*Photos now included.*
No animals were harmed in the making of this photo.
Hwange National Park, when entered through the Sinamatella Gate, is perhaps five hours north of Bulawayo. Most of the trip was along the A8, one of Zimbabwe’s major roads. It was paved, free of potholes, and – save for the inevitable police blockades – fast. The last forty kilometres took us onto a corrugated gravel road that cut through a foul-smelling coal mine. Massive trucks rumbled by, spattering the truck with black soot, while smoking chasms to our right recalled the orc-spawning pits of Mordor. One can only hope that ZimParks is getting a cut of the profits.
The road to Hwange.
The side of the road to Hwange (pre-coal mining stretch).
Eventually we passed through a gate and into the park; and then we went through a second gate and into Sinamatella Camp, the more northern of the park’s hubs. Both the campsites and the reception area appeared deserted. We hovered in the reception for a moment, idly examining the peeling map painted on the wall, until a lone man appeared behind the desk. He checked us in with much grumbling and vigourous stamping of papers. Our final destination, Mandavu Dam, was roughly thirty kilometres away. He handed us a smeary photocopy of the park map.
“Left,” he told us, gesturing at the gate we had driven through, “then right.”
When I asked if we might visit the store that we had heard about, thinking that it would be good to pick up one or two things to supplement our planned meals, he fingered a bundle of keys hanging from his belt. “Yes,” he said. “I will open it for you.” He led us to a narrow cement block bearing a strong resemblance to a bomb shelter. It was dark inside. The man gave a slightly embarrassed smile. “The power went out. Just now.”
After a moment, my eyes adjusted. I saw three worn wooden shelves across one wall displayed a few bags of rice, a carton of maize meal, half a dozen dusty bottles of Fanta and Coke, and an abundance of empty space. A small refrigerator at the end held cans of soda and bottled water. I removed a few bottles, thinking that it would be good to have some back-up water if the pump at the camp wasn’t working. They were very warm.
“And maybe a bottle of Coke,” Darren said as the man counted the bottles.
“You must drink it here,” the man said.
“I can’t take a bottle?”
“No. Bottle deposit. You must drink it here.”
So no Coke was bought. We considered having a late lunch before proceeding to our campsite, but the restaurant, alas, was no longer operational.
Rise and Fall
Hwange was once one of southern Africa’s most popular game parks, known for its high counts of elephants and lions. Many of the sources I consulted when making our Hwange booking (a process that took eight months and entailed no fewer than 23 e-mails to the park’s booking agents) stated that it was absolutely imperative to make reservations should one be planning to visit in the September/October period. Hwange is a fine park and I am glad we went, but the conspicuous absence of crowds – and the state of the infrastructure – made it painfully obvious that the area is no longer the draw it once was. One might almost suspect that mass political violence and the occasional government-sanctioned lynching had a deleterious effect on tourism.
Ten years ago, Hwange must have been comparable to South Africa’s now-famous Kruger. The basic design is the same: a network of roads built around waterholes, some natural and some artificial*, with campsites spaced around a few central areas. As in Kruger, there are water pumps, washrooms, braai stands, ablution blocks, and (in theory) a store and a restaurant at the major camps.
Unfortunately, these things have had only the barest maintenance for at least five years, possibly ten. Cement blocks can’t deteriorate too much, so the washrooms and shower areas are essentially intact (though toilet paper and soap are invariably absent). The pumps, on the other hand, fail regularly; and the fences around the camps are tortuous constructions of crooked sticks and rusted wire. None of this is the fault of the campsite’s caretakers, who work hard to keep everything clean and operational. They’re in the unenviable position, however, of having to do so without access to spare parts or any equipment more sophisticated than a twig broom. As a general rule, if something breaks, it stays broken. Much of the park feels faintly post-apocalyptic; partly due to the fact that everything is in disrepair and partly due to the dead shrubs, the blowing sand, and the sun-bleached elephant skulls. The trees at our second campsite were ringed with decorative circles of animal bones.
The pump at one of the waterholes. It’s made from an old car engine.
Hwange was drier than Kruger. As a result, the game was much more concentrated around the waterholes. One of the best parts of our stay was the day we spent sitting next to Masuma Dam, watching an endless procession of zebras, warthogs, impala, elephants, and kudu make their way down to the water. A herd of blue-helmeted guineafowl kept scurrying down to the edge of the dam, fluttering their polka-dot feathers, only to dash away in a twittering panic when a crocodile glided into their field of vision or a martial eagle, talons bared, plummetted into their midst. The muddy water in the middle of the dam was broken by the rounded backs of the resident hippos, glistening like fat plums bobbing in a sea of murky custard.
Elephants bathing at Masuma Dam.
Kudu and impala.
A few days after this, we drove south to Main Camp along the spine of the park’s road network. This road had once been paved, but so long ago that the asphalt had split and crumbled. The potholes were so large that the dirt filling them had developed its own corrugations. In a few places, someone had covered the asphalt with gravel in order to improve the road surface. There were stone cairns with arrows indicating where the roads at each intersection would take you, but several had collapsed or were otherwise illegible.
One of the better parts of the road from Sinamatella to Main Camp.
A very helpful sign.
The deterioration of these markers may have been a factor in the very long detour back to our campsite that we accidentally took on our final day in Hwange. The discovery of our error was initially galling, as it was very hot and the road was poor, but the side trip ultimately proved fruitful as it ended with our first proper lion sighting. A few days earlier Darren had spotted the heads of two sleeping lions, but they were quite a distance away and were not moving. This time, there was a large male napping under a bush, and a lioness sleeping next to a second male under a tree. All three were about ten metres away. After a while, the first male got up and padded lazily towards the other two. The other two stood up and they all yawned for a while, then went back to sleep. I imagine it took the first European explorers a while to figure out these creatures were at the top of the food chain and not a harmless sort of feline sloth.
I was a touch underwhelmed by the male lions, which looked disappointing similar to overgrown chow dogs, but the lioness looked sleek and powerful.
Final note for anyone visiting Hwange or Mana Pools National Park: As I wrote earlier, most sources say that reservations for these parks are still absolutely essential. This was clearly not true. Although their desertedness is no doubt partly due to the political situation, several local residents have told me that Zimbabwean booking agencies buy ‘block bookings’ from ZimParks at severely discounted prices, then sell parts of these bookings to tourists. For this reason, the parks are often fully booked but rarely fully occupied. I am told that, provided you avoid the major South African holidays, a campsite can usually be found upon arrival. The logic behind this bizarre system has not yet been explained to me.
A rock dassie, also known as rock hyrax. The Mandavu Dam campsite was overrun by these creatures.