Shrimping in Malilangwe

We were introduced to a fascinating couple who are both ecologists at Malilangwe Conservancy, and who have been there over 20 years.  Sarah does the Rhino research of all the animals they have there, and Bruce studies a variety of different topics.   During our evening game drive with them we got onto the topic of seasonal water.  They mentioned that there were fairy shrimps and triops – living fossils – living in many of the seasonal pans around the country.  We were fascinated and they promised to take us to find them the next morning.

As promised we met up the next day and headed to a pan which had been around for just over a week.  We all discarded our shoes and armed with a net and containers, waded into the slimy, muddy pan.  Their son began dragging the small net through the water close to the bottom and quickly turned up some miniature shrimps measuring about 2cm, with bright orange tails.  It looked like they were swimming on their backs with lots of legs flailing about on top.

He also found us a Triop, a living fossil from the Carboniferous age, 300 million years ago.  This strange creature had a rounded shell on its back, a longish tail and lots of legs.  Among the haul was a few clam shrimps, tiny round things with legs.  We put them all into a clear container so we could have a good look.


It was explained to us that these creatures had a life span of about 2-3 weeks in which they laid their eggs in the mud before being eaten by predatory birds or the water dried up.  These eggs then stayed in the mud until it rained again and there was enough water for them to survive, (the pressure of the water had to be enough so as to trigger them to hatch).  They explained how they were at first confused how these things were found all over the park, and had then discovered that when an animal had a mud bath, the mud that stuck to their bodies and later dropped off in another area, contained the eggs which if fell in an area where there was enough water, would hatch in the rains.  Also through studies, they found that these shrimps were only found in seasonal water as the eggs needed a rest period and the adults were quickly eaten by birds and frogs, hence the very short life cycle.  These little creatures were not found in water bodies that were there all year, and this highlighted the loss of this source of food for the birds and reptiles when a seasonal pan was converted to a perennial water source.

Who knew there were these fascinating creatures floating about in the muddy pans!


What is Ecotourism?

On our trip round to visit the various camps, lodges and hotels, the word on everyone’s lips was Ecotoursim.  It has become such an important thing in the tourism sector over the last couple of years  that if a tourist facility wants to be considered it needs to be trying to be an ecotourism destination.  But what does this really mean on the ground and how can us the traveler make an informed choice.

Ecotourism is as defined by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) – “Environmentally responsible travel to natural areas, in order to enjoy and appreciate nature (and accompanying cultural features, both past and present) that promote conservation, have a low visitor impact and provide for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local peoples.”

So by breaking down this definition we have 3 main points.  Firstly the awareness of the traveler.  As travelers we should realize that by visiting the National Parks or Wild Heritage Sites, we all impact that area whether we mean to or not, we can try and make a conscious effort to reduce this impact by supporting only the destinations that are trying to consider the environment, or support ‘local’ by researching the way they are giving back to the area or country before deciding on the places to visit.  Once on the ground, there are small but significant things we can choose to do or not do that make a huge impact for example, by not insisting our towels are washed every day, thus reducing use of precious water. Or ensuring we support a camp that has recycling in place to reduce the rubbish going to landfills, we can make the responsible choice.

Secondly, supporting tourist facilities that in turn support local conversation efforts in their surrounding areas.  Giving back into the area that they are promoting by donating time, money or assistance to a cause that helps both the environment and the local people, is a very important aspect too and is how the conservation project keep going.  Not only does it make us travelers aware of the tenuous balance of ecosystems, it forces the facilities on offer to strive to find better ways to live and work in harmony with their environment and surroundings, and preserve the very thing they are promoting.  Many of the camps in Zimbabwe National Parks have a project that is close to their heart, whether it be planting trees to reduce deforestation in their area, or donating time and money to the monitoring of the endangered wildlife that they seek out each day.

Thirdly is the human aspect.  The education and employment of the local people around the tourist facilities is hugely important as these people live and are part of that ecosystem on a day to day basis.  If they don’t understand that all things are connected and that doing one thing can upset the balance of everything around them, then there is no hope for conservation and the Earth.   Education of the next generation, of both travelers and local people on the ground, is the key to solving so many problems we face today, from the cutting down of trees for firewood without replanting to not disposing of rubbish properly.  It is the future generations that will suffer if this is not taught and understood TODAY.   The local communities around national parks and attractions need to benefit from these areas for them to appreciate and look after it, be it through employment or trade.  Without this the animals/land have no value, for example, to a person living a subsistence lifestyle who has elephants eating his crops everyday, the elephant is worth more to him dead (meat and skin to make trade items) than alive.  But if the same village had the majority of its employment in the anti poaching or National Parks of this area, that elephant is valuable as a tourist attraction.  Talk to the staff in the camps in Hwange National Park, and most of them live on the edge of the park, sending money back to their families.  Each camp or safari company has a community project they spearhead or support, be it recycling glass into beads to sell in the camps or hosting childrens camps for those kids that live in the surrounding areas, so they learn how precious our natural wildlife is.

Sensitivity towards, and appreciation of, the local cultures and diversity of an area is also part of ecotourism.  When we travel we want to see how other people live their lives, how they do things and tackle issues, that is the joy of travelling, so this difference has to be nurtured and understood.  We all have something to teach others and to be taught by others, if only we take the time to listen and understand.  So when you are deciding your next trip, consider carefully your destination and do a bit of research into whether that area or facility does anything to help the local communities and conservation efforts in the area.


Paddling Hyenas

The thing I love about the bush is that you never know what is around the next corner.  You may know the area or the roads really well but today there might be a special bird fluttering in the bushes nearby or a cheetah seen slinking across the road.  That anticipation is what drives my passion for the bush.  This afternoon’s game drive was just this.

We were on a mission to add a few more birds to our fast expanding list, when we came round a bend in the road to find four Spotted Hyenas wallowing in a pool of water in the road.  They all put up their heads to see if we posed a threat, twitching their ears backwards and forwards, muscles tense and ready to spring out of the water. After a few moments all expect one decided we were harmless and relaxed back down into the muddy water.  The 2 adult females keeping a beady eye in our direction.

A youngster had leapt out of the puddle on our arrival and was standing, poised in the grass to the side, looking curiously at us.  We held our breath to see if it would stay or run.  To our surprise and delight it started wandering down the road towards us, nose in the air and ears searching for any alarming sound.


The two smaller hyenas looked fluffier and more ‘puppy’ like, not quite having grown into their ears or paws and were definitely more curious.  It eventually got to within 2 meters of the bumper, and it flopped down as if to find a comfortable spot to study us as we were studying it.  The other youngster must have got ‘fomo’ as it too got out of the puddle and wandered over to its sibling and sat just behind it.

We sat regarding each other, no doubt they discussing this strange metal contraption as we discussed how beautiful the Hyenas really were, and how muddy and cool the puddle looked.  After about 20 mins of them scratching and sniffing, and us pointing and oooo and ahhhhing in hushed voices, they seemed to get bored, or maybe hot, and wandered back to the puddle and joined the females once again.  After a little while the whole family got up and wandered off into the bush, their cooling swim over for today.


A Lion and his Spectators

Splashing through the puddles pooling along the muddy roads in the Malilangwe Wildlife Trust in our game drive vehicle, we have our eyes peeled for any kind of activity, big or small.  The rain has been falling since sunrise so it was a late start, and not just for us, the birds were quiet this morning, preferring to save their strength until the sun showed its face or at least the rain stopped falling.  Now a weak gleam peeks through the clouds and the bush has come alive, the dung beetles have emerged to forage for any fresh dung that has been left for them to roll into neat balls and skillfully wheel away.  The Chafer Beetles in their glorious colours are off to a flying start in search of breakfast.  The birds too have hopped out from their leafy covers and are holding their wings away from their body in an attempt to dry off.

Away in the distance we spot some large shapes circling in the sky and off to the right some perched in a tall dead tree, Vultures!  Seeing these huge birds could mean there is a kill around, and that could mean a predator.  Making our way closer, we can see a lot more on the ground, all waiting.  Then we spot a big male Lion tucked away under an acacia tree and next to him is a dead wildebeest that is half eaten but still has a lot of flesh on it.  The Lion obviously is not finished with his prize yet as he lies close next to it, ready to chase off any attempts to steal even the smallest scrap of meat off it.

Meanwhile dotted all around are about 30 vultures.  The White Backed Vultures are the most common vultures in Zimbabwe, their sparsely covered necks sport a sprinkling of white down with a beady eye, and their brown plumage, which starts out darker in colour when young, becomes paler with age giving them a shaggy brown cloak look.  Their wing span can be anything up to 2.2m across and they weigh in at around 5kgs.  There are 20 or so of these huge birds huddled on the wet grass, some grooming some seeming to snooze but all keeping a close eye out for the departure of the Lion.  There are also a few Hooded Vultures dotted around, this species is considerably smaller than the White Backed and a little less common.  They have a bare wrinkly skin head and thick fluffy feathers down the back of its neck, with darker plumage than its cousin.

Vultures are becoming critically endangered, they are sort after for local medicinal purposes as well as being the sad result of the poaching of animals using poisons, who they feed off and ingest the poison.  This, along with habitat loss, means that at the current rate of decline, we could see their extinction in our lifetime.  A report of 94 vulture deaths on one elephant carcass not too long ago, just shows how interlinked all of nature is.  Vultures clean the environment of dead animals, if these creatures weren’t there to pick the bones clean, disease and rotting flesh would litter the landscape. The plight of the poaching of elephants and rhinos, has been well publicized but we forget about the knock on affect that these types of activities have on the rest of the circle of life.  Vulture Conservation Program is a project which is working with communities and National Parks to help educate people on the importance of the vultures around the world, and highlight their plight as well as come up with solutions to reduce their decline. Please see their website, VulPro, for more information or for ways you can support.

Moving our focus back to the lion, we realized that with so much meat left on the wildebeest the lion would not be moving from this area until he had gorged himself a few more times.  We left him to his meal and his many feathered spectators.


Birding Bonanza

The first stop on our trip was the gorgeous Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve which covers 130,000 acres of beautiful bush in the south-eastern part of the country and borders the Gonarezhou National Park.  We were extremely lucky to be able to visit this area and were shown just how breath taking it was.  It being the green season we were excited to get our bird list going and to see the variety of flora and fauna that the rains had brought back to life.

On our first drive we didn’t get far from the house before stopping under some huge Camel Thorn Acacias where we could hear a bird party twittering away.  The rainfall the night before had brought out all the flying ants in huge swarms and the birds were gorging themselves on this feast.  The European Rollers, flashing their vibrant turquoise wings as they swooped in and grabbed a winged bug.  The Yellow-Bellied Greenbul darting around the thorny canopy, along with a small flock of White Crested Helmet Shrikes, with their clicking contact call, to let the flock know where each individual was.  A rhythmic wood tapping echos around the small clearing, the Bennetts Woodpecker bouncing along the trunk of a tree catching emerging beetles. Even the large Wahlberg’s Eagle joined in the party and landed on the ants nest and tried to catch them as they emerged but there was just too many!  The Woodlands Kingfisher singing his repetitive call over and over again at the top of his little lungs, the Orange Breasted Bush Shrike hopping from branch to branch in the thorny canopy digging out little critters burrowing into the bark.  We added a whopping 14 species to our fast growing list from this little stop at the acacias.

We finally leave the bird infested trees, and drive onto a seasonal pan.  As we arrive, a big bull Elephant saunters down for a drink and a bit of a splash to cool down.  After drinking his fill he began plastering his huge bulk with sticky mud, you could almost hear his sigh of pleasure at its cooling effect.  As our gaze shifted, we saw Blue Cheeked Bee eaters in the nearby leafless tree, these are a Palaearctic breeding migrant, coming here with the youngsters from further north.  They entertain us with their acrobatics as they duck and dive catching the various flying creatures disturbed by the big Elephant.

Blue Cheecked Bee eater

Leaving the mud bathing elephant we drive for a bit until the bush on either side of the road reveals a  small herd of Cape Buffalo who snort at our intrusion of their morning tea break.  Most of the beasts are sporting a fashionable Red billed Oxpecker, who provides a cleaning and debugging service in return for the food and free ride.

The morning ended with 36 birds and 2 of the big five mammals, not a bad start to our trip!  The green season in the bush is so alive, there is so much to look at that it makes your head spin a bit, the small bugs, the birds taking joy in the life giving rain, the flowers popping up, the fungi and mushrooms pushing up through the rotting wood and piles of animal dung.  So much to see and so little time!


We’re Back!!

After our self drive trip around the southern and western parts of Zimbabwe, we are home armed with lots of new and exciting camps and lodges for our guests to visit.  We believe it is important to have seen and experienced at least a little of the camp or lodge that we recommend to our guests, how else can we suggest that you spend your precious holiday time there?!

DSC_2299We all get a bit blasé sometimes with the country we live in and the people that live here and it is good for the mind – to blow the cobwebs out – and the soul to remind ourselves just how lucky we really are.  We met some truly inspiring people along the way which turned an exciting working trip into a mind opening as well as humbling experience.   Some of these people blew us away with their knowledge of nature and its interactions, opening our minds to a whole new world of tiny creatures that we didn’t even know existed.  Some shared their work with the surrounding communities where they live, empowering people to improve their lives by learning new skills so as to be able to provide for their families and not relying on donations.


We will be telling of our adventures over the next few months with bi-weekly blogs, but to prick your curiosity below are the statistics of our trip….

2650km driven in 21 days

6 Police road blocks encountered – only one stopped us

5 National Parks visited

26 different mammal species seen

245 different bird species seen

22 hotels/lodges/camps visited

Countless interesting and passionate people encountered along the way who love Zimbabwe just as much as we do!


Gone on a road trip……

We are currently travelling around Zimbabwe for 3 weeks. So once home, we will be tantalising your minds with stories of the animals we have seen, birds spotted and the places we have visited. Some very interesting people we have met along the way and have blown our minds with a whole new dimesion of Nature. Until then.

A week in the Tea Estates


Each year we try and visit a new place in Zimbabwe, the choice is a hard one as there are so many exciting places to choose from, but eventually we decided on Aberfolye in the Honde Valley.  This jewel of a place is in the east of the country between Mutare and Nyanga, doesn’t offer the big game viewing but instead boasts of endemic bird species and lots of sporty activities while surrounded in rolling hills of tea.

The lodge itself is drowning in history, situated in the middle of the huge Eastern Highlands Tea Plantations, with it being built in 1960 as a ‘club house’ for the Estate workers .  The rooms have been recently refurbished, and are bright and modern, all looking out onto a piece of the garden.  The food was delicious, buffet breakfast with an option of a cooked breakfast, a yummy lunch or a bar menu for something light and a 3 course meal for dinner.

The first morning we woke, we were struck by the chorus of unfamiliar bird calls emanating from the thick jungle like gardens and it didn’t take us long to grab our binos and get out into the cool morning light to find those specials that the area boasts of.  By then end of the week we had 17 lifers for our lists, which we were more than ecstatic about.


The lodge offers an astounding amount of activities to fill your stay there.  From table tennis, darts and snooker to a tree canopy zip line, 9 hole golf course and 18 hole putt putt.  Then there was the visit to the beautiful dam, 10m bum slide down rocks into freezing water, a visit to the Hydroplant and a Tea Factory tour.  Not to mention all the stunning walks and waterfalls one could do if you just needed to stretch the legs.  Best to visit their website for the full details.

We tried our best to sample as much as possible in this magic setting, with a round or two of golf being played amidst lots of huffing and puffing at the steep gradients having to be walked to reach the tee boxes (and search for lost balls!!)  A scenic drive taken in search of the bum slide rocks, along with lots of gasping and laughing at the plunge into the chilly pool, and the adrenaline filled 45 minutes that it took to experience the 8 ziplines through the tree canopy following a noisy river.   Simango monkeys were daily visitors, usually heard before seen as they crashed through the branches of the trees.


Most evenings were spent lounging on their ‘Star Gazing Green’ drinking in the scenic views sipping a cold beer or one of their boutique gins with an ice cold tonic.  We would also look out for the Palm Nut Vulture who could be seen gliding across the golf course towards the palm trees in search of dinner.  Then as the darkness fell the chorus changed to the weird and eerie calls of the frogs and crickets.