The wall of the Tanaka office

Three lives transformed by a $20 note

A day out with Oasis ZimbabweA guest blog by Helen Smith

In a small tin-roofed house, about 3 metre square, we met Victoria (not her real name) and her 15 year old daughter. Victoria moved from a rural area to Harare 5 years ago, with her two children, after her husband abandoned her and an uncle threw them out of the family home. When the Oasis Zimbabwe Tanaka project workers found her she was barely surviving. Victoria had been reduced to sending her children to beg on the streets of Harare and they had nowhere to live. Something about Victoria prompted the worker to give her $20. Victoria used the money to buy bananas and then sell small bunches at a profit. She bought more bananas (to sell) with some of the proceeds and used the rest to rent a small shack to live in and buy food for the children, enabling them to stop begging and go to school.

Tanaka worker, Junic, talks to "Victoria" and her daughter

Tanaka worker, Junic, talks to “Victoria” and her daughter

The Tenaka project pays school fees for the children (about $25 per term) and they are both doing well there.

Without this help it is more than likely that Victoria’s daughter would have followed many others and ended up working as a prostitute on the streets of Harare. By most standards, Victoria still lives in abject poverty but she is a hard-working, hopeful mother who can keep her children safe and put food on their plates each day.

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Cheetah Plains Private Game Reserve

Cheetah Plains turned out to be our favourite place in spite of our negative first impressions, mainly caused by reasons outside their control. For example, our “luxury room” was the smallest yet most expensive of the trip. When we raised this issue with the management we discovered that we had been overcharged (by 30%!) by the agents. We did get the money back.

Also, our first game drive was disappointing. The vehicle was full and as a result it was virtually impossible to take photos without getting a head or an arm or a hat or a camera in shot. This was exacerbated by the fact that the seating in the Cheetah Plains vehicle was the least raked of all the vehicles we travelled in.

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It’s difficult enough to take photos with 8 in a vehicle but it’s much harder with 10

The next morning we went out with a different driver, Andrew, and I have written about that drive on the Cheetah Plains website. Andrew is a superb guide who played a major part in turning around our views about the reserve.

Elephant Plains had traversing rights over most of the north-west of the park and now we were in a reserve that could cover much of the north-east. This meant that we saw some of the same animals during our stay at both lodges because they could move freely between areas. The elephants that I mentioned in the Cheetah Plains blog were the same ones that had the tiny baby that I mentioned in my blog about Elephant Plains. Also, we met the Birmingham Coalition of male lions again during our stay there.

Elephants drink more than 250 litres of water a day

Elephants drink more than 250 litres of water a day

Cheetah Plains was where we first saw the eponymous cats, so the reserve lived up to its name. They spent a lot of time lying around on Cheetah Plains Pan, giving us the opportunity to observe them at our leisure.

On our first afternoon with Andrew we came across a female leopard walking through the bush. Andrew knew that she had a cub so he followed her in the hope that she would lead us to them. She took her time walking slowly, stopping occasionally to drink. Unfortunately we had to abandon our pursuit when we had to return to the lodge for dinner.

The female leopard pauses for a drink

As darkness falls the female leopard pauses for a drink

The quality of the meals at Cheetah Plains was outstanding, especially the dinners served around the fire, outside the main lodge building. The food was so good and plentiful that we didn’t feel deprived that they only served two meals a day, brunch and dinner, with a light snack before the afternoon game drive.

On our second morning, Andrew drove us to see the cheetahs again. We found them before the Sun rose and we were able to enjoy watching them as the first rays touched their fur, giving then a deep golden sheen.

Two males bathing in the golden light of dawn

Two male cheetahs bathing in the golden light of dawn

After leaving them we drove past a mob of dwarf mongooses and stopped to observe their antics around their den. This animal is very common in the reserve but they move very quickly and I hadn’t been able to take a decent photo of them. At this den they were very tolerant of our presence and I was able to take quite a few shots.

Dwarf mongooses at their den

Dwarf mongooses at their den

We were on our way to meet Tingana, a male leopard that was hiding under a bush, feasting on a warthog. He was very tolerant of the vehicle and allowed Andrew to manoeuvre into a position where we could get a clear view of him. Once his hunger had been sated, he moved into the open and gave us a good show as he groomed himself. When we returned to find him on our afternoon drive, he had only moved a few metres to the other side of a pool of water.

Tingana feasting on a warthog

Tingana feasting on a warthog

That afternoon gave us our last sighting of the Birminghams as a group, although their number was now down to four. They lay there doing not very much so we didn’t spend a lot of time with them. That night we went to sleep to the sound of their roars.

4 of the Birmingham Coalition resting

4 of the Birmingham Coalition resting

By the time morning came the Coalition had broken up and dispersed. We found one of them lying on a rock, warming himself in the early morning heat. Before the Sun rose too far, he started calling out to his relatives. The deep call of the cat reverberated through my body, adding to the wonderful experience of watching this majestic beast. When there was no reply, he got up and strolled off the rock and onto the surrounding grassland, allowing us to follow him for a while.

The lone Birmingham male calling out to the rest of the Coalition

The lone Birmingham male calling out to the rest of the Coalition

Earlier that morning, we had been driving, looking for wildlife, when Andrew drew our attention to the alarm calls of a troop of monkeys. We drove around trying to find the predator that had bothered them. After an unsuccessful search, I asked him to stop so that I could photograph some ground hornbills in a tree. Mrs Footprints, who wasn’t so easily distracted, kept scanning the area until she spotted a movement under a fallen tree trunk. I was a tiny leopard cub. As we drove up to its hiding place, it realised the mistake it had made in not staying where its mother had put it and scarpered back into the scrub. We drove around trying to see if we could find the den or the mother but we were unsuccessful. It had been a brief but rewarding encounter.

The leopard cub regretting having come out of hiding

The leopard cub regretting having come out of hiding

Our morning’s viewing finished with a small herd of elephants and a group of nyala. We had never come across this beautiful antelope before coming to Sabi Sands but it is plentiful in the reserve. Elephants and smaller game dominated our viewing on the afternoon game drive too, until we met the Nkuhuma pride and observed their kill, late that evening. You can read more about that encounter here.

Beautifully marked nyalas

Beautifully marked nyalas

The highlight of our final morning was an all too brief encounter with Shadow and her cubs. The leopard had been hiding her cubs in a drainpipe under one of the main roads since we had been at Elephant Plains. Unfortunately when Shadow wasn’t around the location was closed because vehicles often attract hyenas and nobody wanted to jeopardise her cubs. When she was around there were a lot of vehicles wanting to see her because the den was in an area with open access (see my first blog about Sabi which explains traversing rights and the number of vehicles permitted at a sighting).

We had been in the queue several times, only to be disappointed because Shadow left the den before our turn. On that final morning, Andrew heard that she was at the den and there weren’t any vehicles there. We rushed to the location. Unfortunately, just as we arrived Shadow decided to depart and so the location had to be closed again. I was able to grab a couple of photos of the cubs while Andrew radioed in the fact that the location was closed to other guides. Then we turned round and left them in peace.

One of Shadow's cubs calling for its mother

One of Shadow’s cubs calling for its mother

It was a fitting, if frustrating end, to our time at Sabi Sands. The reserve had lived up to its reputation of providing good, close encounters with leopards. It is definitely somewhere I want to return to again and again.