From watching dancing elephants to walking amidst lions, Mana Pools promises a lot of thrills for the footloose.
The mighty Zambezi River separates Zambia and Zimbabwe. There are National parks on both sides, teeming with game. The southern, Zimbabwean side is unspoilt and feels wilder, as there are no permanent camps, just the tented ones that are moved away during the wet season. We settled under canvas and explored the legendary Eden, Mana Pools, where we enjoyed wildlife on drives and on foot.
This might be the only National Park in the world (with serious game) where you can get off your vehicle and go looking for wild animals without a guide or gun. Sounds foolhardy, (and we didn't attempt it without our guide Anthony and his gun) yet the experience of walking amidst wild elephants and lions was thrilling. There are rules, of course, and one has to be careful not to surprise anything that might kill or mangle you from front or behind, above or below. Right off the bat, Anthony warned us as we stood beside a lesser inland river: "Chances of swimming across this and making it to the other side are zero."
While walking, we'd respect the tolerance gap between the animals and ourselves and thankfully the self-preservation instinct remained intact on both sides. "What allows this unusually relaxed arrangement?" you'll ask. Well, it's the terrain for one. Uncluttered floodplains with giant trees and open vistas allow easy spotting and walking. Also, the animals have become accustomed to seeing people on foot. While the herds of eland and impala scampered away when we got too close, the wild dogs, lions and elephants were not threatened by our presence.
THE ELEPHANT WHISPERER
On our most memorable evening, we drove out to an open area dotted with large (Albida) Winterthorn Acacia trees where elephants loitered and crunched dry red pods. Anthony spotted Boswell, a particularly tolerant male tusker. We got off the jeep and slowly walked closer to him, and sat down at the base of a tree. There were five of us. Tusk up and out, he sniffed the group. And then, keeping a watchful eye, he slowly lumbered over, to collect the pods strewn near us. The giant loomed above, and when our eyes locked, it sent a chill up my spine. Two steps forward and his tusk could go through one of us like a knife in a pear. Anthony made a comforting, rumbling sound and whispered, "My big boy. Sh sh sh sh". Boswell probed into the higher branches and then amazingly, hoisted his enormous bulk up till he was standing on his hind legs and reaching impossibly high with his trunk. The giant carried on feeding, making himself ridiculously vertical over and over again as we watched, thrilled at witnessing the manoeuvre and at being accepted at trunk's length.
We met other wild elephants that allowed us close. One night, a visitor hovered right next to our tent, helping himself to the pods. We stood outside, pressed against the canvas as he ate his way ever closer till we slid away one by one. Once the hubby walked along a lion pride with two enormous males and sat with them for ages in companionable silence. The tented camp, run by Milo and Sara Harrup, was basic and we were scorched in the day and shivered at night but woke up to beautiful views of the Zambezi and the escarpment beyond. But the experience that stood out was the thrill of walking amidst the big game, and as Anthony delicately put it, in case a lion chased us, he did not have to worry about out-running the lion, but simply out-running us.
Mana at a glance
Mana means four in Shona (a Bantu language, native to the Shona people of Zimbabwe and southern Zambia). The park is named after the four main pools in the area. It is a Unesco World Heritage Site. The unique aspect is that visitors can walk here at their own risk.
PLAN YOUR TRIP:
Best time to go: May to October
How to get there: Many international carriers fly to Harare Airport. Charter a plane to Mana Pools air strip. The drive to the camp is about a 90-minute game drive.
Stay at: Mana Pools Tented Camp, run by Milo and Sarah Harrup. Wake up to spectacular views and delicious food.
Affordable style: Self-catering National Park chalets.
Guides: Anthony Kaschula firstname.lastname@example.org +263 773 819 835
Local legend- Stretch Fareira runs Goliath Safaris a tented camp. email@example.com