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Water, Zakouma’s secret
Chad, a country dominated by the Sahara and the Sahel, is a land of harsh climatic extremes. In Chad it is all about the water, either too much or too little.
Here in Zakouma National Park, just south of the Sahel, the contrast between the wet and dry seasons is so extreme, that when I compare pictures it is incredible to believe that it is the same park. When the rains start in May roads become impassable; and land, buildings and trees are submerged. Animals retreat outside the park, or to the more remote areas of higher ground. When the rains stop in October the waters recede rapidly, but remain in the main rivers and vast pans.
After the new year, as the heat builds, the park dries out until the black cotton soil cracks and burns to a crisp. Long elephant grass turns dry, brittle and golden. Ferocious bush fires sweep through park. Everything is parched and dry, and it is hot as hell!
Yet, according to those in the know, a safari in Chad is paradise
As a result, I am here on Safari in Chad at the end of April, just before the rains arrive. It is hellishly hot – 43 degrees in the shade. Every single creature waits for the relief that the rains will bring. I’m here to check out Zakouma National Park – a ‘new’ destination which is rumoured to be the next big thing on the safari circuit, and which serious wildlife lovers and conservationists are excitedly whispering about. If the reports are true I’m hoping to see:
- Huge pans teeming with thousands of waterbirds as far as the eye can see.
- Massive numbers of other birds, and raptors who keep watch from surrounding trees.
- Huge mega-herds of buffalo, and elephant gathering – dependant on regular spots for their water.
- A constant stream of antelope, gazelle and rare Kordofan giraffe making their way within a few metres of waiting predators.
- Vast colonies of carmine bee-eaters nesting in the sandy river banks.
- Crocodiles nesting in their hundreds beside the last few water courses.
I can tell you now – Zakouma met and exceeded expectations!
Here, where it’s all about the water, the few remaining water sources offer both life, or possibly, death…
Animals and birds form uneasy alliances in vast numbers around the pans and riverine pools. The old and the weak perish. Waiting predators pick them off, or they succumb to dehydration or starvation. Or, sometimes they simply lack the strength to escape the thick, black syrupy mud surrounding the few remaining pans. Lions lurk in the shadows of the trees and grasses surrounding the waterholes. Their prey needs to drink. So, they simply bide their time.
On one occasion we even see hyena and lion feeding off the same reeking carcass – the glut of prey is so great that their normal antipathy is set aside for now. Vultures & Maribou, Africa’s undertakers, wait patiently in the gnarled, leafless tree above – to take care of what is left.
Zakouma Safari Highlights
We wake early – 4.30. By 10 am the heat will be in the 40’s, and remain that way all day. We eat a quick breakfast and are on the road by 5.30 – to visit one of Zakouma’s famous pans or to search for the big herd of elephant along the Salamat River. (At this time of year very few animals stay in the areas far from water). We often need to cover a lot of ground to reach one of the more distant pans, so returning for breakfast isn’t practical here.
Gorgeous, golden lions everywhere
The lions are relaxed and not fazed by the rattle of the land cruisers. One pride has 5 cubs – muddy and grubby after their ‘bathing’ session in the pan. Mum is hot and too boring for them! They want to play with Dad instead. We watch as they try to jump on his back, but he roars and snarls a warning at them – huge pointed teeth bared. He’s way too hot to play!
The lions in the north of the park are used to the vehicles. They are all fit and lean, in peak fitness, their fur smooth and sleek – the deep yellow colour of tumeric. We quickly realise that this is true of all the animals in Zakouma – smooth, glossy coats – not at all shaggy like their cousins in other cooler parts of Africa.
We see rare sub species
Lelwel’s hartebeest are everywhere, a uniform gentle cream colour, as are the elegant and poised Kordofon Giraffe, with their rich chestnut coloured markings. At one pan we count perhaps 40 or 50 in the same group. There are also spicy-coloured red and black Tiang (Topi), red-fronted gazelle, oribi, kob and reedbuck in vast numbers. Graceful roan antelope congregate in groups in the shade during the heat of the day. Like the lions, most of the animals are sleek and fit looking due to the grazing around the pans. Many are slightly different sub species or species which is exciting.
The birds here are just astounding in their numbers
We chat to the members of the crane society who are here to do a count, and they tell us that they have counted 14,000 northern crowned cranes inside the park alone – the largest single gathering on the planet. And there are just as many spurwing geese along with numerous storks, heron, egrets, bee-eaters, weavers, ostrich and raptors. Not expert birders ourselves, we fail to do the park justice. It has a list approaching 400 species! April is the season of the splendid northern carmine bee eaters, with huge colonies in the sandbanks along the Salamat River. I try all week to get some good shots of them. Those wanting winter migrants would do better to visit earlier in the season.
We watch life and death play out at the pans
A safari in Chad is not about racing around looking for wildlife. Everything condenses around the few remaining, precious water sources. So we generally choose to sit at a pan morning and afternoon. The pans are always surrounded by animals and full of water birds. At our initial arrival the birds panic and take to the sky, cranes honking “Hwaaa, Hwaa, Hwaa, Hwaaaaaaa…..”. Their harsh warning cries will forever remind me of Zakouma!
Then, as we watch quietly, the birds slowly return. First the heron, then the queleas – wheeling and murmuring in their thousands before landing in trees or on the thick sticky mud. Suddenly, every so often, black kites swoop down like kamikaze fighter pilots – picking them off one by one. Finally, the cranes return, like long legged nervy ballerinas, wading delicately into their original places in the middle of the pan.
Huge troops of baboons play and watch over the pans too. Clever creatures! Here they have learned how to hunt the ubiquitous spurwing, and there are often scraps over an unfortunate goose carcass.
Long chains of antelope and gazelle make their way down to drink, warily passing predators in the shade of the surrounding trees – the latter too hot to move.
At sundown, we watch as the birds retreat in their thousands to the treetops to roost. Lion come down to drink, while keeping a golden eye out for a weak or careless prey which might wander too close. For their part, the prey eye the lions warily, keeping their distance – yet too dependant on the precious water to be able to stay too far away.
And at the Rivers
Sometimes we follow the Salamat River in search of the mega herd of elephant who frequent the forest along its banks. Here, hundreds of crocodiles sun themselves along the sandy banks, slipping smoothly into the green, grey waters if we get too close. Our guides assure us they are ‘pescetarian’ only here. A fact that is confirmed during our riverside picnic, where the midday silence is occasionally punctuated by a loud ‘snap’ as the crocs feast on the concentrated numbers of fish in the remaining pools.
Thousands of fabulously coloured northern carmine bee eaters flit in and out of their nests in the golden sandbanks. The crocodiles also nest here in larger openings and we see a pair of Egyptian plovers refreshing themselves along the shoreline.
The mega herd of elephant and their young hide and eat in the surrounding forest, only risking the trip into the open in order to drink, bathe and play before quickly retreating back to the safety of the trees.
Large family gatherings of rare Kordofan giraffe bend in ungainly fashion in order to drink, watching us warily as they do so, and the park’s mega herds of russet and black buffalo come down fast in order to drink and retreat back towards safety.
Night time Creatures
Night drives in Chad are especially rewarding for nocturnal species, which hide away during heat of the day. On the way back to camp, we spot civet, serval, jackal, mongoose, genet, fox, pangolin. There are of course leopard, but very shy here and not often seen.
In the lodge itself we are visited by waterbuck, elephant, Cameroon bushbuck, duiker, baboon, monkey and a huge variety of birdlife. The remaining pools in the river means a steady stream of animals. One afternoon a small herd of elephant wander past the bar area, and one night in particular we are kept awake but a pride of lion who decided to hunt buffalo between the chalets at 4am – just metres away!
Wet Season Begins
I started this blog by saying that it it was all about the water – too much or too little. Right now there is too little. However, as the end of April approaches, the heat becomes more and more intense. All of us, animal and human, wait expectantly for the precious rains. Water is in now in very short supply, grasslands have burned, nothing dares to stray too far from the pools. It’s very hard to believe things are about to change, but it will.
In fact, the day before we leave, large storm clouds build all morning until, finally, there is lightening and a little rain – not much, but the drops feel wonderful on our skin. It’s enough to cool things down, and the forest smells wonderfully fresh and sweet. All the creatures seem to know that the great drought is about to break. Soon they will disperse throughout the park and outside in search of grazing and food, along with much of the camp staff and the nomadic people who live along the park boundaries.
Back at camp, I look at pictures of the park – green and largely submerged. It is hard to believe that the power of the rain is so great, that in just a few weeks this parched, withered landscape will be transformed into a lush green oasis of swamps and waterways.
It’s all About the Water!
This is definitely one of the finest safari experiences I have ever had from every perspective – wildlife, bird life, predators, elephants, rare species & sub species, and sheer depth of the wildlife at pans and rivers. However, what I will never forget is that while in Chad I am constantly reminded of the need for water. Something I often take for granted at home. Here, in the intense heat we all need to drink constantly, animals, birds and humans. The wildlife and the Chadian people all have to follow the seasonal ebb and flow of the precious waters of life – by either escaping to higher ground as it floods the landscape, or fighting over the right to drink at the few remaining precious pools.
Here, more than perhaps anywhere else I have been, the contrast between wet and dry is so extreme that it is most definitely all about the water!
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