Monday, September 19, 2011

Southern Africa Trip, Aug. 25 – Sept. 19, 2011

Destination 1: Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

It was great being back in Victoria Falls after 21 years! Many changes have taken place. There are more tourist shops and hotels in town including a casino but the Falls remain spectacular as ever. We checked into the Victoria Falls Hotel, a grand old hotel built by the British in 1904. There is much history and nostalgia adorning the walls including portraits of British monarchy and African chiefs, a map of the route of the Royal Mail & Passenger Service to Africa and photos from the heyday of the establishment. We walked from the Hotel to the Falls along a dirt path. Locals were trying to sell us Zimbabwean dollars as souvenirs. We walked along a path high above the gorge with amazing views of the Falls. In spots we were soaked by the spray from the Falls. We even got in our first wildlife viewing, an African elephant was grazing along the Zambia shore and warthogs were rooting in the mud just off the trail. We returned to the Hotel to celebrate Marc’s 54th birthday in the Livingstone Dining room. The head waiter had worked for the hotel for 42 years and had seen a lot of changes both good and bad over the years. The dining room was rather empty and a blind pianist played dinner music, a bit sad. We felt we were in a bygone era.

Figure 1 Marc & Peggy at Victoria Falls

Destination 2: Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe

It was an early morning flight in a 4-seater Cessna to Hwange National Park. We flew over an arid landscape resembling wrinkled elephant skin with the countless tracks of animals in search of water. We landed at Linkwasha airstrip near a waterhole and were met by Robert from Little Makalolo Camp. We spent 4 nights at Little Makalolo Camp exploring the Park and surrounding area with our guide Livingston. We did two all-day game drives heading out at 6:00in the morning and not returning until 7:00 in the evening. On our first day, we ventured out to Ngweshia and Broken Rifle Pans in the morning in search of animals that visit the waterholes. Hwange has no permanent water source and without the manmade waterholes, the animals would not survive the long dry season. Water is pumped via diesel, solar panels or wind mills to various waterholes throughout the Park. Elephants, zebra, giraffe and Greater Kudu make their way to the holes to drink. Giraffes have to splay their long legs to reach the water, a posture that makes them very vulnerable to predators.
Figure 2 Giraffe and Zebra drinking at Broken Rifle Pan

In the afternoon, we made our way to Back and Ngamo Pans on the east side of the Linkwasha Concession. Back Pans is a magical spot with large herds of buffalo and elephants grazing on a grassy plain dotted with tall palm trees. In the center is a vibrant blue waterhole where elephants line up to drink and scores of buffalo lie in the shade, chewing their cud, waiting for their turn to drink.
Figure 3 Elephants drinking at Back Pans

We watched this peaceful scene until interrupted by an unusual behavior by the elephants. Using their trunks, they’d shake the palm trees to dislodge the palm nuts high above.
On our way back to Little Makalolo, we received word that there was a pride of lions not far from Linkwasha Camp. When we arrived there were 14 lions, females with cubs and young males, sunning themselves on some rocks. The cubs played king of the hill while the females basked in the sun trying to ignore the cubs pulling on their tails and trying to nurse. As the sun set, we drove back to Little Makalolo camp and encountered 2 Bat-eared foxes, a rare sight in the Park and the only leopard we’d see on this trip at Scott’s waterhole.
Figure 4 Lion cub near Linkwasha Camp

The next day we ventured out of the Park to visit the Painted Dog Conservation’s Community Conservation Education Complex. Painted Dogs, also known as Wild Dogs, are becoming increasing rare across the continent. They have been caught in snares meant for bushmeat, poisoned or shot by farmers, or hit by cars while lying on the warm pavement around Hwange National Park. The Complex is an impressive facility complete with a Visitor’s Center housing educational displays about the Painted Dogs and a large enclosure with a boardwalk 20 feet above the ground which leads a half mile to the pens with the 3 resident Painted Dogs at the facility: Dzanga, John and Romain. Due to injuries or inability to hunt, these dogs will never be able to survive in the wild. Although it was great to see these Painted Dogs, we hadn’t seen Painted Dogs since our first trip to Africa in 1990, we were still hoping to see them in the wild. We also met Dr. Gregory Rasmussen, the founder and director of Painted Dog Conservation and were able to speak briefly about his work to protect the dogs and to increase their numbers and habitat.

Figure 5 Road sign outside of Hwange National Park

On our last day in Hwange National Park, we were on our way to Back and Ngamo Pans again when we received a radio call that Wild Dogs were spotted near Makalolo Plains! We were too far away to get there before the dogs moved off. Oh well, that’s the nature of game drives, you have to be at the right place at the right time. When we arrived at Ngamo Pan there was a herd of wildebeest and zebra grazing on the short grass. The acacia trees surrounding the plain were in bloom attracting a large number of giraffe. Hwange National Park was the only place we saw giraffe on this trip.

We opted not to do an all-day drive today and went back to Little Makalolo for lunch. After a brief siesta, we entered the “Hide”. The camp has built a log pile hide next to the waterhole so you can view elephants and buffalo as they come to drink at close range. I must admit that being so close to wild African elephants was a bit unnerving for me. Marc was too busy photographing to notice the inquisitive elephants coming very close to check us out!

Figure 6 Marc photographing elephants from the hide

The afternoon game drive took us to Mbiza Pan on the Northeast boundary of the Park. The Pan is immense with large herds of elephants grazing amongst the palm trees. We headed back to the waterhole at Makalolo Plains for a sundowner. There a large herd of buffalo and elephants had gathered to drink. The buffalo were silhouetted against an orange sky, a sight I will never forget.

Figure 7 Buffalo at sunset, Makalolo Plains

We watched as the animals waited their turn to drink. There’s definitely a pecking order. Elephants get first dibs, while the buffalo come next. A giraffe waited patiently for her turn to drink while the zebras grew tired of waiting and moved off. The resident hippos did their best to guard their waterhole from the throng of intruders. A brazen young hippo chased off the buffalo as they came to drink. What a fitting end to our visit to Hwange National Park!

Destination 3: Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe

The next stop on our Southern African tour was Mana Pools National Park also in Zimbabwe. A short one hour flight by plane took us to Mana West airstrip where we were met and driven to Ruckomechi Camp set high on a bank overlooking the Zambezi River. Wildlife was prolific, spotting elephants, Greater Kudu, Warthogs, Impala, Chacma Baboons, Eland, including one very large bull, and Common Waterbuck on the short drive to camp.        
Figure 8 Eland bull on our way to Ruckomechi Camp

We had lunch with two couples from Florida that we met at Little Makalolo. They convinced us to go on the afternoon canoe trip on the Zambezi. Canoeing is not my thing with having capsized in the Winooski River and getting trapped in the Everglades after dark but how much worse can it be to canoe with Hippos and Crocs! We joined the Florida couples and a brother and sister from Croatia after lunch for our canoeing adventure. Marc and I were given our own canoe but I chickened out and asked to be put with Matthew our guide. We were now in the lead canoe and didn’t have to worry about steering, Matthew did that for us. We could enjoy the ride and not have to worry about ending up in a pod of hippos or in the jaws of a croc. We approached a flock of Carmine Bee-eaters that have recently arrived from Central Africa to breed along the shore of the Zambezi. We had a bit of excitement when we got trapped on a sandbank. Luckily Matthew pushed us out but the others had to get out in the hippo and crocodile-infested waters to get free of the sandbank. Fortunately, we all survived to enjoy a sundowner on the beach.

Figure 9 Canoeing on the Zambezi River

The next few days involved game drives throughout the Ruckomechi concession in search of animals. We were joined by two young couples, Eric and Estelle from New York and Ben and Behara from Dubai. It was fun sharing the experience with folks that had not been to Africa before. There’s nothing like your first encounter with an elephant or lion. We were seeing plenty of animals and birds but no predators. We decided to try our luck with fishing. I haven’t gone fishing since I was a kid but there was a group of fisherman staying at the camp that kept talking about catching Tiger fish that got me intrigued. Ben and Behara joined us and we half heartedly attempted to catch a Tiger Fish. I blame it on not having the right equipment not on my lack of experience as we didn’t catch anything but it was fun trying.

Figure 10 Fishing for Tiger Fish

On our last day we took an all day drive with guide Andrew to see Mana Pools which are inside the National Park. We took a break from the Land Rover and stalked a herd of buffalo. We were able to approach within 50 meters and sit on a termite mound to watch them without disturbing them. We were in search of wild dogs but they continued to elude us. We knew they were in the area having heard reports from others who had seen them. We were seeing many Greater Kudus including some impressive males. One male impressed us with his jumping ability.

Figure 11 Jumping male Greater Kudu

Before we knew it , it was time to leave Mana Pools. We had seen many animals including impressive herds of Elephant, Eland, Greater Kudu, Common Waterbuck, loads of Hippo, Buffalo but sadly no Painted Dogs. We were about ready to get in the Land Rover for the early morning drive to the harbor when Andrew shouted “Wild Dogs on the Plain!”. We jumped into the vehicle and dashed off avoiding an elephant nearby and there they were not far from camp! There was a group of 6 adults trotting along on a hunting foray. We got a good look before they crossed a gully and disappeared on the other side. What a perfect going away present from Mana Pools!!

Figure 12 African Wild Dogs near Ruckomechi Camp

Destination 4: Bangweulu Wetlands, Zambia

The journey from Ruckomechi to the Bangweulu Wetlands involved a one-hour boat trip up the Zambezi River to the border town of Chirundu in Zambia. Crossing the border on a bridge over the Zambezi River was painless for us but not for the many trucks lined up to cross in both directions. They had to wait sometimes up to a day to make the crossing.
We drove for about 3 hours to Lusaka, the capital of Zambia. It was strange being in a big city after being out in the bush for a week. We were flown by private charter from Lusaka Airport to Chimbwi Airstrip in the Bangweulu Wetlands, a flight of about one and a half hours. As we approached the airstrip we could see large herds of Black Lechwe, a species of antelope endemic to this area. We were picked up by David, the manager of Shoebill Island and driven a short distance to camp. We were the only visitors staying at the Camp for the next 4 nights. Patson took us for a walk around the area to see the many water birds that make the Bangweulu Swamps home.

The next day we were to meet our friend Hammer Simwinga for lunch at the Camp. Hammer is the Executive Chairman of the Foundation for Wildlife and Habitat Conservation and has been working on community development and conservation projects in the area for years. We met him five years ago on our first visit to Zambia at which time we delivered a laptop computer to help him with his very important work. Hammer drove for 3 hours on his motor bike from Mpika his hometown to meet us for lunch. It was great seeing him again. We were able to deliver another laptop and Blackberry phone which made Hammer very happy.

Figure 13 Hammer with his new laptop computer

The next day was full of excitement as we prepared to search for the elusive Shoebill Stork, a massive grey Dodo like bird. The Bangweulu Swamps are one of the few remaining places in the world to see Shoebill storks in the wild. This time of year they have retreated further into the swamps and finding them is no easy task. We drove for about an hour along a bumpy dirt track winding our way past gray conical termite mounds that dotted the landscape. We finally arrived at the end of the road and had to proceed on foot with our guides Patson and Manual into the swamp. At first the going was fairly easy through ankle deep mud and squishy grass but eventually we had to wade through thigh deep water. The footing was uneven and Marc was having a hard time balancing with his big lens. Patson made him a walking stick from a nearly tree which helped a lot.

Figure 14 Peggy wading through the Bangweulu Swamp

After about an hour and a half we were rewarded with our first sighting of a Shoebill Stork! We had scarred an adult off a nearby nest and she was circling overhead. We approached the nest cautiously but when we arrived only the nestling remained. What an incredible sight, a Shoebill chick sitting motionless in the nest with its big round eye watching us. We took some photos and moved away, not wanting to disturb the chick.

Figure 15 Shoebill chick in the Bangweulu Swamp

We went in search of the adults who were nearby and were able to approach to within 20 meters before they flew off. It was time to head back to camp.

On our last day at Shoebill Island we took a game drive to see the Black Lechwe at close hand. As the swamps dry out, thousands of Black Lechwe congregate on the floodplain to graze on the green grass. Only the males sport horns and their coats grow darker as they age, hence the name Black Lechwe.

Figure 16 Black Lechwe in the Bangweulu Wetlands

We also encountered a flock of 15 graceful Wattled Cranes, the first time we had ever seen these birds in Africa. They were grazing the floodplain along with the Black Lechwe.

Figure 17 Wattled Cranes in the Bangweulu Wetlands

We searched for the elusive Tsessebe, a species of antelope found in the area. We finally spotted 3 resting in the distance. They got up at our approach and loped off. The Bangweulu Wetlands are not a protected area and hunting pressure is high. Most animals are wary of humans and do not allow close encounters. The last stop on our game drive was to visit a hyena den that David knew about. As we drove up a hyena had just emerged from the den ready for a night of hunting.

Figure 18 Spotted Hyena in the Bangweulu Wetlands

Destination 5: Kafue National Park, Zambia

We were able to fly to directly to Kafue National Park from Chimbwi airstrip after a refueling stop in Ndola. Ndola is the capital of Zambia’s Copperbelt and boasts a covered soccer stadium and golf course. As we taxied to the runway, I noticed fuel pouring out of the wing. We returned to the airport and fortunately found only a loose fuel cap. Finally we were on our way to Kafue National Park. We landed at the Busanga airstrip where a female pilot was waiting to take us via helicopter to Busanga Bush Camp. It was a novel experience for us. I sat in the front and could see animals grazing on the Busanga Plains below. We were in time for a late lunch with Ashley, one of the camp managers. During our stay at Busanga Bush Camp, BBC as it is called, we had arranged for a private vehicle and guide. Neddy was to be our guide and took us on our first game drive that afternoon.

The next day we did an all day game drive to explore the Park. We crossed the Busanga Plain encountering herds of elephant and roan antelope. As we entered the tree line on the opposite side we found a host of different animals, Litchenstein’s Hartebeest, Wildebeest, Common Reedbuck, Oribi, Zebra, Defassa Waterbuck and Impala.

I was told that there were 19 species of antelope in Kafue National Park and I was keen on seeing them all. We did our best but only managed to find eleven by the end of the day.

Figure 19 Litchenstein’s Hartebeest in Kafue National Park

The next morning we were treated to a 25th Wedding Anniversary surprise, a hot air balloon ride over the Busanga Plain!! We were joined by Paul, our pilot, a couple from Boston and 3 predator researchers on the 1 hour flight over the Plain. We rose with the sun and glided silently over the landscape below. We could see the remnants of a Puku killed by lions the night before. The lions were still in the vicinity and we watched as they slinked away to sleep their meal off. We saw a lone male elephant sauntering off across the Plain and a herd of Roan Antelope and Red Lechwe.

Figure 20 Red Lechwe from the hot air balloon

After the flight, we were taken to the “Hippo’s Nest” for another surprise, breakfast complete with champagne! We finished up the morning with a trip up to the Papyrus Swamps to look for Sitatunga,
another antelope species that I was hoping to add to the list. We didn’t find the Sitatunga but had a nice sighting of a Rosy-throated Longclaw. Birders come from all over the world to see this bird.

Figure 21 Rosy-throated Longclaw, Kafue National Park

On our last day we took another all day game drive to Lufupa Camp at the confluence of the Lufupa and Kafue Rivers. We saw many animals and birds along the way including our 12th antelope species, a Common Duiker. We arrived at Lufupa Camp around noon for a cool drink and a view of the confluence.

 Figure 22 Peggy at the confluence of the Lufupa and Kafue Rivers

We ran into the predator researchers who had taken the hot air balloon flight with us the day before. They were staking out 2 cheetah. We didn’t want to disrupt the research but they didn’t mind us taking a quick peek. The cheetah were not easy to spot in the thick vegetation but we did get a good view. We did spot a new African mammal for us, a tiny species of antelope called a Sharpe’s Grysbok, bringing our final total to 13. They’re not easy to spot in the thick vegetation but this guy was as curious about us as we were about him and posed for a nice photo.

Figure 23 Sharpe’s Grysbok, Kafue National Park

We started the long drive back to camp. As darkness fell we chose to stay along the tree line for the night drive rather than cross the Plain. We saw many Common Duiker which are actually a nocturnal species and our final feline for the trip, a Serval!

Figure 24 Serval, Kafue National Park

Destination 6: Liwonde National Park, Malawi

It was a long journey to Liwonde National Park in Malawi. We shared the short helicopter flight from BBC to Busanga Airstrip with a couple from Botswana. They were also on the flight from Busanga airstrip back to Lusaka which meant I got the back seat in the 6-seater plane for the 2 and a half hour flight. Back in Lusaka we received a message from ZAWA. They were investigating the Shoebill nest incident and wanted our input. We didn’t have time to access the internet to send them a note so quickly jotted down our responses. Hopefully, they will sort out the situation so that bringing tourists to the nests do not cause their destruction by local villagers. We took our first commercial flight to Mfuwe where we were met by our pilot for the Nyassa Air taxi to Malawi. This was the first time we took a 4-seater plane on an international flight. We had to clear customs in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, before continuing on to Mvuu Wilderness Lodge in Liwonde National Park. We arrived at 4:00 in time for a sunset cruise on the Shire River.

Figure 25 Sunset over the Shire River, Liwonde National Park

We spent the next two days exploring Liwonde National Park with our guides Frank and Patrick. Although a small park, Liwonde has no shortage of animals and birds. The Park was full of Sable Antelope, Elephants, Common Waterbuck, Litchenstein’s Hartebeest, Impala, Hippo, Crocs, Greater Kudu and Zebra.

Figure 26 Common Waterbuck, Liwonde National Park

There is an enclosed Rhino sanctuary inside the Park where 13 Black Rhino reside. We spent many hours looking for them to no avail. We tried searching for them in the Land Rover but did not encounter them. There were a few hides in the sanctuary next to the waterholes that we lay in wait for the secretive rhinos but they did not come. We did get great sightings of all the other animals including a bush pig that was not afraid to visit the waterhole while we were there. We approached him on foot to within 50 feet and he didn’t budge.
Figure 27 Bush Pig, Liwonde National Park

The nocturnal sightings in Liwonde were also good. We encountered several porcupine, some in pairs, Meller’s, Water and White-tailed Mongoose, Large-spotted Genet, and a Thick-tailed Bushbaby.

Figure 28 Meller’s Mongoose, Liwonde National Park

Figure 29 Porcupine, Liwonde National Park

We hadn’t given up on seeing the Rhino. On our last morning we rose at 4:30 in order to be in a hide by 5:30. The first hide we chose was unproductive. The animals could see or hear us and would not approach. We gave up after an hour and went to another hide. This one was built high over the waterhole and the animals could not see us. To my amazement a large Eland bull approached the waterhole and plunged his face in the water! Four more Eland bulls and a bachelor herd of 8 Sable Antelope joined him. Ok, so we didn’t see any Rhino but this was an amazing sight!

Figure 30 Eland and Sable Antelope at the waterhole, Liwonde National Park

We could have watched for hours but we heard our plane arrive and rushed off to the airstrip for our next adventure.

Destination 7: Likoma Island, Lake Malawi

Our final destination on our southern African odyssey was Likoma Island in Lake Malawi for a bit of rest and relaxation. After a quick flight over the Lake we were on Likoma Island where we were met by Richard for the drive to Kaya Mawa where another surprise awaited us. For our 25th Wedding Anniversary, we were upgraded to a deluxe room. Our room, the former dining room, was massive with a 360-degree view over the Lake, a private deck with a pool and a bathroom with a stone tub. I was so touched I started to cry.

Figure 31 Peggy in our room at Kaya Mawa, Likoma Island, Lake Malawi

It would be tough leaving our beautiful room but we had an Island to explore. The next morning we rode mountain bikes to visit the Cathedral of St. Peter. Built in 1903 by Scottish missionaries the Cathedral is still in use today. It’s a massive building of stone and brick with a metal roof. The caretaker took a break from watering the grounds to show us around. He took us up narrow, dark stone steps to the roof with a view over Lake Malawi toward the mountains of Mozambique.
Figure 32 Inside of St. Peter’s Cathedral, Likoma Island, Lake Malawi

We biked back to Kaya Mawa dodging kids along the way to try some kayaking before the wind kicked up. After lunch we walked to Kutundu Textiles, a cooperative where orphaned girls find employment. We couldn’t resist the temptation to buy some linen pillow cases decorated with local shells and seeds in modern patterns. A fitting end to an incredible trip was a romantic dinner on the beach to celebrate our 25th Wedding Anniversary. This trip was everything we hoped for and more made special by the staff at the lodges and camps we stayed at.
Figure 33 Peggy & Marc celebrating their 25th Wedding Anniversary, Kaya Mawa, Lake Malawi