On foot in Mana Pools

It was August 2021. I made the most of a rare break due to the pandemic and travelled to Zimbabwe with my family. A highlight was our stay by the banks of the Zambezi River in the far north-east with Carl Nicholson, a keen younger professional safari guide. In 2019 Carl guided one of our A Step Ahead safaris with Dave in Tanzania. Luckily he was available to guide my family and I in his back yard – Mana Pools National Park.

We met Carl at a petrol station on the main road heading north. From there we drove eastwards onto a dirt track to Kavinga Camp where we stayed for a couple of nights. Carl and Kavinga guide Dylan Browne introduced us to this astoundingly rich area. At one point Dylan needed to check the tyre pressures (a bathroom stop) so he stopped the Land-Cruiser and disappeared into the bush. While we waited, we scanned the scenery and watched the stunning white-fronted bee-eaters catch tsetse flies with our binoculars. When he returned, he casually asked us “Haven´t you guys seen that leopard there?” indicating in the direction behind us. We thought he was joking, but sure enough a leopard was watching us slouched casually over a fallen log!  I am sure that he had not seen it until he was returning to the vehicle, but the event became the source of plenty of banter between he and Carl about who had the sharpest eyes!

From Kavinga we drove to the banks of the Zambezi River and stayed at Little Vundu Camp.  Nick and Desirée Murray of Bushlife Safaris had kindly invited us to stay at their small satellite camp. It is situated in the shade of Albida (Winterthorn) trees overlooking the river.

These acacias drop nutritious orange pods which elephant, impala, baboon, and other mammals adore. As a result every day we were visited by elephants (watch the video). From camp we watched them bathe in the mighty Zambezi, not far from hippos. They mud bathed in the small creek between the dining tent and the kitchen, and we became used to their presence. My daughter Ollie would do her homework while an elephant visited, and she barely gave it any attention. My other daughter Alana and my wife Gillian would lie quietly and watch them. It is a magical experience relaxing on a sofa during the heat of the day, while you slowly become aware of the approach of a massive elephant. The giant cautiously approaches, sniffing for the pods, and eventually is within a couple of feet of you (see the video)!

We went on game drives with Carl, but the most memorable were the bush walks.

One morning we were on a walk when we saw a hyaena staring up into a tree. It was not too keen to leave, but did as we arrived to investigate. High on a branch we saw a lifeless impala securely placed in a crook, undoubtedly by a leopard. There was no sign of the cat, but it would surely come back later.

Another day the warning cries of a group of vervet monkeys led us to a dense sausage tree. We had to search quite carefully with the binoculars before we could make out the leopard. We left it to find some elephant bones, leading to a discussion about their anatomy and arranging the bones became part of the activity. Later that day we came back to this area in a vehicle to see if the leopard was still there. We were having trouble finding it, when we saw it slink out of the tree and disappear into the undergrowth.

We went on a game drive on our last evening. The late afternoon light infused everything with a golden glow. We then heard baboons barking frantically. Carl stopped the car and we listened for a confirmation and the direction. Carl then proposed that we follow him on foot to investigate, so we did, tiptoeing single file along an elephant trail. We paused in the cover of a ditch to watch a baboon and ascertain the direction of the threat. For a brief second directly in front of us, above the ditch, we glimpsed the silhouette of a lioness as she slunk off. She must have seen us or heard our whispers. We climbed the bank and entered an open area of grass. There we found several lions relaxing on the far side. We sat down as low as possible and watched. We could still hear the warning barks of the baboons while the coos of the turtle doves receded, soon to be taken up with the shrill pings of crickets and the characteristic call of the fiery-necked nightjar.  Nighftall was fast approaching, so we crept off, retracing our steps to the car. Once there we all sat in awe listening to the sounds of the beginning of the night.

From Mana we drove to Carl´s home town of Kariba, met up with Dave and were ferried by a speedboat to Fothergill Island. Here we bathed our last few days in luxury. We were spoiled with equally well orchestrated bush walks with Dave, including approaching some dignified bull elephants feeding on grasses in Lake Kariba.

We left Zimbabwe satiated on wilderness and with shared memories which we still recall around the cracking fire in our home in the Spanish Pyrenees.


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