Walking with Giants
Words Darrel Bristow-Bovey
After an extended absence, Darrel Bristow-Bovey returns to Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe to wander among elephants, and to reconnect with a much-loved part of Southern Africa he’d almost forgotten...
Everything was fine until the wind changed.
We had come walking up a brown, soft-sand track alongside a waterhole where 15 or 20 elephant bulls were peacefully wading and swinging their hips in the green water.
Julian put a finger to his lips. We stooped low and followed him into a stand of mopane trees growing in neat rows like grapevines, intending to circle in for a closer look at the bull with great curving tusks that ploughed through the water as he walked, like the slow twin hulls of a bone-coloured catamaran.
But, in Hwange, there are always more elephants than you think. There were eight or nine bulls in the mopane grove as well, and then we saw the cows and their babies… You can walk right up to a bull elephant as long as you don’t disturb him, but a female with her calf is frightening – even when you are not on foot.
We were becoming rapidly aware of why evolution had to give us big brains to survive in the African bush: we’re not as fast or big or hard or horned or easily concealed as the other creatures – we’re the blundering weaklings of the wild. And, at that moment, I didn’t feel my brain was especially big either.
Julian had a small talcum bottle filled with fine, grey ash from last night’s fire; every few steps he would squeeze it and watch the puff for wind direction. I tried to step where he stepped, my muscles clenching, neck stiff with the strain. We kept circling through the mopane lanes, trying to stay downwind of the cows, but there were more arriving all the time, coming to the water for their evening drink, more old bulls and young bulls and more cows with their babies. They came silently, like wolves the size of walls, just grey shadows passing behind us. I felt like a man in the open ocean watching for sharks – whichever way I looked, there were more behind me.
And then the wind changed.
Hwange National Park is in western Zimbabwe; a patch of land not much smaller than Wales, a few hours’ drive from the Victoria Falls, it’s one of the great unspoilt national parks in the world. The camps and facilities are first-class, five-star and luxurious, but there’s no car traffic and no queues, no asphalt – only the wide horizon and a sky like a flawless glass dome and a sense of space and distance and majesty.
It’s flatter and more open than the South African bush – wide, stretching plains scudded with ilala palms, African star-chestnuts and Zambezi teak forests, with green hills rising near and blue hills rising far. At high altitude, the air is thin and pure, sound travels further, the sky is everywhere.
It feels more like East Africa than South: there’s a sense of renewal, of a weight lifting, the same soaring of the soul I once felt on a hill in the Serengeti, shading my eyes against the immensity and squinting to try to see where the land ended.
Before I left home, everyone had dire warnings about Zimbabwe. There’ll be no animals, they predicted. It’ll be run- down. The people will be wonderful but the rest of it will be depressing. They were right – but only about the people.
Hwange is renowned for its huge elephant population. While I was there, I saw lions and leopards and a cheetah walking past in the orange dusk, and a pack of painted dogs hunting; but mostly I saw elephants. In those five days, I saw more elephants than I’ve seen everywhere else – more than in all of Botswana and South Africa and Tanzania combined.
There are 30 000 of them, and they are everywhere; flowing like water, great streams and eddies of elephants, gangs of young males, families on outings, milling herds mingling on a dusty Saturday afternoon.
I drove into Davison’s Camp on the first night, down the edge of the park boundary alongside the railway track that runs from Cape Town to Victoria Falls (and, if Cecil John Rhodes had lived long enough, might one day have reached Cairo). The stars came out like glittering eyes. The sand track was white in the headlights and the tree trunks were silver and the long grass showed up silken gold. We stopped the vehicle for a giant eagle owl, standing in the middle of the way like a sentry with his arms behind his back. He stared us down with shining eyes, then rose and disappeared like a pale ghost. That night, there were lions outside our tent, and a leopard coughing.
One of the special things about a Zimbabwean safari is the abundant opportunity to walk. Other countries are wary of taking you out walking; in Kenya and Tanzania they barely do it at all. At Davison’s, we were accompanied by a couple of nervous Americans so we steered clear of the big game, but it’s an extraordinary enough experience just to be out there with the grass and the red earth under your shoes, peering into aardvark burrows, breathing the warm honey-and-dust scent of the bush.
At Little Makololo, Dickson led us straight out across the sandy pan in front of the camp, the dry bed of an ancient lake, and through the bushwillow forest. We found the bleached white bones of a lioness, and paused in the mid-morning heat to let a pair of Cape buffalp pass by.
That night, after a dinner of lamb chops and fresh Kariba fish, we sat on the porch of our tent while the stars turned in the sky like a cubist mirror-ball, and watched as a honey badger wandered through our pale circles of light and went snuffling back into the shadows.
Camp Hwange overlooks a round waterhole surrounded by an ellipse of grassland and trees, a pupil in the unwinking eye of the landscape. The sky was high and clear as curved blue glass. We went walking with Julian.
‘How close do you think we could get to an animal?’ I asked.
He looked at me warily.
‘It’s okay. We’re from South Africa,’ I assured him.
First we walked through mopane trees between volcanic up-croppings of black and grey gneiss. We climbed the rocks and rested beneath fragrant Commiphora, looking out across the plains. In the warm morning air, the papery bark of the tree has a scent like limes and lemon grass.
We walked through knee-high grass where francolin flew up in sudden gusts and startles as we passed. We saw a young leopard crouched in the shade of a low bush. We sat on a rock and watched it and it watched us back, a still, gathered pool of yellow sunlight and muscle and shadow. We were perhaps 10m away from it. We sat and drank water and shared an hour with the leopard.
As we stood to leave, we looked up and realised we’d been sitting beneath the corpse of a freshly killed impala, dragged up into the tree and wedged in its V, its blood only just coagulating.
The hour with the leopard left me both thrilled and deeply satisfied. I felt grounded and grateful and that the bush had already given me what I’d come for. Then we saw the elephants.
When we realised we were surrounded in the mopane thicket, there was a thrill that was deeper and more primal than fear. We took shelter on the slopes of a termite mound and they came rumbling past us like heavy phantoms. I could have touched one.
And then the wind changed.
One of the males caught the first whiff and gave a low signal that another picked up. They froze. Their ears twitched and flapped. Their trunks came up. One of the cows gave the alarm. Then they ran, and the earth shook. One of the babies trumpeted in excitement and the sound from so close by was the most startling thing I have ever heard: a thunderous, visceral bellow that made my hair rise and my heart race and turned my skin cold with adrenalin. We held tightly on to the anthill until the ground stopped moving.
We didn’t tell the story around the fire that night. It felt more precious than that. We come to the bush to reconnect with ourselves and be reminded of who we are and what matters – and this trip gave us that and more. I love Zimbabwe and its people and it has been too long between visits. Hwange is a very good reason to go back.
African Residents Programme
The Wilderness Safaris Residents Programme is an exclusive safari club for African residents, offering members up to 80% discount on last-minute bookings.To find out more about member benefits, visit www,wilderness-residents.co.za or email [email protected].
GOOD TO KNOW
When to go
Game viewing is best during the winter months, when there are fewer leaves on the trees, the vegetation is less dense and animals tend to congregate around the waterholes. The temperature’s much cooler and more pleasant than in summer. The spring months are also a wonderful time to travel to Zimbabwe.
Visitors to Zimbabwe are encouraged to take malaria prophylactics, as it is a high-risk malaria area.
You can drive to Hwange from South Africa, but plan to do the trip over two days, at the very least. An alternative is to come from the north, via Botswana and then Victoria Falls, entering at Kasane, in the north-west corner of the country. Visit the AA’s website, www.aa.co.za, for vital information on driving into Zimbabwe. Click on Travel and then Into Africa.
If you opt to fly in, British Airways (operated by Comair) travels to Victoria Falls (the nearest airport to Hwange), Harare and Bulawayo, as well as Livingstone on the Zambian side of the falls. Other destinations include Windhoek, Maputo, Mauritius, Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. www.ba.com
South Africans do not need a visa when travelling into Zimbabwe.
What to take
During winter, the nights can be very cold, while daytime temperatures are moderate to warm. Take thick, warm clothing for the evenings, and light-coloured, cool clothes for the day. The average temperature in summer is in the low 30s. Don’t forget your sunscreen, a hat, sunglasses and sturdy walking shoes.
For information on all the national parks in Zimbabwe, including Hwange, contact the official Zimbabwe Parks & Wildlife Management Authority. +263 470 6077/8 (central bookings office) [email protected]
Davison’s Camp and Little Makalolo Camp, both located in the south-east of the park, are operated by ecotourism outfit Wilderness Safaris, which offers various tours and travel packages. 011 807 1800, [email protected] www.wilderness-safaris.com
Camp Hwange is a small, privately owned establishment situated in the north-west of the park. www.camp-hwange.com
You can also choose to camp in the park itself or stay in one of the many self-catering cottages and chalets run by the parks authority.
Source: AA Traveller