Hwange National Park

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/

Spot the beast 82

Driving around Robins camp in Hwange National Park we spotted this beast, the first one we have found in Zimbabwe. If you looked carefully you may have spotted somewhere in the picture. Below I present you with a close-up where you can see that it is an African Wild cat (Felis lybica).

The following (bad) picture shows some of the characteristic markings of this kind of cat.

I will further ellaborate on this finding in my next post on Hwange National Park.

Cannibals!

I already described hippos competing with crocodiles to eat their impala prey at Masuma dam in Hwange National Park [1] and this observation was part of a comprehensive publication on the transmission of anthrax among hippo populations [2].

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Hippos trying to get an impala carcass away from the crocs.

The 2018-19 rainy season in Zimbabwe was very poor and Hwange National Park was no exception receiving much less than its 576 mm yearly average. So, during a visit in mid-September 2019 the park was very dry and several of the pans were drying or already dry.

This situation was also severely affecting some of the dams that require pumping to keep an acceptable water level. Both Nyamandhlovu and Masuma dam pumps were hardly able to cope with evaporation and elephants’ thirst despite working full time.

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Only one hippo was seen at Masuma of the usual number of about sixteen individuals that we had seen during earlier visits. We believe that the missing hippos had moved to Mandavu reservoir, a much larger water body situated 15km away.

So, we went to visit Mandavu and noted a large number of hippos still there as there was plenty of water. While observing the hippos we noted a dead one floating close to the shore opposite to the picnic site and, as expected, there were a number of crocodiles surrounding it.

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Hippos and crocodiles around the dead hippo carcass. Credit: Julio A. de Castro.

There were also a few hippos and they were feeding on their dead relative!

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Hippo feeding on the carcass. Credit: Julio J. de Castro.

Joe Dudley has mentioned to me that he believes that hippos are not able to open up a carcass and that they depend on natural fermentation or on other carnivores to do so in order for them to feed. It is likely that the crocodiles had eaten part of the carcass and the hippos were taking their share. The hippos were seen pushing the carcass and submerging to later emerge chewing and swallowing.

After about one hour the wind started blowing the carcass towards the centre of the lake and the hippos did not pursue it, staying at the opposite shore with their pod.

This is not the first report of hippo cannibalism [3] but the present observation adds the Mandavu reservoir to other areas in Africa where this phenomenon has been reported.

 

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2015/02/22/hippos-from-hell/

[2] Dudley, J. P., Hang’Ombe, B. M., Leendertz, F. H., Dorward, L. J., de Castro, J., Subalusky, A. L. and Clauss, M. (2016), Carnivory in the common hippopotamus Hippopotamus amphibius: implications for the ecology and epidemiology of anthrax in African landscapes. Mammal Review 46 (2016): 191-203.

[3] Dorward LJ (2015) New record of cannibalism in the common hippo, Hippopotamus amphibius (Linnaeus, 1758). African Journal of Ecology 53: 385–387.

 

NOTE: This post has been adapted from the following publication: de Castro JJ, de Castro M, de Castro JA, and Ruiz Teixidor P. 2019. Hippo cannibalism. Biodiversity Observations 10.14:1-3. https://journals.uct.ac.za/index.php/BO/article/view/828

 

 

 

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