The trip became more and more an adventure as we headed west and up to the high plateau on which the main part of the part was situated. We saw a few waterbuck and impala but very little else. The vegetation changed from thick bush or mopane woodland to the miombo type, Julbernardia and Brachestygia trees, and the occasional open grassland slightly reminiscent of the great savannahs of East Africa, except these often closed up before they extended very far.
The excitement in me rose when I recognised a road junction that had been the furthest we had travelled in to the park when we surveyed from the north in 1993. I was back in familiar ground and we drove north past the raised peat bog and through the little vleis near the campground. Once at the entrance we introduced ourselves to the senior camp guard and I was offered the services of John. While Edmore and Second were hardly 20 years old, and slightly built men who stooped and cowered when out and about, John was much more solidly built. He was probably under 40, but had the air of maturity and certainty that gave him great authority. He was very quiet and deliberate in his movements, but you thought that was the guy you really wanted with you when confronted by lions or elephants (or poachers) and he had to use the rifle he slung over his back. As I got to know John over the next few days, a very dry sense of humour emerged, and I know he enjoyed learning about our work, as much as we enjoyed learning his bushcraft.
Another man who could pack in forty seconds, we were on our way fairly quickly and drove back to the hot springs. Because of the time we were able to do some more surveying in that area, but we saved the most for the next day.
The next day in Chizarira was yet another adventure. We drove back towards the salt springs but instead of recrossing the river, I wanted to explore the plain to the south east. On the satellite image it was a huge area of white, denoting bare ground, like many areas in the cultivated ground from where the vegetation had been stripped. As we drove through some scrubby mopane trees Joe stopped the vehicle. Ahead was a lone bull elephant, ripping a tree apart. We watched it for some moments before it got suspicious of our actions, and like all good elephants, merged into the forest in three steps. We edged on, aware we were not alone in this part of the forest, but the land eventually cleared and we saw a wide plain rising gently to the east away from the river. Before tackling the plain itself, I decided to look at a hillock to the south west and we rose up into an area of very short mopane bushes, no more than three feet from the ground. On close inspection, we realised that not only had the elephants been at them, but there were signs of cutting and burning. John was wary that it was probably poachers in the park, but conceded that this area of the park, so far from the main gates, was very difficult to guard. We took our survey and dropped back to the plain.
The plain puzzled me. Although there were some areas of grassland around this was by far the largest. So I decided that we would take a transect and reach the track which marked the boundary between the park and Chirisa Safari Area about five miles south east of us. At first it was easy going, the open grassland covering a hard baked white soil was easy to drive on, but then dachrostachys bushes started to appear, and we had to skirt around a few patches. My transect was no longer straight.
At one place we surveyed as usual; I took the topography in while Joe got some soil samples and Bob wandered around looking at the trees. John got interested in some footprints on a path to the north east and when I was finished I joined him. Five sets of large prints and many sets of smaller prints were heading off into the bushes away from us. From the freshness of the prints, John deduced that a series of female lions were leading some cubs along and had passed this point not more than an hour before. We were a little more guarded at the next three transect points not to lose sight of each other, and I kept close to John’s gun.
I was getting disturbed that the vegetation continued to thicken as we went east. The satellite image showed that there were some patches which were thicker than others and I had tried to choose a spit of grassland that extended further into the bush than the others, but the dachrostachys had given way to scrubby mopane, with tangled knobbled roots, ripe for bursting Land Rover tyres. It was during this time that I persuaded Bob that a GPS is the perfect tool in these surroundings.