elephants

What on earth?! (7)

There is no doubt in my mind that Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe is one of the best places we have visited. Despite having the “Big five”, you are allowed to walk and animals are everywhere, including your campsite. Among several close encounters, we vividly remember the time a buffalo bull was killed by lions a few metres from the entrance to our bungalow posing some problems to our planned movements!

Despite this, we were not prepared to have an elephant welcoming comittee outside the reception!

It was also curious to see that the pachiderms in Mana Pools are exempt from the majority of the rules as can be seen below:

But, who can argue with them?

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/

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!

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/

South Luangwa National Park

The visit of Mauro, my father-in-law, was a good excuse to travel to the South Luangwa National Park. Although flying with the defunct Zambia Airways was reasonably priced, we opted to travel by road so that we could see the country better.

Unfortunately, the journey from Lusaka to Chipata was rather monotonous and long (568 km) on an almost straight road. From there we still had to travel another 100 km on a dirt road to get to Mfuwe Lodge, our destination for the three days we stayed there. The lodge was run by the Government and offered basic services, but we found it comfortable as well as very reasonably priced.

Our daughter came with us, looked after by her grandad, too young to remember anything despite my efforts to introduce her to the abundant hippos that lived in the river.

The Luangwa River is a major tributary of the Zambezi River and one of the four large rivers of Zambia, together with the Zambezi, Kafue and Chambesi). The upper and middle parts supply water to the North and South Luangwa National Parks and it is also home to a very large population of crocodiles and hippos. It is here where the largest population of hippos in Africa can be found. Although during the dry season the hippos are confined to pools that become muddy, they managed to survive although sometimes they succumb to diseases such as anthrax [1]. This was not the case during our visit as the river was flowing and they were scattered all over it.

The Luangwa River with hippos.

We spent a long time watching the numerous large schools of hippo but in fact we were looking for a place from where we could fish safely as I was aware that the river´s muddy waters also harboured good sized catfish. We selected a treeless patch of a grassy bank about 1.5m above the water from where we had a good view of any animals approaching and could focus on catching fish.

The following morning while Mauro and I fished, Mabel kept an eye for danger, just in case as very little escapes her eyesight! We were not able to bring earthworms, so we resorted to some beef we had brought for the purpose (I was not yet aware at the time of the use of soap!). Although beef is not the ideal bait, we started having some good bites and our enthusiasm grew.

We fished from a similar river bank than the one behind the hippos.

For Mauro, a frequent fisherman of the muddy waters of the River Plate, the kind of fishing we did was a normal event and soon he caught a nice catfish that we returned as we were only fishing for sport. While I was busy catching nothing, he hooked another fish. This time it seemed to be quite sizeable as he had difficulties bringing it in. Eventually it surfaced and we saw that a large catfish that Mauro, with his experience, played well and soon was close to the bank.

Catfish are tough and they take a while to get tired so there was quite a bit of fighting before he started to lift it up from the water. When he had raised the fish about one metre, a large green form came up from the water, seized the fish and disappeared in a fraction of a second. We were completely taken by surprise by this and we looked at each other in disbelief for a while, speechless and it took a while before we could talk again! When we did, it was to agree that we had had enough fishing for the day as we did not wish to have another close encounter with a croc!

We were wise choosing the high bank as the crocodile, attracted by the commotion in the water, took its chance once it saw the fish being lifted and it could have come towards us if we would have been at the river´s edge! The event got imprinted in Mauro´s memory in such a way that, whenever we fished again, he will tell me of the day I tried to get rid of him!

After this incident we devoted the rest of our time to safer activities. So we, fruitlessly, looked for lion and leopard but were rewarded by seeing other game, including many elephants. I had the impression that elephants in Luangwa were smaller than others we had seen in other parts of Zambia but it was just that, an impression.

Elephants at South Luangwa National Park.

Apart from fishing and game viewing, our trip to the South Luangwa National Park had another purpose. I was very keen to meet one of my “bush heroes”, Norman Carr, then living at Kapani Safari Lodge. I had bought and read some of his books [2] and I admired his inspiring work in conservation [3] .

Luckily, he was at the camp, and we had the great pleasure to spend a few hours with him. He came across as an extremely knowledgeable and unassuming man and our meeting only increased the admiration I felt for him. Interestingly, I owned a copy of “The White Impala” dedicated to another person and signed by Norman that Mabel had bought at an auction in Kenya. He was quite amused when I asked him to re-dedicate it to me. He accepted and the book became one of my special wildlife books.

Before we left, Norman invited us to return to Kapani to spend more time there. Unfortunately, soon afterwards we left Zambia and did not return to South Luangwa and, sadly, Norman passed away in 1997.

[1] If interested in the subject, see https://bushsnob.com/2015/12/10/a-new-hippo/ and https://bushsnob.com/hippo-carnivory-press-coverage/

[2] Return to the Wild (Collins 1962), The White Impala (Collins 1969), Some Common Trees and Shrubs of Luangwa Valley (1978), Valley of the Elephants (Collins 1980), A guide to the wildlife of the Luangwa Valley (Collins 1987) and Kakuli (CBC 1996). (Kakuli means Old buffalo and it is the friendly name by which the locals called him).

[3] Norman Carr, born in Chinde (Portuguese East Africa) started his career as an Elephant Control Officer in Northern Rhodesia controlling elephants damaging crops from villagers. During this time Norman gathered a great deal of bush experience that it would later prove invaluable when setting up National Parks for the Government and train rangers and wardens. Apart from South Luangwa, he also established the Kafue National Park.

It was after serving with the King’s African Rifles during the Second World War that he returned to Rhodesia with a very advanced idea: villagers could make money out looking after of protecting elephants and other animals. This was the start of eco-tourism in Africa!

He established Kapani, his own tourist camp just outside the park gates, and started charging guests to watch wild animals, a novel concept at the time. Later, the loss of wildlife to increased poaching prompted him to set up the Rhino Trust in 1970 which later passed into the care of the Worldwide Fund for Nature. He was a major driving force in the development of the Luangwa valley area, particularly with his ground-breaking walking safaris. He then spent lots of energy developing projects in support of the local communities.

The above is just a short account on Norman´s life and work and the interested reader will have no difficulty “googling” information on him.

Tsavo National Park

Background

After a while being in Kenya we decided to explore the Tsavo National Park. Eventually, after the first rushed trip that gave us a feel for the area, we returned to both Tsavo East and West in several opportunities.

The journey to either of the two park sections was very picturesque as the Mombasa road follows the Athi river with the Yatta plateau, the world’s longest lava flow (290km) that runs along the road and also forms the western boundary of the park. On clear days Kilimanjaro could be seen towards the southwest and then the Chyullu hills (to which I will return later on when dealing with Tsavo West) will make an appearance on the right.

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Kilimanjaro from the distance on a clear afternoon.

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The amazing Chyullu hills with its hundreds of small volcanoes.

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Giraffes by the Mombasa road.

Tsavo National Park was gazetted as a wildlife reserve by the Kenya colonial government in 1949 despite not being the best wildlife area in Kenya but by virtue of being an area of arid scrub too dry for agriculture and, being infested by tsetse flies -vector of trypanosomiasis- also unsuitable for livestock and, largely without human habitation.

David Sheldrick became its first Warden and, apart from dealing with the problem of armed poachers, he developed the original infrastructure of the park while studying the elephants’ behaviour and food needs, and, with his wife, Daphne, rescuing and hand-rearing vulnerable elephants, rhinos and antelopes. After his premature death Daphne established the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in his memory that runs the well-known Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi.

The park occupies 22,812 km² of the 41,000 km² of the original Tsavo ecosystem, 13,747 km² and 9,065 km² for the East and West sections respectively [1]. At its inception it was rich in wild animals with about 45,000 elephants and 8,000 black rhinos. Regrettably, after its creation, pressure from the climate and the surrounding human population interfered with elephant movement and brought about a gradual loss of the woodlands due to the high numbers of elephants and the area was transformed into grasslands, good for other species but less so for browsers like rhino and elephants.

The deeper the white man went into Africa, the faster the life flowed out of it, off the plains and out of the bush…vanishing in acres of trophies and hides and carcasses” wrote Peter Beard in his now classic book “The End Game” that highlighted the Tsavo crisis and that anyone interested in nature should look at and read [1].

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Examining elephant bones with Luis.

So, a severe collapse of the elephant and rhino population followed, particularly the black rhinos. By the time we started going to Tsavo the black rhino had already banished. There were rumours that some had sought refuge in the most remote areas of the park but we never saw any.

I will deal with the two parts of the park separately (starting with Tsavo East) as they both offer their own interesting features.

Tsavo East National Park

Usually we entered the park at the Manyani Gate and travelled through it on our way to the beaches in the Indian Ocean. Sometimes we stayed at the National Parks’ accommodation at the Aruba dam when we were late to complete the traversing of the long distance inside the park.

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A stop for Luis to photograph an interesting bird.

Before you reached the Manyani Gate we travelled through the territory where once the man eaters of Tsavo ruled. Two lions stopped the construction of the railway in the Tsavo River for nine months and killed more than a hundred workers since March 1898. “The Man-eaters of Tsavo” written by Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson, who was in charge of the work and shot them, is a fascinating read! [2]

In his book Patterson wrote: “. …Two most voracious and insatiable man-eating lions appeared upon the scene, and for over nine months waged an intermittent warfare against the railway and all those connected with it in the vicinity of Tsavo. This culminated in a perfect reign of terror in December 1898, when they actually succeeded in bringing the railway works to a complete standstill for about three weeks… Their methods then became so uncanny, and their man-stalking so well-timed and so certain of success, that the workmen firmly believed that they were not real animals at all, but devils in lions’ shape…”

We came face to face with some of the man-eaters but they presented no danger to us as they had been stuffed with straw for years at the entrance of the Muthaiga Country Club in Nairobi.

Before arriving to the Manyani Gate we usually stopped for re-fueling at the Man-eaters’ Motel stop where there was a memorial that commemorated the event. It was precisely there that I had my life-threatening encounter, not with a man-eater lion, but with a huge baboon that snatched my packet of crisps! [3].

Once you turned at the Manyani Gate the road was rather monotonous until you arrived at the Galana river where we usually stopped to look at the Lugard falls where the river passes through volcanic rock, carving a narrow path that had created a series of rapids and falls as the water flows faster. It was named after Frederick Lugard [4], who passed this place on his way to Uganda.

Most of the times we continued following the river towards the coast (a more interesting drive than the usual way via the Mombasa road) but, a couple of times we deviated south towards the Aruba dam, built in 1952 across the Voi River, a reservoir created to provide water to the game and birds. There we spent a few nights during which we found it difficult to sleep because of the noise the elephants made while coming to drink.

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Early group travellers from Germany.

Tsavo East is a good place to see fringed-eared oryx grazing on the open plains. The very shy lesser kudu could also be spotted during the early morning when they were away from the thicket. Rarer still was the finding of the long-necked gerenuk standing on its hind-legs to reach the sparse foliage of trees and bushes in the arid environment.

Although there were still elephants at the time of our visits, they were “diluted” because of the size of the park. For the same reason lions were also difficult to bump into. However, when you did you were in for a surprise as the males were maneless [5] and probably its ancestors were of the man-eating variety!

The “baldness” in these lions is attributed to an adaptation to the thorny vegetation in the park as their hair could interfere with their hunting. As their colleagues in Tsavo West that live in a similar environment have normal manes, I personally believe that their baldness, as in humans, is due to high levels of testosterone that may also explain its aggressive reputation.

 

[1] As a comparison, the Kruger National Park has an area of 19,485 km².

[2] Lt Col. J. H. Patterson in Chapter II of his classic book “The Man-eaters of Tsavo and Other East African Adventures”, published by MacMillan and Co. Limited, London in 1919. If you are lazy, you can ruin a good read and watch the 1996 Hollywood-style movie “The Ghost and the Darkness” (Paramount) with Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas.

[3] See: https://bushsnob.com/2016/06/07/mean-kin/

[4] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick_Lugard,_1st_Baron_Lugard#Exploration_of_East_Africa

[5] See: https://www.muyinteresante.es/naturaleza/articulo/hay-leonas-con-melena-521461839096

 

 

 

 

 

Salty dust [1]

In the 1980’s Amboseli National Park (established in 1974 as a National Park but already a park from 1948) was the most popular among all the Kenya parks. This was probably because it was relatively near Nairobi, despite the corrugated road to get to it, and it offered abundant quality accommodation. The latter I cannot confirm as we always camped there! Tourist packages included an Amboseli and Tsavo National Parks circuit, as there is a road that joins them. The result was that travel companies would take tourists in large numbers and we found it rather crowded, particularly around the lodges and the swamp area.

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Despite its popularity, the park was still beautiful mainly because of Kilimanjaro that in a clear day offered an amazing view . With its 5,895 metres summit it truly showed itself with its well known peaks Kibo (the flat one) and Mawenzi (the rugged one) above the cloud cover creating a really special atmosphere [2].

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Elephants and buffalo were plentiful and there were still black rhinos that could occasionally found browsing on the scarce trees and bushes, unaware of their sad but approaching extermination.

In 1982, David Western wrote: “…The Amboseli population, at a low of eight animals in 1977, had only two breeding males and three mature females. Given such low numbers and localized populations it is inevitable that the black rhino will, like the white rhino, have to be managed in many cases as a national or even international herd…” [3]

It was the park’s flatness and its scarce vegetation, together with the abundance of prey species, that made it an ideal place to find large predators such as lions and spotted hyenas, although they were already decreasing in numbers.

The abundance of Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelles also made Amboseli a great place to spot the already scarce cheetah and, if you were lucky as we were, to watch them hunting.

Although not considered among the great cats for anatomical reasons [4] these are very interesting and exciting animals to watch. Relying on speed to catch their prey, they are forced to hunt during the day so that they can see where they step while running -for short bursts- at a maximum speed of 100 to 120 km per hour! An injury could have severe consequences to the animal that can cause its death due to starvation! It is this behaviour that exposes cheetah to tourism interference and often leads to them getting disturbed by over-eager drivers.

Although we witnessed a few chases, we only managed to observe a couple that ended with a successful capture and kill of a Thomson’s gazelle. Several times we watched them loosing their prey during the chase when the latter in desperation entered terrain that was too rough for the cheetah or when the latter took a tumble at speed!

Even if the hunt was successful, the cheetah requires about a quarter of an hour of rest before it can start eating and, although their instinct directs them to consume the hindquarters (the richest part of the animal) during this recovery time cheetah are very vulnerable to larger predators -particularly spotted hyenas- to snatch its prey forcing it to hunt again!

Although we saw cheetah defending their prey against a single hyena by bristling and increasing their size dramatically, most of the time we watched while a pack of hyenas harassed them away from their freshly killed prey.

I will not attempt to describe a cheetah hunt as this has been done many times and through different media during hundreds of years. Instead of of that, as pictures I dare recommending my favourite sequence that, despite its age, is still one of the best I have seen (except seeing it live, of course). It is a Survival documentary called “Two in the Bush” filmed by Alan and Joan Root. Although the film (link below) is worth watching in its entirety, the cheetah sequence starts at the 15:32 minutes mark when the Roots are seen driving on the plains. It is important to bear in that the movie was filmed in the 1980’s with cameras that were not those we have today.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X8NzgBqOgJY

We did not attempt to emulate the Roots in filming the hunt but we were lucky enough to take a few shots of the action but the only good ones were those we took after the hund ended when we were lucky that a combination of positioning and camera zoom worked miracles, at least for our standards!

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We visited Amboseli several times over the years and eventually we got to know it quite well. Already at that time it was showing sigs of severe erosion, particularly during the dry season and we thought that it should be closed to the public for several years to allow it to recover. The park was so degraded by 1991 that the New York Times published an article highlighting its poor status [5]. Since then, a number of initiatives to manage the park have been initiated although I do not know about their degree of success.

To enter Amboseli you crossed the lake that gives the park its name, a usually dry ash lake and the first place where we saw both dust devils and mirages, the latter framed by Kilimanjaro.

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Funnily the lake was occasionally flooded! During these times it became a quagmire that took some driving to negotiate.

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At first we camped at the now called Amboseli campsite but the lack of adequate shade prompted us to seek other places. We then found the palm tree campsite that our friend Paul also used when staying at the park. Although lacking ablution facilities, this was a shady and cool camp, ideal to rest during the hot time of the day and even to have a short nap before embarking on a late afternoon game drive.

Being rather secluded and with small camping areas it had the advantage of not being frequented by the overland trucks that were beginning to be common at the time and that immediately crowded the limited space and facilities available at the other campsites. We soon learnt the reasons for this seclusion…

While Paul was investigating a rinderpest outbreak we took the opportunity to join him a couple of times at the palm tree campsite where he was staying with his camp hand Tobias as usual. He was a great help at the camp as well as producing some good food, particularly in the evening when we were tired after driving all day. However, the English breakfast was his “special” and this prompted Paul’s say of “with such breakfast, who needs to think about cooking later” in reply to our criticism to the rest of the English cuisine!

After dinner we usually made an inventory of the birds seen during the day as well as planning where we would go on the morrow. That night, however, Paul was starting to tell us about what had happened to him earlier at that camp when, suddenly, we started hearing people shouting!

We stopped talking and listened. After a few seconds we clearly heard a loud and frantic scream: “elephant!” that got repeated until finally we heard a desperate “help us, elephant!” Without hesitating Paul and Tobias grabbed their torches and ran towards the source of the voices. I followed.

We did not have a lot of ground to cover, perhaps one hundred metres, when we came to the next camping spot, a clearing in the bush where the drama was unfolding. There were tents and a Land Rover with three terror-stricken occupants in the back, two men and a woman rather scantily clothed. Outside there was a large elephant holding the roof rack and vigorously shaking the car as much as its springs would allow and, in so doing, badly shaking the people inside!

We then realized that the elephant had stepped and flattened an aluminium camera case and scattered camera(s) and lenses on the fine dust. Luckily, as soon as we shone the torches on the intruder, it took off tail up, aware of its guilt, crashing into the low palm trees to the relief of the vehicle occupants and mine when I saw it running in the opposite direction rather than charging!

After helping the “victims” to collect their dusty gear and their wits, we reassured them that the elephant would not come back as it got quite a fright, not being sure of this ourselves as it was unusual that elephants would attempt to raid a camp in Kenya. After we saw that our neighbours were as calm as the situation allowed, we returned to our camp.

After commenting the incident with the rest of the campers it was Paul’s turn to return to its interrupted story that, funnily enough, also dealt with elephants! He told us that one night he was woken up by some noise outside the tent. Through the door he realized that there were elephants outside and then he felt a rush of hot air in his face, coming from one of the visitors. It was trying to get to the food he had in the tent. Quite alarmed, he tried to get out through the other tent exit that went to his “kitchen” area only to find it blocked by a white elephant that blocked his way. The intruder had managed to break a sac of flour and it was enjoying it!

In the meantime, another pachyderm was busy trying to get at Tobias’ tent where some dirty pots and pans were kept to be cleaned the following morning. His smaller tent was lifted from the ground and Tobias got very frightened and -according to the storyteller- proffered such screams that he managed to scare the animals away, saving the day! After that achievement Tobias rushed to the Land Rover where he spent the rest of that night! (Something I would also have done! – Bushsnob)

It was then apparent that the campsite was a rather uninhabited one in virtue of its naughty elephantine visitors that have become used to get food from campers and the news had spread prompting campers -except us!- to stay away. As it is inevitable in these cases, the camp was closed soon after and, possibly, the elephants destroyed as wild animals always pay for being fed by people who do not realize the consequences of their actions.

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I always wonder if some of these were the culprits!

 

[1] The English meaning of the Maa word Amboseli.

[2] There is apparently a third peak called Shira that I learnt about when writing this post! See: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Kilimanjaro (Consulted on 19/10/19).

[3] Western, D. (1982). Patterns of depletion in a Kenya rhino population and the conservation implications. Biological Conservation, 24: 147-156.

[4] The word “Cheetah” is derived from the Hindi word “Chita” meaning “spotted one”. The Cheetah is the fastest land animal reaching speeds of 45 – 70 mph. Cheetahs have also been known to swim, although they do not like to. “…The Cheetah is not one of the Great Cats, because it does not have a floating Hyoid bone in its neck it can not roar, therefore it is a Lesser Cat…” See: https://bigcatrescue.org/cheetah-facts/?amp (consulted 16/10/19)

[5] See: https://www.nytimes.com/1991/05/19/travel/an-african-park-in-peril.html (consulted 16/10/19)

 

 

 

 

Dust

This year Masuma dam offered an amazing spectacle because of the very dry conditions that prevail in Hwange National Park at the moment. There was a continuous flow of animals coming to drink at the shrinking waterhole despite its constant water pumping that could not match evaporation and what hundreds of animals needed to drink.

As described in the previous post the elephants were the stars of the show but there were other visitors, not less interesting such as impala, giraffe, zebra, greater kudu, warthogs, baboons, jackals and some buffalo. Among the latter there was a male that looked in very poor condition that we predicted that it would not last too long and that ended up as a lion meal two days later.

After watching the lions feeding on the buffalo we returned to Masuma to continue with our “comfortable” viewing from our camp as the water is very close to it. We were -as usual- focussing on the comings and goings of the elephants when we noted a large brown cloud rising far away, in the direction of Mandavu reservoir.

One afternoon we were enjoying game viewing from our platform at Masuma when we spotted dust in the horizon.

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We thought that more elephant family groups were arriving but the dust turned into a large cloud and we realized that a large herd was indeed coming. But we were wrong, there were not elephants but a very large herd of buffalo! Hundreds and hundreds of them coming to drink at Masuma.

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We had seen very large numbers of buffalo during previous visits at Mandavu reservoir and probably this was the same herd forced to move in search of grazing.

It was an amazing site as buffalo, usually respectful of elephants just bulldozed their way through by the pressure of their large numbers and took over the entire water body! It was interesting to see that the elephants were forced to wait this time.DSC_0769 copyIMG_6763 copyIMG_6748 copy

After about an hour, when the afternoon was turning to dusk, they slowly moved off in in the direction of the Shumba picnic site and the other animal’s wait was over. The herd went slowly, probably in search of grazing and hoping to drink  at Shumba where there was abundant water still.

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Pictures by Julio A and Mabel de Castro, Patricia Ruiz Teixidor and the bushsnob.

Elephants!

As I mentioned in the earlier post Hwange National Park is going through a severe drought and some of the classical water points where wild animals usually drink are shrinking and drying up.

The hippos at Masuma (except a lone one that is there part-time) are gone, probably to Mandavu reservoir, a walk of about 18 km, not a great distance for a hippo. However, although it is unlikely that such large water body would dry up, grass availability remains the limitant and grazers such as hippos and buffaloes may be the ones to suffer most.

As for the elephants, they were congregating in large numbers at Masuma dam and Dom pan -the areas we saw-  and drinking 24/7 as it is now said. Nyamandhlovu and Masuma dams’ water levels were low and getting lower. Although usually most elephants prefer to drink from the water inlet to get the clean and fresh water, there was no room for everybody there and mostly the large individuals managed to hold their ground there. The majority were forced to drink the muddy water from other areas of the dams, a thing they would not do under normal circumstances.

Tempers were also hot and trumpeting and squealing day and night were heard. At one stage thee was some brawl that ended up with a loud crack when one of the elephants had a tusk embedded in its rump that cracked when the victim tried to move away! After a night of intense elephant traffic we found a dead young elephant near the water although we do not know how it died.

So, there was drama at the dams and pans but there was also great fun with the youngsters as usual and I just wish to show you a few pictures and videos of the action so that you can get an idea of what took place.

Videos and pictures were taken by my son Julio A., his girlfriend Patricia and myself.

Arrival

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The dust can be seen for several minutes before the thirsty animals arrive.

Drinking

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A youngster frolicking and drinking.

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Not able to use its trunk yet a baby uses its mouth!

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And then it gets the real treat from its mother!

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The amazing trunks in action.

Bathing

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Preparing the water for a mud bath!

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Mud sprinkling.

Powdering

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Hanging around

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Scratching

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Itchy belly!

When tempers flare

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A young calf scatters smaller animals before drinking.

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A tusk wound. The result of a hard push that broke the tusk of the aggressor.

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A funny moment!

Although pictures show some of the action, I also present you with a few videos to show you the atmosphere at the water holes.

First Masuma dam:

Then my son did a time lapse one evening:

 

The next two videos were taken at Dom pan, near Hwange Main camp to show the elephant numbers present there at the time (September 2019).

I really enjoy the start of the video with the arrival of the first group and the noises of the elephants.

 

Vundu fishing in Kariba

Introduction

My brother and I have fished together many times over the years. Our shared passion started when we were still very young and fished in the River Plate and tributaries and extended to the present expedition in search of the vundu (Heterobranchus longifilis) in lake Kariba.

We have fished in several places of the Paraná and Uruguay rivers on a catch and release basis. We have been very fortunate to catch a few of the two most coveted fish: the dorado (Salminus maxillosus) and the surubí (Pseudoplatystoma corruscans). My wife and I had our first experience fishing for dorado in Paso de la Patria, Corrientes in the 80s[1] and have fished more fish in the Corrientes province with my brother afterwards, always on a catch and release basis. Accompanied by my son and I, my brother caught a large surubí at Ita Ibate that is still the family record to be broken!

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Holding the surubí estimated by the local guide to be around 40kg.

We have also fished in the upper Amazon tributaries in Bolivia and earlier in Zimbabwe in Kanyemba where we caught the also sought after tiger fish (Hydrocynus vittatus). Despite this, the vundu has remained elusive for my brother although my daughter and I managed a few as described earlier [2]. This, together with tales of gigantic specimens, became intolerable so we went there to try our luck!

Before I go on I need to be honest up front, my brother Agustín is a fisherman with unlimited patience and a passion to get things out of the water. I am not patient and therefore only function when the fish, preferably large ones, are biting. However, I enjoy his company and we have good laughs together and as a late great fisherman of Paso de la Patria, Don Luis Shultz, always said ” the worst day fishing is better than the best day working”.

Preparations

Still following earlier advice from my wife’s dentist and our own experience mentioned above, again we hired a boat to sail lake Kariba up to the Ume River like the last time. On this occasion, in view of the fuel situation in Zimbabwe, we decided to go for a smaller houseboat so we hired the “Harmony”, a cruiser, for a week.

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The Harmony, our home for one week.

Apart from booking the boat, getting food and water to last us for the whole period was the priority. We also needed bait. This consisted of dry kapenta (Limnothrissa miodon), earthworms [3], ox heart and liver and more exotically: green soap! The latter was a favourite of the vundu and my wife secured a couple of bars from the local supermarket just in case. The soap was so stinky that, after a few days, we needed to wrap it tight to avoid its stench pervading all over the garage. Needless to say that it traveled -together with the earthworms- on the roof rack!

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The stinky green soap bars.

Days before the expedition we secured some extra hooks, sinkers, steel trace and line just in case. We were going after large fish and did not wish to fail due to lack of equipment! That prove to be a good precaution as we will see. So, finally all was ready and with the car packed we went.

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Loading the car.

The trip

We left Harare at the unacceptable time of 03:30am. This early start was needed to be able to board our cruiser at 09:00am in Kariba Breezes harbour. After an uneventful trip we arrived in good time and met our supplier of drinks (mainly water) and our crew: Message, the captain and fishing guide, Eddie, the deckhand, cleaner and helper and Smart, the cook.

From the start we realized that we were lucky with Message and Eddie but faced some difficulties with the cook. The latter was used to cooking for the local fishermen and we had brought ingredients for Mediterranean cooking! Therefore it is not difficult to imagine that Mabel, being Italian, needed to closely supervise the food preparation and, although she kept a close eye on the action, we still suffered a few small cooking tragedies!

The lake was, as usual, a beautiful blue and, although we have seen it and navigated it a few times before, still very impressive. The Kariba dam was built between 1955 and 1959 by an Italian company that poured one million cubic metres of cement into it.

IMG_4734 copyWith its 617m of length, 13m of width and 128m of height. It has always amazed me that such small barrier can create a lake of 280 km long with an average width of 18km (widest 32km) and two thousand km of shoreline! Its deepest point is 120m but it is also very shallow in some areas so the average depth, if of any use to know, is 18m.

When the dam stopped the waters of the Zambezi, animals got trapped in islands that were going to get submerged so an operation called “Noah” was launched headed by Rupert Fotherhill, a well known conservationist. Today Fotherhill island in the lake remembers him that sadly passed away in May 1975[4].

Enough of data and history and back to the story.

The fishing

We left the harbour with a farewell organized by the resident hippos and navigated for about five hours. We stopped beyond Elephant Point as it was not possible to reach the Ume river with good visibility that day. We fished there but had no luck. The same bad luck stayed with us during the couple of nights spent at the Ume river, although we had a couple of bites (suspected by vundu) that we missed and we had to be happy with a couple of small bream (Oreochromis spp.) that we kept for the pot and tasted great!

Fishing in the African rivers is never boring, even if the fish do not bite. Apart from the abundant birdlife that can always surprise you as we will see below, the abundant hippo population is always keeping you “entertained”. Either you watch their water antiques and interactions while letting you know that they are there or outside when sunning themselves when you discover the very small babies that you miss in the water when they travel in the backs of their mums.

In addition, apart from the usual antelopes, there is always the possibility of seeing some of the large predators and the certainty that elephants will turn up and also keep you amused.

Disappointed after having fished at the Ume river we decided to move off the following day. That night we decided to leave two rods baited with green soap from the stern of the house boat with the hope that we would get some fish during the night. We set the reels with their alarms with the idea that we would hear the fish taking the bait and running. Although we tried to stay long, very soon, tired after a whole day under the sun, we forgot about the rods and retired to bed rather early.

Although neither we nor the crew heard anything that night, both rods had fish on them the next morning and we were very excited! It was immediately clear that we were on large fish as the rubber tie that held my rod had been cut by the fish pulling! Sadly, our lines had also become entangled in the many submerged trees and we could not see what we had as both lines needed to be cut!

So, that morning we went out fishing seeking revenge but, again, we drew blanks but my brother continued fishing from the houseboat after lunch and his efforts were rewarded with a vundu. It was a very small one but at least it was good to confirm that vundu were not yet extinct!

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Agustín’s first vundu.

This small success, together with the night episode, was sufficient to prompt us to stay fishing that night. Needless to say that our enthusiasm gradually waned and by 01:00am, in the absence of fish activity, we gave up as a result of a combination of feeling cold and sleepy!

Following our lack of success during our night fishing, in consultation with Message, we decided to depart from the Ume area after lunch as we would still try to catch something in the morning. Message was sure that we would catch what we were after at Elephant point so, after yet another luckless morning we departed at midday of day four.

Once moored safely at our new location we resumed our fishing. The water was very calm but we saw lots of dry trees in our new location as the water of the lake was very low. Although we joked that with less water the fish would be more concentrated, the hidden trunks were a menace to our lines.

We decided to go all out and put all our rods out with different baits to care for all possible tastes! After a while I had a fish on the green soap that I missed by striking it too early and taking the soap away from its mouth (apparently). It was a good start and a while later I had another strong run. This time I waited but stroked too hard and broke the line, causing great hilarity all round as I nearly fell backwards out of the boat! It seemed that Message had been right, there were some interesting fish at Elephant point.

The following morning (day five) we hooked a couple of fish that we also lost as they would go around submerged trees causing the lines to snap. The situation was getting desperate when, luckily, Agustín hooked a vundu that ran towards a treeless area and, eventually, was brought in. It weighed 6.5kg and it was returned to the lake to continue growing! That was something after the effort we had put in so far and it was celebrated that evening with some whisky on the rocks.

During day six, while I was busy losing hooks, sinkers and line for various reasons, my brother caught another fish that at 11.6 kg was quite decent and, although still far from our expectations, made as (and mainly him) very happy. Of course Agustín still claims that my balance was faulty and that the fish must have weighed about 15kg but I ignored his comments as I used my luggage balance and it has worked well for many years! The new fish provided another good excuse to give our bottle of whisky another hard time!

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Agustín with the 11,6 kg vundu.

That day, while my brother was busy fishing and I entertained myself losing gear, my attention was called when I herd loud honking coming from a sand bank about 60m from us. Through the binoculars I saw that two Egyptian geese (Alopochen aegyptiaca) were having a fight. This was not the usual confrontation in which posturing and threatening displays end with the withdrawal of one of the contenders. The fight had gone physical!

They were holding each other by their heads while strongly hitting each other with their wings. Several other geese had formed a crowd around them (no doubt cheering their favourite wrestler) honking madly.  Just before the scuffle broke up, a Fish eagle (Haliaeetus vocifer) swooped down towards the fighters and, when I thought it would take one of them, it changed course at the last second and flew off to a perch nearby, unnoticed by the furious fighting geese.

About a couple of minutes later the contenders separated and, one of them flew off very close to the water. This was spotted by the eagle that attacked it again at full speed forcing the flying goose to crash into the water to avoid the killing talons of the eagle that did not made contact. At that point I thought that the goose was a goner and waited for the predator to return. Surprisingly, the eagle did not press the attack and flew off!

The final drama

It is mandatory that the last night on the lake is spent near the harbour at Kariba town as the boats must be back by mid morning. That s the time to re-fuel and settle all expenses with the suppliers. Usually that night is spent at a rather nondescript area called Antelope island where we had not fished anything before.

This time we discussed with Message whether it would be another place where we could stop where we could still have a chance of getting large fish. He proposed to go to the Sampakaruma island. As the name sounded quite exotic, we instantly agreed to go there.

We arrived at Sampakaruma late afternoon and went for our last attempt at catching a vundu. It was not to be although I had a good pull that eventually lost, nothing unusual in this trip. So it was time to return to Kariba the following morning but we still decided to leave two rods from our tender boat to see if we could catch anything at dusk and leave them until after dinner when we agreed that we would pack our gear and end our fishing.

Fed up with losing equipment I decided to leave my reel brake rather tight so that the fish could not take much line in case it decided to take the bait. This in my mind would avoid it running far and getting entangled in the submerged trees. Satisfied, I went to have my shower to prepare for the last dinner on board.

The rest of the team planned to take their showers in the morning so they preferred to sit at the table to enjoy a sundowner. However, their relaxation was abruptly interrupted by an ear-splitting noise coming from the stern of the boat. It sounded as if another boat had crashed against us so all able seamen and women, except me that was enjoying my shower, ran towards the stern.

“Julio!, Julio!” I heard my wife calling “come quick, something happened at the tender boat!” and added “they are there trying to see what is happening!”. I put my clothes without drying myself and run to join the rest of the team, rather confused at the news.

“Your rod is gone” were the words my brother greeted me before I reached the tender boat. When I could look at the scene I saw Message and Eddie illuminating the boat and the water. The rod had indeed gone and so it had the rod holder, hence the loud noise herd.

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The first view of the place where the rod was. The outline of the holder and screw holes are clearly seen.

I saw that Message and Eddie were busy assembling a few hooks together to rake the bottom of the lake in the nearby area to see if they could hook the line.

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Message and Eddie attempting to recover the rod.

All efforts were futile and the rod and reel were gone forever! A suitable end to my constant losing of gear!

Speculation immediately started on whether the responsible for the damage was a very large vundu or perhaps a hungry crocodile. As you can guess, the discussion of the cause of the rod departure is still being hotly debated and it will be for a few years to come as it could have been either of the two suspects.

However, I am about to reveal a different explanation, fruit of careful thinking that considered the local mythology, the history of the lake and the location where the incident took place.  

The Tonga ethnic group that lives in the Zambezi valley believe that a River God known as Nyami Nyami lives in Lake Kariba. It is a serpent-like creature of very large proportions, so long that no one dares to guess his length. The dam separated Nyami Nyami from his wife and this has angered him. He has  remonstrated in the past by causing severe floods and even some earth tremors. 

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Nyami Nyami and the dam.

Apparently, when Nyami Nyami passes the water stains red and Chief Sampakaruma saw him on two occasions many, many years ago, but the River god has been in hiding since the white men arrived.

I believe that what happened to my rod was nothing to do with a vundu or a crocodile but that it was the River god remonstrating against us being there trying to remove its creatures from the lake! After all I am sure it was in this area of the lake that Chief Sampakaruma saw Nyami Nyami and I swear that I saw the water turning red towards the end of that day. Although it may have been the effect of the dying rays of the sun on the still lake, I am convinced that Nyami Nyami was around!

 

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2015/01/28/a-fishing-expedition/

[2] See: https://bushsnob.com/2018/01/15/vundu/

[3] Amusingly earthworm sellers have different names for them while they advertise them on the road. “Puffadder worms”, “Black mamba worms”, “Men worms” and “Worms of note” are some of the names that come to mind.

[4] See: https://www.nytimes.com/1975/05/28/archives/rupert-fothergill-is-dead-at-62-led-rescue-of-animals-in-africa.html; https://www.safaribookings.com/blog/operation-noah-rescue-of-the-kariba-wildlife; http://operationnoah.blogspot.com/ There is also a book: Robins, E & Legge, R. (1959). Animal Dunkirk: the Story of Lake Kariba and ” Operation Noah, ” the Greatest Animal Rescue Since the Ark. Jenkins publisher. 188p.