A sobering thought flitted across my mind shortly after our alarm shattered the silence in the pre-dawn of September 16th - today would be our 2nd to last day aboard the Shongololo Express, signifying that our incredible train journey through Southern Africa was coming to an end. This melancholy thought was quickly replaced by a more motivating and uplifting realization - we would be spending the full day on safari in Hwange National Park.
After an early continental breakfast, we descended from the train just before 6:30am onto a short, concrete platform with a small shelter that served as the train stop in this rural area in the northwest corner of Zimbabwe, near the Botswana and Zambia borders. Our open safari vehicles were lined up and waiting for us against the backdrop of a spectacular African sunrise. We boarded our vehicle and were greeted by our very pleasant and engaging driver/guide, Shamiso. Once we were settled into our seats, she started the vehicle and we headed into the park.
Hwange National Park is Zimbabwe’s largest wildlife area covering 1,462,000 hectares (14,600 square kilometers), and is roughly the size of Belgium. It contains a variety of animals and bird species, but is best-known for its prolific lion population. Hwange attracted international attention in 2015 when its most famous lion, Cecil (named for Cecil Rhodes), who was being studied and tracked by University of Oxford, was hunted and killed by an American dentist. While I won’t dwell on the controversy caused by this event, you can read more about it here.
Entering the park, we noticed immediately that the terrain was significantly different from the other parks we had visited in Southern Zimbabwe and South Africa. Much of the landscape was flat and consisting of fragile grasslands with clusters of low lying trees and brush. Shallow waterholes were scattered every few kilometers and supported by man-made irrigation - a necessity to preserve the wildlife through the dry seasons.
A short distance into the park, Shamiso slowed the safari vehicle and eased it to the side of the road - she had spotted a male lion resting, well camouflaged in the tall, tan grasses about 15 metres away. His magnificent head with its dark mane was all we could see above the waving grass. A few kilometers further into the park we came across some giraffes browsing at the tops of the short trees.
After a brief stop here we continued along again until we observed a herd of zebra amongst a group of grazing buffalo. Also along the way we came across a herd of elephant that we watched crossing the road. After just over an hour in the park we had been treated to a wealth of wildlife including a variety of vibrantly coloured birds. The best was yet to come.
Shortly before we were scheduled to break for lunch, and after driving for nearly 20 minutes since our last stop, Shamiso stopped the vehicle and stood up, gazing to a crop of trees about 300 metres away. In the sky, above the trees we could see a small kettle of vultures circling the trees. We could also see that there was a venue of vultures perched on several of the trees just below those that were circling. Shamiso settled back into her seat, started the vehicle and turned in the direction of the vultures. As we approached the crop of trees, she slowed the vehicle and continued to proceed very slowly. When we were within about 20 metres of where we had seen the perching vultures, Shamiso brought the vehicle to a complete stop. A short distance away were several female lions, resting in the shade beneath the trees. We could now see what had attracted the vultures. Beneath one of the larger trees was a male lion, protecting the carcass of a baby elephant that the pride had recently killed.
The bloated male, full from his recent feast, was lying beside the carcass and staring down a group of hyenas that were waiting anxiously for their turn at the kill. Not far from away a female lion was fretting as she tried to position herself into a comfortable lying position. It was obvious that she was in distress, presumably injured by the elephant during the kill. She stood up several times and tried to limp to a new position but was unable to move for any distance. We stayed and watched this scene for nearly half an hour and while the sight of the partially eaten elephant was quite graphic, it was another reminder of the circle of life and death in the natural order of Africa.
We returned to the base camp where we were provided with a boxed lunch consisting of wraps, cheese, potato salad and a brownie. We lingered after eating for about 45 minutes and then returned to our vehicle to begin the afternoon trek.
In the first hour of our afternoon drive we spotted quite a few giraffe in small groups as well as wart hogs, water bucks, jackels and wildebeast. We then crossed a large stretch of flat, dry grasslands through which we drove for nearly an hour without any sightings. The afternoon was very hot and there was not much wildlife activity. Shamiso turned off the road and followed a trail through the grasslands for several more miles until we arrived at a large, shallow watering hole. There was a large group of buffalo grazing a short distance from the waterhole. Scattered amongst the buffalo were several dozen zebra and elephants bathing and playing in the water. At the edge of the waterhole was a group of 60 or 70 baboons. Some were squatting by the water while others were drinking or bathing. Young baboons were frolicking and chasing each other near the waters edge.
A narrow sand apron surrounded the circumference of the waterhole. Every few meters along the sand crocodiles were stretched out basking in the sun. In the water, what appeared to be a dozen or so dark, oblong islands turned out to be hippos. They would pop their enormous heads out of the water every few minutes to take a breath of air.
As the afternoon sun slid slowly across the sky, we began our trek back to the Shongololo Express. We arrived just after 4:00pm and in time for afternoon tea. Following a bit of relaxation in the observation lounge, we returned to our cabin to prepare for dinner.
As this was the last dinner on the train, the dining car was lavishly decorated with ornate runners on each of the tables and beaded placemats at each table setting. We were served a shrimp scampi with rice and a decorative dessert.
Following the meal, the entire train staff paraded through the dining car and received loud applause from the appreciative guests. Given the tiny confines of the train, we were amazed at how well we were serviced throughout our 13 day journey. One of our suitcases had been severely damaged on the flight from Paris and would not survive another flight. The service manager on the train took our bag to the maintenance crew who repaired it for us so we did not have to buy another suitcase before returning home.
After dinner we were invited to the bar car which had been decorated with streamers and balloons where we were offered complimentary cocktails. We spent the rest of the evening in the observation car enjoying drinks and lively conversation. It was quite late when we retired to our cabin but we went to bed having enjoyed another great day with some of the most magnificent wildlife in Africa.
Continue to Day 17 - click here
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