Hwange National Park

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.

 

A visit

On 8 September 2019 [1] I wrote in this blog: “…By far the biggest nuisance that awaits the camper in Africa is the monkeys both vervet monkeys (Chlorocebus pygerythrus) and baboons (Papio spp.). Although the latter can be rather destructive to tents and other gear, the former can be a real menace when it comes to steal your food. They are the masters of opportunism and surprise and a distraction of a few seconds is enough for them to strike…”

A week after these words were written, we were -again- put to the test with baboons. This time while camping at Masuma dam picnic site in Hwange National Park. As the picnic sites are now practically unfenced, usually, the attendant warns you about any “special” visitor you need to watch for. We were therefore informed of the well-known honey badgers that are a permanent feature there but baboons were not mentioned.

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A view of the camp at sunset.

We had seen baboons in previous occasions and they had always been “civilized” towards us. This time they were also present at the water edge drinking and scouting the area for any easy prey they could get but we did not pay much attention to them except when one caught a dove and ate it!

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Baboons drinking in the morning.

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A baboon plucking a dove caught at the dam’s edge.

It was on the third day that the visitor came. As every morning we were enjoying our camp breakfast while commenting on what we had seen as well as our plans for the day. We have heard lions nearby and were discussing where to look for them while Mabel -the best eyes among us- was at the hide trying to spot them.

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Aggression at sunset. Picture by Julio A. de Castro.

We were seated at our table, my son and his girlfriend in front of me. I was facing the camp’s area that borders with the thicket when this event that may have lasted five seconds took place. I had just prepared my bowl of cereal and fruits and was about to start eating when a movement in the bush in front of me caught my eye. A large baboon was running full speed straight at me and it kept coming!

Before I had time to warn my companions the brute had already jumped on the table, tipping it and scaring all of us, badly. While this took place and all items on the table flew in all directions I just sat there unable to move! The only thing I managed to do was to threaten the beast now looking at me in the eyes with my dessert spoon! [2]

Then it jumped off the table, I threw him my plate of cereal while I felt heat in my legs while my spilled coffee wetted them. The visit was gone in a flash and, luckily, it left us unscathed but shaken. Mabel returned to the camp after hearing the commotion and she found us re-gathering our wits and our various utensils that were scattered all over the floor. It took a while for her to believe what had happened.

This was undoubtedly the most violent experience we have had with a baboon during all our camping years. Although the baboon was clearly after food, it was a stark reminder that we are dealing with dangerous animals while we stay in the bush.

It is likely that campers had fed the baboons earlier as it usually happens but perhaps the rather severe drought prevalent in the area at the moment has pushed them to the limit. All I can say is that from that morning our breakfasts were “breakveryfasts” while constantly keeping an eye on our surroundings.

 

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2019/09/08/the-joys-of-camping/

[2] My later version that I have hit the beast on the nose with my spoon and saved the day may not be very credible giving the circumstances of the event… It did good to my ego though!

Spot the beast(s) 50

During our recent visit to Hwange National Park we found these beasts. See if you can see them all…

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Credit: JA de Castro.

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Credit: JA de Castro

This view will clarify any doubts you may have. This trio blocked our road while driving from Hwange Main Camp towards the Nyamandhlovu pan. They eventually moved to the thicket and that is the time we took the first picture.

It is an easy “spot” but one that I hope you enjoy in view of the beauty of the beast!

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The light was good and the picture came out very nice! Credit: JA de Castro.

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Calling its mates. Credit: JA de Castro.

Spot the beast 49

This is a tough one. We spotted this beast during our recent safari to Hwange National Park.

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I know, it was a difficult one… We did not see much more of these three young lions during the several hours we waited for them to move! They were two young males and a female, probably siblings laying under the shade of a fallen thorn tree.

So that you do not think that we are amazing spotting game, we found them following the instructions of other fellow travellers who saw them walking towards the tree!

Below is another picture of one of the young males watching us for a few seconds, all they did to “amuse” us!

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Horn-borer moths

One of the advantages of being a “safari veteran” apart from a bushsnob is that I am now able to enjoy what I found, even the small things that were overlooked while seeking large game. The years of long game drives and walks, some of them starting very early and with freezing temperatures, are a thing of the past. Apart from seeing a pangolin in the wild, I have few wishes left about finding new beasts.

At Ngweshla Picnic site, Hwange National Park, you are allowed to camp and have the site for yourself from 18:00 to 06:00. During the day you share it with picnic site users but there is still plenty of room for everybody. Although rather unique, this is a good arrangement as most of the day you are game-watching away from the site and the camp attendants keep the camp tidy and the toilets sparkling at all times!

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The site has seen better days and, as a consequence, it has a rather “porous” fence that would, if the animals wished, allow them to mingle with the campers, a rare occurrence though. The site entrance has been “decorated” with many animal bones. Although it is debatable whether these are suitable for the purpose, I find the skulls, useful to explain various issues regarding wild animals to our visitors.

The more recent antelope and buffalo skulls on display still had their horns and, as it is common if Africa, most showed little brown tubes protruding from them. I had seen this phenomenon many times before but I never followed its origin in detail. A short search educated me that the Horn-borer moths (Ceratophaga vastella) were responsible.

The larva of this moth, related to the one that upsets us by eating our woolies, are able to digest keratin and, although there are reports of them entering the horns of live animals, it is generally accepted that they only penetrate the horns post-mortem.

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A nice and “mothless” Greater kudu bull.

The protuberances on the horns are the cases of the larvae that the latter built using their own faeces. The cases protect the soft insects from predators and the climate until they pupate and emerge as adults to fly away and colonize new horns.

Ceratophaga vastella, known as a detritivore[1], is widespread in the Afro-tropic ecozone[2]. Thus far there are 16 described species in the genus, with 12 found in Africa. The larvae are cream-coloured and bulky, with a brown head and tip of abdomen. The adult moth is a typical tineid[3], having a conspicuous tuft of yellow hair on the head.

Whenever an animal dies or is killed it will eventually be consumed by the killers and/or depredators including various mammals such as hyenas and jackals, birds such as vultures and others, fly maggots and ants until only bones, horns and hooves are left. The horn-borer moths are one of the last participants turning the carcasses to dust.

 

[1]An organism that feeds on and breaks down dead plant or animal matter, returning essential nutrients to the ecosystem.

[2] One of Earth’s eight ecozones. It includes Africa south of the Sahara, the southern and eastern fringes of the Arabian Peninsula, Madagascar, southern Iran and extreme southwestern Pakistan, and the islands of the western Indian Ocean.

[3] Moths of the Tineidae family, also known as fungus moths includes more than 3,000 species, unusual among Lepidoptera as most feed on fungi, lichens, and detritus. Apart from the clothes moths, which have adapted to feeding on stored fabrics, others feed on carpets and the feathers in bird nests. 

 

Social beasts?

As you know if you followed this blog, this past August we visited Hwange National Park and camped at Ngweshla picnic site. The site is well shaded by some nice large trees that is very good during the hot months but that makes it very cold during the winter as we had suffered last year.[1]

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A view of the canopy above us at Ngweshla.

This time the temperature was slightly higher and we were also much better prepared for the cold. I had even succumbed to peer pressure and acquired a pair of long johns to sleep in, in addition to a thermal bag that fitted inside the sleeping bag! The only challenge remaining were the possible night visits to the Gents that required little thought and fast action!

Camping at Ngweshla is always exciting as usually lions walked very close and their roaring reverberates strongly inside the tent! Only the experience of many such nights spent in the Maasai Mara and other wild places stops you from running to the car seeking the protection of the metal cage. I must confess, without shame, that we had done in earlier close encounters!

We need not had worried about lions but much smaller creatures!

A small swarm of African bees decided to land on a tree above our dining area and, although at first they were polite, soon they became cheeky and started to descend on our food, particularly moist and sweet stuff. We have never had a problem with the infamous African bees and did not expect one. However, the fact that our son is hyper sensitive to wasp stings and needs to carry an epinephrine auto injector made us jitterier than usual.

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Probably because I do not like bees, I was the first victim when I got stung in what I consider a self-defence act although my family unanimouly agree that it was an act of sheer foolishness! I was in the car peacefully enjoying elephants at the adjacent waterhole from the camp when a bee landed on my arm and I squashed violently. I was not violent enough as the beast, despite the smack, managed to leave her sting on me! I was not amused as, although my wife’s family and herself are beekeepers, I am not and I am not planning to learn the skills involved in stealing honey from them!

During the final day the situation got worse and at some point in the afternoon first my wife was stung and then me again! I did not move away fast enough from the seen of the attack and got a second sting. At that time we decided to reacted to lock our son in the toilet fearing a more severe onslaught and to vacate the camp and go on a game drive, after collecting our isolated son with the car from the toilet’s door!

Luckily that was our last day and by the time we returned to camp, after dusk as usual, the bees were sleeping. We left early the following morning, before they woke up, luckily without further incident.

Although the bees were annoying, they brought about some gain. Their presence attracted both the Little (Merops pusillus) and Swallow-tailed (Merops hirundineus) bee-eaters. These spent all day at camp enjoying easy pickings. Of more interest for me was the appearance of a Greater Honey-guide (Indicator indicator) a special bird indeed.

The Honey-guide, as its name implies, guide people to the nests of wild bees by attracting the person’s attention with various calls and flies to a bees nest repeating its call often spreading its tail and making itself conspicuous. Once the bees nest is raided by the honey hunters the bird eats what is left. The tradition of the San people is to thank the bird for its “services” by a gift of honey as they believe that not doing this risks that the bird will guide the hunter to a lion or poisonous snake!

Studies have shown a mutually beneficial partnership for two very different species:man and bird. The “use” of honeyguides by the Boran people of East Africa and the Yao people in Mozambique showed that the honeyguides reduce the search time for bees nest by approximately one third![2]

Although these birds are present all over Sub-Saharan Africa, this was my first encounter with a Greater Honeyguide. Although I knew their trade, I was happy to watch the bird from a cautious distance as I was not interested in obtaining its help but rather the opposite!

 

[1] https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/09/08/ngweshla-cold/

[2] http://www.voanews.com/a/honeyguides-lead-human-hunters-to-honey/3432394.html

 

Curious

A couple of mongooses at what we thought was their burrow inside a termite mound was the first we saw while on a game drive close to Ngweshla pan at Hwange National park.

See what happened next in the slide show and video below.

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Naughty hippo, again…

On our final day, after watching lions and birds, we planned a “sundowner” drink at Nyamandlovu pan to end our safari in style. Before it was time for drinks, we got busy watching the many migratory birds present at the pan. These were a large flock of Abdim Storks and Amur falcons that provided us with much entertainment while they fed on beetles and other insects found in the grass.

A family of five jackals, probably residents of the pan, were also around. While four of them were gnawing at an old elephant carcass, a fifth came close to the viewing platform for a look. As I was on the ground at the time I saw it coming and prepared for pictures. Despite the warnings shouted from above by fellow game watchers for me to be careful, I remained motionless and was rewarded with the closest encounter I have had with a black-backed jackal!

While watching the jackal I heard loud splashing noises coming from the pan and I saw a large crocodile (one of the three present) coming out of the water holding a very large chunk of carcass. I left the jackal to its business and rushed up the platform for a better look. The beast, at the left end of the pan, was violently shaking the carcass and scattering pieces in the water while it swam off with the remains to the opposite end.

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The crocodile feeding on the submerged carcass.

The slow approach of a hippo to the area where the carcass had been shaken apart came as no surprise to my family and I, all well aware by now of our earlier observations on meat-eating hippos at Masuma dam![1] We watched while the hippo approached and searched the area with its head submerged. Suddenly it lifted its head and chewed on what appeared to be a piece of the carcass that it had found! This was a very interesting observation, as we had not seen any of the three resident hippos engage in this activity before, despite having spent many hours there!

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The hippo starts approaching…

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Eating a chunk of the carcass that the crocodile left.

After munching on its find, the hippo left the area jumping in the water in a rather funny display that probably expressed approval at what it had just eaten! Fortunately I managed to take a picture of the crocodile (regrettably only after the carcass shaking took place…) and of the hippo finishing its snack and merrily moving off!

 

 

[1] See https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/02/22/hippos-from-hell/ and https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/03/23/hippos-from-hell-the-videos/ Muy Interesante also covered this issue: http://www.muyinteresante.es/naturaleza/articulo/los-hipopotamos-pueden-comer-carne-921450193942

Ngweshla cold

“Is it too hot in Africa?” is the question I get asked most often by people in Latin America. They have the image of lush forests and the very hot places of Central and West Africa, white man’s grave. I think they do not believe me when I tell them that Southern Africa can be bitterly cold at times. Frankly, I was also surprised when, on arrival, I found how cold it could get!

Muguga and Nairobi in Kenya and Addis Ababa in Ethiopia were cold, the latter very cold but Lusaka, technically in Southern Africa, was rather warm, sometimes even too warm. It was while living in Lusaka that we organized our first safari to Sinamatella in Hwange National Park in early 1991. We camped there during a weekend of July and it was so cold that we had to ask the game rangers to lend us blankets to outlast the bitterly cold nights. I We were there with our baby daughter and I still remember my wife’s concern of not being able to keep her warm! Survive we did but, clearly, we forgot about it.

In comes Ngweshla Picnic site, located in the Sinamatella area, during July! As we were moving through various camps we took small tents so that we could assemble and disassemble them without too much trouble. I hasten to add also that our new nylon tent was “untested” as we had just bought it for the trip.

It was warm when we set up our camp after arriving at Ngweshla in the late morning. After lunch we went on a game drive to explore the area and, although we planned an earlier return, as usual we got delayed following a hungry-looking hyena on the prowl. The sun was setting by the time we got back to camp and there was a chill in the air already. Stupidly we had forgotten to organize our campfire so we did not bother and planned a quick dinner and an early night instead.

The hyena moving.

The hyena moving.

Elephant antiques delayed us...

Elephant antics further delayed us…

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A truly funny stand off!

A truly funny stand off. The jackal looks really tiny!

By the time we had our dinner it was clear that it would be a cold night so we skipped showers and we went to bed early as the tents seemed to be the only warm place at the time. Following the routine I got into my soft pile inner bag and then into the 15°C sleeping bag. I normally sleep in my underwear but, this time, I left my socks on as a special measure! My wife, more cautious, was well covered in her pajamas and even a polar hat!

One of our small tents.

One of our small tents.

If there is one thing I am good at it is sleeping even on the floor with a thin mattress! So waking up in the middle of the night came as a surprise. The latter turned into mild panic when I could not feel my legs. I quickly went through the list of conditions that can leave you paralyzed from the waist down and, before I completed it, I realized that I was suffering from leg numbness due to cold or, put into more simple terms, I was frozen from my butt down, mainly at the back of my legs!

“This is ridiculous” I thought and proceeded to adopt a foetal position placing the warmer front of my leg against the cold back of the other in quick succession. This seemed to work at first but, although I regained the feeling in my limbs, they ended up warmer but far from ideal. My butt remained sub-zero. I beat it with my hands and, painfully, it also warmed up albeit slowly. The situation was bad as I was still far from being warm enough to go back to sleep.

While considering my predicament the little warmth I achieved clearly activated other organs apart from my brain and I felt the need to fulfill nature’s call! “This is great”, I thought while holding on and hoping against hope that I would go back to sleep. All this was taking place while listening to my favourite podcast of the “Two Mikes” in TalkSPORT as there is no Internet at Ngweshla. The topic at the time was how, Rod Stewart’s new wife, concerned about the impact of tight jeans on his reproductive gear, forced him to have cold baths to preserve them! I removed the earplugs immediately as this was not the kind of talk that a person in my current condition needed. Bathing in cold-water gave me uncontrollable shakes and this was not conducive to my bladder control!

To avert a wet disaster inside the tent I summed up my courage and left my tepid bags and put a jumper on and then placed my partially mobile lower extremities into my jogging pants. I was ready to face the cold so I proceeded to open the two tent zippers gently so as not to wake my wife up. My mind focused on my bladder control, I forgot to take a torch, a very useful thing when walking around a campsite at night as the moon was long gone!

Luckily my legs responded somehow and I made a mad rush to the toilet. It was evident that the outside temperature was unbelievably low although I was in no condition for estimates! In the dark and with my bladder nearing bursting point, the slippery step prior to entering the toilet was not in my mind. Earlier in life I had suffered the consequences of the lack of grip of my otherwise very comfortable Crocs clogs and this drawback was re-confirmed as soon as I landed on the smooth tiles of the toilet entrance. I am sure that my semi-numb legs contributed to me losing my footing to land on my cold bum. Luckily there was a buffalo skull placed next to the step for decoration and, providentially, it interrupted my mad bum race!

Miraculously I was unharmed and managed to relieve myself in time. The adrenaline burst of the fall had managed somehow to offset the cold I was feeling and I was slightly warmer by the time I re-entered the tent when I heard “hua wash fat nush” coming from the direction of my wife. I asked her to repeat her message as she was speaking through her nose, the only organ she had outside of her “cocoon”. She was keen on knowing what the noise had been and I reassured her that a buffalo had not mauled me but that I had fallen on the skull of one but survived!

After comparing notes on the temperature situation both inside and outside the tent with her and agreeing that it was in fact freezing I re-entered my sleeping bag, this time fully dressed with the addition of a sleeveless jacket wrapped around my bump not only to stop it from re-freezing but also as an added cushion to alleviate its soreness! Fortunately I felt much better all round despite my tender derriere and I managed to go back to sleep.

The following morning there was no early morning game drive and we remained inside the tents until the sun was up and strong. When we surfaced from our tent we met our son sunning himself. He also froze to death in his tent, despite his recently ended five years in Edinburgh.

Do I need to tell you that the next two nights we slept fully dressed and that I took my torch with me when going to the toilet at night?