Guides Training 2019, Hwange

Guides Training 2019, Hwange

Gavin was recently in Zimbabwe, Hwange running his annual guides training. Hosted by Wilderness Safaris this is always an exciting week for the guides.
Gavin’s vast experience takes the guides through an intense week of practical training such as walking in the bush, tracking, identification and even camp/table etiquette and some of the more domestic aspects of the job.

Gavin takes a broad encompassing look at Africa as a continent, birds, mammals, biomes and reasons for vegetation diversity as many guests have traveled to Africa previously, particularly East Africa.

Here are some of the highlights of the week.  We had a fantastic turnout with guides from Zimbabwe, Botswana and Zambia all training.

Another sunrise, another day. We spent the first 3 to 4 hours of each morning out walking and driving to find elephant and lion primarily. We would find spoor, stop and discuss the spoor, then either track the animals or move on again to find better spoor.


Brilliant flower of Striga asiatica. A peculiarity of the Striga genus is their hemi-parasitic lifestyle! Their roots invade their hosts roots system very successfully, and draw some nutrients directly from them.


Data on African Savanna elephant . A short lecture was given to us by an elephant researcher who has been working on elephant dynamics in the park.


Dave Carson, briefing students on requirements for Proficiency Tests. Dave is a fellow professional guide, who actively participates in training guides in Zimbabwe, and is also one of the nominated ZPHGA examiners at the bi-annual Proficiency Tests held in conjunction with National Parks.

Discussing a Camel Thorn Tree. Sstudents would be selected to lead walks in the morning, discussing whatever subjects took their fancy on the walk, as a way of developing their ability to talk sensibly with guests, to exchange information with their colleagues AND as a means of gauging their knowledge for the Professional Guide supervising the walk.

Discussing the material used in Red billed buffalo weavers nests!
Despite living with these birds for years none of the students had ever held a twig from a nest or given them more than a cursory interest! This is a typical conundrum with guides all over Zimbabwe, and probably other countries too!

Douglas trying to catch a catfish or barbel, as the fish disperse from the main pan (out of frame) across the flooded grassland to colonize new areas.

Students gather for an early …5.30am..breakfast before starting the day.

Early morning at Backpans…female hippo and young calf a large female hippo re-enters the pan with a very young calf, and a two to three year calf as well.

Elephant dung riddled with coprophagus ‘mushrooms’.
This is a common sight only during the rainy season, when conditions are good for the fungi to germinate and produce ‘mushrooms’.

Flooded plains of Ngamo. The recent heavy rains here have created these temporary flooded grasslands which benefit a large number of amphibians here, and of course give the grass a boost to grow. Being deep sandy soils, these conditions will not last long and the water will be lost to the below-ground water regime.

13. Gray crowned crane. These beautiful birds are not common here, and normally are seen in pairs or threesomes, including the most recent chick. Subject to some local movement, it is thought that the Zimbabwean western population move between central Botswana and western Zimbabwe, seasonally.

14. Great stormy sky. Some ferocious storms were daily occurrences either on the camp or in the immediate vicinity.

African foxglove. (Ceratotheca triloba). These lovely annuals are scattered throughout the grasslands and scrub, adding some contrast colour to the yellows and mauves of Hibiscus, merremia and Wild sesame plants.

17. It’s 5am and time to wake up. The summer sky lightens quickly, and sleeping in a waterproof tent with open sides ensures no one sleeps too late.

18. ‘Jewel beetles’. Mating bugs, creating another bundle of ‘gems’ to delight us! These iridescent insects abound in some areas of the bush, and make fine macro-photographic subjects.

19. On a walk…walking safely and informatively is a key part of a Field Guides’ skills. We practiced this daily.

21. Stingless bee entrance. This tiny waxen tube is all that indicates that a nest of stingless bees is here…often prized by local hunters for the extremely strong and dark honey they produce, although in tiny quantities.

22. ‘Stud’ or ‘Devil thorn’ flower. The seed pod has two short dorsal spines which embed themselves into boot soles, lending this plant the name,’ Stud thorn’. The flower is very attractive, and being a prostrate plant spreads these lovely blooms along lengthy lines in the grasslands.

23. Taking a break. This happy mix of student guides are from Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe, and enjoyed the cross culture interaction both socially and professionally.

Fungi are particularly active in the wet season, and a wide variety of fruiting bodies were found, from this ‘brown gilled’ variety to Boletes and bracket fungi too. This gilled specimen was on the elephant dung….and the guide was careful to wash his hands thoroughly after this photo, to avoid being poisoned by any spores on his hand that might inadvertently be transferred to his mouth!

25. There are a huge selection of Ipomea species. In fact many look similar to Merremia species!

26. Trying to estimate the age of a Leopard tortoise. We found a surprising number of these reptiles, and they always raised interesting discussions on whether they should be picked up or not…(NOT) aging them by counting ridges (approximately), and their general ecology.

27. We saw 3 different prides of lion. It is always exciting finding lions on foot, as the guides track them to contact. Sometimes they are very demonstrative, and other times all one hears is a low growl and the lions run away into a thicket….not a place to follow them. It is nice to find them from the vehicle, and just enjoy them without any angst on both sides.

11. End of course, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambian student guides. At the end of the nine days, the students all dispersed to their respective safari camps in Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Embued with an enthusiasm and knowledge for their roles as guides, they were a very happy and vocal crew! Kudos to Wilderness Safaris, in those three countries for agreeing to send their guides away for the week for this collective training session. A very positive action.

Elephants, and MORE elephants!

The first elephant herds would arrive at the camp waterhole at about ten in the morning. The last animals would leave at dusk……and in-between these times, there would be a constant stream…like ships or barges moving through a canal….interspersed by dazzles of zebra, impala and loping baboons who would drink with pursed lips, shifty eyes and bottoms much elevated.  Piles of dung lay scattered around resembling a myriad termite mounds on a gray plain, literally scores of them on the well trodden, flat gray soil around the waterhole.

Elephants at Somavundhla Pan

Elephants at Somavundhla Pan

Wherever we drove there was sign of elephant feeding behaviors. Broken shrubs, debarked trees of several kinds, dung piles, pathways like smooth two foot roads crossing the sandy track either leading to or from a waterhole, even a distant one.  Shuffled sandy crossings were common on the road, and silent gray forms often stood like shadows, motionless except for a periodic ear movement during the heat of noon. The younger members lay down to be rounded lumps amongst a cathedral of pillar legs.

The best part was at sundowners.  We would be drawn to the larger pans like Somavundhla and Little Sam’ to see what animals were there….apart from elephant. Sable, roan, buffalo and baboons were the common creatures found there. Lions too, once. Then herds upon herds ….family upon family, each lead by a matriarch would either be marching in or be there already, sucking the water up through their trunks and blowing into their mouths with gusty, watery sighs.



Drinking herds

Drinking herds

The smokey atmosphere created ideal conditions for photography, and I made the most of it, despite the limitations of my small camera.  All three evenings we stopped to enjoy G&T’s at waterholes, and each event was memorable for some particular reason. The reds of the sky, changing hues with time or the proximity we allowed ourselves to be to the bustling, skin-rubbing, dribbling animals. It was a great privilege to be able to be so close to them without their concern.

Water was far more important!






Last sundowners with elephants

Last sundowners with elephants


Broken tusk

Broken tuskAt one waterhole we found a piece of tusk, broken during a tussle perhaps or digging for minerals, lying on a bed of dung and sand. We left it there….part of the scenery in this wilderness of elephants.

At one waterhole we found a piece of tusk, broken during a tussle perhaps or digging for minerals, lying on a bed of dung and sand. We left it there….part of the scenery in this wilderness of elephants.


Zimbabwe first stop…Land of the Giants!

Bulawayo receded into the smoke-hazed distance as the Pilatus climbed steadily to a safe 20 000 feet, above the layer of brown haze thickened by the seasonal bush fires that proliferate in July and August.

The patchwork subsistence cultivation patterned the dry bush below us and we dozed in companiable silence. I glanced out of the oval window and recognized some of the local landmarks of this national park, which is an area the size of Wales. The waterholes that lay like carelessly scattered coins across the bush had tiny dark dots clustered around the edges…..I smiled as I recognized them for what they were….elephants!  I leant forward and tapped one of the ladies on the knee as she dozed…’Hey Diane, we have your first elephants..’. Immediately, her eyes sprung open and she peered out of the window.

We spent three nights at Little Makololo, and saw possibly 1000 elephants in that time!

We also saw a respectable number of other herbivores and carnivores as well, but first, let’s land and drive to camp. The aircraft flared and landed perfectly, the bumpy runway announced a Zimbabwe touch-down. The pilot had thoughtfully banked over a waterhole on the approach, exposing about sixty elephants drinking there! The first antelope we saw were a goodly herd of eland which skittered off a short distance as we slowly approached, the elephants ignored the vehicles as they drank and pushed and squealed at the round concrete trough.

Matriarch and calves at a waterhole

Matriarch and calves at a waterhol



I looked around at the faces in both vehicles…..a rewarding sea of smiles and excitement. I sighed happily….THIS was going to be good!

Pamberi ne Zimbabwe.






Lolling, replete lions ignored us as we drove by.

Lolling, replete lions ignored us as we drove by.

We spotted a group of lions at the next waterhole en route to camp. They lay replete, confident and ignored us too…later we discovered they were full of sable meat. A female by the look of the mane we found in the bush.  Whilst we watched the lions in awe, a large roan came strolling warily out of the bush and immediately spotted the lions. He stared fixedly at the cats, and then trotted off a distance before turning briefly once again to stare at the lolling lions.






The warmth and soft glow of the fire.....

The warmth and soft glow of the fire…..

The campfire held us all in its soft glow that evening, as the temperatures slid down the scale to minus 2C!




Mana Pools: One of Zimbabwe’s gems.

Mana Pools National Park is a World Heritage Site, located on the Zambezi river, opposite the Lower Zambezi National Park, in Zambia.  This wonderful park is one of the only national parks where casual visitors are allowed to walk about in the park at their own risk. Read more…