Our Incredible experience in Mana Pools, Zimbabwe
The following is a description of one of two incredible days at John’s Camp, Mana Pools, Zimbabwe:
“If you had to describe heaven, as a place where humans and animals could come together, without confrontation, then it would be Mana Pools…”. David, my guide at John’s Camp.
I shall start with a quick overview of my first evening at the camp. Our 45-minute flight from Harare landed at roughly 3:30 pm on a hot late October afternoon on a dusty bush airstrip in Mana Pools. On landing, we met David, who was to be our guide over the next few days and who has held his professional guiding license for the best part of 20 years now. A 5th generation white Zimbabwean man, he had grown up in Bulawayo and had us instantly engaged with the above statement, ‘If you had to describe heaven… etc’, and to put it frankly, he was right. Although our 30 to 40-minute drive to camp was filled with the usual Impala, Waterbuck, Baboons, there was A LOT of each.
When we arrived at camp, we were met by Milo, camp owner of 8 years, whose father in law was John Stevens, as in John of John’s Camp. After a quick welcome drink and cool, refreshing towel to the face, we quickly ran through the formalities of the camp. Whilst on the subject of wildlife and how it can often wander into camp, we were promptly interrupted by three elephant- one mother, her daughter and her young bull calf. They were simply checking out the bathroom situation in camp but were more than interested in the tree that stood right behind it. Alas, the bathroom was only 20 yards away. Where on earth was I?!
Formalities finished, I was shown to my tent where a comfy double bed, with bedside light and ‘back doors’ to a loo and shower awaited me. Now at this point, I must stress that the shower was a basic bucket shower- to be expected but the view from my bed, through the mosquito mesh doors, was beyond incredible. The whole camp has first class views across the Zambezi river to the Zambian escarpment. So far, expectations met and then some. However, what I experienced next was something I will never forget. Upon gathering cameras and changing to shorts, I got ready to leave my tent. Within 15 seconds I was face to face with the aforementioned elephants, who had made their way through camp.
I had completely unexpectedly sandwiched them between myself and the main camp area. Jaw on the floor I pulled my camera around and got a few photos before gathering myself and contemplating my next move- a simple very VERY wide birth through to the main camp.
From here, we jumped in the vehicle and headed back off into the park, a journey which went as follows: Turn 2 – Impala jumps clean over Zebra, Turn 5 – Impala acting very suspiciously, Turn 8 (riverside U-turn) – Leopard springs past vehicle, Turn 25 or 26 or 27, hippo ambles over and so on and so on. From here the elephant sightings were rising consistently and after a quick gin and tonic served up from the back of the truck we were all very happy, almost speechless, campers. On arrival back at camp we were shown to the fire pit where we talked over more G and T’s whilst eating homemade guacamole (obviously not native but may as well have been) before being shown to the dinner table under the Zimbabwean stars, for our three-course dinner.
Now bear with me, but just so you know, Hyena’s are opportune hunters, and we were reminded of this halfway through the main course as a spotted Hyena passed just a few metres from the table, looking at us. It would have got away with its quick check had both Dave and Milo not been acutely aware of the stench that Hyena take with them everywhere- one whiff, on with the torch and ‘go away’ was all it took (Hyena fact number 2- no human has ever been attacked by a Hyena). Anyways, pudding finished, glasses empty, mind blown, and it was time for bed and the sounds of Hippo and Elephant to almost bore you to sleep.
The next thing I knew it was our 5 O’clock wake up call and I could have been an 8 year old at Christmas again. Not normally a so called ‘morning person’ I found myself awake and ready for what Mana Pools could throw at me (again). After tea/coffee and a breakfast consisting of cereals, porridge or fruit, we boarded the trusty Toyota Landcruiser with Dave and headed out once again. Not for long though, as today’s itinerary was a walking safari. Mana Pools in known for its walking safaris and given what we had seen the night before, I couldn’t wait to have my senses heightened by escaping the comfort of the vehicle. After 5 minutes we pulled over and jumped out, to begin our adventure. Joined by Obee, trainee guide and apprentice to John Stevens, we were informed of the importance of each tree, bird, termite mound and plant around us. Their knowledge was beyond belief and had us all transfixed.
I feel it necessary to now mention that Dave carried both a rifle and a revolver on him at all times. He has thankfully never had to use either/or in defence of anyone, however, he has had to brandish it on occasion and will say time and time again, ‘it has always prevented the worst scenario worsening’. The animals are somehow more than aware of what either a rifle or handgun bring and will (normally) back down. The carrying of guns made us all certainly feel safer and when we came across a group of female elephants and their young calves an hour into our walk, I was first relieved to have Dave’s knowledge and experience on our side, and secondly the guns just in case anything, God forbid, was to go wrong. Luckily all we had to do was back up significantly and find another route. The sighting of all these elephants and knowing that we were on foot was incredible and definitely filled me with a level exhilaration I had never experienced
Before we made it back to camp at around 11:30am we had seen and learnt lots of things, including watching a herd of 80-100 buffalo make their way across a flood plain which was exciting in many ways. Buffalo are often hunted by lions- so where were they? Buffalo are also incredibly temperamental and so whenever some of the herd did spot us we were fairly rooted to our spot, staying as still as possible however ‘their eyesight is terrible…’ informed Dave. After a refreshing ginger beer we were seated at the table for a light quiche and salad lunch whilst we chatted about various park politics and big game hunting with Dave. Once Dave had finished telling us the stories he had on the now, and very sadly, famous lion, Cecil, who he had filmed and tracked multiple times during the lions life, we retreated to our tents for a siesta and to hide from the blazing 42 degree heat that the Zimbabwean sun was now throwing at us. Now a siesta is not easy at John’s Camp for two particular reasons.
Firstly, the tent has slowing been cooking for many hours in the sun and is akin to an Aga by the time you lie on your bed (take two kikoys, wet them, lie on them, sleep on them.) And secondly, the wildlife is nonstop. My tent was roughly 15 metres from a pool/watering hole and by the time I was comfortable in my bed, the same family of 3 elephants walked right past the front of the tent to my amazement. I spent the next half an hour taking photos and just sitting on the edge of my bed perplexed as to what I was witnessing. A further couple of elephants had joined and they were splashing each other with the muddy water whilst a few warthogs stood and watched, a safe distance away, so as not to get caught up with the giants.
Once I had finally managed to get a quick nap in, it was 3:30pm and time for a quick tea and a slice of cake before our afternoon walk in the bush. Dave is a lover of the colonial times and no matter what time of day, he’s keen for tea. With drinks and cake finished we set out on foot, straight from the camp this time. We hadn’t gone far when Dave suddenly hears the warning calls of birds, spots a group of Impala acting up and knows that we can’t be too far from a lion- and we are on foot. Sadly, we can’t find it and as we found out later in the day, we had actually walked around it. Anyways, c’est la vie, we continued to walk and once again found ourselves a short distance from more elephants, hippos, sable antelope all whilst under the watchful eye of baboons, fish eagles and the odd duggerboy (an aged male buffalo who cannot compete with the other in his herd so segregates himself to live out his life on his own).
Mana Pools is a remarkable place, never have I felt so irrelevant to nature and yet the park was about to deliver its master piece- the sunset. We had been surrounded by bush on the first evening but on the second evening, Dave had walked us to a spot about 1.5km from the camp, where the flood land banks curve around to an almost 90 degree turn, to the give us the chance to look back down the mighty Zambezi river and across the floodplains that the camp looks over. Obee had driven the vehicle to this spot, and had set up four chairs and a table with cups, ice, and gin and tonic. Beers were found en masse in the cool box besides the table should one want. It was here that we sat and drank gin and tonics whilst watching hippos yawn and moan whilst crocodiles avoided them and further down, two elephants made their way across the river to fresher pastures while a huge glowing fireball proceeded to sink behind the hills of the Zambian escarpment.
Having been fortunate to have traveled all over the world and seen some incredible sights, Milford Sound in New Zealand, Ayers Rock in Australia, The Great Wall of China, Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, nothing fused the beauty of nature and wildlife like Mana Pools did. It really is a place that will sit firmly in anybody’s top three sites in the world, I’m sure. For me, it sits happily at the top and I advise anyone to give this small corner of Zimbabwe a chance because, despite the bad press that the country has received over the last decade, this place is in a league of its own.