How often do you visit a place that really takes your breath away.
Now I am not talking about that fuzzy warm feeling, a smile here and there, a nice picture or two and a few nice moments every so often. Those impressions are fleeting and replaceable.
I am talking about an exchange, a genuine experience that leaves such an impact on your inner being that you simply can’t get it our of your mind, it just won’t leave you and just about any place you visit after that special encounter simply fails in comparison.
When you think back you can still feel the sun on your skin, you can taste the dust from month’s of perilous dry-season, and you still distinctly remember the sounds of the night as you crawled into bed at night.
Ladies and gentleman, I am talking about my romance with Hwange National Park, a true hidden paradise within the African continent.
Hwange offers visitors experiences unfounded elsewhere. I have travelled to many incredible safari destinations in Africa. They are all fantastic in their own right, so take nothing away from them.
That said, few have had the impression on me the way Hwange has.
Hwange is the largest protected area in Zimbabwe, and is completely unfenced allowing animals the freedom of movement. It forms the easternmost edge of the Kalahari Desert and spans across 1.4 million hectares (3.4 million acres) of pristine saltpans, acacia scrub, teak woodlands and open grassland, to name but a few.
The park boasts an enormous abundance of wildlife, one of the densest such populations in the whole of Africa.
Numbers are all great, but more than that Hwange offers something few others can.
A life-changing experience.
What Hwange does incredible well, are experiences with lions and elephants. They are at the top of the bucket list for many safari-goers and Hwange supplies them both in generous quantities.
As a photographer, it can’t get much better either. The open areas dotted about the National Park is where most of the dry-season activity takes place.
Waterholes can be found throughout these scenic grasslands and draw huge numbers of animals from all over the park.
Seeing these animals within these incredibly stunning natural habitats is simply as good as it gets for a wildlife photographer, regardless of experience or skills. You simply can’t get it wrong and you can’t get enough of it either!
This is wildlife photography in its most addictive form.
The mornings can be rather cool and is undoubtedly a time of day to look for cats on the move, whereas the hotter times of day belong to the grey giants.
Never before have I seen lions active as long in to the morning as here in Hwange, and on a consistent basis. We found them walking & hunting well into the mid-morning hours, when typically lions would be fast asleep by 8 or 9am. This is not a given or fast rule as one can never dictate what animals will do, but the level of daytime activity from Hwange’s lion prides was certainly something that stood out for me.
Also, don’t think you can arrive just before sunset thinking the lions will still be fast asleep, as on most occasions the lions were up and about a respectable time before the sun had gone down.
This is fantastic for wildlife photographers and nature enthusiasts alike. It is easy to never see active lions on a 3 or 4 day safari due to them being mostly active after dark. Hwange seems to represent a different perspective allowing you the opportunity to view and photograph these big cats in daytime hours.
For those experienced safari-goers out there, you will know exactly what I mean when I talk about lazy lions.
Surrounding the scenic open grasslands are thicker wooded vegetation. The lions tend to retreat into these woodlands during the hottest time of day. They do however make their way out on to the open grasslands fairly early, often before sunset. This allows them to familiarize themselves with what is happening around them, and on the cooler evenings they will often take the opportunity to bask in the last warm rays of sun before the evenings chill, often making use of large termite mounds.
On very few occasions have I been able to photograph lions in better light than what’s on offer in Hwange.
It is simply sensational.
Alongside lions, elephants are likely the most attractive feature of the Hwange safari experience.
Another interesting habit of Hwange’s lion population, is their love for hunting elephants.
The dry season tends to take its toll on the health of the elephant population, and lions have learnt to exploit that. Many young calves as well as sickened or older elephants fall prey to lions annually.
The elephant and lion pictured below as a slightly different story. This young elephant bull had dies of natural causes and was found by 2 large male lions and a single lioness.
During the dry-season, the elephants congregate at the waterholes in massive numbers. One only needs to find a good spot at the edge of the water in the late afternoon, and wait.
Rest assured, they will come.
Elephants are very dependent on fresh water supplies, and will cover great distances in order to find it. Fortunately in Hwange water is reasonably available and elephants will often drink twice a day when possible.
During the dry-season elephants will spend alot of time travelling between feeding pastures and the open grasslands where most of the permanent waterholes are to be found. Seeing these massive animals enjoying their daily baths and social times from the water’s edge is an experience unlike any other, and likely only found here.
Safaris hosted on private concessions allows you the incredible opportunity to leave the vehicle and experience all of this with absolutely nothing separating you and the elephants. Wether you are a photographer or just pure nature lover, these moments will stay with you for as long as you live.
Can you even begin to imagine what it feels like to step off the vehicle, to slowly move towards to water and to sit and watch these gentle giants arrive to drink, only meters away from you.
Elephants tend to have this spell-binding effect on us. They do so effortlessly, simply by being.
The late afternoon light in Hwange is something that captures these elephants in a manner that really allows you as a photographer, to capture a side of them not often seen or encountered. The dust churned up by the herds arriving lingers and creates a captivating atmospheric mood.
If golden light is what wildlife photography is all about, you will find more than enough here to keep you satisfied!
At this point you may wonder what else this incredible paradise has to offer?
Hwange’s birdlife is diverse and interesting. A visit during October or early November will have you catching a glimpse of many migratory birds arriving for summer time in Southern Africa.
A visit in November of 2014 yielded Abdim’s Stork by the hundreds, and literally thousands of Yellow-billed Kites. I have never before known of numbers such as these!
Racket-tailed Rollers are also seen frequently, and so are Bradfield’s Hornbill and Grey Crowned Cranes. Specials to keep an eye out for are Arnot’s Chat, Eurasian Hobbies, Miombo Tit and Southern Pied Babblers, to name but a few.
A large flock of Abdim’s Storks.
Grey Crowned Cranes in a group & in flight.
A Bradfield’s Hornbill just before vocalising.
Southern White-crowned Shrikes huddling together on a cool winters morning.
Another special animal encountered almost daily within the park, is Sable antelope.
These strikingly marked antelope are certainly one of the most beautiful of all antelope found in Africa. They are not common at all and Hwange tends to be a stronghold for them. They are also fairly relaxed in the presence of the game viewers and guests tend to get fantastic sightings of them whilst out on safari.
Hwange is special, there is absolutely no doubt about that.
In all of my travels I have experienced some stunning & pristine environments. I have worked in some of South Africa’s most prestigious lodges. Hwange just seems to capture a part of my heart in a way that many others can’t.
It is tough to put my finger on it, or to come up with a reason explaining why.
I have a passion for places that few others visit. I love these areas in Africa that still remind me of the way thigs use to be, the way it was before commercial lodge sprung up all over, and hundreds of game viewers can be seen on a daily basis.
I love the feeling of being “lost”, of being out in wild and remote places.
Hwange National Park still offers this in a massive way. It has managed to preserve the feeling of old-world Africa, a sense of stepping back in time.
A visit to this incredible wilderness will leave lasting memories. You will yearn to return and relive the experience, and in so doing merely find yourself falling in love all over again.
This is what safari should be about, this is the impact it should have on people!
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Until next time…
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