Big Cave Lodge

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/