By Sarah Todd
Several friends have related the story about Gonarezhou’s elephant herds converging on Bhenji Weir every year on the night of the September full moon. Every single person says it is a unique, fantastic occurrence, so last year a group of us headed to Zimbabwe’s second largest national park to experience it for ourselves. The September 2016 full moon was also a lunar eclipse, and I wondered if this would add mysticism to the legend of Bhenji Weir…
A drive to Gonarezhou from Harare will take up to six hours, so we decided to spend three full days in Zimbabwe’s second largest national park. My brother and his family are enthusiastic campers. Me? Not so much. In fact, I have not camped in forty years, but because I know my brother and sister in law are organized I figured it was time to try out my camping legs.
After an uneventful drive to Chiredzi, we refueled our vehicles at Croco Motors garage and drove to the Chipinda Pools entrance. The officer on duty was friendly and helpful, and after confirming our booking, she directed us to Chipinda Pools. Overlooking the water pan of the same name, this is the only National Parks site in Gonarezhou offering tented accommodation. All four units are in excellent condition, with comfortable beds made up with freshly laundered linen and soft towels folded neatly at the foot of our beds. The campsite is a little further from the tents and features six excellent rondavels sharing decent communal ablutions.
Solar geysers supply hot water and we had lights for the duration of our stay. The gas freezers kept our drinks and food cool. We sat on our verandahs in the evening, watching two resident hippo pods grunting in the water and grazing on the banks as several elephants wandered down to the pools. The birdlife is excellent, and my brother used the Sasol bird app on his phone to entice a lone white-faced owl into the trees. His distinctive bubbling “hoot” as he searched for the “invader” – I’m told owls are very territorial – lasted long into the night.
The following morning a photographer arrived, and informed us we were wasting our time going to Bhenji – he had spent the previous night there and seen just fifty elephants. Concerned because we’d booked two nights there, we went to the National Parks’ office and managed to change the second night to a campsite at Chilojo Cliffs.
Gonarezhou’s roads are not for the faint of heart; a four-wheel drive vehicle is the only way to travel in the Park. While I didn’t enjoy driving over a large rock and damaging the spoiler and running board on my vehicle I did enjoy driving through the various causeways and the sand of the massive, dry Runde River.
We arrived at Bhenji Weir mid-afternoon, greeted by the sight of a lone elephant bull exiting the rather green water. Unfortunately, a fire had destroyed the top level of one of the two viewing/camping platforms, and it was the one overlooking the weir offering the best view. A group of four Harare friends arrived after us and selected this platform as their observation post. We chose the platform overlooking the trails leading to the water, and set up camp. Our seven mattresses fitted easily on the top deck, and we used the lower deck as a seating/bar area. A lone “long drop” toilet overlooking the plains gives users the illusion of sitting on a throne!
Late afternoon two friends from Triangle town arrived to spend the night with us, assuring us we would see plenty of elephants. Shortly after a magnificent African sunset the moon rose, darkening to a dark orange globe over several hours as the partial lunar eclipse took effect. A few small herds of elephants arrived, following the precise paths leading to the water. The eclipse had dimmed the moonlight, so we turned on our powerful spotlight. The elephants immediately stopped walking, forming a protective circle around their babies – Gonarezhou’s elephants are wary and can be aggressive, thanks to hundreds of years of poaching and hunting. Mortified, we turned off the spotlight, and the herd continued towards the water. We did not use the spotlight again.
Four hours later, we had seen less than a hundred elephants. Was the Bhenji Weir legend nothing more than a fairytale? Some of us – myself included – were disheartened and decided to go to bed. My Triangle friends and a Harare couple stayed downstairs. By 11 pm the eclipse had passed, so visibility was vastly improved.
At midnight, our Harare friends woke us with great excitement: “You’re going to want to see this!” We sat up and peered over the balcony into the moonlit plain below the platform.
The legend had become reality. There were at least five separate herds of elephants patiently waiting their turn at Bhenji Weir. More were walking down the trails towards them, their distinctive shapes clearly defined by the full moon. Fully-grown elephants, teenagers and babies… all fulfilling a timeless annual ritual. The water splashing in the weir as other herds drank, washed and played in the cool green liquid told us the occupants of the other platform had a prime seat at this unique show.
As one herd exited the weir, another moved in, calmly, patiently and with great dignity. Some walked back along the same paths while others used a path up the incline between the two viewing platforms. They footsteps were silent, the only sounds betraying them from their huge bodies brushing against branches and twigs and the occasional “whoosh” of air from their trunks.
More herds arrived throughout the night. I recall some rumbles from the elephants bathing in the weir. Those of us witnessing the spectacle felt the full power of nature, and each of us felt honoured and privileged to have been present that night.
I took no photographs. The platform was too far from the weir and the footpaths for a decent photograph, and I did not want to use the spotlight. There was no need; the images of that night at Bhenji Weir will be with me for the rest of my life.
By sunrise, the last elephants were walking back into the bush, following the paths that were barely disturbed from the night’s heavy traffic. Those staying at the other platform came over to tell us they had stopped counting at midnight, just short of four hundred elephants. We estimated over five hundred elephants had visited Bhenji Weir that night.
Humbled by what we had witnessed, we packed up camp and moved on to Chilojo Cliffs.