By Errol Pietersen
Getting to Banhine is not easy, but it is exhilarating, no matter which route you take. Once you have turned off the Chokwe – Chiqualaquala road one winds through various landscapes on bush tracks never knowing what is around the corner, but always expectant of what you may see and experience.
Past lonely mashambas where women work in the fields or rest in the shade of the trees, through small villages with their simple schools and meeting places under the spreading boughs of a mkuhlu or false mopane where the seats are nothing more than a number of planks nailed to posts in the ground arranged in a semi-circle and an ever present flag pole.
Past majestic giant baobabs with their gnarled arms reaching for the sky and through closed canopy mopane woodland, just to come out the other side to be confronted with a wide wetland with its associated pans and accompanying fever trees. This is the wonder of the Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area - the area east of the Limpopo and south of the Save River in Mozambique. In some places one goes through miles and miles of open savannah, tall grasslands with a scattering of large marula trees.On the termite mounds dotted all over the terrain one has clumps of mopane, false mopane and nyala berry trees. One’s eyes naturally search for the herds of zebra, wildebeest, waterbuck, tsessebe and eland that once roamed these plains, but alas they are no longer there, but the habitats remain intact and just waiting to support the wildlife they once did. Banhine National Park itself reflects all these habitats and more, an intricate system of wetlands, grasslands, mopane forest and sandveld woodland.
In the south and west there are scattered Lebombo ironwood (cimbire) forests just to add to the mosaic and species diversity. There are many secrets locked up in the magic of Banhine, variations in species, some possibly new species, and extensions in distribution. Everyday holds the possibility of finding something new, a possibility that forces one not to accept the face value of anything, but to check and study deeper.This is an arid, low-lying area and summers are hot and oppressive and only the breeze brings relief from the heat at night. The area is currently undergoing an extensive drought; the pans are mostly dry and the sparse veld burnt by the sun.
The storm clouds build up in the east and north and one watches the development of massive cumulus clouds in the north and east and many an evening I sit with a mug of coffee and watch the lightning light up the clouds in a dazzling display of power and majesty, just to dissipate and disappear into nothing. On the odd occasion a storm sweeps over the area bearing with it the sweet smell of rain falling on a dry and thirsty land, one often smells the rain long before it arrives and on most occasions the smell is all one gets.The rain cools the air down assisted by the accompanying breeze and this normally bodes a good night’s sleep just to be awakened before dawn by the joyous chorus of birds as they welcome the previous night’s rain and before the ever-present heat taps all the energy out of them. Banhine has a fantastic array of birds, even in its dry state without the contribution of the many water birds and waders.
The reserve list currently stands at 216 with a good representation from the raptors with species such as rednecked falcon, peregrine falcon, African marsh harrier and pallid harrier being recorded with numerous sightings. Other interesting birds of note are yellow wagtail, mashona hyliota, and redwinged pratincoles. On one overcast Sunday morning I recorded over 50 species in an area of less then a hectare. There have been massive eruptions of what seem to be midges and large bird parties are attracted to these eruptions. The eruptions also seem to be largely associated with false mopane and panga panga trees. There were myriads of birds around me and there was the constant whirring of wings and a constant chattering of calls.
I hardly moved at all, but stood still in a bush-clump and observed all that came past. I saw large numbers of black cuckoo shrikes, but only the females, I did not record a single male, puff backed shrikes, bru bru’s, black flycatchers, drongos, yellow breasted eremomelas and batises were plentiful and there was a pair of mashona hyliotas that I observed a number of times.
A truly amazing experience and one that I will never forget. There has also been an eruption of locusts on the grasslands in the east which attracted a good many raptors as well as kori bustards, a species that has previously not been recorded from the area.Strangely swallows and swifts have been absent and the only species present have been barn swallows (Eurasian swallows) that use the wetland as well as the grassland as a major foraging ground and they also seem to use the wetland as a migratory route as they were seen flying eastwards along the wetland in great numbers towards the end of April.
Banhine is truly a paradise and all that is missing is the restoration of the mammalian diversity to restore this diverse park to the jewel it once was.