There had hardly been a moment of quiet the entire morning, but I suddenly realised that none of us were talking. Whatever words might have been on the tip of my tongue were carried away by swallow-tailed bee-eaters, or by tree squirrels skirting up the branches of camelthorn trees. It was beneath the ear-lobed pods of one such African ‘umbrella’ tree that the three of us sat on canvas chairs, enjoying a picnic lunch. My two companions were Livingston Sana, an experienced guide from Davison’s Camp, and Wilderness Safari’s Regional Environmental officer Arnold Tshipa. Although mouthfuls of tasty food may have played a role in our silence, there was more to it.
We were seated before a magnificent open glade where herds of wildebeest, impala and zebra rested alongside lazy palms, or browsed in scattered groups. This is Ngamo Plains in the South-Eastern region of Hwange Game Reserve – a fossil lakebed turned seasonally flooded savanna grassland of almost 10km across. Perhaps it could also be termed the ‘Serengeti of Hwange National Park’.
The Linkwasha concession (the largest private concession in Hwange), is managed by Wilderness Safaris who operate four intimate safari camps, as well as an anti-poaching unit and a game water supply team. Although the concession is only 523 square kilometres (roughly 4% of the park), according to Arnold, 40- 60 % of elephant sightings occur within the concession. Arnold says there are as many as 50 lions seen regularly in the area. However, forget blaring radios and safari guides bull-dozering after the big 5 – that’s not the way things are done here. Game drives are a peaceful affair and animals are left to stroll out from shady teak woodlands on their own terms, to drink at the waterholes, the centre of life at Hwange, while lucky guests like me, watch on from front-row seats.
Because there are no natural rivers in Hwange, water is only seasonal. To keep the elephants and other game inside the reserve during dry season (April to November), water has to be pumped up from the depths of the earth. This was realised in the 1920’s by Ted Hartely Davison, the first warden of Hwange Game Reserve (after whom Davison’s Camp is named). During the rainy season, Hwange would be teeming with a diverse display of wildlife, but in dry times many animals migrated. The only way that Hwange could remain a productive reserve throughout the year was to sink boreholes to provide the animals with water year-round. In his book, Wankie – The Story of a great Game Reserve, Davison recalls that, “It was not long before the elephant associated the throbbing of the engines with clean water and if, for any reason, the pump was not running and the trough empty, they would stand in a most expectant manner. Sometimes they would wander off, standing under the shade of trees for hours, even days, and then within 20 minutes of the pump being started they would be back at the trough.” But keeping these grey giants watered is no easy job, which I had already discovered that morning. Now you may not meet many other vehicles on the road during game drives in Linkwasha, but there’s a good chance you’ll bump into Mr B.
Mr Williem Botha is the manager of Linkwasha’s game water supply and spends each day in his Landcruiser, refuelling and maintaining the concession’s 14 boreholes. “The amount of water that we have to pump to keep up with the elephant is a major operation” he told me. “We’re pumping about a hundred thousand litres of water per pump per 24 hours.” I was inspired by this ex-farmer’s love of the area. “It’s a magnificent environment here, outstanding birdlife and wildlife in this wilderness I’m privileged enough to work in. I go to bed at night forgetting about uncomfortably cold mornings or scorching summer heat, especially after spending time at Ngamo Plains, my favourite area of the concession. I’ve got a particular soft spot for those camelthorn trees … many a time I stop my Landcruiser and just get taken in by the beauty and serenity that surrounds those magnificent trees.” Going about his daily duties, Mr B has had some exceptional wildlife encounters. “Many animals come and go, but I have noticed that at most pans there is a resident pair of black-backed jackals and, if I don’t’ see them, I tend to wonder where they are. I’ve had the rare privilege of seeing pups playing too, but of course when the Landcruiser comes, they’re back into their den (usually a deserted ant bear burrow).
During our quiet picnic lunch, I scanned the edge of the pan for Mr B’s jackals to no avail. Yet, the pan was aflurry with bird activity. “Amazing birding spot!, I said, breaking the silence. This certainly got Arnold talking again. “I can spend hours here just looking at birds! Do you know last year we saw a grasshopper buzzard here? It was the first time it’s been recorded in Southern Africa.”
Ngamo is a birding hotspot throughout the year. Exceptional water birds can be seen and raptors abound: Marshal eagles, Secretary birds, Dark-chanting Goshawks, Dickerson’s Kestrels and many many more. It’s winter now and Bee- eaters swirl and loop above my head, while Lilac-breasted Rollars perch on bare branches, handsome and dignified in their colourful plumage. I imagine that the wet season is equally spectacular. With the rains, Ngamo’s grasslands flood and become a mosaic of verdant fields dotted with palms and elephants. These flooded marshes attract Whiskered terns, Painted snipes, Pygmy goose and, every now and then, a vagrant African skimmer or African hobby. Carmine bee-eaters appear in pink animated clouds, as well as many other exciting migrants.
After more birding chatter, Arnold retrieved his radio telemetry equipment and began clambering up the trunk of a camelthorn tree. Intrigued, but not yet ready to leave my comfortable camp chair, I watched him. As part of one of the longest job descriptions I’ve ever heard, Arnold is conducting a variety of research projects including one on elephants, a special interest of his. The project involves tracking the movements of 8 collared elephants to research social dominance. “I want to know how dominance between elephant herds affects their movements and behaviour,” he explained to me that morning. “For instance: will dominant animals eat closer to water? (where the nutritional value is lower) or further away? I want to understand the movements of elephant and whether dominance plays a role in them being ‘movers’ or residents.”
The insights gained from Arnold’s research will be used to enhance the knowledge of safari guides in the area, who can share it with guests. I was pleased to hear about the extensive research going on in Hwange – not just in Wilderness Safari’s concession – but throughout the whole reserve. The knowledge that there are so many people investing their expertise and passion in Hwange is enough to give one a feeling of hope for its future.
When we left our shady lunch spot, I carried with me the quiet sense of belonging, along with a bubbling sense of excitement. Ngamo Plains provides a landscape that doesn’t just remind you why you love Africa, but lifts you off your feet into a wild and giddy romance, echoing your most inward desires with all that it signifies – space, freedom and beauty that is wild and uninhibited.
Where to Stay: Davisons Camp
Davison’s is a timeless, authentic tented camp overlooking a spectacular open plain and water hole. There are 8 luxurious tents shaded by false mopane trees. The main area compromises a spacious lounge and dining room with a wooden deck where we dined beneath the Southern Cross enjoying some of the most delicious, lovingly prepared cuisine in Africa. The pool also looks over the waterhole and the upper deck is an amazing place to relax and in the afternoons, or gaze at the stars by night.
Founded in Botswana in 1983, Wilderness Safaris is widely acclaimed as the continent’s foremost ecotourism operator. We give our guests life-changing journeys in some of the most remote and pristine areas in Africa and in so doing help conserve Africa’s spectacular biodiversity and share ecotourism’s benefits with rural people.
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