The best time to go on safari is during winter when water is scarce and the beasties can be found and viewed quite easily – the dry, thinning vegetation also “helps”. I say ‘helps’ with some reservation because I find game-spotting can be challenging when Mother Nature steps in and the animals are exquisitely camouflaged in their natural habitat. Last year, because of one thing and another, our winter safari at Berg en Dal, in the south of Kruger, only happened in November, and as “Sod” would have it, we arrived as the first sweet, summer greens were sprouting and finding water, water everywhere and plenty enough to drink. This is not to discount the experience in any way since we thankfully saw lots, and I mean LOTS of rhino (collectively ‘a crash or a stubborness’) and who knows how long we will be lucky enough to see that. However, the Rhino predicament is not the subject of this story which hinges on ‘timing’ since we saw little else and chastised ourselves for leaving the visit so late in the year. We vowed not to be so wasteful in future and that every winter must feature a safari, however brief. Truly, with this Magnificence on our doorstep; to miss out even one year is unforgivable!
This year we headed further north to Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe and decided to make it about the journey and not just the destination. So, departed from Jozi all the way up the R511/William Nicol until a T-junction with the R510 to Lephalale (Ellisras) and on to the Botswana border.
The road out of Fourways through Diepsloot and on to Harties is shocking and a 4×4 is more suited to this road than many of the remote tracks we traversed on Safari. The upside is that it is a scenic route and so much nicer than driving north on the national motorway (plus you miss the Tolls). Only an hour out of the city, the countryside is characterised by road-side ‘stalletjies’ interspersed between game farms and lush green pastures shimmering under early morning irrigation.
You start to feel the everyday stresses being massaged away and the holiday has begun.
We cleared formalities into Botswana at Martin’s Drift/Grobler’s Bridge, all pretty painless except for our packet of Woolies Roma tomatoes that were confiscated and would not accompany the chicken flatties, thankfully undesired at that point, that remained for our braai later at Nata.
Nata Lodge has undergone a fabulous facelift since the devastating fire in 2008. The date is deeply etched with us as we drove right through the fire’s heat wave in our 1958 Merc Ponton, returning from an African Odyssey to the Equator. The tented accommodation is in our opinion, so much nicer than the Lodges, and, get this – they are less expensive, so offer REAL value for money. Nothing is cheap in Botswana. The tents are spaced well apart under Mokolwane palms, you can park your car right beside your digs for easy unloading; the nearby braai spot and addition of an efficient outdoor shower are all super.
We had firewood (expensive @ BP35 per bundle) delivered and soon had a fire going to prepare dinner with salad sans tomato. The remaining piri-piri chicken flattie was painstakingly deboned and was carefully prepared into bread rolls for padkos– this may seem useless detail but there is more to this …. Later.
We were eager to get to the Pandamatenga border post – for the past 7 years of driving past the turn-off every year; we were finally taking the low road. Pandamatenga is well – quite quaint. Seriously! Not a term one would normally use to describe a border post but this one is – a bush track in and out.
Clean and neat with friendly officials that had us quickly cleared straight through from Botswana into Zimbabwe’s Matetsi Safari Area.
After less than 5 minutes in, we saw our first small herd of elephants so stopped to break fast – Wimpy coffee from Nata accompanied by flame grilled wood-smoked braaied chicken rolls. A delicious gourmet experience, that had PJ raving, as we clocked up another uniquely memorable event and made sure we saved some for lunch.
From the border to the Park, the road is pretty good, unpaved but had recently been graded up to the T – Left to Victoria Falls & Bulawayo road and Right to Hwange National Park. As the road deteriorated, we reach a gate where we were told to proceed to Robins Camp to pay our park fees. But … welcome to Zimbabwe, in this remote spot, a very well dressed Guard was waiting for food and who was very hungry, could we help with the situation … nothing to do but to PJ’s dismay, hand over the balance of the gourmet chicken rolls!
Next stop, Robins Camp was ‘open’ but no guests, no staff uniforms, no maps yet eager to relieve us of our Park Entry Fee of $15 each and $10 for the vehicle. So, $40 in addition to the R270 we had already paid for 3 nights self-catering accommodation.
To repeat my Tweet https://twitter.com/sahotels at the time and in contrast to Katie Melua’s claim that there may be millions of bicycles in Beijing; according to Suzette Bouwer there ARE millions of elephants in Hwange. Curiously, there are very few BIG elephants – over the 3 days and nights, only at the last sunset at Nyamandhlovu waterhole, did four big grand bulls come down for a drink. Other than that, the matriarchs and cows seemed dwarf-ish though there was notably no shortage of babies. Why would that be?
Our best viewing spots were: Mandavu Dam, near Sinamatella; the drive-thru’ Hide/Campsite at Masuma en route to Main Camp and the best of all, Nyamandhlovu. The latter is 15 mins from the main gate so super for sun downers and frequented by a constant ebb and flow of herd upon herd of Ellies. We enjoyed the way they arrived almost faster than their legs could carry them to the water; and departed laboriously, dragging themselves away.
The main road between Sinamatella and Main Camp had shocking corrugations but the arterial routes were smoother, rugged bush tracks were you run into no one though the game is a little skittish.
The park is very dry now and it was good to see that all the waterholes we encountered were well watered with working (often noisy) pumps topping up continuously.
We enjoyed great viewing and I have subsequently had some fun researching collective nouns to share with you and include some of my favourite photos:
Probably most notable and for us – a cluster of sable antelopes
Less plentiful in this Park – ranks of impala
Almost without exception, every waterhole had a visiting herd of elephants but we were so entertained, that a memory of elephants lingers on …
Plentiful, in fact never seen so many during a single trip – clusters of kudu.
A description that really appeals – an obstinacy of buffaloes – can anything look grumpier?
We have never seen quite so many guinea fowl! One in isolation is noisy but none so as a confusion of guinea fowl.
A skulk of jackals
Inconceivable and oddly put together – an implausibility of wildebeests
My most favourite spectacle in the bush and I marvel every single time as to just how perfectly beautiful they are – a zeal, cohort or dazzle of zebras – isn’t the English language fun?
We spotted a few Roan Antelope. They manage to look ever so slightly gormless but a claim to fame is that it is one of the largest of all Africanbovids, exceeded in size only by the African buffalo and eland. http://www.arkive.org/roan-antelope/hippotragus-equinus/
Not of the collective variety – but A HIGHLIGHT – two mail lions on two separate occasions at two separate locations.
Also a single lonesome male ostrich plus some very big flat lazy crocs (a “congregation”, “float”, “bask” or “nest”) – in this case ‘bask’ is most applicable!
This story would be incomplete without a review about the National Parks accommodation.
Our first night was booked at Sinamatella. The camp site was full so pre-booking is highly recommended. The self-catering chalets were not so busy and easy to understand why … decidedly neglected, clearly un-kept and no water. We were instructed to shower at the camp site and a communal 50 litre water container was provided not too far away for chalet guests to collect water. Have you ever you filled a cistern will a 1 litre water bottle when you’re under pressure? Thankfully, an absence of budding YouTube movie makers! There was no light in the sparsely furnished lounge but we spotted a bulb on the mantelpiece and assumed one was welcome to rectify the problem if you could locate a ladder.
Two chairs and table intended for the patio were spread out like a baseball pitch and the braai was ankle deep in ash. I may seem a bit picky but we did pay $90 for this absence of services and hospitality but hey, wood at $5 per wheelbarrow load was a bargain and the stunning view was priceless!
The next two nights were booked at Main Camp and what a difference. The place was tidy and certainly looked more cared for. Surrounded by gnarled, wise, old acacias; the chalet was clean, stocked with essentials, in the absence of wine goblets, beer glasses were good. Best of all, the steaming Rhodesian boiler provided plenty of hot water. A reasonably well stocked little shop was available to supplement supplies and although untried and untested there was a restaurant on site.
This was a great sojourn, next time though, preferably a private lodge or alternatively, camping and be self-sufficient.
From SA into Botswana: BP120 (or R180) for Road Tax & Insurance
NOTE: Obtain a SARS declaration at SA Customs if proceeding on to Zimbabwe. This is presented on re-entering SA.
From Botswana into Zimbabwe: $55 Carbon Tax, Road Tax and 3rd Party insurance – varies according to engine capacity.
EU double entry visa $70 – valid for 6 months
Sources: COLLECTIVE NOUN FOR …. http://www.thealmightyguru.com/Pointless/AnimalGroups.html / http://www.hphpublishing.co.za/game_drive/tala_game_drive.pdf