Hippo Pools

Spot the beasts (easy!)

While in Mana Pools last October most game were by the river. During one of our rare inland sorties we came across this sight. It looked rather battered and suffering from the heat as much as we were!

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We also found this little beast at Hippo Pools, also in October.

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And here are the beasts “revealed”:

A fox.

A fox.

 

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A tree frog.

The fox was after this fellow:

An African hare.

An African hare.

And this fellow was after the tree frog!

A green grass snake.

A green grass snake.

The ways of nature!

 

Harare, 15 October 2015.

 

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The Eagle and the Baobab

Keep reading, this is not a children’s story, despite the title!

I knew this project would be difficult from the beginning as war movies dealing with eagles show a lot of hard work and heavy casualties!

In earlier visits to Hippo Pools Wilderness camp[1] ( and even earlier ones) I learnt that the camp offers a number of attractions for those feeling like trekking. Among these are old ruins, San paintings, several viewpoints a large baobab and various eagle nests. I was aware that both Verreaux’s and Crowned eagles had nested nearby for many years but I had not seen them before.

Aware of this possibility on arrival I enquired about the eagles’ and I was informed that there was also one of an African Hawk Eagle that had a fledgling. I expressed my interest on a walk to the site but later on I was informed -to my regret- that the bird was no longer where it had been seen before. However, before I could feel too bad, I was told that an egg had been spotted at the Crown’s eagle nest and that we could go there instead! I immediately booked a walk for the following morning.

The walking party.

The walking party.

We left about 07:00 hours and walked for about one and one half hours over rather broken terrain and mainly uphill. After going for about an hour we spotted one of the eagles perched a long way away. However, we were advised that the nest was not in that direction but up the hill! It was clearly one of the pair, probably the male eagle scouting for food as these eagles are special in that the male often feeds the female while she incubates.

The first eagle.

The first eagle.

Close-up of the first eagle.

Close-up of the first eagle.

It should be noted that these eagles are not common and rather secretive and as Roberts VII Multimedia Birds of Southern Africa puts it, “Normally chooses the tallest canopy tree in which to build its large stick platform nest”. Luckily I did not know this while our trek was in progress as I was having additional difficulties with my recently acquired hiking shoes that were destroying my toes!

Examining an interesting cave en route to the nest.

Examining an interesting cave en route to the nest.

After another thirty minutes of steep uphill walk, we got to the general area where the nest was. Although I could not yet see it, my companions did and they got excited about what they saw. Eventually I spotted the nest as well as the second eagle perched about one metre above it.

Getting close to the nest meant that our up hill walk changed into a steep climb until we managed to get to a large rock above the nest. From this really great vantage point we could appreciate the situation and observe. We sat down and remained quiet while my toes throbbed, also quietly…

The return of the eagle to the nest and egg moving.

The return of the eagle to the nest and egg moving.

The nest was large, much larger than I had anticipated! Clearly it had been there for a number of years and its occupants had made a good job at building it. It must have been about two metres across and at least one and one half metres deep! This was a large nest for the species as Roberts VII Multimedia mentions an average diametre of 1.5-1.8 m with a height of up to 70 cm but old nests -such as this one- can reach up to two to three metres in diametre and three metres in height as the eagles add new material every year.

By the time we reached the “watching rock” the eagle was no longer there and we (or rather my companions) could see the egg that, on further observation, turned out to be two! While watching the nest the eagle came back and, after turning the eggs with its beak, literally “sunk” over them and stayed there unmoved by our presence for the rest of the time. Crown eagles are large birds reaching a height of up to 99 cm (tail included) being the fifth longest eagle that exists weighing about 4 kg with a wingspan of 1.50 to 1.80 m, comparatively short for the bird’s bulk. Mainly the female incubates for about 50 days and two eggs laid but normally only one chick goes through as siblicide is the norm. Only after 9-11 weeks the new bird is fully feathered and able to leave nest for nearby branches at 110-115 days. Despite its large size, the bird was truly dwarfed by its nest!

The eagle "sunk" in the nest.

The eagle “sunk” in the nest.

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Over 95 per cent of this eagle’s prey are mammals and they have a reputation for being great fliers and being able to take off vertically inside the forest. I was wrong in thinking that they fed mainly on monkeys, as these mammals are only 7 per cent of its diet. Their usual prey are hyraxes and small/young antelope (65 per cent).

We returned to camp from the eagle’s nest via the baobab tree. I have already spent time on these fantastic trees in a recent post on Chitake so I will not waste too many words. This particular baobab has two main visible features: spikes driven up its trunk and a hole that allows you to see the inside and even enter the tree if you are interested and adventurous. Probably the spikes are there to enable people to collect either tree produce or honey but we could not tell.

The baobab.

The baobab.

The large hole.

The large hole.

The spikes.

The spikes.

As we did not carry torches while looking for eagle nests during the day, there was not enough light to undertake a proper examination of the tree’s interior. We saw that there were some sun rays that filtered through small gaps on the roof, where the branches had sprouted, indicating that the top of the tree is not sealed tightly (as I thought) but there are gaps in its cortex. The holes were small and the light was not enough for us to see inside so we appealed to the trick of using the camera flash to look inside.

The inside of the tree. The spikes are seen on the right upper corner. The flying bat (centre bottom) and stationary bats (centre top), The small light spots are gaps on the top of the tree.

The inside of the tree. The spikes are seen on the right upper corner. The flying bat (centre bottom) and stationary bats (centre top), The small light spots are gaps on the top of the tree.

We saw that there were also spikes inside the tree! Although we did not detect any animal presence or smell (particularly the pungent bat smell!) inside the trunk, we took some pictures and, later examination of these, we noticed a small dark spot on its pale brown interior. It was a bat caught in flight! Further observation and enlargement of the pictures revealed other bats hanging from the roof, not in bunches but keeping distance from one another.

Close-up of the bats.

Close-up of the bats.

By the time we finished our observations of the baobab it was lunchtime and hot so we took walked back to camp, my toes still complaining in silence!

Hippo Pools Camp, Zimbabwe, 8 October 2015.

 

[1] https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2014/08/29/hippo-pools-revisited-2/

Hippo Pools revisited

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.

A hanging bridge spans the weir. The red dot on the left of the picture indicates one of the walking paths.

A hanging bridge spans the weir. The red dot on the left of the picture indicates one of the walking paths.

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 Mazoe river in front of the camp.

The Mazoe river in front of the camp.

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.

View of the chalets and facilities.

View of the chalets and facilities.

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!

Repairing the causeway.

Repairing the causeway.

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 "Marula" chalet with a view to the park-like setting.

The “Marula” chalet with a view to the park-like setting.

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.

An interesting rock formation...

An interesting rock formation…

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.

The monitor lizard was after food and it got really close.

The monitor lizard was after food and it got really close.

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)