The sun setting on our first night in camp
The call comes through the trees as our feet trample down the scratchy grass. Every now and again one of the hunters or trackers echoes with their own bird-like sound. Our friend is the honeyguide, a small bird native to sub-Saharan Africa. Unlike the brilliantly coloured birds we’d come across already—brightly decked out in iridescent blues and purples—the honeyguide is nothing much to look at, but they have a special relationship with humans in the bush.
This would become our first, and a quite unsuccessful, honey finding mission.
We weren’t looking for honey. We were searching for a Cape buffalo that had been shot the night before and left hidden under leaves and branches till it could be skinned, dressed, and butchered in the morning.
As we got closer something wasn’t right. We were ushered back as some of the men went to investigate. The buffalo was there, but there was a gaping hole where half of the buffalo’s backside should have been. Overnight a leopard had fed on the buffalo, followed by some hyenas. Thankfully none had stuck around until morning.
Soon after we arrived people from the surrounding villages started appearing through the trees. We’d passed some on our way and let them know the location of the buffalo; the word was spread around. The women all brought with them large plastic buckets to carry the meat home that doubled as seats as they waited. We perched on rocks or clear patches of dirt. There was an obvious air of disappointment.
A small herd of impala behind the trees.
Hunting is big business in Zimbabwe; thankfully the system also benefits the people living within the hunting concessions. Money from trophies is filtered back to the locals and the majority of meat eaten in the villages comes from these hunted animals. The late night leopard visit meant there was less meat to go around, and what was left was in a less than perfect condition.
We watched and waited. In the background we could still hear the calling of the honey guide.
One of the hunters turned to us, “Did you want to find some honey?”
Honeyguides feed off beehives—eating bee eggs, larvae and pupae, and even the beeswax. For as far back as we know they have guided humans to honey through their call. Tradition says that if a honeyguide leads you to honey you must make sure to leave behind honeycomb for them to feed; otherwise next time you’ll be led to a snake or another dangerous animal.
We continued to trample through the vegetation, following the calls until the chattering stopped. Instead of leading us to honey the trail had gone cold. We came back empty handed to watch as the rest of the buffalo meat was pilled into the buckets and carried back through the bush.
The view of Lake Kariba and one of the elephants we encountered.
I couldn’t stop thinking about our unsuccessful honey hunt. It turns out it was unusual for the honeyguide to lead us to nothing and I was itching to try again. Ian, the camp manager, told us he knew where another hive was and we proposed to set out on another day.
We climbed into the truck, leaving Sibilo (Ian’s much loved dog) behind. Curious dogs and a hive full of bees don’t make a great combination. Everything takes longer when you’re driving through the bush. Even when we weren’t avoiding thorn trees and ducking from rogue branches on the back of the truck, we encountered potholes and rocky dips that make short distances seem far.
The hive was hidden among the roots of the tree. Unlike the Mopani trees that dot most of the landscape around Matusadona, our honey tree was tall with winding roots; it reminded me of the kind you find devouring temple ruins in Cambodia.
Ian, Elijah and Freddie took turns hacking at the base of the tree to expose the hive. They’d lit a small fire on one of the rocks, and would rotate smoking logs from the fire to the hive to calm the bees. Thankfully we weren’t in the heat of the sun, but you could tell it was still hard work. Eventually the hive was in reach, and one by one they started to pull out sheets of honeycomb.
Ian lighting the fire.
Hacking away at the tree.
Elijah smoking the bees.
Our honeycomb bounty.
Most of the honeycomb was packed into a small esky, but Ian took one sheet and broke it into small pieces for us each to try. It looked fairly dry, but even the slightest bit of pressure and the honey began to ooze out. I immediately popped some in my mouth. The sweet and sticky honey was smokey from the fire used to settle the bees. We’d been completely useless when it came to procuring the honey, but I’ll admit I still had that sweet feeling of success.
Ian’s biltong drying outside the kitchen.
Ian cooked us a celebratory braii to celebrate our last night in camp. We didn’t have any honey, but we snacked on Ian’s buffalo biltong (it’s a bit like jerkey) and some boiled and salted roots we’d dug up earlier that day (they tasted a lot like potato).
Freshly dug native roots.
Freshly cooked native roots
It was a strange experience spending 7-days at the hunting camp. I’ve grown up in a family that hunts—but always for meat. Trophy hunting is a completely different world and I’m still not sure it’s one that I completely understand. Spending time in the bush makes it clear that there are a lot of complex issues surrounding not just the ethics of hunting, but also the politics of this whole region. We got to see some of the ways that humans interact with the land and with the wildlife; what some see as destructive others see as a positive force. As clichéd as it sounds, the hunters and the trackers have a greater level of respect and understanding of the land than many people could hope to ever achieve.
Zimbabwe is a beautiful country and unexpected in so many different ways. Many things about our trip were complicated and conflicting, but it was nothing short of unforgettable.
Sibilo our African hunting dog.