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?

  

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