Elephant Prints; Sunsets and Laughter
By: Shannon Farrell
This week started off in a rather dreary manner with a PT session in the drizzling rain and slippery mud. Tyres were the instrument of torture in this case – we had tyre flipping and various other activities involving our rubber enemies. We finished up looking rather muddy and slightly damp, but this didn’t deter our excitement. We began the process of loading up the over-lander and beginning our journey up to Hwange National Park, where we were to be introduced to the Presidential Herd, Mr. Alan Elliot and his life-long friend and companion, Rafael – “Raf”.
We arrived a bit behind schedule due to a slight mishap on the road with one of our vehicles but we eventually arrived there safely and in high spirits, despite the heat and constant “midges” flying in our faces. We were welcomed with open arms and friendly smiles by Mr. Elliot and Raf, who told us about the elephants we were yet to meet. We began the process of off-loading our supplies and settling into our temporary home – Khatshana Lodge, which although a bit dilapidated, is beautiful. Making our experience there a bit more adventurous, we got to camp in tree houses!
For the next few days, we got stuck into our assigned jobs. We had various tasks such as clearing thatch; digging holes a couple of meters deep into the dry African ground, and general area clearing and tidying up. We were lucky enough to get the opportunity to knock down a wall which we greeted with much enthusiasm– although in hindsight, this may not have been the smartest move as we had more rubble to clean up! All in the name of fun though!
The thatching provided some unwanted meetings with the more unsavoury characters of the bush – snakes and spiders were lurking under the mountains of thatch we were moving. Although a bit of a fright was had when we discovered these, we managed to clear the thatch with no major incidents. Mr. M. managed to almost tread on a Boomslang the one day- not that it fazed him much! “Yusses that’s a big snake!” he says calmly, and carries on his way, whistling and giggling to himself. This resulted in the rest of us feeling a tad wary to continue on with our work. We also entertained ourselves with straw fencing while we waited for the tractor to return from dropping off the thatch we had gathered – it was rather amusing to watch the mock-fencing and hear the shouts of “en-guarde” going on.
Although the heat was quite oppressive some days we enjoyed our labour-intensive work and we felt a sense of pride and accomplishment as we stood back and observed our handiwork. We were treated to a few swims and numerous game drives – night and day – as a reward for our work done at Khatshana and we saw a huge variety of wild life on these drives. We were also treated to some beautiful sunsets which absolutely took our breath away.
We got our introduction to the Presidential Herd on our first day and learnt about the inner workings and hierarchy of an elephant herd. We learnt how to identify the elephants using their unique ear notches and their tusks. One of the definite highlights from the drives we had was getting to name an elephant cow – there is now an elephant named “Quest” up in Hwange and she has the most adorable little calf! When we first sighted her and her calf, the little guy was only 24hours old and still a little pink around the ears, as well as slightly wobbly! Watching him learn to use his trunk was definitely a sight worth watching and it sent us into fits of laughter as we observed his antics.
As a special treat, we were allowed to make use of the pool at Hwange Safari Lodge a couple of times, and much fun was had by the group as we splashed around in the pool under the watch of the hot Zimbabwean sun. We relaxed and had a few drinks, basking in the mid-day sun and reading or sleeping. It was such a treat to get some time to ourselves and observe the wildlife in the area that the pool over-looked. Troupes of baboons were plentiful and they provided us with some laughter as we watched them at play.
We spent a lot of time observing the elephants, and seeing them play in the water pans was fascinating. They acted like such children splashing around and spraying themselves with the muddy water. We also got to see a cheetah on the one drive which was so special and a real treat for us as the majority of us had never seen one in the wild. Giraffe also made a regular appearance and we witnessed them play-fighting – knocking their necks against each other and making a show of their masculinity. They also look rather strange when they drink – spread-eagled and definitely quite awkward and uncomfortable.
Unfortunately, although we visited the Painted Dog Conservation area, we did not get to see any as we arrived after closing time. We had a talk on the danger snares pose to the Painted Dog as well as their life in general from puppy to adulthood. It was interesting to learn about them and their habits and habitat.
At night sitting round the fire-pit, flames flickering, we were regaled with stories of hunts gone wrong and ambushes. Raf barely escaped death by lion and it died on top of him after a struggle for his life with only the horizontal rifle between him and the beasts razor sharp teeth. He managed to get away with some stitches and thankfully no major injuries were had! The hyena obviously had to put their two cents in as well and we heard their whooping regularly through-out the night.
It is amazing to hear about such experiences from two men who have lived through and seen it all! “Mandebele” (Mr. Elliot) and Raf are rare men in this day and age and they certainly have our respect. Their bravery in dealing with the guerillas during the war and on their various hunts are admirable and definitely something to aspire to. What a special experience to get to know them and be a part of restoring their lodge to its former state and beauty.
Thank you so much for the wonderful time Hwange National Park; “Mandebele” and Raf. It has been both eye-opening and inspirational. Much fun was had and we thoroughly enjoyed our stay but home beckons us. Goodbye and good luck to Quest and her baby! We hope to see you again.
Our Quest continues!