In the Faraway Bush: At Chitake Spring, Part I

Of all the wilderness sites we visited in Southern Africa, the bush camp at the Chitake spring was the most remote and wild — wild in the truest sense of the word.

Visitors to Mana Pools National Park are allowed the privilege of walking in the territory of wildlife that can be dangerous — and we were heading into the depths of the bush at the height of the dry season. We would be visiting the spring during its most dramatic period of activity.

We were joining Kavinga Safaris, because of their truly unique history with this place and its animals.

We already knew that Andy was an extremely perceptive guide and we’d be learning a great deal about the flora and fauna. What we could not foresee was how profound the experience would be; each day out in the heart of the wilderness delivered the unexpected.

September 20 — To get to the camp within the interior of the park, we drove about two hours on a sandy dirt road through very dense bush. The farther away we drove from the Zambezi River, the harder it became to spot anything green, and we saw only a little game along the way. As the heat intensified, I couldn’t help thinking that this rutted road was like one long narrow path through tinder… There’s been no burn in the area for a while…

When we arrived at the camp, arranged a few feet up the bank at the very edge of the riverbed, it was immediately clear that we would not have to go anywhere to see game; the wildlife would come to us. It was nearing the end of the dry season when the spring is the only fresh water around. Of course we would want to explore the area on foot and on drives and see the whole unique context of where we were situated.

The Chitake River flows through Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe. From its source in the Zambezi Escarpment it courses through the hills and down into a flat valley where it meets another river along the way, and eventually flows into the Zambezi.

“The river is seasonal, flowing sporadically during the rainy season from December to March. During the dry months, the river consists of long lengths of sand with intermittent water holes and, as the dry season progresses, the pools dry up and the wildlife concentrates on the few remaining water sources that give life to this area…The spring seeps up through the sand of the Chitake River and runs for 1.3km, depending on the season, then disappears again into the sand.” (From the Kavinga Safaris website.)

One look at all the animal tracks over the muddy width of the riverbed, and I thought with an ambivalent rush that there would be plenty of traffic by nightfall. Clyde told us about someone with a very different first impression of the spring. Arriving in a 4 x 4 vehicle, he looked at the riverbed, and then at Clyde, and said, “This is it? That’s it?” Upon discovering that that was it, he drove across the spring, looked around a bit, and left. If he was not impressed with the wet sandy mud in the riverbed, I was. Being the only watering hole around, everyone would be right there by “happy hour,” and some drama could unfold with a vengeance among the more tenacious regulars.

Birds were all about us in the foliage flanking the riverbed — bee-eaters, starlings, and weavers made appearances among many others I couldn’t identify. It was sweltering around midday when we arrived, and baboons were padding around cooling off near the water-filled holes punched in the mud, but most of the other animals would wait for the cover of night. Rod set up cots for us in the shade of the trees. As a perceptive host, he kept our focus on the wildlife, looking out for our comfort as we relaxed into and engaged with our surroundings. I recall watching two tawny eagles circling above and settling into the trees on the other side of the riverbed seeming also to wait out the heat and still keep on eye on any activity at the spring.

Meanwhile, an elephant cow with about a three-year-old youngster came up the spring, occasionally stopping and stomping their feet in the mud to pool the water and drink as they moved our way.

Iridescent starlings pecked in the mud downwind of a breeze that blew their long tail feathers straight up. As the afternoon breeze picked up, it signaled a good time for a bush walk, to take in the full layout around the riverbed.

But first a word on bush walking. We follow in a line behind the guide, who carries a rifle that he doesn’t ever want to have to use. To avoid presenting a threat to animals, we stay close and behind one another. And, we move slowly without drawing attention. Andy wants us ready to climb a tree if we find ourselves too close to buffalo; they can run 56 km per hour (35 mph) and have no mock charge, so it can happen in a split second. But we remain still and behind Andy if he must stand his ground to discourage a confrontational animal and demonstrate a serious return threat. (You can’t outrun a lion either. You never run from one, or you’ll invite a chase — a prelude to the finale, which cannot end well.) Andy’s serious about our following his instructions. If there’s going to be a confrontation, he comes between the animal and us.

For our first bush walk, we climbed the slope behind camp, walked a short distance to the edge of a ridge overlooking the riverbed; and on the other side, we saw a lioness and one of her two three-year-old male cubs, which the Kavinga team is very familiar with. Having watched these cats for a few seasons, everyone knows this area as a favored spot of Sophie, the lioness, and her two cubs — Mama’s boys who are now old enough be on their own. Clyde, who has been shooting documentary footage of the wildlife in the area, has filmed them closely for much of the dry season, even capturing them on film during hunts. And these three have become a formidable hunting team. The boys aren’t leaving home just yet.

But, closely observing wild animals does not make them more predictable, and lions that hunt in the wild habituate to the presence of humans to a limited degree. Following basic rules while in their territory and knowing how to read a host of other signs is essential to minimizing any risk. There is risk involved in any case. One of these cubs, at about two years of age (not yet mature), ambushed a fifty-year-old man from Harare who made the mistake of going too far out in the bush — and alone — to shower. It was an absolutely tragic accident; but it was an accident. The cub killed the man, though not hunting for food. A small window of opportunity had opened — and a cub seizes every opportunity it can to further its hunting skill. How else will it gain the experience it needs to survive? Those who venture into this remote area are warned that lions patrol the spring near the campsites. That is reason enough to have a knowledgeable guide with you; if there is any question whatsoever about what to do or how to handle yourself in the bush, all the more reason. Having camped for three weeks in Southern Africa, I was learning what that meant.

We continued down the ridge to take in a view over a small gorge, and there we watched several elephants enjoying a mud bath below — having a good time of it. At that spot we could see a length of the riverbed where the river carves out a deeper course, and I could imagine the water rushing through during the rainy season.

After walking back a short distance and climbing down into the riverbed, we crossed it quietly and scaled the other side to see if we could get a closer look at Sophie and her “cubs.” We found one of the cubs lounging in a favorite tree, and watched for a short time. Andy thought they would probably not wander too far from this area around the spring that night. Their most recent kill, from Clyde’s report, had been, I believe, a cape buffalo a few days earlier. There was some question as to whether they were hungry enough to go after something that night. But there is never any question that they will kill when the opportunity presents itself. As Andy noted, “They like to kill.” Just like people who develop a latent skill for a certain kind of sport — they like to practice it.

The Kavinga chefs put out another delicious meal, and animals came to drink at the riverbed as we humans dined a few meters up the bank, talking about everything from politics to porcupines. Well, mainly American politics and African porcupines. In Zimbabwe, discussion of politics is a bit pricklier than the animal. If a few people at camp that night were acutely aware of Mugabe’s spurious land reform program, any talk of it would call for discretion. I recommend a documentary that if not filmed undercover could never have been made: Mugabe and the White African. The film follows a family’s struggle to remain on farm land, that they had purchased and owned since the 1970s, as government officials come to illegally seize it and forcibly evict them. (Informative about legal and racial issues, it also attests to both the extremes to which the government has now gone, and to the absence of reform.)

On a lighter note, there was agreement around the table on the utter unreality of  “Reality TV.”  However such ironies abound, there we were — out in the bush — finding nothing but reality everywhere around us.

A honey badger taking water scurried across the mud as Rod and Andy swept high-power torches around the area. Spotting the reflective glare of a pair of eyes about 20 meters (65 feet) up the riverbed, they were surprised to find the animal looking back was a cheetah — one of the more elusive animals in the area, not to mention that there are only about 10,000 left in the wild to be found. A civet was another unusual sighting; being a nocturnal creature, it isn’t as readily seen. A porcupine found its way into camp and trundled up through the brush around the kitchen. In all, it was a pretty busy evening. Before turning in for the night, we all agreed to be up with the light at 5:30.

Our tent, situated at the end of camp, has a tarp a few meters long stretched just outside of it — as a sort of divide between it and the rest of the wilderness. As we settled in for the night, we heard the lions for a while, baboons barking, an occasional elephant, and quite a bit of movement. There was a lot of splashing along the spring, and other animals I couldn’t recognize by sound. There was so much afoot it was impossible to sleep.

For hours I lay there trying to match animal to sound while hearing all manner of traffic along the riverbed; and at some point, I think around one or two o’clock, the splashing began to sound like a lot of scrambling very close by, though I really couldn’t tell how far away anything was. With our proximity to the riverbed and nearly at its level, the sloping banks and canopy of trees above seemed to put a lid over the sound, which put us right inside the frying pan.

When an elephant began to scream, it seemed as though we were within meters of it. The screaming stopped, and then persisted intermittently. I can only describe the experience of hearing it as wrenching; and it went on for what seemed like a couple of hours (if my sense of time wasn’t distorted by wanting it to end).

What happens out in the bush happens whether you are there to hear it or not. But, no matter how much I understood that this was simply an incident of nature taking its own course, it was not easy for me to hear this elephant’s screaming and not feel compassion for it — at least to wish for an end to its pain. I have something of a soft spot for elephants, (I’ve written a little more about them in On the Zambezi River — Canoeing, Part II). We were hearing an elephant’s final calls, and it was clearly struggling to remain alive up to the very last moments of its life. I knew it was not my place to want to influence the outcome of this contest of survival, even if I could. But neither is compassion something that can be turned off, or on for that matter, with a switch. There is no intellectualizing this. These animals are more than the representations we see or the idea of them we carry in our minds (we have little opportunity to actually experience them). They are what they are individually. And, being out in the bush among them is a revelation of awareness; it is to give oneself over to uncluttered perception, free of static assumptions — to just be there among them. It comes down to respect for life — equal respect for elephant and predator — and not merely our ideas of them.

I realize before daylight returns, that this experience forces a slightly new perspective; it gives broader and deeper dimension to my notion of what it means to be alive, and it is not the least bit banal to conclude that it is precious.

September 21 — At daylight, about 75 meters (250 ft) from camp, two of the three lions are lording over the kill. One lion goes for a drink and then disappears, leaving the other to keep the menacing vultures and their impending theft at bay. A jackal is poised on its haunches nearby weighing the odds of getting a share of the elephant. It’s a pretty big kill.

The elephant was no more than eight years old, we learn from Andy; and it either wandered from its mother, possibly to drink at the spring (between eight and ten years, they begin to need less maternal care), or it had lost its mother altogether.

In either case, the elephant was unaccompanied and the three lions took it down, probably trying to cut off its air supply by its trunk or mouth or both, as one lion usually tries to kill their prey by suffocation while the other lions begin tearing into it. The harsh reality is that the elephant managed to scream while being eaten alive and finally died of shock. (First the vital organs stop getting the oxygen they need to survive as blood is shunted away from them in the effort to protect the heart and brain. As the organs fail, the body finally shuts down.) That took a couple of very long hours.

We’re all a little stunned, unable to stop looking at the lion next to the kill — struck with some combination of amazement and regret for the young elephant.

On our morning walk, we go to the opposite ridge to look down at the lion and carcass. As we watch, the lion presently on vulture-watch sticks his entire head and front paws inside the carcass and gorges himself loudly.

We follow Andy along the ridge until we come to a crevice, which we climb halfway down. We take seats under a tree from where we’ll view the show that’s about to begin on the other side. Cape buffalo, a herd of about 600, will descend from the opposite ridge, hoofing down in a constant flow to the riverbed to drink.

After a few hours of necessary grazing in the morning, the buffalo need to drink to help metabolize the grass. They have cut a path down to the spring, close to its source — and return as a herd at more or less predictable intervals. As they move into the riverbed just a few meters below us, we keep our movements to a minimum.

A buffalo now and then catches our scent and looks up sharply, staring until it’s sure we’re not a threat. Others catch the drift and look up until one by one they also lose interest in us. What we don’t want is a number of them getting worked up about us at the same time and encouraging each other into a charge. No eye contact is best, and no sudden movement. Andy says, “Be ready to climb one of these.” We’re under trees. And, I think to myself, “Have I climbed a tree in the last thirty years? No. Once. Twice, maybe.”  Laughing to myself, I decide that I’m athletic, and an adrenaline rush ought to help quite a bit if it comes down to it.

But watching the buffalo just shuts my thought down; it’s completely mesmerizing. For herbivores, they’re strangely solid looking, a lot of muscle and bone.

Red-billed oxpeckers hang on to their fur with their sharp little claws, picking off the parasites, ticks, and blood-sucking flies. Most of the time these birds are allowed to do their job. Now and again a cheeky oxpecker gets a little too personal and a buff shakes it off with a snort, looking as though it would just as soon impale the bird if it were a little bigger.

The bulls have what looks like a heavy bone helmet with a part down the middle that their horns curl down from. And, they have a reputation: they’re the Duggah Boys. Duggah is the word in Shona that denotes mud, which they are generally covered in, but the connotation is that they’re powerful tough fellows, and you don’t get in their f’ing way.

Now and then we catch sight of a bull snorting and ramming a horn into a neighbor that has annoyed him — and not gently.

The young learn how to move around, or just stay clear and not get trampled.

Some of the Duggah Boys descend the ridge last, drink, and then wait by the path seeming to signal to the others that it’s time to clear out — and they head back up the path the way they came down.

Look for Part II…

© Susan Robinson – 2011 All Rights Reserved. Content and photographs require permission for all third-party use.

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