Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe
The drive from Victoria Falls to Hwange passes through some traditional Shona and Ndebele (the two major tribes in Zimbabwe) villages. Mud walled huts with grass thatched roofs. People walking along the roadside. Failed corn and millet crops. Children selling melons and plums. Baboon, warthog and zebra in the bushes. Iconic African countryside.
Duncan, our Zimbabwean driver, is a political junkie. As soon as we say we are Canadian, he shocks us by saying Steven Harper. His views on Robert Mugabe are more pragmatic than idealistic. He bring peace, he says. What about prosperity, we ask. Peace is more important he argues. We ask why not both? He laughs and says we do not understand Africa.
Three hours on the highway, then another two on dirt roads, finally arriving at Davidson’s Camp in Hwange National Park. Staff greet us with cold drinks and moist, cool, fragrant towels to quench our thirst and wipe the dirt from our faces. Ahhhhhh….
Hwange is known for its large number of elephants. Lion as well. We see both on our second day.
The lionesses are first, about a dozen of them, lying on the sand track that constitutes a road. It is softer and, in the early morning, warmer than the surrounding grass. As our truck approaches, they get up and slowly move away, along the track. After a half hour or so they hang right into the grass and disappear. Poof, they are gone!
The elephants show up at camp, just after lunch. We see them as we are walking to our tent. They are moving quickly, in a line, toward the water hole in front of the main tent. We move quickly as well, cameras in hand, to the roof-top deck of the main tent. A perfect place to watch them frolicking in the mud and water. All sizes: large, medium, small and tiny. About 30 of them. Soon they move away into the grass and poof, they too are gone.
We head back to our tent to download our photos, marvel at what we have seen, read a bit and then, siesta. This is the hot part of the day and it is best to be out of the sun. Even the hyper-active baboons who entertain us in the grass and trees around our tent are quiet in the afternoons.
Later in the day, we see the same lions, this time coming toward us, on their way to a water hole. Elliott, our guide, tells us they are not far from where we saw them in the morning, so we know they spent the day sleeping somewhere close by. We pull off the road to let them pass. It is surreal. The way they slowly make their way past us. I am still not used to being this close and get nervous. It is an open vehicle. It would be easy for one of them to leap up and grab me by the throat. But it is not what they do.
The two younger ones at the rear are noticeably smaller, thinner and slower. They walk some distance behind the others and look tired. Elliott has seen this pride many times before and says they were the runts of their litters. They are now 3 years old and, although they are clearly weaker than the others, they are still alive and with the pride.
Sundowners the first night are in a spot not far from the lions, in an open area surrounded by fan palms. The sun sets, silhouetting the palms. A sliver of a moon appears, as does Venus. Later, back at the camp, the night sky is full of stars. We’ve learned some of the southern hemisphere constellations from our guides. We can find true south using the Southern Cross.
Next morning, we head for an Ndebele village. Ngoma is a collection of huts, a few shops, a grain mill, a water well, and a primary school. We spend most of our time at the school. Joyful, enthusiastic, friendly, energetic children sing and dance for us. Their teacher tells us they are always this way and not just putting on a show for visitors. Some of the kids walk 7 km to and from school, often arriving hungry. We admire their determination and positive attitudes.
On the way to the village we see a herd of wildebeest, noticing that they are very alert and all facing the same direction. We’ve learned to look for whatever they are looking at. Craig spots the male lion first. He is moving through the tall grass. Maybe 500 meters away. I’m sure Craig & Elliott are hoping the lion goes after one of the wildebeest. I am hoping not. I’m relieved when he perches next to a termite mound, a good spot for keeping an eye on his kingdom.
We also see zebra at a water hole. Gorgeous in the early morning light. And more elephant. Always more elephant!! Back at the camp after lunch they surround our tent. I count 20 and then stop counting.
For the past month we have been mostly in the company of animals and have come to appreciate their adaptability, their stoicism, their respect for the laws of nature. Next stop: Maputo, Mozambique. A short flight in a small plane back to Victoria Falls, then a flight to Johannesburg and then another to Maputo. It is a big city and we look forward to some urban time. Will miss the wild, though.
As I write, the water hole gets noisy. Some zebra are gambolling, nipping at each other. The baboons are awake. The dominant male barks hoarsely, the little ones chatter back. Mom silently watches. Three large elephant, probably female, with a mid-sized junior and two babies arrive. The babies immerse themselves in the water. One of the mothers rolls in the mud. Reflexively I go for my camera, but the battery is in the recharger. And the light is fading. Too little for a good photo. Best to just sit and take in the sight and sound of animals enjoying themselves.