Getting the numbers right
What’s that scratching sound?” “I don’t hear anything,” responds my husband, Riaan, who took the passenger seat when we drove out of the picnic site at Deteema Dam in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe.
We drive a few metres before I ask: “There’s definitely something wrong with one of the wheels – can’t you hear that?”
Driving our beloved ’94 Defender 110 V8, we’ve had our fair share of challenges, such as a snapped accelerator cable in the Kgalagadi, just as we drove off from a lion sighting, forcing us to idle the vehicle away at a snail’s pace for more than two kilometres to ensure that we were away from any potentially hungry lions.
Or the time the master clutch cylinder broke in the Kruger National Park, having just returned from the Limpopo Transfrontier Park, forcing the poor Musina Avis guys to bring us a vehicle after hours (no easy feat in the Kruger), so that we could source a replacement in Polokwane, and then, after doing running repairs in Punda Maria, continue with our trip home. These are but a few of many colourful experiences.
We’re in Hwange for the annual Game Count where volunteers from around the world assist Wildlife and Environment Zimbabwe (WEZ) to do a census on the game in the park. The count is co-ordinated from the park’s three camps: Main, Sinamatella and Robins’. The count takes place over a 24-hour period timed to coincide with the last full moon of the southern African dry season (usually in late September or early October). The theory is that as the ground water evaporates at the end of winter, animals will congregate around the remaining water sources. As all mammals need to drink at least once every 24 hours, the idea is that most can be recorded by watchers placed at strategic waterholes and streams.
Each camp holds a briefing and then assigns waterholes, hides and / or river positions to teams of counters who are allowed to drive off-road (responsibly) and unsupervised for this 24-hour period only. This is our second count with good friends of ours from Australia, Tony and Nicola Park, who have been counting for 13 years.
Tony writes novels set in southern Africa and his latest book, African Dawn, actually includes a scene based on a rhino-poaching incident that happened during the game count a few years ago. We hope our count is going to be less dramatic.
This year we are assigned to Little Toms’ waterhole. We’re excited as we’ll have some good shelter in the hide and can move around a bit more freely, rather than if we were counting out in the bush, where we’d be left exposed and restricted to the immediate area around the vehicles. We arrive at the hide in time to set up by the midday start time, but after a few hours of only spotting animals in the distance, we realise that the hide isn’t going to give us an ideal vantage point after all.
Tony and Nicola decide to do a quick recce of the rest of the area around Little Toms’ to find us a better position as I finish showering our kids (Leyla, eight, and Adriaan, six) underneath the solar showers dangling from the arm attached to the Landy’s roof rack. Not wanting to waste time, as the sun starts setting, they just quickly fold up their ’97 Defender 300Tdi’s rooftop tent and head off into the bush. Riaan keeps an eye on them as they find a better position, pull in and start setting up again. We pack up and follow suit; quickly set up our two rooftop tents, give the kids dinner, and send them off to bed till the next morning.
After a rather quick debate, we decide to take the first shift and Tony and Nicola take the second. The nighttime count starts, as we’ve become accustomed to spending time in the park already, with gentle grey giants emerging from the bush and heading into the water to drink. It still amazes me that it is possible for an animal as big as an elephant to walk in the bush without making a sound. Their big frames are fairly easily spotted under the cloudless, moonlit sky once you have an idea of where they are, thanks to the low-key splashes of their trunks in the water.
At around 23h00, Riaan gives a hushed shout: “Lions!” I excitedly grab the children’s mini-binoculars and scan the horizon in the direction that he’s pointing, in the hopes of seeing these magnificent beasts. “I see them! There are two lionesses crossing the stream!” We look through the other windows, hoping to see which direction they’re heading, but they’re lost behind the tall grass.
In the wee hours of the morning, we happily hand over the log sheets and duty of recording the types of animal, sex, direction of entry, direction of exit and whether they drank or not, to our team-mates, and climb into our rooftop tent for some much-needed sleep. The “add-a-room” panels and make-shift screen covering the hind-part of our Land Rovers, parked back-to-back at an angle, provide some sense of security from the lionesses that have crossed the stream towards our side. As a zebra brays in the background and the count continues, we fall asleep. A few hours later we reluctantly get out of bed and make our way down the ladder, boiling the kettle along the way, and get back into the front seats of the Land Rover. Over hushed “good mornings,” we enquire about the early morning sightings; and as the end of the count approaches at midday, we enjoy breakfast and start packing up our camp. Riaan and I decide to take a detour back to Robins’ Camp as our batteries need a charge to support the running fridge. Taking a leisurely drive from Big Tom’s, Chingahobe Dam and Croc Pools back to Robins’ Camp, we arrive to broad smiles and great excitement.
Tony and Nicola enthusiastically share their close encounter with one of the lionesses we’d seen the previous evening. She had, in fact, killed a zebra less than 100 metres behind where we were stationed for the count, and by the next morning was still fiercely defending what was left of her kill by charging the Land Rover. We’d missed it, and although we head back to the site, by the time we get there a few stripped-bare ribs are all that remain of the zebra. Heading in our own direction from Robins’ Camp the next morning, we travel via Deteema Dam. The water levels at all the dams are considerably lower than they were the previous year, and hippos lie in mud pools with only a few inches of water surrounding them. Despite water being pumped to the dams by old and rusted diesel-operated pumps, this seemingly futile attempt does not match the harsh African sun licking it up before the animals can get to it. Following a sandy whirlwind heading over the dry dam at Deteema, passing giraffes, zebras and Roan antelope, we take a last bite of our snacks and head over to the picnic area to tie-up with friends, and confirm the rendezvous at Masuma Dam.
With local builders re-thatching and renovating the picnic site, I get behind the wheel and Riaan gets out to have a quick chat. We manoeuvre through the soft sand at the entrance with ease, and nod our approval of the vehicle’s capabilities. “Yes, I hear it,” Riaan says, as I raise my concern again. Pulling off to the side of the deserted road between Deteema and Masuma, we get out of the car and peer underneath... Not seeing anything, we face the inevitable: “Oh well, we’ll have to take off the wheel. Tell the kids to be on the lookout for lions.” With the kids and me peering through the dense bushes, he starts loosening the bolts holding the high-lift jack in place. Sliding it into the slot provided in the bullbar, he jacks up the right front of the vehicle.
“Elephants!” I say, with a mix of excitement and anguish. “And they have little ones.” (The latter being the reason Oh well, we’ll have to take off the wheel. Tell the kids to be on the lookout for lions why I’m rather nervous about being on foot, next to a lop-sided, jacked-up vehicle.) Having finally loosened all the nuts, we remove the tyre and take a look inside. Very neatly, stuck in-between the brake disc and the disc cover plate, is the culprit... a small rock that must have been kicked up and become stuck there as we drove.
We remove the rock with relative ease and put the tyre back on just as the last of the herd crosses the road in front of us. With a sigh of relief for not having drawn the attention of these giants, and even more so for discovering no major problem on the vehicle, we replace the high-lift jack in its slot, turn the key, and hit the road again for the last few kilometres to Masuma Hide for the evening’s stop-over.
Masuma remains one of my favourite places; the elephant extravaganza which begins around 21h00 every evening will keep you wide-eyed until the early hours of the morning, completely mesmerised. The next morning we head towards Nyamandhlovu Hide, stopping at numerous waterholes along the way, and breaking for lunch while taking in the beauty in front of us as zebra, kudu and wildebeest make their independent way to the dam for a drink. Then it’s on to Main Camp to check in.
Coming from Robins’ camp, which is still not yet a tourist hub as it was in its hey-day, we’re used to the fairly deserted campground; and, even more so, being one of only a few vehicles on the roads and at the hides. As the African sun starts to set, we make our way back to Nyamandhlovu Hide for sundowners and find that Main Camp and its surrounding waterholes are quite the opposite. It seems that tourists have started re-discovering this magnificent park. The hide itself is full and tourists in their khakis and bush hats, cameras clicking away, make their way in and out of the area.
We park our Land Rovers next to the hide and, as is the custom, climb onto the bonnets and the roof racks for some sun-downer drinks and snacks. As a lonely jackal trots past a lazy crocodile, and with elephants dabbling their trunks in the water that reflects the intense red and orange hues, we marvel at the beauty of this magnificent continent – Africa.
ABOUT THE GAME CENSUS
Hwange Game Census first took place in 1972 and has been running annually to this day, making it the longest continuously-running game census in southern Africa. During the 2011 count, 38 451 animals were counted covering 46 different species. Most of these, a total of 23 569 or 61.5 percent, were elephant. This is the highest recorded number of elephants yet, according to Wildlife and Environment Zimbabwe’s (WEZ) records.
The next numerous were Cape buffalo, with a total of 3 433. The dry conditions in the park during the 2011 count resulted in an exceptionally large number of animals being counted at some of the pans. Of the 70 pans counted, six pans counted more than 900 elephant. Rare species included African Wildcat, Gemsbok, Brown Hyena, Bat-Eared Fox, Cheetah, Bushpig, and Grysbok.