Marc hosted a Kusini FAM trip with Imvelo Safari Lodges in November 2022. The trip was a huge success and the group experienced what it’s like to travel to Hwange as the weather transitions to the start of the rainy season…
Instead of a traditional trip report, let’s pretend we are in Hwange at one of the Imvelo camps sitting by the fire exchanging stories as we sip our gin and tonics. Here are some of my favourite stories from the fam trip to give you an idea of what we experienced!
The Elephant Express, most exciting way to get to Hwange NP
The Elephant Express is a great way to transfer between Vic Falls and the southeastern part of the Hwange National Park. Not only are you able to move around the train as it trundles along the rails, you are also able to have face-to-face conversations with your guide and travel companions. Most importantly, we were able to stop at wildlife sightings along the way. We were able to spot elephant, sable, baboons, eland and many different bird species.
Our guide Sibs even stopped the train when he saw something peculiar in the bush. He got off the train to investigate and next thing we know, we hear “Bring my rifle, get off the train and walk behind me.” We then got off the train and went towards the open plains. Through the tall grass emerged two cheetahs! It was a great start to our safari and definitely set the tone on how wild Hwange was going to be.
Ngamo pride welcoming committee
Upon arrival at Ngamo siding, we quickly loaded up into our 4x4s while there was still sunlight. The Ngamo pride had been spotted near the railroad tracks! We spent the remaining daylight time with the pride and saw them lazily play with each other – 14 strong! Our welcoming committee at Bomani Camp could not have been any better!
Buffalo by the blind
The next morning, Sibs wanted to show us the location of the lookout blind that Bomani and Camelthorn uses when guests are doing their game drives. The blind is strategically located in front of an active watering hole but when we arrived there the watering hole was quiet. We started heading back to our game vehicle when suddenly, Sibs tells us to stay quiet, stick to him and head back to the blind. We stealthily positioned ourselves on top of the blind and next thing we know, a heard of close to 500 buffaloes arrived to take a quick drink. This made for wonderful photo opportunities where we could see yellow-billed oxpeckers jump from one buffalo to the next.
Wake up – there’s a lion kill at camp!
“Marc, wake up, wake up! Get your camera ready and meet us by the main area in 10 minutes”
Confused, I looked at my phone to see that we are being woken up 30 minutes earlier than our agreed upon wake up call. But Sibs’ commanding voice was so convincing that I got ready real quick, brushed my teeth, grabbed my camera gear and went straight to the main lodge area. I saw Sibs with a smile on his face but with an impatient look waiting for the rest of our group to emerge from hibernation. “There’s a kill at camp, did you not hear them taking down a waterbuck?” I must’ve been in deep sleep thanks to Bomani’s super comfortable beds given that a lion kill didn’t wake me up. But luckily for one of the FAM participants, Jason, the lions were causing so much ruckus that he was the one to wake up Sibs since the kill happened just outside of his tent. What a way to start the day!
Camelthorn: Community impact of your safari
To those that have heard and seen Mark Butcher’s presentations, it is clear how important it is to make sure that the communities around Imvelo’s properties (and other wildlife areas) benefit from tourism. I never really understood how deeply rooted that is until I saw it firsthand.
After we watched the lions devour the waterbuck right at camp, we headed out to Ziga village, about 45 minutes away from Bomani Camp, to visit the school. After passing through several villages, we saw painted signs about Imvelo everywhere. You can really feel the impact of your tourism dollars when you drive around the communities. When we got the primary school, we had a quick briefing with the principal before heading out to see the kids. Their smiles and their songs are truly heartwarming! The students were very proud to show off their English skills. We stayed in the classrooms just long enough as to not be intrusive on their day. We spent the rest of our visit touring the vegetable gardens, staff quarters, assembly area and the kitchen.
This is when I realized the true impact of what Imvelo is doing to the communities along the border of Hwange NP. It was just before lunch time and we could see that meals were being prepared. The food for the kids is generously donated by Imvelo and during this time you can truly feel that this is a key part of everyone’s day. It’s a great incentive for students to stay in school all while getting their bellies filled!
After the school visit, we then headed to a homestead to have some coffee and tea. One of the agents in our group, Julie, showed photos of where she lived in the US and you can tell that this engagement was very meaningful for her as well as the family in the homestead. We would’ve loved to stay longer in the village but then Sibs received a call from one of the guides… NATURE CALLS!
“We have to go now,” Sibs explained with a hurried expression. “Why, what’s happening?” we asked. “There is a cheetah sighting near camp.”
We said our goodbyes to the family at the homestead and quickly hopped on to our vehicle. We hurried back to the park gates which at that point, we were about 1 hour away from where Sibs thought the cheetahs are located. Luckily, one of the vehicles from Bomani as well as the guests wanted to stay with cheetahs so they waited for us until we arrived.
When we got there, we were in awe – it was Cindy, the famous cheetah of Ngamo plains who nearly singlehandedly built the cheetah population this area of Hwange by successfully raising cubs year after year. On this sighting, we saw her two cubs! But as soon as we got there, Cindy and her cubs decided to move and cross the railway line, which our vehicle was not allowed to cross. And just like that they were gone! We drove 1 hour away to see Cindy and her cubs for 5 minutes, but it was all worth it.
We sat there quietly knowing that Cindy might come back. Suddenly, we heard rustling in the bush, a flash of yellow and an agonizing screech from an antelope. Cindy made a kill! It wasn’t visible to see but we could feel power and speed that she used to take down what we thought was likely a steenbok.
What an unbelievable experience!
Is that a rhino outside my room?
Around lunch time, we checked in to Camelthorn Lodge and were greeted by Siboe (the camp manager) and her team. After I dropped off my luggage, I sat outside my room looking for LBJs (birder term for “Little Brown Jobs” – aka, small birds that look brown or unremarkable).
Then I noticed something odd – there was a dark blob in the bush. I walked towards it to investigate but soon after, I started backpedaling. There were two massive white rhinos right in front of my room. Thuza and Kusasa! Then 3 other figures emerged from the bush. It’s the COBRAs watching over the rhinos 24/7. One of the Cobras told me to come closer – that it was safe. I quickly called on the others to come meet me at my room to see the famed Hwange rhinos. We spent a good 10-15 mins with them in absolute awe. There are rhinos. Outside. My. Room. I didn’t think I would ever utter those words in Hwange!
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An afternoon with Thuza and Kusasa
We saved one of our afternoons in Hwange to learn more about Imvelo’s Community Rhino Conservation Initiative (CRCI). You can learn about it more from our earlier blog post about the project here.
If you are staying at Camelthorn or Bomani, make sure to save an afternoon with a visit to the CRCI HQ. We were met by Hannah and Daniel, who are the brains and brawn of the CRCI operations to make sure that these rhinos are here to stay in Hwange.
Part of your visit includes spending time up-close with Thuza and Kusasa. Daniel will tell you all about the early days of Thuza and Kusasa and how they adapted to living in sanctuary along the border of Hwange National Park. Hannah will brief you on the impact the rhinos have made in the community. Since it is in community land, you get a strong sense that the community is very much involved in the safekeeping of the rhinos. They are THEIR rhino and there’s a sense of pride from the people in the community in having rhinos roam their land once again.
The next morning, we were just getting ready for breakfast when Siboe, the camp manager, told us, “Please make sure to bring a hat, good shoes and put on sunscreen. We are having a bush breakfast, and it is 3kms away.” I told myself, this can’t be real – it’s going to take us over an hour to walk 3kms, and I am hungry now!
“Follow me, the path to the bush breakfast is just around the camelthorn tree,” said Siboe with a big smile on her face. As we walked past the camelthorn tree, all of us stopped in awe! Thuza and Kusasa were right there in front of us! Then we scanned to our left and saw a gorgeous breakfast spread. “Please sit down Marc, we are having breakfast here,” Siboe explained with now a grin on her face and eyes that said GOTCHA!
The Camelthorn lodge team took our breakfast orders and we sat there sipping our coffee while these two massive rhinos were hanging out mere meters away from us! What a privilege it was to have breakfast with two male white rhinos – note that this activity can only be done while staying at Camelthorn.
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