Ngweshla picnic site

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!





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?