Zambezi

The Chongwe confluence

After the traumatic experience of the riots, things calmed down for a while. Mabel came back with the news that her pregnancy was going well and she was happy that we were going to have a baby girl. We decided to start exploring Zambia, starting from places relatively near Lusaka, before the pregnancy advanced and our travel got reduced.

Among the items we “inherited” from the earlier project was a mechanic to maintain the vehicles called Des. It was through bringing the cars to him in the outskirts of Lusaka that we got to know him and his wife Mary very well. We spent a few Sunday lunches together with a number of their friends, including businesspeople and hunters, among others.

Amid their close friends was Chris, a son of a Scottish father and a Zambian mother that was a very prosperous businessman, owner of the largest petrol station and spares shop in Lusaka. From the start we realized that we got on well and it did not take too long to discover that we shared the passion for fishing and we became friends.

He was a very kind man, very supportive of our efforts to enjoy Zambia and it was him that arranged for our rubber dinghy maiden voyage at the Kafue Marina and participated from the exercise with great enthusiasm.

Assembling the rubber dinghy for the first time at the Kafue Marina. The Kafue River is in the background.
Testing our new rubber dinghy.

Chris knew every fishing spot in Zambia, and he kept boats in several of them so that he did not need to tow a boat whenever he wished to go fishing! Apart from Kafue, he had boats in Kariba and lake Tanganyika, to name what I recall now. One day, he invited us to join him at a place known as the Chongwe confluence. We happily agreed to meet him there travelling by land in our now repaired Land Cruiser while he would get there from the Kafue Marina.

So, we left early on a Saturday and followed his travel instructions taking the road to Chirundu (the border with Zimbabwe) and turning left a few kilometres before to enter on a dirt road (now the RD491) towards Chiawa. We drove on and we came to the Kafue River where we waited for the pontoon to arrive as it happened to be going towards the opposite shore. We joined the other cars in the queue and had a few “mates” [1] while we waited.

When the pontoon arrived we paid our fee and boarded it, together with the other cars. The crossing was quite picturesque as the pontoon was operated by a couple of guys that would pull from a rope and move it across. Of course, the passengers were free to join in the effort to make the trip faster! Luckily, there was not much of a current and the operaton was successfully completed after about thirty minutes.

The human-powered pontoon.
Mabel pouring hot water to our mate during the crossing.

Leaving the Kafue River behind we drove through a narrow dirt road for a while until we came to the Zambezi river where the road turned left and from then on we drove along the river following its current. After a while we passed what looked like a derelict farm with a number of windmills in the water. Apart from pumping water from the river, we could not think of anty other reason for their existence but we did not stop to investigate as we were anxious to get to our destination.

After a long but beautiful drive along the river where we saw planty of game, including many elephants, we go to the confluence and found Chris. He was already fishing while two of his employees were busy cutting the very tall grass and collecting the rubbish left there by other careless campers to enable us to camp in comfort. Although we were meant to be at the Lower Zambezi National Park, its existence was still in its infancy.

We were on the Zambezi river shore at the point the Chongwe River entered it, a place renown for its good fishing. I believe that there is a luxury camp there nowadays [2]

Chris loved fish and he knew a place where Tilapia [3] were abundant. He told us that the fish congregated at a particular spot where tree branches came down to the river offering shelter to the fish that stayed there, probably feeding on the muddy bank. He explained to us that the river there formed a “gwabi”, a place where the water turned against the main current and fish liked.

He sat on a canvas chair with his rods pulling fish out. He had the system well oiled: another of his sidekicks was gutting them and dropping them in a frying pan without delay! We could see that there was already a good pile of freshly fried fish. I realized that Chris loved fishing more than I did and that he not only enjoyed the actual fishing but loved to eat his catch as well.

We left Chris to continue getting our lunch and went to a place where the grass had been cut to set up our camp. A number of large trees offered good shade in the campsite and we were the only occupants, apart from a few elephants busy pulling tree branches that largely ignored us. We joined Chris and his men for a purely Tilapia lunch that, even to me that I am not fond on fish, tasted delicious, probably because they were fried as soon as they came out.

After a good siesta we took off on his boat after tiger fish (Hydrocynus vittatus). We trolled along the banks with a couple of rods with shiny lures traying to get the attention of this carnivorous fish. Tigers are fast and ferocious predators that would attack the lures violently and eject them when jumping outside of the water. We had a few strikes that we missed but still we enjoyed the action. Luckily, by sunset I hooked one that I managed to land. It was my first tiger fish, and a reasonable one as well so I was extremely pleased and so was Chris that had skipped the boat for me to get it!

My first tiger fish.

In twilight we returned to camp, guided by the fire and our lights, had another Tilapia dinner and, as usual in Africa, we went to bed early for a well deserved rest after a long drive an a very exciting fishing day.

As it often happens, things did not work out as planned.

A couple of hours later we were woken by a leopard started calling very close from our tents and, although it was not a threat for us, it was a rather loud leopard! As the calls continued, we decided to find it. So, Chris and us got in our car and started to drive around trying to reach the place of the calls that now, as usual, stopped! We drove for a while but nothing appeared in our headlights.

We were about to turn around when we caught a glimpse of a spotted hyena running through the thicket and we followed it through the bushes until we came to an area next to the river (about a couple of hundred metres from our camp) where there were a number of racks made with sticks that had been recently used to dry meat and, before we could think what meat it was, we bumped on a large hippo head lying on the ground.

The hyena was after the meat that was left on the head and the leopard was also part of the action but we were not sure on what capacity. We knew that we would not spot it after our drive with headlamps and spotlight and we returned to our camp. Fortunately, our sleep was not interrupted again.

The following morning, we were up early for a sightseeing tour of the Zambezi. It was the first time that we had a chance to appreciate the unmatched beauty of this “mighty” river that traversed very dry country and it was its lifeline. The water was unbelievably clean (at least for our standards) and it contained bright specs that we learnt to be suspended mica particles.

Zambezi River view.

The deep parts of the river showed a dark green hue while the many sand banks were brownish and carefully avoided by our skipper. There were a number of islands between us and the opposite bank that was Zimbabwe, where no motor boats were allowed as the area was protected and it included the Mana Pools National Park, a place we would come to know in the future.

Seeing the windmills, now from the river, we express our perplexity about them to Chris. He was quite amused while hetold us that this had been the farm of someone called Winston that, in the mid 80’s, had convinced President Kaunda that he could make oil from grass! The machines -probably operated by the windmills? – were crushing grass at one end while oil was coming out of the other! The President, convinced by the project manager, had travelled by helicopter to visit the farm and even gave Mr. Winston a Zambian diplomatic passport! The latter was probably deported once it was discovered that the oil was coming from a jerrycan! [4]

We saw lots of game. While the groups of hippo were rather abundant and often loud, there was also game along the river banks where the ocassional crocodile could be seen basking. Apart from the large numbers of elephants, we also spotted many impala and buffalo as well as several troops of baboons. There were also many interesting birds in addition to the expected fish eagles that dotted the shore perched on top of their favourite trees. The African skimmers (Rynchops flavirostris) were great fun to watch while flying a few centimetres above the water with their longer lower mandibule -extremely sensible to the touch- in the water. The moment it encountered a surface fish, its beak would snap shut and fly off to process its prey.

The morning passed very fast and it was soon time to return to camp, pack and start the return journey. Chris would stay longer for an afternoon fishing as his return by boat was much shorter and he wished to store a few more fish to take home.

We had gone through a great experience and we decided that the place was worth another visit.

[1] Mate is a traditional South American drink made by soaking dried leaves of the “yerba” plant (Ilex paraguariensis) in hot water and sucked through a metal straw from a container typically made from a calabash gourd.

[2] See: https://timeandtideafrica.com/time-tide-chongwe-camp/

[3] Several Tilapia species occur in the Zambezi River. For details see: https://zimninja.org/zambezi-river-fishing/

[4] See https://zambiareports.com/2015/03/26/chama-oil-if-only-it-had-become-reality/

Boswell’s genes

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

pict0021-copy

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

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

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

P1000424 copy.jpg

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

P1000305 copy

Boswell.

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

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

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

P1000292 copy

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

P1000311 copy

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

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

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

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

P1000509 copy

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

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

 

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

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

Wild elephants…

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

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

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

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

DSCN1057 copy

There were elephants all the time!

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

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

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

DSC_0040 copy

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Mistaken for carrion…

At a hot Mana Pools it was either me roasting some meat or eating from tins as my wife, usually an excellent cook, was feeling too hot to get involved in any heat-generating activities she was busy engaged in the opposite; cooling off with the aid of water and fans in order to survive another day! Resigned and lazy (independent from the heat), I lit a small fire taking some coals from the Tanganyika hot water boiler just at the time when the temperature started to go down.

I am an atypical Uruguayan. I am scared of horses and unable to ride them or -worse still- do a good asado[1]! Hearing only words of encouragement coming from the shower room I attempted at overcoming my shortcoming and managed to get a good fire going. I soon re-confirmed that one thing is to have a good fire and another is to use it well! I did not, as usual as the nice sirloin piece was well cooked top and bottom but very alive inside, even for us that like our meat rare! Anyway, we ate the better cooked pieces while leaving the rest too roast for a while longer until we managed to have a fairly decent dinner.

On account of the ambient temperature, the after dinner routine at Muchichiri was to seat outside by the river to listen and attempt to identify the many bush sounds that are heard in Mana Pools. Ocassionally the sounds or footsteps would be heard very close needing an inspection with our searchlight to identify the responsible both out of curiosity and self-preservation. The main “culprits” would be hippos but elephants and a number of antelope were often found around the lodge. At one stage we caught a slight movement between us and the river and we found a relatively scarce white-tailed mongoose scurrying through the undergrowth.

IMG_0260 copy

From the lodge my wife caught the bushsnob napping again, oblivious of the passers by. With the night visitors was different…

The mongoose gone, my wife read and I wrote notes for this posts. I got quite involved in what I was doing so when I heard a hushed “Have you seen it?” Coming from my wife I lifted my head with it still inmersed in my writing. The spotted hyena was looking at me from very close quarters, quite a shock when you do not expect a visitor like that! “!@#$%^&* its huge” was all I could profer. It was indeed a very large hyena that was looking at me from inside the camp light circle!

Although my wife assured me that she heard it coming and got a whiff of its pungent smell for a while, I was caught totally unawares. I experienced a mild panic attack as many years had passed since I had another similar encounter. All I managed to say was “ssshhhhhh”, the kind of noise that -in our culture- is usually reserved to scare away chickens! It was a pathetic and out of place gesture but it worked mainly because the hyena did not have hostile intentions towards me! I am sure it realized that, despite my years, I was yet to reach full carcass status! As usual, it moved off fast but remained around camp until we retired to bed.

The hyena did visit our place a couple of times later on as documented by a strategically placed camera trap (below) while I was safely in bed and inside my mosquito net on the top floor of the lodge, feeling like a safe animal!

 

[1] Roasted meat on the fire.

Hot nights

We confirmed once again that Mana Pools in October is hot, really hot, specially from 12:00 to 16:30 hours. During that spell all you can do is to find a shady spot and sit it out whilst hoping that the Zambezi breeze continues to blow removing the warm air that your body generates. Frequent applications of water help as the evaporation refreshes you, at least for a few minutes. Luckily the air humidity is very low so at least you are not soaked wet.

IMG_0273 copy

The bushsnob enduring the heat while enjoying the view.

To have the sight of a beautiful but “out of bounds” river with clean water running a few metres from you is really counter productive! To make matters worse, when the hippos look at you with their exaggerated mouths, they seem to smile while enjoying the cool water!

Zambezi dusk.

Zambezi dusk.

DSCN8571 copy

Hippos enjoying the coolness of the river seem to be smiling at you.

Although the Zambezi offers nice sandy banks and beaches, you will enter its waters at your own risk. The latter is rather high as, if you are lucky to remain undetected by the numerous and some really huge crocodiles, you may pick up the invisible but equally bad Bilharzia parasites.

A Zambezi hazard.

A Zambezi hazard in wait.

The heat affects all and for the game is a tough time. The inland pans are dry and the last blade of desiccated grass has been consumed, transforming the Zambezi terraces in the proverbial dust bowl. Luckily the park has many trees that provide shelter to the animals that remain there from the blistering sun, mainly the greater kudu that still manage to find nourishment by browsing.

Greater kudu browsing under the shade.

Greater kudu browsing under the shade.

Although the trees offer good shade, their fruits are by now almost exhausted. The pods and flowers from the apple ring acacias and sausage trees respectively are very few now and the amount available does not justify the effort the animals require to collect sufficient to live upon. The fruits from the sycamore fig trees are ripening fast but they are being quickly consumed by birds and monkeys alike so that they hardly hit the ground!

DSCN8441 copy

A fig tree showing its beautiful trunk.

Even the apparently dry baobabs are being consumed, mainly by elephants!

The elephant bite!

The elephant bite!

Both Chisasiko and Long pools still  have lots of water but it is brackish and not liked by all. Although we have seen impala and waterbuck drinking there, we are yet to see an elephant! Chine pool, now just a green ribbon, attracts plains game as it seems to be fed by a fresh water spring. We did not see how Green pool was but I suspect that it is also getting dry[1].

A rather dry Chine pool with a slender mongoose in the tree roots at the back.

A rather dry Chine pool with a slender mongoose in the tree roots at the back.

As expected, most game now gathers around the only permanent source of water, the Zambezi river. Adjacent to it the plains are still green and teeming with animals grazing intensively in a fragile and unstable truce between different links of the food chain. There are thousands of impala within a kilometre from the river as well as buffalo, eland, zebra and waterbuck that have also moved residence to this true “food land”.

Buffalo taking advantage of the grass by the river.

Buffalo taking advantage of the grass by the river.

Impala by the river.

Impala at Mana mouth, very close to the Zambezi.

Aware of this, the area is now also the home of the predators. These range from water and land birds consuming prey that gets caught in small pools or drying mud to hyenas, leopards and lions on the prowl for larger animals.

A grey mongoose searching for food in the drying mud.

A large grey mongoose searching for food in the drying mud.

A ground hornbill also taking advantage of the dry river bed.

A ground hornbill also taking advantage of the dry river bed, feeding on what looked like snails.

The elephants dot the plains with the relaxed attitude that their size allows them. They are all over the place. There are family groups composed of a matriarch and her progeny as well as bulls in small groups or preferring their own company.

DSCN8537 copy

Game drives inland only find the ocasional heat-enduring animal so game watching focusses on the river area where being comfortably seated with open eyes normally rewards the observer with good finds. We were well placed at Mucichiri lodge, a two floor building offering an open upper deck from where a great view of the river was available. While hippos were always in the neighbourhood either in or out of the river, impala and waterbuck grazed under the shade.

DSCN8253 copy

Muchichiri lodge seen from the river side.

The birds were busy nesting, anticipating the rainy season that it is just round the corner. In addition to spur-wings and Egyptian geese, the bee-eaters were very numerous, both white-fronted and carmine. They were busy going in and out of their burrows in the alluvial banks of the river found on the oposite margin.

DSCN8714 copy

A few times a day they their constant chirping noises ceased for a few seconds and then all would take off screeching loudly in alarm as some threat approached.The most common predator seen was the Yellow-billed Kite (Milvus parasitus). The latter would come from high and then gradually descend as it approached the river banks. Although birds did all possible to disuade the attackers, the kite would continue relentlessly on the hunt and it would  suddenly swoop down fast and land, either on the banks or on the trees near our lodge. Twice I saw it catching fledglings and land nearby to eat them. Once prey was taken, the predator was quickly forgotten by the birds that will soon return to their socializing, clearly showing “short memories” or being resigned to the inevitable!

The kite feeding.

The kite feeding.

By mid afternoon Mana Pools was a furnace with the shade offered by the large trees and the hot wind as the only relief. Luckily the lodge has a bathtub and a shower and we took turns seeking refreshment until the sun power finally slacked and we slowly revived. It was time for the evening game viewing drive and, on return, a barbecue kept simple and managed from a distance to avoid getting too close to the fire!

At night the wind dropped and, unfortunately, the little that blew got stopped by the mosquito net. The consequence was that sleep was hard to find. Fortunately there was a full moon and the animals outside the lodge were very active. We are surrounded by impala and waterbuck while the hippos grazed in the grassy banks, their bulk easier seen while they walk about as true lawn mowers.

DSCN8740 copy

The full moon gave us good light.

The full moon gave us good light.

The elephants also passed by in numbers, as usual, in total silence but rather obvious to us sitting only a few metres from them! Loud calls preceded the arrival of hyenas checking for some left overs before embarking into their longer missions in search of substantial prey. Lions were only heard once and far away, clearly hunting much further downriver.

While watching and listening to the Mana inhabitants the temperature eventually dropped to “sleepable” levels and we went to sleep aware that we needed an early start to our game drives the next day, before the heat would set in. Looking at the clear sky we could be sure that on the morrow we could find anything, except rain. 

 Mana Pools, Zimbabwe, October 2015.

 

[1] You will note that I now know the names of the four pools, courtesy of a helpful park ranger that we met during this visit.