Another early start awaited us, so I rose to my alarm, pulled my curtains over, and nearly leapt out of my skin when I found myself face to face with a brown vulture perched on the rail of my balcony. It looked at me in lethargic curiosity then took flight before I could reach for a camera. Minutes later I was seated eating breakfast in the main lodge whilst we waited for Solomon to drive us to the gates of Hwange National Park.
I slept for the majority of the drive to the edge of Hwange National Park, awaking just in time to witness us driving through the black and blasted waste of the Hwange Coal Mining Industry, a terrible scar across the land. It genuinely set a sickening feeling into my stomach, and it fills me with sadness when I think of it now; this was the byproduct of modern man’s greedy refusal to switch to clean energy sources. As was pointed out to us, for a country that’s poor, this kind of thing is understandable, which is why Imvelo works with communities to promote profit through tourism and environmentalism; but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Hwange National Park (formerly, and hilariously Wankie National Park) is Zimbabwe’s largest game reserve, spreading along the road from Victoria Falls to Bulawayo. It’s home to Africa’s largest elephant population, and is thought to have one of Africa’s largest painted dog populations. Its also home to several important environmental projects, and is where the famous lion, Cecil, was shot. At the gate to Hwange National Park, we were met by Mark “Butch” Butcher, General Manager of Imvelo Safari Lodges and our Guide for the rest of our stay, and Forest Worsley, another of Imvelo’s guides, for our journey to Nehimbe Camp in the heart if the park.
Donning our new Imvelo caps (a near permanent fixture of my wardrobe now) we hopped onto the rover and began our drive through mopani scrubland. For a while, the going was fairly barren, with sightings only of hornbills (think Zazu from The Lion King) and other birds. Butch explained to us about Imvelo’s mission of uniting Wildlife, Community, and Tourism, explaining that none could prosper without the other two.
Our first stop on the road to Nehimbe was at Matetsi camp, up on a ridge looking out for miles across Hwange Park. There we spotted our first non-bird wildlife; a few hyrax (like atop Table Mountain), some incredible butterflies (as in the top image) and swarms of big black wasps with beautiful diaphanous sapphire wings that made a loud clicking buzz as they flew.
On our way out of Matetsi the Land Rover was hilariously “chased away” by a Mongoose which then stopped defiant and proud that it had scared us off, for a perfect quick photo opportunity.
We wound our way down rugged dirt tracks, fairly devoid of wildlife as was expected for the season, they would doubtless be closer to the watering holes – so we made our way towards one. We stopped for lunch, a cold platter of sausage rolls and meatballs with a bottle of Savannah Cider. We saw an entire colony of hyrax, several monitor lizards, blue tailed skinks, and, through the binoculars, our first zebra, elephant and giraffe sightings across the other side of the water.
Hitting the road again, we wound our way further into the park, stopping briefly when the Land Rover burst a tyre (which Forest and Butch speedily changed) eventually making our next stop at Masuma Camp, which is essentially a sheltered hide and a couple of toilets overlooking another watering hole.
We saw more crocodiles and impala drinking mere meters away from them. Waterbuck and kudu moved through the bushes, and more monitor lizards were basking on the rocks. I got quite the shock when I went to the toilet, only to find a small grey frog watching me from the side of the cistern.
We watched the wildlife from the hide for quite a while, discussing their habits with Butch and Forest. I spent just as much time admiring the spider husks in the rafters, looking for signs of local spider life. I found a few wolf spider exuviae (shed skins) and even stumbled across a skink hiding behind a rafter. Butch suddenly started packing up and gesturing us back to the Land Rover, he’d had radio contact that lions had been spotted only a few kilometres East of Masuma. Excited to see lions, we clambered back into the Land Rover and tore off down the track.
“Isn’t it dangerous to be so close to predators?” I’ve been asked several times since I returned. Firstly, I got much closer to much, much worse, and secondly, no. Humanity is the Alpha Predator and these animals know it. A lion has to be pretty desperate to take on a group of humans – the only time anyone has ever been actively attacked by a lion in the wild (rather than the lion defending itself), the lion is starving, and the human alone. And there we were, pulled up on a ridge watching two lionesses sprawled out in the shade of a tree maybe one hundred paces away. They were wary, even from that distance, never taking their eyes of us for more than a handful of seconds. They were much more wary of us than we were of them. The wildlife knows that if someone is going to die in a lion VS human stand-off, it’s usually the lion.
As we closed in on Nehimbe Camp, Butch slowed the rover down again and gestured. He had no need to. We had already spotted the elephant, a large bull, drinking from the watering hole there. We disembarked and followed it, as it slowly ambled off through the bushes.
The sun was beginning to hang low in the sky, and we were closing in on Nehimbe, so Butch radioed in our arrival and made a drinks order. We pulled up at the camp and made our way up the stairs into the main lodge as our bags were taken away to our rooms for us. The camp is wooden thatched roof huts with canvas sides, on stilts. Shortly after we arrived, Forest pointed out a herd of elephant, cows and young, arriving piecemeal by the watering hole that Nehimbe overlooked (much closer than the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge’s – and freshly pumped up by Imvelo) and as we sat watching them drink, more passed between the rooms literally fifteen feet from us. It became immediately obvious why it was required to have a ranger escort when moving between the rooms after dark. This was the animal’s territory that we were lucky enough to share.
The sun set and the moon rose. Myself, Forest and Mike (one of the other guides) sat talking about the stars; they taught me how to find south using the Southern Cross. I mentioned that I was very interested in Baboon Spiders, and Forest agreed to take me hunting for some. Before we could leave, a trio of bull (male) elephants arrived and began to drink from the swimming pool right in front of us, almost within touching distance.
Mike identified a couple of the elephants and explained about their tusks. Elephant use their tusks to fight and to dig, and they, like humans, have a favoured side (so you can tell if a human is left-or-right handed). He explained how the perfect tusks on one of the elephants marked it as a coward, and we watched the bulls establish an order of dominance over who would drink first.
When the elephants finally retreated into the night, Forest and I crept off to go spider hunting. We found several beautiful weaving spiders and their webs (I am not very adept at identifying individual species) and spent a few minutes turning over rocks and broken wood (“Please don’t be a snake under here, please don’t be a snake under here…”) before finally finding the circular burrow of a baboon spider. I think we dazzled the spider with our light and no amount of tickling (teasing it out of it’s burrow with a length of grass) could get it to budge, but I could see the front legs clearly, and the colour, marking, and scopula (toes) meant it was definitely a baboon spider. I didn’t get to see the creature in all its full glory, but I had finally seen baboon spiders in the wild. I was happy.
Then, as Forest and Mike walked me back to my room, we stopped by the outdoor shower, something had caught my eye, a little brown mantis. I picked it up and examined it, it was quite tame and didn’t seem to mind. I went to pop it back down and it flew off into the night.
Even then, the night hadn’t fully ended for me. As I lay in bed and began to drift asleep, there came a strange rasping sound, not unlike a two-handed saw cutting wood. I got to my feet and crept around my room, peering cautiously from each of the windows. I could see nothing. I put it down to my imagination, clambered back into bed (cos boy was it cold now) and tried to sleep. A few minutes later, I heard it again. Hhurrr… Hhurrr… Again, I rose to my feet and crept around the room, peering from each window. Again, nothing. I drifted finally to sleep. At approximately 2am I was woken by an almighty crashing noise. When I went to check what it was, I opened the curtain and found myself face to face with an elephant stripping the tree directly outside my window! I crept to the door with the thought of stepping onto the veranda and trying to get a photo. As I slid open the door, I was stood face-to-face with another elephant no further than four feet away. I backed away slowly and closed the door.
The next morning, I spoke to Butch about the noise I had heard. It was him who described it as the “two handed saw”. I nodded enthusiastically and asked what it was. He took me back to my room and pointed to some tracks on the ground. “You had a male leopard sleeping under your room.”