At the end of the road we were embarking on is a new waterhole now being pumped by Wilderness Safaris in Hwange National Park. It is called Mandundumela – which apparently is a San word meaning ‘the place in the valley between two ridges’. Having learned to pronounce it so that it rolled off the tongue easily, I felt ready to go in search of this remote place. We left Linkwasha Camp at the obligatory ‘before the sun rises’ time, which, at this time of year, is around 05h50. We were well prepared with a beautifully-packed picnic supplied by the chef; so with food and water on board, it was now time to explore and have fun.
Instead of turning left to head out west, we just had to pop our heads into Back Pans to the east of camp to see if the cheetah brothers were still hanging around, as they had been spotted (pardon the pun) there the previous evening. These two boys are legendary characters on this concession. We have watched them look after one another; for example, when one of the brothers hurt his paw and was not very nimble on his feet, the stronger brother stuck with him ensuring that he shared the treasure of his hunts with his lame brother. We also watched earlier this year when a female cheetah on heat captivated the stronger brother’s attention and he peeled off in search of her. The howling, moaning and crying of the younger boy was pitiful, and I was only able to relax once they had reunited.
From Back Pans we headed west towards Scott’s Pan and then past Little Makalolo out towards Madison where we found the most beautiful, huge herd of zebra heading down to drink. We wanted to wait for them to make their way to the water and so we positioned ourselves on the platform that is also the sleep-out hide, and waited. They did not disappoint and the iconic African donkey-like dazzlers enjoyed the luxury of the whole pan to themselves.Typically from about 11h00 onwards, the waterholes in the concession are usually dominated by elephants, so being at the pans earlier means a chance to see the other species take their chance to fill up before the invasion.
After Madison the road going west took us past the airstrip to another pan called Airstrip Two. At this time of the year when the heat is intense and the dry season is on its last legs, this is a dramatic landscape and a delight for photographers. The wind howls around, picking up parched particles of fine sand and swirling them like smoke exhaled from a cowboy’s lungs. The place looks barren and desperate. And then into this setting the elephant plod wearily in and out, taking as long as they dare to drink, mud-wallow and powder off with dry sand before they peel off into the shimmering treeline that blurs out of focus in the heat haze on the horizon.
Going further west was now totally unknown territory to us. Mike loves adventure and the unknown. However, I prefer to have a small sense of where we are going – so a map is really cool for me in this sort of situation. Well we didn’t have a map, and just very brief directions that gave the following detail: ‘12 kilometres from Airstrip Two is Mandundumela. You will know you are getting close when you come to the camelthorn forest’. So remote is this place that literally just two kilometres into the 12, we found a huge herd of eland. We expected them to run, being unused to the vehicle – however, we were not prepared for their reaction. Instead of fleeing, they seemed to prick up their ears, furrow their foreheads and all just stared at us, from a safe distance of course. We crept very, very slowly along the road that seemed to run parallel to the eland, which just kept staring as if they were looking at aliens. Eventually we were looking at them, they were looking at us – it was like a big ‘stare-down’ in a wild western movie. After a few minutes the eland found us unentertaining, uneventful and uninteresting and they disappeared off the ridge.
The day was hotting up now as we headed towards mid-day. I don’t know exactly how hot it was at this stage, but average daytime temperatures pre the first rains climb well into the low 40°s, so by around mid-morning it would not be unreasonable to expect the temperature to be around 36° or 37° Celsius. More eland were found resting in the shade of the trees as we moved forward, rolling up the kilometers. Until we found the jewel of the trip: at the first sign of an acacia tree, resting in the shade we found oryx. There were seven of them. As we approached they bolted from their shady spot out into the scorching sun. They were not as enquiring as the eland had been. The oryx (or gemsbok) found in Hwange migrate to and from Botswana along traditional paths in search of food and water during the dry season. They are not often seen and so this was a real treat.
The camelthorns increased in number until we found the forest we were told about. In the shade we found loads and loads of elephant families resting together. Some of the younger elephants were actually lying down sleeping in cool sand beds. The road took us remarkably close to where they were resting and, because this area is so remote and vehicles are not really known yet, we were not sure how the elephants would take to our intrusion. One female was not impressed with us and she took her resting brood out of the comfort of the forest and into the thick grass and stumped teak forest.
We forged ahead and as the odometer ticked over to 12 kilometres, the sight that presented itself made my jaw hit the dashboard. Mandundumela was thick with elephants – to the point that it looked like Bondi Beach at New Year, or Coney Island Beach on the 4th July for Nathan’s Hot Dog-eating contest. The water was belching out of the earth, pumped by a new hybrid solar generator system that is now the energy-clean pump system here. Remarkably, it was able to keep up with this unrelenting demand. What a sight! We tucked ourselves behind a rather small and thin clump of shrubs, trying to get ourselves out of the way of incoming and outgoing elephants. The paths to the pan look like a wagon wheel and we were literally looking over our shoulder all the time as elephants peeled in and out. They were inquisitive about our presence, as if we had broken in on a private party.
This has been a long story, as Mandundumela is a long way away. The journey was wonderful, the sights incredible, the landscape remarkable. It is well worth the trip.