Sleeping with the Lions

The rush of noise made the the whole bed vibrate, there was no way that anyone could sleep through the roaring just metres from our heads. Steve and I were instantly awake and up, looking out of the roof hatch at the two huge male lions. Their roaring echoed around the bush, making our hearts race and any thoughts of returning to sleep impossible. Slowly our eyes adjusted to the darkness and we could make out 10 more lions relaxing in the bright moonlight.
It was our last night in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe and we were lucky enough to have a chance to sleep out at Guvalala Platform, a raised game spotting hide above a pumped waterhole. The lions stayed all night from 2 am until just before sunrise, periodically signalling to others that this was their territory with more ear-shattering roars that were started by one of the males, then taken up by the other male and several females. Soon the round of roars built up till you could almost see the air oscillating with the waves of vibrations, before it died away again. We did eventually collapse into a restless sleep, jerking awake with every new reverberation.


 Earlier that evening, we had watched as hundreds of elephants came down to drink. The almost full moon meant we could see almost perfectly right over the pan. Sat on the top of the truck we were amazed at how quiet 5 tonnes of thirsty pachyderm could be, even when running at full tilt, on mass. Waves and wave of elephant herds came out of the surrounding bushes, almost silently. If they came from behind us, we often wouldn’t notice them before they caught the corner of our eyes. Our senses were working in overdrive, to catch all the action. Even at the water the elephants were pretty quiet with gentle slurping, splashing and spraying. Before we went to bed at 9.30, we estimated that over 300 had come down and every time we glanced out in the night there were more. Until the lions arrived, that is.

The nighttime elephant action:

 It was our last night in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe and we were lucky enough to have a chance to sleep out at Guvalala Platform, a raised game spotting hide above a pumped waterhole. The lions stayed all night from 2 am until just before sunrise, periodically signalling to others that this was their territory with more ear-shattering roars that were started by one of the males, then taken up by the other male and several females. Soon the round of roars built up till you could almost see the air oscillating with the waves of vibrations, before it died away again. We did eventually collapse into a restless sleep, jerking awake with every new reverberation.

Before arriving in Zimbabwe we had been warned by many travellers about the number of police roadblocks in Zimbabwe. At our first, just a few kilometres from the border, the officer looked at Steve’s licence; checked around the truck including the lights; before waving us on our way. Soon after leaving Victoria Falls on the way to Hwange, we were stopped again, this time the officer wasn’t so happy. All our interactions in the last few countries have started the same delightful way:

“Good Afternoon”,

“Good Afternoon”,

“How are you today?”

“I’m very well thank you, and how are you” etc.

Once pleasantries are dealt with you can get on with whatever you need to. This policeman couldn’t wait to get the polite chitchat over with before he could scan the truck looking for some misdemeanour to fine us for. It took him a while but eventually he found one: our red and white reflective tape on the front should be just white and on the back it should be just red. He even got the rule book out to show the regulation. Yet again I was very thankful for Steve’s talent for negotiations. Still sounding calm, respectful and very polite he talked it over with them, from behind I could see his clenched jaw indicating a very different state of mind. Eventually after 20 minutes discussion we were allowed to drive off without paying any fine. We hoped that this wasn’t going to emerge as a pattern for us on Zimbabwe’s roads.

Unfortunately it was the start of a rather frustrating day with a series of small upsets: the bathroom mirror smashed when the door came away from its moorings on the rough road, Steve scraped a gash in the side of the truck (our first) on a tight gateway and when we got into the park we were told it would be unlikely that we could stay as we were too big. We were hoping to stay for 6 nights in different parts of the park, so this would be a major disappointment. The kind lady in the office at Robin’s Camp said we could stay for the night but she would have to check if we would be allowed to do anything else. Overland trucks have been banned for a number of years but as a non-commercial vehicle with just 4 seats she wasn’t sure what category we were in but wasn’t very hopeful. We were allowed on a short game drive, where we saw very little. We returned to camp grumpy and expecting the worst. Our luck changed for the better and thankfully she said she would let us stay for a couple of nights. She said we could even venture further into the park but we’d have to see about the other camps. It ended up not being a problem in the other two camps as they assumed that as we had been allowed in, someone must have authorised it.

Hwange most recently made headlines as the home of “Cecil” the lion, shot with a crossbow by a sick American dentist. Much of its fauna is bush so you have to look hard when wildlife spotting. However there are waterholes with hides scattered around where it is a lot easier as the animals have eaten most of the bushes. Elephant damage is evident in many places with stumpy pieces of chewed up trees and the ground denuded of vegetation. At the hides we could get out of the truck and watch the game interact with each other. The other lovely thing about the hides were the other visitors. It was the school holidays, and although not at all busy, there were quite a few Zimbabweans spending their holidays in the park. Where as in most parks we’ve visited so far in Africa, most people in hides ignore you or worse look in horror at the children, here people came over and pointed out what could be seen. It was far more friendly and you got to hear what people had seen and good tips of where to look out and about. We ended up spending two lovely afternoons drinking gin and tonics with Neil and Fiona, a couple from Bulawayo in different hides watching the game and chatting. They introduced us to another interesting couple from near Harare, Frank and Kat. Another friendly family had children the same age as the girls to play with, so everyone was happy.


Our second main camp Sinamatella was beautiful located on the top of a rocky hill overlooking the plains below. Someone pointed out some lions in the far distance in the plains, they had been seen that morning resting up and now as the temperature dropped they were off for the night’s hunting. The following morning we decided to head off in the direction they took, hoping to get lucky. An hour into the slow drive the presence of circling vultures in the sky alerted us to something happening, as we got closer we saw more perched in the trees. Eventually by craning our necks to look through the bushes we found the sight of the kill just 30 metres from the road. We couldn’t see much apart from a mass of noisy, arguing vultures on the ground and a hyena with a bloody muzzle lolloping away. In the Okavango our guide was able to drive off road to see things, as it was on a private concession but here in a national park, you understandably must stick to the road. We drove off after a few minutes slightly disappointed at not having seen more. Thank goodness we did as just a kilometre down the track we came across a pride of lions on the move. Walking quickly through the bushes, their round bellies showing that they were the reason for all the vulture action. The track wound through the scrub, we drove ahead of them trying to estimate where they would appear so we could sit and watch with the engine off, without disturbing them. Eventually we were rewarded when they crossed the road just in front of us revealing a pride of 16: 4 females; 8 large cubs; and, to the girl’s delight, 4 tiny little ones.

image

image

image

We spent a further two nights at the Main Camp, spending our days out watching for game. The pattern has become that we start early with the girls in their nighties and duvets in the front before stopping for breakfast, then a little while later for school and lunch at hides. Before returning back to camp usually before sunset so the girls could have a run around before tea.

Although you had to work hard at the game viewing we were lucky to have four good lion sightings and at the waterholes we had amazing sightings of elephants and hippos cavorting on the water. They were usually watched by large crocodiles lazing on the banks. We also saw a few different antelope species that are not frequently seen elsewhere such as Roan and one lone Sable Antelope.image

imageimage

image

The three camps were relatively quiet but we were excited about the possibility of staying by ourselves out by a hide. Unfortunately we learnt that these are usually booked up 6 months or a year ahead. However, we were lucky in that Guvalala platform had water issues, so sometimes the toilet didn’t work which made it less popular, not a problem for us with our onboard loo. So we were lucky to get one night there and what a special night it was too.

Taking Tea at the Falls

We gazed out across the beautiful manicured lawn from the hotel verandah. The waitress carefully poured tea from the teapot and a stand of cakes and sandwiches (with the crusts cut off) sat on the table. It could have been a scene from a country hotel in England except that warthog were grazing on the lawn and baboons were bounding across it. In the distance could be seen spray and we could hear the roar from Victoria Falls. 

High tea at the Victoria Falls Hotels is something of an institution and we were all keen to try it. So after checking in to our campsite nearby we all got changed into something a little smarter so we could take tea on the terrace. The hotel dates from 1903 and is a beautiful building. High tea consisted of cucumber and other sandwiches, with some cakes as well as scones with jam and cream. All very pleasant and served with lashings of lovely tea. It was a lovely way to spend our first afternoon in Zimbabwe.
Earlier that morning we had left our campsite in Kasane to drive the short distance to the Zimbabwean border. The border crossing went smoothly and all the officials were friendly and joking. Mind you it was pretty expensive to get in. This is the first country in which we have had to pay for a visa ($55 each) on our trip and they also felt it was only fair that the truck should pay too. $190 for road insurance, carbon tax and road usage fees.
We had heard that there are lots of police roadblocks in Zimbabwe and that they are always looking for “violations”. Within a couple of Kms we were stopped at what I assume will be the first of many. All very pleasant but the policeman walked around the truck and made me switch all my lights on to check they were working, they were and we were on our way to Victoria Falls.
The following day it was time to see the Falls proper. Victoria Falls are described as one of the seven natural wonders of the world and (according to them) are one of the three great waterfalls of the world when you take into account depth, width and water flow. We had visited the other two on this trip, Niagara and Iguazu so would see how they would compare. Of the three, Victoria Falls is the deepest, Iguazu the widest and Niagara has the most water flow across it.
Gilly and I have visited the waterfalls before in the dry season so we were not expecting there to be too much water at this time of year. However we were wrong. As we approached the Falls there was a lot of spray and certain sections of the falls were quite difficult to see. Before heading out along the trail though we first had to pay our respects to Dr Livingstone.
There is some debate as to when is the best time to visit the Falls. They are spectacular when there is lots of water in them but are then difficult to photograph and you get drenched. When they are drier they are less spectacular but photos are better and you can better appreciate how the Falls cut through a gorge. In fact you can not see the Falls themselves until you are very close to them as the gorge cuts into a fault in the Earths surface. You can though hear them and see the spray from Kms away.



There is some debate as to when is the best time to visit the Falls. They are spectacular when there is lots of water in them but are then difficult to photograph and you get drenched. When they are drier they are less spectacular but photos are better and you can better appreciate how the Falls cut through a gorge. In fact you can not see the Falls themselves until you are very close to them as the gorge cuts into a fault in the Earths surface. You can though hear them and see the spray from Kms away.








We had a lovely walk along the trail admiring the Falls from the many viewpoints. They were as magnificent as always. At the end of the trail we could view the rail bridge that crossed near to the falls. This is where people bungee jump from. We could also see the rafters entering the river below. Gilly and I have rafted here before and it is great. Strangely Alisha and Lucy were not keen on the idea of rafting or bungee jumping.


So of the three which of the falls is the most impressive? It’s a really hard call as each of them is clearly magnificent. However my vote would be for Iguazu although there is not much between them, so I am sure other people would have a different opinion.
The next morning we headed out of town the short distance to the entrance to the Zambezi National Park. We were hoping to camp here for the night and to see some of the game. As this whole area including Chobe and Hwange National Park is unfenced game roams freely at will. The campsites here are more wild as there are no fences so it’s easily possible to have animals coming through your camp especially at night.
At the gate though it looked as though we were going to be thwarted in our attempt to camp by the Zambesi. The lady said the truck was too big to be allowed into the park. This was something we were worried about when coming to Africa but was the first time it had been an issue. We explained we had been let in other parks and we were not a commercial operation and the lady said we should wait for her boss who would arrive shortly. Her boss arrived and we had a lovely conversation with her about what we were doing and about her recent trip to Germany. However she said she did not think we were allowed in. Her boss then arrived and we had another conversation with him. He said usually vehicles our size were not allowed in but he would check. In the end we were permitted to enter but only to drive to the nearest campsite by the river. The park rangers were really friendly and went out of their way to help us, let’s hope this continues.
When we arrived at the campsite all the facilities were run down but this did not matter as we could camp right by the river and had fantastic views. On jumping out of the truck we could immediately see lion prints. They did not look that fresh but then we are not exactly expert trackers. The elephant footprints and dung did look fresher though. As we unpacked our table and chairs there did not seem to be any animals currently around except for the hippo grunting in the river.
We spent a lovely relaxing day by the riverside with the only animals coming through camp being a peaceful group of baboons. In the late afternoon and early the next morning we did a couple of short game drives. We did not see very much except for some giraffe, kudu, impala and warthog but we thoroughly enjoyed the scenic views of the riverfront with the kingfishers diving into the water and the fish eagles squawking overhead.



Returning to camp we made a fire for the night. It felt like been in real Africa by the riverside. We were the only ones there and as the night arrived we could hear the sounds of the bush. After the children had gone to bed Gilly and I sat by the crackling fire. We could hear baboons squabbling in a nearby tree. The hippos were still snorting but seemed much closer and there was a chorus of frogs and insects. Such lovely sounds to drift off to sleep to.

Bashing through the Bushes

After our week of luxury in the Okavango Delta, it was time to return to “real” overlanding. Steve had a route all planned out: southwards around the huge salt pans in the centre of the country and then North-East across them to an isolated island in the middle covered with ancient stone ruins and baobab trees.

The rural villages we passed were small and looked almost unpopulated in the heat of the day, apart from the donkeys snoozing in the middle of the road. Steve is always a conscientious driver (I couldn’t want for a better driver to take us around the world) but in one village the lack of houses meant he didn’t pay attention to the speed signs. Unfortunately even here in the middle of nowhere, there was a police speed trap. The officers were efficient, polite and issued Steve a ticket to be paid in any town in the country, apart from the one down the road, where they came from which was closed due to being part of the diamond mine.

Heading off the tar, we were ready for some off road pan driving “suitable for only fully equipped 4×4 in convoys of at least 3 vehicles” according to our guidebook. What we found was a whole load of trees: scratchy trees. Steve and I winced at every “nails down a blackboard” sound either side of the truck – annoying but not very dangerous. No pan in sight for hours, eventually at the edge of the pan we pulled up for the night. The following morning we set off bravely, only to find the pan was like driving on tar, good tar. I’m sure it’s a different story in the wet season but now after many dry months it was smooth sailing all the way. Soon we made out Kubu Island in the distance and its host of huge baobabs….and something else; all in a row; shiny, square….it was a traffic jam! Nineteen South African off-road vehicles all with caravans or trailers lined up. Thankfully they were heading out, in convoy, of course. The caretaker laughed when we asked about them and said they were happiest squeezed all together in one campsite for the night, not our idea of desert solitude. It turned out that Kubu, although it was in the middle of nowhere, was pretty busy. With absolutely no facilities, bar a couple of long drop toilets, the hefty camping fee of nearly US$50 surprised us away. The friendly caretaker let us off the extra US$25, we should have paid for the kids. We were really pleased we had rough camped the night before. It didn’t take away from the beauty though. The baobab trees were hugely fat, with their gnarled and twisted trunks with the flat grey salt pans around the island made for some lovely walks.imageimageimage
imageimage
imageDriving north Steve was hoping for more flat pan driving, only to find we were back in scratchy tree country again. The road was just a small track leading through the bushes and since everyone else who passed through was in smaller 4x4s we were literally ploughing our way through the trees. It was very slow going, we only managed to lose 1 rear sidelight though, which we thought was pretty good. We were cheering after 4 hours we found a sneaky side track through the grass onto the pan. image
The photo doesn’t really show quite how narrow the track was.

After a brief night stop outside Nata (where Steve paid his speeding fine) we arrived in the town of Kahane on the Chobe River. The campsite at Chobe River Lodge was ideally located right on the banks of the river with fantastic elephant views, it was busy though and a tight squeeze for everyone even small vehicles. The girls loved the in camp wild game especially the doe eyed bush bucks, enjoying the security of the fenced area.
image
From the camp we took a sunset riverboat cruise into Chobe national Park. There is an flat, grassy island in the middle of the river, between Botswana and Namibia. It was full of elephants, buffalo, water bucks and hippo. We watched several elephants cross the river, some shorter ones must have been swimming with their trunks held up like snorkels.image
image
image
image
As the truck is so heavy there is a hefty charge for taking it into Botswanan parks and as we hadn’t booked months in advance there was little chance of getting a camp spot inside. Pricing it up we decided to take an organised game drive from the lodge one morning. Once in we decided it was a good idea for a truck our size, it is a great self-driving park for a smaller 4×4 but there would have been some low over hanging branches for us. Chobe is famous for its thousands of elephants. They browse in the hills in the heat of the day and come down to drink in the morning and the evening. I decided to give the girls an afternoon off driving but Steve went back to enjoy….
imageimageimageimageimage