Hiding out in Hwange

Article by Adam Garden

We had just pulled over to sign out of The Hide’s conservancy, when our stopped engine allowed us a chance to hear the sounds of the bush.  We had spent our short drive from the camp identifying some of the 400 species of birds that called Hwange home. In our silence, the often heard “work har-der” call of the Cape turtle dove was ever present but interrupted by a far-off series of low-pitched grumbles.  Very tongue-in-cheek, I asked my extremely patient and competent guide what I had already asked a dozen times that afternoon “Now what bird was that Nkosi?”. This was no bird he had ever heard, but definitely worth taking a look at, I was told assuredly. My game drive into the public area of Hwange National Park had therefore lasted all of the 60 seconds it took for the exquisitely well-maintained 4WD Land Cruiser to complete its’ standard 5-point turnaround.  As we took the road back, about 200m from where I’d be resting my head that night, we heard the grunts again; this time far closer and more recognisable as three separate roars.  As we rounded some trees, we found our noisy culprits – a young male lion exchanging greetings with a pair of lionesses on a large open clearing.  It was nearing 5pm which put the sun still relatively high in the sky, and the roars curiously out of place for such a time. It had seemed that this young lion had stumbled across the two ladies and interrupted their quality afternoon naptime.  The young male had stopped 20 metres short of the lionesses that were resting under the shade of an acacia; he sat bathed in sunlight, square in middle of the clearing, probably a result of the females conversing earlier that they could see him just fine from there. The two lionesses continued their afternoon siesta, casually eyeing their male counterpart and completely apathetic towards our vehicle that had slowly made its way toward their resting place.

“The lion does not concern itself with the opinion of the sheep” as the saying went, and I had never felt more sheepish at the sight of these grand majestic creatures.  The young male lion was an intruder, Nkosi told me as we sat and watched in the last of the afternoon sun. Nkosi was expecting another when he heard the calls; an older, stronger and much more dominant male that had been seen around these parts of Hwange. The lion we were seeing however was less than 4 years old, still relatively young, his mane was only just starting to come through.  Regardless, the King of the Jungle was away and the young prince had obviously come to try and make an impression on the two females. All three of them started to pant, their heat-shedding breathing almost shook the very air around me. As the African sun raged on throughout the late afternoon, the heat had started to get to the young male, he decided to lay his head down, naturally averting his gaze from the inert females. Without any audible word or warning, the older lioness quietly sprung to her feet and started to stalk over to the unaware lion’s left flank.  A few moments later, the second lioness joined her and approached his right.  It took a few moments before the resting lion brought himself back to alertness.  It was almost too late, the females were now both behind and ahead of him; “clever girls”, I thought to myself. His retaliatory roar was much more like a whimper as they descended upon him.  A couple of swipes were exchanged with their powerful front legs; a test to see what the young male would do.  All he could do was bare his teeth and submissively lie back down in a threatened position. The young male had failed to assert himself and the two ladies were hardly impressed. They turned their back on him and wandered over to what they thought was much more interesting; a sniff of a three-week-old elephant carcass – better luck next time young man.

As the sun began to set, the lionesses hit the watering hole and so did I; Nkosi handed me my refreshing sundowner.  I sipped my Gin and Tonic with a wide, satisfied smile on my face; it was not every day you got to see lions at all, let alone see them challenge one another.  Their size, quickness and teamwork were truly awe inspiring to me.  We watched the picturesque orange and red African sun set behind the gorgeous landscape of what was now solely the lionesses’ watering hole.  No other creature dared to come close.  A couple of soaring giraffes gazed curiously over to the life-giving water but instinct was obviously telling them that a drink was not worth trifling with these fearsome beasts. As we arrived back in camp, I was greeted with a refreshment and a group of tourists full of envy after I told them what I had seen.  I sarcastically commiserated with them by pointing out that I was still yet to see an elephant.  Their facial reaction to my joke was as French as the language they responded to me in – if I had to have a guess at a translation, it would have been a serious “you just can’t please everyone”.  As I retreated to my luxury tent that resided under a dense cover of acacia trees, I reflected; Hwange really could please everyone that came here.  A big 5 destinations, scores of game, a bird-lovers paradise; Hwange was the perfect place to experience the bush, and The Hide would turn out to be the perfect camp to do it from.

Awaiting my return, my room was beautifully laid out; a massive king size bed set up perfectly in-front of a large meshed window. The view? A delightful little open balcony that did nothing to obstruct the open vlei in front of the tent – I already knew where I was going to read my book the next day.  The tent was immaculate and had everything you would need. Even in comparison to a luxury hotel room, the room was extremely comfortable.  It was the middle of December, and one of those annoyingly hot days that grace us in Zimbabwe, but the room was refreshingly cool owing largely to the dense tree cover above the tent, the polished concrete floors and the great ventilation – I didn’t even touch my fan. Ever so, my intensely interesting afternoon had made me forget to reapply sunscreen and my usually pasty white arms were now red and screaming at me for making such an obvious mistake.  As I was just about to jump into a nice cold shower that was a part of the newly installed bathroom, I gave my spacious tent a quick look around to make sure no cheeky baboons or hyenas were waiting to greet me later. Passing my balcony, I found a second door in my tent – what other secrets could this lavish tent hold? I walked through a perfectly fitted door to find a gorgeous outdoor bathroom. The spotless bath perfectly set up with a view of the surrounds and a cold shower best enjoyed in the last light of the day.  It was evident that The Hide had come to the same conclusion I had about Hwange and decided this part of the earth was well worth investing their time and effort into.

As I sat waiting for the dinner drums to be called, I marvelled from my balcony at the planning that must have gone on to make each room completely and utterly private whilst still enjoying the breathtaking uninterrupted views from both the outdoor bathroom and the balcony. Suddenly, the sound of a massive tree branch snapped off close to the left of my tent and froze me in my place.  My hosts had told me to retreat to the safety of my tent if I thought there were any wild animals around, I cheekily sat in place as I knew that what was coming was something big – I was about to finally see one of my favourite animals that had so far eluded me.  I could almost feel the ground shake as this stranger led her matriarchy 20 metres away from my balcony.

Guided more by memory than the moonlight, Africa’s largest animal completely ignored me as she took what looked like leaping bounds to quench her thirst at The Hide’s very own watering hole. The mighty Elephant had finally decided to show herself to my great delight.  With the sound of the drums, I followed her general direction to our dinner table and enjoyed dinner watching as scores of her parade followed in behind her.  Dinner could have been dirt served with seawater, I wouldn’t have cared, but it was a delightful assortment of carefully cooked meats, served with a wine pairing from The Hide’s very own wine cellar. Even the French guests were suitably impressed, I could tell by the tiny smile on their faces –probably as good as you were going to get from them. With my belly full, my compliments to the chef and my wine still in hand, I finally decided to descend into the eponymous hide.  A set of stairs brought me to a 30m long tunnel that led straight to the very same waterhole that about a hundred elephants were drinking from.  As I sat there, the moonlight shone down on these grand creatures that must have been less than 5 metres away from me.  Even if I had the skills to take a photograph then, it wouldn’t have been able to do justice to the feeling of being that close.   This was just something that had to be seen to be understood and I sat there for close to an hour enjoying this unbelievable view. I slept almost exactly as my head hit my pillow that night; ready for the adventure that day 2 at The Hide was sure to avail.

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