Gonarezhou

Spot the beast 29

While watching elephants at the Nyamugwe pan in Gonarezhou National Park, a small movement caught my eye up this dead tree. This is what I saw from the distance. Can you see the beast?

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A curious squirrel keeping an eye on our movements. Squirrels -to us- look somehow out of place in Africa but they are a frequent sight in Southern Africa.

 

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Night surprise!

At night, returning to our bungalow at Swimuwini after a hot shower I took a detour to investigate what looked like a small pond. From a distance I shone my torch in the general area and I froze in my tracks. There was a crocodile there!

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Without moving I maintained the light on the reptile’s head -all I could see- and I not only saw it moving but also its eyes shone under the torch’s light! “This is amazing” I thought while watching the beast. I dropped my towel and other shower implements and slowly approached the pond in the dark until I estimated to be close enough to have a good view. Then I switched on my torch again.

To my relief it was a false alarm but a clever ruse nevertheless! Someone had somehow placed a tree trunk semi-submerged in the pond with the intention of making it look like a croc. Whoever he/she was succeeded with me! The movement and shiny eyes were not fiction as the head was a resting place for a bunch of toads [1] that were using the wooden croc as their resting place!

 

I returned to the bungalow and the following morning I came back to the pond for a better look.

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During the day the trunk was more obvious but less so when the toads were on it adding some greenish colour and movement to it!

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Luckily it was a wooden croc but it was nice as it offered a good opprtunity to see the toad’s interaction and to take some nice pictures of the batracian colony.

 

[1] From Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frog). “The use of the common names “frog” and “toad” has no taxonomic justification. From a classification perspective, all members of the order Anura are frogs, but only members of the family Bufonidae are considered “true toads”. The use of the term “frog” in common names usually refers to species that are aquatic or semi-aquatic and have smooth, moist skins; the term “toad” generally refers to species that are terrestrial with dry, warty skins”.

Place of many elephants

It is clear that the more places you see, the more you learn and the more you realize the little you know! Enough of philosophical exertions and focus of the post, I hear you thinking!

Climbing Wrights’s tower to look at the Mwenezi river below spurred my curiosity about who Mr. Wright was but also about the general area where the Gonarezhou[1] National Park is located. The Great Limpopo Trans-frontier Park and Conservation Area was created on 9 December 2002. It took another four years for parts of the fence separating Limpopo in Mozambique and the Kruger national parks to be removed allowing important movement of game across the hitherto fenced area. Things move slowly in conservation!

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Wright’s tower.

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The sign in Wright’s tower.

Although in April 2014, Mozambique and South Africa signed a memorandum of understanding on biodiversity conservation and management of the area, particularly addressing rhino poaching in the Great Limpopo area, Gonarezhou is lagging behind in this integration. There are, however, fresh hopes that the unique agreement, signed in 2016, between the Frankfurt Zoological Society and the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority to form the Gonarezhou Conservation Trust may facilitate further integration.

Allan Wright was a district Commissioner in Nuanetsi, the District where Gonarezhou is. He arrived to the area in 1958 and declared himself to be an “ardent conservationist”. After a quick exploration of the topography, soils and plants found in the area he was convinced that it was “…From and agricultural point of view the whole area was in the lowest category, almost a wasteland…”.

So, the plans to divide it into farms for African farmers were gradually scrapped and his intentions made clear when he proclaimed:

Before me, as far as the eye could see, was the vast, empty Gonakudzingwa Purchase Area – ’empty’ only in the human context for it teemed with animal life … the great wilderness looked mysterious, haze blue, inviting. What a heritage! What a wonderful national park this south-east corner of Rhodesia would make.”[2]

So, Mr. Wright managed to persuade the then Government of Rhodesia not only to spare the area from farming but also to give him funds to develop it. He describes his time at Nuanetsi in two books [3]. Mr. Wright’s efforts survived the years to come after his retirement and eventually crystalized in the creation of the Gonarezhou National Park in 1975.

Considering the Gonarezhou in the larger context of the Great Limpopo Trans-frontier Park and Conservation Area, the point where the borders of Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe meet is known as Crook’s Corner. Suspecting that the name had its reasons, I investigate it further and this lead to the unraveling of some interesting facts!

It was because of its “tri-national” characteristic that Crook’s Corner attracted a number of outlaws that found the facility of moving among the three countries very advantageous. Apparently, the exact location of Crook’s Corner is on an island very close to the place where the Luvuvhu River flows into the Limpopo, near to the Pafuri area of the Kruger National Park.

Although there were other brigands, Stephanus Cecil Rutgert Barnard placed it in the world map. Barnard sought refuge there from his illegal activities related to hunting and poaching, two activities very difficult to tell apart in the 1900’s. “The one who swaggers as he walks” that is what his Shangaan nickname Bvekenya meant, arrived there in 1910.

Bvekenya’s derived his living from hunting and or poaching mainly elephants for ivory as well as illegally recruiting labour for the mines (known as blackbirding) as well as trading animal skins. It was a tough life, persecuted by police and exposed to malaria! Bvekenya functioned illegally over vast large tracts of Portuguese East Africa and Rhodesia, successfully running his ivory past the law.

It seems that Bvekenya was a bit of an oddball, to put it mildly and, during the twenty years that he operated in the region, based at Makhuleke, he carried out a number of interesting exploits, from taming a herd of eland for milking to praising lose the beacon indicating the frontier so that he could move it to “migrate” his camp to a different country according to which one was after him! A larger than life character that T.V. Bulpin immortalized in his book “The Ivory Trail” [4].

More amazing still were Bvekenya’s conservation ideas that led him to suggest the creation of a Trans-frontier park at that time (1900!)! It would take over one hundred years before the politicians in the various relevant Governments agreed on the issue and it is still unfinished!

Bvekenya’s hunting ground included the present Gonarezhou National Park. In that general area he shot a number of large elephants for their ivory. It is believed that he was not a careless hunter and that, before killing an animal, he would check the dung with his Shangaan trackers to ascertain the age of their quarry. Only elephants that had passed their prime would be shot and then nothing was wasted as the meat would be consumed by the local people.

Despite his hunting experience Bvekenya was mesmerized by the sight of a particular animal known as “taller than the trees” in the local Zulu language: Dhlulamithi! Bvekenya met this very large tusker while hunting somewhere in Gonarezhou or nearby, at a muddy pan. The bull elephant towered over the large herd he was with. The ivory that Dhlulamithi carried touched the ground while it walked, leaving grooves in the sand behind its path! Bvekenya attempted a shot at the giant but, luckily for Dhlulamithi, a younger bull that walked in front of it at the fatal moment was hit and Dhlulamithi got away unscathed.

Bvekenya never forgot Dhlulamithi and, while still hunting and or poaching other animals, he kept following it. It took Bvekenya many years to find it again and when he did, towards 1929, he had it in his rifle sights but did not shoot the animal exclaiming “Let it live”.

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Tusk size and shape varies with the areas. This bull in Hwange National Park carries thick but rather short tusks.

Whether this took place or not is an issue of debate as other chroniclers claimed that Bvekenya -an inveterate commercial ivory trader- would not have missed such a tusker. This thesis is supported by the appearance in 1932 -a few years after Bvekenya ‘s retirement- of two humongous tusks that were claimed to be Dhlulamithi ‘s that were eventually auctioned in London. The tusks weighed 73 and 73.5 kg and their origin is unclear. They are meant to be now at a London Museum.

Luckily, there still are elephants carrying heavy ivory roaming in the Kruger National Park and, with patience they can be found at the various watering points, particularly in the Northern part of the park [4]. Whenever I see one of these colossuses I hope that Dhlulamithi ‘s genes are still present in them!

These two “friends” were leaving one of the waterholes in the north of the Kruger National Park.

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Masthulele seen at the Letaba river  (Kruger National Park), together with the tusker below, the largest tuskers I have seen so far.

If lucky, next time I see these colossuses I will remember this story and hope that what I see still carries Dhlulamithi’s genes that will be passed to future generations.

The above, seen by the bushsnob in 2014, is no longer an unknown tusker! (In this regard, see: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2014/08/20/a-tusk-task-2/ and https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2014/09/21/unraveling-the-tusker-mystery/ and the next post coming soon!)

 

[1] “Place of many elephants” is the Shona language is the more accepted meaning of Gonarezhou. It is also translated less often as “sacred place of the elephants” or “elephant’s tusk”.

[2] Quoted from from Wolmer, W. (2007). From Wilderness Vision to Farm Invasions. Conservation & Development in Zimbabwe Southeast Lowveld. James Currey, Oxford. 247p.

[3] Wright, A. (1972). Valley of the ironwoods: A personal record of ten years served as District Commissioner in Rhodesia’s largest administrative area, Nuanetsi, in the south-eastern Lowveld (unknown publisher) and Wright, A. (1976). Grey Ghosts at Buffalo Bend, Galaxie Press. Both books are out of print.

[4] Bulpin, T.V. (2011). The Ivory Trail. Protea BoekhuisEds., 4 edition. 240p.

 

Postcript: Apart from T.V. Bulpin’s The Ivory Trail book I recommend to visit the following links that will provide you with more detail, if interested:

https://www.africahunting.com/threads/the-legend-of-dhlulamithi.15191/

http://www.pendukasafaris.com/history/remembering-bvekenya-country-life-february-2003/

 

Spot the beast 28

I am pretty sure that you did not spot the “beast” in one or two pictures I inserted in the impala lilies slide show that was part of the post Gonarezhou three years later. Southern area that I published on 3 September 2017.

The find took place at the Park reception in Mabalauta and I am giving you a second opportunity to discover the beast below:

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A rather large praying mantis -head down- was patiently waiting for its lunch. It was spotted -as usual- by my wife that pointed it to me. After searching for it for about five minutes I gave up as I was unable to see it as it was immobile and blended well with the lily’s branches!

Baobab Teenager

Last week, driving around Chipinda Pools in Gonarezhou National Park, we spotted this baobab that reminded me of a youngster when growing so fast that the clothes that fit today do not tomorrow! It seems that the young and growing baobab needs another pullover to cover its belly!

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In fact, elephants had damaged the base of the tree and the absence of bark contrasts with the intact part of the trunk that shows a healthy coppery colour further up.

Elephants badly damage baobabs, particularly when food and water are scarce as they get the latter from the soft trunk. Lots of baobabs are damaged in this way and the problem is particularly noticeable in Gonarezhou.

The examples below are from Tsavo West National Park, Kenya in the eighties and Mana Pools National Park a couple of years back.

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Baobab damaged by elephants in Tsavo West National Park.

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Another damaged baobab, this time at Mana Pools National Park.

Gonarezhou three years later. Northern area

We were last in Gonarezhou National Park almost three years ago and I wrote about our impressions then [1]. This time the idea was to try the Chipinda Pools Tented camp so we booked ourselves there for five nights from 21-26 August.

Interesting developments had taken place during our absence. The management of the park had changed when on 30 June 2016 the Frankfurt Zoological Society and the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority signed an agreement for the creation of the Gonarezhou Trust. The latter represents a new management style for a National Park in Zimbabwe, aiming at running the park in a sustainable way on a long-term basis.

The first thing we noted was that the park can now be only booked at the Chipinda Pools office and not at the Harare Reservations office as all other national parks. Despite the distance from Harare (about 500km), the process was smooth and I soon arranged for our stay through an exchange of messages via Messenger and e-mail that ended with an advance payment to secure the bookings.

The trip went smoothly and we were not stopped at Police checkpoints at all despite the rather long distance! After Chiredzi we turned towards the park and drove through land managed by the Malilangwe Trust [2]. We wondered at the time if they would have accommodation that we could try another time [3]. We were soon at the Chipinda Pools gate where we produced our booking at the reception to a friendly lady.

As the checking of our papers was taking a while we took the opportunity to read some of the posters that explained the work on the various predators that is being carried out at the park. Our reading got interrupted when we heard the lady saying, “I have bad news!” As you can imagine, she was successful in calling our attention so we were with her in a second while we heard her adding: “Your booking is for the 21st all right but of September, not August!” and she handed me over the voucher I had given her moments before! While my heart was sinking, I confirmed my error and cursed myself for not checking the booking earlier!

It was about 16:30 hours so my wife and I looked at each other and both said the same thing: “Maybe we will need to see if Malilangwe has a lodge after all!” However, before playing that last card I asked whether there was any chance of putting us up for the night at the staff camp and then decide what we did the following morning as it was now too late to depart. I felt that I was wasting my words as the lady was on the phone and ignored my plea!

As we could not hear her conversation in the office, we waited, unaware of what was going on. The uncertainty lasted until she hanged up and informed us that she had just confirmed that the camp was full as it was time for school holidays in Zimbabwe. We were clearly in a tight spot and awaited again while she made another call before finally declaring gravely: “Sorry, no luck, we are full”.

At a loss, my jerk response was “So, we go back to Harare”, feeling rather upset with myself but ready to accept the situation and go away. Then, to our astonishment she burst out laughing as only Africans can do! “I was joking,” she said, “a colleague is coming to see if what we have would be OK with you”. After recovering from narrowly missing a heart attack, I calmed down and -internally- celebrated her sense of humour and I even managed what I thought it was a smile but probably it was a smirk!

Eventually we were shown into one of the tents that are normally used by researchers that happened to be empty. We were told that, unfortunately, we needed to share the ablutions with other people. We were so delighted with the offer that we immediately accepted it as it was for the duration of our booking! We noted that we even have our own painted dog couple residing at the tent although they were papier-mâché ones!

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Our tent.

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The veranda of our tent.

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The setting.

The camp was composed of four tents with a communal kitchen and ablutions nestled by a small stream that flowed into the Save river a couple of hundred metres down the river. The camp was well shaded and it was very well kept. We finally settled down while noting that the tent had large windows closed only by mosquito mesh and curtains so we prepared for a cold night and we were happy to have our sleeping bags with us!

That night, now relaxed, we enjoyed our dinner and, after reinforcing the provided bedding with our own warm bags, went to bed for what I thought it was a well deserved rest while congratulating ourselves that we managed to survive a potential disaster. Later during the night, we heard lion roaring while it walked by our camp and we were happy to be smug in our strong tent! The following morning we learnt that there was a lone male lion stationed near camp at the time. Despite the lion living next to camp, we did not see it, unfortunately.

We spent the day exploring the area and we took a recommended route that brought us along the Sililijo stream. As soon as we left camp we climbed a hill and had a great view of a large tract of the park through which the Runde river meanders its way towards its meeting with the larger Save river.

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The view of the Runde river.

Soon we had left the Runde river behind and, after a route that was rich in game we re-joined it near the Chilojo Cliffs, Gonarezhou’s famous landmark.

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The Chilojo cliffs. Gonarezhou’s landmark.

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Another view of the cliffs.

Among the animals we found on the way were elephants, buffalo, giraffe, impala, greater kudu and eland. Yet again we admired the numerous baobabs and realized that the plentiful rains have had a positive impact on the vegetation cover as the park was very bushy. This, of course, had a negative impact on game spotting but we did not mind that at all as it was clear that the game numbers are on the increase!

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A female Greater kudu watches us.

After enjoying a picnic by the cliffs, followed by the mandatory bush siesta we waited a while longer for elephants to come to the river but, as they did not come, we decided to return to camp. As usual, we underestimated the distance and we arrived rather late as we took a wrong turning and, near the camp, we got charged by a loud trumpeting lone elephant bull that we just managed to see. The animal was very nervous and it kept coming towards us until we finally managed to avoid it and safely get back to camp. Later we learnt that the elephant was scared because of the proximity of the male lion.

We arrived tired and looking forward to a shower, dinner and bed. However, the appearance of the game ranger in charge of tourism, stopped us in our tracks. He was the bearer of more bad news: our tent was needed for some unexpected visitors! He asked us if we would mind moving to the Mabalauta area in the southern part of the park where there was room for us at Swimuwini Camp. Aware of the well known saying “beggars can’t be choosers”, we immediately and gladly agreed and convened that we could leave at about 09:00 hours the following morning.

The next day, before departure, we had a chance to talk to other guests that told us that it was possible to drive to the Mabalauta area through the park and that it was a nice and scenic drive. This was good for me as I also wished to have a look at a place called Lion pan as, years back, I was told that it was -obviously- good for lions… So, thanking the management for their hospitality we departed at a leisurely pace towards our new camp, about 100km south.

Our drive was, as expected, interesting although we did not see many animals. A rock monitor (Varanus albigularis) that crossed the road and a Purple roller (Coracias naevius) were the only animals of note we saw although there were plenty of hornbills and other common birds as well as a few squirrels. We found elephant spoor but no sign of the pachyderms anywhere. Unfortunately we missed the GPS point where we should have turned East for the Lion pan so we decided to explore it the next time we come.

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A river on the way to Mabalauta in the south of the park.

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Most pans had water, product of the excellent rains of last year. This one is on the way to Mabalauta in the south of the park.

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A male namaqua dove.

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The rock monitor that slowly crossed the road showing us its rather long tongue.

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Close up of the rock monitor.

[1] See https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2014/08/11/gonarezhou-national-park-safari-diary-day-1/ and the two posts that followed.

[2] See: http://www.malilangwe.org/

[3] After returning to Harare I learnt that they have a lodge called Singita Pamushana Lodge.

 

 

 

 

Spot the beast 27

We got back from Gonarezhou National Park yesterday evening and I have a lot to do before I am able to post anything yet! However, there is always time for a “Spot the beast” to keep your minds active until I can get mine starting!!!

This was the view from our tent at Chipinda Pools in the park. I am sure that you will agree with me that is a very nice spot: a river with a bit of water, lots of trees and lianas and the light filtering through the foliage.

There is a beast somewhere there (the reason why I took the picture) that it will take you some time to find, I think.

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DSCN0121 copyIt is a male bushbuck that came down for a drink and we saw it (or rather my wife, again) spotted when it was climbing back to spend the rest of the day wherever the bushbucks do this.

(Please be aware that it was walking so the second picture shows it after it walked a about a metre to the right of the first picture)

 

Gonarezhou National Park Safari Diary. Day 3

The 28th started cloudy again by the time we were up, about 08:00 hs. Footprints interrupted our exit from Swimuwini again. This time there were African Wild Dogs’ footprints. They were inside the grounds of our rest camp, just before the gate! Although we strained our eyes in all directions, we did not see them and moved on. We have often seen these animals in the proximity of humans. In fact, the first pack we ever saw was resting at the football field in Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe.

Today our goal was the Samalema gorge. We traveled in the opposite direction of yesterday, i.e. up river (see Map page for directions). On the way we stopped at Makwakwani picnic site where more open rock pools could be seen. Further towards the gorge we saw the reasons for the lack of electricity and the earlier Chef’s disappointment.

The cut wires.

The cut wires.

We were told by Fungisai, our lady camp attendant, that Samalema gorge was the place where people born with defects would be thrown to their deaths a long time ago. I will try to check this but I must add that it lent an element of drama to our visit and the expectation of a dramatic canyon in my mind.

The first view of Samalema gorge.

The first view of Samalema gorge.

On arrival the place looked like a rocky field with very little water and a total absence of the expected high cliffs from which people could be thrown to certain death to the river below! It felt like an anti-climax. A trunk ladder was placed to bridge the height from the viewing platform to river level so we decided to investigate. As the ladder looked rather rickety, we opted for the wiser, if a bit longer, bush detour that took us there over stony but firm ground

The gorge started to open up as we walked on.

The gorge started to open up as we walked on.

The rocks were predominantly brown and very smooth and, as we approached the river, water-carved formations started to appear that complicated our walk and soon began to be quite hard as we needed to negotiate bolder after bolder. I was relieved when my wife went in front as I still had present in my mind the information about people been thrown into the gorge for being born with deformities and I was wondering if being a snob was one of the criteria to get the “definitive” push! My fears were far from allayed when it started to drizzle, transforming the rocks into soap!

The gorge starting appearing as we walked on.

The beginning of the gorge.

Another view of the gorge.

Another view.

We continued walking and discovered that the river had excavated its way among the rocks and carved the most beautiful arabesques imaginable. There were perfectly rounded pools, bridges, pyramids and sculptures of all kinds, the types that only water can help nature to create. The crystal clear water ran through and formed a number of waterfalls and rapids that added to the overall beauty, contrasting with its sacrificial history!

Some of the rock formations.

Some of the rock formations.

Nature's rock art.

Nature’s rock art.

We did not see many animals there though. A couple of Egyptian geese, Cinnamon-breasted rock buntings, African pied wagtails and Water dikkops were the only visible inhabitants of the rocks. We did not see much fish activity either but saw a terrapin in the distance down river and another very close and very dead.

By the time we got back to the starting point a couple of hours later, we were knackered and needed to rehydrate and have a deserved cup of coffee before going back to the rest camp for a light lunch and a siesta. While walking towards the car we found some animal dung that we could not identify and that I present to you to see if anyone is able to tell me the “creator”.

Unknown spoor at Samalema gorge. The shoe is there for sizing.

Unknown spoor at Samalema gorge. The shoe is there for sizing.

It was on the way back that we came “face to face” with a tusker by the side of the road. None of us expected each other so, before I managed to completely stop the car, the elephant was already crashing into the bush, tail up. It ran for about 50 metres and then it stopped as suddenly as it had started. I was pleased that it decided to run in the opposite direction from us! It remained completely still for about 20 minutes, showing us only its rather wrinkled rear end. Suddenly, the posterior defecated and it slowly moved off. That was it, our only elephant (bottom) sighting, which although a good thing, left us wanting.

The afternoon drive down river was a re-visit to the jackals and we had the magnificent views of two giraffes coming to clench their thirst in the water pools of the sandy riverbed. When it comes to drinking, nothing beats the giraffes in wariness as -neck down- they are very vulnerable. After a long while they finally get to the drinking position after moves worth of a a contortionist!

Giraffes coming to the river bed for a drink.

Giraffes coming to the river bed for a drink.

A bunch of vultures were perched on a dead tree in the middle of the sandy river. They took off after a while and so did we as cooking on the fire waited for us and this takes longer than normal. Although the showers were there for the taking, we declared ourselves clean and, this time bat-free, we fell asleep early and soundly.

The vultures took off when they saw us stop the car.

The vultures took off after a while.