The Four Wheel Drive Club of Southern Africa

Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe – October 2009

In March of 2009 I spearheaded an initiative to help raise funds for the Friends of Hwange Trust. Since then the FWDCSA has embraced a national campaign to continually raise funds for this very worthy cause. This was done through the sale of vehicle decals and many personal donations made by individual club members as well as some corporate companies. A special mention must go to Gillian Simpson from CGA Accounting and her client Addax Oil for their generous donation. Part of our drive to raise funds and raise awareness for Hwange National park was an organized trip to the Park. I was, as most people are very skeptical about visiting Zimbabwe. All one hears is that the place is in ruin, no fuel, no food, corrupt officials, the list goes on. Then there are off course the stories that there is no wildlife left in any of Zim’s national Park. “They have all been poached out” is all one ever reads.

Simon from Mafunyane Adventures made all the plans and organised this trip. From our first meeting and with all his assurances the trip was put together. At this point I must say that both the planning and organisation of the trip was both professional and well put together. As was expected the trip was fully booked and after our pre-trip meeting everyone was rearing to go. We all met up at Kwa Nokeng Lodge in Botswana and after setting up camp and having burgers and wors rolls for dinner, a few drinks most retired early. Simon handed out breakfast “boxes” and after refueling and a briefing all eleven vehicles headed off for our 8 hour drive to Elephant sands, 60km past Nata. Besides my air-conditioner belt slipping (this was to be my bug bear for the trip) the trip went without any hiccups. We had not been on the Nata – Kasane road for more than 5kms when the first elephants were spotted along the road. I also saw Giraffe and other game species. This road has not been named the “Road to Hell” for nothing. It’s not so bad in the South but once up North the pot holes could swallow elephants. In many places its better to drive on the sides next to the “tar” than on the actual road. In many places there is no tar left, trucks though seem to be unconcerned and drive as expected, I ended up with two new cracks in my windscreen.

Anyway we arrived at Elephant sands in the late afternoon and set up camp where ever we wanted. This has been my first visit to Elephant sands, but will defiantly not be my last and will in fact take the permanent place of Nata Lodge even when finished. The ablutions are an open reed structure (unisex) in the middle of the camp. Very clean and well maintained and had hot water whenever I needed, even though with the 30+ heat who wants a warm shower. There is a small swimming pool which most of us dived into straight away, a pub, restaurant and then the great viewing area overlooking a water hole. It was not long and the elephants came down to drink, this continued all night. We enjoyed a great dinner around the pool while elephants came to drink from both the waterhole and the pool. Chris Foley and I stood less than 2,5m from a wild African Elephant, with only a small bush separating us. Man that was an experience.

Oom Ben who runs Elephant sands kept a few of us entertained with his stories and knowledge of the area until well into the night. When packing up camp the next morning there were elephant tracks all over the place, sometimes mm from a tent, yet no one heard them moving through the campsite. After a traditional English breakfast we were on our way back on the “road to hell” and our next stop, the Pandamatenga border post.

First we all stopped and fill up with fuel; this would be our last refuel until we arrived back in Botswana.

My air-conditioner belt had finally broken and I replaced it with an old one, it was over 35 degrees and I prayed that this old belt would last. Despite all the things we had heard about crossing into Zimbabwe it was relatively hassle free, it just took about two hours. Vehicles being checked and rechecked, as well as all the border and visa payments. The only problem the border police had was with our 2-way radios. After Simon and I explained that we are a club and these radios are only for our convoy and don’t have a range of more than 1km we were sent on our merry way. Oh, I suppose the six Cokes might have helped. The road, or should I say track, to Hwange was not too bad, though could give some serious problems in the wet season. Everything was bone dry, not a breeze and Hermann’s Disco saying the temperature was 37 degrees we drove on towards Hwange only stopping for a light lunch. Even before we got to Hwange we spotted large herds of sable antelope and other buck species. A few km before the main gate in a valley to our right a buffalo herd was on the move. It was easily the largest herd I or anyone in our group had ever seen and numbered a few hundred. Some idiot in a Landy game viewing vehicle suddenly appeared and chased the herd along the valley creating a huge dust cloud. The less said about these types of morons the better.

Finally we got to the main gate to Robins camp. All was clean and the rangers very pleasant, more Cokes.

Rob decided that he needed to change the shape of the security boom and in the process took out his headlight and added some scratches to his Hilux. Obviously the anticipation of getting into Hwange was reaching a peak. Rob comes from Zimbabwe and had not been back since leaving many, many years previously. The drive to Robins Camp was uneventful besides seeing various buck and antelope and feeding a leopard tortoise.

Robins can best be described as dilapidated and desolate. As they hardly have any visitors and no other resources this place and all other camps visited were in bad need of repair. Having said that, the rangers and camp staff do what they can to keep the place clean and orderly. We even got a cold beer from the bar. Their eyes light up with utter surprise at the arrival of our convoy. From Robins it was onto our camp for the next two nights, Masuma Dam. What a brilliant camp. A small fenced campsite with a permanent ranger, two clean flush toilets and a donkey shower. Best was a large thatched lapa overlooking the waterhole. There was quite a bit of water and the sound of the Lister pump engine could be heard in the distance. There were a couple of elephant drinking, hippos and a few other animals as well huge flocks of guinea fowl and doves. I could spend hours writing about this place but words could not describe so it will remain in my memory and in those people in our group. Chris had had a problem with his alternator, a broken wire was found and within 30 min problem solved.

That evening Simon served up a braai of note and with bellies full we all sat around the fire and listen to the night sounds. During the course of the night we witnessed hundreds of elephants coming down to drink as well as many other game species. There was of course the now famous “red jerry can” made famous by my mate Justin which was liberally consumed by a group of us well into the night. Eventually Simon put a mattress on the roof of his Defender and went into dream land. Next morning it was up early and people went out for a morning drive. Brunch was at 11 and everyone came back with stories of what they had seen. Hermann as always had great viewing including Leopard and “mating” lions.

I took a drive about 20km towards Main Camp to check out the new windmill that had been erected by Friends of Hwange. Great to see where our small contribution was going towards. Simon and I went through to Simmentela Camp to make necessary payments and returned with a armed game ranger who was doing a shift change with the one stationed at Masuma. These rangers are armed and are responsible for anti poaching. We enjoyed a long conversation about the park and its problems. Seems that most poachers are from Zambia and are accompanied by ex park employees who know the ins and outs of the park. According to this ranger and confirmed later by Gary (Friends of Hwange) poaching is not as bad as it is reported. I have since learned that the poaching problems in South Africa, particularly in Kruger are in some cases far worse than in Hwange. With the small recourses that they have these rangers are committed and doing a sterling job.

On arriving back at camp however we were greeted by a group of Frenchmen who tried in vain to have us leave the camp site, them saying that they had booked it exclusively for themselves. Seems like these particular Frenchmen knew more about the rules and goings on in Hwange than us, the rangers and the camp manager. Anyway we stayed and enjoyed another great evening. We had a spotlight at hand and whenever there was a scuffle at the waterhole we investigated. Again hundreds of elephant came in groups to drink as well as zebra, kudu, impala, baboons and many other animals. We were even lucky enough to spot a serval coming to drink. There were also the sound of Lions and Hyenas’ all around.

A really great evening with the “red jerry can” again being consumed. The next morning after another great breakfast it was off east to Main Camp where we were to stay the next two nights. Groups of vehicles left at different times so that we would not all bunch up at any exciting sightings. Simon and I were the last to leave and after some time the Radio came to life with Kobus and Debbie on the other end. They were stationed at a small water hole with a huge herd of buffalo and three Lions. We got to the scene in time to sit and watch this spectacle, hoping for a kill or something, but alas the lions just moped around watching the herd. On the way to Main Camp I stopped at another water hole with a platform overlooking it and met up with some of our group who were spending time observing the elephants, Giraffe and other buck drinking. Main Camp is the largest of all the camps and its gate is situated on the main Bulawayo Vic Falls road. There are clean neat chalets and a huge camp site with lots of trees for shade. Stanley being the “sparky” that he is connected a couple of us up with electricity from one of the chalets, with permission off course. After setting up camp some retired for a afternoon nap and others went for a game drive to the South. A few of us had sundowners overlooking a water hole watching game come down to drink. Then back to camp (not before spotting 2 Giant eagle Owls next to the road) for another great dinner. The usual camp fire banter and then off to sleep.

This morning we went down to Kennedy Pan to meet with Gary from Friends of Hwange Trust. Gary is permanently stationed In Hwange and maintains the Lister Pumps and Windmills on the behalf of the Trust. We spent many hours with him listening to what the Trust does and the about the condition of the Park. He also thanked us for all the donations and most of all for coming to visit the Park. One of the interesting facts he chatted about are the lions in Hwange that have mastered the art of hunting Elephants. Then it was on to visit more water holes that the Trust maintains. Some of these water holes Lister Pumps run 24 hours to ensure sufficient water. During the dry months even this is not sufficient. Finally it was getting late and we made our way back to Main Camp. Hermann and Gabriela arrived last as per usual had again seen soothing special, they had come across a pack of Wild Dogs which played around there vehicle, just a few kilometers from camp. The last night in Hwange was somehow sad for me, I just wanted to stay, all the stories we had heard were disproved and I had seen so much and enjoyed my stay that I did not want to leave. But like they say “all good things must end”. But I will be back next year, come hell or high water. Next morning it was back to Elephant Sands in Botswana, we drove the tar road from Main camp towards Vic Falls. The road was in better condition than most SA tar roads, we even stopped at a small stall for a cold Coke. The stall had almost anything you needed; this is defiantly against what we have heard.

The border crossing went smooth and only took a few minutes. Back at Elephant Sands it was into the swimming pool, set up camp and site at the water hole. Just to add one more surprise to our trip a pack of some six or more Wild Dogs came to drink and play in the water, WOW is all one can really say. We again enjoyed a marvelous three course meal around the pool watching the Elephants coming to drink.

Stewart left early the next morning as he had to get back to SA, while the rest of us took a uneventful drive back to Kwa Nokeng Lodge for our last night. After breakfast in the lodge we all said our goodbyes and headed back home. Another truly great and memorable outing. I am really looking forward to this trip next year. Thanks to all who shared this experience with me, you all contributed to making this the best trip of 2009. Stanley your daughter is an absolute gem. Chris for keeping me from running away from the elephants and having a great experience watching them. Kobus and Debbie for the bird knowledge, Rob, (thanks also for the extra donation from Macsteel) Gail, Simon and other Blondie for the camp fire banter, Marnix and your lovely wife who is always there with a smile, Stewart, Colin and Gillian as well as Gail and Johan – welcome to the club.

Simon thanks again for a tremendous trip, the planning and organisation, the out of this world food and all the little extras. Many thanks from all of us. I look forward to this trip again next year. I thank all the members who have contributed to the Friends of Hwange Trust and hope you will all continue with your support in 2010. All that remains to say is until we meet again around a camp fire to the sounds of Africa be well, take care of yourselves and your loved ones and most of all keep those tyres in the dirt.

Thorsten Schafer

P.s. The next outing to Hwange is taking place on 15-23 October 2010. Book early to avoid disappointment.

Other exciting outings to look forward to

1. 10 days at Mana Pools including 2 nights on a house boat. 14 – 23 May
2. Tembe Elephant Park on the border of SA and Mozambique. 23-26 July
3. Makgadikgadi Pans (Kubu Island and Game Reserve). 5-10 August
4. 10 day trip to Zambia, including tiger fishing. 17-26 September
5. 2 week trip to Liuwa Plains Game Reserve in Zambia for the migration.