Dad, we need a rear view mirror!

We have just returned from the annual game count in the Hwange National Park. The Park is one of the greatest game parks in the world and stretches over thousands of hectares of wild, untouched African wilderness. It is an IBA from the birding point of view and has huge status as a National Park - perhaps the second largest Park of its kind in Africa.

We checked into our accommodation on Thursday afternoon and that night we had our pre deployment briefing. The Warden and some of his senior staff were there as were some of the key research personnel. My daughter Sue and I were one of many teams who were expected to make their way to various water points in the Park and were then expected to monitor the arrival and departures of all forms of wild life over a complete 24 hour period.

ZESA did its thing at 18.30 hours and we spent a pleasant two hours on the lawns in pitch darkness with a huge storm brewing over to the west as our leaders briefed us on what was expected, any changes made to deployments and warnings. We then had a braai and a few beers and soft drinks and warm fellowship before hitting the sack.

At the same time, at two other camps, teams were also being briefed and queries dealt with before they were sent out to cover the central and northern areas. We covered the area to the south - up to about halfway to Sinamatella. All those participating were volunteers, spending their own funds and taking full responsibility for the risks involved. It was the 31st year in which the annual count had taken place on this basis and I was told that the results were increasingly important.

I am sure many of you will remember Main Camp - the big trees, the lodges and chalets. But I was deeply moved that evening by the sight of so many ordinary people from all walks of life - many retired, who just for the sheer love of the wild places and their protection and management, put the time aside and make the substantial sacrifices in terms of money, equipment and time to do this each year. It was meticulously organised and controlled. The sight of those faces in the light of the braai fires, sitting on their camp chairs with a violent African storm brewing just 20 or 30 kilometers away - lighting strikes and thunder. The humor and comradie is perhaps unique. The spirit of Selous is alive and well!

In the morning, we rose early - the storm had passed us by and it was a lovely morning, crisp and clear, with the promise of a cool day. Our neighbors were up at 04.00 hrs and on their way early - ahead of them was a trip right across the Park almost to the Botswana border, a trip on rough tracks, often with the full use of 4-wheel drive. They were well prepared - I saw a shovel, massive lifting equipment and sand tracks. That plus their food, insect repellent and lots of water. No weapons of any sort are allowed.

We had a 60 kilometer journey to take to the north and Sue and I left camp at 10.00 hrs. Granny stayed in camp to look after Sue's son Keith who is an active 3 years old now. Sue suggested that we might use Keith as 'bait' to see what comes to see what all the noise is about but Granny was horrified!

Our Pan was in a long stretch of wetland with three natural Pans all fed by springs. Although the water was murky - it was sweet and soft and I thought of quite good quality given the pressure on these water points in a Park of this nature - Hwange has few rivers and these are concentrated in the north. The road into the Pan was only used by Parks and the Research teams - the Lion research team told us to expect lots of water and so we were prepared for that at least. The road was very rough and unused.

The Pan was quite large and because we had to observe traffic through the night - even though we had a full moon, we set up shop where we had a clear view of 90 per cent of the Pan verges. Behind us was a slight ridge so we could not see anything coming in from the East until it stepped on us - something I was not expecting. So armed with tea, food, water, and our repellent for mosquitoes, we settled in at 11.50 for 24 hours of intensive game watching and recording. Who, when, from where, going where, males, females, young - dependent on their mothers etc.

We counted nearly 500 animals in our 24-hour period, mainly Elephant and Buffalo with a few Zebra and Impala. We also observed nearly 80 bird species - including a Pels Fishing Owl that the fundi's told us afterwards was most likely a Eagle Owl - but we are sticking to our identification based on sound and specific features. This was a rare sight so far from the rivers.

One young elephant bull - a massive animal full of hormones and his own sense of importance stumbled over us late in the afternoon. He came over the ridge in full flight - looking forward to see all the girls on display - and a well deserved drink. Did not see us until he was meters from the truck. I was standing in the back watching the Pan and did not hear him at all - they move so silently on those huge feet. I turned when Sue warned me he was there and we saw each other at the same time - he wheeled off to the right - then halted and turned and made as if to charge us - what a sight he was - ears out and trunk in the air, tusks forward and that massive body.

We showed no sign of moving and he then abruptly turned and strode off into the thick bush - appearing in due course on the other side of the Pan where he eyed us with distaste and anger. He came back - we think three times - and each time approached us from behind, very protective of his patch. The bull Elephants were in fact universally skittish - if we made a noise they took off - often without drinking. By contract the female herds were not fearful of us at all - showed no concern even though they all had calves - some very small. One young calf did not know how to use his trunk to drink - it was so funny to see his antics as he tried to emulate his seniors!

Then at midnight - perhaps that is why they call it the bewitching hour, the buffalo arrived - hundreds of them, they too came over the ridge behind us - halting within metres and simply watching us with collective caution and curiosity before splitting into two and going down to drink - then back up the bank and they slept around us all night. I got up to have a pee at just after five - and the entire herd rose in unison - it was quite unnerving and off-putting to say the least.

When they finally left us, I waited until 08.00 hrs and then did a three sixty of the Pan just to make sure we had not missed anything in the dark. We had not - the spoor told a clear tale of the nights activities. We heard Lion - but faraway on the previous day, otherwise no predators. For a Pan of this size the numbers were as might be expected I think - even though we had expected to see more plains game. The coordinators warned us that the count varies each year and that so far these variances had shown no long-term trends.

Water is the key to survival in Hwange and we were told at the briefing that our local Wildlife Society was sponsoring 10 Pans with pumping equipment and fuel. Two Pans were also going to be fitted with high capacity windmills manufactured to specification in South Africa. While we are going through this national crisis - and our tourist industry just about does not exist, we can only hope to keep wild places like Hwange alive and ready for the future if we all dig deep and make efforts like this possible.

As for us - we will be back next year for sure - but Sue said 'Dad, next time we need a rear view mirror!' That angry young bull Elephant really was magnificent at 10 metres but it would have been nice to know he was coming! The spectacle of that yellow moon rising over the Pan. A chorus of 10 000 frogs until our Pels Owl slipped silently over them. The chill clear dawn surrounded by hundreds of the most feared animal in the African veld - the great black African Buffalo who showed no more animosity to us than a baleful New York Policemen on duty at Grand Station.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 15th October 2006