I'd first heard stories of an old, abandoned and almost forgotten camp in the Southern section of Hwange National Park whilst on safari in Zimbabwe with @Safaridude : our guide, Benson Siyawareva shared scant details of a place which was now but a memory, dusty and cobwebbed but that was situated on a migratory pathway for elephants between Botswana and Zimbabwe. I've dreamt since that day of rediscovering this safari relic; as Martin and Osa Johnson had their Lake Paradise in Kenya, so I had a camp in the southern section of Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe.
Fast foward a couple of years and I heard through Mark Butcher, director of Imvelo Safari Lodges that he had taken over the lease of a long abandoned safari camp, Jozibanini and was in the process of developing a rustic, adventure style camp in an area of the park long devoid of safari tourists: of course, my attention roused, could this be the fabled place of which Benson had told me? It was imperative I found out more so I set about putting my questions to Mark in the following interview...
Why is the Southern sector of Hwange underdeveloped in tourism terms?
The southern sector of Hwange is underdeveloped full stop. Both by tourism and all park development, and this is a factor of geography and history. Firstly, just getting to Jozibanini which is a jump off point for the far south, is a long days drive from Main Camp, when you consider it is less than 150 km this gives you an idea about the roads ... long sections of very deep sand often low range 4 WD stuff. Also historically some of the older park plans set aside the southern wilderness areas not to be developed at all, so tourism was not encouraged there. Its viability was always going to be marginal.
How does this area differ in terms of wildlife densities, flora and topography in comparison to other areas of Hwange, especially the more oft visited and popular areas?
Wildlife densities in wet season are very similar to large parts of the rest of Hwange ... "this is where the elephant go in the wet season", dry season prior to us re-establishing pumped water wildlife densities were very low, in the1980's and '90's when it was being pumped I personally remember Jozibanini as 'being one of the waterholes where there were the most elephant in the dry season'.
Flora and topography - very unique - two distinct and unique types down there:
Jozibanini Fossil Sand Dunes.
- Firstly the fossil sand dunes are particularly well developed here, deep sand with teak forest on the fossil dunes and then Mopani / Leadwood combretum in the inter dune troughs with ephemeral wet season pans strung along them.
- Secondly the Dzivanini mud flats / basalt / mopani woodlands - some of the best Mopane woodlands in Hwange
What are the seasonal differences in terms of wildlife behaviour, movement? What do you consider the best time to visit Jozibanini and why?
Wet season here is a great opportunity to see Hwange's elephant enjoying their paradise...
However as the dry season starts so game viewing becomes easier as wildlife concentrates around a smaller number of ephemeral waterholes and the pumped water.
Best time to visit Jozi depends on what you're looking for ... if it's the intense large numbers of elephant/other wildlife concentrated experience as per my blog, (following the interview), then from late July onwards perhaps to Aug/ Sept ... if it's the green 'wet season paradise' stuff then I would go for a April /May ... if its the intense life and death drama of animals struggling for survival then it's Oct/ Nov ... they're all different but they're all good.
Full moon is awesome because you can gaze out over the Jozi pan thronged with elephant at night, but moonless nights are staggering for their stars and the star beds on the decks of the Jozi tents are a major bonus.
What are predator numbers believed to be and has there been any research conducted in this area of the park in recent years?
Predator numbers are low because prey numbers are low because the game water supply system collapsed during the 2000's - interestingly Hwange Lion Research did a big spoor transect exercise thru the area a couple years back and discovered lower Lion densities but higher Leopard densities than other parts of the Park - and last year we sighted on a couple of different occasions a pack of over 20 plus Wild dog unknown to Painted Dog Conservation project, ... so interesting stuff.
How many pumped pans/waterpoints were originally in the area, and in what state were they when you first conducted site inspections? How important is it to renovate existing waterpoints/establish new ones?
The area, (?), depends where you draw the line ... when we got busy here during the '2013 poisonings' we found all the pumps and engines west and south of Mpisi hadn't been pumped for over 10 years - this included Makona, Jozibanini, Basha and Mitswiri as well as several others abandoned when they collapsed in the early 2000's e.g. Little Mitswiri.
One of the biggest revelations I had was in 2012 with a film crew working in Hwange asked me to show them what Hwange would be like if we closed off the pumped water. I said I would take them to Jozi where the pumps had not pumped for more than 10 years and they could expect to see no animals and a dry dust bowl. However, when we arrived there in Oct 2012 we did indeed find a dust bowl but much to my surprise, also several herds of elephants...
Jozibanini Borehole, not working for about 10 years: the elephants remembered...
Those poor old matriarchs were leading their exhausted herds over 30 km from the nearest pumped water to where they remembered water used to be pumped desperately hoping to find the pumps back up and running.
Is it important to renovate those old holes? Personally I believe we have a moral obligation to do it, because we built up a huge population of wildlife around those old waterholes and to just turn them off is wrong. The second reason is that leaving them turned off leaves a vacuum in that part of the park filled by poachers and under the threat of an invasion by the cattle herding residents of Tsholothso Tribal area, as is what happened during 2012 and 2013 - by re-establishing water we re-establish wildlife and make tourism possible, which fills that vacuum with a more desirable land use. The other factor that was pronounced during the '2013 poisonings' was that the law enforcement response had no place to obtain drinking water, so their patrols and their presence was limited. By simply re-establishing the water at Makona and Jozibanini in 2014 we have enabled a permanent law enforcement presence in this part of the park.
Establishing new ones? A very important question ... today we recognise that the establishment of the artificial water supply system in Hwange was in hindsight perhaps not well thought out, however it is a fact and now we have a massive wildlife population, tourism industry and neighbouring communities all dependant on it continuing, so we can't turn it off - but we probably shouldn't be expanding it, the thinking as elucidated during the recent Park planning process with Ian Games and AWF was that it was okay to continue pumping at existing waterholes as the vegetation around them was pretty much just a sacrifice area anyway, and any 'new holes' would only be allowed at these sites i.e., new holes at previously unpumped water holes is not encouraged/not allowed.
What is the history of the Jozibanini site? Why did you choose to develop a camp here? How much infrastructure existed and what were your first impressions upon initial site inspections and how did you envisage the new camp developing?
Jozibanini was originally established as a Ranger station around 1972, and that Ranger station was built by then Senior Ranger Charlie Mackie, (at present sadly very sick), as a base from which this huge portion of the park could be managed and looked after. In the late 1990's a lease was set up to establish a tourism camp here that just got going in time for the tourism crash in 2000, the camp was abandoned and the lease was defaulted. A few years later the Ranger station was also abandoned and that whole portion of the Park pretty much left to its own devices. The worst story from that era was the pump attendants at Basha waterhole were literally forgotten and they finally, after being without resupply for several months, were attacked by elephants at night in their tin hut, from which they somehow managed to escape and walked thirsty and half starved to Makona.
Pump attendants accomodation, Basha waterhole.
In the wake of all this abandonment, poaching into the southern part became intense, mostly through the use of wire snares cut from the EU sponsored veterinary FMD control fence along the boundary, many many tons of wire was turned into wire snares and the wildlife with limited water was decimated. In the drought of 2012 this culminated in the biggest natural die off of Elephant we had ever seen, that resulted in plenty of 'dead' ivory available for pick up by poachers roaming in this part of the park, they then figured out how to sell ivory locally, (back doors of Chinese mines and businesses). In 2013 there was better rainfall and so no 'natural' mortality, so poachers who had now figured out how to sell ivory then figured out how to kill elephant using cyanide pellets stolen from gold mines in Southern Matabeleland.
The '2013 poisonings' were not one incident but a number of incidents perpetrated by several gangs over several months, in the southern area of Hwange about 130 elephants were killed, (not the 300 claimed by some, many of those counted were dead from the previous year's drought). Fortunately the law enforcement response was strong and surprisingly usually tight lipped community members shocked by the horror of the poison did divulge information and a number of the individuals responsible were arrested and many were identified but fled the country. In the aftermath we approached the Warden, (now called Area manager), at Main Camp and we suggested to him that to prevent a re-occurrence of the poaching, the ranger station at Jozibanini needed to be re-opened, he said that in the absence of funds it would be impossible so why didn't we try to resuscitate the old tourism camp lease to establish a presence there, we contacted the owner of that lease purchased it and also agreed to assist Parks in the establishment of a new ranger station nearby at Makona. Which has happened
Makona Ranger station and staff, May 2016.
What was the planning brief for the new camp?
The old abandoned and pretty ruined camp built in the late 1990's we decided was not worth fixing up and its style, (thatched rondavel type chalets), was not really in keeping with what we wanted to do, so we decided initially to set up a basic tented adventure type camp, that we will build on as demand grows. One of the biggest tasks initially was to drag a huge drilling rig in there to redrill the old wells, part of that required a massive 6 wheel drive truck so we opted, since we were taking that in, to load it with a 'Look Up Blind', our 20 foot steel shipping containers that we bury to ground level and equip with running water and loo. The Jozi 'Look up' provided us with some very intense 'Elephant TV' during last year's dry season.
The Look Up hide, in place, and providing intimate sightings
How important is the development of Jozibanini for the southern sector, the wildlife and local communities? How will the latter be involved in the new camp and receive the benefits increased tourism brings?
The development and success of Jozi is absolutely critical to the southern part of Hwange, without our presence there, there is nothing ... so the cockroaches come out to play again. All staff are hired from local community and those with poaching on their CV are preferred. One of my hopes for the future is that the original inhabitants of this part of the park were the few families of San that Davison found when he came to work, most of their descendants live now in two villages at Gibi Xegu and Makulela, and are very much disenfranchised and forgotten. As more staff are required as the project grows we're looking to hiring as many of their young people as we can afford, to get them back into their park and give them useful employment.
I'm looking forward to having some of those bright eyed keen young San men out front on our walking and biking trails. Work with nearby schools has already started, we've used some of our philanthropy money to build a class room block and 2 teachers houses at Sihazela School and I'm looking forward to taking our Dentists down there, if not this year then next
How will you market Jozibanini and how will it compliment the Imvelo portfolio? To which type of guest would the camp be best suited?
Jozi right now works well as a 2 or 3 night "Adventure Add on" to an existing Hwange or Imvelo trip. For example, if someone is interested in a 3 nights Camelthorn and 3 nights Nehimba package then they can look at a 2 night adventure add on to Jozi: An all day safari through the park with picnic lunch, ending in the late afternoon for sundowners at Jozi, an activity we call the pump run! then a couple of nights there before either returning to Camelthorn or Bomani or carrying on to Nehimba. I have said that it is probably best suited for experienced safari goers looking for something different, but having said that 2 of our groups last year were first timers and loved it. When they got back to Camelthorn, they were bragging to the other guests around the dinner table how they'd been off roughing it with bucket showers and star beds.
How many guests can the camp accomodate and what are the tented facilities comprised of - how is the camp set up? How are game drives scheduled? Will there be the use of private vehicles if required by guests?
Right now we have 3 tents each set up for 2 guests so for now maximum of 6, though if we get the bookings very easy to add more tents as time goes on
Each tent comprises:
- a 12 sq m bedroom area,
- an en suite bath room comprising bucket shower, flush loo and running cold water only hand basin
- a 12 sq m front deck for star beds
So far we have only had one group at a time so each group has a dedicated full pro guide and so activities decided day by day as discussed and planned with guests - game drives, game walks and combination, bike rides, Look Up blind, all day drive etc
Another interesting aside is that Mike Ross ex Zimbo and founder of Mike Ross Travel in the UK who passed away tragically last year, we took him to Jozi in 2014 to help kind of figure out what the hell could be done with it and he came up with a number of good ideas and assisted greatly in conceptualising it - we named one of the tents 'Mike's Tent' in his memory - it was actually built on the spot under an Acacia tree where he had slept on a bed roll during his visit.
Mark adds his thoughts in the following blog post which he's given me permission to publish...
WHY JOZIBANINI IS MY FAVOURITE CAMP
Since we first took on the Jozibanini project I have been very worried that we had let emotion get in the way of clear thinking. My memories of Jozi were always that it was the place in Hwange that really had a lot of Elephant and that its remoteness was very special - but was it too far for safari?
Of course we were proud going back in there re-establishing the foot print on the ground in a forgotten and abandoned part of Hwange, scene of the worst elephant poaching incident in our history. But with patrolling and the water supplies abandoned there, the wildlife was probably gone. So were we making a mistake by trying to open a camp down there?
I have just come back from guiding our first 2 groups of guests there. And the news is we have quite literally knocked it out of the park. The simple camp is a perfect fit for Jozi and the wildlife is back.
Friday afternoon was I think probably the most magnificent wildlife experience I have ever had. I don't say that lightly. The Look up that Martinus went to so much trouble to drag in there, that we positioned and tweaked based on all our experiences at Stoffie's - is perfect : much more elephant, much closer, with sun from behind and elephants against blue sky, and then the huge drama at Jozi between the huge bulls and parched herds that come from the west - we didn't want to leave.
The second group had 2 nights there and had a really superb mix of experiences. Great pump run down with lunch at Mpisi amongst the elephants, a short and then a long afternoon in the Look Up, tracked up a big Buffalo herd on foot, two bike rides both west and then east from camp with Elephant, night time full moon watched and listened to wildlife around the camp all night, and then great pump run home with lunch at Mfagazaan to arrive at Camelthorn in time to nip over onto the Bomani concession for our Lions there. They had 2 nights 3 days of safari that they will never forget.
Add to this 2 huge successes with the things we wanted to achieve by gambling with the Jozi project.
The first group were due to only leave Bomani for Jozi for one night on Tuesday, but Monday morning I received news that 3 pumps were down with no water and many hundreds of elephant milling about. We asked the guests to move forward their pump run to Jozi by a day which we did, and by sundown all three of those pumps were working - the fact that we had guests going to Jozi made that pump run possible that provided immediate relief to the thirsty herds. Score 1.
Then on their pump run home, we checked in with the pump attendants at Secheche to find they had spotted tracks of 2 suspect characters pushing a bicycle, clearly up to no good 20 km inside the park. I hit the satphone and called in cavalry from Main Camp, Mr Dube and his team arrived hours later got onto their fresh tracks fast and apprehended the individuals. Two Zambians, 200 km from Zambia on bicycles quite clearly on a scouting patrol in the middle of the largest most unguarded concentration of elephant in Zimbabwe. Our simple presence on the ground had ensured a successful reaction within hours rather than an unsuccessful one within days. Score 2.
At Jozi we are going to have be careful with seasonality issues, with distance issues, with managing camp expectation issues etc. But the experience for the right kind of guests is unparalleled.
I kept a week free in my August schedule to spend time with my girls in their school hols ... guess where we're going?
Sunset at Jozi...
Images courtesy and copyright Mark Butcher, www.imvelosafarilodges.com.
The views expressed therein are solely those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of Safaritalk.