Victoria Falls based Courteney Johnson is eminently qualified to run Wilderness Safaris Zimbabwe’s Operations department. Born and raised on a ranch in the south-eastern lowveld of Zimbabwe, Courteney started his career with Wilderness Safaris as a trainee guide in the Makalolo Concession of Hwange National Park in 1997. After attaining his guide’s walking license in 1998 he went on to manage and guide at camps in both Zimbabwe and Botswana. During his time in the bush, Courteney was actively involved in conservation work in Hwange National Park, particularly with anti-poaching measures, and acquired his Dangerous Drugs license in order to assist with snare removal in the south-eastern corner of Hwange National Park.
To find out more about Wilderness Safaris in Zimbabwe, visit their website here: www.wilderness-safaris.com/countries/zimbabwe
In advance of Safaritalk's recent visit to Little Makalolo, (read more here), I put the following questions to him...
Courteney, tell us about yourself: what is your background and how did you become involved with Wilderness Safaris?
I grew up on a ranch in South Eastern Zimbabwe and knew that I always wanted to work in the bush with people and to be involved with conservation. I aquired my Guides Licence in 1996 and started after that with Wilderness Safaris as a guide at Makalolo in Hwange National Park.
What is the history of the Little Makalolo Camp and how does it fit into the Wilderness Safaris portfolio of properties?
The original Little Makalolo was constructed in 1997 and the new Little Makalolo, on the same site and with the same foot print, was built in 2007. It’s a classic camp, small, intimate , rustic, comfortable, in a great location offering excellent wildlife and a very personalized service from friendly and caring staff.
What can a first time visitor expect from their visit to the camp in terms of sightings in and around camp? Aside from the more well known species, what are the rarities you might be lucky enough to see?
With a very productive waterhole less than 200 metres from the living area, so much wildlife can be seen before leaving for a drive or walk. Hwange National Park is most known for its elephants and in the dry months over 600 elephant have been counted coming down to the Little Makalolo waterhole in a 24 hour period. Huge herds of buffalo are also regular visitors to the waterhole.
Tell us about the Back Pans pride of lions and is the pride resident in the little makalolo area year round?
Just last week I watched the pride eating 2 buffalo that they had killed at Back Pans. Before I left another pride joined them bringing a group of 24 lions together.
How good is birding at Little Makalolo and what are the species especially to look out for?
The bird list currently sits at 420 species. The Hwange birding specials include Racket tailed rollers, Red necked falcon, Black eared seed eater, Bradfields hornbill, Pied babbler, Violet eared waxbill, Black faced waxbill, Burchells sand grouse, Dickensons kestrel and many summer migrants during the rains.
Tell me about the Woodpile Hide and why is it so popular: How close does it get guests to sightings at the waterhole?
It is an unbelievable experience being able to, safely, be so close to the large elephant numbers drinking and having a mud bath. Guests can be 3 metres from elephants and sometimes during a mud wallowing session you can come out of the hide with a covering of fine specs of mud.
Tell us about Little Makalolo’s staff: how many people are employed in the camp and from where do they come?
We have 24 staff at Little Makalolo. Most are from the communities on the boundary of Hwange National Park.
What opportunities for training and career advancement does Wilderness Safaris offer Zimbabweans from local communities, whether it be guiding, management positions, etc?
Just over 2 years ago Wilderness Safaris invested in LOBSTER, an online training system that enables every member of staff the opportunity of training and certificaton on departments and areas which are key to delivering top quality service to our guests. We also have a number of staff who have started off with us as clerks / storeman and who have risen to become guides, trainee managers, camp managers and even concession managers.
Benson Siyawareva is guide very familiar to Safaritalk members, many use him, including ourselves during this stay. What was his involvement with the early days of Little Makalolo and how much of the camp’s success can be attributed to him?
Benson was with Wilderness Safaris for 4 years and was hugely important in the construction of the original Little Makalolo and for getting Little Makalolo on the map. He still visits our camps with guests and his son, Honest, is now a guide with Wilderness Safaris, following in his father's foot steps.
In terms of the camp’s eco credentials, how much of an impact does it have upon the environment: for instance, how is grey and black water treated, rubbish disposed of, waste material recycled? What about electricity supply?
Rooms have solar water heating and electrical power is obtained from a pv solar panel with batteries.
And, most importantly for a park with scarce water resources, from where is water drawn for washing, drinking etc – what efforts are made to educate guests about their consumption/use?
Our in house environmental officer, based at Makalolo, does bi annual EMS audits on all our camps, (back and front of house) and he is responsible for ensuring that we are all following our environmental minimum standards. Arnold also occasonally gives presentations to guests on his various projects and responsibilities in camps.
Water is drawn from wells which we monitor in terms of ammount of water we extract as well as bi annual static tests to determine water levels in the borehole.
In terms of flora, how does the area around Little Makalolo change seasonally? How does this impact upon wildlife densities and behaviour?
In the green season the bush is thick and green with a lot of surface water - during the dry season the bush is more open and very dry. The same animal species can be seen at either time of the year although greater numbers, especially elephant, can be viewed in winter.
What in your opinion is the best time to visit and why?
I have 2 favourite times in Hwange – green season, (January), as there are plenty of migratory birds, (ducks , storks , eagles), bush flowers and one can see many animals with youngsters, (wildebeest , zebra , impala). Dry season, (September), when the bush is very open and dry sees a congregation of animals around the waterhoels and the dust and sunsets are unbeatable.
How has Hwange National Park benefited from increasing tourism numbers to Zimbabwe?
A greater prescence in the parks increases revenue for the The Zimbabwe Parks & Wildlife Authority and with this they are able to better manage the park in terms of infrastructure such as roads, pumps and also anti-poaching etc.
What changes have you seen in the park during your tenure with Wilderness Safaris in Zimbabwe?
I have seen how maintaining firebreaks, roads, pumping water religiously, anti-poaching and just a prescence in a area can build wildlife numbers over just a couple of years.
Hwange, (so named after a Nhanzwa Chief), relies upon man made waterholes/boreholes to supply water for the wildlife, especially the elephant population – what is Wilderness's responsibility in keeping these boreholes maintained and supplied?
We now pump and maintain / pump 13 boreholes in the 2 concessions – Makalolo and Linkwasha.
What are the main conservation issues in Hwange National Park and how does Wilderness interact with other tourism and conservation stakeholders in assisting conservation efforts in the park?
The main conservation issues are game water supply and the large elephant numbers. Wilderness employs a full time environmental officer who works very closely with National Parks – conservation projects, (game water supply, wildlife monitoring and counting, spoor transects, co-ordinating anti-poaching scout movements etc,) as well as with other conservation and research groups operating in the National Park – lion research / CIRAD for example.
What instances of human vs wildlife conflict are there on the peripheries of the park, especially in the Linkwasha and Makalolo concession area and how are such issues resolved with the local communities?
Neither the Makalolo or Linkwasha concession border communities. Our Children in the Wilderness program is however very active in the Tsholotsho community which is closest to us, ( schools , eco clubs) and lion research also work closely with communities on human wildlife conflict. Arnold has also played an important role in assisting with launching eco clubs in the community schools.
How bad is poaching in Hwange? Last year there was the case of the elephants poisoned with cyanide at one of the waterholes, (though there was discrepancy in the numbers ranging depending on which press sources you read) – how much did this one event focus attention on the issue and what has been done since in the park by authorities and agencies to step up anti poaching efforts?
Given the sheer enormity of Hwange National Park and the resources available to police it this is an incredibly difficult task. With this understanding many operators have assisted The Zimbabwe Parks & Wildlife Authority wherever they can. We have assisted by constructing an anti poaching camp in our area which is used by National Parks rangers when they come throuh our area on patrols. We assist with deploying scouts and have also assisted with aircraft hours to over fly remote areas of the park. National Parks and government moved swiftly on the cyandide poisioning and to bring things under control.Fifteen Land Rovers have also been donated by Mbada Diamonds specifically for anti-poaching efforts. Generally, poaching is at a subsistence level, i.e., poaching for the pot.
How much more tourism development can Hwange National Park handle without becoming crowded with tourists? Do you envisage further tourism infrastructure being built as visitor numbers increase to the country or should efforts be made to develop the tourism potential of other Zimbabwe wilderness areas, such as the Savé Valley Conservancy?
Hwange is a huge national park and there is most certainly space for further carefully planned developments to ensure that we do not loose the wild / remote feel of the park. More visitors are a greater presence and will generate much needed revenue for the park as well as jobs for surrounding communities. As we speak a new parks plan is being developed and drawn up.
In your opinion, what would be a great Zimbabwe safari itinerary, (including Hwange National Park and Little Makalolo), and why? At what time of year would offer the best bang for buck in term of value for money and wildlife interaction?
Victoria Falls – Hwange, (Little Makalolo) – Lake Kariba – Mana Pools, (Ruckomechi). This would need to be before the end of October as Ruckomechi closes at the onset of the rains.
Image 1 & 2 courtesy and copyright of Wilderness Safaris.
Image 3, my own.
Image 4, Safaridude.
The views expressed therein are solely those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of Safaritalk.