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?


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