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
over thousands of hectares of wild, untouched African wilderness. It is
IBA from the birding point of view and has huge status as a National
perhaps the second largest Park of its kind in Africa.
We checked into our accommodation on Thursday afternoon and that night
had our pre deployment briefing. The Warden and some of his senior
were there as were some of the key research personnel. My daughter Sue
were one of many teams who were expected to make their way to various
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
lawns in pitch darkness with a huge storm brewing over to the west as
leaders briefed us on what was expected, any changes made to
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
Sinamatella. All those participating were volunteers, spending their
funds and taking full responsibility for the risks involved. It was the
year in which the annual count had taken place on this basis and I was
that the results were increasingly important.
I am sure many of you will remember Main Camp - the big trees, the
and chalets. But I was deeply moved that evening by the sight of so
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
time aside and make the substantial sacrifices in terms of money,
and time to do this each year. It was meticulously organised and
The sight of those faces in the light of the braai fires, sitting on
camp chairs with a violent African storm brewing just 20 or 30
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
trip right across the Park almost to the Botswana border, a trip on
tracks, often with the full use of 4-wheel drive. They were well
I saw a shovel, massive lifting equipment and sand tracks. That plus
food, insect repellent and lots of water. No weapons of any sort are
We had a 60 kilometer journey to take to the north and Sue and I left
at 10.00 hrs. Granny stayed in camp to look after Sue's son Keith who
active 3 years old now. Sue suggested that we might use Keith as 'bait'
see what comes to see what all the noise is about but Granny was
Our Pan was in a long stretch of wetland with three natural Pans all
springs. Although the water was murky - it was sweet and soft and I
of quite good quality given the pressure on these water points in a
this nature - Hwange has few rivers and these are concentrated in the
The road into the Pan was only used by Parks and the Research teams -
Lion research team told us to expect lots of water and so we were
for that at least. The road was very rough and unused.
The Pan was quite large and because we had to observe traffic through
night - even though we had a full moon, we set up shop where we had a
view of 90 per cent of the Pan verges. Behind us was a slight ridge so
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
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
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
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
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
ridge in full flight - looking forward to see all the girls on display
a well deserved drink. Did not see us until he was meters from the
was standing in the back watching the Pan and did not hear him at all -
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
then halted and turned and made as if to charge us - what a sight he
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
the thick bush - appearing in due course on the other side of the Pan
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.
bull Elephants were in fact universally skittish - if we made a noise
took off - often without drinking. By contract the female herds were
fearful of us at all - showed no concern even though they all had
some very small. One young calf did not know how to use his trunk to
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
buffalo arrived - hundreds of them, they too came over the ridge behind
halting within metres and simply watching us with collective caution
curiosity before splitting into two and going down to drink - then back
the bank and they slept around us all night. I got up to have a pee at
after five - and the entire herd rose in unison - it was quite
off-putting to say the least.
When they finally left us, I waited until 08.00 hrs and then did a
sixty of the Pan just to make sure we had not missed anything in the
We had not - the spoor told a clear tale of the nights activities. We
Lion - but faraway on the previous day, otherwise no predators. For a
of this size the numbers were as might be expected I think - even
had expected to see more plains game. The coordinators warned us that
count varies each year and that so far these variances had shown no
Water is the key to survival in Hwange and we were told at the briefing
our local Wildlife Society was sponsoring 10 Pans with pumping
fuel. Two Pans were also going to be fitted with high capacity
manufactured to specification in South Africa. While we are going
this national crisis - and our tourist industry just about does not
we can only hope to keep wild places like Hwange alive and ready for
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,
time we need a rear view mirror!' That angry young bull Elephant
magnificent at 10 metres but it would have been nice to know he was
The spectacle of that yellow moon rising over the Pan. A chorus of 10
frogs until our Pels Owl slipped silently over them. The chill clear
surrounded by hundreds of the most feared animal in the African veld -
great black African Buffalo who showed no more animosity to us than a
baleful New York Policemen on duty at Grand Station.
Bulawayo, 15th October 2006