We were frequent visitors to Hippo Pools Wilderness Camp after we discovered it in 1998 and we were there a few times between then and 2001 when we departed to work in Bolivia. Our children were small at the time and it was an ideal and safe place for them to enjoy nature while getting bush-smart. We have fond memories of the time we spent at the camp, particularly the bush walks that were always enriching due to interesting findings and observations.
It was a pleasant surprise when, through the Ndeipí magazine of Harare, we learnt that Hippo Pools Wilderness camp was still there today. So we decided to give it a go and, unavoidably, compare it with the place that we remembered from 15 years ago. As we were not sure of what we would find there (or whether we would find the place…) we decided on a cautious two-night stay with the option of future visits if we liked it.
We have many good memories of time spent there but one of our walks along the river is perhaps the one most remembered. You will see why if you read on. For some reason, our daughter has a special sense that enables her to find snakes. That day was no exception. The twig snake (Thelotornis spp.) was in her territory, probably on the lookout for a lizard or perhaps a careless bird when we came along. In our daughter’s absence, we would have probably missed it as most people do because it was living up to its name and perfectly mimicking -yes you guessed right- a twig!
I am sure that the fact that this particular snake has binocular vision enabled it to get a very good view of our daughter and it was probably more frightened than her! However, our daughter was about nine years old and the snake was at about her eye level so, despite it being small, it looked threatening to her as it was swaying to perfect its deception and remain unnoticed. Of course, nothing happened as we walked past but I still remember our daughter’s fright which soon evolved into outrage over the incident. As usual I did not improve things when I mentioned that it was very poisonous and that its bite could be lethal if it gets you with its back fangs!!!
The camp, now part of the Wilderness Africa Trust, is located about 150km from Harare in the Umfurudzi Safari Area, on the margins of the Mazowe river. It has been functioning for over 30 years now, always under the good management we remembered. We learnt that the Trust has several projects to support the local communities and wilderness and wildlife conservation. The Trust employs over 75 people from the nearby communities, being one of the main sources of employment in the area.
To get there you need to drive out of Harare through Entreprise Road and, after 21 km take the left turn into Shamva Road and drive about 120 km and then turn right just after the entrance of Madziwa Mine until you find a sign for Umfurudzi Safari Area, pass Phoebus and Amms mines, report at the National Parks gate and from there you need to drive about 19 km to the camp. More precise details are available from the booking office.
The charming area where the camp is situated is held by the Trust through a concession by the Zimbabwe Department of National Parks and Wildlife. The interested reader can find more details of the work of the Trust @ http://www.wildernessafricatrust.org.
The camp remains roughly as we remembered, perched on a high bank of the Mazowe river (about 2 metres above the waterline) under magnificent indigenous trees that provide great shade to enjoy the well-kept lawn below. Several tree species are present and labeled carefully. We saw tamarind, sycamore fig, sausage tree and marula, to name but a few of the outstanding ones. Having been a tick expert I wanted to see the tick tree again (Sterculia africana) and pick some of its engorged tick-like seeds but time did not allow us to get to it as it requires a longish walk. It will be found next time, together with the large baobab (18-metre trunk circumference) that also requires some walking to get to. I understand that about 200 tree species have been identified in the area and they are all tagged, a great way to learn about trees. The camp has a tree nursery where you can buy trees as well. Regrettably, the pink flowered jacaranda was “out of stock” but there will be some in future, we were told.
Accommodation consists of self-catering chalets, cabins and tents scattered along the river shore with nice views over the river itself and the Garura Eco-Tourism area and well spaced so that privacy is ensured. There is also a good campsite further down the river. A salt lick in front of the camp attracts newly introduced animals that can be observed from the camp. An A-frame chalet is also located on the other shore. You are taken there by boat but there is also a vehicle crossing that looked a bit risky to me!
Coming back to the accommodation, we stayed in the Marula chalet. It is comfortable with an ample sitting room, fully equipped kitchen and several bedrooms that can be rented according to the number of people in the party. In addition all chalets have barbeque facilities close to the river and firewood is available at a small cost. (After I started writing this post I found -by chance- some of the old invoices dating from 1998 and 1999 showing that we have stayed at the Acacia and Marula chalets.)
The camp is also a very good area to spot birds. The current list includes 340 species and is being updated and reviewed. Specials include the crowned eagles that nests in the area and there is a walk available for those who wish to observe them. Narina’s trogon is often sighted at camp and it was there when we visited. There is also a very interesting variety of insect life in the camp, worth investigating.
Although guided walks are available for a fee, there are six main colour-marked paths that take you to different interesting places in the surrounding area and the distance you walk really depends on you as some are quite long and they are also connected. Apart from the river walk (both up and downstream) and the eagle nests and baobab already mentioned, you can walk to San Bushmen paintings, a natural salt lick, freshwater springs, sacred places and gold workings to name a few.
Other activities on offer, at an additional cost, include (depending on the season), horse riding, game night drives, evening sundowners at the viewpoint, canoeing, guided walks and a tour of the local village. In addition there is now a dam with a hide and a beautiful rock swimming pool. The sunset seats remain one of the attractions for those wishing to spend the end of the day in style! Fishing is good at the camp and surrounding area and bream, chessa and tiger fish are frequently caught. We were informed that recently bass and Tilapia nilotica have also been caught. Earthworms can be obtained at the camp.
A large and rather yellowish crocodile is often seen swimming past or basking in the sun on one of the islands in front of the camp. The latter are known as Heathrow and Gatwick because herons land there to spend the night.
On Sunday morning, while breaking our fast and enjoying the river view, we had an unexpected visitor in the shape of a monitor lizard, probably a Varanus niloticus that came looking for food morsels and walked slowly between our feet continuously flicking its tongue, trying to detect chemicals, a phenomenon known as “tropotaxis”. Searching the web I learnt that monitors are quite intelligent reptiles.
Allow me to digress for a moment and tell you that I do not believe that its intelligence is the reason for the “court terror” created by a rather large monitor at Binga in 2010 as reported by the ZimEye of April 29, 2010 (http://www.zimeye.org/giant-monitor-lizard-causes-court-terror/). On that day a large “calm” monitor with “a raised head” took to the witness box at the Magistrate court causing everyone to vacate the room!
I come back to the Hippo Pools account to inform you that we also had activity at night in the form of some “kitchen visitors”. We learnt about them when saucepans and other crockery fell and woke us up. Our search found nothing and we were told -the following morning- that bush babies were responsible for the din although it could also have been a genet. Continuing on the mammals, five hippos have taken up residence in front of the camp and three more dwell further down the river, all part of a stable population. Sable antelope, giraffe, zebra, greater kudu, waterbuck, bushbuck and small antelope can be seen, some visiting the salt lick on the other side of the river.
An addition to the Umfurudzi Safari Area since we last visited is the introduction of buffalo and elephant as well as other game species. These, however, do not reach the camp concession area as there is a game-proof fence that keeps them away. The lions that used to be around the concession in our earlier visits and of which we saw footprints down the river are no longer. However, there are some in the hills of the Safari area and we heard them very far away during the night so we can confirm that they are there!
On the down side, monkeys, malaria y bilharzia are present so precautions are necessary. Malaria is of course worse during the wet season and bilharzia parasites are likely to be in calm water that in any case needs to be avoided as there is also the risk of crocodiles.
To end this short account, we were -as before- very comfortable at Hippo Pools and at the same time surprised that it still remains one of the quite affordable, beautiful and lesser-known places in Zimbabwe. We will most certainly come back!
(Written in June 2014, published in August 2014)