Heine's Ramblings and Rumblings

February Zimbabwe News from Dick Pitman

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No. 30, February 2012


ABOUT THIS NEWSLETTER
You’ve contacted us about ZIM4x4’s services, so we’re assuming you are interested in news about 4×4 travel in our area. Please contact us if you wish to be removed from our mailing list. Zimbabwe-SA connection problems continue, so if you have tried to contact us recently but have not received an answer, please resend on info and copy to dick.pitman, which is our new ‘fall-back’ address. You can also telephone or text us on (263-772) 324224.

ZIM4X4 BOOKINGS

We are delighted to say that we are now pretty well booked up for the 2012 season, from mid-April through to mid-November. We have one or two slots left in June and July, and at the end of November if anyone’s prepared to gamble on the weather, but otherwise: why not think long-term and consider a safari with us in 2013!

PARK FEES

Against all expectations, the Parks Authority has not increased its accommodation, camping and entry fees for 2012 – a very pleasant surprise in view of the fact that the Authority continues to be as cash-strapped as ever. Indeed, probably more so as other costs, such as salaries, vehicle maintenance &c continue to increase.

Protecting wild areas – and especially those holding ‘valuable wildlife’, such as elephants and rhinos – is an expensive business, which is why we at ZIM4x4 would have been neither surprised, nor unduly dismayed, if the Authority had imposed increases, provided of course that they were within reasonable bounds. Having both been a Parks officer, and also having worked in civilian wildlife conservation for many years, I have some idea of what these costs are.

It’s easy, for instance, to talk about the need to (for example) radiocollar certain species for research and conservation purposes. It becomes less easy when one knows that such exercises can cost at least US$1000 per animal, especially when sophisticated equipment such as aircraft and helicopters, expensive tranquillising drugs, and equally expensive radio equipment is required.

Road and track networks are also expensive to maintain. In many Parks, gravel and sand tracks need considerable work at the start of each dry season, and often require the use of graders and other heavy equipment.

Station vehicles lead hard lives, deploying labour gangs and ant-poaching patrols; and anti-poaching operations have constant needs for consumables such as radio batteries, as well as boots, uniforms, backpacks, bivvies, mosquito nets and much else besides.

“Yes, but” you may say – “even so, we’re not seeing much for our US$100-a-night campsite fee. The roads are appalling, the vehicles are falling apart, the toilets are delapidated and the only people we see doing research are NGOs.”

One must remember one or two harsh realities. Zimbabwe suffered ten years of economic disaster and a near-total absence of paying visitors to Parks. On top of this, from 2001 to the present day, the Parks Authority has not received a cent of official donor assistance, being a government department and therefore subject to both official and unofficial sanctions (and whatever anyone may say, the latter do exist, and hurt ‘ordinary’ Zimbabweans far more than they do the politicians they are supposed to affect).

NGOs – including our own favourite agency, The Zambezi Society – plug as many of the gaps as they can, and some significant sums of money are involved. But this is a drop in the bucket compared with the real needs, which include – for instance – at least one reasonably-paid and well-equipped ranger for every 20sq km of Park.

Field staff are, by and large, both dedicated and competent. You have to be, if – as they do – you are to risk your life against armed poaching gangs in return for around US$250 per month. But even they have their limits. Spare a thought for them, next time you are tempted to complain about the cost of a campsite or bundle of firewood. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation: facilities can’t be improved unless there’s money to pay for them; but hiking prices while facilities are substandard causes a furore. The resolution is, of course, a political matter.

Other Prices

Private-sector prices, on the other hand, are a different trolley of groceries. I think that every request we’ve made to private lodges, houseboats and other facilities has resulted in an increase over 2011 – up to 40% for some, and even 50% in one instance. We can understand this in some cases – houseboats, we suspect, have been something of a bargain for the last few years – but not in others. Ripping people off is a time-hallowed tradition in some sectors of the Zimbabwean tourism industry, and it definitely pays to shop around.

Change, of course, continues to be non-existent in many shops and supermarkets. Instead, you’ll be invited to take it in unwanted sweets, boxes of matches, or – in one recent personal case – in the form of a couple of 13-amp fuses (which, oddly, I did happen to need, so at least it was useful.

I suggest a counter-attack. carry your own bag of sweets, matches and what-have you and next time you get a supermarket bill for US$4.30 and no change available, give them US$4 and some sweets and see how they leap at it!

FUELS

A locally-produced ethanol blend recently began to appear at Zimbabwean service stations. Nothing new in that: we had it many years ago, before fuel injection became common, and it wrought a good deal of havoc with carburetters, fuel lines, seals and other items. Maybe that’s changed – we have to admit that being exclusively diesel jocks, our knowledge of petrol vehicles ended with the Land Rover Series II (and no, I won’t have a word said against it. It was the best go-anywhere, do-anything bush car I’ve ever owned. Just took a week to get there…!)

Such local consultations as we have made have been unproductive, apart from an abrupt intake of breath and some ominous head-shaking, and an intensive web search merely created massive confusion in our minds. Maybe some of our South African readers can shed some light for us, since ethanol appears to have been in use there for some time. Meanwhile, we’d suggest you give it a miss unless you are totally sure your vehicle can use the stuff without problems or damage.

THE RAINS

It hasn’t been the greatest of rainy seasons so far. The first rain fell very early, which is often an ominous sign, at least according to this particular self-appointed fundi. Thereafter, things more or less dried up until late December and early January. Even now, some weeks later, Mana Pools is reported to be ‘dry, with the grass already wilting’. Matusadona may be a bit better off, with average rainfall reported up to February 1st, and some heavy storms since.

At the time of writing, Zambezi flows at the Victoria Falls monitoring station are running at roughly 60% of last year’s figure on the same date. LakeKariba – having risen a little – is currently stable, at roughly 4m below ‘full supply height’. One floodgate was opened in January, but was closed again pretty smartly.

What does all this mean to intending visitors? Well, the first point – obviously – is that this rainy season still has some time to go, during which anything can happen, and quite probably will. Nevertheless, let’s look at some possible scenarios in the major wildlife Parks in our area:

OVERALL – poor rains mean that wildlife will gather early at remaining surface water sources, but that grazing will be exhausted well before the end of the dry season, resulting in wildlife deaths. Equally, good and late rains often mean that wildlife remains dispersed further into the dry season, young and old animals survive more easily, and numbers may increase.

In Matusadona, stable or falling lake levels would open lakeshore tracks for game-viewing. Also, the development of Panicum repens (Torpedo grass) fringes on exposed lakeshore areas may compensate for the loss of other grazing resources. Several Matusadona species, notably buffalo, zebra and waterbuck, historically show population increases during drought cycles.

  • In Hwange, the grazing and browsing ‘load’ is to some extent spread by the existence of artificially-pumped pans, but this has in turn allowed wildlife numbers to increase, and drought is likely to cause significant wildlife deaths.

In Mana Pools, the ‘floodplain’ areas are critical during the dry season, and although they are the scene of spectacular wildlife concentrations, there are no ameliorating factors in the event of poor rains. A good crop of A. albida pods – unlike 2011’s very poor crop – would help. Some would argue that reductions in species such as elephant, hippo and impala are desirable – even necessary – but it doesn’t make for enjoyable game-viewing.

To many visitors, the spectacular wildlife gatherings induced by drought can be superficially exciting, but it’s worth remembering that such gatherings are often created by food- or water-stress, and they should remember that they may well be looking at animals in poor condition (locating wildlife during and soon after the rains may need more work, but at least you’re usually seeing well-fed, sleek animals in good condition).

To many biologists, however, wildlife deaths induced by drought are a blessing in disguise in many areas, keeping numbers under control and reducing damage to habitats and ecosystems. Whatever the case, it’s worth remembering that both drought and abundance are natural phenomena, very longstanding features of the southern African climate, and – barringrapid and severe climate change – are likely to be so in the future. Calling them ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is a purely human trait.

Our own trip –

Sal and I made our own annual rainy-season pilgrimage to Mana Pools in mid-January, only to find there had been very little rain, there were some large bare areas, and such grass as had managed to get started was wilting rapidly. Nevertheless, wildlife still proved elusive. We spent a couple of days meandering around in the western part of the floodplain (incidentally, the unique features of this area are more correctly known as ‘alluvial terraces’ as they are not true floodplains) with little success.

It was only when we turned our attention to the Mana Mouth and Nyamatusi areas that we began to see animals in any numbers. Here, however, we watched large elephant groups coming to the water every evening, and sighted a herd of buffalo we’d guess at 2-300 strong. We got the impression that there had been more rain in this part of the Park, resulting in better grass growth.

After a few days, however, we did get a couple of significant storms, whereupon the Mana Mouth elephants and buffalo vanished overnight and the place was virtually deserted. It probably hadn’t gone very far – probably south into the dense jesse that begins where the alluvial terraces end – but it’s not stuff you want to wander around in unless you absolutely have to, being thick as all hell and almost certainly stuffed with buffalo and elephant cows.

The warthogs and impala stayed put, however, and one of the delights was to see the large numbers of new-born young that are such a feature of the wet season. Another lay in the amazing concentrations of brilliantly-coloured butterflies that are also a feature of this time of year. A third was the crystal clarity of the air, the Zambian escarpment seemingly close enough to touch instead of lost in dry-season haze and smoke; the emerald-green new leaf against brilliant blue skies; and the deep purple of advancing storms, capped with towering cumulo-nimbus and spreading anvil canopies.

Journeys to our wildlife Parks during the rains are probably more suited to people who have already seen the animal concentrations in the dry season; if seeing such things is important, then ‘first-timers’ possibly run the risk of disappointment. For birders, on the other hand, it’s one of the best times of year, with most summer migrants present; and for ‘wilderness connoisseurs’ it’s maybe the best time of all. We didn’t see another vehicle during our entire 10-day stay at Mana. It was a true Garden of Eden. All it needed was a lot more rain….

TIPS FOR TRAVELLERS

Sally and I take many things for granted after spending 30-odd years largely in the ZambeziValley, but they seem to come as a huge surprise to some self-drive visitors.

There are, for instance, very few 220v – or any other – charging facilities in the Valley. The number of gadgets carried by travellers that can’t be charged via 12v vehicle lighter sockets seems to be increasing exponentially, while the availability of mains voltage facilities remains near zero except possibly in centres such as Kariba and Binga. Camera batteries seem to head the list, followed by mobile ‘phones (but see below!), torches, and other stuff.

Some Park offices will do it as a favour – if the generator has fuel – but you run the risk of some pretty dramatic voltage fluctuations. We thought we’d solved this problem by installing a small inverter in our vehicle, and running it off our second battery. However, our small laptop doesn’t like the inverter very much, probably because of its modified sine wave output, and the inverters available in Zimbabwe don’t seem to like the Zambezi Valley’s corrugated roads very much; we’ve gone through two already and a luta continua, so to speak. Any insights, anyone? Meanwhile we still feel the best advice we can give is to bring plenty of camera batteries, and switch your mobile ‘phone off – you’re in the bush, and there’s probably no network coverage anyway!

Another recent trend, mostly among our international clients, is a stubborn refusal to drink anything other than bottled water, even when perfectly drinkable water is available in campsites and lodges. If this is truly important to you,remember thatyou can’t buy bottled water except in urban centres. There aren’t any shops in our wildlife and wilderness areas. You’ll need to carry all you will need, and then some.

I have fairly strong views on this, one of them being that bottled water may have come from a borehole overlain by several hundred septic tanks, or even straight from an urban tap. I’d far rather drink pure Zambezi or Kariba water (boil it if you feel you need to), but I can’t formally recommend it in case someone gets a severe case of the runs and decides to sue me.

Gleaming white hats, shirts and trousers are a no-no – most wildlife will run a mile, especially if you are walking. Bring some subdued clothing – khakis, greys, jungle greens. Mere commonsense, you’d think? You’d be surprised at some of the sights we’ve seen…!

And most campsites are unfenced. Large specimens of local wildlife, such as elephants, buffalo, hippo and even lion, can wander through at will, and often do. You either love this, as Sal and I do; or hate it. We are acquainted with a not-very-bush-savvy couple who lasted one night at Mana, before fleeing back to Harare. The only reservation I have about these sites is they aren’t suitable if you have small children (which they didn’t). Otherwise – be calm; be sensible; and enjoy it.

More broadly: the low-lying Valley can be hot– hotter than you may have ever experienced. We had shade temperatures up to 48degC last October. Drink lots of water (bottled or otherwise). Bring electrolyte tabs – they really make a difference. It can also be colddown to zero and below on some nights in May thru’ mid-August. And it can be wet anytime between September and May, even if only briefly. Plan accordingly.

It can be dusty. Leaky rear door seals are a major culprit, but keep all foodstuffs, bedding, clothes &c in dustproof containers and bags unless you want to go everywhere with the windows wound up. Be particularly aware of the need to protect cameras, binoculars and other sensitive items against dust.

And there are insectsmosquitoes during the rains, tsetse flies in some areas year-round. Most people do have an appreciation of malaria risks, and bring repellents, mosquito nets, long-sleeved shirts and long trousers for after-dark wear. For some reason, though, the appearance of a single tsetse fly within a vehicle can bring on near-hysteria.

Luckily, tsetse are generally confined to a few restricted areas, usually dense riverine or other bush. There isn’t actually a great deal to be done about them, as I think we’ve remarked before in these columns, except wind the windows up and turn on the air-conditioner.

Personally I loathe driving around like this (we never even possessed an air-conditioner for 27 of those 30 years, and only now because our current vehicle had one when we bought it). However, Sal’s twin remedies of a spray containing dilute Dettol, plus a fearsomely effective fly-swatter, work well. The only downside is getting whapped mercilessly on the back of my head, a landing pad favoured by tsetse flies for whatever reason, while trying to negotiate a tricky little gully or sandy riverbed.

There may be spiders in the bath; geckos on the walls; little sticky-frogs in the toilets; monkeys or baboons in your (rashly open) car and honey-badgers in the dustbins. None of these has to be a major disaster, as long as you are aware they may be there and manage your life accordingly.

To balance all this out, the ZambeziValley and LakeKariba areas are, quite simply, the loveliest places in the world. And the world is full of people who, having been there, can’t wait to come back. Drink from the Zambezi, etc etc, as per the strap at the end of our newsletter.

AND FINALLY –

The elephant doing the ‘tow start’ at left is just one of the famously placid old gentlemen who meander through Zambezi Valley campsites, shower your tent with pods, twigs and other debris from the Acacia albidas, and generally act as if they own the place. Which, of course, they do.

Should these animals wander out of the National Parks and into neighbouring hunting areas, they may – perfectly legitimately, as things stand – be shot by trophy hunters. This has already happened in more than one case. The individual at left hasn’t got particularly heavy tusks, so he might get away with it. However, the tusks on at least one of those at right are getting into the trophy ‘danger zone’.

Heavy ivory or not, these animals are outstanding characters, known and loved by Valley safari operators and visitors alike, and their loss would be a tragedy. One possible answer is to get them radiocollared and give legal protection to animals carrying such collars. This will be rather sad, as one more illusion of ‘wildness’ will be lost (not many people want to photograph radiocollared animals) but in the absence of other solutions, it’s better than losing them.

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One thought on “February Zimbabwe News from Dick Pitman

  1. Dick, havent heard from you or Sallyfor years, glad we are still alive.

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