The Company We Keep

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The Company We Keep

It's true, birds of a feather flock together. Just like Lilian's Lovebirds.  Although we travel very well together and comfortably do it without company we were delighted to know that we would not be alone for the entire time we were in Mana. We are social animals after all and I definitely need human contact and interaction. My beloved is an inspiring raconteur and I love his stories but, it’s when he has an audience that he comes alive.

Driving in convoy with us from Worcester were friends from Hermanus whom we’ve done previous trips with and an absolute pleasure to be with. Easy, uncomplicated and of similar tastes and philosophies we knew we’d be happy campers with them.

Chris is a keen birder and very observant, often spotting interesting sights which he’d relay once we were all together.

Marie is a fixer and organiser and within minutes could instruct, teach and mentor our “camp manager”, Marko, a young, unemployed 22 year old Zimbabwean,  who managed our campsite during the day when we were off game viewing.  Marko, such a dignified young man stuck in a quagmire of hopeless helplessness and political insecurity.

It was interesting and very insightful chatting to him, he proudly informed us that he’d passed his O levels, but, to date had never been employed. What’s more his prospects were bleak and had visions of getting to Cape Town to seek employment. It broke my heart to see him reading his tiny, matchbox sized Bible every day as he was an avid reader. I gifted him a book, my copy of The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, a remarkable story of endurance. Sadly, he told Marie he was unable to read the book as he could not understand the words. This I found upsetting too as it’s widely known and believed that no matter how awful Robert Mugabe was he did strive to have a good education system in Zimbabwe. He didn’t, he failed at that too.

Hopelessness is as debilitating, and I could see his despondency, lack of interest, even in the world around him. He was often unenthusiastic about his future, the country or his prospects. What will become of him? It breaks my heart to even contemplate the scenarios.

Occasionally one meets someone and you know your fate has been sealed. The result could swing both ways of course, it may not be a very good outcome. I knew Butch had met a friend when he came home one day and said he’d met Trevor Beckett, a guy from Zimbabwe. Butch had put the word out on a Group called “Friends of Mana Pools” asking about various things pertaining to our trip. Trevor had responded and the two started communicating. Two years down the line and we’ve become fast friends with this most helpful and hospitable couple. Nothing is too much trouble, too difficult or unsolvable. Kind, energetic and full of schemes is our Trevor.

His passion is Mana Pools. A retired butcher, philanthropist and keen wildlife photographer. Trevor knows Mana like the back of his hand and will enthusiastically share his knowledge and point anyone in the right direction. We spent many enjoyable hours with him and Essie his partner.

One fine day we arrived home to find Butch's friend and colleague setting up his rig. Beertrix had it all. We watched in amazement as Bryan singlehandedly set up his camp. There was not a thing lacking.

I thought I was organised, but, had to swallow my pride when his potted herbs came out from the back seat. All the way from Woolies in the Waterfront. Lemon verbena, Italian parsley, Mint, Origanum, Rocket and Rosemary. Impressive. Sadly they didn’t last very long but did manage to garnish a few Gin and Tonics served in Mother’s best crystal cut glass. The merry monkeys had a go and that was them done. Wine was chilled in a silver ice bucket, tables were set with beautiful linen napery. This was taking Glamping to a new level.  Bryan was such lovely company, his meals delicious (his fires are awesome), his stories brilliant and a remarkable spirit of adventure.

The Wild dogs of Mana are constantly under the spotlight, just recently the BBC was there documenting them and even Sir David Attenborough flew in for a five day recce and orientation, presumably to better narrate his story.

Thomas, a Zimbabwean game ranger stationed at Mana Pools is the man on the ground.  The monitor and gamekeeper.  With an old Land Rover and even older set of “Bunny ears”, a fuel allowance of 100litres Thomas steadfastly keeps an eye on their movements and tries to enforce crowd control. Stuck on the back of his drab olive green vehicle is a faded and almost illegible Sponsored by British Airways sticker. With the best of intentions Thomas does his job and reports his findings which he conscientiously records in an ancient log book. I picked up quite a few tidbits listening to Thomas as he informed us about the dogs.  On occasion he would swerve by and ask us whether we’d seen the dogs and could we give him their whereabouts.  I think he’s fighting a losing battle, BA will forget about the guy in Africa and the funds will just dwindle away.

It is always interesting to observe the dynamics of new relationships especially when one of the party is a “Virgin” camper. A few days later, in a cloud of dust friends arrived, who decided to join us on the spur of the moment, just a day before our departure. With a newly fitted rig things can become complicated. Not to them. It only took a few days to have the cogs turning smoothly and they had setting up their rooftop tent down pat.

The Madam, Carolyn, she is a caterer, owns a very successful company specialising in spectacular Kosher cuisine. It didn’t take long before we were all roped in to chop, slice,dice, beat, mix, knead, grill, braai and even pickle. With utmost confidence lessons were given in bread baking, dessert making and flipping pancakes.

In a separate pantry tent all her supplies were kept in numbered ammo boxes. I do believe one could ask for anything and it would magically appear from a box. I was impressed. In my minimalist kitchen things were definitely different. From this tent gourmet meals were whipped up.

With an ease they playfully communicated, taught, mentored as each one learnt something from the other. He to become more familiar with a chopping block and knife, she with setting up a camp, getting to know birds, their calls and habitats, this she did with enthusiasm. It’s seldom that one sees a nice girl from Oranjezicht going native so to speak. A good attitude is half the battle won.

We all have that one friend that will never let us down even when the odds are stacked up against them. On a few occasions I had to remind Butch, the pessimist, that Bronny, once she’s given her word and made a commitment, will never let us down. Wild horses can’t stop this girl! With every obstacle against her and Lorraine these two warriors made it to Mana Pools. We were impressed.

Their journey started in Somerset West. The rest of the journey went something like this: Port Elizabeth, Orania, Botswana, Bulawayo, and Mana Pools. The one an ex-pat who, as a child, experienced the magic of Zimbabwe, had vowed to return and did. The other a seasoned traveller, city slicker and newbie at camping, overlanding, 4x4’ing and roughing it. With camping gear borrowed from friends they set up camp in a jiffy. Karin Blixen would’ve been impressed.

With a bucket, mop and disinfectant they tackled the ablutions, taught the cleaner a thing or two and set to work making it as spic and span as the place allows. With good grace they cleaned up the carnage in their tent after the monkeys had raided it and made off with many of their supplies. Without a working refrigerator they had to rethink their meals and make do with fewer luxuries. Imagine a lukewarm Gin and tonic! I can’t.

Being in nature surpassed all the difficulties and inconveniences as they took it all in. Saw the dogs, hiked, enjoyed sundowners watching lions rouse themselves as the blood orange sun set and witnessed the ferociousness of a cold blooded killer, the crocodile, a species that has survived for millions of years unchanged. They even managed to sleep notwithstanding the nocturnal critters, hyenas and midges that lurked when the lights went out.  With good grace they weathered every storm and when they should've cried in frustration they laughed uproariously.

Stories are written about Big Game Hunters, the allure of their escapades romantised and embellished around campfires. We met such a man! Jeremy, a professional hunter and guide. To capture an audience one has to have the right ingredients, adventurous stories and the gift of the gab. He had them all in abundance. He'd been shot at, mauled by leopard, charged by elephant and lion, had to outrun a herd of buffalo and had malaria and bilharzia more times than is humanly possible and survived. Has been married, engaged, divorced and his family tragically lost a farm during land invasions. A list of misadventures as long as his arm. Jeremy has the ingredients for a best seller.

I hung on his every word and loved it! Not only a convincing raconteur but an accomplished butcher and cook too. With a twinkle in his eye, confidence galore and hutzpah by the bucket loads he charmed us, this hard drinking, smoking, gun slinging young man who knew about survival and living his best life, dodging bullets to tell these tales to his captivated audience. Jeremy, I'm sure, will never be in short supply of stories and amazing adventures.  There's no love lost between him and SA of course, on his very fist day in Durban he survived an attempted highjacking at gunpoint  You're a peach Jeremy, as you said "only a bullet will stop you"!

Sometimes you have to sit under a tree, next to two strangers, when a huge snake falls upon you to meet up. Poor Dillan Prinsloo and his friend Bhavik had not had an easy time of it. Their tent and much of their camping equipment had been thoroughly trashed by the baboons and monkeys. Even their tent was in shreds. Fortunately they had two good Samaritans next to them who’d offer them their kitchen tent for the night.

We had visitors for supper! John Le Carrè eat your heart out. We had someone working for HMG in our midst. Bhavik our man in Kigali. Can’t say more. As difficult as it is to swallow it was more difficult to wrap my head around his age. A mere child, with degrees and a job books are written about. A constant gardener indeed. He was entertaining, witty and clever. I did assure him his secrets would be safe with me!

Dillan is a wildlife and commercial photographer, videographer and documentary filmmaker in Zimbabwe. A delightful, kind, soft-spoken man with a passion for wildlife and his country. Do look out for his YouTube videos, this guy is going places.

We went for walks with Dave an excellent guide, friendly, helpful, knowledgeable and willing to share his expertise with us too.  It does not often happen that I am in the right place at the right time, but, I was when the elephant did a mock charge while Dave and his guests were walking.  An adrenalin rush moment.

Mark, who specialises in Canoe safaris stopped for a chat one day too. He is busy rebuilding a vintage Unimog, an ex-military truck with his son and hopes to do a trip one day.

I was flattered every time someone knocked on our door asking whether they may take a look around. I loved the “this is like an apartment in Paris” by the very dashing Frenchman. His friend thought it had a good Zen and then she wondered if I was OCD! That was a backhander.

On a few occasions we had interludes with Stretch Ferreira the Mana guru who’d swan around our truck singing its praises. I must confess it was music to my ears. I found his knowledge and interaction with the animals phenomenal and it must be an extraordinary experience to walk with him. He is very caring of his clients and certainly does go all out to meet their expectations.

But in life everything is not always hunky-dory and at times we all have to deal with the gung-ho types, very unpleasant people like the guy who would barge in at a breakneck speed disregarding other vehicles. An NGO from Harare who swerved around us as we were leaving, with the intention of racing past before he realised we’d stopped for the pack of Wild dogs and then came to a screeching halt blocking our view. He didn’t give a hoot. Fortunately, he had a powerful 4X4, was in a dreadful hurry and left soon after in a hail of gravel and a cloud of dust.

My mother did teach me that unless one has something nice to say it’s best to shut up. But, I am still smarting at the belligerent way our “neighbours” who’d participated at the game count came waltzing over to read us the riot act. Apparently we’d caused a disturbance the night before, robbing the Fräulein of her beauty sleep. We were flabbergasted and sat there open-mouthed as she proceeded to tell us how to behave in  camp, when we should have lights out. When we found our tongues and told her we’d certainly not made a noise she turned on her heel, not believing a word we’d said, repeating our argument to her sullen accomplice and sidekick with a smirk.

We’d just had a superb meal which turned to acid as she ruined our evening. The real culprits were sound asleep, quiet as mice under the next tree, they needed their beauty sleep.

So with this mix of friends and a few enemas (they weren’t enemies) we managed to have the time of our lives mostly around the fire or at our dining table over a good glass of wine or under a tree with a deliciously cold gin and tonic where we’d laugh, tell stories, recount our days while feasting on delicious mezze platters or meals fit for a king. There were times too when I’d spy someone napping in a chair, swinging in a hammock or with a good book, scribbling in a diary or mixing paints recording something which caught their eye. If it was my day off I’d hear the staccato of a knife hitting a chopping block or the sudden burst as a flame ignited or a kettle whistled. I would lazily close my eyes and think for a while. Content.

Watching Butch put up his hammock is a treat.  One of the few things Butch insists has to be packed everytime we go somewhere, it certainly gives us a good laugh.  A grand production. 
PS The photographs of Beertrix, Jeremy and Dillan I copied from Facebook without permission.  On this trip I mostly used my wildlife lens and I was concentrating on the animals rather than humans.  My Videos recorded our human interactions.