2013). Baobab Trails. An artist’s journey of wilderness and wanderings. Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd. South Africa. 287p.

[2] The campsite is now at another place with more protection from the wind.