Eleven Months. Eleven months counting down the days, the hours, before I was back. After a six week stint in the bush last July and August, to say I was ready to return would be an understatement (so much so, that I decided to write a blog about it which you can check out here)! But the time had finally arrived and I couldn’t be more excited.
The trip began as most do: at an airport. We had met Gerry for a quick breakfast before the flight and right away we clicked. After eight months of Skype calls and Whatsapps it was nice to finally be face to face.
From there it was over to the Victoria Falls Hotel for a night before heading to Mana. A few bribed immigration officials later, and we made it into Zimbabwe in record time! After all, this is Africa 🙂
It’s amazing how instantaneous the change is. In fact I can point to the exact moment. After a picturesque flight over the Zambezi valley, we landed at Mana West airstrip. Dressed in proper bush attire, I stepped out of the plane and looked around. As the propellers stopped spinning and the sounds of the Grey Go-Away birds filled the, air something clicked. I was back.
After being greeted by our local guide Kevin, we made our way to camp. To no surprise, along the way we were greeted by elephant after elephant making the journey quite a slow one. This is Mana Pools after all! Upon arriving at Mwinilunga Camp, we were greeted by the lovely Tess and Dave who showed us the grand tour (which took about two minutes).
The next three days were spent out in the beautiful Mana woodlands searching for whatever we could find. As we set our for our first drive, spirits high, we found a big bull elephant reaching for a tree. This, of course, is very exciting and as we all reach to get our cameras we hear an “uh-oh.” As Gerry reached into his pocket, he realizes that his iPhone was not there! He had been taking his normal selfies just five minutes before, but now the phone had simply disappeared. After searching everywhere it could be, we came to the conclusion that there must be one very lucky baboon in the middle of Mana Pools.
Our first introduction to the golden light of Mana came on the very first afternoon. The mystical idea of “golden hour” had fooled me, for in Mana Pools it seemed more like “golden minute.”
However, instantaneously I was hooked. I had seen nothing like it ever before and I was simply mesmerized. It was as if God’s sweet nectar sprinkled down from the sapps of heaven…ok enough you get the point!
Now, for myself, my grandparents, and my brother, being on foot was a bit of an anomaly. As this was their 8th safari, my grandparents were perfectly contempt in the Landy. I, however, wanted the full Mana Pools experience! We ended on a compromise. On the third day, we found an elephant bull known to the locals at Big V. Kevin and Gerry agreed that this was a good bull to approach on foot so we did. As my brother and I got close to Big V, our grandparents stayed 15 meters behind. I’m not kidding when I say that I don’t think Big V ever acknowledged our presence.
Few compares to the experiences of being a few feet away from an elephant bull. After that brief encounter I wanted more. It was like a drug, as Gerry put it. I was ready to experience being on foot with Lions, Dogs, anything! My grandparents had other plans.
As our days at Mana Proper came to an end, we said our farewells to Kevin, Dave and Tess. The Mwinilunga operations was one of the best we had ever encountered. Tess’s hospitality, combined with the simplicity of the camp, made it one of my personal favorite camps. If you are looking for a basic bush camp in the middle of one of the greatest wildlife destinations on Earth, you have to look no further.
Having come in the beginning of July, the high season had yet to begun in Mana. Whereas the game may not be as plentiful this time of year, I can definitely say that the isolation makes up for it! We often found ourselves spending hours with an elephant bull and never seeing another person. This can’t necessarily be said for the later months in Mana and certainly makes the experience special.
For the next four days, we would be stationed at Wilderness Safari’s Ruckomechi camp in the western end of Mana Pools. Contrasting quite nicely to Mana Proper, we were excited to see what the next few days had in store.
When I think back to what we saw at Ruckomechi two things immediately stand out: landscapes and lions! We spent quite a considerable amount of time with a pride of lions and their tiny cubs in addition to the two resident males. However, at each night we would head towards the river and watch as the sun set over the beautiful Zambezi escarpment.
Ruckomechi is classified as one of Wilderness’s “Classic Camps,” but it was quite a big jump in luxury. Going from Mwinilunga to Ruckomechi brought up an interesting debate as to which style of camp is preferable on safari, luxury or simplistic. In the end it really comes down to the person, but look for a future blog post on it!
Where the advantages do certainly come in is the fact that Ruckomechi sits on its own private concession in one of the greatest wildlife destinations on Earth. What this means is that the only other vehicles you may see on a given drive would be fellow guests from the camp. It also allows for much greater flexibility among the guides, leaving the hours we spent out almost totally up to us. Having spent four nights here, we were truly able to explore the entire concession.
Most of the action, however, happens along the Ruckomechi river. A dry riverbed, the Ruckomechi floods every rainy season creating a lifeline for the animals. That being said, the concession has a great diversity of habitats from mopane woodlands to open floodplains and everything in between.
The Ruckomechi landscape is teeming with a diverse amount of wildlife in every which corner. One unique sighting for us was a herd of over 100 eland in the mopane woodlands on the eastern side of the concession. Just as “golden minute” came in, the herd crossed across the road making for an outstanding scene.
Eland are the biggest antelope in Africa and this particular herd had a lead bull that must have weighed a ton! I don’t exaggerate when I said this thing was a bus! As you can see in the image below, that dewlap hanging from his neck tells it all.
Safari isn’t all about seeing predators, and a river cruise down the Zambezi definitely shows that. With the beautiful bird life that the valley has to offer, I must admit the inner birder in me did come out. From White-fronted Bee Eaters to African Jacanas to the infamous Pels Fishing Owl that never could be found, these animals are not to be overlooked.
Remember how three sentences ago I said safari isn’t all about seeing predators? Ok, well I must make one quick exception for that. Upon arriving at Ruckomechi the guides marveled over the numerous leopards in the areas. Leopards, being many in the vehicle’s’ favorite animal, soon became the mission of the trip. Day in and day out, following tracks, getting reports of others having seen one, we did whatever we could to find a leopard. In the end the infamous Mana leopards were never found and we came to a simple conclusion: there are no leopards in Zimbabwe. This theory would soon be applied only days later in Zambia to a different result…
Finally, what makes Mana West truly different from Mana Proper is the ability for one to go on night drives. Although they are “technically” not allowed, a slow-paced ride back to camp won’t have anyone screaming at your shoes. Night drives reveal another side of a park at that was exactly the case with Mana. From civets and genets to almost running over a male lion, the Mana night game showed itself in every way it could. And as the moon set below the horizon, the milky way appeared. It was then that Mana’s Magic was truly revealed.
*Thank you all for reading my first “official” post on the Wild Eye blog! Check out the second part of my trip report on South Luangwa coming out soon and the many more posts I have to come! Also, if you’re keen to see more of my photos, you can head over to my Instagram page here.*