African Waterfowl Count Hwange National Park July 2015

by John and Jenny Brebner
(7th July 2015)

Having committed ourselves to attending the national AGM of Birdlife Zimbabwe up at the Falls at the end of June, we decided to take the opportunity to do the July African Waterfowl Count in the Main Camp area on our way back. Although John is no longer involved in the WEZ water project in the park, he is still assisting Dave Dell and Friends of Hwange in this regard so this trip also gave us the chance to see how the water situation is faring – or not, as the case may be!

Once we had settled ourselves in one of National Parks’ Zambesi River lodges, we took a drive to Chamabonda vlei where Trevor Lane and Mbejane Trust have been doing a lot of work and have now installed three solar units as well as working hard on improving the roads within this little gem. Right down at the end of the vlei is a delightful hide and camping area which looks extremely inviting and definitely worth a stay at some stage. Work was being carried out cutting and baling the grass in parts of the huge vlei and already large numbers of zebra were gathering to graze on the short cut grass. Part of the vlei had been burnt and we enjoyed watching two fluffy spotted hyena pups lying outside their den, soaking up the late afternoon sun while blinking myopically at us. We saw a couple of giraffe and warthog were very much in evidence and on our way back, we came across two large herds of buffalo. If folks are ever up that way, Chamabonda is certainly well worth a visit.

The Zambesi River lodges have been revamped but sadly, due to poor workmanship, some of the lovely floor tiles were badly cracked, threatening the unwary of a trip up if not careful. We had a very comfortable stay but a good watch out had to be kept to keep the pesky vervet monkeys and baboons at bay. The first evening, while sitting round the braai fire, a young elephant gave us a fright, bellowing in the bush near our lodge and then dashing out and off down the cleared frontage of our lodge, fortunately towards the river! Hyena were around the lodges both nights, keeping up a protracted conversation of giggles and whoops. The birds were very vocal early in the early morning and a young bushbuck ram was seen tiptoeing through a thicket near the main gate. Warthog scratched around outside several of the lodges.

Having attended the vulture talks and the AGM on the Saturday, we packed up on Sunday and drove through to Olive Beadle, stopping off first at Gorges Lodge for a quick look and watched the rafters paddling by. We then took the dirt road through to the main Msuna road from Hwange. We had two nights at Olive Beadle where we conducted a waterfowl count, firstly a static one at the house we were staying in and then boating the requisite five kilometre stretch of shoreline, marking down bird numbers. It was fantastic out on the water, as we chugged slowly down to Msuna and back. We were rather taken aback at the large numbers of HUGE crocs lying about and even more appalled at the river bank cultivation that is taking place from Olive Beadle all the way through to Msuna. The Zambian side too is built up with shacks and very populated. Delights were a rufous bellied heron slinking around in the reeds near our lodge and two African skimmers seen at Msuna.

We moved out on Tuesday and after a brief stop in Hwange town for fuel, we travelled through the park from Sinamatella to Main Camp. Once again, we were totally appalled and sickened at the coal mining that is going on along the Msuna road near Hwange and on the Sinamatella road. The destruction of the veld is indescribable and the poor trees and shrubs along the blackened roads are covered in heavy black soot just gasping for breath. Horrid!

We stopped off for lunch at Mandavu which is still full , enjoying the birds and animals we could see. We also had a brief stop at Masuna to speak to Stephen Long and see how his work was coming on with repairing the trough. Unfortunately, as the Makoma mine has hit hard times, they have not been keeping up with their diesel donation for the pumping of Masuna so funds and donations are being sought to try and keep the dam there topped up. Shumba now boasts a windmill and a solar unit so the pan is (we have been reliably informed) 110% full! It is lovely. There is still good water at Dwarf Goose Pan where we counted 59 spurwing geese along with a couple of marabou stork and several bathing vultures. Roan is fast drying up but two old stately elephant bulls were having a good muddy slosh. Danga was next and holds fair water and Shapi is as usual excellent with the windmill doing a great job there. The Guvelala solar unit is up and helping to contribute but while we were there, the diesel engine was going. Some of the natural pans along the road sides still hold a bit of water but the park is fast drying up. There were several areas where frost has obviously hit, shrivelling up the leaves, turning them brown and dry. All along the way there were gorgeous patches of colour as the trees and shrubs take on their winter mantle of burnished copper, polished brass and rust amongst the dark green.

Staying in our usual chalets up in the camp site, we experienced the usual frustrations of no hot water and because of a protracted power cut, no water at all! The Main Camp water woes continue! Over the next few days, waterfowl counts were done at at least twenty six pans. We took on the count along the White Hills road, stopping in at the two Ngwenyas, Tshebe Tshebe, Tshabema, Kaoshe Garakamwe, Mabuya Mabena, Bembi and White Hills. Water all along the way is fair for this time of the year and Mabuya Mabena now has a solar unit which is keeping the pan topped up. There was obviously a shy hippo in the pan because after an initial pop up of his enormous head, he would only stick out his two hairy nostrils for air while we were there! Another day we took the road through Caterpillar and Dopi, on down to Jambile and through the Mangas. Unfortunately, although the borehole at Manga One was cleared out, pumping is not going on there at the moment. Manga Three, which is being pumped by Somalisa, held good water and two giraffe were coming down to drink. We were, however, appalled at the damage being done to the road through there with thirty ton rigs driving supplies through to Somalisa for their new camp. The huge, heavy trucks are breaking through the surface causing untold damage which will never be repaired. We certainly felt that some sort of warning should be given to unwary travellers as vehicles could easily get stuck down there in the long patches of dug out, heavy sand. The two solar units at Ngweshla are doing a good job and the pan near the picnic site is full. Sadly, Kennedy Two is in a dire state with the elephants having dug right back towards the solar unit and no water appears to be getting into the pan at all which is dry. As there is a problem with the engine mount on the diesel unit, that isn’t being used either. Solar units at Kennedy One, Sinanga and Makwa are holding their own for now, but the diesel units may have to be put into use later. Some of the new solar units are doing a great job in the park but unfortunately, places where the diesel pumping should be going on is not being done as Parks has had no fuel. However, some did arrive while we were there so hopefully the engines will be kept running now that things are drying off. WEZ and Friends of Hwange have both donated money to procure diesel for pumping.

Birding generally was good and we saw eight kori bustards in the Ngweshla vlei. All the animals we saw were in good condition. We came across several large breeding herds of elephant and twice going past the Kennedy Two solar unit, a crowd of large elephant bulls had gathered to sup up what clean water they could get at. One evening at Nyamandhlovu, several small herds of elephant came down to drink, some of them galloping in as they were obviously so thirsty. We saw all the usual plains game including a very pregnant looking roan female near the mineral licks at Ngweshla and an extremely handsome, proud sable bull near Balla Balla one evening. The warthog have obviously bred well again this season and sounders with several juvenile hoglets could be seen fossicking around in the old, dried up muddy patches. A lion pride was feeding on an elephant carcass along the Balla Balla loop road so were seen on a daily basis. It is heartening to hear that so many people are seeing cheetah out and about in the park so their numbers seem to be improving too.

One member of our party unfortunately became fairly seriously ill with a gastro bug and we were all SO impressed with the service she received from the clinic in Main Camp which is a fantastic facility and the care that was given by the stand in male nurse there, who administered drugs and an injection as well as visiting several times a day. The tourist office staff were also very helpful in making a cottage with bathroom en suite available for the patient. Well done, Main Camp.

John and Jenny Brebner

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