Driving on Zimbabwean roads is full of surprises and there will be a few more entries under What on earth?! that are related to roads and streets in Zimbabwe!
Re-treading used tires is no longer common, probably because of safety regulations so people have found other uses for them. As far as Zimbabwe goes, door mats and sandals are the most common. Strips of tire rubber are also useful to hold car suspension parts in an emergency (and often permanently!) and there are many other uses, I am sure.
We overtook this pick-up (I should say bakkie) loaded with a very ingenious way of re-using old tires. I would like to sit on one to see how comfy they are!
I must confess that until recently I was ignorant of the details of hair extensions (due to reasons that are apparent if you follow this blog!) and I was surprised to find out that hair extensions similarly to wine and other products can be marketed based on provenance! The following sign in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe provided my first insight into the, clearly more complex than I expected, business of hair extensions. I did not know that hair from various countries would be on offer until we came across this sign offering them to the ladies in Bulawayo.
This complexity was even further evident when a few days later we came across the below headline indicating that just like in other products, once in a while a bad batch appears with potentially adverse consequences for the end user!
I did not followed-up the issue further so I am unable to tell you in which way hair can be “harmful” and why this happened with Brazilian and not with hair from another origin!
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!
There is no doubt in my mind that Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe is one of the best places we have visited. Despite having the “Big five”, you are allowed to walk and animals are everywhere, including your campsite. Among several close encounters, we vividly remember the time a buffalo bull was killed by lions a few metres from the entrance to our bungalow posing some problems to our planned movements!
Despite this, we were not prepared to have an elephant welcoming comittee outside the reception!
It was also curious to see that the pachiderms in Mana Pools are exempt from the majority of the rules as can be seen below:
When living in Mozambique we drove a couple of times to Swaziland (from 2018 renamed Eswatini) to spend time in its national parks. Among these, we visited the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary where we spent some time walking as there are no dangerous animals, except crocodiles as the following sign warns.
Checking the waters edge, we did find a couple of large crocodiles and another sign that was rather confusing.
Usually wildlife has right of way but to prohibit members of the plant kingdom is baffling! I wish to believe that there is a missing line in the sign that should have said “Removal of …”
After this surprise, I Googled for a definition of the word wildlife and what I found both in the Oxford and Webster online dictionaries was very similar: “Animals, birds, insects, etc.that are wild and live in a natural environment” and “living things and especially mammals, birds, and fishes that are neither human nor domesticated” respectively! So, it seems that plants and trees are not part of wildlife!
But things do not end here! In 2020, Carly Cowell (1) of the Kew Gardens highlighted our inability to recognise plants as wildlife known as “plant blindness” and discussed the consequences of this for the conservation of the plant kingdom!
Interestingly, confusion between members of the animal kingdom also seems to exist as this sign from Hwange National Park shows:
I believe that the intention was to repace the word “mammals” for “animals” to make the message clearer to all visitors of the potential negative impact of such practice!
For many years I have wondered how the Tuli block came to being. How could such a perfect semi-circle be added to the border between Zimbabwe and Botswana? Why not just follow the Shashe River all the way?
Apart from seeing it in the map, we had driven through the Tuli block a few years back when travelling to South Africa. So, we decided to go and explore it. With little knowledge about the area on the Zimbabwe side, apart from comments that it was a hunting block, we decided to return to visit the Northern Tuli Game Reserve (NTGR) in the eastern part of Botswana.
Briefly, based on the history of the block from http://www.notugre.com, the first European explorers and missionaries arrived early in the 16th century and the area was used for hunting, trading and mission work among the peoples then living here. In 1890 Cecil John Rhodes commanded the “Pioneer Column” to annex Matabeleland and Mashonaland for the British Crown and established Fort Tuli (in Zimbabwe). At the same time, the Bangwato and Matabele tribes of the area were involved in a power struggle for the land until Chief Khama of the Bangwato tribe won control in 1895.
It was Chief Khama that, with other Chiefs went to England, saw the Queen, and stopped Rhodes ambitions. An agreement was reached that only the Tuli Block be given to the British South Africa company for their use to build the rail link and that later it would be divided into farms to protect the Bangwato and Botswana from the expansion of the Boers from the Northern Transvaal.
Much more recently, in the late 50´s and early 60´s, probably realizing that the area did not have much potential for livestock (my comment), ranchers in the area decided to literally “block” their lands into a large area for wildlife conservation and tourism. Today, 36 properties form the NTGR with an area of over 70 thousand hectares.
Clearly, the NTGR is much less known that the classic Botswana wildlife areas we had visited earlier such as the Makgadigadi and Nxai pans, Chobe National Park, Moremi Game Reserve and the Kalahari reserves, to name the main tourist areas. However, our aim was to see how the Tuli block was.
We usually are independent travellers but this time -strangely- we arranged the trip through a travel agency. Our search for accommodation quickly ruled out the well-known lodges such as Mashatu and Tuli for economic reasons but we found a much more reasonable place called Serolo Safari Camp located in the NTGR where we booked self-catering accommodation (see: https://tulitrails.com/?page_id=38).
So, with the NTGR as our first destination, we put into practice one of the advantages we saw when we bought a house in Zimbabwe: to be able to travel to several neighbouring countries. We headed South-east, first to Bulawayo for the night and the following morning drove the 100 km to the border at Plumtree and then to Francistown, just a further 90 km into Botswana.
We were happy to see that very few people intended to cross the border that day and we made plans for an early arrival in Francistown that would allow us more time for shopping. Things did not work out as planned… However, before I give you more details, let me explain that, this time, I travelled with two passports: the old one that would expire while we were in Botswana and a new one that I obtained a few days earlier, aware that this would happen.
Our visa for Zimbabwe was expiring the very day we crossed, and it was in my old passport. I was not concerned as I expected that the immigration would have looked at my visa in the old passport and place my exit stamp in the new one. It was not to be! The officer, insisting that the old passport was still valid, placed the exit stamp in it and, immediately I knew we were in trouble!
My fears were confirmed when we arrived at the Botswana side of the border, sited after about 2 km of “no man’s land”. A kind immigration officer explained to us that the Zimbabwe immigration should have stamped my new passport! So we were sent back! We were about to know something I had always wondered: how do you go back half-way through a border crossing! Well, the answer is with difficulty!
We turned around and, of course drove against the flow of traffic all the way back trying to be extremely friendly and greeting people and saying “sorry” every time we faced a car coming head-on towards us, not expecting to find a car going the other way. Eventually we arrived back at Zimbabwe, did a completely illegal manoeuvre to get the car pointing towards Botswana again and, trying to appear as calm as possible, we entered the building, again.
We explained the situation to the immigration officer that was still reluctant to stamp my new passport until a higher authority gave its clearance. Clearly the answer was positive so, after quite a wait, my new passport was stamped, and we managed to complete our crossing without further difficulties.
We arrived at Francistown later than expected, and rushed to buy the essential stuff for our self-catering stay at Serolo Safari Camp as well as getting new Botswana SIM cards, an essential item these days! Despite being a Sunday, we managed and, after a restful Sunday night at Francistown and a good breakfast on Monday, we headed for the NTGR, located at about 290 km to the South-east. We drove up to Serule and we turned for Bobolong and later Mathathane. Soon after the asphalt ended, and we headed in the direction of Platjan, the border post with South Africa, and turned into our camp following the signposts.
The area was very dry but, unlike other areas of Botswana, it was quite hilly and rocky although some greenery in the distance revealed the passing of the Limpopo River, not that far off. We both thought that it would be difficult to spot game in this terrain, but we decided to wait and see and continued until we got to the camp a handful of km farther on.
It was very hot but the camp had some magnificent large trees that provided with good shade, particularly around the central part known as the lapa . There were five not so shaded tents overlooking a ravine where we were told game passed and one concrete hut at the back, not so nice as it overlooked the tents’ car park! Our hearts sunk when we were told that this was the accommodation for self-caterers. We looked at each other and knew that we would not stay there. It was a change or looking for another place to stay!
We presented our concern to the manageress and, after a few phone calls a solution was found. Another couple would be moved from a tent to the self-catering unit with the lure of the latter having air conditioning and we could have their tent, provided we paid the difference between self-catering and full board that, luckily, was not very high. We accepted.
I would call Serolo a no-frills lodge that could host a maximum of ten people on full board and two more on self-catering so it was never crowded. Staff were extremely kind and attentive and we enjoyed the cooking of Kennedy, the Chef, that managed to produce some truly good food in the bush.
We were not allowed to go on game drives in our car, but the accommodation included two game drives per day. To our horror, we needed to be at the lapa by 05:30 hours for the morning drive. Luckily, the afternoon one started at the very civilized time of 16:00 hours, after having enjoyed a “high tea”.
We are not used to be driven as part of a tourist group, so we needed to adjust to the new methodology. We did this with some degree of difficulty as clearly the aim of the drive was to find big cats, particularly leopards. Elephants were watched from a distance and birds were almost ignored. Luckily the intense heat made driving on an open car very bearable.
By the second game drive it became apparent that the area was more restricted than we expected, and we just repeated our route day after day. Part of the drive touched the Limpopo River with its beautiful riverine forest. There we saw abundance of impala and greater kudu grazing under some truly large trees. Ficus and Acacia species were the outstanding ones and we contemplated them in awe while enjoying their dense shade during the heat of the day. As it was the dry season, the river was not flowing (at least on the surface), but we saw still some large pools and probably abundant water under the sand.
The rest of the driving was done through dry, often bare earth areas with patches of Mopani trees (severely damaged by the elephants). Several rocky formations were clearly ideal places to find leopards but, unfortunately, we had to be satisfied with klipspringers. Our drivers tried hard to find cats and they often drove through rough roads that involved a lot of low gear efforts by the aged Land Rover Defenders used by the camp.
It was in the hilly area that we spotted five lion cubs, the offspring of two resident lionesses that were sired by one male lion. Later, we found one of the females resting by an old eland kill, showing signs of being very hot. Mabel caught a glimpse of the second lioness but the rest of us did not see it. During a later drive, we found the male lion resting and surrounded by the other members of the family. Probably the whole group was together, but we could not see them in great detail as they were far and hidden by both rocks and bushes on the other side of a gorge where we could not get to.
During the second day of game driving, we found an injured male impala. One of its hindlegs was in an unnatural position and it was unable to stand up. Interestingly, a black-backed jackal was lying down a couple of metres away. We agreed that the impala’s future appeared grim as it would have been an easy prey for a leopard or hyena, and we thought that the jackal was waiting for a larger predator to arrive and benefit from the leftovers. After waiting for a while, we left the pair and made a note to return in the evening, but we run out of time, and we did not know what happened until the following day.
First thing the following morning we returned to the impala and found it dead and the jackal (we assumed it was the same we saw the previous day) was feeding on it. Although we cannot know how the events unfolded, judging by the injuries that impala showed, I believe that it was killed by the jackal during the night. Jackals are ruthless killers, often tackling prey much larger than themselves.
We saw elephants at a distance and our drivers seemed to be very wary of them keeping a good distance, perhaps because of the cars being open. Oone night a few elephants visited the waterhole adjacent to the lapa and leopards walked past the camp a couple of times but, of course, we were out on a game drive when that took place!
Oh, I forgot about the Tuli block semicircle. Well, it was not easy to find out the reason but, eventually I did. It happened in 1891 when then Mashonaland districts were established and Tuli was given jurisdiction over a 16km radius of the village, a perfect disruption to what otherwise would have been another river border between two countries!
 A lapa is usually an open structure that generally consists of a thatched roof sitting on wooden poles. These are usually used as entertainment areas in southern Africa.
Security is a large business worldwide and Zimbabwe is no exception. While security companies choose allusive names such as “Safeguard”, “Guard Alert”, “Securico” and others, some of them do not.
I recall a company called “Tragic Security” that was a few years ago in charge of the security at the Beitbridge border post. Unfortunately, I did not get a picture of their sign as border posts are not the best places to be seen with a camera!
However, in Harare I have managed to take a couple of pictures of companies with what I find amusing names.
Clearly this company prefers to solve thieving amicably but not all are like this one as the following picture shows.
I would not like to be neither guarded nor attempt breaking into a place with such a company taking care of it.
After our time at Kennedy One and Main Camp, it was time to have some more comfort so we headed for Robins Camp, to the relief of our visitors. It was nice to be back to a very nice place with welcoming staff and to be able to relax without the chores of camping, particulalry cooking and washing-up!
The bats that inhabit the tower were there although we did not spot the dwarf mongose group that we had seen earlier. We had our compensations as we watched other interesting birds in the camp and nearby.
During our earlier visit to Hwange National Park (HNP) after the Covid pandemic (See: https://bushsnob.com/2022/04/03/zimbabwe-post-covid/) we visited a place known as the Salt pan and we were lucky to have a glimpse of a rather shy cheetah family that took off as soon as they saw us. We also “discovered” a salty water dam with several interesting water birds. Grey herons were the dominant species but there were also little grebes and the beautifully brittle stints with their very long and thin pink legs that seem to be unable to support even their very light weights. So slender the legs are that the water is almost still when they wade through.
At the time we also found a small family of hyenas and many vultures perched on the trees surrounding the dam, a sign that kills were frequent there.
So, during our present trip, the first morning at Robins Camp we started early and headed for the Salt pan.
This time we did not see the cheetah but, on our way to the pan, we met with a group of spotted hyenas composed of seven adults and two youngsters, the largest group we have seen so far in HNP and Zimbabwe. As they are one of the favourite animals of our daughter Flori, we stopped to watch.
One of the hyenas was probably carrying a chunk of meat and moving away from us never to be seen again. The rest of the adults continued walking and they tolerated our presence. We have had literally hundreds of daylight encounters with spotted hyenas over the years and they have always been rather unconcerned by our presence, keeping a considerable distance from us, either on foot or inside our car.
Although one of the young hyenas continued walking with the adults, the second either did not hear the adults‘ warning or it was an “infant terrible”, so it stayed behind, rather curious of our presence. At first it stopped to watch us but, not totally satisfied, it decided to come to have a close look at our car and its occupants. It approached us while loudly sniffing the air until it stopped at about one metre from us.
It remained there watching us intensively until, perhaps following some inaudible signal from the rest of the clan, it started to move towards the adults and we thought our close encounter was over but suddenly, it retraced its steps and repeated its exploration of the car a second time. Clearly satisfied with what it found and not showing any sign of concern, it finally moved back to the adults and the group moved off leaving us with the beautiful image of a young and curious animal.
We then continued our journey to the Salt pan area and found some interesting water birds such as grey herons and stilts, among others. There were a couple of dozen grey herons at the dam and we saw at least two pairs nesting there.
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.