The day before we left Makalolo Plains was bittersweet. The team had made us feel very welcome and we knew we had made friends. On top of that, we had spent many hours watching animals at close range, and that was better than the best episode of a nature program.
Towards the end of our morning drive, Godfrey spotted this hippo that appeared to sleeping at the edge of a watering hole. We were fortunate as hippos tend to spend most of their time in water to keep their skin from drying out.
If we didn’t know it before, we discovered pretty quickly that no two game drives are the same. While Makalolo Plains keeps a log of the types of animals that guests could probably see, they cannot offer a guarantee.
During September, the time we in Hwange National Park, there was a high probability of seeing elephants (100%), zebras (100%), waterbucks (100%), widebeests (93%) and steenbucks (90%). But because of the size of the park, the animals have many places to escape the sun so sometimes, we’d drive for long stretches before we’d see anything.
However, the guides are very knowledgeable of the animals’ habits and hideouts and would use every method – from communicating with other guides to following animal tracks in the sand – so that we’d have a good experience. We were very lucky to see four of the Big Five – elephant, lion (60%), leopard (17%) and buffalo (57%) – and witness some pretty interesting animal behavior.
Game drives were never boring. While we jaunted along, different things caught our attention. Take our first day out, for example. We spotted vultures sitting high atop several trees. Others were circling and a few more were flying in – a sure sign that they knew a meal was waiting.
Godfrey told us that an elephant had died the previous day – probably from old age. As guides, they’re not allowed to interfere in animal activities. However, since the elephant had died close to the path, they had moved it out of sight so as not to upset us. We saw part of the carcass – and we could definitely smell it.
Since Hwange is a natural habitat, life and death exist side by side. Seeing the carcass was a reminder but if we hadn’t seen it, there would be other reminders as the bones of dead animals were everywhere.
On our last full day in camp, Judith and I were resting in the lounge after lunch. I looked out at Hwange National Park and noticed a jet black line in the distance. I wasn’t sure what it was and asked Emmanuel, one of the Makalolo Plains team.
“Buffalo,” he said, not missing a beat.
Along with the lion, leopard, elephant and rhinoceros, the African or cape buffalo is one of the so-called Big Five animals. This was the first and only time we would see them.
When Godfrey arrived, I pointed in the distance. Rubbing his hands together, he announced excitedly, “Buffalo! Wherever there’s buffalo, there will be elephants and zebras, and one or two lions hiding in the grass. Let’s go quickly so we can see them!”
With 30,000 elephants in Hwange National Park, it wasn’t whether we would see any, but when and how many.
As the sun came down on our first game drive, cold and blackness overtook us immediately. Dixon pulled out his infrared flashlight to make it easier to spot the animals that had become invisible to us.
We were following the flashlight as it darted from side to side, and complaining, through chattering teeth about how cold it had become when we saw what looked like small beads floating on dusty brown mounds directly ahead. Dixon stopped abruptly. I was shocked when the jeep’s headlights illuminated two elephants — they seemed to have just come out of nowhere. Dixon shone the flashlight at them but before they backed away, one shook its head as if were annoyed at being disturbed.
I was a little unnerved at how close we came. It was our first day and our first time being that close and it brought home the fact that in this world, we were the intruders.
After that first night, we’d see elephants every time we went on a drive. And as days passed, we got better at spotting them even when they appeared to be hiding among the grass or seemed to blend into the foliage. Since it was difficult to see them at night, I’m absolutely certain that we missed many more than we saw.
Despite their size — African elephants can weigh between 5,000 and 14,000 pounds and are about 8 feet tall — they’re gentle animals. A herd could be approaching and you wouldn’t hear their footsteps. It surprised me to discover that.
They’re also very playful. It’s a treat watching them with their babies, or playing with others in the herd. It was always fun watching them at the watering hole.
On the afternoon of our second day, we raced to the spot where Godfrey, our guide, had heard that a cheetah was seen. When we arrived, two jeeps of game watchers sat waiting patiently, eyes trained on a spot in the tall grass where the cheetah was supposed to be.
We were looking at the same place for so long, I no longer trusted what I was seeing. Was that a log or the cheetah? The grass was so tall, the color so similar to the cheetah’s skin, I couldn’t be sure. My eyes could play tricks on me but my camera wouldn’t lie, so I pointed it in the general direction, ready to shoot when the cheetah appeared.
We continued to sit and wait, whispering among ourselves from time to time; the radios silenced, so as not to startle the animal. After a while, the other jeeps gave up and left but Godfrey didn’t move. The cheetah, he said, had eaten the previous night and was resting, so we stayed put.
I’m not sure how long we waited, excitement bubbling in my stomach. Then Godfrey, binoculars covering his eyes, whispered urgently and pointed.
Where was it? There it is! Where? Where? We were all whispering loudly at the same time.
The cheetah had gotten up and was walking along. But by the time we spotted it, it dropped unexpectedly into the grass, as if its legs had failed him.
I couldn’t see much through my digital camera so I just snapped several times, hoping I’d get something. This is the best of the lot. If you look closely at the middle of the photo just before the log, you’ll see it.
Caroline did much better.
I’m glad Godfrey decided to wait as this was the only cheetah we would see.
After driving around for several hours in pitch blackness, suddenly, we were bathed in the lights that signaled the end of our first night drive through Hwange National Park. As our jeep came to a stop, we could see that a party was waiting to greet us.
Tracey, Cynthia, Jeremy and Godfrey from Makalolo Plains welcomed us with warm towels and glasses of brandy and ushered us into the main part of the camp.
We needed them. After the sun dropped, a biting cold enveloped us. The breeze that felt balmy and welcoming during the early afternoon and evening lashed at our faces and hands. We felt like blocks of ice by the time we reached the camp.
In laying out the camp rules, Cynthia warned us that we had to be escorted, especially at nights, by someone from camp, and they’re always armed with a rifle – a reminder that we were surrounded by dangerous animals.
The word camp usually conjures up images of roughing it, of being without our usual comforts. That’s not the case at Makalolo Plains.
Located within Hwange, Makalolo’s main building houses a pub, reception area, lounge, patio and dining room. The patio runs the length of the main building. At the end of the patio is a small pool. There’s also a sitting area where at night guests trade stories of their day’s activities around a fire that provides warmth as well as illumination. There’s no electricity at Makalolo.
When our travel agent told my friends and me that she’d booked us for two days in Victoria Falls, we balked. None of us was convinced we’d need that length of time to look at water, no matter how spectacular it was. Boy, were we wrong!
We arrived in Vic Falls on a beautiful, sunny Sunday afternoon after a pleasant trip from Johannesburg. As we left the arrivals lounge, we were greeted by the sound of drumming and singing. We couldn’t help but watch as this agile and athletic group of musicians greeted us. It was a fitting welcome to Zimbabwe.
Since we were leaving the next morning to watch game at Hwange National Park, we knew we had only a few hours to see the Falls. Our plan was simple: check in at the hotel, grab a bite to eat and head out.