Hwange National Park

Day four was spent mostly on the truck and the drive took much longer than expected.  The border crossing from Botswana to Zimbabwe was relatively fast perhaps it was all the road blocks in Zimbabwe that slowed us down.  The roadblocks were often and were usually just an oil barrel in the middle of the road with a couple of police officers waiting under a tree for traffic to arrive.  We found their high vis sleeves (yes just sleeves, no vest, just sleeves) highly amusing and very unusual.

It almost felt like now we had arrived in Africa, well the Africa I had envisioned before I had arrived, small villages and rustic houses.  Until that point we had mostly experienced cities and they were very westernised.  Now we were starting to see mud and straw roof houses in the village areas and a lot of farm animals that the people obviously used for their livelihood.

Our campsite was located in Hwange National Park, there was a fence around the camp to keep the animals out, which had many gaps and holes that animals could easily find to roam into the camp if wanted.  We were briefed on what animals to watch out for, what the protocol was if you wanted to use the bathroom in the night and the boys were warned about honey badgers and their liking towards testicles (apparently they like to rip them off).

As we settled into camp for the evening it was nice to mostly have the camp to ourselves, a big change from the previous camp that was full of overland trucks and groups touring.  As we set up our camp and started cooking our traditional meal of stew with a cut of meat called blade I’ve never heard of, Sadza a type of porridge made from maize flour, and cabbage, we decided with dinner being at least 2 hours away, the only thing to do was drink.

After dinner and cleaning up, many of us were in a right merry state.  Hanna, Ryan, and I probably leading the pack in the drunken sagas.  At this stage Jordan an extremely charming Zambian guide turned up to take us on a short night game drive. As dinner had run so late we were racing against the clock as the camp gates shut at 10pm.  Armed with blankets and mugs of wine we piled into the open air truck and headed out the gates.  A short while down the road the truck was stopped, the engine and lights killed and all 20 of us sat in absolute silence, listening for animals.  It didn’t take long to hear something slowly moving through the scrub, crunching the vegetation as it moved.  After several guesses of what the animal was Jordan produced a huge spotlight to reveal a huge elephant on the right side of the truck!

We hit the road again heading towards the Hwange Safari Lodge.  As we took off Hanna and I cheered our success with our mugs of wine, hers being caught by the wind and yanked from her hand to fly into the night before either of us could react, her absolute shocked face sent me into fits of giggles that was loud enough to send even the hardest animals into the night running!

Hwange Safari Lodge was a stunning hotel, that unfortunately due to our time constraint we didn’t have time to explore.  Instead we headed straight to the back of the property to the man-made watering hole.  We were so blessed to see a herd of elephants including several young calves just finishing up their evening drink and heading ever so slowly back into the bush.  It was incredibly beautiful, there was a beautiful orange, pinky hue that the Elephants were silhouette against, it was a truly magical experience.  As the Elephants continued their slow walk back into the forest we sped into the night to make the closing gates.

As we neared the gate we realised we had a few minutes to spare so we stopped for a quick spot of star gazing and an even quicker astrology lesson, one I failed to absorb at all this can be credited to either my drunken state or me trying to work out whether a lion would react the same way as a cat to the laser pointer Jordan was using.  The stars however were very impressive (as they have been everywhere we have visited so far).  The lack of light pollution and the volume of stars are remarkable especially when the Milky Way is so visible!

hwange milky way
Photo Credit Paula Whyte

As we headed to bed we heard Lions roaring in the distance, we felt a little relieved that apparently they were 5-10km away (they sounded much closer).

Around 9am the next day, our latest start yet Jordan arrived to take the nine of us doing the full day safari out into the national park.  Hwange is Zimbabwe’s largest game park with an area of 14,600km².  The park which is home to over 100 mammal species didn’t provide much in terms of animal spotting.

We started off with high hopes and freshish lion tracks after Jordan examined the tracks he determined we were about 4 hours behind the lion, not a huge disadvantage as lions are lazy animals that spend a lot of their day sleeping.  Jordan showing off his skills in almost a comical cartoon way, hurried back to the truck, and drove the car while standing up in a furry of dust, following the tracks until they disappeared into scrub.

As we continued the day, to compensate for the lack of animal sightings Jordan gave us all sorts of interesting facts about the plants and fauna, and their uses in the community.

Early in the afternoon we visited a watering hole and were lucky to be barely a couple of metres away from a huge herd of elephants bathing, and drinking.  As the elephants got used to our scent they continued about their business, apart from one of the bulls who was not happy with our presence and was in a standoff with our open air truck. He appeared royally pissed off and as he stared our truck down, flapping his ears we all sat still holding our breaths. Well all of us apart from Gorka a Spaniard, who refuses to call himself Spanish as he’s from the Basque Country.  Gorka finding the bees flying around him more worrisome then the elephant less than a metre away, was squatting away the bees while cursing in Basque and Spanish and making me extremely nervous!  I was thankful when a member of our group informed him that the bees won’t kills him but the elephant will and he managed to sit still long enough for the elephant to lose interest for a minute or two.

As we were watching some elephants stomping in the water, a commotion happened at the front of the truck causing two Elephants to charge up the side of the truck, the angry elephant decided to face off with the truck again, and several other elephants were caught between leaving and watching the truck, it was at this point we realised we were surrounded by elephants.  It was a tense few minutes with my heart beating around a million beats a minute and around that point we realised that these are wild animals and you can’t predict what will ever happen. Several of the elephants lost interest and walked back into the scrub, we used this opportunity to get away. As we continued on our game drive Jordan explained that the Elephants were on musth (a periodic condition in male elephants characterised by highly aggressive behaviour), if Jordan had of known the elephants were on musth earlier he wouldn’t of taken us so close to them.

Jordan tried his hardest to find us some lions, you could tell he was getting frustrated with the lack of game and it was nearing sunset at this point.  Jordan presented us with two options, we decided to head out of the park to a watering hole with some drinks to watch the sunset and hopefully see some more animals.  Unfortunately the animals weren’t present, but the sunset was amazing as was the local brandy which was going down far too easy.  Arriving back at camp all rather tipsy we compared drive notes with the others and it was unfortunate that no lions had been spotted in the park that day.

We recruited the rest of the team and headed to the bar, meeting our guide from our drive there and preceded to embark on a night of debauchery that would see Abi and I trying our hand at bartending, copious shots, rounds of shot roulette, Ryan attempting to drink the girlish drinks he could find and stupidly trying to hear animals that were dangerously close to us.

The morning drive to the Painted Dog Sanctuary, was spent comparing notes from the day and night before, Ryan getting the silent treatment from Emma due to his drunken antics and his alarm that had woken up the whole camp at 5am and Abi remembering the honey badger that had crossed her path on the way back from the bar.

Painted Dogs, also known as Wild Dogs are extremely endangered. A lot of this can be credited to poachers and the sneers they set in order to catch other animals.  The Painted Dog Sanctuary provides conservation work to reduce the sneers and risks to the dogs in the wild, and provides collars to monitor dogs in national parks.

The sanctuary which largely relies on donations and profit from the sales of locally made products they sell in their small shop, is free to visit and has a lovely information centre.  The information centre had a lovely display following the true story of Eyespot a Painted Dog and the demise of his and his brother’s family due to poachers and the sneers they had set in the national park.  The display was beautifully illustrated by a local artist and was informative and engaging.  After the information centre we visited Eyespot he unfortunately isn’t able to be released back into the wild.

The wild dogs are beautiful with a tannish coat with bright white markings, making them almost look painted (hence the name).  The guide explained the conservation efforts of the sanctuary and how they rehabilitated dogs back into the wild, then we were on our way to Victoria Falls.

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