Hwange has lived up to its reputation as among the best parks on the continent. We are now going to engage this country’s culture and history more as we head to Bulawayo and Masvingo – with I’m sure many a roadblock and money-seeking government official to come.
6 police roadblocks, 3 stops, 2 attempted fines, zero money exchanged hands in 200 kilometers from Victoria Falls to Hwange – welcome to Zimbabwe. The first ‘fine’ was actually in Victoria Falls when the police pulled me aside to inspect my car. He declared that my license plate light didn’t work at all and it was a $20 fine – I switched my lights from auto to on and we were on our way. The second ‘fine’ was for not having the proper diamond-grade reflector sticker on my bumper (I only had the standard grade I could buy in Botswana). Initially I protested it was the exact same reflector on every other car here – so he pulled a few others over to ‘show’ me. After pointing out how the three other foreign plated vehicles he pulled over also had the wrong kind and would have to be fined he did manage to get one commercial truck to use as a proper example. He explained that the fine is $20 and if I showed the blue receipt from the ‘admission of guilt’ form at other roadblocks I won’t have any more trouble – I let him know I would like to take my seven days to pay the fine at a police station. He says ah, but we are out of those forms, and people don’t always pay – I empathize with his plight but insist I’ll need the seven days since I am heading into the bush and don’t have extra cash for his fines. Ok he says, maybe you have $10 for the fine now and besides the form will help you at other roadblocks – nope, I don’t have $10 to pay now I’ll pay at a police station in seven days. Once he accepts he won’t be getting cash from me, as always, he sends me on my way with a warning and instructions to enjoy my visit to his country. This country is in many ways very typically African and in many ways very unique. Its recent past is strained to say the least and its present is still living in the shadow of Mugabe. I’ve met more than a few South Africans who refuse to visit here whether out of a form of political protest or because the hassle of dealing with the corruption is just not worth it. It is a shame, because after having already managed to destroy Africa’s leading farm industry, they are killing a tourist industry that has so much to offer. Hwange is another of Africa’s premier game parks and wildernesses. Its size is larger than several European countries (I’ve heard Iceland and Belgium used as examples), covers several different ecosystems and is crowded with game of all types. We stayed in both the North and East areas of the park, much of the South and West is virtually inaccessible and quite wild. We were able to make the arrangements, both our original ones and our adjusted ones (without having to spend any additional cash) by working directly with one government employee here who does a good job – Christine Mhuriro of Zimparks. She was not only, though not without many weeks of effort, able to secure reservations for me from abroad but she turned our 9 days of camping into 5 days of chalets for me after the accident – sending me the final invoice the morning we left Victoria Falls. If you ever need to make reservations for any of Zimbabwe’s parks I highly recommend reaching out directly to her upfront. The facilities in Hwange are, let’s say in need of upkeep. For the price, relative to neighboring countries it isn’t so bad – it is less than half the cost of Namibia’s parks and chalets here are even cheaper than the campsites in the premier Botswana parks. Sinamatella in the North was virtually deserted, the store never opened at all and there was no fuel available – though the restaurant, with one table, insisted it served food. Main Camp was a bit run down, the fence worthless as evident by the impalas and wildebeest in camp and the store, while open, barely stocked with anything save popcorn – I also found the choice of no showers in the lodges, only bathtubs, a bit odd. But, when you can end the day with a warm bath, a cold Zambezi and (eventually after patiently waiting for the electric stove to do anything at all) freshly popped popcorn you can’t ask for much more. The game viewing here is excellent. After three weeks of seeing elephant essentially every day, some days in the hundreds and certainly over that period in the thousands overall, you can get a little jaded. You hardly notice when 100+ stuff themselves into a tiny waterhole for an afternoon bath, or one blocks the road in front of you raising its ears to make it appear bigger and more intimidating while refusing to budge, or, with just 20 minutes before the gate closes 10 kilometers away, the one just ahead of you is ready to mock charge every time you try to inch forward. Beyond the elephants, though we didn’t get too lucky with the large cats (until the last morning of course; see below) despite plenty of evidence of their presence we did see some small ones – serval and wild cat – along with hyena, jackals (including our first side-striped jackals – at this point with so few new species to see it is exciting to find one) and of course tons of zebra, giraffe, wildebeest, impala, kudu, sable, roan and warthog among the plains game. Most importantly though, we saw a pack of wild dogs. Karen was admiring the lappet-faced vultures (as they looked different from the white bearded ones we had seen in the South) while I politely redirected her attention to the base of the rock where three dogs were laying in the shade. In all, we spent almost an hour with an eight dog pack taking a midday rest – based on their relaxed lethargy and the multitude of vultures around it appeared that they had a kill at that spot the previous evening. On our last morning, as is our tradition, we had a great sighting. A male leopard (we later learnt his name was Cowboy) and a sub-adult who were separated by us and the road until the male crossed right behind us to reunite with the child. Leopards aren’t frequently seen in Hwange and later that morning we saw a research vehicle tracking a female, Chloe, near the same area – they were very excited when we showed them our photo and they saw that it was the male implying that the male and female were hanging around together.