Yesterday, our second day at Mana Pools was as productive as could be asked for. We awoke at dawn (about 6AM) and massed for some coffee and tea prior to departure on a morning game drive and walk. Waking up to a fire overlooking the Zambezi River is hard to beat. The temperature during this time of year is just right for mornings and evenings. With daytime temperatures reaching as high as the low 70’s, shorts are appropriate by about mid morning. Sitting around the fire in the early morning hours the temperature was probably about 55 degrees as well as in the evening, maybe 50 degrees. The climate in this part of the world continues to impress me despite a decade of coming here.
Stretch was determined to see lion and elephant on foot and such set out again to track lion. He and some of the other guests had heard lion the night prior (I was asleep the whole night and heard nothing) so he felt confident about our chances for a sighting this morning. Not 200 yards from the campsite he came across the lions tracks so we set off on foot in pursuit. Along the way Stretch stopped at a hippo
pool where we enjoyed the advantage of viewing it from high ground. He was hopeful we could enjoy some reaction from the hippos so given our protective high ground, we ventured close to the edge of the pool. We all sensed that the big bull was getting agitated as he stared at us and began his typical territorial call. The sound is similar in strength to that of a Harley Davidson motorcycle. Over and over he grunted until finally he came completely out of the water and lunged at us in an act of aggression. Given the place from which we viewed the display we enjoyed the intimacy of the moment yet from a point well out of harm’s way.
As we scanned over the same water hole, Stretch and Mark broke out their binoculars. Soon thereafter, Mark saw the big two male lions in the distance. We were fortunate Mark saw them as they were well off into the distance, perhaps 500 yards. Like a man who had just seen his first lion Stretch showed the excitement of a young boy and exclaimed, “Let’s get serious”. He picked up his .375 rifle and lead us on a long walk of about 45 minutes behind the watering hole separating us from the lions in order to make sure we were downwind from the animals. As we approached where we thought the animals lay Stretch reviewed the rules for engagement with us which were 1) under no circumstances could we run 2) no talking and 3) let him know if one of us was uncomfortable. Everyone in our group had taken part in a walking safari so we were ready to go. Stretch came upon the large bushes where he thought the lions were resting and approached the side of these bushes as a policeman would have approached possibly armed criminals. He was walking on eggshells and with me in the second position just behind him I began to feel the heat of the moment. My anxiety was only increased when Stretch could not find the lions. I thought my concern was high enough when we were pursuing lions on foot which we had seen but that feeling was superseded by pursuing lions we now could not find.
Stretch called back for us to retreat to a felled tree for what I thought was a break where he would tell
us the lion pursuit was off now. In a very casual way he then told us he had seen the 2 male lions around some other bushes and we would now be approaching them from downwind. He massed us behind a mopane tree and let us all see where the lions were resting in the shade. They were but 100 yards away and Stretch then lined up Mark, Peter and me to begin crawling on our asses towards the lion. There was a termite mound at about the halfway point and Stretch wanted us to inch towards this spot. So, the three of us took off in good sight of the lions. We closed the distance to perhaps 75 yards when one of the males perked up from his rest and stared hard in our direction. Being eye level with these boys was a different feeling altogether. Just as Stretch predicted, the lions, once they saw us, got up and moved off into another direction. For all the fear these animals present in the minds of humans I have seen over and over again that the advice Stretch gave about all animals being very skittish about things they d not recognize in daylight once again came true. The same message stands on its head when the sun sets when animals realize they have the advantage and what they do not recognize they will come to investigate. The feeling of pursuing these beats on foot, seeing them and then moving closer is a wonderful experience and one I am glad to have enjoyed.
The lion pursuit took most all the morning so we then headed back to the vehicle and back to camp. The meals here are to be appreciated given the remoteness of the location as well as the lack of electricity. The entire camp is setup from scratch each April and taken down again in November. A visit to the kitchen proved to be meaningful in understanding the efforts of the cooks. The view of the river from the kitchen was better than the view from any kitchen in the US or elsewhere but the vista was offset by its simplicity. There was a large, conventional gas cook stove and oven, as well as sink with running water which sounds like all that is needed in addition to a few tables but to walk into such a place allowed me to fully appreciate the culinary delights served just on the other side of the reed wall. The cook, Richard, was a local and he served up everything from au gratin potatoes to marinated pork to
salads to freshly baked bread rolls to chocolate cake for dessert.
The dinner table, complete with white sand floor, sat but 10 feet from the edge of the river and used the canopy of a large mopane tree as a ceiling. Our group dove into a late breakfast of cereals, fruit, cheeses, eggs, sausage, bacon, potatoes and all that usually goes with the safari style breakfast yet we I
could not imagine a place further from the ease of an urban kitchen. Stretch opened up with a few more stories about his animal encounters and when opportunities for merriment arose the group was fortunate enough to take in the laugh that I wish all could have heard. It has often been said that married couples can begin to resemble one another in appearance after a number of years but in this case it may be a case of animal and man. Stretch’s laugh sounded much to me like that of a hippo call. This association can be hard to make for both the non African visitor as well as the person who frequents safaris. The former cannot imagine the sound of the hippo and the latter cannot imagine the call of the hippo has a human imitator. Rachel and I had a hard time concentrating on the stories at the table if Stretch began to then laugh. His laugh was both a pleasure to hear and also quite infectious.
Another warm outdoor shower at my tent was accompanied by a one hour nap before we headed out for our afternoon game walk.
Stretch was interested in finding us another intimate animal encounter and this time he was concentrating on elephant although I still find it hard to believe one can “concentrate” on finding anything except what is presented as it may show itself. Yet, having watched Stretch work over the last day and a half I had no trouble doubting his ability to find what he wanted.
We were now 7 in our group, all of whom had settled in quite nicely with one another. I continued to feel fortunate having been able to share these last few nights and days all with citizens of Harare. Their stories and perspective were of interest to me and all consuming during the times away from the game walks. I was the only person on the vehicle who was not a resident of Harare.
We took a few circuitous routes around the reserve offering us glimpses into the variety of topography. At the shoreline of the Zambezi, the ground was flat, sandy and offered plenty of tree cover from large mopanes. As we drove further inland a few kilometers the trees were not as large but the bush still thick until we then came upon the areas in which walking safaris are so popular. The ground then opened up to offering as smaller number of bigger trees, open plains and a proliferation of large watering holes allowing the opportunity to see and stalk game from long distance. Game does not like to be surprised so the extended viewing opportunities were a bonus to both us and the animals when we approached. It was not too long thereafter that Stretch stopped the Land Rover at one of the larger pools (Mana Pools means four pools in the local Shona language). Stretch redirected us back along our same tracks and I was bit confused as to why until we created a small hill and there below us was a full grown bull elephant eating the water hyacinths from the pool. Stretch delayed little in walking straight up, over and down the hill onto the pool’s edge where he rested but 20 feet from the elephant. Stretch spoke a little bit to make sure the lone bull knew we were there. The big fellow did take notice of us and took a few steps our way in waters up to the top of his legs.
I huddled in behind Stretch and by the time the bull stopped coming our way he was but 10 feet from us. At this vantage point the elephant was at eye level with us and this perspective offered yet another experience for me. I could tell we group of humans was a bit anxious except for Stretch who looked as comfortable as a man in his favorite chair at home. We all sat on the bank for 30 minutes or so while the elephant went back to feeding, extending his trunk to its greatest length, choosing the best hyacinths with the tip of his nimble appendage and then bringing the morsels up to his mouth. The elephant hardly broke stride as we took in our front row seat. This afternoon session took us right into a rapidly retreating sunset, a sight we all enjoyed during the drive back to camp.
The view of the setting sun over the mountains in Zambia with the mighty Zambezi in the foreground is a view, I would imagine, that never gets old. The hues of red, blue, purple, yellow and orange filled the sky as we sat around the campfire.
This particular evening turned out to be especially entertaining with a braai in order with such copious amounts of meat and fish for ingestion I surmised it could not all be eaten. Stretch manned the fire and with drinks flowing and guests of Ruth and Mark’s onsite, the stories ripened as the sky turned dark. Rory and Mel Hoal joined us and immediately Rory came to life when I asked him about the history of Zimbabwe and Rhodesia. Rory and Mel are about 65 years old and spent their lives in Rhodesia and Zimbabwe aside from Mel’s youth in Cape Town. Ruth told me that Mel’s father was the conductor of the Cape Town orchestra during her childhood. I managed to gain some immediate credibility when Rory asked me when Rhodesia claimed its first right to shed itself of Commonwealth status and I properly answered 1922. I could see that he was quite surprised with my correct answer and thus carried on with his history lesson, perhaps somewhat elevated in content due to my answer to his inquiry. Rory went on to tell me that there is a document (not of interest to the UK government to be advertised) which shows that the Rhodesian government “purchased” the farms of Rhodesia from England for a sum of 2 million British Pounds in 1922. While this documentation is now public the powers that be keep it from being front page news lest the UK government become accountable to pay back the white farmers for the farms they have lost to land invasions since 2000.
Stretch filled the evening with a number of stories as we all ate our meals of boerwors, lamb chops, fish from the river, potatoes, spinach and salad while surrounding the fire. We all retired into our tents by about 11PM and readied ourselves with slumber for the final morning of our stay at Goliath Safaris on the banks of the Zambezi River.