Lily in Zimbabwe Part 2: Lake Kariba and Hwange

My first though; Lake Kariba is simply stunning with its islands and sandy shores.

Flying  to Kariba, just a 90 minute journey, saves the 468 kilometre, 5 hour road journey from Harare and is worth every penny for its scenic qualities and sheer convenience.

Lake Kariba and Matusadona National Park

Zimbabwe’s northern border is formed by the Zambezi River which is dammed at Kariba to form the vast artificial  Lake Kariba which was built to harness electricity to feed industry in Zimbabwe and Zambia.  The dam when it was built in 1957-1959 (by an Italian company) was the largest in the world and still today its size and strength remain awesome.  But it wasn’t built without cost to humans from various accidents to heatstroke and the tragic loss of 18 workers who fell into wet concrete during construction.

The greatest tragedy attributed to the building the dam is the uprooting of the Batonga tribe from their ancestral home in the Gwembe section of the Zambezi Valley.  These people had lived here for centuries, making a living from farming and fishing as well as being adept at wood carving, bead work and basket work with their own particular style.  The removal of the Batonga created considerable anguish abroad (not to mention among the people themselves).  Anthropologists rushed to amass details of Batonga society before everything changed.  In 1959, when the last lorry – piled high with evicted villagers and belongings – was on the point of departure from the doomed valley, a small green bush was tied to the vehicle’s tailboard to trail along behind. The villagers explained this was to allow their ancestral guardian spirit to ride until they reached their new home.  It was essential that this spirit remained on the ground during the journey for it to settle comfortably into its new surroundings and maintain a relationship with the ancestors.

The Batonga were removed to a very poor place.

Little of this heritage seems to have found its way back to enrich the Batonga today.  The people no longer engage in bead work because they can’t afford to buy the imported beads.  Many heirlooms have been sold off including beautiful stools and carved hut doors to raise money for the next meal.

The completion of the Kariba Dam Wall in 1958, towering 128m high and 579m across,  had an immediate and drastic effect on the Zambezi Valley.  As soon as the sluice gates were closed, the river level rose and burst its banks.  With rapidly rising waters came a number of serious problems.  The animals living in the valley had not been removed and suddenly became trapped on hilltops which were quickly shrinking into small islands or drowning when low lying land was flooded.  Wildlife rescue seemed to be an afterthought and at the last minute, three men from the Southern Rhodesian Game Department were tasked with ‘taking any measures necessary to save animals from the floods’.  Thus Rupert Fothergill and a team of 10 men set out on rafts with make shift nets, harnesses and catching poles, and a limited supply of tranquilisers and resources to save the wildlife from the ever increasing expanse of water.

Operation Noah is truly the stuff of legends.  Dead barbell and tiger fish were found floating in the rising lake, bloated to bursting from gorging themselves on the swarms of insects driven from the saturated ground.  Birds lost successive broods of chicks as the waters forced them to rebuild their nests in high branches.  The drowned trees were festooned with snakes, moneys and leopards.  Mats of floating vegetation seethed with scorpions.  Mountains became peninsulars and hilltops ever-shrinking islands crowded with game.

The larger animals found swimming in the lake were herded towards shore, or secured to sides of boats with ropes if they showed signs of distress.

To capture the deadly black mamba, the wardens use a fishing rod adapted to pull a noose around the snake’s neck; the snakes is then gingerly deposited into a pillowcase.  Dassies (shrill voiced, rabbity creatures and porcupines are deliberately driven into the water since, despite their small size, dassies bite when cornered and porcupines have quills.  Even in water, it takes ‘three mean to outwit a porcupine’.

Over the next five years, Fothergill and his team managed to save over 5,000 animals, which included 1,866 impala, 585 warthog, 23 elephant and 6 scaly ant eaters. Many of these animals were released in a beautiful area on the lake edge now known as Matusadona National Park.

Nearly 5200 square kilometres of wilderness died with the valley.  Desolate trees, still poking branches from the water, over fifty years later, bear vivid testimony to the destruction.  But a new ecology has replaced the old in a turn of events that show the resilience of the natural world.  Fish eagles and African darter colonies nest in the branches and the decaying wood feeds underwater life.

Fishing attracts many people to the lake particularly for the fierce tigerfish with their razor sharp teeth.  They have great fighting ability, making determined rushes followed by an impressive leap from the water to shake the hook.

Fothergill Island

Back to our arrival on Fothergill Island.  We were met by Simon, a very experienced fellow in the safari industry, born and bred in Zimbabwe. Part of the management team at  Changa Camp set on the shores of Lake Kariba where we were due to stay for the next two nights.  Simon and Saiide, the boatman, made us feel instantly at home as we loaded the luggage into the Bazooka boat, made in UK.  Fast ride on the lake passing Spurwing Island where I stayed 20 years ago.  Wildlife viewing included an elephant watching us from a promontory with impala playing in the shallows.

Twenty five minutes later we arrived at Changa Camp.  This is a recently built camp on a private concession with 4.5 kilometres of lake shore.

The rich wilderness area offers exceptional game drives as well as walking and fishing safaris, all in the company of highly trained professional guides. Healthy populations of predators, including lion, leopard, hyena and cheetah as well as elephant, buffalo and antelope frequent the shoreline. Hippos and crocodiles are abundant in the cool waters. If  you are very lucky, you may catch a glimpse of the last remaining Black Rhinos. Birdlife is prolific, with 350 species having been identified in the area.

I will mention at this stage about Simon who’s positive outlook is classic of the general feeling in Zimbabwe and proves why this country has such a bright future after its catastrophic recent years.  Zimbabweans are definitely a ‘pick yourself up, shake yourself off’ breed. 

So often we heard about safari camps who had struggled to keep open on a shoe string.. owners going to South Africa or elsewhere for instance to earn money to send back to finance the camp.  The philosophy of ‘not closing, keep open and all will come right in the end’ is proving correct.

Lulled to sleep by the honking of hippos just yards away on the lake shore.

Friday, 26th April,  at 0545, coffee and biscuits in mess tent then off on game drive with guide Kingsley and another guest called, Rudi, a very thin German gentleman of advanced years.  Left camp at 0645 and drove about 45 minutes (meeting about 12 elephants on the way) to an open area where we left the vehicle and set off on foot (Kingsley armed with rifle).

Walked for about 2.5 hours and the most threatening mammal we saw were two impalas which suited me fine.  Gone are the days when I thought it would be such fun to have an elephant , buffalo or lion encounter!

However, the bird life was very varied e.g. golden oriole, marabou stork, fork tailed drongo, fish eagle, lilac breasted roller, African darter, eagle owl, grey and red hornbill, bateleur eagle, Namaqua dove, white fronted bee eaters.

We stopped for coffee and cookies about 1000 and I asked Kingsley why we had seen no herds of buffalo (nyati) or big prides of lion that I remembered from my previous visit to Kariba (Spurwing Island) in 1994.  He told me it was all to do with the rising level of the Lake which drowned the grazing areas for the big herds of buffalo.  The buffalo in their weakened state were easily picked off by the strong lion prides then when the buffalo had dwindled the lions had to move to new areas in the Matusadona.

Tasty buffet lunch shared with Simon then relaxed until afternoon activity after tea and cake.

Our afternoon activity was quite memorable… again! We took the Bazooka speed boat across to the Sanyati Gorge which branches off Lake Kariba.

This area of course was flooded in the late 50’s along with several villages now lying submerged beneath the dark waters.

Fascinating sailing up the steep sides gorge decorated with African chestnut trees with white trunks and displaying their beautiful yellow flowers. Occasionally drifting to the sides and on one occasion we saw a well disguised elephant amongst the foliage watching us watch him.  His trunk had been damaged in some way, even shortened but seemed to be healing and it didn’t affect his ability to pick up tasty bites from the trees or ground.  Also saw guinea fowl scampering about as they so often do later in the day.

We motored up the gorge for about an hour, then had sundowners.  I felt all the time we were being watched … maybe the spirits of the flooded villages??

On the way back down the brooding gorge, the light was fading fast but as we burst back onto the Lake the sun was still shining albeit rather muted with sunset approaching.

We speeded back across the lake to Changa Camp.

Freshened up for supper and when we arrived back at the mess area, we found that supper was to be enjoyed on the beach (where we’d see the elephants last night).  There was a long table set up for all the guests with lanterns lighting up the welcoming scene.  We enjoyed a braai with various meats included sirloin steak … all delicious.  Lively dinner chat.. but no word from the eles tonight.

Simon brought out his guitar after supper and serenaded us as we sat round the beach camp fire.  Quite quickly we realised he could sing and play just about any request..  was quite a surreal situation singing folk songs in the moonlight on the shores of Lake Kariba!  All boded well for a good night’s sleep.

Saturday, 27th April, (Kariba to Hwange) 0700, breakfast then said our goodbye’s to Changa Camp and its special people. Down to the jetty and loaded into the speed boat (Bazooka) and whisked across the lake with Simon and Saaide to Fothergill Island and the airstrip.

Our Cessna 205 with pilots Barry and Karl arrived as promised – and off we flew taking 1.5 hours to reach Hwange Main airstrip.

We were greeted on arrival by David Carson, part owner of Camp Hwange in Hwange National Park.  David is a very experienced ZimPro guide who has been running mobile and safari operations for many years.  We found out just how experienced he is in the next 24 hours.

David loaded us into the open top safari vehicle and warned us it would be cool so ‘wrap up well’ and I was very pleased I’d brought my scarf, Andean hat with ear flaps and gloves.

Road very good and maintained well which was surprising given the history of the Park over the troubled years.  David said somehow the money had been found for the upkeep of roads in Zimbabwe although the municipal roads were in a poorer state.

Stopped at National Park barrier by two stern looking lady park officials who gave the vehicle keen scrutiny then arrived at Hwange National Park Headquarters where park fees, paperwork had to be completed.

Pleasant place with relaxed feel.

Wandered around and found a bit of history of Hwange which is interesting to record and set the scene for where we would spend the next 4 days exploring the different areas of the Park and environs.

Hwange National Park

Hwange National Park is the largest national park in Zimbabwe and covers 14,650 square kilometres, about the size of Belgium.. larger than all of Zimbabwe’s other national parks put together.  It is less than two hours’ drive southwast of Victoria Falls and makes a popular add-on safari from the Falls.  Driving from Bulawayo to Victoria Falls, travellers will pass the main turn-off to the gate and is very convenient to make a stop there for safari.

The Park was the royal national hunting grounds of the Ndebele warrior king, Mzilikazi in the early 19th century and was set aside as a national park in 1929.

It was declared by the Rhodesian government as one of the last retreats for game animals not threatened by human encroachment.  Additionally because of the presence of tsetse fly (which kills cows) the land couldn’t be commercially farmed.  The first warden was Ted Davison who held the job for 33 years and developed the roads, camps and boreholes.

The town of Hwange was founded in 1899 when coal was discovered and is located just outside the National Park. The ‘village’ grew to accommodate mine workers and today Hwange Colliery is the biggest coal mine in Zimbabwe, producing over 5 million tons of coal per year..

Hwange boasts a tremendous variety of wildlife with over 100 species of mammal and nearly 400 bird species.  The elephants of Hwange are famous and the park’s elephant population is one of the largest n the world, though they migrate to and from Chobe National Park in Botswana depending on the season and estimates of their number range from 20,000 to 75,000.

Although when we stopped to look at a point of flora or fauna interest, the sun beat down. Marvelled at the teak forests by roadside, very green as they have long roots which go down to the water table.  Other sightings were male kudu and giraffe (Southern).  He was a constant source of entertaining information as we drove first to the Park Headquarters to ‘check in’ and then on through the Park to Camp Hwange in the eastern Sinamatella area, journey time in all two hours. Various sightings on the way to camp i.e. elephants, bateleur eagle (or brown snake eagle), purple roller, crowned crane, saddlebill stork, secretary birds, cape teals, and in the floral kingdom I would like to mention two unusual (for me) sightings of African lilies and Gardenia trees (much liked by giraffes).

We arrived at Camp Hwange to a very warm welcome from Sylvie, Andy and their team  – probably because everyone was waiting to eat lunch and our late arrival was holding up hungry appetites!  Large and spacious thatch roofed mess area with dining area (long table where all guests eat together) and comfortable lounge area.  Stylishly furnished a la African chic, with camp fire area in front with waterhole and hide in the background.

Shown to our chalet/tent by Sylvie Pons from France, old Africa hand and part owner of Camp Hwange who told us all about the building of the camp and furnishing the tents etc.  There are 8 large canvas walled en suite chalets positioned to overlook the waterhole.

There is a unique log pile hide in the shade near the waterhole where camp guests can visit escorted by one of the guide’s so that you may have a close up view of all the ‘visitors’ coming to drink and carry out their ablutions.

Each tent is furnished with stylish simplicity and en suite facilities. No internet at camp.

What struck me was the great enthusiasm and pride in Camp Hwange from everyone we met beginning with David Carson’s at the airstrip.

Quick but delicious lunch then we prepared to go out with David on a game experience combining a game drive with a game walk tracking elephants!

What we were quickly coming to realise is that Camp Hwange is really all about is the wilderness experience and getting out amongst it!.. and this is what we were about to do only we didn’t realise how close we would get to the wilderness experience!

The emphasis is on flexible, knowledgeable and charismatic guiding all in comfortable surroundings. 

Cup of tea and cake around 1600 then David loaded Marie Aud, Gabrielle, Jean and I onto the game drive vehicle.  Drove about 25 minutes to open area where David parked in the shade of an ebony tree.  Now we were about to embark on a game walk and find out why David Parsons is one of the best guides in Zimbabwe (in same strata as veterans like John Stevens and Stretch Ferrera).  He gave us the all important safety talk which comes down to doing exactly as he says if dangerous game is encountered i.e. don’t run! Told how to walk quietly … heel then toe, follow his example at all times.  I had a light rucksack which held water, JVC footage camera, Canon SLR with 75 – 350 mm and 28 – 75mm lenses.

The late afternoon light was golden and the sky very blue.  The terrain was open with some shrubs dotted about.

David pointed out elephant in the distance and we stopped.  He spoke in a whisper explaining that it was likely we would find elephants in a dried out river bed to the left… He kept checking the wind direction and confirmed that the wind although very little was blowing away from us and we would be fine as long as we kept upwind from the elies.  They have acute sense of smell and it was very important that they should not be aware of our presence or they would scarper.  I guessed this must be a regular pattern at this time of day when animals were on their way to the main waterholes to drink.

We walked in line very quietly (heel .. toe) towards the banking above the river bed then David dropped into crouching position then sitting position.  Shuffled on our ‘derrieres’ to the edge of the banking and there was the unforgettable sight of eight bull elephants of varying ages, totally relaxed, spread out along the river bed.  Some were digging for water, others just standing enjoying the peace and quiet of the end of the day.  The early evening light was perfect for photography and I got some very interesting footage, not easy when I was trying to be as quiet as possible!  Every time I moved, dried out autumnal leaves crackled and I was sure the pachyderms with their keen ears would be alerted to our presence.

We were all feeling so lucky to be only a few yards from the beasts who appeared totally unaware of us when suddenly a spat broke out between two of the group.and the weaker elephant ran up the banking a few yards from where we were sitting.  Despite David’s earlier instructions, we all went into what I would call ‘half meerkat position’ getting ready to run!!  Whoa – Ho! the Real Africa JVC camera which I have always guarded with my life, fell to the ground (sorry Rob..fortunately only a few inches onto the dry leaves) and I was rapidly wondering what I could live without if a tree had to be climbed!

Ridiculous really but a natural instinct.  The ele hesitated at the top of the banking which seemed forever with us wondering if he would turn left or right.  We would have been in a delicate position if he’d decided to turn left… although David had a powerful.458 rifle under his arm and would no doubt have fired first a warning shot if the bull elephant has come towards us.

We all breathed a sigh of relief when he turned right and ambled away along the banking.

We headed back to the vehicle in the rapidly decreasing evening light and drove towards a nearby man made water hole.  Suddenly, a lioness came out of the bush in a front of us and lazily crossed the road – David braked abruptly (and I nearly went flying onto the bonnet of the Land Cruiser!).  David became very excited as he was sure this was a well known lioness who had cubs on the other side of the waterhole.

We drove speedily up the track to the look out point and hide overlooking down over the Masuma waterhole.  By this time, the lioness was quietly walking around the banking and the game including two waterbuck had gone into instant ‘statue mode’ and were watching the predator as she nonchalantly walked past them just a few yards away.

Eventually she went out of sight and we could settle down to watch at leisure the tranquil evening scene below us.  A group of elies were at a smaller waterhole a few yards behind the big waterhole for some reason preferring this area.  The evening light washed the bush and wildlife in an ethereal glow and I felt how lucky we were to witness this peaceful scene.  Hippos were honking down below and the sun was slowing sinking below the horizon as we, also quite lazily, drank our gin and tonics!

Back to camp and drinks round the camp fire.  Chatting to other guests, three of whom has just arrived from New Caledonia in the South Pacific – what a journey coming half way round the world and a ten hour time difference!

Lively supper around the ‘long mess table’ with guests from NC, USA, France and England.  Probably one of the best safari suppers I have ever experienced with such a good feeling of ‘aliveness and well being’ throughout.  Oh, and the food we very good too!!

To bed with hot water bottles which felt very snug underneath our duvets.  The night was cold so good to be tucked up well.

Sunday, 28th April, 2013, up at 0545, cup of coffee and biscuit in the mess tent then loaded up for game drive tracking the endangered African painted (or wild) dog.  David was determined we would find the pack and although we saw a lot of tracks, we didn’t see any of these endangered animals.  But the amazing thing was, we felt we had seen them such was David’s enthusiasm and passion.  Even the Painted Dog Conservation team headed by Dr Greg Rasmuissen (based just outside the National Park Gates) were looking for them in their Land Rover but the pack ( had gone off deep into the bush and were definitely not going to ‘say hello’ that morning.  Birds seen on the drive included pearl spotted ow, cape teals, jacana and knob headed coot.

Back to camp for bacon sandwiches… again running late but it is one of Camp Hwange’s rules that there are ‘no rules’ and ‘no time restrictions’.

Camp Hwange has a private concession of 6,000 acres bordering the northern side of Hwange National Park hence plenty of space to offer guests for game drives and walks which is one its specialities.

Left camp with David and headed back to Hwange Main Gate where we met Janice, the manager of Ivory Lodge. Sad farewells to David Carson and off we went with Janice.  Stopped at the Painted Dog Conservation Centre and had very interesting visit.

Don’t miss the next instalment featuring Bulawayo, Matobo Hills and Great Zimbabwe…

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