As I bit into my hot blue-berry muffin from the airport’s Mugg & Bean restaurant I looked up and found myself staring at the biggest smile I had ever seen at the ridiculous hour of four o’clock in the morning.
Wayne and I knew one another from Facebook and I could tell from that “I am so excited I could scream” look on his face that he was ready to have a real good time.I almost choked as I tried to swallow the over-sized bite I had seized from the un-expecting muffin, wiped my hands on the back of my pants and stretched out my hand to introduce myself formally. I knew then and there that this was going to be one great expedition to my favorite place in Africa, Mana Pools National Park.
The flight went well and in less than two hours we landed and walked into Harare’s airport. We were warmly greeted by Will Jansen and Anton Pienaar, two great guys who knew all there was to know about camping, tying knots and 4×4’s. Anton mentioned he was from the Western Cape which seriously had me in doubt at first. Blue Bull blood runs thick through my veins and having to work alongside a Stormers supporter for many days would take some doing. Then as I stepped out of the arrivals lounge I saw his tricked-out Toyota Fortuner with big wheels and a lifted suspension. Needless to say we were best of mates! I love big bakkies!
The road to Mana took us forever as all of our excitement levels were bursting at the seams. I knew the road from having been there a year before and as we crawled over the escarpment surrounding the Zambezi valley after four hours in the back of the cruiser my eyes fell once more on the huge expanse down below between two large mountain ranges. I knew something special was waiting. Hardly an hour later we drove past our first Ana Trees and into the Zambezi floodplain. We had arrived.
Our first sighting here was of Morkel “Boswell” Erasmus pulling up beside us in a cloud of dust. All I could make out was the shape of a white Land Cruiser and the shape of a man with a wide white grin running towards us! Morkel arrived a couple of days before to “scout” the area for any signs of wild dogs. I reckon it was simply a decoy and all he really wanted to do was to get more photos for himself since he had not produced a single dog sighting on the day of our arrival. Sneaky little chap that Morkel.
Arguably my biggest surprise was the camp site where we would spend the next 5 days. I could not believe all the effort Will of Africa and his team had gone through in order to set us up in camping heaven along the banks of the mighty Zambezi. Guests each had walk-in tents equipped with comfy stretchers and a bedside table with a welcome note and also a little sweet delight. A beautifully decorated table filled with all sorts of cheeses and drinks waited for us and boy did we make full use of it. All these amazing luxuries and more in the soothing shade of some of Mana’s impressive Ana Trees. Bags were unloaded and cameras were yielded. After all, we were not here for only cookies and cheese, we wanted to get straight into the business end of things.
4×4’s were filled with wide-eyed observers and off we chugged towards the infamous Mana Mouth for some scenic indulgence. Some frustrated fisherman and a few elephant bulls grazing on the Zambezi sandbanks greeted us at the mouth and shutters were firing away faster than an army equipped with fully automatic rifles. It was safe to say that the typical “index finger” itch was relieved and that guests returned back to camp feeling very satisfied with the start of their Mana adventure.
I love waking up to the sound of tents unzipping and coffee mugs being readied. It excited me beyond comparison as it always reminds me of where I am, in beautiful Africa. We all woke up just after 5 and prepared ourselves for some tea and coffee before departing. We decided to explore the southwestern portion at first light, perhaps we would be lucky with some great light seeping through the forest canopy.
We were soon met by a small group of elephant bulls feeding on some of the Ana Trees. Mana is well known for elephant bulls that have the ability to stand on their two back feet and reach up high into the canopy for a meal. These bulls are however very hard to find, and only two of them were known for this behavior at this time. The most well known is a bull called Boswell. The other younger one is known as Fred Astaire, named after the famous Broadway dancer who’s career spanned an incredible 76 years!
Due to the incredible opportunity to leave your vehicles within Mana’s boundaries we were able to approach the bulls on foot and we quickly found out that one of these legendary bulls was in our midst. I have never seen such excitement on a bunch of photographer’s faces as the moment Fred Astaire rocked back onto his hind legs. It was priceless at best and we were very fortunate indeed. Such unique behavior is hard to find elsewhere, let alone having the ability to photograph it on foot. Anything else that day would fail in comparison and soon afterwards we headed back to the camp, eager for the afternoon’s session.
The ability to leave the confines of the vehicles in Mana Pools allows you a special glimpse not only of the elephants but of any of Mana’s other animals. Extreme caution and a huge amount of respect needs to be given regardless of the animal you approach here. That said we were so lucky to find a pride of fifteen lions sleeping not too far from the road. Blood pumped through our veins at the thought of spending time in the company of wild lions on foot. Thanks to being exposed to the presence of many visitors to Mana the lions are completely at ease with being viewed, as long as you are careful and you pay attention to subtle changes in behavior. I would not recommend this to just anyone but thanks to my experience as a full-time guide, and that of tour leader Will and Morkel, we were confident enough.
I will never forget this moment as we sat down wide-eyed and shaking with excitement next to a pride of lions, barely thirty meters separating us. It was more than just a photographic experience, but a journey into one’s most inner being. It wakened our spirits as we sat there in awe of the scene unfolding in front of us. The lions paid little attention to us, but the same could not be said from our side. We were sold! Mana is truly one of a kind. Not a single guest left there without feeling it.
As if that was not enough, two of the vehicles got to see a leopard on the way back to camp, simply amazing.
The fire that night was emblazoned by talks of lions on foot and elephants walking on two legs. Mana was taking effect and casting her spell on yet another group of fortunate visitors.
After an early cup of coffee Mana once again had something special in store for us. During the night a huge Ana Tree had toppled over in the forest nearby and had drawn over twenty elephants in for an easy feed. Elephant herds in this area typically number less than five, so to see so many together was special indeed. It is as if the big old tree called them all over and they were able to feed for the whole day, elephants appearing from every corner.
On the way back to camp one of the vehicles spotted a baboon carcass draped over a branch near the side of the road. They were sure it was the doings of a leopard and tracks in the area confirmed this. We were excited to hear of this news and could not wait to check it out in the late afternoon.
In the afternoon and some way from camp I spotted a large elephant bull on an accessible island. The bull seemed more than a kilometer from the road, and time was fading away as the sun sank lower and lower. We hurriedly grabbed our gear and set off to the island. The surrounding scenery was incredible and the bull stretched high in order to reach up into the tall Ana Trees for some green branches and seed pods. We positioned ourselves in such a way as to get the most from the golden sunlight and the resulting images were amazing. With the blue mountain backdrop, green foreground and golden-lit elephant all guests were happily shooting away. This also turned out to be the most memorable photographic sighting of the trip.
The leopardess made a brief appearance but was not relaxed and soon moved off trailed by a hyena.
Back around the campfire tales were told about the legend of Morkel “Boswell” Erasmus, the only one of us who was able to find the big acrobatic elephant on two separate occasions. I tried as best I could but Boswell Erasmus always seemed one step ahead of me, probably because that 4.2l Land Cruiser was put to good use in the epic search. Morkel was almost dubbed as “Schumacher Erasmus”.
Always providing some evening entertainment were the resident hyenas lurking around in camp. They would never venture too close but opportunistically waited for all of us to go to bed before commencing their raiding party of anything edible and within reach. We soon learnt that nothing, not even a car battery was safe from these creatures and had to stash all the goods on the top of the trailers. Lions on the opposite bank of the Zambezi roared us to sleep in an impressive show of power.
I won’t lie if I told you that spirits were a little dampened by the fact that it was the last full day here in Mana. Then, as if by magic the male lions roared once more on the opposite river bank reminding us where we were and within seconds everyone had a big smile on their faces and were ready for another beautiful day in Mana Pools.
I split from the group and went by the edge of the Mopani woodlands to the south west. We were rewarded with a sighting of the pride of fifteen and seeing as we were a much smaller group, only four people, I knew I wanted my guests to walk with these amazing cats of Mana. After assessing the mood of the adult lionesses we started following alongside them. At first they gave us a good look over but soon acted as if we did not exist. We walked with them for almost a kilometer as the lions moved ever closer to the edge of the Mopani woodland. They were clearly interested in something ahead of them and tracks below our feet indicated that a herd of buffalo could not be far away. I did not want to be anywhere near the area with the potential for angry stampeding buffalo and we decided to let the lions go on ahead of us. It was one of my most memorable experiences, just so special.
For the afternoon there was a special request from our guests regarding backlit images in the forest. After setting out on drive we searched long and hard and eventually came across a beautiful scene that if all worked out would be perfect for a dusty backlit shot. Well, it did. The zebras framed by the Ana Tree forest and lit up by a fiery dusty sunset was the perfect ending to the last full day in Mana.
Dinners were always a highlight and I have no idea how the four-man crew behind the scenes consistently managed to cook up such a storm. We enjoyed three-course meals and even had ice cream on our last evening. They did such an outstanding job! Everyone had become good friends by now and some interesting fire-side conversations was enjoyed by all and sundry. Sadly everyone would depart rather early in the morning but not before a quick game drive in hope of finding a go-away gift from Mana.
After an early cup of coffee and the loading of lots of bags and equipment, we set out on the last drive. We were rewarded with another sighting of the skittish leopardess feeding on the baboon carcass. She lingered just long enough for some photos. We all made our way to the Mana Mouth where the goodbye’s were said.
There exists not a single bad wilderness experience in Africa. The close encounters with leopards in the Sabi Sand, the dark-maned male lions in the Kalahari, the great plains of East Africa, the wetlands of Northern Botswana and the jungles of Central Africa all have unique qualities that make them iconic wildlife destinations.
What then is it that makes this little area tucked away far in the Northern regions of Zimbabwe called Mana Pools so special?
Why is every single person touched beyond the simple sensory experiences and to a deeper, almost spiritual level?
I thought about it for some time and I still cant really put my finger on it. It could be the fact that you are allowed to exit your vehicle and cautiously approach just about any of the park’s animals on foot. It could be the beautiful floodplain filled with tall Ana Trees and the elephants that dance on their hind legs as they reach far into their canopies with their outstretched trunks. It could be the awe-inspiring Zambezi River system and all the wonder that comes with it. It could also be the dust that hangs like a blanket during a winter afternoon allowing only limited rays of light to pierce it’s cover.
I believe it is a combination of all these things and more. It’s the thrill of being there in the flesh, listening to a chorus of pre-dawn feathered friends and the echo of a lions roar in the distance whilst you sip at your warm cup of coffee. Mana is a place where memories are made. It is a place that will never leave you empty handed and will have you assuredly have you longing to return for a second tasting.
Marlon du Toit
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