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Soukous posted a topic in Lodge and Camp reviewsOn my recent visit to Hwange I stayed in both Bomani Tented Lodge and Camelthorn Lodge. Although both are part of the Imvelo safari lodges portfolio, they could not be more different. Both camps are constructed on community land close to Hwange's Ngamo gate, in the south east corner of the park. Where Bomani is a tented lodge that sits looking out onto open plains, Cameltorn is a much more substantial, stone built affair nestled in a forest of acacia trees. Bomani Tented Lodge Spurwing tents at Bomani Bomani has 9 guest rooms and 1 family room. The guest rooms come in 2 different styles: The earlier Hornbill tents are raised off the ground on stilts and have solid wood floorboards whilst the newer Spurwing tents are set on concrete bases at ground level. All the guest rooms have views out over the plains and both styles have their champions. Whilst the Spurwing tents look out onto the camp waterhole, the Hornbills, being elevated, give a better all around view of the surrounding plains and do enjoy slightly better ventilation. Guests who might be nervous at having just a sheet of canvas between them and wildlife will appreciate the elevated Hornbill rooms. There is a large central building which contains the dining room, bar and lounge. Camelthorn Lodge Camelthorn has 8 guest rooms, all of which are stone built and referred to as Forest Villas. Something for my Children The reason for Camelthorn's sturdy construction is because when the local chief was approached for permission to build the lodge he said he would agree as long as it was something that would stand the test of time so that his children and his children's children could see it. Although it's location denies Camelthorn guests the same kind of views as those enjoyed at Bomani it does have some distinct advantages. At the hottest times of the year the surrounding forest provides shade that keeps the lodge cool and in winter, when sleeping in a tent can be pretty cold, the solid Camelthorn rooms each have their own fireplace to keep guests cosy and warm. Great Food On balance I would say that the food at Camelthorn is of a higher standard than that at Bomani. The food at Bomani is plentiful and excellent but at Camethorn it more closely resembles fine dining. Both lodges draw their staff – as much as possible - from the local community and Imvelo's ties to the local community are very strong indeed. A Tough Choice I've stayed at both lodges and would be more than happy to stay at either of them again. Choosing between them depends entirely on what your own individual priorities are. They both traverse the same part of Hwange and so the game drives are generally excellent with the ubiquitous elephants augmented by regular sightings of lions, cheetahs, buffaloes, zebras, elands, sable antelope. For me, the biggest draw card at Bomani is its location and the fact that when you are not on game drives the waterhole provides constant activity. The single biggest draw at Camelthorn, for me at least, is the head guide Sibs. Sibahle Sibanda, to give him his full name, is quite simply one of the most exceptional guides I have ever had the pleasure of working with. That is not to diminish in any way the other fine guides working at Camelthorn and Bomani – we’ve never had a bad review about any of them – Zimbabwean guides have a reputation for being amongst the best in Africa and Imvelo have a reputation for attracting the best of them. Please remember that these are just my opinions and, as such, they are subjective. The Elephant Express Those of you that have visited Hwange will be familiar with the drive out from Victoria Falls. To reach the turn-off for Main Camp and properties like The Hide takes about 2 hours. To reach Bomani and Camelthorn takes longer. It's about 2 hours to Halfway House where guests would swap their road car for a game vehicle and embark on a drive through the community land that takes just under 2 hours. It is the sort of journey you don't want to do twice in 1 safari and so many people opt to drive in and fly out – There is an airstrip about 300 metres from Bomani. Now there is another way - The Elephant Express Because the main Victoria Falls – Bulawayo railway line runs along the park boundary and right through Ngamo, Imvelo have built their own railway tram to bring guests to their lodges. Now, instead of the long drive guests will only drive as far as Impofu Siding, just beside Main Camp. There they board the Elephant Express for the journey to the lodge. It has literally transformed a rather tedious drive into an enjoyable game viewing ride, complete with refreshments. It really does add an extra dimension to the safari. So much so that a ride on the Elephant Express between Ngamo and Impofu is now being offered as an alternative activity to a game drive if the schedule allows.
The Heartbeat of Hwange On my recent visit to Hwange we were gathered for coffee before setting off on our morning game drive and – as you do – I asked one of the ladies if she had slept OK. She said that she had not, because the sound of the pump close to camp running all night disturbed her; couldn't it be turned off at night? Our guide had the perfect response – well practised I am sure – “That's the heartbeat of Hwange, if it stops the park will die.” And it is true, without the pumps there would be no water at all in the dry season and the animals would have to move elsewhere or die. There are no rivers in Hwange, only pumps In his book “Wankie – The Story of a Great Game Reserve” Ted Davison, Wankie's first Game Warden, puts his finger on the problem that the park faced from its very inception in 1928. “The boundaries of the reserve which had been decided upon were fairly well defined on the maps but not on the ground” and “The natural boundaries of this vast expanse of unoccupied land from an ecological point of view were the Deka river in the north, the Gwaai river to the east and the Nata river to the south. But all these rivers had been denied to the reserve for political reasons and even in those early days I could see trouble when game increased as eventually it would if my work was to be successful and the animals started drifting to the bigger natural water supplies during the dry season.” Wankie had been created as a game reserve but due to the area's lack of permanent water it was not an area where game naturally congregate except during the rainy season. Indeed on his first exploratory patrols through his new domain, undertaken by necessity during the dry season, Davison found that both water and game were scarce. Yet it was the dry season when visitors could come to Wankie and go in search of game. Davison knew that for Wankie to succeed as a game reserve he needed to create a habitat where the animals would remain during the dry season. That meant water. To prevent the animals leaving the reserve and venturing onto land where they could be shot as pests or poached Davison set about the task of converting the seasonal pans into a year round water supply. He sank boreholes to tap into the underground water supplies near the pans. “... erecting windmills on the boreholes and pumping into the pans. By this means it was hoped to build up a sufficient supply during the rains and early dry season - when the game pressure on the pans was not very high – to carry the pan over into the next rainy season.” A windmill pumped pan “Windmills, however, did not provide the idea setup as they did not pump sufficient water to keep game satisfied. During windy weather the mills could pump only about 5,000 gallons a day; while towards the end of the dry season when water was most needed, I doubt if some of them pumped more than fifty gallons a day. A herd of a hundred elephant (and there were several herds of that number as early as 1940) would consume 5,000 gallons in one drink. If they visited a pan and did not get sufficient water they would change their routine, moving to some other watering point, often outside the reserve, where they would remain until the rains had started.” by the early 1940's Davison observed that “The permanency of water supplies soon began to have its effect on game migration. Those animals which had previously been present in small numbers now appeared in greater numbers.” “Buffalo, too, soon discovered the improved conditions. …. There were indications that some came in from Botswana during the dry season and returned when the rains set in. In time these buffalo stopped the return migration to the west and were joined by more and more from outside the reserve. It became evident by 1945 that the buffalo population, as much as the elephant, were one day going to present an over-stocking problem.” Yet even Davison would be astounded to see just how the elephant population in Hwange has grown. In 1973 – 12 years after Davison's departure from Wankie - an in-depth survey of Wankie's wildlife estimated the park's elephant population to be around 10,500. A recurring problem In 1995 the Warden of Hwange's Main Camp presented a report to a workshop held in Hwange on the current management problems; one of the most significant of which was “Provision of artificial water for game in Hwange National Park”. Here's an excerpt of his report: “The provision and management of artificial water supplies in Hwange National Park (HNP) is an extremely important management activity. To keep viable game populations within the park, it is essential that water is pumped for them. The old dry season migration route taken by water dependent species to the Gwaai river, has long been cut off by the commercial farms on the Gwaai (which are usually enclosed by strong game fence and the veterinary fence for the control of foot and mouth disease. “Since the early 1930's, when the first boreholes were pumped in HNP, the provision of water to animals in the dry season (which lasts almost seven months of the year) has resulted in an increase in number of all species. If water is not provided, animals will die in large numbers and this could inflict irreversible damage to the most diverse wildlife population in the country.” ... “During the past four years the provision of water for game in the Park has gradually become worse and in fact, every year since 1990 the Park has faced a major water crisis. During the 1994 pumping season, game water supply operations fell into a total state of collapse.” … “Certain boreholes considered not strategic by the Park Wardens have had to be shut down to cannibalise spares to maintain others, particularly on the tourist routes. This has resulted in the 'unnatural' concentrations of animals around key water points and the associated degradation of the ecosystem. Only about 6% of the Park is savanna grassland ad most of this area is being subjected to extreme hoof pressure, over-grazing and destruction of trees, mainly around the water points. Other ecological problems which also come into play because of the water shortages in the park are: The increase in the number of mortalities, particularly of water dependent species which are unable to walk long distances in search of water. The exclusion of other animals drinking at pans by elephant which dominate scarce water reserves, to the detriment of specially protected and rare species.” He went on … “The predicament has been made worse because of a long history of inadequate funding and the failure to replace ageing equipment such as diesel engines and borehole pumping equipment.” Shortly afterwards, in 1997 another survey recorded that the elephant population had risen to about 25,000. More and more elephants And, at a time when other countries are seeing their elephant populations decline drastically, Hwange's elephants keep on multiplying. When they were counted in early 2015 as part of a continent wide elephant census, Hwange's herds were estimated to number 44,000. That is about half of Zimbabwe's total elephant population and three times as many elephants as the park can sustainably support. Even when they are running 24/7 the pumps struggle to keep up with demand from thousands of thirsty elephants. At some pumps the water never reaches the pan because the elephants jostle to drink it directly from the outlet pipe. Funding for Zimbabwe's Parks department ZNPWMA (Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority) has not improved in the 20 years since the above report, it has got worse. That the pumps are able to operate 24/7 for up to 3 months a year is down to the dedication of organisations like Wilderness Safaries, Imvelo Safari Lodges and other companies operating lodges within Hwange NP. They have taken on the responsibility for the pumps; providing both fuel and maintenance. The Pump Run As an alternative to a more standard game drive, one of the activities on offer at Imvelo's Bomani and Camelthorn lodges is the chance to go on a 'pump run'. A pump run is basically a full day game drive with a route that follows the chain of pumps that stretch southwards through the park from the lodges. The purpose of the pump run is to take fuel and other supplies to the crews that look after the pumps. This is a revelation to many visitors. On just about any game drive in Hwange you'll see one or more pumps; positioned close to the pans they are a fixture of the park. But whereas the pumps close to the lodges can be easily re-fuelled with just a short drive, the ones deeper in the park take considerably more effort and some actually have 2 man teams looking after them day and night throughout the dry season. These guys live in small shacks amongst the trees, close to the pump and their task is to make sure that their pump never stops. They re-fuel it several times each day and if it stops running hey are on hand to carry out repairs. A Bush Lunch The chance to venture deeper into the park than a normal half day game drive would allow is a real treat and each pan brings new sightings. A real highlight of the day is the bush lunch under the trees overlooking Mfagazaan Pan. Here we relax for a few hours in the middle of the day and observe the wildlife as it moves to and fro between the waterhole and the forest. As well as the elephants this is a great place to see Greater Kudu, Zebra and both Roan and Sable Antelope. By being kept running around the clock these pumps can just about keep the park's animals supplied with water. Life for some is much harder than for others. The elephants are large, with long legs and they are well able to walk the increasing distances between food and water. They usually arrive at the pumps in large family groups and adults can drink up to 200 litres each day. While the elephants are drinking no other animals can get close to the pumps. But what about the smaller animals; the ones with shorter legs? As the distances they have to travel between feeding and drinking increases they find it harder and harder to cope and there is a real danger that before much longer the park will start to lose some of its species. Ted Davison foresaw this more than seventy years ago. “With the steady increase of the game population our problems began to loom ahead. The elephant and buffalo herds were increasing at a greater rate than other animals, not all from natural increase within the reserve, but by influx from outside. Clearly, the day would come when our water supplies would be so strongly patronised by big herds of these two species that the browsing and grazing in the country surrounding the permanent water supplies would become devastated and game animals would not be able to live there. That time was a long way ahead but until then the answer lay in the creation of more, and still more, watering points. There was, however, a limit to doing this, and sooner or later we would have to face up to the fact that as long as the elephants population went on increasing at the rate they were, either a drastic culling operation or an increased migration out of the reserve was inevitable.” That elephant and other animals have thrived in Hwange for so long is a a huge endorsement of the work down by Ted Davison and those who came after him. More than seventy years after he installed the first pumps they system is still working. Looking ahead, there are undoubtedly some tough decisions that need to be made to ensure that Hwange thrives for another seventy years but for now at least, as I lie in bed at night, the sound of a pump steadily chugging away in the distance is a not disturbance at all, it is reassuring. As long as I can hear the heartbeat, it means that Hwange is is alive.
Soukous posted a topic in ArticlesCommunity led Conservation – the only way forward You only have to spend a few minutes in his company to see that Mark Butcher (Butch) is a man on a mission. That mission, in broad terms, is to ensure the survival of Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park and its wildlife. Butch knows he cannot do it alone; to have any chance of success he needs to get the local communities that border the park to buy in to the idea that their own future and the park's future are inextricably intertwined. The reason is simple: if the people living on the park's periphery are supportive and willing to work with the park, they can provide a valuable and vital barrier between the park and the surrounding countryside. If, as is too often the case, they see the park and its wildlife as the enemy, they can provide a very easy route in and out of the park for poachers. The reality of this was demonstrated only too vividly by the recent poaching of Cecil, one of Hwange's best known lions who was enticed out of the park into an adjacent unprotected area and then killed. There is no overnight success, Butch knows that the road ahead is a long one but the groundwork has been laid. Butch's company, Imvelo Safari Lodges, currently has 3 lodges in Hwange NP and 2 are built on community land close the park's eastern Ngamo gate. To get the consent from the community leadership meant overcoming the villagers' natural antipathy to the wildlife that regularly took their livestock and the park authorities that protected it. Indeed whilst we were in Ngamo village Johnson, the headman, told us that two of his donkeys had been killed by lions just days earlier. A significant measure of the progress that Butch has achieved was hearing from the headman that despite lamenting the loss of his donkeys to lions no-one from the village was sent out to track down and kill the lions responsible as would have been the case in days gone by. Johnson understands that the benefits that tourism can bring his community far outweigh the occasional loss of livestock and as we sat and chatted to Johnson the high regard in which he holds Butch was very evident. The land around Ngamo village is not great farmland and, like the park itself, has no permanent water. In a country where unemployment is very high, the lodges provide both employment and training. Employment means a far more reliable source of money to buy food and other essentials, than could be gained from farming. There is no doubt in Johnson's mind that tourism represents the way forward for his community. One of his own sons, Vusa, is now working as a trainee guide with Imvelo and is a terrific role model for other youngsters in the village. Improving the quality of life Imvelo's commitment to Ngamo is about much more than simply providing employment. Pumps have been installed to provide a clean water supply; vital for the health of any community. A new pump at Ngamo school Imvelo's annual 'Mobile Dentist Safari' welcomes a team of dentists from Europe who give their time to provide dental care for the communities; performing in excess of 1500 procedures in the space of a week; many of them on people who have never seen a dentist before in their lives. Mobile dentistry Education, Education, Education But the cornerstone of Imvelo's community work is providing education for the village's children. Education that will set them on the path for a better future. Using their own money, augmented by philanthropic donations, they have overseen the construction of primary schools in Ngamo and other communities. Decrepit buildings have been replaced by custom built classrooms and purpose built accommodation for teachers. Classrooms, old and new teacher accommodation, old a new The enthusiasm shown by the children for attending school – many of them walking several miles each day - is testament to the value of this project. Schoolchildren at Ngamo Ngamo classroom It doesn't end there. Faced with the issue of where to educate the children after they finish primary school, work on a secondary school for Ngamo is nearing completion. A natural barrier Butch's vision is to have a string of lodges along the park boundary with lodge staff drawn from the local communities. In return the villagers play their part in protecting the park's wildlife by acting as a barrier against infiltration by poachers. If this model can be replicated all around the park's boundary it will be a huge step towards safeguarding the future of this iconic Zimbabwean park. Mark 'Butch' Butcher Butch’s wildlife career started in 1979, when he became a ranger for the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management. He completed a BSc in Zoology and Botany at Rhodes University, before moving on to work for Zimbabwe’s Forestry Commission. As Provincial Wildlife Officer, Butch was responsible for all the wildlife that roamed within 1.8-million acres of indigenous forest. Whilst undertaking this enormous task, he quickly discovered how essential the local people’s support was to the wellbeing of the estate. Butch began to develop programs that would both engage the people and benefit the natural ecosystems. He finally left the Commission to develop these initiatives from the other side of the fence. Butch’s lifelong passion for Hwange – it’s elephants, wildlife and communities – formed the cornerstone for Imvelo Safari Lodges to grow into what it is today. See it for yourself All guests staying at either Bomani Tented Lodge or Camelthorn Lodge for 2 nights or more have the opportunity to visit Ngamo community and school during their stay. Trust me, it is not like other village visits.