We arose just before sunrise for a walk through the verdant bush of Hwange National Park. We had the privilege of being guided on our walk by Dardley (pronounced “Dudley”), a naturalist with national and regional recognition for his expertise in the natural history of Zimbabwe. The experience was special because it allowed us to take in details that would have been impossible to notice on our own. Our first lesson was on the ecological importance of dung beetles, of which we learned there are three local varieties, distinguishable by behavior. We learned of the use of acacia (Salvadora persica) thorns as sewing needles in the outback. As we walked through a stretch of luxuriant greenery we heard the call of a Francolin, which is also known as the “wake up call” bird. The bird got this name because of the cries it makes when dangerous game is around. We also took time to learn the origins of some of the numerous droppings that we could see along the tracks; such as the small beady droppings with pointed ends that belonged to the impala, the flattened droppings belonging to the giraffe, and the pasty looking cape buffalo dung with high water content. The grass filled elephant dung told the story of past meals. We were informed that elephant dung was used in the traditional medicine of the area, when mixed with particular soils, to aid pregnancy. As we continued our walk, footprints became a surprising source of knowledge. We were shown how an elephant’s footprint reveals a wealth of information, including probable size, nearby presence, direction and relative speed of movement.
Around us were red mounds of earth which belonged to colonies of termites and which varied in color depending on the soil type. These mounds maintained a steady interior temperature of about thirty seven degrees Celsius. We learned that termite colonies are similar to bee hives in some ways, with a social hierarchy and defined tasks – the queen, soldiers, and the worker termites. The pincer jaws of the soldier termites were sometimes used to stitch cuts in the absence of other means of stitching wounds. Because termites are so prevalent, wooden structures in the surrounding communities, and tourist lodges faced a high risk of damage.
A discussion of the physical geography of the area was interesting, with Dardley explaining that the sandy soils originated from rivers that flowed through the area in the past before tectonic uplift altered the flow of water. We learned that the Hwange area was deficient in surface water and relied on wells that tapped into underlying aquifers; some of the wells in the park dated back to 1927. It was brought to our attention that animal paths could erode into rills and gullies depending on the surface material and slope. Our bushcraft expanded as we were informed that it is best to avoid walking along established animal paths as the likelihood of unwelcome encounters increases along these highways to water and food. The flora continued to fascinate as we experienced the magic guarri (Euclea divinorum), whose twigs can be used as a natural toothbrush with the taste of fluoride! As we moved through the brush, Dardley pointed out trees that had been debarked by elephants, sometimes leading to the death of the tree. The next plant we came across is the wait-a-minute tree (Acacia brevispica), so called because it could halt movement as thorns that clung to clothes and exposed skin.
Giraffe bones sighted as we neared the end of our walk, led to a discussion about elephants and death. We learned that elephants are very perceptive and get distressed by the presence of remains, especially those of family members. When elephants die, the herd scatters the bones because they do not want to see them. During this process elephants will emit trumpeting sounds. The scattering of the bones has led to the myth of an “elephant graveyard” and a belief by some around the world that the elephants are expressing some type of spiritual belief. The reality is that the animals scatter the bones because of emotional distress.
In the afternoon we set out for the much awaited visit and game drive in Hwange National Park. We stopped at the park entrance for formalities and had the opportunity to interact with students from Hartley Primary School just west of Harare. Just like our group, the young students were on a field trip to Hwange National Park, Victoria Falls, and the Painted Dog Conservation Center. Friendly conversation and many pictures followed as we asked each other about our respective countries and career plans. The similarities in career goals and urban upbringing were striking, in spite of age differences and geography.
Moving onward, we entered the national park. Our expert guides Busi and Zebedee helped us identify various birds, plants, and animals as we move through the park. Birdlife included the white crowned shrike, lilac breasted roller, various doves, francolins, a young marshal eagle on a tree trunk and much more. The scene a water hole viewing platform caused some to think of “The Lion King” with impala, zebra, kudu, crocodiles, baboons, water buck filling the scene before us. Giraffe, wildebeest, cape buffalo, and elephant were also seen before a majestic sunset brought an end to our park visit.