Banhine or bust!

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VIEWS

This was a journey of hope and expectation. I had the privilege of tagging onto an elephantand- lion research team on its inaugural expedition, which was ostensibly to discover how many elephants and lions exist in Banhine National Park. Th is is one of three national parks in Mozambique that make up the Mozambican side of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area (TFCA). Th e team also wanted to find out whether the animals migrated within the greater TFCA zone, and specifi cally between the Limpopo National Park and Gonarezhou in neighbouring Zimbabwe.

By Adam Cruise
However, what was meant to be a wellplanned and relatively straightforward incursion to count elephants and lions turned into a chain of events that bordered on the extreme side of endurance and dogged perseverance. To cap it off , despite our persistence and tenacity we met with hardly any success in our goal of finding elephants or lions.

Admittedly, there were a few logistical headaches before the convoy could even start its engines at our muster-point near Hoedspruit in the misty pre-dawn hours of the first day. Aside from the two-day traverse across the Kruger National Park, the adjacent Limpopo National Park, and beyond, Banhine is a park of 7250km2 of swampy Sandveld. It meant that if the researchers were to have any success in finding animals, they required the assistance of a spotter plane: the one which had been lent to the research effort by the Peace Parks Foundation which facilitates the development of the park. The fixed-wing plane was, in turn, supported by a helicopter, piloted by the inimitable Jacques Saayman. Next to him in the cockpit was South Africa’s leading wildlife veterinarian, Cobus Raath, whose job it was to dart the elephants from the air – if he and Jacques found any.

Furthermore, permits for dart guns, immobilisation drugs, official letters of transport and the usual cross-border rigmarole had to be organised.

The convoy takes shape

The convoy consisted of three Land Cruisers. The lead vehicle, a solid doublecab 4500 EFI petrol specced for a life in the bush, was driven by Michele Henley, the pre-eminent elephant ecologist. I followed in my 1992 100 VX diesel – the belle of the ball – and bringing up the rear was our support team from Bush Whisperer in a reliable old 4.2-litre diesel Troopy. This was towing a monster off -road trailer carrying our supplies, tents and other paraphernalia.

There was some initial jostling among the six members of the ground team as to who would share the driving with me. With its Active Height Control (AHC) suspension system, the 100 Series was by far the most comfortable of the three Cruisers, especially over the jaw-shattering corrugations of Mozambican tracks. The privilege was ultimately handed, by consensus, to the principal organiser and main fundraiser of the expedition – a decision he would soon come to regret.

Everything went well until we crossed into Mozambique; this was when, on a blind curve, the lead vehicle came face-to-face (or rather, bullbar to bare grille) with a Ford Ranger. Without the necessary frontal protection, the poor Ranger came off second-best.

After untangling ourselves from that little contretemps, we found the remainder of the drive through the Limpopo National Park uneventful, if a little long. It was aft er nightfall when we arrived at Mamba Camp in the north-eastern sector of the park. Here we were met by Kristoff er Everatt and Rae Kokeš, both expert lion biologists. While the crew from Bush Whisperer set up camp and prepared food, the rest of us (sitting around the fire with the obligatory chilled glasses of wine) strategised the coming days in Banhine.

Crossing the Limpopo at Mapai, made easy thanks to the seasonal drop in river levels.

Crossing the Limpopo at Mapai, made easy thanks to the seasonal drop in river levels.

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