Saturday, February 5, 2011

Matetsi River Lodge on the Zambezi

The year started with a cancelled holiday to Australia and New Zealand resulting in a desperate trawling of the web looking for a break. We had to get away for a break!  We turned to one of our favourite destinations that we hadn’t been able to visit for at least ten years. Zimbabwe. Naturally, with wildlife being the real destination, the criteria for the destination takes on a whole new meaning.  No fences are high on the agenda, while large tracts of land and some water do not hurt the scenario at all. The indicators all pointed to the Zambezi.  Further indicators such as very favourable rates for accommodation sent us hurtling through the skies to end up at Matetsi River Lodge. &Beyond lodges are well known for their excellence and the rates we got for a 6 day stay were amazing (being in January and last minute booking did help here).
On arrival we were collected at the drop off point amid a thunderstorm that managed to turn the vehicle’s roof into a catchment area and the resulting shower we got was more than expected.  However, we were pleasantly surprised at how the infrastructure of the area around Vic Falls had held up through what must be a harrowing ten years. Luxury accommodation at its best, the friendliness of the Zimbabweans has not waned through the tough times and the personal service must be a legendary accolade.  Six days including flights in a five star Lodge came to a paltry R15 000.
The bigger surprise for us was our ranger Calvert. Calvert has missed his calling. He should be in a formal education institution teaching Biology and Zoology. The lecture he gave on the humble vacuum cleaner of the veld, the dung beetle, would rival if not surpass any lecture given at an institution for Higher Education. During our six day stay my knowledge of the bush increased tenfold, if not more. Another great advantage to this visit (because of all the bangbroeke out there) the Lodge was pretty empty and we were on our own on the vehicle most days. Added to this was the fact that there was no competition at sightings for vehicles jostling to get a view. Utter bliss for the passionate wildlife photographer.

The dense bush (so much so for the stories about the elephants ruining Zimbawe’s eco system) was a challenge in itself and of course the fact that we could not offroad with our vehicle impeded our ability to look for predators. However, the lack of predator sightings meant that we concentrated on a lot of other aspects of the bush that one tends to shift to one side when off hunting the hunter.
On test during this trip was a Canon 300 f2.8 L lens and 1.4 and 2 x converters. The rainy skies and resultant cloud cover was challenging for the converters and the exercise converted me to the belief that I don’t believe in converters!!
Once we had assured Calvert that we weren’t here to hunt down the Big Five but were interested in all flora and fauna we were able to relax into bush mode but high on the list was hyena and sable and roan.  Our length of stay also enabled us to get to see almost the whole reserve – 55 000 hectares.  There were several highlights in this trip worthy of penmanship.  The first was brought on by the fact that the Land Cruiser we were driving in was truly in dire straits. It putt-putted around the Reserve and then in a clearing in Kudu Alley it sputtered to a halt.  The ironical events surrounding the rescue is an amusing bush story. Our tracker Stephen whipped out his cell phone and called the Lodge via Zambia!! While waiting in this amazing clearing we were visited by a troop of around 60 baboons who were intent on a natural salt lick to our left. They sat around completely relaxed and the photographic opportunities abounded. Babies, groups, the alpha male being preened, youngsters rolling in the sand etc. For more than an hour we sat stranded, however,  for me the stranding was a completely successful exercise. I had no one wanting to move on and being impatient and I could thoroughly investigate baboon behaviour visually. My memory card started filling up and lenses got changed at alarming rates. Result .........some great interactive shots of the Chacma Baboon.

As for predators, we saw footprints of leopards, lions, hyenas etc. We were even lectured on the trackers interpretations of footprints and what can be read of the condition of the imprint which has, during this year, proved to be invaluable knowledge in other reserves.
On our second last day we went in search of the daggaboys. The southern part of the reserve has a vast empty plain flanking what used to be the Chobe Channel. Then it was simply a small trickle of water flowing down towards the Zambezi  (although with all the rain this past year it may now be a raging river!!). In the far distance we could see a small herd of Buffalo in an impossible place. However, the road was pretty close and after much bouncing and clutching onto seats, bars and cameras we pulled up next to them.  They were in long grass and as we edged ever closer the raised noses led Calvert to switch off the engine. A soft rain started falling and we had to put on all the rain gear rather smartly.  Then, the most surreal scene played itself off. Calvert, our Zoology lecturer, revealed another of his many hidden talents. He broke out into song. His deep bass voice rang out over the African plains with a Ladysmith Black Mambazo song and still today the goose bumps appear each time I think about it. All the while my shutter was clicking he was serenading the Buffalo. The wet horns, long grass, soft light and resonating lullaby tones resulted in a magical mix.

As a last hurrah the hippos in the Zambezi decided to give us a show at breakfast time. Just as we were getting up to get ready to go the resident pod decided it was time to play. My camera gillie, Paul, became a handy tripod and over his shoulder I managed to get some of the best interactive hippo shots – it was one of those bush moments!  The gaping mouths, splashing water and soft grey tones gave me enough time to snap up the spectacle.  And as Paul tends to say..................just another sh*"%t day in Africa!!

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