Listening out for harbingers of rain

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By the time you read this, the summer rains should have begun to fall over Victoria Falls and the Zambezi National Park. I know this because a couple of little birdies told me so…

There are three traditional avian harbingers of rain in Matabeleland North, says Dienie Harley, general manager of Sian Simba River Lodge and lifelong birdwatcher; the first two are the Burchell’s coucal and red-chested cuckoo.

I’d heard the first – commonly known as the “rainbird” – almost immediately on arrival in Zimbabwe. By the time I left six days later, I was beginning to hear the red-chested cuckoo’s cries of Piet my-vrou. All that remained before the heavens opened, said Dienie, was the woodland kingfishers.

First-time viewers of the Zambezi have no idea how mighty is the river that rises in northwestern Zambia and flows into the Indian Ocean 2 600km later unless they see it at the peak of the dry season in October. There are spots where one could almost rock-hop from Zambia into Zimbabwe.

Picture: Supplied

The river doesn’t broaden appreciably during the rainy season (November – April) but it deepens in places by more than two metres… over its entire breadth of nearly half a kilometre! Several islands can be reached only by motorboat.

The Zambezi is deceptively placid until it reaches Victoria Falls where the awesome flow of water becomes apparent. The average flow over the falls is more than 1 000 cubic metres per second; with peak flow around 3 000m3/s (three million litres of water per second).

Sian Simba (www.zambezidrift.com or [email protected]) is about 40km north of Victoria Falls, one of several camps and concessions within the 56 000ha Zambezi National Park.

Sian Simba Lodge

Sian Simba River Lodge. Picture: Supplied
Sian Simba River Lodge. Picture: Supplied

The park was proclaimed in 1926 as a larger entity incorporating what is now the Victoria Falls National Park which hived off as a separate entity in 1979.

It closed around 1975 when it became an infiltration route for insurgents from Zambia during the so called Rhodesian bush war (1964-1979) but was reopened in 1980 following Zimbabwe’s independence.

First order of business was clearing large swathes of land sown with anti-personnel mines that had wreaked havoc on wildlife, especially migrating elephants, during the war.

Outdoor activities at Sian Simba River Lodge. Picture: Supplied
Outdoor activities at Sian Simba River Lodge. Picture: Supplied

The park is bisected by the main road from Victoria Falls to Kazangula, where Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana and Namibia meet.

The eastern part of the park follows the Zambezi River, while the western part surrounds the Chamabonda vlei system.

The entrance fee is $12 (about R220) a day. South African credit cards are accepted.

Zambezi National Park is just over a third the size of Addo Elephant National Park in the Eastern Cape but vastly different in infrastructure and feel from any of South Africa’s major national parks (SANParks).

Forget the commercial village feel of Skukuza and Addo Main Camp: if you’re doing a self-drive (there are a limited number of campsites, including at Sian Simba) and forget something or run out, you’re facing a lengthy trip back to town.

Picture: Supplied

Wildlife

Park roads are gravel and of varying quality – especially during the rainy season – so you’ll need a 4×4 or 4×2 bakkie with high-ground clearance. Remember to convert a significant amount of rands into dollars: Zimbabwe fuel stations only accept American banknotes (as do the numerous tollgates).

Far more sensible to fly into Victoria Falls International Airport and be met by your guide in his game vehicle.

I was lucky to be entrusted into the care of Aleck Zulu – he goes by his surname. This 57-year-old former banker knows everybody in town!

Zimbabwe wildlife tourism is in the throes of re-establishing itself after decades of neglect and subsequent reverses in the resurrection process due to Covid (as well as the time of year) meant that most of the lodges and camps in Zambezi were virtually empty.

The upside was that often I had Zulu to myself, while the roads were practically deserted.

Even in high season, you’re unlikely to get involved in animal sighting scrimmages.

Poaching has taken its toll on wildlife numbers over the years but a recently adopted action plan has made security a priority and stepped-up anti-poaching activities (including near-constant river patrols) is allowing animals to return in greater numbers. Opening more roads in the park’s interior are also helping law enforcement to expand its area of operations.

Picture: Supplied

The pleasure of having knowledgeable guides is that, when animals are few and very far between, they keep boredom at bay. When the Big Five (Zambezi boasts four, with the exception of a rhino) decide to take the day off, they introduce you to the antics of the other residents of the veld and entertain you with folklore.

For example, did you know that the white-browed sparrow-weaver predominantly builds its nests on the western side of the thorn tree?

This is to shelter them from the prevailing winds and rain and keep them in shade during the hottest time of day.

Picture: Supplied

Exposure to the afternoon sun means the nest remains cosy at night. Building in thorn trees hinders predators such as snakes but the nests have a disguised exit to facilitate emergency flight.

My favourite tale involved the knob-thorn, known scientifically as Acacia nigrescens.

“When the women of my culture near puberty,” says Zulu, “their aunties and grannies take them to the bush for about a week to learn the facts of life”.

At some stage, he says, they are taken to a knob-thorn and shown the protuberances on its trunk.

These are said to resemble different shapes of women’s breasts.

“Girls have to decide whether they want small, pointy ones… long and thin… fat and round.

“They cut off knobs of the de[1]sired shape and the old women mix them into a paste with ‘secret’ ingredients.

Picture: Supplied

“She will smear this on her chest when she bathes and grow the breasts she desires.”

Bathing is a big thing at Sian Simba and the first thing most new arrivals do (after downing a welcoming drink) is head for their tents to shower off the sweat and travel grime.

Sian Simba – one local translation is “the place of many genets” – is an eco-friendly camp that can accommodate 24 people in 12 double or twin luxury tents. Two tents are linked to create a “family” space while another is designated a honeymoon suite.

Most guests spend the time between morning and afternoon game drives casting for tigerfish or bream on the river (accompanied by a guide, because crocodiles and hippo abound) or lazing around the lodge.

During my stay, the star attraction was the small rim flow pool overlooking a beach jutting into the river, down to which a multiplicity of animals came to drink.

Picture: Supplied
Picture: Supplied

With so much water and an abundance of trees around the camp, the birdlife is magnificent; one of the guides, Conscience, said the bird list he was compiling currently stood at about 250 species.

In one afternoon I spotted little bee-eaters, three types of rollers, two species of kingfisher, marabou and yellow-billed storks, white-backed vultures, shrikes and several African fish eagles.

All while the friendly staff of the adjacent lodge bar emulated the timeless nature of the river below by bringing me an endless stream of ice-cold Zambezi Lagers.

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