Mangwanani! Mana Pools

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Mangwanani! Mana Pools

Morning! Early bird catches the worm. We’d be there when the gates open. That’s what we thought. But of course in Africa that seldom happens. We could not have known that the fuel shortages were about to commence. Eventually, we made it to the Mana Gate and then we had to negotiate the incredibly rutted and corrugated dirt roads. After 3 hours on the road we spotted the office. Hoorah! We’d made. In one piece.

The joy of having a camper van must surely be the quick setting up once one arrives at ones destination. One, two, three. Up with the gazebo. Out with the fold-up table, chairs out, table cloth on and the barman was ready to serve ice cold drinks. No fuss, no bother.

(The photograph of the Honey Badger was taken by wildlife photographer Trevor Beckett)

Although we were fully aware that spring in Mana was eventful, we had no idea that we’d have elephant in our campsite almost every day. There we were having a quiet lunch facing the river’s sluggish meander when Butch announces “Maricha, there’s an elephant behind you!” He wasn’t behind me, he was virtually on top of me. In one leap I went from my chair into the Honey Badger’s front seat. Butch was a little more controlled and received a slobbery, wet, nuzzle on his sleeve from the Big Guy. He was very interested in our lunch. With presence of mind Butch showed him he was bigger than he was by lifting his arms and shooing him off. He took the rebuff in his stride, turned around and ambled off. But in his wake he’d overturned a chair and our dishwashing stand sending crockery and cutlery flying.

After that leisurely, but very eventful luncheon, and we’d restored order and stopped chattering like magpies we headed out on our first game drive. The day had only just started and if one could measure the adrenalin rushes within the first few hours we were in for the time of our lives.

 My eyes were peeled and my camera ready and loaded to get the first shot. We’d hardly done 3kms when Butch pipes up “Maricha, look! There’s a Boomslang looking at me.” I don’t do snakes. In fact I suffer from Ophidiophobia and will display all the classic signs which are: Anxiety attacks. Screaming. Crying. Difficulty breathing. Trembling. Increased heart rate all in a matter of seconds. I don’t know which made Butch more nervous, me or the snake which was slithering out from behind the side mirror all along the outer edge towards us and the open window! Butch took swift action and quickly rolled up the window. He knew his life was at stake. This didn’t put Mr. Snake off. In fact it encouraged him to slither his way up onto the roof of the truck. To cut a long story short Butch with the help of four nervous guides did a thorough inspection of the vehicle and declared it safe and clean of adders. I had my doubts but kept schtum.

Why Mana Pools in September? Well that’s when the elephant snack on the dry Acacia albida pods which is held sacred by the Africans of Southern Africa. In Nigeria, the pod is used as camel food and in Zimbabwe the elephant (monkeys and baboons too) love them. Zimbabweans use the pods to stupefy fish and locals eat the boiled seeds in times of scarcity. Apparently it is erroneously taken as an indicator of a shallow well site.

A valuable medicinal herb which is reported to serve as an emetic in fevers (Masai), taken for diarrhoea in Tanganyika. Also used for colds, diarrhoea, haemorrhage, and ophthalmic in West Africa. The bark of the Ana tree is a folk remedy for diarrhoea among several tribes. On the Ivory Coast it is used for leprosy. The bark decoction curtails nausea. A liniment, made by steeping the bark, is used for bathing and massage in pneumonia. The bark infusion is used for difficult delivery, and is used as a febrifuge for coughs (Irvine, 1961). Pods are worn as a charm by African women and children to avert smallpox.

Elephant shake the trees or reach up into the hightest branches to collect these delicacies. Interestingly we observed an Elephant cow teaching her calf to debark and ingest some of the fibres too. Animals instinctively know what’s best for them.

During this time the African wild dog pups are released from their dens, are taught how to hunt and survive in the wilds, to ultimately become independent.
”The African wild dog (Lycaon pictus), also known as the painted hunting dog, painted wolf, African hunting dog or African painted dog, is a canid native to sub-Saharan Africa. It is the largest of its family, and the only extant member of the genus Lycaon, which is distinguished from Canis by dentition highly specialised for a hyper carnivorous diet, and a lack of dewclaws. It was classified as endangered by the IUCN in 2016, as it had disappeared from much of its original range. The 2016 population was estimated at roughly 39 subpopulations containing 6,600 adults, only 1,400 of which were reproductive. The decline of these populations is ongoing, due to habitat fragmentation, human persecution and disease outbreaks.

The African wild dog is a highly social animal, living in packs with separate dominance hierarchies for males and females. Uniquely among social carnivores, the females rather than the males scatter from the natal pack once sexually mature and the young are allowed to feed first on carcasses. The species is a specialised diurnal hunter of antelopes, which it catches by chasing them to exhaustion. Like other canids, it regurgitates food for its young, but this action is also extended to adults, to the point of being the bedrock of African wild dog social life. It has few natural predators, though lions are a major source of mortality and spotted hyenas are frequent kleptoparasites.” From Wikipedia.

We were fortunate enough to observe from a distance these spectacular animals on a few occasions. We were told that the pack was reduced to 4 adults (1 female and three males) last year. The female produced a litter of 5 pups. A few weeks ago we were informed that the pups had all been hunted by lions. Whether this is true or not is unsure as rumours abound on the bush telegraph.

Because the rainy season had yet to begin, only expected in October/November, there was very little water inland and the grazing was quite poor resulting in herds of zebra, impala, buffalo, gemsbok, kudu etc., moving down to the river and the famous Mana Pools which are home to crocodile and teeming with pods of hippo. An exceptional time to view game at close quarters.

Mana Pools is renowned and unique because guests are encouraged to walk in the veld. Many species of animal have become quite habituated and allow guides with guests to move freely to observe.

It is accepted that people on foot will always be mindful, respectful and NEVER enter the animal’s space unexpectedly causing them harm or to retaliate. It is accepted that the animals are aware of us humans long before we even notice them, but, on occasion, both parties can be surprised, it is then that humans become endangered. To outrun a wild animal is pointless and if one’s not careful you could become that day’s meal!

We had four weeks to observe, enjoy, laze around, de-stress and be in nature. We were ready to give it our best shot. Everyone who’s been to Mana will tell you about the unique light. During the dry season animals, vehicles and feet kick up a lot of dust. The dusty haze envelopes everything and at sunrise and sunset during the golden and blue hours the forests seem to be shrouded in a blue haze.

While we were there a bush fire raged for two weeks on the Zambia side of the river burning everything in its wake from the West to the east until it had turned on itself. The air was engulfed with smoke which also added another dimension to sunsets and sunrises. The Zambezi river would quite literally be a river of gold, blood red or coppery orange as the sun broke through the haze.

Herds of elephant, antelope, buffalo, and impala all impressed us with their antics.

The Pools were inundated with large pods of hippopotami, crocodiles and water birds.  To see hippos grazing on the riverbank was unusual during the heat of the day.

Birds were plentiful although we were disappointed by the few raptors and very few lilac breasted rollers (my favourite). Carmine bee eaters were arriving for their summer visit and we saw a few of them nesting in the riverbank.

The leopards eluded us and we weren’t lucky enough to see them although we did have a few lovely encounters with different prides of lion. One particular pride had all our attention while we picnicked one day and as we settled to have our lunch they came trooping past sending Marie’s brunch into orbit.

Monkeys kept us on our toes as they raided open tents, unattended vehicles and any food that could be snatched in seconds they’d have; thank you very much. The new borns were my fascination this time, they’re so photogenic. Their ears are almost translucent. They’re inquisitive, bright as buttons, affectionate and cute as can be.

I loved our early morning game viewing trips, where we’d hike out, sometimes to see the dogs, to follow a herd of buffalo or to observe elephant doing their circus acts, Boswell standing on his hind legs to reach into the highest reaches of trees.

Sundowner drives are always spectacular because then the skies take centre stage with their jewel colours lighting the skies, reflecting into the water and turning the forests into a fairyland.

Some of the most spectacular trees grow in the park and they're irresistable. Hugging a tree becomes a compulsive desire as the energy they exude touches us inexplicably.  They are remarkable.  There is a fear that the pods  being consumed by elephant will prevent seeds sprouting and new stock taking root.  The young plants are also quickly spotted and are favourite amongst elephant and other grazers.

Some of my favourite hours were spent in our camp where we’d be constantly entertained by warthogs, monkeys, elephant, squirrels and impala. Being able to sit back or work at my computer and look up and enjoy nature was unbelievably special. The quiet is addictive and we’d sometimes just read, nap or snap either in our hammock or in a director’s chair, depending on our mood.

Here is a short video of an unexpected encounter with an elephant.

Although I found four weeks at Mana Pools a tad long, three weeks would’ve been sufficient to get a good feel of this special place. It’s only now that I’m back home, working on my photographs that I become nostalgic.

We experienced a very emotional few minutes during our departure, the dogs came to say goodbye.  Being shy made it all the more special as they appeared out of the scrub, trotted onto the road, looked at us, turned and ran off.  Fleeting, almost like a whisper.  Sara Zvakanaka (goodbye) and maita zvenyu (Thank you) Mana Pools you did not disappoint.

It is only when you're in nature that you truly see and experience how awesome it is.