- A single calf is born to a female usually the end of Summer, although this can occur all year round
- Hippo calves are born under water in the shallows of the dams or water bodies that their mothers occupy
- A newborn calf weighs about 50kg and within a few minutes after birth, they are able to go into deep water
- Calves, like adults, cannot float, but can stay submerged underwater for up to two to three minutes, whereas adults will submerge themselves for close to six minutes
- A mom and her calf will stay away from the main group following the birth, to allow for the critical imprinting period for the calf, which is usually the first 10-14 days
- Female hippo are mature enough to give birth at four years, birthing at two-year intervals, where males only mature at 7 years
- Calves will suckle underwater, remaining underwater for short periods of about 30 seconds
- Calves will graze a little from one month, and more actively by five months, weaning completely at eight months
- Hippos are select grazers and will feed nocturnally up to 1km from water, eating up to 40kg in a night
- The noise that hippos make for territorial and courtship purposes is known as wheeze-honking
- Personal observations by the author on Welgevonden Game Reserve and other Reserves in Southern Africa
- Mammals of the Southern African Sub Region, J.D Skinner & R.H.N. Smithers, Second Edition, University of Pretoria: Mammal Research Institute, Pretoria, 1990
- Smithers Mammals of Southern Africa: A Field Guide, R.H.N Smithers, Third Edition, Southern Book Publishers, Johannesburg, 1996
- The Best of African Folklore, P. Savory, Struik Timmins Publishers, Cape Town, 1991
- Beat about the Bush – Mammals, Trevor Carnaby, First Edition, Jacana, Johannesburg, 2007
- Words and photographs: Neil Davison
- Personal observations by the author on Welgevonden Game Reserve
- All the colourful guests who have passed through our doors
In Conversation With Test Malunga
This walking stick is a piece of art that can be found at Makweti, and it has an incredible story behind it. It is beautifully crafted and is representative of the Nyami Nyami, who is the Tonga tribe river god that inhabits the Zambezi valley.
The walking stick resembles a snake at the top because the Tonga tribe’s god (the ancestral spirit) exists in form of a snake or a serpent-like creature living in Kariba Dam. The snake is so big that nobody can guess its size, and it is believed that when the Nyami Nyami swims past, the water turns red.
The gorge where Kariba dam wall was built was called Kariwa, which means “a trap”. It was so named due to several fisherman who went close to the location and were sucked into a whirl pool, never to be seen again. When the English arrived, they mispronounced the name as Kariba, which is how it is known worldwide today. The district is known today as Nyami Nyami district. The then chief Musampakaruma is the only person who believed that he once saw their river god.
There is a man and a woman depicted on the walking stick, both of whom represent the prayers that were said by man and woman, whenever there was a drought. They would ask the river god for rain by brewing opaque beer that would be left to ferment for seven days before consumption. They would then spend the whole night playing drums and singing. During this ceremony, the clouds would gather and it would start to rain as a response from the river god.
The arrival of the Europeans caused a lot of disruption in the area when they built the dam wall. It is believed that this construction separated the male and female, with the male getting trapped on the upper course and the female on the lower side. Kariba residents experience tremors occasionally, which is believed to be the male angrily pushing against the dam wall in the hopes of reaching his wife trapped on the other side.
In February 1950 after the construction had started, the river god got angry and a cyclone from the Indian Ocean swept the valley, which had never happened before. Subsequently, there were three more disastrous events, where they found dead animals hanging in the trees, and homes flooded and washed away. The dam wall foundations were washed away several times as well.
The ball trapped inside the cavity on the walking stick explains the cultural preservation and protection by the Tonga people. Sadly, the missionaries worked so hard to erode this culture and belief system, that the stories are not known to the new, younger generations.
Storytelling is such an important part of cultural longevity, which is why we are so honoured to keep this artwork and be able to tell the story behind it.
Words: Test Malunga, former Head Guide, Manager and great friend of Makweti.
Hippopotamus Hippopotamus amphibius
It’s early winter in 2018 and Rhino Dam is a hive of activity. The last week of April saw the arrival of four adult hippos to the dam, having moved from Kromellenboog Dam far in the north of the reserve near Nyala plains. This group of hippo had often made the trek between these water bodies in the past, but something seemed different this time. The reserve had poor Summer rains at the beginning of the 2018 season, and although the rain improved in Autumn, this was too late for any substantial grass growth for grazers in parts of the reserve. We suspected the hippo had made the move to greener pastures because Kromellenboog Dam’s level was lower than usual.
Shortly after their arrival, two of the adults from the group left and made the journey back to Kromellenboog Dam. This is no mean feat as the distance covered in the night is close to 20km, as the crow flies. They left behind two adult hippo at Rhino Dam, which we suspected was a cow and a young adult bull. It was the last week of May 2018 and the mystery unfolded by way of a newborn hippo calf. This little hippo, whom we assumed is a male, kept us delighted as we watched him grow up to be a healthy one-year-old earlier this Winter.
When he was about three months old, the second adult hippo we assumed to be a bull, left Rhino Dam, and the mother and her calf were left to fend for themselves, enjoying the space and peace the dam and surrounds offer. With plenty of good grazing in the area, the mother and son were content to remain at Rhino Dam.
It’s April 2019, and once again as Autumn begins, the three adult hippo from Kromellenboog Dam have made the 20km journey back to Rhino Dam, some 10 minutes from Makweti Safari Lodge. They have re-settled with the cow and her nearly one-year-old calf, and are enjoying the relatively good grazing in Fig Tree Plains and surrounding areas, following the good early Summer rains. What seems now to be a routine annual migration to this area, has once again turned into a birthing spectacle. It’s the 14th April 2019 and our hippo community in the northern part of the reserve welcomes a newborn calf.
It has been exciting to watch this little hippo discover the new world. We assume she is a female, although it’s difficult to tell at such a young age. She is often seen out in the mid-morning sun, with her mom, stretching her legs and exploring the dam surrounds with her one-year-old playmate.
Interesting Hippo Facts
Watching the calves suckle is interesting. Early mornings, we will see the calves being more active, nudging their mothers and generally making a nuisance of themselves until the mothers relent. The mothers will roll onto their sides half submerged in shallow water, allowing the calf access to her mammae situated between her back legs. They will then submerge for short periods, emerging to breathe for a few seconds before drinking again.
The dominant bull for this group has taken on his role as protector of both young hippos seriously, and over the past four weeks I have seen increased territorial markings close to Rhino Dam and down into the Fig Tree and Ibhubesi Plains.
Dominant males will mark territory using their dung, which they scatter using their tales as a paddle. This is typically done on a small bush where the scattered dung will cover the bush accentuating his scent and act as a display to rival bulls that this territory is occupied.
It is interesting to note that this activity has stepped up, as I have previously not noticed this behaviour in this area of the reserve. Because of hippo’s social structures, dominant bulls usually only have access to a few females with which to mate. We can only assume that this male is the ‘father’ of both offspring born, as he has accepted both calves. Hippo bulls are known to display behaviour known as infanticide, where young calves are killed to encourage females to come into oestrus. Hippo calves rely on their mothers for a long period, up to three years. During this period, the females will not come into oestrus, as the production of milk limits their hormonal changes which brings about oestrus. Females with calves are not available to dominant males to mate with, and this creates tension for the bull in his group. Testosterone-charged bulls become frustrated and will at times harass calves, even killing them to stimulate females to come into oestrus. Hippos have a relatively short gestation period of eight months, and calves are usually born seasonally, at a time when rains are good, and water and food are sufficient for a mother to graze and produce sufficient milk. Male calves are at particular risk of infanticide as they get older, as dominant bulls will view them as a threat to potential females. Female calves are left alone, as a result of dominant bulls not viewing them as a threat to their domains.
An African Folk Tale
There are many wonderful, colourful and enchanting folk tales in Africa, and few as animating as the Kikuyu tale that speaks of the hippo and his dilemma with the Lord of Creation, N’Gai. The Kikuyu people believe that long ago, N’Gai the Lord of Creation planned all the animals and creatures for earth and decided where to put them, placing the hippopotamus in the forests and plains of Africa. But the hippo was greedy and fed hungrily on plenty of good food around him, making him fatter and fatter. The bigger he grew, the more he struggled in the midday heat of equatorial Africa. Everyday that he waddled down to the water to drink, the hjippo would gaze into the cool waters and was envious of the fish that swam freely in the waters supplied by the melting snows from Mount Kenya. The hippo pondered his dilemma for days and one day decided to approach N’Gai to ask him if he too could occupy the cool waters.
But N’Gai was not taking any of this, as his fish were precious to him and he was not convinced that the hippo would not change his feeding habits and eat his precious fish, and so hippo was denied his request. The hippo sadly returned to his plains and forests and hot midday sun. For some time, he pleaded with N’Gai to let him move into the waters and each time his request was denied. Hippo decided he simply had to convince Lord N’Gai and he came with up a solution.
And so the hippo told Lord N’Gai that he would lie in the cool waters by day and at night come out and graze along the banks of the river and the vleis. He promised not to eat or disturb the fish. Lord N’Gai was not easily convinced and he did not believe the hippo would leave his previous fish, he needed proof of this promise. Hippo told N’Gai that at night he will come out of the water and every time that food passes through his body, he will scatter his dung to spread it out in Lord N’Gai’s sight so he could see there are no fish bones. His request was accepted and now it is said, that every night the hippo will emerge from the waters to feed and scatter his dung, looking to the heavens and saying “Look N’Gai, no fishes!”
Photographs and words: Neil Davison
What Does Makweti Mean?
The name “Makweti” refers to the woody tree with the succulent branches and leaves that is characteristic in and around the camp and is better known as the Bushveld Candelabra, or Euphorbia cooperi. It is believed that the local or traditional name in this region for the Euphorbia cooperi tree is “Makweti”, a Sepedi-derived name. Sepedi is one of the 30 recognised dialects of the Northern Sotho language group, which is widely spoken in the northern and western areas of South Africa.
The camp is built in an area of the Welgevonden Game Reserve that is referred to as the “Makweti Gorge”. This gorge lies north of the camp and is the area we look onto from our breakfast deck down towards the Taaibos River Valley. This was covered in our blog on the Makweti Tree in March 2018.
What Type Of Vegetation Is Found On The Reserve?
Makweti Safari Lodge falls within the Welgevonden Game Reserve in the Waterberg Region of the Limpopo Province of South Africa. This game reserve forms part of the Waterberg Biosphere Reserve, which predominantly consists of vegetation known as savannah bushveld. The biosphere reserve is dominated by different bushveld types characteristic with mountainous savannah. The Welgevonden Game Reserve, which has vegetation dominated by sourveld bushveld and mixed bushveld falls within the core region of the 654,000ha Waterberg Biosphere Reserve. The biosphere reserve is home to 5,500 species of plants of which 43% are endemic to Southern Africa. It represents a considerable area of the savannah biome in Southern Africa, and is the only UNESCO-recognised Savannah Biosphere Reserve in the world.
The savannah biome is 1 of 7 recognised biomes of the world, and forms a large portion of Sub-Saharan Africa. Savannah is typically characterised as an African biome as the wide variety of mixed bushveld in savannah accommodates a multitude of herbivore species that form large grazing and browsing herds.
What Animals Come Close To The Camp?
We share the camp with a variety of local resident species of mammals, reptiles and birds. The resident Vervet Monkey troop are frequently seen and encountered. The Rock Hyrax or “Dassies” live among the rocks in which the camp is situated.
From time to time these resident species are visited by a variety of other mammal species found on the reserve. Sitting at the Indaba Lounge, overlooking the waterhole, one will witness the daily interaction between warthogs, impala, Burchells Zebra, wildebeest, kudu and chacma baboons. These regulars to our bushveld pub form the core of the groups of mammals seen at Makweti.
Elephant also frequent the camp looking for fresh water. Our waterhole supplies regular drinking water, but our swimming pools are also highly sought after. The pools found at chalets 2 and 4 are the number one choice for many elephant bulls.
There is a resident leopard in the mountains around Makweti, whose territory extends east of the camp and north into the Taaibos River Valley. She is shy and seldom seen, but we have caught her on camera and will often find her tracks on the road coming into camp. Jessica has been privileged to hear her on occasion on the hills behind the house.
Other night visitors who come into camp when all is quiet include brown hyena, honey badger, porcupine, civet and rhino.
How Many People Work At Makweti?
We have an excellent team who work diligently to ensure our guests have the most amazing experience possible. We are privileged to work with such committed people and are proud of their achievements on a daily basis. We have been featuring our staff in our People Of Makweti blogs, so keep an eye on who is next.
Our team comprises of lodge manager couple, 2 x guides, 1 x administrator, 1 x head chef, 1 x assistant chef, 2 x kitchen assistants, 4 x housekeepers and 2 x grounds and maintenance gents.
A total of 15 exceptional employees!
How Big Is The Reserve?
The Welgevonden Game Reserve measures 36,000 hectares in total. This equates to 88,920 acres or 360 km2. The reserve falls within the Waterberg Biosphere Reserve, which is 654,000 hectares large in its entirety.
Welgevonden Game Reserve falls within the core of the Waterberg Biosphere Reserve, which is 104,000 hectares large. The Waterberg Mountain range is 14,500 km2. By comparison, the world-renowned Kruger National Park is 19,485 km2.
How Old Is Makweti And Welgevonden Game Reserve?
In 1987, the concept of a game reserve was born. With the commitment of the private sector in South Africa and local farm land owners, the Welgevonden Game Reserve was proclaimed a conservation area in 1993. Pienkes du Plessis, the owner of the original farm “Welgevonden” had the initial vision of this ambitious conservation idea.
“I wanted to remove all traces of human activity from this landscape and reintroduce animals that had been lost to the area over time due to humans.”
In 1993, when the reserve was proclaimed, the internal fences between the farms were removed, conservation and land management activities were implemented, and a unique conservation area started to re-establish into its original state.
Shortly after the reserve’s official proclamation, development of the tourism model for the reserve was established, and in 1994 Makweti Safari Lodge was built, being one of the first lodges developed on the reserve.
Makweti Safari Lodge has remained a key player since, contributing to conservation initiatives and the promotion of the reserve and area as a whole for its significant ecological value as well as socio-economic significance.
Have All The Animals Always Been On The Reserve?
Yes and no. Of the 50 mammal species found on Welgevonden Game Reserve, all of them are indigenous and naturally occurring in this region.
In the early 1800’s, many species were hunted mercilessly with pioneers moving through this region. By the early 1900’s, many species were extinct from the area. On re-establishing the area to conservation status, key species were re-introduced into their natural environment. These included elephant, lion, white rhino and many general game species. Species such as kudu, klipspringer, impala, brown hyena and leopard would have occurred here naturally during the previous farming era, although in low numbers. Being protected under the conservation practices of the reserve, their numbers have grown considerably.
Although historically, many species would have been found here seasonally, moving into more fertile low-lying areas around the Waterberg range in the drier Winter months, they are now found all year round on the reserve where they are protected.
Spotted hyena were never re-introduced into the reserve as part of the Reserves Predator Management Plan, however, nomadic individuals from surrounding areas in the Limpopo, have re-established a small population within the reserve, regardless. This is exciting, as it shows that the conservation practices are allowing mammals, birds, reptiles and insects to move back into previously occupied areas on their own.
In November 2018, black rhino were re-introduced into the reserve, the first black rhino to walk in these hills for over a hundred years.
Why Does The Soil Differ In Colours In Some Areas?
The soils on the reserve are mostly based from sedimentary sand-stone rock, and as a result are relatively infertile, unable to hold the nutrients usually found in more clay or loamy soils. The Waterberg Massif has an abundance of iron and magnesium within it, which lends its colour to the resulting soils on the reserve. When exposed to water and oxygen, the iron in the rock and soils begins its oxidising process, resulting in the beautiful rich orange and red hues. Similarly, magnesium in its oxidising process results in the purple colours found in some areas.
How Many Key Species Are On The Reserve?
A game census is conducted most years around September, with a primary goal of establishing trends in animal populations, rather than to give a definite number of the species on the reserve. The numbers of each animal indicate changes in the ecological process within a seasonal change. For example: it indicates the success of animals birthing each year.
What’s in a number? Knowing the actual number of the species is of little ecological significance but following the trends year on year provides interesting insights into animal population dynamics, which are influenced by disease, drought, floods, rainfall and predator activity.
The rhino population is monitored closely and although we have a healthy population, figures are held secret to ensure their survival. The current rhino poaching situation in Africa is more than concerning and significant measures are always being taken to ensure these species are well protected.
What Is The Best Time Of Year To Visit Makweti?
The answer is simple – any time! Although the seasonal changes are noticeable, there is no single best time of year to travel to Makweti. Finding game in all seasons is a challenge we relish, and this makes it so much more exciting than having anything guaranteed.
Spring and Summer bring on the best in terms of the vegetation biodiversity, with plants flowering and fruiting and the reserve in vibrant, green splendour. Summer is a birder’s paradise with many migrant species returning to breed or simply overwinter in our warm climates as there’s an abundance of food available.
Winter brings everything we love about it: log fires, warm blankets, hot water bottles and the hearty fare that our Winter menus offer. The long Winter morning light provides great photographic opportunities and the wildlife look forward to the warm midday and early after sun as much as we do.
So, when is the best time to be Makweti? All the time.