This Christmas we decided to spend it in Zimbabwe, camping at Masuma dam and Robins Camp in Hwange National Park.
Already in the rainy season our expectations of a green Hwange were confirmed, a marked change from our usual visits that take place in September, during the dry season. We also knew that the animals would not be so dependent on the permanent water holes and that they would be scattered in more remote and unreachable areas of this very large park. Finally, there was a good chance of having daily showers. Despite these drawbacks, it was a suitable time and place for a family reunion so, we took the challenge.
We prepared well for a wet camping experience adding a large awning to our usual dry season gear and packed our rainproof jackets, just in case. As it happened, the latter precautions were only useful for the first two days when we had a couple of showers as, luckily for us (but not for the park!) the weather continued being dry over us although there were some spectacular rainstorms around us.
We counted twenty-three hippos and about half a dozen crocodiles at the dam as well as a large population of geese (both Egyptian and Spurwing) as well as a few Knob-billed ducks. The few resident Senegal thick-knees were there, busy protecting their nests against the threatening advances of the monitor lizards.
Numerous impalas, waterbuck and greater kudu frequently visited the dam, mainly to graze on its now lush green shores as they were drinking in safer places, avoiding the dam´s crocodiles. So, we did not witness any of the crocodile ambushes to drinking herbivores that we had witnessed before (See: https://bushsnob.com/2015/02/22/hippos-from-hell/ and related posts). Below there are pictures of some of the animals we saw:
Although the elephants did not come in the we see in September, they still came, particularly during the days when fresh water was pumped into the dam, either they had a way of knowing this by the pump noise or they exhibited an amazing sense of smell! The later is more likely as the pumps are operated by solar energy and they are quiet!
Although we spent many hours at the water edge, we failed to see any predators coming for a drink or a possible kill. We did see a couple of young lions mating near Kapula Camp, and a family of two lioness with four cubs and a male on a buffalo kill, just opposite the Shumba picnic site. We heard them and hyenas almost every night at camp and Mabel heard the unmistakable rasping cough of a leopard while it walked up and down the new (rather weak) fence that now encloses the picnic area.
We had some nocturnal excitement on our first day. After midnight Flori and her boyfriend Giacomo (new at camping in Africa) were rudely awakened by very loud banging noises coming from the ablution area. The following morning a large hole was found in the fence through which an elephant had entered the enclosure, probably in search of clean water. His adventure got interrupted by the appearance of the camp attendant that stopped it from doing more damage. The elephant retreated, not through the entry hole but crashing the gate!
We needed to work hard to find large game but luckily had more luck in the bird department. We were able to watch and photograph a shaft-tailed wydah, a bird that we had not seen for years. We also watched several bee-eaters, rollers, and orioles, among other small birds. We were happy to see several groups of ground hornbills, including one feeding their young at a nest.
Finally, on Christmas day we had some of a reward for our efforts. Flori, Giacomo and I went to have a look at Little Toms, a small stream near Robins Camp. I did not have much hope to find anything special based on earlier experience. I was wrong! Perhaps two hundred metres before we got there, we caught a glimpse of many elephants in and around it. Although we approached the water very slowly, to our dismay, they started to move back to the bush.
We were disappointed but we remained very still and quiet, waiting. After a few minutes of uncertainty, a few of the larger animals turned and started to come back. Soon we had a couple of hundred back at the water.
As I am not able to do justice to what we witnessed, I present you with two videos that Flori and I took of this truly magical thirty minutes!
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  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!
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.
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  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.
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!
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 . 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 .
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!
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!
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  that offers an amazing setting, having been built on the actual rocks and making use of them as part of the buildings.
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.
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.
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.
 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.
I already described hippos competing with crocodiles to eat their impala prey at Masuma dam in Hwange National Park  and this observation was part of a comprehensive publication on the transmission of anthrax among hippo populations .
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.
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.
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!
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  but the present observation adds the Mandavu reservoir to other areas in Africa where this phenomenon has been reported.
 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.
 Dorward LJ (2015) New record of cannibalism in the common hippo, Hippopotamus amphibius (Linnaeus, 1758). African Journal of Ecology 53: 385–387.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Pictures by Julio A and Mabel de Castro, Patricia Ruiz Teixidor and the bushsnob.
As I mentioned in the earlier post Hwange National Park is going through a severe drought and some of the classical water pointswhere 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.
The dust can be seen for several minutes before the thirsty animals arrive.
More arrival views. Some animals really run when they smell the water!
A youngster frolicking and drinking.
Not able to use its trunk yet a baby uses its mouth!
And then it gets the real treat from its mother!
The amazing trunks in action.
Preparing the water for a mud bath!
Social scratching and rubbing.
When tempers flare
A young calf scatters smaller animals before drinking.
A tusk wound. The result of a hard push that broke the tusk of the aggressor.
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.
On 8 September 2019  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.
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!
Baboons drinking in the morning.
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.
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! 
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.
While searching for suitable pictures to post in Instagram (#bushsnob, just in case you are curious…) I found a picture of communal defecation by hippos at Masuma dam. As I have recently -and entirely by virtue of being observant- become involved with facts about hippos that will probably change the way we look at them, I thought this short post was justified.
Hippos chasing crocs to get at the impala carcass!
There are many great stories about animals in Africa and, although I learnt this one some time ago, it had been stored in a part of my brain that I no longer have access to, because of all the new activities I am involved in (the real reason will not be disclosed!).
A hippo “tusker”. Note the left tusker also protruding in the upper lip.
Anyhow, apparently when the world was created, God, as you can easily imagine, encountered many problems. A lot of them God solved immediately but several remained, perhaps because God was busy solving the important ones. Among these was the “Hippo problem”. The latter found itself in a dilemma about its lifestyle that required a consultation with God.
“God” hippo said, “I know you have created me, but what do I do now? What do I eat? Where do I live?” A busy God did not have time for individual animal bellyaching so, from the top of his head said: “Well, you will live in the water but you will eat grass”. Surprised Hippo repeated “I will live in the water but I will eat grass?” This did not make too much sense to it as it had seen his reflection in the water: big mouth and big teeth! “How am I going to convince fish that I will not eat them? They will not let me enter the water!” he commented. Still busy, God told Hippo to make a plan!
Hippo left God’s office deep in thought and organized a meeting with the fish to convince them of his life plan. “I must prove to the fish that I have not eaten them!’ thought Hippo, and he met with the fish and eventually they came up with a pact: Hippo could spend the days with them in the water if he could prove he was not eating them. Hippo would prove this by spreading its dung each time, to prove to the fish that he was a trustworthy neighbour! Hippos still do to this very day.
Hippos defecating together in the water.
As you know, hippos spin their tails while defecating to distribute their excrement over the greatest possible area and, contrary to what I thought, hippo defecation occurs in the water and it is not rare to see fish following them. Male hippos in particular are very precise in the spreading of their excrement!
Funnily enough, I do not remember having witnessed a hippo peeing! Apparently they pee backwards and are known as are retromingent animals.
As usual, things did not go according to plan! Masuma dam -in Hwange National Park- had changed slightly. A small and shallow bay had been formed to the benefit of the thirsty animals, in particular the impala, who could now drink in relative safety as the crocodiles could not ambush them like last year.
The new drinking place made it safer for animals to drink while the crocodiles wait.
This change in the architecture of the dam meant that the crocodiles (we counted six of them) were almost invariably sunning themselves on the banks of the dam in an apparent forced fast. There is no need to be concerned about them not eating, as they are able to survive long periods without food.
The sixteen hippos were also there. They behaved as one expects hippos to behave: most of the day time spent inside the water coming out for a “service” (sun, the occasional mud wallow and attention from oxpeckers) by lunch time and going out of the dam in the evening to graze. To achieve this they were forced to queue for sometime to squeeze between the drinking elephants! They spent most of their energy chasing each other inside the water snorting loudly and they were quite adept at showing us the end results of their digestion!
Hippos involved in “social” defecation…
We arrived at Masuma at lunchtime. We spotted a few elephants drinking on the opposite side of the dam but no fresh water was being pumped in.
The camp attendant anticipated my question telling me that lions were walking around the dam the night before and he did not dare to walk to switch on the pump! Needless to say that I obliged when he asked me for a lift to get there! While driving, keeping an eye for lions without seeing any, I learnt that a donor was providing diesel for the pump. “Once the pump is on the elephants will come” proclaimed the camp attendant after the engine started puffing. He also informed me that a full tank of diesel would operate the pump for twelve hours. “Twelve hours would take us through most of the night”, I thought while I mentally thanked the benefactor and hoped that the camp attendant was correct in his prediction.
All shyness lost when getting close to the water!
Fortunately, as predicted by the camp attendant, the first elephants started to arrive within an hour of our return! Whether they smelled the fresh water or associated the pump noise with fresh water I could not say but the latter seems the most likely. The fact was that they made a beeline for the pipe producing the fresh water, ignoring the rest of the dam if possible! However, as the place got more and more crowded, the incoming families had to wait until those that had arrived earlier satiated their thirst or enter into the dam and drink less clean water.
The arrival of the first elephants took place at about 14.00 hours. By then we had already set up camp so we were ready for one of the greatest sights on earth: herds of thirsty elephants coming to drink! Your eyes get tired of gazing towards the confines of the bush that surrounds the dam and you need to stop for your eyes to rest. A few seconds later, when you resume your watch there they are as if they magically appeared in front of your eyes! They come out of the bushes in what appears to be a slow motion walk.
The miracle continues as more come into sight. Their slowness does not last long as, with raised trunks, they sniff the fresh water and their pace gets gradually faster as they approach it. It all ends with them breaking into a run to cover the last few metres, the baggy trousers that are their back legs flapping! Their run ends at the water’s edge where they drink showing their pleasure by shaking the water with their trunks and spilling it all over the place while drinking. Sometimes their run takes them into the water where they not only drink but also proceed to frolic like young humans!
Although we are used to seeing large herds of thirsty herbivores coming to a water source, they do so in a rather apathetic way. There is nothing like that when thirsty elephants smell water and I can assure you that their emotions show!
Once in the waterhole, their immediate thirst abated, the animals become quiet while making the best of the available water. They do vie for the best position but they do so rather discretely. Normally the larger animals occupy the best spots. These are bulls that come either singly or in small groups and join the drinking party for a while and then leave the way they came: on their own as normally they only join the female family units when there is one on heat.
At sunset, the show continued unabated.
After bathing it was dusting time to cool off.
Occasionally youngsters manage to squeeze in between the tusker behemoths and timidly at first but quite boldly later manage to stick their small trunks into the right spot to get a share of the fresh flowing water. Loud squealing indicates when one of them oversteps the mark and is put back in its place with a shove! Adults show each other respect and only rarely do their interactions go beyond posturing. Overt aggression rarely takes place, and on the occasions that is does, it is normally short-lived. After an initial head clash, often quite violent, one of the rivals withdraws tail up and maintains a prudent distance thereafter! We saw this happening a few times at Masuma.
It is usually a rather gently affair.
On occasions, however, things do go badly as shown by the chunks of ivory found at waterholes. The most extreme outcome I have ever seen is the skull with a hole made by a tusk on display at the Letaba Elephant Hall in the Kruger National Park. Wapiganapo tembo nyasi huumi” in Swahili means “When elephants fight the grass gets hurt”, a very accurate proverb to describe what you see in these situations! We saw quite a serious confrontation at Kennedy 2 dam near Ngweshla but, luckily, one of the bulls gave up before things got out of hand and the dust eventually settled.
Ocasionally things get out of hand.
Their great strength is evident.
Eventually they separate and the “loser” moves off .
The elephant parade at Masuma continued throughout the whole afternoon and well into the evening. They paid no attention to the noisy arrival and departure at dusk of large numbers of banded grouse.
Elephants drinking at sunset.
We stopped watching them for a while to have dinner but their noise stayed with us, as the herds were a few steps from our elevated camp. With dinner over it was time to go back to observe them again with the fading light. They were clearly wearier and their trunks rose more often to smell us and confirm our presence. Belly rumbling also became more frequent and louder. I was aware that the latter is believed to be a communication method among elephants but I did not know that the rumbling moves from animal to animal in a herd, in order to make sure that it reaches the last individual in the herd. Fascinating stuff!
A night picture of the dam with drinking elephants. I applied the Picasa “I am feeling lucky” command to get light into the picture. Even the stars can be seen better!
The original picture, above.
After a long while we were getting ready to go to bed when the moon started to illuminate the bush across the dam so we decided to wait a while longer. It was well worth it! The moon was almost full and it cast an eerie light over the moving dark grey masses. Absorbed by this rare vision we remained on the watch and for a while forgot our sleep. We stayed with them until they started to move off and only a handful of bulls remained until about 2 am. It is probable that their withdrawal matched the end of the pump’s diesel and their departure brought calm to the dam and we could enjoy a silent African night for a while until the lions started to roar in the distance!
The following morning, apart from the fresh droppings, nothing gave away what we had witnessed a few hours earlier.
While at Masuma dam, we spent sometime identifying a bee-eater that we had not seen before. Fortunately at least one pair was residing at the dam’s campsite and we had time to have a good look and classify them as swallow-tailed bee-eaters (Merops hirundineus). As my new Roberts VII Multimedia Bird of Southern Africa App says, “The deeply forked blue tail is diagnostic”.
The first picture.
The birds were using two trees from which they would launch themselves in search of prey and come back to the same perch to either try again if they failed or to eat the unfortunate insect if successful. Having watched them for a while we decided that we needed a good picture.
My son is keen on bird watching and wildlife photography so he was given the task of taking “the picture” of the new bee-eater. He approached the birds and took a few shots. Not happy with the results, he tried to get a few steps closer and he got two good shots.
While moving forward still he saw a fly landing on the side of his shorts but he paid no attention to it as his eyes were fixed on the bee-eater. However, when he was about to shoot, the bird disappeared from the viewfinder. Before he could react he felt more than saw a touch on his shorts where the fly was and, to his surprise, he saw the bee-eater flying away with the fly in its beak! Luckily, he reacted fast and took a picture of the fly being eaten by the bird!
The bird with the prey caught on my son’s shorts!
I have seen garden birds coming to feed on people’s hands or even landing on their heads to feed from there but it was a first to see a wild bird being so daring!
Hippos were not interested in Impala meat this time! (Photo by Julio A. de Castro & Mariana Terra)
(Photo by Julio A. de Castro & Mariana Terra)
After our return from that safari we immediately booked the Masuma dam campsite so that we could stay closer to the action and see if we could observe something additional in the crocodile-hippo saga that caught our interest earlier. We also booked a place in Main Camp as we were sure we would have fun with elephants at Nyamandlovu pan. We knew that the elephants were plentiful there and we could watch them and enjoy their antics!
This time there were lots of elephants at Masuma dam. (Photo by Julio A. de Castro & Mariana Terra)
We even saw pink elephants… (Photo by Julio A. de Castro & Mariana Terra)
As part of our “discovery drive” we also camped in the Ngweshla pan campsite as it has a reputation as the best place to camp in Hwange and is a place where predators are often seen because the area surrounding the various pans and water holes found there is quite open, a change from the thick bush of other areas in the park.
The safari took place between 22 and 29 July 2015 and I describe its highlights in four posts: