As we descended off the Zambezi escarpment, after one of our worst nights of our trip so far, a nightmare of a stay in the buzzing yet dilapidated town of Karoi, we were over the moon with excitement. A place that we had both heard so much about and had dreamt of exploring for many years awaited.
The majestic scenery on the drive in made the butterflies in our stomachs fly more wildly and strongly. Baobabs thousands of years old, Natal Mahogany trees lining the dry river beds and Ana trees littering the floodplains provided the breathing backdrop for a mesmerizing week.
After arriving at campsite 17 we swept our selected spot with a few twigs cabled tied together as our rake under an impressive Ana tree, and set up camp in what we thought would be the best spot. Setting up camp took longer than expected as a monkey made its way into our car and stole a few bananas – must be a reason why fruit is banned in the park. A little while later an old elephant bull stumbled in and in no uncertain terms made it as clear as the sky above us, that campsite 17 and in particular the pods on the Ana tree under which we were camping, were his and not ours.
Satisfied that we had built a camp site that was fit for our esteemed guests that we were expecting later that afternoon, we had a few beers and headed to the ablution blocks to freshen up for our guests highly anticipated arrival. As we walked towards the ablutions, we turned around to revel in the sight of our awe-inspiring campsite that we had so proudly and meticulously built, only to look at each other and say simultaneously “that’s shit!”
Thinking that our guests were not too far away we hastily moved camp a short distance away to the hallowed soil of which we would share for 6 of the best nights of my life. A site where we would truly cherish the beauty of the Zambezi and some spectacular sun rises from the East.
After a wait that felt like an eternity our guests finally arrived – heads out the windows of their over-loaded Ford Explorer, whistling and waving like they had just spotted their first African Pitta. To say we were all ecstatic to be reunited in a place, which was a lifer for all, is an understatement.
The excitement boiled as we sank a few Klippies overlooking the setting sun and the mighty Zambezi. Our guests had even brought with them a unique substance called “ice” for Willie and I, which was a special treat for us far roaming explorers. Within a few minutes of our reunion, we were immediately reminded of the remarkable skills that our guests had to offer.
uLalela – provided us with the hearing of an elephant. Nothing would be able to sneak up on us without uLalela hearing it, identifying it, and notifying us of the potential intruder or lifer that was waiting in the shadows.
Ikhwela – with the whistle of a Drongo, imitated any noise we heard. Luring the desired species nearer with the astonishing reverberations that he was able to produce – often confusing the daylight out of even the most experienced explorer.
Umkhondo – possessing the bush knowledge surpassing that of an encyclopedia, tracking skills superior to that of a blood hound and bushveld experiences exceeding that of a century old Baobab.
Umthetho – who would ensure that no monkey, hyena or lion entered our lager without a spade, stone or some vulgar language being thrown at it. We immediately felt safer in his company.
Along with the infinite skills that Thulani and I had to offer, we formed a formidable team – the most significant of which – the ability to have a laugh, joke and have an all round good time, whilst appreciating the marvel of the fauna and flora that Mana Pools has to display.
Our first night provided much entertainment – crocodiles doing death rolls while biting our bait bag, hyenas stealing our delicious left overs from the dustbin and giant Vundu on the line, all while lions roared and hippos bellowed in the background.
Upon awakening to the sun rising over the mighty Zambezi, we headed out on our first game drive – all loaded into and on top of Winchester. It didn’t take too long for us to find lion tracks, which Umkhondo studied in great detail before providing us with the intricacies of the tracks, including the time of day and speed with which it was walking – this lion meant business. We later found out the lions had killed a waterbuck in the staff village during the night – and he was clearly making his way there. Umkhondo living up to his name and right on the money as usual.
A few lifers later, including Lillian’s Lovebird and Eastern Nicator, we bumped into the Area Manager. He quickly and efficiently cut us off with a neat little handbrake turn and sternly told us we were in big trouble for having people on the roof rack. The driver and passengers on the roof all needed to pay a fine immediately. However, the cool, calm and collected Thulani handled the situation with the calmness of a hibernating tortoise and within a few minutes, we were best of mates. It was like meeting an old school friend and we quickly began exchanging long lost stories and he began telling us where to find Mana’s most sought after animals. After escaping with an instruction to “please familiarize yourselves with the rules”, we made our way back to camp.
Our incidents with the Area Manager did not end there. The following day at about 17h59 he found us driving away from the campsite (a genuine mistake) and with the gate closing time of 18h00 he cut us off again, showed us the way to camp and asked us how many rules we broke today. To which we blinked, held a straight face and said “None Sir”. Thulani – a man of few words but when they do flow, they flow smoother and calmer than the flow of the mighty Zambezi itself.
A long walk around one of the four famous pools of Mana – Long Pool – provided us with one of the most scenic experiences one can ever witness. Hippos, crocs and water birds to the left – Ana trees, elephant, boggos and Impala to the right, we were in heaven. It felt like home, a place I never wanted to leave, a place where kilometers felt like meters, lapwings like lifers and life like a dream.
Fishing and hooking into massive Vundu from the bank of campsite 17 was a frustrating task. Stripping the reel of all its line, wrapping us up in the trees, calling in locals to help and many other cunning plans all proved to be fruitless as the colossal Vundu of Nyamepi campsite remained free in the croc infested waters of the Zambezi. Our best opportunity came when after 40 minutes on the line we got him close to the bank. However, with the thrashing in the water, we were skeptical of getting too close to the water to land the giant after seeing the massive croc lurking in the water below. Thulani and Umthetho began the tug of war – pulling the beast out of the water with the welding gloves as protection. Thulani providing the long arms and Umthetho the weight, however, halfway up the bank the line snapped. In horror, we looked on as the tenacious giant Vundu lived to fight another day.
After a few days of not seeing any cats – we had a brief gathering and decided that the most effective method to find the elusive cats would be on foot. We could hear them, just not see them and with the skills of Umkhondo finding them would be a walk in the park – literally. We set off at 06h00 after Umthetho unselfishly woke up at 04h45 to light the fire and make coffee for everybody – I think he also wanted to make sure no hyenas broke into the lager after the had been woken by the hyenas lapping water from our washing up rack in the middle of the night. After about 15 minutes, Umkhondo found the tracks of a lone lioness. From the significant gap between her front and hind feet were knew she was on the move, however, the darkness of the tracks provided us with a glimmer of hope – they were fresh.
We tracked the lioness for a while, hot on her heels before she arrived at long pool and we could track her no longer. Umkhondo read the signs and disappointingly told us the chase was over. She had slipped us and left us high and dry – but as the great Gary Player once said – “The more you practice the luckier you get” – and we got lucky. As we approached Long Pool we spotted a giant 4-meter crocodile playing dead, by means of thanatosis, for an unsuspecting victim to provide him with a wholesome meal, but all he found was us. We approached him and from the safety of the one-meter bank, we began to admire the beast. The prehistoric nature of the creature made us realize why crocodiles have lived on earth for so long and made us respect them so much. That was until Thulani threw a clump of clay on him, almost 3 times his weight (although that’s not much) and the croc began to hiss as evidence of his discomfort and anger towards us.
We had been told by many a “when we” that there was a pair of African Fish Eagles that swooped down to catch fish that were thrown into the river, near Mana Mouth. However, there was one big flaw in our plan. As Murphy would have it we couldn’t catch a fish at Mana Mouth. Ikhwela cooked us a feast of a breakfast on the banks of the Zambezi, contemplating opening up his own Melissa’s there, while the rest of us tried our level best to catch a fish and test the “when we’s” theory. The African Fish Eagle intriguingly watching from his perch. After almost stepping on a Mozambique Spitting Cobra and countless hours of trying we made the decision to see whether the African Fish Eagle liked chicken wings. And guess what? He did! Swooping in for the overcooked chicken wings we had thrown onto the bank, while we all stood with our cameras ready – the result, we would rather not take about. However, it was a truly majestic sight to see and some out of focus and mental pictures were all we had as evidence of the remarkable scene.
The elephants of Mana provide an amazing spectacle. Almost every single elephant is tuskless. This is as a result of the poachers targeting the big tuskers in years gone by, and evolution has resulted in the current versions bearing no tusks. A truly sad site for wildlife enthusiasts. Yet the manner in which they stand on two legs and arch their backs to reach the last remaining Ana tree pods is a world renowned phenomenon and left us all speechless. A true Mana special.
The elephants also pass through camp on a regular basis. Watching Umthetho and uLalela being chased while collecting water provided a good old chuckle. However, on one occasion a male decided to walk right through our camp, past our fire, over our chairs and to the Ana tree to eat it’s highly sought after pods. A slightly quickened heart rate together with a few insults thrown at the elephant, did nothing to deter the relaxed chap as he cared very little for us and more for the pods he wanted to eat. After all – this is his home and not ours.
After five nights of hyenas eating out our bin, and lurking around in the dark, Umthetho had had enough. We spotted a hyena moving towards the dustbin and waited for him to get closer. Before we knew it Umthetho was on the stalk, spade in hand and ready to pounce. As the hyena lent in for the left over food, Umthetho suddenly lets loose, and the spade flew violently at the hyena, but to no avail. He was long gone. The only result being the pinched nerve and slipped disk in Umthetho’s back. Hyena’s of Mana 6: Umthetho 0.
All in all, Mana provided one of the most spectacular weeks in the bush that I have ever experienced. We did not see any cats or dogs, but that was not as a result of a lack of effort. As an old wise Bushman once said, “that’s just the bush hey!” And that’s what keeps us coming back!
However, the cats were not missed. The scenery, freedom to walk, fishing, birds, laughs, the Wild Boys and the sun rises over the Zambezi while enjoying an Amarula coffee certainly made up for it. The bush is the bush and that’s what we have learned to love and appreciate. I would not have wished it any other way.
I have already reminisced about Mana for longer than we were there. The sounds in the night, sunrises over the Zambezi, age old Baobabs, Ana tree forests, elegant elephants, elusive Vundu and the memories that will last a lifetime.
Mana we’ll be back…