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By Angela 04 December 2019

Experiencing the drought in Hwange National Park and the Okavango Delta

Having just returned from a safari to Zimbabwe and Botswana, YZ’s Angela explains the impact that the drought in both areas had on her recent game viewing. She also discusses why you could consider travelling during the dry season:

With 2019 coming to a close, looking back it’s fair to say we have had a year of fascinating changes to some of Africa’s much-loved eco-systems due to changing weather and the onset of drought. I travelled into Zimbabwe and Botswana at the end of October this year – the absolute tail-end of the dry season – and in these regions I was able to experience a safari vastly different from the innumerable wilderness experiences I’ve had in the past. It was particularly interesting to view the changes in animal behaviour, the rapidity of their adaption, and, in many ways, the devastation the lack of water had caused.

The drought in Hwange National Park

I started my journey by travelling into Zimbabwe’s iconic Hwange for the first time in over two decades! This park offers an amazing diversity of terrain, including open savannas, impressive woodlands, and the red sands blown up from the Kalahari. It has a beautifully distinctive look that epitomises Zimbabwe for me. 

Hwange is known for its super-herds – elephant, buffalo, and rare roan and sable antelopes are here in abundance – and this still stands true. During our time in Hwange we saw more elephant than impala by a significant margin, something that’s genuinely unheard of yet not surprising given the estimated 44,000-strong ele population!

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The experience with the elephants here was the most striking element of the journey. All waiting desperately for rain to come in the following few weeks, with waterholes at a low and the camps and parks board digging boreholes for the waterholes, these normally gentle giants gathered en masse near to any source of water. Trumpeting, rumbling, shouting, and screeching at each other, angling to get prime position (preferably closest to the sweet clean water from the pumps), these massive beasts made an assortment of sounds I’d never heard before from their species! While it was fascinating to see herds so interactive, at times it was fairly distressing – especially as the sounds of despair continued through the night, often keeping camp guests awake until the morning! 

Sadly, the drought became so extreme that 55 elephants died before October had come to an end, as reported by the BBC. It’s worth bearing in mind that this month is notoriously known as ‘suicide month’ due to the dry heat, which often hits over 40 degrees Celsius at midday.

The drought in the Okavango Delta

I’d thought that, following my time in this dry environment, I would be heading over to a lush, green, and water-filled Okavango Delta – a welcome change from the heat of Hwange! Travellers heading to Africa often mention the Delta as a ‘bucket list’ destination, hoping to experience one of the continent’s most pristine wilderness regions and truly remote settings. Well, we safari ‘aficionados’ know that this small heaven exists – and it is indeed the Okavango Delta.

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This year, however, the rains in Angola that feed the channels that in turn feed the Delta were extremely light, resulting in low levels of flooding across the area. The scenic flight over the gorgeous green islands and endless pools was not to be this season, as water levels were at the lowest the Delta has seen in 40 years! 

As in neighbouring Zimbabwe, the animal populations had suffered due to drought, but here, as well as seeing the usual carcasses of elephants, we saw giraffe, buffalo, hippo, crocodiles all lost to the drought in immense numbers as they hadn’t quite managed their usual trek between the rivers and waterholes. A truly trying time for the game.

Why travel to a country in a drought?

With all dry-season game viewing, while some species struggle, others thrive – the limited water sources brought an abundance of game close to permanent channels, including a variety of predators, and the amount of interaction was exceptional!

For example, I was given the hardest choice I’ve ever had to make on a game drive, as the sole guest with my tracker and guide in the southern Delta one afternoon. Upon finding the pack of wild dog we’d been seeking, the guide explained they had just woken and wouldn’t run for a while. We watched their greetings and playful mannerisms until they settled down, and then I was faced with the choice. I could wait to see whether the dogs would start to hunt after they had rested, I could head back to view a pride of lion with 6-weeks-old cubs who had taken a tree as their den and had unusually climbed up into the branches, or, finally, I could see whether we could locate a leopard that had been spotted not too far from where we were with the dogs. Given our proximity to the dogs, I opted to seek out the leopard, thinking that we would hopefully be within striking distance if the dogs did decide to run!

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We found the gorgeous female leopard and followed her from the dry floodplains, which were scorched and smoking from burning peat beneath the cracked earth, up to a raised island. As she reached the island to gain vantage, we saw a dust cloud in the distance and we realised the dogs had started to chase two kudu towards us, and the leopard! She leapt into a bowed-over tree as the dogs chased the kudus right past us – and as some of the dogs were running right beneath her, she even took a swipe at one of the younger pups tailing the group! 

In all the confusion, the kudus managed to make their escape – amazing, considering the distance the dogs had chased them. After that, the dogs laid down and the poor leopard stayed in her tree until she could make a safe escape! 

Bizarrely, my previous trip to Botswana gave me a very similar experience, with dogs and leopard on the same sighting. I think this is a testament to the ongoing high quality of game viewing in Botswana, drought or no! 

If you’d like to travel to Zimbabwe and Botswana, please don’t hesitate to contact us here. Alternatively, do take a look below for more inspiration: