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.

 

Mana Pools reception

The unexpected is commonplace at Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe! Below are the receptionists!!!

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We just waited a bit while they approved of us…

Later Mabel, my wife, experienced a close encounter with another elephant while sitting at this bench checking her WhatsApp!

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The unique experience of Mana Pools!

Boswell’s genes

Three years back I wrote a post about a really iconic elephant in Mana Pools known as Boswell [1]. At the time I mentioned its ability to reach heights that other elephants (and even giraffes if they would exist in Mana Pools) cannot by stretching and standing on its hind legs. I showed a rather bad set of pictures that I took on an island in the middle of the Zambezi river and regretted that the animal did not “perform” closer to us.

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Undoubtedly Boswell is the best known of Mana Pools’ elephants and it one of the classic sights of the park.

My brother Agustín and his wife Gloria had visited us in Zimbabwe in the late 90s and, to our delight, they decided to come back this year. As we had taken them to Hwange National Park and Victoria Falls in their previous visit, we decided this time to visit Mana Pools for game viewing and Kariba to attempt to fish for vundu.

In the previous visit we failed to find any lions at Hwange despite our great efforts so one of the goals at Mana was to find wild lions. Fortunately we achieved this goal and spent sometime watching them. As lions are normally sleeping and these were not the exception, we soon decided to move on and return later to see if they decide to be more active.

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Luckily, after a while in the distance we saw the unmistakable shape of Boswell and we noted that it was slowly walking towards the river and we happened to be on its path. We placed the vehicle in a discrete spot not to interfere and waited for its arrival. Luckily we were alone! Boswell was accompanied by a few more elephants, two adult but younger males, a couple of females with babies and a young male.

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Boswell.

Mana Pools was extremely dry as last year’s rains had largely failed so there was little greenery apart from the large trees. Further, the preferred food for the Mana elephants, the pods of the Apple-ring acacia (Faidherbia albida), we not yet mature so we were curious to see what would Boswell do.

As usual the very relaxed group came really close and when they were under a Sausage tree (Kigelia africana) Boswell started to lift its trunk clearly sizing it up.  Clearly satisfied with what it saw it started to stretch, arched its back and it was on its hind legs trying to secure a good grip on a branch! I desperately grabbed the camera and shot while it remained standing. After sometime we heard a mighty crack and down the elephant came with a huge piece of the tree!

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Boswell starting eating the large branch while keeping the young males away by a combination of aggressive gestures, vocalisations and, with the too daring, pushing and shoving and some trumpeting as well. It did not liked to be disturbed during its meal! Conversely, he did allow the young females some bites and did not mind if the youngster came really close to him to feed, the latter often getting between its legs!

After a while, although there was still greenery left on the branch, it moved on leaving part of its bounty behind and, while it started to find another arboreal victim, the followers got busy finishing the spoils.

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The event was repeated a couple of times slightly further from us and trickier to photograph. As the group continued its placid sojourn towards the water we moved off, very pleased with our luck and trying to explain this to our visitors.

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Perhaps we had driven five km when we found another elephant, much smaller, also feeding. We then watched in disbelief when it also stretched and stood only on its hind legs! We made a comment to a safari car that was watching the action with us and the driver told us that this particular elephant was known as Harry! We were really lucky and elephants was the conversation at camp that night, despite the visits by vervets, baboons and hyenas!

The following morning, following the tip of a kind tour driver we found a large group of lions at a dry river bed and, after watching them for a while, we continued our game drive. While commenting on the very few greater kudu that we had seen we spotted an elephant standing on two legs. As we saw it from its back we thought it was Boswell again as we could see a radio collar. In fact it was a much smaller male that clearly knew how to look for the tender leaves of the Mana Pools’ trees!

The final act in this saga was yet to unfold when we were about to end the game drive and go back to camp for a well deserved branch. A dust cloud called our attention and we saw two elephant bulls clearly settling some kind of dispute. After a while we saw that one of the contenders gave up and moved off at a speed.

The “victor” stayed put and after a few minutes it decided to look for some food. It was at that time that we saw it well and the large notch on its left ear identified it as “Big V”, another of Mana’s “specials” that we have seen stretching to bet acacia pods before[2].

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So it was Big V that delivered the final act when it also decided to go for some juicy branch and, lo and behold, before we knew it it was also standing on its hind legs!

We were now really impressed with the Mana Pools elephants and agreed that we have had our quota of elephant stretching while we can happily confirm that Boswell has been able to pass its genes to its heirs that will keep future visitors to Mana Pools amazed at their feeding habits!

 

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2016/08/17/boswell/

[2]: See: https://bushsnob.com/2016/08/31/big-v/

Grabbed at Chitake

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General views of the Chitake springs

We returned to the Chitake springs in the Zambezi valley exactly three years since our first visit [1]. This time we went alone, my wife and I and, luckily again, we managed to secure the very sought after Campsite 1 (we booked it one year ahead of time!).

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Aware of the “fun nights” that you spend in this amazing place, we prepared ourselves for any eventuality taking our “heavy duty” tent and planned to park our car near one of its entrances as our emergency exit, following the advice of our son, a bit worried about the “oldies” being alone in the wilderness!

The Chitake river with its springs is one of the wildest areas left in Southern Africa. There are only two campsites open to the public (although we learnt that a third campsite can be booked at Nyamepi in Mana Pools). There is also a campsite for tour operators near Chitake 1. This arrangement ensures that you are unlikely to see many people around! In addition, most of the exploring is done on foot so no much driving needed either.

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The fact that water seeps from the ground on a daily basis supports a population of game animals that dwell nearby. There are numerous buffalo, zebra, greater kudu and impala that in turn feed predators such as painted dogs, hyenas, leopards and lions. In addition there is a substantial elephant presence that files daily along the dry riverbed towards the water source.

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Buffalo at Chitake.

Campsite 1 is about two metres from the usually dry river bed and to be there waiting for “events” is an unforgettable experience that not all are prepared to take. We have camped all our lives and taken precautions in Kenya and other “open” camping places.

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The access to the river from Chitake 1.

We did not feel endangered and we knew that the only possible cause of problems would be the lions that were present in the area and we know that they respect tents. Our main concern was about the time you spend at camp in the dark as the camp is surrounded by thick bush. In particular nocturnal physiological needs were a worry as we needed to reach our long drop a few metres away!

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Our possible nocturnal target…

We arrived in the afternoon and spent some time to locate our camp in a spot as safe as we thought possible within the camping area.

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Considering the camping options.

As we had food already prepared, we were in for an early night. We set up our camera trap to “see” what was lurking in the dark around us and went to sleep. The night passed off rather calmly at camp although we heard the elephants walking nearby on the way to the water and the hyenas calling early during the night. We were probably tired and sleep came easily.

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The camp. The car was kept near the tent exit.

We were up early the following morning and all appeared well. We checked the camera trap and confirmed that there was life around our camp.

After that we decided to have breakfast prior to a short game drive as there are not many roads around the area. Then we noted that our 5-litre water container had disappeared! It was one of these supermarket transparent bottles that we had as a back-up in addition to the 40lts we had brought as Chitake does not offer any.

Although we searched the surrounding area, we failed to find the bottle! We could only speculate on the possible culprits. We discarded human interference, as thieves would steal more valuable stuff from the camp. We rejected the baboons as they do not move at night. That left us with the hyenas as the possible culprits. We heard them and saw their footprints at camp. In addition, we had had encounters with them earlier in Kenya and they can get very cheeky! We decided that the latter were likely to be the culprits but the enigma remains.

Our short morning drive took us to a bunch of vultures feeding on the remains of an impala that had clearly been killed earlier that morning. About twenty White-backed were scuffling for the few remaining meaty bits while a couple of Lappet-faced waited for their time to tackle sinews, tendons and the like.

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The rest of the day remained peaceful, contemplating the various animals coming down to drink at the springs from our camp chairs located at the riverbed that -luckily had good shade. While there we were assaulted by tabanids and tsetse flies so we needed to use large amounts of repellent and still we got hammered!

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My wife contemplating the springs from the shady riverbed.

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Tsetse and other biting flies collected from the floor of the car.

Hundreds of impala came to drink in the morning and they were joined by small groups of greater kudu and zebra. When we saw a large dust cloud rising behind the gorge where the springs are, we knew that the buffalo had arrived and they were soon at the springs satiating their thirst. Quite a sight!

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A herd of impala in the distance (the shadow at the back that looks like a predator is in fact a baboon)

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After the dust settle we could see the buffalo drinking.

As usual the day went fast and it was soon time to prepare for the evening. We were encouraged by the relative quietness of the earlier night and hoped to sleep well.

We were mistaken…

There were some early indications of trouble when, as soon as it was dark, several hyenas started to call from different places along the river. When we heard them laughing we knew that they had become excited for some reason, probably a kill although we were in no condition to discover the cause!

From the tent we started hearing elephant movement. We spotted several family groups walking rather nervously and trumpeting frequently showing that they were also nervous. As it was getting late we retired to our tent. I went to sleep soon afterwards as I have a reputation to live up to!

The next thing I remember was that something grabbed my ankle and it was shaking and pulling me! For the few hundredths of a second (or less, I do not know) that it takes to move from being sleep to some kind of alertness I thought I was a goner and that the dreaded time of being taken by a wild beast had finally come. My wife’s voice brought me back to reality: “There is a leopard there!” I muttered “Where?” thinking that it was inside the tent and taking me! I then realized that she was responsible for holding my foot on her third attempt at waking me up!

The picture soon became clear. With one hand she was keeping the torch light on the leopard through the tent window while, with her free hand, she had been shaking me for a while to alert me about the leopard sighting!

I must admit that it took me a while to recover from the severe fright and once I made sure that all my organs were functioning as expected -including my eyes- I looked where I supposed to and stared at the disappearing leopard’s eyes on the riverbed, a few metres away.

My rude awakening took place after 3 am and we were still awake listening to the sounds of the wild after an hour. I then learnt that my wife had not slept much as the leopard(s) had been calling every once in a while and she had been trying to locate them on the riverbed (from the tent of course!). In addition there were some noisy little mice digging under the tent that she tried to fend off by hitting them through the canvas as well as hearing the monotonous calls of the Fiery-necked Nightjar (Caprimulgus pectoralis) in the distance. This bird is capable of up to 110 repetitions of its call believed to say “Good Lord, deliver us” before stopping![2].

The following morning, as expected, we were not up early. After a leisurely branch we did spend time examining the abundant spoor at the riverbed but we did not detect any signs of a kill. We confirmed that the leopard(s), as my wife mentioned, had walked up and downstream. We also found plenty of hyena and painted dog spoor as well as lots of new signs of elephant over their “highway” to and from the springs.

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Checking for activity and spoor at the dry river bed after the long night!

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Elephant footprints next to the Bushsnob’s Croc.

 

The camera trap pictures showed hyenas as well as several elephants walking during the night.

Later on, while exploring the area by car, we found a group of five hyenas resting under a shade. The same as us they were suffering from sleep deprivation as they were clearly some of the culprits of the noisy night resting!

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We spent the rest of the day exploring the river bed on foot and luckily, it appeared that all animals -including us- were drained from the previous night as the last night we spent at Chitake was peaceful and my wife recovered her lost sleep while I did my usual trick of instantly dozing off.

 

[1] See https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/09/23/chitake/

[2] Roberts VII Multimedia Birds of Southern Africa. iPhone and iPad Edition. Version 2.4. Southern African Birding.

 

 

Wild elephants…

As we were in the Zambezi valley, after Mana Pools we decided to spend some time in an area of the river that we knew through our earlier boating experiences when we were in Zambia in the early 90s (blog posts still pending, oh dear!). A number of fishing camps are located near Chirundu town, one of the border crossings to Zambia.

We had fished in the Zambezi before and had some great fun with tiger fish (Hydrocynus spp.) so we wished to try our luck again. We know that there are large Vundu (Heterobranchus longifilis) lurking somewhere[1] that we had, so far, failed to catch (and release, of course).

The road to Jecha Camp was easy to find just before Chirundu and we managed to slip through the very long lorry queues that are a feature at borders, not only in Africa but also in Latin America.

On arrival to this true green oasis after the Mana Pools dryness, we were warmly greeted by the owners of the camp and shown to our comfortable bungalows. In the meantime we were warned that elephants were frequentl visitors. It was stressed that the latter were wild elephants, unlike the ones in Mana Pools (?). We remembered our Nebbiolo wine incident but politely kept quiet. The elephants are part of a small population of about forty individuals that live in the area and that also visit Chirundu town where they -as expected- come into conflict with the local residents.

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There were elephants all the time!

IMG_2967 copy“If an elephant approaches the swimming pool while you are there, move to the opposite side and wait” said the Manager and then added: “they are allowed to drink from the pool but not to bathe”. I immediately imagined the consequences of such an event and remembered the famous elephant in the pool scene of the movie “The Party” with the late Peter Sellers!

After arrival we spent the sunset at the hide overlooking a small stream where we spotted bushbuck and s few rats up the tree where the hide was built on. After dark we went back to camp (by car as advised) and we were greeted with the “elephants in camp” warning. We were advised to move carefully around the facilities in the dark. As we had no plans for “night walking” we were not too concerned but, indeed, the elephants were walking about feeding on the pods from the apple-ring acacia from the lawn. One of them -I thought smartly- was picking pods only from under one of the camp lights!

That night after going to bed, we heard a commotion at the back of our chalet and realized that two elephants were apparently busy unpacking our car! When we went to inspect the situation, we saw that, despite the watchman’s efforts to shoo them off, they were intent to get the contents of our roof rack! Only then we realized that we had -carelessly- forgotten our Mana Pools rubbish bag on the rack and that was the reason of their intense interest! Aware that there was nothing to be done -apart from re-collecting the rubbish the following day- we returned to bed, leaving a worried watchman that we failed to persuade to leave the animals alone!

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One of the troublemakers near the car, after the rubbish incident.

Luckily, the following morning the car was still there, intact, but we spent quite sometime collecting all the bits and pieces that they had scattered around the area!

Elephants were not on camp sometimes but rather all the time! In several occasions we were forced to move away from our sitting areas to keep a prudent distance from the pod-collecting giants that would get too close for comfort.

Although we tried our hand at fishing, only our son caught a medium-sized tiger fish after a lot of boating efforts over the two days we spent in the river. However, fishing was only the excuse to travel the Zambezi! We had a great time remembering our old days when we navigated these waters in our inflatable rubber dinghy and we really enjoyed seeing the large pods of hippo and the occasional elephants drinking and feeding at the river shore.

 

[1] From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vundu: The vundu is the largest true freshwater fish in southern Africa, reaching up to 1.5 m (5 ft) in length and 55 kg (121 lb) in weight.

 

Check in…

Some “local customers’ heading for the Reception area at Mana Pools National Park.

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Needless to say that we queued correctly while guessing what their business was!

Luckily, they seemed satisfied when they left a while after!

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Only then we proceeded to check in!

This is the beauty of Mana Pools National Park: the unexpected is commonplace.

Nebbiolo wine

Our son visits us in Zimbabwe every year during his holidays and we usually include his favourite place, Mana Pools National Park, as part of the holiday. This year we managed to get a good spot at Nyamepi campsite, just a few metres from the mighty Zambezi river.

We had not yet set up camp and we knew that we were in for a bit of “camping fun” as one of the large elephant bulls found in the park was walking about the campsite making a clear statement of who are the owners of the place.

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DSC_0424 copyWhen we saw it chasing one of the camp attendants we knew that it meant business! Luckily the charge was just a show of dislike and the man got away. The elephant walked after him into the park staff houses and nothing more was heard.

We had also been warned that monkeys and particularly baboons were worse than usual and fast becoming a real problem in the camp so we decided to ask the park for help and they allocated a guard to keep them off our tents as they have the habit of destroying them for no apparent reason! We were rather surprised when our guard came and we recognized him as the same man that was chased by the elephant earlier! Clearly they had some unfinished business among them. However, as his present terms of reference were to keep baboons and vervets away, we decided to give him a chance and we were not disappointed.

Although Mana Pools offers many attractions, we link it to elephants. I have already written in this blog about Big V and Boswell as two of the most notable of the pachyderms here. We did not spot them during our first afternoon drive but, when returning to camp in the evening, we noted that three large elephant bulls were there but we could not see them very well. However, this was nothing unusual as they are normally in camp!

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We took some of our travel tiredness away through great bush showers and it was a refreshed team that tackle dinner preparation. Of course we always enjoy a good barbeque so our son took over as he is the expert while my wife’s territory is bush pasta dishes and mine, well, I keep them merry and busy… Eventually we sat at the table to enjoy some great T-bone steak (rare) and sausages. Our son had, as a special treat, brought a couple of wine bottles from Italy and we decided to go for the Nebbiolo the first night keeping the stronger Barbaresco for a later occasion.

Nebbiolo is the grape also used for the better known Barolo and Barbaresco varieties, all from the Piedmont region of Italy. Its name comes from “nebbia” which is fog in Italian, a frequent phenomenon in the region.

Elephants, despite their size, walk in almost total silence so when we noticed the three bulls, they were within ten metres from us, just at the edge of the circle of our camp light. We knew that they were feeding on the acacia pods from the apple-ring acacia (Faidherbia albida) on the ground so we ignored them and continued enjoying our food and drink. Suddenly we heard one of them head-butting one of the acacia trees closeby and we had a shower of pods around us on which the three colossi started to feed. So far, nothing new.

However, after a while we saw that one of them stopped feeding and came under our light. Now, to see an elephant at such close quarters is rather impressive and we stopped eating wondering what would happen next while reassuring ourselves that it was only interested in the pods. Just in case, we started coughing and knocking our glasses gently to let it know we were there!

The bull, clearly the boldest of the three, took a couple of more steps towards our table! We still -but just- kept our cool while continuing making various noises to make it change its mind but, eventually, the giant was so close that my wife and son stood up and moved a couple of metres behind the table. They were wise. We all know that elephants are large but, when you meet them at close quarters, seated and at night they are really humongous!

My attempt at holding the fort lasted for a few more seconds but my nerves left me when it took another step towards me despite my companions’ efforts at stopping him by banging pots and other noisy objects. I joined wife and son at a prudent distance: the other side of the table! As behind us was the river, we were really in a tight spot! All we could do now was to watch!

While the other two elephants remained a few metres back, our visitor took a final step and it literally leaned on our table. Its trunk delicately sniffed our dinner and I thought “End of table and dinner!” but it did not touch anything. However, at some stage its trunk went to my plastic wine glass, placed its trunk over it and spilled it, probably as a protest for the poor quality of the wine ware?

The spilling of the wine was the turning point of the visit and the elephant swiftly moved towards our tents. There it tried to walk between them. As the latter were separated by a one-metre gap the potential outcome was not good. “Gosh” my son said, “if it walks through there our tents are gone!” However, realizing the situation, the elephant luckily backtracked and moved off to join its two patient mates that were still watching the proceeds from a distance.

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Our tents with one of the camp dwellers in the background.

Consulting the internet I learnt that the Nebbiolo wine has complex aromas, including roses, cherries, truffles, and mints and there can also be traces of tar, tobacco and leather. Clearly one or more of them were attractive to the jumbo.

Once the elephants moved away we resumed our dinner. Luckily the wine bottle was intact and I could refill my glass! During the next couple of days, the Nebbiolo, perceived as the new “elephant target”, was until its sad end, carefully corked and locked away in the deepest recesses of our car only to be opened after the “elephant all clear” announcement was made.

Matlakusa

You will recall that on 20 August 2014 I published a post titled “A tusk task” (https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2014/08/20/a-tusk-task-2/) where I presented the finding of ab elephant bull that, as far as I could tell, had not been identified before. I called this animal the “Balalala tusker” as we saw it near the Balalala area at Kruger National Park.

A month later in “Unraveling the tusker mystery” (https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2014/09/21/unraveling-the-tusker-mystery/). I reported that I got confirmation that what we had seen was indeed a new tusker that “will definitely escalate him to the top of the list when the time for the naming review comes and hopefully at that time he will be confirmed as a new bull and named“.

The naming process took a while during which I kept asking the Emerging Tuskers Project (ETP) of the Letaba Elephant Hall of the Kruger National Park for progress but I had no news for over two years. When I was starting to lose hope, on 28 June 2017, I received an e-mail from the ETP that I reproduce below.

Dear Julio,

I am sure you are convinced by now I had forgotten you. I am sorry this process took so long… I finally got the media release and approvals done and I can formally tell you now that your bull is named Matlakusa. 

It proved quiet an interesting story in the end, as once we had identified your bull as a new bull, we noted that with one of our other new bulls some of the submissions characteristics matched your bull better and we actually managed to split these sightings far more accurately after the great series of images you and another contributor provided so it actually helped link the two new bulls and discover a completely new bull and a new area for him as well.

Below is the link to the website as well as the info for Matlakusa (this is a summary of the info that is on file with the project), if you have any further questions please do not hesitate to contact me.

https://www.sanparks.org/parks/kruger/elephants/tuskers/emerging.php#matlakusa

Origin of Name: ‘Matlakusa’ from tlakusa, in Tsonga meaning to ‘raise, lift up’, this is a large open pan and bore-hole, alongside the eastern border, southeast of Malonga in the Kruger National Park and links to this bull’s large home range. 

Range: Northern and Far Northern KNP. 

Special Features: This bull’s ivory closely resembles that of Xindzulundzulu, that it is fairly symmetrical, straight and widely splayed with a shallow curve from a side profile. The left ear holds the defining characteristics that separate these two bulls, there is a R5.00 sized hole in the tip of the lobe as well as an area of damaged cartilage at the top give a large v-shaped ‘collapse’ in the ear. A very small u-shaped notch and two R0.20 holes are visible on the middle of the lobe but only at close inspection and with the ears extended. The right earlobe had a R0.50 sized hole towards the bottom of the lobe that has recently been torn and is now a u-shaped notch with a small hole towards the inner lobe above this. Other than this the lobe is fairly clean edged. A small protrusion of skin is visible on the trunk at the top adjacent the left tusk. Visible from a side profile is a growth on the left foreleg behind the leg just above the joint.

General: Initial images of this bull from Joël and Di Roerig were identified as Xindzulundzulu due to his ivory shape. Later in 2014 a full series of images submitted by Julio de Castro [1] between Shingwedzi and Balalala created a dilemma as at the time as Xindzulundulu was known to only be local to Shingwedzi and a new bull was suspected. Additional images by regular contributor Frans van Achterbergh submitted showing his left and right side allowed the defining characteristic’s to be seen and to be able to determine that there were in fact two separate bulls. This revelation allowed two previous sightings one of which was by Ian & Deirdre Outram and the other by Forum member Lion Queen both in 2012 that were both previously thought to be Xindzulundzulu but could not be confirmed as the locations did not make sense and defining characteristics in these images were not very clear. However the receipt of the 2014 submission with clearer images could confirm these identifications. Several other images placed with Xindzulundzulu’s monitoring file could now also be separated out as being those of Matlakusa and in 2015/6 it was decided that sightings of him were sufficient to name the bull confirming his status.

Kind Regards

Kirsty Redman, Interpretive Officer, Nxanatseni Region, Kruger National Park, South African National Parks.

As you can imagine we are delighted that our contribution assisted the ETP to identify Matlakusa and separate it from Xindzulundzulu as a new tusker.

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Matlakusa showing off its ivory!

We look forward to find Matlakusa again during our next safari to the KNP next week. We hope that Matlakusa will continue to live its peaceful life for many years to come and that its ivory stays with it, where it belongs!

[1] the Bushsnob.

 

Place of many elephants

It is clear that the more places you see, the more you learn and the more you realize the little you know! Enough of philosophical exertions and focus of the post, I hear you thinking!

Climbing Wrights’s tower to look at the Mwenezi river below spurred my curiosity about who Mr. Wright was but also about the general area where the Gonarezhou[1] National Park is located. The Great Limpopo Trans-frontier Park and Conservation Area was created on 9 December 2002. It took another four years for parts of the fence separating Limpopo in Mozambique and the Kruger national parks to be removed allowing important movement of game across the hitherto fenced area. Things move slowly in conservation!

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Wright’s tower.

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The sign in Wright’s tower.

Although in April 2014, Mozambique and South Africa signed a memorandum of understanding on biodiversity conservation and management of the area, particularly addressing rhino poaching in the Great Limpopo area, Gonarezhou is lagging behind in this integration. There are, however, fresh hopes that the unique agreement, signed in 2016, between the Frankfurt Zoological Society and the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority to form the Gonarezhou Conservation Trust may facilitate further integration.

Allan Wright was a district Commissioner in Nuanetsi, the District where Gonarezhou is. He arrived to the area in 1958 and declared himself to be an “ardent conservationist”. After a quick exploration of the topography, soils and plants found in the area he was convinced that it was “…From and agricultural point of view the whole area was in the lowest category, almost a wasteland…”.

So, the plans to divide it into farms for African farmers were gradually scrapped and his intentions made clear when he proclaimed:

Before me, as far as the eye could see, was the vast, empty Gonakudzingwa Purchase Area – ’empty’ only in the human context for it teemed with animal life … the great wilderness looked mysterious, haze blue, inviting. What a heritage! What a wonderful national park this south-east corner of Rhodesia would make.”[2]

So, Mr. Wright managed to persuade the then Government of Rhodesia not only to spare the area from farming but also to give him funds to develop it. He describes his time at Nuanetsi in two books [3]. Mr. Wright’s efforts survived the years to come after his retirement and eventually crystalized in the creation of the Gonarezhou National Park in 1975.

Considering the Gonarezhou in the larger context of the Great Limpopo Trans-frontier Park and Conservation Area, the point where the borders of Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe meet is known as Crook’s Corner. Suspecting that the name had its reasons, I investigate it further and this lead to the unraveling of some interesting facts!

It was because of its “tri-national” characteristic that Crook’s Corner attracted a number of outlaws that found the facility of moving among the three countries very advantageous. Apparently, the exact location of Crook’s Corner is on an island very close to the place where the Luvuvhu River flows into the Limpopo, near to the Pafuri area of the Kruger National Park.

Although there were other brigands, Stephanus Cecil Rutgert Barnard placed it in the world map. Barnard sought refuge there from his illegal activities related to hunting and poaching, two activities very difficult to tell apart in the 1900’s. “The one who swaggers as he walks” that is what his Shangaan nickname Bvekenya meant, arrived there in 1910.

Bvekenya’s derived his living from hunting and or poaching mainly elephants for ivory as well as illegally recruiting labour for the mines (known as blackbirding) as well as trading animal skins. It was a tough life, persecuted by police and exposed to malaria! Bvekenya functioned illegally over vast large tracts of Portuguese East Africa and Rhodesia, successfully running his ivory past the law.

It seems that Bvekenya was a bit of an oddball, to put it mildly and, during the twenty years that he operated in the region, based at Makhuleke, he carried out a number of interesting exploits, from taming a herd of eland for milking to praising lose the beacon indicating the frontier so that he could move it to “migrate” his camp to a different country according to which one was after him! A larger than life character that T.V. Bulpin immortalized in his book “The Ivory Trail” [4].

More amazing still were Bvekenya’s conservation ideas that led him to suggest the creation of a Trans-frontier park at that time (1900!)! It would take over one hundred years before the politicians in the various relevant Governments agreed on the issue and it is still unfinished!

Bvekenya’s hunting ground included the present Gonarezhou National Park. In that general area he shot a number of large elephants for their ivory. It is believed that he was not a careless hunter and that, before killing an animal, he would check the dung with his Shangaan trackers to ascertain the age of their quarry. Only elephants that had passed their prime would be shot and then nothing was wasted as the meat would be consumed by the local people.

Despite his hunting experience Bvekenya was mesmerized by the sight of a particular animal known as “taller than the trees” in the local Zulu language: Dhlulamithi! Bvekenya met this very large tusker while hunting somewhere in Gonarezhou or nearby, at a muddy pan. The bull elephant towered over the large herd he was with. The ivory that Dhlulamithi carried touched the ground while it walked, leaving grooves in the sand behind its path! Bvekenya attempted a shot at the giant but, luckily for Dhlulamithi, a younger bull that walked in front of it at the fatal moment was hit and Dhlulamithi got away unscathed.

Bvekenya never forgot Dhlulamithi and, while still hunting and or poaching other animals, he kept following it. It took Bvekenya many years to find it again and when he did, towards 1929, he had it in his rifle sights but did not shoot the animal exclaiming “Let it live”.

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Tusk size and shape varies with the areas. This bull in Hwange National Park carries thick but rather short tusks.

Whether this took place or not is an issue of debate as other chroniclers claimed that Bvekenya -an inveterate commercial ivory trader- would not have missed such a tusker. This thesis is supported by the appearance in 1932 -a few years after Bvekenya ‘s retirement- of two humongous tusks that were claimed to be Dhlulamithi ‘s that were eventually auctioned in London. The tusks weighed 73 and 73.5 kg and their origin is unclear. They are meant to be now at a London Museum.

Luckily, there still are elephants carrying heavy ivory roaming in the Kruger National Park and, with patience they can be found at the various watering points, particularly in the Northern part of the park [4]. Whenever I see one of these colossuses I hope that Dhlulamithi ‘s genes are still present in them!

These two “friends” were leaving one of the waterholes in the north of the Kruger National Park.

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Masthulele seen at the Letaba river  (Kruger National Park), together with the tusker below, the largest tuskers I have seen so far.

If lucky, next time I see these colossuses I will remember this story and hope that what I see still carries Dhlulamithi’s genes that will be passed to future generations.

The above, seen by the bushsnob in 2014, is no longer an unknown tusker! (In this regard, see: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2014/08/20/a-tusk-task-2/ and https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2014/09/21/unraveling-the-tusker-mystery/ and the next post coming soon!)

 

[1] “Place of many elephants” is the Shona language is the more accepted meaning of Gonarezhou. It is also translated less often as “sacred place of the elephants” or “elephant’s tusk”.

[2] Quoted from from Wolmer, W. (2007). From Wilderness Vision to Farm Invasions. Conservation & Development in Zimbabwe Southeast Lowveld. James Currey, Oxford. 247p.

[3] Wright, A. (1972). Valley of the ironwoods: A personal record of ten years served as District Commissioner in Rhodesia’s largest administrative area, Nuanetsi, in the south-eastern Lowveld (unknown publisher) and Wright, A. (1976). Grey Ghosts at Buffalo Bend, Galaxie Press. Both books are out of print.

[4] Bulpin, T.V. (2011). The Ivory Trail. Protea BoekhuisEds., 4 edition. 240p.

 

Postcript: Apart from T.V. Bulpin’s The Ivory Trail book I recommend to visit the following links that will provide you with more detail, if interested:

https://www.africahunting.com/threads/the-legend-of-dhlulamithi.15191/

http://www.pendukasafaris.com/history/remembering-bvekenya-country-life-february-2003/

 

Baobab Teenager

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

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

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

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

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Baobab damaged by elephants in Tsavo West National Park.

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