One of our guides, Hugo, was recently afforded the opportunity to join the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DPNW) and Conservation Lower Zambezi (CLZ) anti-poaching team on an excursion to train their latest recruits, two anti-poaching dogs. CLZ is instrumental in the conservation efforts that take place in the region and greatly supports Zambia’s local wildlife authority – DPNW. Being the neighbor of our Lower Zambezi camps, we have a close relationship with the organization and have had the chance to get to know their K9 trainer, Michael Hensman, from Invictus K9.
Hugo fondly recounts his two-day experience with Michael and the team. He gives us a taste of the effort that goes into ensuring the dogs are effectively trained, as well as a sneak peek into areas in the Lower Zambezi region that have been touched by only a few; a fully wild and thriving environment. This was a chance to reconnect with nature – Hugo’s time to touch the earth. We take inspiration from him to do the same in our own lives…read on for Hugo’s Story.
When Michael gave me a call inviting me on an excursion to train their new detection and tracking dogs – I was excited and up for the challenge. The purpose of the trip was to get the dogs accustomed to their working environment and build their fitness and endurance along the way. The mountain we were set to climb is called Chirapila; direct translation – Never Again. Naturally, I was excited to see what all the fuss was about. I had my bags packed and ready to meet the team the following morning.
In the 30-minute drive to the trailhead, Michael, the three dog handlers and I sat in a semi-state of sleep, thinking in unison of the tough climb ahead. The beginning of the trail was guarded by a majestic baobab; the last we would see from now until the peak. Backpacks strapped on, I felt relieved that mine was lighter than the others. Still, the extra 20kgs on my back would make this climb a memorable one.
We were off, and I quickly came to realise we were on a very old, and very active, elephant path, used to reach feeding grounds deep in the mountain. My caution immediately tripled. For the first half an hour, the sun was shy – so we used our ears more than our eyes. The air was cool and the dogs were excited from the flurry and motion of our start. We continued to climb.
The soil changed rapidly underfoot – from super compact clay at the start to sand, brittle slate, granite boulders and pure white quartz as we carried on up. The change in geology provided us with a spot to take a break; we found a small spring where the dogs could drink and rest. The dogs’ excitement had faded into a labouring effort, but they were not yet ready to give up the lead. On the path next to the spring, we spotted a weathered note on a very old wild teak, it read Tula Enye – “it’s only up from here”. With that, we repacked our bags and carried on up – full of hope that we would reach the peak in the next hour.
My stride shortened as the gradient changed and just as I was ready to stop for another break, we heard voices up ahead. This could only mean we were nearing “Cheetah Base” – our destination. A rush of excitement coursed through us, carrying us to the top.
The sweeping view unveiled before us. We could see the whole valley floor – from beyond the Jeki Plains in the East, to Chiawa Village in the West. South of us was Mana Pools in Zimbabwe with the mighty Zambezi separating us, but North – North was unknown. What we were seeing was the vast expanse of the Lower Zambezi National Park. More than two thirds of this National Park is unexplored mountainous area – with no direct access for vehicles whatsoever. I feel privileged to have been atop this spectacular valley witnessing something from a point that few visitors had come across before.
Cheetah Base, the DPNW/CLZ Observation Point (OP), consists of four men that play a key role in wildlife protection from their vantage point. Those men and one Wildlife Police Officer (WPO) were nearing the end of their 2-week shift atop this magnificent valley. We greeted them as we dropped our heavy carriage to the ground. Setting up camp consisted of laying my blanket at the base of a tree as I did not bring a tent, a tactical decision to spare me a tougher climb.
After a packed lunch and a few minutes of rest, a new debate started to unfold. We had hardly recovered, but we needed water. The question up for debate, who was going to fetch it? If we all wanted a warm meal tonight we would need to fetch water for camp, and get it done before dark.
We were back on the elephant trail – with 25L empty plastic containers – in search of water. With a heavy sun on our backs we made our way down the mountain, the continuous and still well-leaved trees thankfully covered our way as we walked through the quiet forest. Judging by the ease of our descent, I already knew the way up would be payback, we were heading down fast…
After 3 km, we noticed more animal tracks, with the elephant tracks getting fresher and more frequent, signaling water was close. The steep stony path led us to where water was flowing in-between the cracks of stones and seeping into the rocks. This continuous water flow was so clean and pure – better than anything you could get from a commercial supply!
Our containers were quickly filled and we plunged into the pools, the cold water engulfed us after an exhausting day. Soon we were heading back up the way we came, with the water in tow, trudging step by step to the top. On arrival, our ‘dip’ was long forgotten as we were as sweaty as we had been after the morning climb. The water was worth it.
The sunset that day was truly rewarding. Michael and I, with one of the new dogs in training, Amor, made our way to the stony outcrop that overlooked the valley. We watched as the sun dropped behind the mountains.
That night, I sunk into sleep. The first few hours were fantastic, but around 3 AM, the wind picked up and cold 30km/h winds continued to blow. Although I was snug, my lack of tent was going to test my endurance. I tucked myself in and hung in there until 5:30 AM, where I got up and grabbed my camera, climbed to the peak, and waited for the sun to rise.
By now we were already headed down the mountain to the site of a 3-year-old elephant carcass. Instead, we arrived to find the site full of healthy bamboo groves. Michael and I decided to investigate to see if we could find the carcass before letting the dogs enter this elephant feeding area. After a long and intense search in the thick and scratchy bamboo – the only thing we had discovered was what bamboo trichomes could do to your skin. There was no sign of the elephant carcass. We fell back to rethink the training exercise and started a simulation for the dogs instead. Michael planted ammunition in different spots for them to try sniff out. I took to laying some training tracks for the dogs to follow on the way back to camp; the dogs are young but learn quickly.
The afternoon involved lunch, rest and an opportunity for me to spot the birds living around this new habitat. I was thrilled to have spotted a pair of Verreaux’s eagle hunt and, without a beat of the wings, use the air currents of the cliffs to fly. A shy Augur buzzard from the cliffs of the mountain also appeared in my view – but mammals were rare. Back at the spring I had seen many animal tracks and from the path up, I was able to tell that there were some civets, Spotted hyena, sable and klipspringer coming to drink at the spring when the elephants were not around.
The sunset was quiet and humbling that evening on the rock face overlooking the valley – and the night was pleasant. The stars were out and looked after my sleep through to the early morning. The dogs and handlers rested easy, their day had been a demanding one.
Even a good night’s sleep wasn’t going to infringe on old habits; we left the peak before sunrise. The WPO and team, who we had joined up on the mountain, were excited to get home. Their two-week shift was over. They use the mountain top to scan the valley floor and listen for any gun shots in the area in an effort to scout out any poaching activity. They were also providing security for the radio hardware atop the mountain, which provides communications to the Valley.
Descending in the dark was not easy. We were definitely lighter after consuming our food and water supplies, but the rolling stones and leaf beds sliding under our feet as we stepped were very tricky to handle. Especially with a torch in one hand and a walking stick in the other. The WPO and team, on the other hand, were going down the same path with no light and nothing but weathered gumboots for shoes. Even with training, this is something I would never have been able to do. You could only hear their steps out in front of us – faster than anyone else. Nothing quite like rushing home after two weeks in the wild.
Greeted by our majestic baobab at the bottom of the track, we relaxed and waited for the vehicles to arrive. The sun had just come up and the light gave way to a sighting of a beautiful mixed flock of Paradise Whydahs flying above with their last season breeding companions.
After a good training session, the dogs were excited to get home. After my two days, so was I. It was such a satisfying and truly eye-opening experience to see just how much effort it takes to get something as simple as water to carry on security and anti-poaching duties. I was left with good memories and sights of new birds, new trees and different animal tracks.
I’m proud and happy that I finally got to climb the mountain people call “Never Again” – in my eyes, it should be known as “Why not again”.
Born and raised in Mauritius, Hugo’s African adventure began with a 2-year wildlife conservation course in South Africa. He initially joined the Time + Tide team as an assistant construction site manager at Time + Tide Miavana, in its final stages of development. Thereafter, he was tasked with the position of site manager in Liuwa Plain National Park where Time + Tide King Lewanika was to be built. After completion, Hugo joined the Time + Tide Chongwe team to assist with maintenance work in the months of the rainy season. The following year his interest shifted back to the African continent and its wildlife, specifically. Ever since, Hugo has been part of the guiding team in dry seasons and remains responsible for the maintenance of Time + Tide Chongwe during the damaging thunderstorms of the rainy season.
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