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December 2009 Travel Zimbabwe 15 jim zuckerman / corbis

WHAT TO SEE IN HWANGE BROWN HYENA The brown hyena is among several species found in Hwange that are more typically associated with the arid west. Its presence refl ects the Kalahari sand that underlies large tracts of the park, infl uencing the ecology. RED- BILLED HORNBILL The male red- billed hornbill - a familiar character in Hwange - uses mud to seal the female into the nest hole. She remains there throughout the incubation period, receiving food from her mate through a narrow slit, and breaks out only when there is no longer space to accommodate her. ildebeest, their eyes glinting in our infrared lamp, trundled forward oblivious to what lay beneath. Hushed with anticipation, we watched the lioness crawl forwards. There is a reason why local wildlife rangers call the tall vegetation here ' adrenaline grass'. Blankets drawn across our knees against Hwange's cold night air, we wondered if they'd sense her before it was too late. Suddenly, with an explosive sound, the wildebeest stampeded, thundering into the dark. Motionless, the big cat had lost its chance. It doesn't take long to discover that Zimbabwe's wildlife experiences remain some of Africa's best. Before I'd left the UK, acquaintances speculated gloomily on the country's wildlife: " Hasn't it all been poached or eaten?" Poaching has been problematic, especially on private wildlife reserves and former hunting concessions. Zimbabwe's national parks have also seen losses, but a rich biodiversity remains thanks to dedicated staff who have battled on despite scarce resources. Hwange has long been the fl agship of the nation's national parks. Covering a staggering 14,651 square kilometres in western Zimbabwe, its vast expanses of Kalahari sands host swathes of savannah woodland, teak forests, camelthorn stands and open grassy plains. By right, Hwange's arid environment shouldn't host such prolifi c wildlife, but pumps have been used to fi ll artifi cial waterholes. These fi nite sources intensify and condense nature's struggle for survival and provide drama like nowhere else. And there's little chance of encountering the crowds seen in Africa's other signature parks - sightings of other tourists while on game drives here are as rare as spotting an elusive pangolin. When I drove into Hwange at Main Camp, just 22 vehicles had entered that week. Considering the park was receiving 200 fl ights per day a decade ago, the change is staggering. But you won't fi nd any visitors complaining! As I arrived at the renowned safari camp The Hide, I met my fi rst fellow visitors, a party of Australians. " You just missed a lion, mate," exclaimed Eammon, a Perth native, as he pointed towards the vlei overlooked by the open- fronted restaurant. I silently cursed, but The Hide quickly assuaged my disappointment. All it took was a sundowner in my hand, and a comfortable seat to watch a gathered herd of elephants gurgling and spraying mud at the private waterhole. A superb evening meal followed, and stories from the day were swapped over a trusty teak table that must have heard it all before. I retired to my homely tent and as I lay in the darkness, senses heightened, I listened to a fi ery standoff between lion and elephant. The evening encapsulated everything a safari should be about. With 400km of roads, Hwange is ripe for self- drive. The next morning I ventured further south into the park, bisecting mopane and acacia bush towards Ngweshla Pan. I repeatedly stopped for elephants - not a surprise considering Hwange's estimated to have 40,000 of them, a staggering fi gure. I braked suddenly for turbo- charged kudu and eland, saw majestic glossy- coated sable bulls, and photographed so many giraffes in one location that they resembled a forest. With so much wildlife all to myself, emotions ran high. More than feelings of luck, I felt a strong sense of privilege. I dropped by Somalisa, a rustically charming bush camp camoufl aged by acacias. It's owned by Beks Ndlovu, a former guide who is one of Zimbabwe's new breed 16 Travel Zimbabwe December 2009 Hushed with anticipation, we watched the lioness crawl forwards. There is a reason why local wildlife rangers call the tall vegetation here ' adrenaline grass' Hwange National Park ERIC GAUSS