by John and Jenny Brebner
(Bulawayo 26th Oct 2011)

The annual 24 hour static game count took place over the night of Tuesday 11 October, into Wednesday 12 October. A great deal of time and effort goes into organizing this annual event, the planning of which begins early in the year. Several of the count leaders had the opportunity, once again, to fly the park thanks to the wonderful efforts of Pat Cox, in order to check up on the water situation at the various pans. They were pleasantly surprised to see that the water around the park at the pumped pans was not as disastrous as they’d been led to believe although far from good for the time of the year. Unfortunately, Parks had run out of diesel for a few weeks and it is very difficult to catch up once pans have run dry. This also put added pressure on our ten pan project. Along with this, the engines and pumps are constantly breaking down so those working on the ground are being kept very busy

We took the opportunity to spend the weekend prior to the count and a few days after the count, so started off with two nights at Main Camp. The road up was rather disappointing as the trees had not yet come into their full summer foliage and there were several devastating fires that had swept through parts of the forest areas, leaving horrid black and bleak landscapes. It was just amazing on the journey home, a week later, to see how quickly the trees had begun to leaf, some in full bloom and most of the blackened sides of the road beginning to green up – it was truly lovely. Main Camp was again without hot water and there does not seem to be any plan to get this situation rectified. Travelling to the various pans, it was obvious that water is short and many of the pans were pretty much muddy puddles each morning as the pumps tried to catch up from the overnight slurping.

Nyamandhlovu pan was the lowest we’ve seen in a while. Elephants were in abundance and its been a while since we have seen so many really small babies and the herds have begun to splinter into smaller groups. We visited a wounded white backed vulture that had been found plastered to the front of an engine when it reached Dete and was miraculously still alive. It gave some of the Parks staff the opportunity to see this magnificent creature at close quarters. Unfortunately, 14 of its kin had been killed by the same train.

We were also lucky enough to see a young lion (Tommy) at Dom. The bush was very dry but the acacia erioloba were magnificent – standing out like beacons with their new leaf. The lonchocarpus nelsii were also stunning, adding their lovely lilac to the otherwise dry grey and drab brown of the bush.

The engine at Makwa had been causing problems but pumping was once more on the go and the pan was filling up again nicely;

Kennedy One held good water; the Kennedy Two solar unit is still managing to get a bit of water into the pan and the state of that pan wasn’t as bad as we’d had anticipated. Unfortunately, the borehole there has still not been connected up although work on the pipeline was in progress. There are worrying signs that perhaps there is not as much water there as we’d been led to believe. However, nothing is certain until pumping begins.

Ngweshla held about the amount of water we’d expect at this time of the year. The trough at Caterpillar was full and overflowing into the pan which held a bit of water and water was running into Dopi but that was a fairly small puddle. We had a report that Jambile was low as was Manga Three although Manga One held good water.

The trough at Sinanga was full and flowing into the pan and water there was much as expected for this time of the year as well. Before leaving Main Camp on the Monday morning, we had a brief visit to the school and to have a look at the vegetable garden that had been put in by Hwange Conservation Society UK. It is planted out and seems to be producing well.

Moving on to Masuma for the count, we called in at Guvelala which was holding little water. Shapi was at its lowest although water was running into the trough and hopefully would have time to flow into the pan. We were amazed at the huge numbers of emerald spotted wood doves clamouring to get a drink from the trough – an enthralling sight of so many birds. At one stage an obstreperous yellowbilled kite swooped in, chasing all the doves away so that it could have the trough to itself for a quiet drink.

Shumba was not in good condition and the windmill there had once again been battered by the elephants so not working. We had a report later in the day that an old elephant bull had wandered into the pan and died there.

Masuma was also at its lowest that we’ve seen in a long time mainly because of engine and pump problems but fortunately that had all been sorted out and a good flow of water was going into the trough and subsequently into the pan. A never ending stream of elephant visiting the trough and trying to get at the clean water interrupted the flow most of the night before and during the count. We also had large numbers of buffalo coming into to drink, further depleting the water. When we arrived there was a hippo baby carcass in the pan and the camp attendant said that the other hippos had killed it. It was interesting to note that the first evening the lone crocodile had pushed the carcass to the side of the pan and one of the hippos walked to the edge to nudge it gently back into the middle of the water. However, the hyenas won on the night of the count and the pathetic little swollen body disappeared. Both Monday and Tuesday nights were busy nights around the pan and there was a lot of noise from the spotted hyenas having various altercations amongst themselves as well as hassling some of the young elephants. Tempers flared every so often near the clean water as elephant jostled, shoved and pushed to get a trunk in, resulting in some ear splitting trumpeting. We had wonderful sightings of various vultures coming down to the pan; in the late evening hundreds upon hundreds of double banded sandgrouse arrived for water; an immature Martial Eagle was hunting around the pan and at one stage successfully hit and killed a guineafowl. It mantled the prey and then dragged it into a bush. However, after a few mouthfuls, a Tawny Eagle that had been hanging around, snuck in and robbed the poor bird of its prey. Yellowbilled kites around the pan have honed their skills and a couple of them definitely had the art of hunting and killing Cape Turtle Doves. The Tawny Eagle also hung around and helped itself to some of their kills. A Lanner Falcon hit and took off a poor unsuspecting lesser striped swallow that was busily gathering mud from the edge of the water and later on the Lanner (we assume the same one) came back for a Cape Turtle Dove. Light during the count was excellent apart from a fairly dark patch round about half past four in the morning as the moon began to set in the haze. Once the count was over, the rest of our team departed and we ended up having a lovely quiet evening to ourselves. Just before the sun set, a waterbuck ewe appeared with the tiniest, fluffly baby waterbuck that we’ve ever seen. Strangely, overnight it was much quieter than the previous two nights and although we had a few bad tempered trumpetings and some rumblings, there was hardly any giggling or whooping from the hyenas. We were, however, woken at around five by four very noisy three banded coursers dashing about in front of our tent!

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