Friday, 29 May 2015

NEWSLETTER, MAY 2015

Newsletter 43, May 2015

GREEN SEASON No.2!
"Keep an eye on the weather", I wrote recently, in the WildZambezi newsletter apropos of rainy-season travel in the Zambezi Valley. "A few days' sunshine can make a big difference", I continued, "and so can an approaching cyclone."

By late April, the rains are usually no more than a dim memory, in the Zambezi Valley. Everything's drying out already, and we never really give the weather a second thought, at this time of year. This year, though, I was forcibly reminded of my own advice when, on our first safari of our 2015 season, the rainy season - which we thought had died several weeks before - suddenly erupted again as a cyclone invaded the Mozambique Channel....

We'd already had some serious rain while preparing for the safari and making our Kariba rendez-vous with Alistair Sinclair and Heather Whitham. ZIM4x4 is, frankly, not equipped for wet weather, confining itself to what - hitherto, anyway - has reliably been the "dry season" in the Zambezi Valley, and I had concerns over the weatherproofing of the bags that carried all our bedding on the Land Cruisers' roofrack. However, what you can't see can't hurt you, so I decided not to spoil my day by actually looking inside the bags. Besides, we were due to spend our first two nights in Kavinga's soon-to-be-opened lodges beside the Rukomechi River.

This camp is beautifully located on the summit of a low cliff overlooking the broad Rukomechi River, a few kilometres downstream of the Rukomechi tsetse research station (the turnoff is on the Mana access road 20km from the Harare-Chirundu tar). It is roughly 10km from the famous Chitake Spring and, in this writer's view, may well rival Chitake's spectacular wildlife scenarios. Two years ago, at Kavinga in the late dry season, Sally and I saw the largest gathering of elephants we have ever seen in the Zambezi Valley. There were fewer to be seen this time, because of the late rains and widespread surface water, but we nonetheless saw plenty of elephants, as well as buffalo and other species.

Largely, I have to say, under dull and gloomy skies. After leaving Kavinga our original plan called for us to drive over 100km across the Valley floor, on dirt and gravel roads,  to the dinosaur trackways in the eastern Chewore. We were already dubious about the wisdom of this, there being at least two bridges down on this route. Eventually the decision was made for us by a weather forecast of "heavy rain" for the day we were due to travel. Instead, and thanks to the generosity of Rod Huck, one of Kavinga's owners, we headed for his fishing camp on the Zambezi at Mongwe, about 20km downstream of Chirundu.

In fact, going to Mongwe fitted rather well with Heather and Alistair's aspirations for the safari, which included catching tigerfish. The weather didn't, though; sullen skies and chilly winds not being the best recipe for good tigerfishing. I therefore tried very hard to conceal my surprise when Heather caught a very nice 3kg fish while drifting with a chesa bait some way downstream of Mongwe. We permit ourselves one tigerfish "kill" per safari, unless prohibited by local regulation, and this, we decided, would be the one. The fish duly reappeared that evening, swathed in tinfoil and placed reverently on the braai coals for 15mins a side.

The cyclone continued to hang around. At Mongwe, being housed in luxurious chalets, we could snap our fingers at the weather, which continued to be largely gloomy and, much of the time, wet. From April 20th onwards, though, we were scheduled to occupy the remote and isolated Mcheni 1 camp in Mana Pools. On April 19 Mana Pools, in common with much of the Valley, received some 60mm of rain. It was with some foreboding, then, that we said goodbye to Mongwe, backtracked to Chirundu, and headed to Mana (those who know these parts will understand why we did not take the apparently very short drive into Mana via the "river road").

Much of the access road, from Nyakasikana northwards, was a more or less continuous sheet of water. The vehicles rapidly acquired alternating coats of grey slurry and reddish mud, as we traversed mopane and jesse soils. This road is in fact quite well-made and all-weather, in spite of its appearance; but the same cannot be said of the bush-track to the Mcheni camps. We made a contingency plan to stay at BBC temporarily, if the road proved difficult. It did. But when we pulled into the new BBC camp and found it wanting in several respects, not the least being it's situation in a large swamp, we said "the heck with it" and pressed on up the Mcheni road.

It wasn't an easy run, and we spent a good deal of time prospecting the road ahead, which was largely submerged. By the time we reached Mcheni 1almost three hours later, the new grey and red topsides acquired by the vehicles on the main access road had been supplemented by a thick underbody coating of black mud. But we hadn't got stuck, and the sun had come out, turning the bush and fresh grasses to brilliant emerald against a deep blue sky.
The Mcheni mornings were sometimes cloudy, but the days clear; and the rain had gone. So, unfortunately, had much of the wildlife, there being so much water and grazing inland; and visibility was often severely limited by the tall and often dense vegetation produced by the late rains.

Mana looked as if it was late January instead of late April, with the Green Season enjoying an unexpected new lease of life, and sightings weren't easy to come by. Driving around really wasn't an option, but Mcheni is an amazing place. Park your chair one way, and your view of the Zambezi is immense. Turn it around, and you look across a huge expanse of albida woodland. There's almost always something moving in one or the other of these panoramas - elephants, maybe swimming the river or feeding in the woodlands; hippos; impala; waterbuck; and - on our last day - buffalo.

Best of all, for several days we never saw another human soul. It wasn't until our last day in camp that one incautious character broke two Park regulations simultaneously by driving up our private camp access track, then forging off-road for a hundred metres to the riverbank. I paid him a visit, and let's just say he quickly and correctly deduced he was unwelcome. And on the following morning we were packing up anyway, for the last section of our safari: three glorious days on the Matusadona foreshore on "Taipan", one of our favourite houseboats, joined by Heather's parents, Ron and Elaine Whitham.

Lake Kariba is a lot lower than it has been for some years, and seems set to drop a good deal more during the forthcoming dry season, thanks - we can only imagine - to increased output from new turbines; the Zambezi has been running some 50cm higher than previously at Mana.

The pleasing aspect of this is the lush development of Panicum repens on newly-exposed shorelines at - for instance - the Kemurara River. We went there, and also moored later at one of our favourite spots: beside the leadwood at the entrance to the False Kanjedza. Wildlife continued to be rather unco-operative, but it was Alistair's turn to catch tigerfish; and we had enough good sightings of crocodiles, hippo, impala, waterbuck and an occasional elephant to keep the interest up. And the weather had finally settled down to its usual Kariba self, so we had lovely sunrises, calm shot-silk sunsets, and warm days in between.

Pleasingly, our guests amassed a good number of bird sightings throughout, including some of our "specials" such as Lilian's Lovebirds and even a possible Pitta in the Kavinga concession. The habitat was right, but the sighting fleeting, so we'll say no more of that until we have some further corroboration!

WALKING IN MANA POOLS
Well - it came to pass as we forecast it might: as of now, the Parks Authority has banned public walking in Mana Pools. This is not - as has been wrongly suggested - the result of any single operator or agency's representations. It has resulted from the bad behaviour of a minority of visitors, as detailed in our last newsletter, reported by many individuals over the past couple of years.

Nonetheless, we believe the ban is an overreaction. A strict Code of Conduct has been under preparation for some months, to be handed to - and signed for as being received by - all visitors, and we feel strongly that this is worth a suitable trial. Several agencies are making representations to the Authority to this effect, including The Zambezi Society (which we commend to you - see www.zamsoc.org) and we will issue a brief interim note if there is any change. Meanwhile, assume you will not be able to walk unless accompanied either by a Parks ranger or a qualified guide working with a licenced Mana Pools safari operator.

We are also terrified by the potential for the Law of Unintended Consequences to operate at full blast. Off-track driving is already a huge issue at Mana. There is now even more incentive for the irresponsible and less scrupulous to do so, if they are forbidden to get out of their cars and walk to beauty spots and wildlife sightings. The pessimist within us is gloomily anticipating a Mana Pools that looks like the aftermath of a 4X4 Jamboree.

DIRTY CARS AND DIRTY TRICKS DEPT
Back in January, while driving out of the Zambezi Valley with our Land Cruiser resembling a giant mobile mud-pie, a copper at a roadblock mistook us for tourists in a visiting vehicle.

"In Zimbabwe" he began, in a lofty, patronising and pontificatory kind of tone, "we have a law against dirty cars...."

He got no further, because at this point Sally and I both broke out in gales of mocking laughter and simulteneously managed to stutter - "officer, you have got to be joking!" However - and this is critical - I had anticipated an encounter of this nature. I got out of the car, took the cop by the arm and led him on a tour of the car.

"See here" I said. "I've cleaned off the lights. And the indicators. And the number plate." I led him amidships. "And the windscreen." Round to the back - "And the back number plate. And rear lights. And..."

At this point the cop shook free, muttered "Eeeh, you can go" and made off towards his colleagues as fast as his little legs would carry him.

The point is that there is absolutely no Zimbabwean law that compels a private vehicle to be "clean." However, I believe there may be regulations concerning the visibility and clarity or otherwise of lights, windscreens, number plates and reflectors. I don't know whether the police actually know that, but there's a risk that they might. And it only takes five minutes to wipe them off and it's as well to be prepared!

THE MANA POOLS LIGHT RAILWAY COMPANY
Did you know - and I'll bet you didn't - that the Mana Pools National Park has its very own railway system? We didn't either, until we saw it with our own eyes, in April. Here's a pic: -

This opens up all kinds of possibilities. There's the Riverside Run, on which we could chug along behind specially-built steam engines from the Chewore to Chirundu, and back again. Or the Nyakasikana Express, replacing the present appalling access road with roll-on roll-off flatbed trucks for our vehicles, all the way from the main road to Nyamepi.

Or the Long Pool Loop Line with a Sapi Pan Siding, or...oh, come on, let's not get too carried away....

Sadly, this all seems destined to remain nothing more than an unfulfilled dream. For one thing, we didn't see any trace of rolling stock - or engines, for that matter.

For another, the existing railway network is a mere two kilometres long, and located in the middle of some dense bush near the Rukomechi River a short distance south of the main access road.

One has to admit that the investment required in order to provide a useful service to visitors could be prohibitive. So please don't expect to see the ballast, sleepers, ties and rails being laid anytime soon, let alone a replica Flying Scotsman or Orient Express puffing its way around the Park.

OK, let's disentangle a bit of truth from fantasy. This stretch of line really does exist, as our photo shows. Rod Huck showed it to us during our recent safari. It's not all that far from the Rukomechi Research Station, and in fact it seems that the railway was in some way linked to tsetse control research, back in the days when there was money for such things. Something to do with moving tsetse fly bait - maybe cows? - to and fro through the bush, to see if they got bitten? Or maybe it was indeed a pilot study for the Mana Pools Light Railway Company, conducted in strictest secrecy and abandoned when tourism underwent one of its numerous slumps?

  

Saturday, 28 February 2015

MANA IN JANUARY



Here's the video from our private visit to Mana Pools in January: -


We don't run guided safaris during the rains, because of the unpredictability of rains, roads and weather-related issues in general. There's a big difference between Sally and I popping up there from Harare, and persuading visitors to fly in from Europe, if the ITCZ decides to sit over the Zambezi Valley and it pours with continuous rain for a week. But get the timing right, and it can be a magnificent experience; the transformation from dry-season dust to riotous summer vegetation is truly amazing. 

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

ZIM4X4'S AUGUST 2014 SAFARI

ZAMBEZI VALLEY BIOSPHERE RESERVE
AND
WORLD HERITAGE SITE SAFARI,
AUGUST 2014

PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOSH MALLON AND SALLY WYNN-PITMAN

Our ten-day August 2014 safari, with the Mallon family - Andy, Josh, Jake, Ben, and friend Ross - took us into the Mid-Zambezi Biosphere reserve and the 6000sq km Mid-Zambezi World Heritage Site before reaching its climax at the world-famous Mana Pools National Park.

It began in cloudy - and rather cool  - weather, with the drive to the Mavuradonha Wilderness Area, 500sq km of rugged Zambezi escarpment terrain set aside by the Muzarabani District Council to generate income for surrounding communities. Here's the view from the road through the Zambezi Escarpment -
The bare hills of the Great Dyke form the skyline; between them and us lie unbroken wilderness, cut with steep gorges and valleys.

Mavuradonha means "hills of water"  and we took a walk through the escarpment woodlands to one of the many secret little waterfalls on the edge of the escarpment mountains. The view of the waterfall from the top - 


The luxuriant vegetation on the steep climb down - 













- the view from the bottom, looking back up - 
 - and back to the top for refreshments and a preview of the Zambezi Valley. We'll descend into the Valley on the following morning, after overnighting in the Mavuradonha itself - something we like to do, as part of the proceeds goes to the rural communities that have voluntarily set this lovely area aside for our enjoyment.



















The next day takes us even further from the beaten tourist track, down into the Zambezi Valley and westward to the wild country of the Dande and Chewore. The weather clears, and becomes hot; and we finally reach our base for the next two days: Wingpod Camp, deep in the wilderness, beside a little riverbed pockmarked with elephant footprints and lion pugmarks. It lies on the edge of the 6000sq km Mid-Zambezi World Heritage Site; it's totally basic - we have to set up our own showers, and carry in the water for them; it's totally wild; and, thanks to generous friends, ZIM4x4 has privileged access. 














During the night we hear our first hyaena and a distant lion, and in the morning the fresh spoor in the riverbed tells us of the passage of an elephant family. Today, though, we're looking for evidence of the wildlife that roamed a very different Zambezi Valley in a long-gone era. We check into the Parks station at Mkanga Bridge, collect a ranger (mandatory in these hunting areas) and set out on an exciting day of exploration, centred on the world-class dinosaur trackways of the Eastern Chewore. Here's our first taste, beside the Ntumbe River, at the first trackway that was discovered in the area:































These prints were made 240 million years ago - yes, 240 million years - way back in the Triassic, by a dinosaur believed to belong to the Allosaurus genus. For 99.99% of that time the prints lay buried beneath hundreds of metres of sedimentary sandstones and mudstones, which have slowly eroded away to reveal these prints in our own fleeting eyeblink of geological time. Allosaurus was "bipedal" - it walked on its hind legs - was 3-4m tall, and was a predator; not at all the kind of animal you'd want to meet in the bush today! 




But that's just a taste. The really exciting trackways lie deeper in the bush. Even many of the local Parks Authority rangers don't know where they are, but we do. We hold a briefing with map, compass and GPS before setting off into the bush.






It's hot; it's rugged; it's dotted with tiny little springs and waterholes, like this one; above all, it's wild, with the ever-present chance of running into buffalo, elephant, or a pride of lions. 





Some excitement along the way - have we discovered some hitherto unknown dinosaur prints, or is it just our imagination running as wild as the terrain? 







Maybe, maybe not. But there's no mistaking it when we finally reach our destination, in the bed of a tiny little tributary stream. 
These are just a few of the 40-plus prints left behind along a short section of exposed riverbed, all those 240 million years ago, by a whole pack of Allosaurus that seems to have been hunting where lions and leopard hunt today: amazing evidence of the continuity of wildlife throughout the Zambezi Valley's evolutionary history. 

And here's the view from our brunch stop - all the way across the Chewore wilderness to Charamba Kadoma, the sacred flat-topped mountain on the skyline. Tomorrow we'll be driving into this panorama, through the World Heritage Site and past Charamba Kadoma... 

















...over dongas and dry riverbeds...














...through wildlife-haunted woodlands...
 ...to a beautiful camp beside the Zambezi, where we fish through the dusk...






















...and wake to a magical sunrise.









.
We have another route briefing before driving to Mana Pools itself - where we are almost immediately greeted by this lioness, lying up near the Trichelia turnoff. We spend a little time with her before continuing on to our exclusive campsite.
















And in Mana? Four glorious days in our own secluded little domain, just wandering and relaxing, against a permanent backdrop of impala, kudu, eland and elephants; four nights with the eles meandering through our camp and the lions calling in the woodlands. We've put up many pictures from Mana before, so this time we'll just focus on the wild dogs that came through our camp early one morning. We tracked them as they went hunting nearby and caught up with them moments after they'd taken down an impala. Fast-paced action in difficult lighting, and a lot of adrenalin flowing, but Sal and Josh captured the essence of it all: 
Hunting... (Sally Wynn-Pitman)
Impala down, dead, the carcase hidden within a scrum of hungry wild dogs, and mostly dismembered in the minute or two it took us to catch up with the group (Sally Wynn-Pitman). Though they are habitual food sharers, it was difficult to discern any particular order of precedence in the general melee. Our count: 11 individuals.
Later, mild squabbles broke out over the few remaining scraps (Josh Mallon)...
...and a bit of "every dog for himself" going on here? (Josh Mallon)
Finally - nothing left except a few scraps, some stomach contents, hooves, and bloodsoaked ground (Sally Wynn-Pitman). The wild dogs begin to amble away in ones and twos, and we return to our camp. 
After such excitement, a few hours's fishing is called for, and a totally different "adrenalin rush" - that of hooking a good-sized tigerfish. It's hot and calm - superb early-season tigerfishing weather...





























...and finally, to round off our safari, Andy Mallon catches a lovely 3kg fish. We fill it with herbs and rub garlic into its skin; then wrap it in foil and bake it whole on the campfire. Fifteen minutes a side and - fingers crossed as we open the foil - it's done to a turn. Catch'n'release is our usual order of the day but just now and again, on the last evening of a great safari, it's great to celebrate with a bit of hook'n'cook!

Monday, 19 May 2014

NEWSLETTER, MAY 2014

ZIM4X4 NEWSLETTER NO. 40. MAY 2014

APOLOGIES
Our apologies for the long silence since our last newsletter. It's been a rather unusual few weeks. Most years, we've been well booked up by January. This year, we weren't - we suspect because of several factors including the ZAR/US$ exchange rate (affected regional enquiries) and the somewhat unexpected outcome of last year's elections (affected the international scene). In March, however, our inbox suddenly exploded with new enquiries, through to and including September 2015. Add to this the fact that there hasn't been much by way of real news to pass on to you, and hopefully you'll understand and excuse our protracted silence!

FUELS - AGAIN!
Our recent comments concerning the ethanol content of Zimbabwean petrol still stand, but so far we seem to be at 10% and the threatened increase to 15% hasn't happened as yet. However, we did become rather concerned over some fairly fierce debates, on South African 4x4 forums in particular, over the sulphur content of diesel. It's extremely difficult to get hard data here, but it does seem that our diesel runs at around 500ppm. Meanwhile, some newer 4x4's apparently have a recommended limit of 50ppm. To cut a long story short, the most sensible observations seem to suggest that, on the evidence of one's own eyes, hundreds of these newer vehicles are running around the country with no apparent ill-effects. To which the retort may well be "OK, fine, but maybe the long-term effects have yet to become apparent."

The best we can say as far as visiting vehicles are concerned is that a few weeks of driving in Zimbabwe probably won't hurt, but we'd welcome comments from any of our readers who are technically better equipped to comment than we are. We'd never really been very aware of this issue, as our own Toyota 1HZ's will run on just about anything except petrol and water (as, over the years, we have had good reason to find out...!)

MANA IN APRIL
After some weeks of computer-bashing in Harare, towards the end of which we enjoyed the character-building experience of being both wet and bitterly cold, it was a huge relief to set off for Mana Pools on the first safari of our 2014 season.

We met Dagmar and Stephan Piwanski, from Hildesheim, Germany, at Makuti and set off early down the escarpment into the Zambezi Valley, itself also covered by a blanket of featureless grey cloud. Rather unusually - as we had overnighted at Makuti - we were able to meander slowly along the Mana access roads.
The mixed woodlands before the Nyakasikana Gate, the mopanes thereafter, and then the jesse bush - technically "dry forests", sitting on their red Kalahari sandcaps - all have their points of interest. The dry forests, for example, hold endemic species such as the Sand Ash (Xylia torreana), and appeared to be in great condition. In places the road was almost covered with the remarkable seeds of the the pawnbroker trees. All too often, we arrive in Mana from Harare without having the time to enjoy and discuss these things with our guests. This time, we did.

The quantity of animal sign on the road also indicated that much of Mana's wildlife was still well dispersed in the Park hinterland, as it always does during the rains, when water and fodder are abundant in these areas. This kind of wet-season dispersal is common in wildife areas. What makes it particularly important in Mana is that water becomes very scarce in this hinterland later in the dry season. Whereas in Hwange, for example, there are numerous artificially-pumped pans scattered across the Park's arid habitats, in Mana Pools much of the Park's wildlife is forced northwards to the Zambezi and - in particular - the Mana floodplains (more correctly, but clumsily, called "river terraces"; it is the low, annually flooded grasslands visible at places such as Mana Mouth that are the true floodplains).

The river terraces are on silt deposits left behind by the Zambezi as it's course shifted northwards across the Valley floor in recent millennia. This, combined with high watertables, makes them especially productive - hence the abundance of winterthorns, mahoganies, leadwoods, raintrees and other species usually associated with riverine forest fringes.
The rainy season is a much-needed time of rest and recuperation for these woodlands. They, and the forbs and grasses that also grow prolifically on the terraces and floodplains, have to support much of Mana's wildlife through the long, hot and harsh dry season, until the rains come back and the animals disperse once again.


The clouds dispersed and by the time we reached Nyamepi the sun was warm, and the sky its accustomed deep April blue. Mana had some good rains during the summer, and the pools and pans were well filled.

The rains had virtually ended in the Zambezi Valley by the time of our safari. However, Mana had had some good rains during the summer, and the pools and pans were well filled. Even so, the grass was already wilting and turning brown. Visibility at ground level was largely inhibited by the ubiquitous Indigofera, making it somewhat difficult to spot species such as lion on foot unless one more or less tripped over them - always an exciting event, which happily we didn't experience. But most trees were still in leaf, the floodplains were dotted with myriad secret pans and pools and the famous winterthorns were flowering, promising a good crop of pods later in the year, when they will be most needed.

We had a reasonably good lion sighting with Stephan and Dagmar, in the shorter grasses south of Long Pool, before they vanished into some particularly dense thicket; otherwise, mammals were largely confined to elephant, warthog and impala, with some occasional zebra and waterbuck. However - and it's a very big
however - at this time of year, these species are in excellent condition, sleek and well-fed. One may enthuse over the big animal concentrations of the late dry season, but by then many are weary and starving, dragging themselves around in search of such scraps of food as still remain. Elephant and buffalo, in particular, seem to suffer most; and it's a pitiful sight to watch an elephant momma, with calf at foot, desperately trying to get enough nourishment to keep herself and her baby alive.

It's just as harrowing, too, to watch a lion pride wantonly killing six weakened buffalo, just because they can, and merely taking a bite from each corpse. So seeing glossy impala and well-padded elephants, with sprightly youngsters, munching away on as much food as they can eat - and lively enough to give the predators a good run for their money - is a real Mana treat.

Boswell, the magnificent elephant bull whose two-legged balancing act has become world famous, was much in evidence, and performed very satisfactorily for us and our cameras. Stephan and Dagmar are keen - and very good - photographers; and it's always a pleasure to be able to share our own enthusiasm with such like-minded people when on safari. We also spent some time with an apparent newcomer to the squad of well-mannered and gentle elephant bulls, a one-tusker whom we named "Lumpy", and who apparently got himself injured a few days after we left Mana, possibly in a tussle with another elephant.

The birding - another shared passion - was excellent. A surprising number of carmine bee-eaters were still around, as were woolly-necked storks and woodland and grey-headed kingfishers; and we were fortunate to watch a western osprey stooping to catch his fish.

There were some large gatherings of white-faced duck - whose call, together with that of the woodland kingfishers, is among the most evocative of bush sounds - and long-toed lapwing (formerly plover) which, though not rare, isn't something we always see.

Meanwhile Stephan, who is a very experienced angler and has fished at many exotic venues worldwide, had expressed an interest in catching a tigerfish - something he'd never done before. I'm delighted (and quite
relieved) to say that the Zambezi obliged. After cutting his teeth on a smaller fish of around 1kg or so - and experiencing some of the tiger fisherman's frustrations at missed strikes, thrown hooks and the difficulties imposed by the huge quantity of timber snags along the Nyamepi frontage - he graduated to landing fish in the 3-4kg bracket, all of which were released back into the river. Except one, which ended up baked in foil on the fire and served as a starter for dinner. Justified as a rite of passage for a newly-qualified tiger fisherman, we feel!

And although we still had some rather cloudy days, photographic conditions were generally excellent. One of the great advantages of a visit during or shortly after the rains end is that there's none of that dense dry-season haze of smoke and dust. Instead, the magnificent backdrop of the Zambian hills stands out clear and sharp against brilliant blue skies and superb sunsets. The light is correspondingly clear and brilliant; and there's exuberant green vegetation, instead of bare, dusty, desert-like ground. All in all, it's a time for the true bush-lover, rather than the wildlife sensation-seeker. But if you don't mind working a bit harder for your spectacular mammal sightings, and are prepared for this, then it's a wonderful time to visit Mana.

Finally, our thanks to Dagmar and Stephan for being such excellent company. We wish them well in their ongoing travels, but we have a suspicion that Mana has quietly worked its way into their blood - the way it does - and that our adopted adage, "drink from the Zambezi and you will always return", is going to apply, and we'll be seeing them again.  

Upcoming safaris
During the 2014 season we're booked to visit most of our best loved places with our various guests, both regional and international. Mana Pools features strongly on every safari, but we'll also be sailing on Lake Kariba, visiting the Matusadona and Mavuradonha, looking at dinosaur trackways, spending time in our secluded Mkanga River campsite and going to the Gache Gache and Nyamuomba camps. This is our sixth year of operating ZIM4x4 self-drive safaris, which started out on a tentative "trial basis" and have turned into a well-established part of the Zimbabwean safari scene. 

VIDEOS
Some things you think are going to be a piece of cake turn out to be appallingly difficult. Converting from fixed-wing aircraft to helicopters is one. Learning to use a handgun after many years of shooting rifles is another. And so too, as I have recently discovered, is shooting video - something I'd never done before - after a lifetime of still photography.
I pride myself on being a reasonably competent hand with a DSLR. Apertures, shutter speeds, white balance, ISO, exposure compensation and RAW images hold no mysteries for me. I know enough about the rules of composition to throw them away and do my own thing when occasion demands. And I pride myself on knowing a great still photo opportunity when I see one.

None of these skills turned out to be of the slightest use when Sal gave me a very nice little videocam for my recent birthday (don't ask...) in March. A lovely scene is still a lovely scene, but if nothing actually moves you might just as well stick to the still camera and get a much better pic into the bargain.

Actually, something always does move, but it's usually the camera itself, wobbling around wildly like an aspen in the wind, especially at longer focal lengths (who the hell can actually use a 1024x zoom length, I ask myself?). And, talking of wind, recording sounds is another ballgame altogether. The slightest breeze produces a roar like an express train on the soundtrack, usually in the middle of a great recording of white-faced duck, fish eagle or subtle woodland sounds.

Add to this the difficulty of accurate "target acquisition", hand-held, on an LCD screen in bright sunlight and you have a recipe for disaster, which is why my two hours of footage (digitage? pixelage? Gigabyteage?) on the safari described above boiled down to a mere four minutes of more-or-less-useable video, which you can see at http://youtu.be/WmbelOfU54Q.

Which introduces the vexed question of editing. What on earth - for instance - is a "codec", and why does it matter? Why will some players reject one of these, but happily play another? What is "muxing"? Worst of all, why do the so-called beginner's guides to these concepts start off with an innocuous-looking intro paragraph and then plunge into a 3000-word jungle that uses another dozen unexplained terms I've never even heard of?

Finally, it's like the old saying - "concrete breeds concrete" or, as sometimes adapted in wildlife circles, "management breeds management". The camera's fine, but what they don't tell you is that it's just the beginning and possibly the cheapest part of the whole setup you need. My trusty old computer works remarkably well with the ordinary old 24fps, 1280 x 720 footage, but feed it a chunk of AVHCD and it just says "nope", freezes on the spot like a neurotic horse terrified by a white plastic bag, and refuses to go further, usually followed by a bolt for the stable in the form of a first-class crash. I have a test clip, in which I deliver a homily to camera in front of a pleasing thatched-house (ours) interior. On playback the background appears. So does my voice, in fits and starts. But I, the centrepiece and raison d'etre for the whole exercise, totally fail to appear. At all.

So now I need another 200kgs or whatever of gigahertz, another 600kg of RAM, and several tonnes of ROM, not to mention a better mike, sound recording equipment, and a costly editing programme as well. Ah well. If, as I've said before, if second childhood is on the horizon, one is entitled to a lot of expensive toys with which to enjoy it....

TYRES
During our off-season I decided to replace the tyres on the 80 Series Cruiser we use to lead our self-drive safaris. Now: I take a good deal of flak from some of our guests - South Africans, in particular, who seem to live much of their lives in 4x4 Megaworld - who like to deride my 7.50 x 16 OEM split-rim wheels largely (it has to be said) because - well - they don't look the business.

But if you care to study the camp service, hunting, and game-viewing vehicles (mostly Land Rovers, it has to be admitted) employed by various facilities throughout the Zambezi Valley - which can offer most of the obstacles of a Grade 5 trail, if you care to seek them out, plus the added hazard of sharp mopane stumps - you'll see that most of them also stick to the 7.50 x 16, split-rim, tubed tyre.

They are easy to fix. You can hammer the rim back into shape if it gets bent. You are spared the exertion of carting a very heavy wide rim and fat tackie 100m to a swimming pool (as I have witnessed) to find out where the puncture is. Spare tubes take up little space in your car. And the high sidewalls keep the tyres out of reach of sharp stones and even many of the aforementioned mopane stumps so, in extremis, another tube - not a whole new cover - is usually all you need anyway.

I cannot boast of never having got stuck on a ZIM4x4 safari. I did, when trying to tow a boat trailer with 13" wheels across loose riverbed sand. I rather famously sank up to the chassis when going to the rescue of another Cruiser with more enthusiasm than forethought, on the fringes of the Angwa River, but that one had the aforementioned wide rims and fat tackies and was just as badly stuck anyway. On other occasions, though, it's been a matter of faulty technique, down to and including - more than once - simply forgetting to engage my manual front hubs.

So I've plumped for the good old 7.50 x 16 tubed General Super Allgrips which - as with the split rims - are the tyre of choice for many local Valley operators. They are reasonably quiet on tar; quite forgiving on corrugations; and, given appropriate technique, cope admirably with most things the Zambezi Valley can throw at them. Excepting, of course, black mopane soil after heavy rain. But I don't know of many things that can, except a good winch, and as we all know there's never an anchor point in reach when you really need one....

MATUSADONA AND RHINO SAFARI CAMP
Thanks to the generosity of Jenny and Karl Wright, owners of Rhino Safari Camp, we were also able to make a rainy-season foray to the Matusadona National Park since our last newsletter. Matusadona is equal tops with Mana Pools on our list of best-loved places, and it was wonderful to see this Park, also, in such pleasing condition. Here, it is the shoreline fringes of torpedo-grass that take a similar role to that of the Mana Pools ecosystem in supporting much of the area's wildlife through the dry season.

There's also a happy - if unplanned - effect of Lake Kariba's annual cyclical rise and fall in water level. During the rains, and for a couple of months thereafter, and while grazing is still usually available inland, the lake level rises, sometimes flooding this entire grassland fringe. Then, as the dry season progresses and food becomes scarce inland, the lake begins to drop and the grasslands are exposed again, providing a fresh and rejuvenated source of fodder for wildlife.

We visited in early March, while the rains were still in full swing and giving an additional fillip to the shoreline grasslands, as shown in the accompanying photo. Elephant Point, where Jen and Karl have their camp, seems to be a a magnet for elephants throughout the year; although other species weren't easy to find, the shoreline could always be guaranteed to produce magnificent, elephant-filled vistas against brilliant wet-season skies.
You can self-drive to Rhino Camp, but only if you have booked into one of their atttractive and fully-serviced chalets. There's no campsite, and it's a private concession, from which casual Park visitors are strictly excluded. However, it's very reasonably priced, and is something to treat yourself to after the long, sometimes tedious and usually hot drive into the Park from the Binga-Karoi gravel road.

Rhino Camp is a small, authentic, owner-managed bush-camp, rather than a high-priced, high-end, bells-and-whistles sort of operation. Its construction is unobtrusive and very much in keeping with its wild surroundings; the food is good; the bar is well stocked, the beds are comfortable (and with superb shoreline views), and the en suite showers and toilets neat, comfortable and well-maintained. You'll get the services of a fully-qualified and very experienced walking/driving guide, access to fishing boats, and some very good fishing, as we ourselves discovered. Highly recommended if you prefer this homely (in the best sense of the word) and informal style of accommodation and ethos.

Rukomechi Camp, Mana Pools
We also had an opportunity - thanks to Sally's promotional website (www.wildzambezi.com) and Wilderness Safaris, to spend a couple of nights at Rukomechi Camp, on the Zambezi at the western boundary of the Mana Pools National Park. This is also on a private concession; casual visitors are strictly discouraged; there's no campsite; and it is - in contrast to Rhino Camp - very high-end, rather expensive, and aimed largely at the affluent international tourist market. Here, staff meet you from every
"game drive" with a damp towel to mop the fevered brow; within the camp, you'll be distanced from the dust by boardwalks between chalets, dining area, bar and toilets; there'll be a little flower posy on your bed when you arrive; and a plethora of hotel-trained staff will cater to your every need.

You can order up an open-air bubble-bath with a view of the Zambezi, and spend a luxurious night on a viewing platform overlooking the rather quaintly-named but very lovely Parachute Pan.

Rukomechi Camp is part of a large chain of facilities owned by Wilderness Safaris, so levels of service and facilities are uniformly applied across the board. We were able to sample the quality of their driving and fishing guides during our stay and found them to be very friendly and agreeable, competent, helpful and - most importantly - knowledgeable. 

The one rather curious aspect is a clause in the camp literature saying that bush walks can be arranged "if a walking guide is available." At these price levels, I would expect a walking guide to be on the payroll and available at all times; but maybe it's merely to cover themselves in case of sickness or other eventualities.
You can drive there from Mana Pools, by prior arrangement only, and you'll be met at the concession boundary by a staff member to guide you to the camp through a maze of viewing tracks. Well worth considering, if you've got spare cash and feel like a night or two of hedonistic luxury after the rigours of camping at Nyamepi!

AND FINALLY -
A still from our video - Mana in April. Click here to see the whole thing on YouTube. It's all been rather an elephantfest, this newsletter. We haven't said anything about butterflies, or harvester termites, or any of the myriad "little things" to be seen at Mana at this time. But eles did rather tend to dominate - and if there's one theme that is emblematic of Mana and the Zambezi, it's the sight of them making their way across a river full of crocodiles, secure in the knowledge that they are bigger, stronger and altogether proof against such minor irritations. And more than that: good friends, playing, as they go. One may strive for novelty; but cliches are cliches only because they are true, and who are we to say otherwise?


Monday, 10 February 2014

2013 IN PICTURES


Just a few pictures from ZIM4x4's activities in 2013 - not necessarily the 'exhibition shots', just those that evoke memories of a lot of enjoyable times on safari in the Zambezi Valley and on Lake Kariba. Taken by Sally (Canon SX500IS) and Dick (Canon 30D). 










Our year begins at Mana, in January 2013, with hundreds of elephants gathering near the Zambezi to feast on the beautifully green new grass.










The pans are full, birdlife is prolific, wildlife is regaining condition after the harsh dry season, and the warties are having babies.




























The rains end, the dry season sets in, and winter is coming. A dozing elephant wakes up; a hippo wears a hyacinth overcoat against the morning chill; young Christopher Clarkson (below) catches his first-ever fish while on safari with us; and Sally takes this charming photo of a tree squirrel.

































Hazy mornings on Lake Kariba...












...lion 'bookends' in Mana Pools; and the lower part of the Sohwe Falls, in the Mavuradonha Wilderness Area.




















We visit a lovely new venue - Kavinga Camp, on the Rukomechi River in Mana Pools, close to the hills that flank the Zambezi Valley.


















Dry-season dust in Mana, above, and ellies on the Matusadona shoreline (below)





















































Carmine bee-eaters and wild dogs (above) - just two of the species we love to see on safari.















Mana's enchanted woodlands (above) - the quintessential Mana Pools.

















Great times, just sittin' and watchin' - rewarded, in this case, by a young male's 'flehmen' exhibition as he walks past the window of our car.
Another great new place: Nyamuomba Camp, which gives easy access to the spectacular scenery (and fishing!) in the Kariba Gorge.


The end of a great safari with the Clarkson family.






Birthday breakfast for Judith ffrench-Constant on board the Taipan.




                                                                                                Alex du Plessis catches a trophy fish!




Laura Marthinusen and Sue Hudson (above) in the Mavuradonha Wilderness Area; and evocative photos of the Zambezi at Mana Pools (below). Doesn't matter when you go - it's always amazingly beautiful.








































Finally, December 2013 at Mana Pools, just before the rains begin, with the Park all to ourselves - and looking forward to taking more ZIM4x4 photos in 2014!