MANA POOLS 2014
An incredible 3 week trip which I’ve rambled on about below, I hope you enjoy the read.
For those interested, I have inserted some video clips. The night footage I’ve edited from the camera trap is particularly worth a view but preferably with the sound up & a pair of headphones. Listen out for lions & scops owl 🙂
Link for camera trap video….
Day 1 Jo’burg – Kwa Nokeng Lodge
Woohoooo, officially on leave, home to change & throw last of stuff into car. Onto the highway at 3.45, we were on our way. Traffic through Pretoria was a bit messy and probably added a good 45 mins to the trip. Besides a refuel after we’d got through the congestion north of Pretora we drove non-stop to Martinsdrift. Driving at night is never wise in Africa, but besides a near miss with a donkey ambling across the road, we arrived with no mishaps. Border processes on SA side were super quick, Bots side was a different story, but we eventually cleared through by 9.30pm and rolled into Kwa Nokeng lodge to meet up with our travel buddies, Xen & Adri.
Day 2 – Kwa Nokeng – Hunters Rd
Up at 7am to a refreshing shower after a sleep deprived night. Woken up several times by an annoying chain saw going in the bedroom next door…. Cooked breakfast on the deck of the restaurant overlooking the Limpopo with fish eagles flying overhead, giving that haunting call that signifies to any well seasoned traveller that they are officially in the African bush. I am officially in my element!!
Quick top up of fuel at Kwa Nokeng petrol station and we were on the road, ready for the 1st leg of our adventure….finding Hunters Road. After several vet check points, we eventually located the entry road, with the help of Tracks4Africa about 20 mins past Elephant Sands next to a picnic site.
The sand road took us east for a while before bearing north and we followed this until we reached the first big pan. As the light was fading, we decided to set up camp here as it had wide open space around the pan offering a good view if we had any visitors. This happened a lot sooner than anticipated, just as we’d opened the rooftop tents we suddenly realised we had 5 Ellie’s peering round a bush nearby, watching us intently. They then walked down to the waters edge with one of them coming within 10 meters of us, raising its trunk to sniff us out, a good shake of the head and flapping of ears to tell us to keep our distance and she then moved to the water. We were in awe, they drank and splashed right in front of us, not in the least bit worried.
They kept us company entire evening, about 40 of them coming down to drink. At one point as we were in deep conversation, an incredibly close, loud rumble rent the air. We flew out our chairs and moved to the car, convinced the Ellie was right on top of us. But we soon relaxed, realising there nothing to worry about. Eventually we settled in our tents to the sound of the rising wind.
Day 3 – Hunters Road – Sinamatella camp, Hwange
Up early after a terrible nights sleep, wind flapping the tent noisily all night, we packed up and headed back up Hunters Road, heading north. The track was smooth going and about an hour after leaving the camp site, we noticed a stationary vehicle up ahead with 3 very official looking guys standing next to it. Stopping to greet them, we were questioned on where we were going and informed that the road was gazetted and we shouldn’t be on it. So we played dumb which worked in our favour as he then gave us permission to carry on to Pandamatenga. The track was a good mix of corrugations, thick sand and smooth gravel. Wildlife was scarce with no further Ellie’s to be seen, we did however see a large herd of sable which was nice as the most we’ve seen in the wild is 4, in Hwange on a previous trip.
After rounding a corner, the road suddenly widened out to something similar to a. runway. Here we were able to put foot and managed to shave about 45 mins off our travel time.
Once we reached tar, we filled up at Pandamatenga and headed for the border post. Processes were quick on the Bots side, the Zim side however were far more thorough, handing out info sheets on the spread of Ebola, issuing TIP’s and checking vehicle documentation. Luckily they didn’t check inside the vehicles and they let us through with a friendly wave & big smiles.
The drive to Robins camp was no different to last year, dry & dusty. The camp was pretty much deserted, so it was a quick stop to pay for our 2 nights at Sinamatella & Main camp and we trundled onward. We had a good sighting of vultures picking at a carcass, with all the surrounding trees being used as outlooks by those not so hungry. We also saw a female giraffe with a tiny little mini me, too cute!
Sinamatella was a great campsite, situated high up on a hill with a beautiful view of the plain below. Fortunately it wasn’t too busy and we chose a spot right on the edge. We all legged it to the showers to wash off 2 days of dust from every crevice before settling down with a drink to the whooping of hyena’s in the distance. Dinner was the chicken skewers drenched in peanut sauce that I’d prepared at home….damn they were good.
Day 4 – Sinamatella – Main Camp
Sleep was marginally better last night with no wind but another bout of chain saws going off intermittently did intrude. The camp staff came over and had a good chat, telling us how things were improving in the park with more visitors and we also noticed the brand new Zim flags flying at each camp, not a frayed edge to be seen.
Camp packed up, we then headed out for a leisurely drive to Main Camp, stopping off at Mandavu Dam for lunch. Crocs, hippo’s & fish eagles were seen as well as rock dassies. Hidden in a tree in the car park we could hear a bird that sounded like it was having a case of complete hysterical laughter which we unfortunately didn’t manage to see. To this day, we still don’t know what it was…. 😦
A stop off at a waterhole gave us about 10 Ellie’s and we sat for a while watching them quietly, me putting the hired lens to the test…impressed!!
Arriving at Main Camp with a quick set up right next to the fence, AJ then got to work on my electric window, which had wound down and now refused to go up. Eventually he got it sorted, much to my relief. Manning a camera with a dodgy window was not my idea of fun!! Nor did i think it would keep the marouding baboons out of the car! Packing up everything before we went to bed, due to a very early start the next morning, we hit the sack.
Day 5 – Main Camp to Tashinga – Matusadona Nat. Park
Around 5am, we were woken up to extremely loud roars of a male lion. He must have been very close to the fence as I could hear his panting in between the roars. Then the clattering of the dustbin lid signified another visitor. Xen shone his torch out the tent and right next to us was a spotted hyena, raiding our rubbish. Grabbing an overflowing plastic bag, he hightailed it out of camp.
Up at 6am, and emerging from the ablution block, a honey badger ran across the grass in front of me. A real highlight as I hadn’t seen a honey badger in the wild for a long time.
On the road at 7am, we left Hwange behind and hit the tar, heading for Binga. Filling up in Binga at a fuel station that was unmarked, we made note for future trips. If Xen hadn’t pulled in there, we would have been none the wiser.
After refuelling, we backtracked 15kms and took a dirt road that would take us to Matusadona, a new destination for me. The road gradually narrowed and became much rougher terrain, but what an amazing drive.
Engaging low range through a few places as we got closer to Tashinga we frequently commented on how glad we were we had decided to leave the trailer behind. That would have made an already tough drive even more challenging!
I’ve attached a short YouTube clip of us bouncing noisily through a dry river bed, hence the “stony” silence..lol….
We drove through river beds, over rocks, up steep hills and down sharp descents….any off-road lover would have been in his element!
The scenery was breathtaking. The tsetse flies however, were not!
We eventually resorted to closed windows and the aircon took over. After a 10 hour drive to do 330kms we rolled into Tashinga campsite at about 5pm.
Heaven!!! Located on the shore of Lake Kariba with the sun dipping below the hills in the distance, fish eagles calling & hippo’s grunting, this was true beautiful Africa!
The climate had changed drastically…from a chilly start at Main Camp, here it was humid and much warmer. Setting about preparing dinner, we then relaxed with a chilled glass of wine to the sounds of the bush. A lone bull elephant wandered into camp and stayed with us for a couple of hours, grazing peacefully nearby, while the hippo’s grunted occasionally from the water.
Before bed, we set up the camera trap and threw some bones down nearby hoping to catch a nocturnal visitor during the night.
Shortly before I dozed off’ we could hear something walking on the dead leaves on the ground outside our tent followed by the crunching of bones. What would we see on the camera trap in the morning?
Day 6 – Tashinga campsite – Matusadona Nat. Park
Waking up around 6.00am to an empty tent, I lay there watching the sun coming up over the lake. The water was like a mirror, smooth & still without a ripple to be seen. Getting up I checked the camera trap and was disappointed. Set up too high a couple of leaves had triggered the camera and no images of wildlife to be seen. Lesson learnt!!
A pair of nesting fish eagles kept us entertained all day, constantly calling to each other. The hippo’s grunting was on-going as well as the woodland kingfisher.
With a day of rest, we spent the day relaxing in camp. AJ & I took a short drive to the reception office to pay our dues. The staff, as always in Zim, were incredibly friendly. $188 to camp for 2 nights, including park & vehicle fees for 4 of us. Cheaper than Hwange.
As we drove out the reception office, we passed a workshop housing several old off-road vehicles and tractors. Nestled amongst all this was a 30-year-old original Hummer which AJ fell in love with. For sale to the highest bidder, he reckoned as it stood….R5000.
While he was chatting to the guys in the work shop, a young black girl took a shine to me. She had the most gorgeous smile, and although there was a language barrier, she was the sweetest thing. I took my camera out the car and took a picture of her. She would not smile, much as I tried, but when I showed her picture to her, her face broke out into the biggest grin. After AJ had finished drooling, I gave her a bag of sweets. Her reaction was similar to a lottery win…. Just shows what we take for granted!
Back at camp AJ and I went for a walk along the shore. The water was incredibly warm, 28 deg easily, but we didn’t go too far, one never knows what’s lurking in the nearby bushes.
Sitting down to catch up my journal later that afternoon, I looked up to see 3 Ellie’s ambling into camp. Grabbing the camera we all stood dead still and the Ellie’s carried on with their business, not in the least bit worried.
Here’s a clip of the ellie wandering into our campsite….
At one point one of them walked to within 15m of us, shook his head at us, much like the Hunters Road situation, and then ambled off, obviously deciding we were no threat. They stayed in camp with us for a couple of hours before 2 of them disappeared into the bush. Three impala then suddenly came bounding past us, running along the shoreline & leaping into the air, backlit by the setting sun….too beautiful. Dotted along the shallow water, we saw 5 fish eagles perched on the dead trees sticking out the water. The birds called loudly to each other for about an hour, it was wonderful to hear.
Adri threw a poitjie together and we ate really early by our standards, 5pm, which was great, done & dusted before it was dark. The rest of the evening was spent chatting for a while before we packed away everything in preparation for a 6am departure. Bats flew in the trees above us, but no Scops owls to be heard….birds of prey have been seriously lacking so far, except for Fish Eagles & vultures. As we headed to the showers, Adri spotted a Side striped jackal in her torchlight and retrieving our towels off the line, we saw the same lone bull Ellie grazing calmly nearby.
Climbing into the tent, we immediately heard the jackal walking around near the vehicle. Perhaps we’d have better luck with the camera trap in the morning!
The lone Ellie had also made his way round to our tents and was grazing happily next to us. I was beginning to wonder if he was lonely and took some solace in our company…..
Day 7 – Tashinga campsite to Nyamepi – Mana Pools
Today was the day. Having been on the road for a week, we would finally arrive at Mana Pools. Up at 5am for a quick cuppa, we drove out of the campsite with a heavy heart. Tashinga had been everything I expected and more. I will definitely return, but stay for longer. A really beautiful spot that we’d had all to ourselves ….just us and the wildlife.
Leaving also meant we had to go back out the way we came in, so off we went, this time armed with Doom & Tabard to keep the blood-sucking, man-eating tsetse flies at bay.
3 & a half hours later, we reached the road to Karoi and headed East, managing to leave the annoying tsetse flies behind. Gravel road for the next 6 hrs was arduous to say the least, the volume of the music getting louder to drown out the rattles. But eventually we hit smooth pothole free tar, bliss!!
Into the heaving metropolis of markets & general dealers that is Karoi, we hit Spar for some provisions, taking our change in SA coins as they have no coins in Zim currency. Refuelling and grabbing a block of ice, we then headed north to Mana Pools.
With the road being the main route into Zambia through Chirundu Border Post, the trucks were plentiful. Slow, lumbering giants that crawled along creating a long backlog of cars. As we entered the Zambezi Escarpment, the burnt out wrecks at the side of the road and down the embankment were quite horrifying. Some poor buggers met a nasty end looking at the remains.
Pushed for time, we made the Parks Board office in Marongoro with 5 mins to spare, where we checked in and then carried on along the A1 before turning off 40kms from the Zambian border.
The road down to Nyamepi campsite, was quite honestly the worst I’ve ever driven. 70 kms of the worst corrugations in history! “The Tashinga road breaks cars….” the trip reports said. Bollocks, this bone shaker took the cake! It was so bad even the windscreen wipers started doing their own thing.
Driving into Mana National Park, it looked no different to any other park in winter – desperately dry & thirsty, until we got closer to the river, floodplains and the campsite. I have never in my life seen such an array of wildlife in one area just entering a campsite. Ellie’s with their youngsters were everywhere, eland grazing, waterbuck, impala, marabou storks by the flock, zebra, fish eagle & kudu, it was incredible. The vegetation too was like nothing I’ve seen before either. Huge canopies of trees everywhere, just like in the pictures I’d seen. It was so picturesque.
Arriving at reception to pay the vast park & vehicle fees, we had a brief panic as the envelope with the money in had disappeared. After a rather stressful 1/2 hour, it was located in the back of the car, after much bitching and moaning & by now it was too late as they’d locked up. We’d return in the morning, but while at reception, a female Ellie ambled calmly past with her extremely young baby. So newborn, it was still fluffy with an out-of-control little trunk waggling away in front of his face.
Eventually we located campsite 27, only to find it was already occupied. Bagging campsite C a bit further down the riverbank away from the crowds, we set up camp. It was heaven. The river was easily a km wide in places, with grassy, treed islands in the middle. Hippo’s were everywhere and extremely noisy. It was way beyond my expectations.
As darkness fell and we got dinner on the go, the first hyena was spotted lying in the road not far from us. As the evening wore on, more and more eyes were picked up in the torch lights. AJ and I hit the shower before bed, which was quite a walk from our campsite, given the darkness and the roving hyena’s. Walking back to the car afterwards, we saw a total of 4 hyena’s wandering around. Not phased by our presence, they kept a respectable distance. But the message was clear…”hurry up and go to bed so we can raid your campsite”. Setting up camera traps, we eventually retired, with the 4 hyenas still lurking nearby….ever the opportunists.
Day 8 – Nyamepi campsite
Waking up around 6.30 to the view of the Zambezi river and the hills in opposite Zambia was breathtaking. Sleep hadn’t been plentiful due to lions roaring in the distance all night, but knowing we had a day to relax in camp was good after yesterday’s long & hectic drive.
The vervet monkeys joined us at breakfast, watching us preparing food and coming up real close to us. They even sat playfully jumping towards us after we’d cleaned up, almost challenging us to a game. Two of them crawled under the braai grid and picked off last nights left overs while another sat trying to pry the lid off the kettle. They were very entertaining to watch. The rest of the day was spent chilling in camp, reading & sleeping until 3pm where we heading off to reception to pay our park & vehicle fees & 3 bundles of wood – $317 for 10 nights for 2 of us.
Setting off for a late afternoon drive, we took the route to Mana Mouth & the River Loop. We saw a slender mongoose, kingfishers, a great sighting of 2 nile monitors, bee-eaters and as we headed back towards camp, the sun began to drop and the trees took on a beautiful orange hue providing an almost canvas painting backdrop to the Ellie’s, buffalo and various buck dotted everywhere. A skeleton tree proved a handy landing spot for about 15 marabou storks, a scene reminiscent of The Jungle Book.
Collecting more firewood at reception, we headed back to camp to get dinner on the go. Around 7pm, we spotted a hippo grazing quietly 15m from us and the hyena’s gradually made their presence known, while lion could be heard roaring in the distance to the east. Dodging the hippo we made a bee-line for the shower, noticing him standing right behind the ablution block once we’d finished.
Sleep alluded me once in to the tent due to a pulled muscle in my back. Around 1.30am, I heard crunching of dead leaves as something large walked very close to the car. Listening to heavy breathing & footfalls, at first I thought it was an Ellie. But then the fun began… The most guttural snarling began, right next to the car. Was it lion? Then followed an almost donkey-like braying. By now we were both wide awake and wondering what the hell was outside. Soon Xen & Adri were also muttering from their tent and I was sure by now the entire campsite was awake. A bright flashlight from Xen’s tent soon picked out the cause of the commotion. A mere 10 meters from our tent stood 2 hippo’s, face to face in the midst of either a territorial battle or sexual advances, it was difficult to tell. The noise was deafening! And it went on for about an hour. Not even the various illuminations from other campers torches deterred these 2. It was something I will never forget. We were the last vehicle in the line of campers and they’d chosen our vehicle to have their tete-a-tete with. What an experience! Eventually the noise died down and was finally stilled by 2 belly flops into the river. Peace reigned once again, save for the whooping hyena’s.
Day 9 – Nyamepi to BBC exclusive camp
Due to an exceptionally sleep deprived night, thanks to noisy hippo’s and painful back muscles, we woke up around 6.45, later than I’d hoped. The wind was blowing strong, bringing clouds of dust. After a couple of cuppa’s we set off for a short game drive before heading off to our next campsite.. Spotting a fish eagle coming in to land on a sandy bank at one of the pools, we pulled over into the shade nearby to take some shots. Unfortunately, after specifically hanging around to catch him taking off, I missed the shot due to distraction….disappointed does not come close! Furious more like!!
Swinging past reception to grab more wood, we then headed east, up river to BBC camp, our home for the next 4 nights. Stopping at various pools of water along the way, the crocs were plentiful with lots of young ones amongst them. A small herd of impala advanced cautiously to drink, but their courage gave out and they retreated back into the shade.
Arriving at BBC camp, we were once again blown away by the view. Huge trees provided plenty of shade with a wide open view of the river and Zambia beyond. Behind was an open plain, giving us a good view of any approaching wildlife. And it was hot! A strong warm wind blew from a westerly direction, reminding me of the berg winds from my days of living in PE. Huge veld fires could be seen burning in the hills opposite, the smoke fortunately blowing away from us but rendering the view of the hills into a hazy outline. Setting up camp as we had no plans to go on a drive later, the cars were nestled deep into the shade & rooftop tents opened up. The usual routine involving spirit levels, disagreements & some chocks ensued but eventually we were settled and took to relaxing for the rest of the afternoon.
My turn to treat everyone to dinner that evening, so around 4.30 I got a Thai chicken curry on the go, ready to eat later. With only an evil-smelling long drop surrounded by thatch set away from the camp, AJ set about rigging up a McGyver shower contraption which involved a tree, some guy rope and a 20 litre solar shower. We took a quick bush shower before dark as there was no moon and the evenings were pitch black. After dinner while sitting quietly round the fire, Adri, upon hearing a noise, switched on her torch to reveal a hippo standing right behind us. Going to the car was pointless as it was the other side of the hippo, so we opted to stay quietly in our chairs. Gradually he moved around us, not in the least worried about our presence, either that or he was blind! But it was a relatively suspenseful moment as he then moved even closer, 5m if that and then stood dead still for about 2 mins, not eating, not moving, not doing anything….was he plotting an attack? But thankfully he moved away eventually and melted into the darkness. Shortly after that, we found a spotted genet running past and after all the excitement then decided to hit the sack. It’s evenings like this that doing these bush trips to wild unfenced places makes it worth the long drive.
Day 10 – BBC Exclusive Camp
Capturing a close up of a hyena on the camera trap kick started our day. Up early and climbing into our cars with steaming cups of tea, we headed out on an early game drive. Ellie’s were plentiful as always but this morning we eventually found one of the prides of lion we’d heard every night from the west. Being typical lions, there wasn’t much happening. With them lying in the shade quite far off the road, it wasn’t a great sighting, but at least we now knew in which area to find them on other drives.
With Xen & Adri opting to head back to camp, we carried on to explore more of the area. The amount of water around was surprising given it was tail end of winter, pools were big with loads of crocs in all sizes. Bird life too was abundant with fish eagles calling from every direction.
Spotting a few buffalo as we headed back to camp, we pulled into the last pool and parked in the shade. Close to the water’s edge, a hippo wallowed, with a grey heron perched on it’s back. Clearly looking for a meal, the heron edged closer to the tail area and suddenly darted into the water. Coming back up in a spray of water drops with an empty beak, he then tried again a few minutes later, this time with success.
Returning to camp a few minutes later, we rolled into Ellie haven, they were everywhere, including mothers with little youngsters. One walked to within 15m of us as we sat relaxed in our camp chairs, not in the least concerned about us. Once again, the tranquility & calmness of the animals here amazed us. Even the zebra we’d seen on drives were not the least bit skittish, and they are normally one of the first to run.
Getting up to help AJ fill up the solar showers, I noticed a small herd of Ellie’s in the marshy area behind us and grabbed the camera seeing as it made a good landscape composition. Suddenly one of the Ellie’s reached high into the tree, stretching himself almost double his length as his back legs allowed him to drop his bottom end. Hoping for a shot of him standing on his back legs as I have seen in other photo’s the foliage was just at the right height that he didn’t need to. A pity, but it was still incredible to see such a big bulky pachyderm perform such gymnastics.
As I went back to my camp chair, Adri, who’d been taking an afternoon nap, suddenly called excitedly from their rooftop tent, lion!! There, about 50m away lay a lioness in the shade, keeping an eye on the Ellie’s nearby. Watching from a distance, an Ellie ambled past the lioness as though she wasn’t even there, giving us some good photo opportunities.
Eventually she got up and disappeared down into a gully, reappearing further along past our campsite. Through the bino’s she looked rather scraggly and we wondered if she was old or sick to be roaming around in the midday heat on her own. But later, on close inspection of the photo’s, she was clearly lactating and we assumed her cubs must be hidden in the bushes in the vicinity.
Back to my camp chair to carry on with my journal and not 15 mins later we noticed the herd of Ellie’s that had been grazing quietly near the water’s edge were now halfway across the river in single file, heading for the island opposite. They grazed there happily all afternoon, the little ones barely visible in the long grass.
After so much action in camp we decided against an afternoon drive and spent late afternoon watching the Ellie’s cross back to our campsite and spread out to graze contentedly around us.
As the light fell, an inquisitive Ellie came right up to us, standing literally 3m behind our camp chairs, quietly observing us. Managing to catch some photo’s, it was certainly a memorable moment. We seemed to be doing a good job at attracting the Ellie’s on this trip!
Rigging up a better shower contraption, this time involving a spade wedged under the roof rack, McGyver then tied the solar shower to the handle, giving us slightly more privacy and protection being right up next to the car, so much better than feeling rather exposed under the tree the night before. With the hyena’s already whooping nearby, we had an early braai, later accompanied by the hippo once again. The fire in the hills across the river was still raging away. It was a relatively quiet evening, and we retired to bed around 9pm.
Waking up at some point, a hyena raiding the rubbish bag we’d stashed in the tree could clearly be heard. Ripping of plastic, crunching of tin cans and teeth piercing plastic Coke bottles kept sleep at bay. A torch-light chased him off momentarily with plastic bin bag in mouth, but he soon returned, this time with company as much yelping could be heard as they argued over the mess they’d created! Eventually the noise died down, and I slept.
Day 11 – BBC Camp
Up early for a game drive, we trundled round to where we’d seen the lions yesterday, but they’d moved on. Not much seen on the drive, the usual array of grazers and hippo’s & crocs at the pools.
Opting to swing past Nyamepi on our way back to camp, we hit the ablutions for a shower & to top up solar showers and water tanks. Totally refreshed back at camp, we threw a fry up brekkie together and then chilled in the shade for a few hours. Ellie’s came and went, but a certain group, around 11 of them, came right into camp. We were surrounded by these giants who calmly went about picking up the seed pods that had fallen from the trees, sometimes coming within 5 – 6m of us. Exhilarating, yet incredibly humbling that these creatures could trust us so much.
A hoopoe appeared on a tree near us, providing great photo opportunities as he darted from hole to hole, tapping the trunk to see where the hollow spots were.
With the weather so warm, most of the hippo’s were out on the island grazing & the Ellie’s crossed the river back & forth too.
Managing to catch a bit of shut-eye in my camp chair, AJ woke me up, suggesting a short game drive. Heading out of camp, we stopped by a small watery patch covered with a green foliage of sorts to photograph the birds meandering around. These we’d ID later with the help of the bird book & eBirds app, not being particularly strong in the “Stiff-Neck” department, save for the easily identifiable hammerkop.
Stopping by the Long pool, 6 big crocs lay basking in the low sunlight with a troop of baboons scattered around. Impala picked their way daintily down to the water but on seeing the crocs they gave them a wide berth, save one slightly braver female, who stopped a couple of meters from them, craning her neck forward to sniff them, but backing off eventually.
As we drove off, my eye caught 2 baboons sitting together, catching the low sunlight filtering through the trees. A tiny youngster was nestled in the lap of one of the females, and as I pressed the shutter release, mother & baby turned to look deep into each other’s eyes. A real tender moment caught on camera. around & headed back to camp.
As we took the slip road to the campsite we could see Xen & Adri had visitors in camp in the form of 2 adult female Ellie’s and an incredibly small youngster. Not wanting to spoil their moment, we stuck the car in neutral and idled our way into camp, as quietly as you can with a diesel engine. However they didn’t seem too perturbed by the tractor-like engine and we glided to a halt without any disturbance. Tip-toeing quietly to the tree, I peered round to see Adri sitting in her camp chair with mother and baby not 2 meters from her. The baby was still learning the art of controlling its trunk, waving it around hopelessly, it was too cute. The enormity of the situation was incredible…. Here was a wild animal, renowned for being dangerous when they have a young one at foot, calmly picking at seed pods within a trunks length from their biggest enemy, a human being. I can only assume that these gentle giants here in Mana have never been exposed to poachers or hunters of any sort to be so relaxed around us. Such a privilege!!
Dinner that night was accompanied by a brief glimpse of the spotted genet and a brazen hyena, who circled us closely waiting for the chance of a scrap or 2. Interesting how they’d appeared earlier & earlier each evening since we’d arrived at BBC. They learn quickly, if there are humans around, it’s worth investigating. Having learnt our lesson the previous night, there was no rubbish to be left in the tree this night, everything, bar the glass was burnt on the fire before we went to bed.
Day 12 – BBC Camp
Opting for a lie in this morning, we forewent the game drive and chilled in camp instead. With a strong wind blowing, the absence of Ellie’s was noticeable. With one or 2 meandering through our camp on their way to the river, the large numbers we’d been spoilt with the previous day were missed. AJ & I took a short walk, not venturing too far as we were heading in the direction we’d seen the lioness come from the previous day. Running into her would not be pleasant. Sun-baked buffalo bones lay scattered around, tell-tale signs of hungry predators in action a few moons back.
Back at camp Adri cooked delicious scrambled egg and then relaxation set in and the day was spent reading, checking out photo’s on camera’s & a kip in the rooftop tent. The wind was still blowing and did a good job of keeping the animals at bay, even the hippo opted to stay in the water. But as dusk fell, the wind dropped and the animals slowly unearthed themselves from shelter and ambled through our camp to the river.
Heated Woolies chicken pie on the fire and baked potatoes in foil cooked in the coals was our haute cuisine for the evening and then the show began. First to show face was a civet, nervous at first of the torch-light he scurried off into the shallow gully behind camp, but inquisitiveness got the better of him and he soon returned, this time with its mate. Gradually they became accustomed to us moving around with our torches and stopped running off. They ambled contentedly around camp allowing us some awesome photo opportunities.
Next to appear was a hyena with her 2 sub adult youngsters. These 2 were very cute, little mini-me’s of mum, but they didn’t hang around for long. Our friendly hippo was also spotted grazing nearby. Packing up for bed, the fun didn’t stop there. For hours I lay awake listening to what sounded like a number of hyena’s mooching around, so close that I could hear their breathing. The hippo’s were in full song and then the lions started. Quite distant at first, but each time they roared they were closer each time until I knew they were somewhere in the vicinity of our campsite. We were to find out the next morning they were at Long pool, which was a 5 min drive from the campsite.
Day 13 – BBC campsite to Chitake 2
Waking up extremely late due to lack of sleep, I emerged from the tent at 7.45, disgustingly late by bush standards. With no wind blowing the wildlife was out in force, waterbuck, baboons, impala & Ellie’s dotted the landscape & fish eagles called from every tree.
It was with a heavy heart that we packed up camp that morning. BBC certainly hit the top spot on our list of best camp sites. Location, view, shade and wildlife……it had everything going for it and I would have been quite happy to stay another 4 nights. Actually, if I’m honest, I’d stay forever!
Passing Long Pool en route to reception we found a juvenile fish eagle posing beautifully on a protruding tree trunk.
Stocking up on wood at reception & filling solar showers, we then hit the last civilised shower of the trip before heading off to Chitake Springs. Much was the hairwashing & shaving, and we left smelling ultra fresh & clean.
The road to the Chitake turnoff was a dreadful 46kms inland from the Zambezi. Having secured the solar showers on the front bumper, it didn’t take long for us to pull over and retrieve a dislodged & torn bag, fortunately still usable as we really had to preserve water over the next few days.
Once we’d taken the turn off towards Chitake Springs the road was like glass. Following the narrow track, we drove through a dry river bed, up the bank where the terrain then opened up with dry scrub dotted here & there. Suddenly Xen came through excitedly on the radio, wild dog!! Four of them came running from the left to join the rest of the pack already snoozing in the shade of a bush. Eight in total. Much excitement as this was the first time we’d seen wild dog in the wild that hadn’t been found by a game ranger for us at a fancy lodge. They quickly settled down and once we realised the action was over, we moved onto find our campsite.
We soon found campsites 1 & 3, and I could fully understand why Site 1 was so in demand. Nestled in the vegetation on the bank of the spring, it was prime location. We could see the current occupants sitting in the riverbed in the shade, with a great view left and right all the way down the river. The spring itself was surprisingly bone dry where they sat, but damp sand and a few small puddles could be seen further down river. A small herd of impala milled around and a buffalo carcass lay nearby, apparently taken down by the wild dog the day before.
After one of the campers came over to say hi, and warn us of the lion activity at night, we carried on up the riverbank to find our site. Which we did eventually and after being thoroughly spoilt for the past four days at BBC camp, this was a massive disappointment. One tree providing sparse shade was all it offered with no view of the spring. Disgruntled, we carried on to see what else was further up the road, eventually coming into a clearing which we could only assume was the original camp site 2 where Pete Evershed was killed in 2010 by lion. The plaque on the tree confirmed this. Our hearts went out to the family, such a tragedy.
Catching a whiff of something very dead & rotten, we assumed it was the buffalo we ‘d seen earlier. Walking to the edge of the site, the ground fell away to the spring below and lying in the pathway, we noticed an elephant carcass. Odd as the entire head was missing, but no signs that it had been eaten by predators. Poachers? But the smell was rank, so we didn’t hang around too long.
Further up the road, we came to a raised clearing on which stood 7 enormous baobab trees with a 360 deg view of the surrounds. This would have made a better campsite than the nondescript clearing that was campsite 2. We just couldn’t understand the logic.
Back at our site, as we stood discussing the best layout for the cars, 3 anti-poaching guys patrolling on foot suddenly appeared out the surrounding bush armed with AK47,s. After we all introduced ourselves, they told us of a pride of lion that had killed a young elephant that morning. Curiosity got the better of us, so off we went, the 3 guys riding on the running boards of our vehicles, back through the riverbed. The carcass was tiny, the size of a full-grown lioness and as we rolled up, 3 lions could be seen in the shade nearby. They soon legged it into the bush when they saw the anti-poaching guys on foot, so we paid thanks with some cold drinks and followed the road closer to the pride. Seven in total with some youngsters in the mix.
Hanging around to catch some photo’s, the lioness guarding the carcass shot out from the bush to chase away marauding vultures & a tawny eagle.
Eventually we headed back to camp for an early dinner & bed, hyena making an early appearance as well as a noisy herd of Ellie’s in the spring and lions roaring in the distance.
Day 14 – Chitake Springs
Wow, what a night!! Ellie’s screaming & trumpeting from the riverbed all night. We could only assume the lions were lurking nearby judging from the roaring going on and seeing as the Ellie’s had lost a baby that morning, they were a tad upset.
A different pride of lion could be heard in the opposite direction and as my sleepless night wore on, they came closer & closer until eventually they reached our campsite and I could hear them walking around very close to the cars. A loud roar rent the air, confirming they were indeed right next to us. Even the panting in between roars could be heard. Hyena also whooped mournfully in the distance.
Waking up that morning in time to watch the sun coming up, it wasn’t long before a small herd of Ellie’s with a couple of youngsters and a male in musth came up from the riverbed, ambled past us and melted into the bush. Lions could still be heard roaring far off in the distance.
With a leisurely morning of sitting in camp in the scant shade with no view we decided to head off to the riverbed and make the most of empty campsite 1 until the next arrivals rolled in.. Setting up chairs, solar panels & camera’s we sat & watched a troop of about 50 baboon meandering around the riverbed. A man-made well of sorts had been dug in the riverbed, presumably for campers to draw & filter water. The campsite really was the most gorgeous setting and it irked me that we’d paid the same fee for our crappy site. Something I planned to raise with Zim Parks Board. (I have subsequently found out that the fee for our crap site has been dropped from $150 to $30…. A total rip-off!!)
Not 15 mins after we’d got comfortable, the occupants rolled in, so that was that. Time to vacate.
Driving around the riverbed area to find a shady spot with a view proved fruitless, and with campsite 3 also occupied, that too was out-of-bounds. Frustrated, we headed back to the old site 2 to see if with luck the wind would be blowing in our favour that we could relax there. Not to be, if anything the smell from the elephant carcass was even more ripe than the previous day, catching in my throat, it was disgusting. So onward we trundled, with the baobab forest up on the hill as our last resort. Bare baobab branches didn’t provide too much shade so we found a flat spot with a good view, pulled out the awning on the Patrol & settled into our Kindles, a bite to eat & a cold one.
Once again our privacy & peace & quiet were disturbed by the arrival of a Tour operator pulling a trailer loaded to the hilt with mattresses, canvas & various forms of furniture, including something that looked like a bed head. They were moving in due to a double booking at site 3. Once again we were forced to pack up and vacate. Deciding to call it a day we headed back to our uninviting campsite to shower & get dinner on the go. My turn to treat everyone with a lamb poitjie.
The lions kicked into action early, with us picking up those deep resonating roars from 4 different directions. Gradually they got closer until we could hear 2 of them were on top of us. Scanning the bushes around us, our torchlight suddenly picked up a beautiful lioness sauntering down the road heading straight for us. Moving close to the car, we stood watching as she paused, blinking in the bright light and then walked past the car and through the back of the campsite. It was exhilarating to be so close to the top of the food chain but she was not remotely interested in us. She melted into the shadows and silence fell over the campsite again. Where was the 2nd lion? The roaring started up again, pinpointing the location of both lions. The 2nd lioness appeared at the back of our campsite, 10m from us, casually walking past as though we weren’t there. Yet another incredible experience. We didn’t see them again that night but judging from the nearby calling, they were in the grass just behind our cars.
The Ellie’s uttered a few short trumpets from the riverbed and somewhere nearby a cacophony of frantic bird squawks could be heard.
After all the excitement of the lions we then sat down & contemplated the day with me voicing my complete disappointment with the site and our inability to be able to go and relax anywhere with shade & a view. Everyone was in agreement that the thought of 2 more days being confounded to this site didn’t instill too much excitement. Action- packed as the evenings were, I’m not one to sit in camp all day with no view or shade. Going back into Mana was not an option as Xen was unfortunately running low on fuel with his thirsty petrol Patrol. After much debate we opted to leave the following day and head down to Gweru, stay at Antelope Park and then head to Motopos.
Day 15 – Chitake Springs to Gweru
Heading out at 8am, we reached the tar road with teeth & eyeballs still in tact, inflated tyres and drove back to Karoi for a top up on provisions and to empty the jerry cans into the tank on our Pajero.
Exiting Karoi, I noticed the jacaranda’s beginning to blossom, a good sign winter was definitely over. Heading for Chinoyi, we drove through a huge veld fire which had jumped the road in several places, flames so high they blew halfway into the road and so hot you could feel the heat from inside the vehicle. With several cars stopped and waiting for the flames to dissipate, a couple of articulated trucks came flying down the right hand lane, barreling their way through the thick smoke and flames with no regard for oncoming vehicles.
Further along, we passed an old man bent over his engine, clearly in trouble. Like good Samaritans we turned around to offer help. Leaving him our last 5 litre bottle of distilled water as his engine was overheating, we carried on, passing through Kadoma – where u can buy a retread & a headstone from the same dealer. A few stop & goes due to road works slowed our journey for about an hour, 18 wheeler trucks crawling along. Passing through Kwekwe via a real round about detour we eventually reached Gweru to find ourselves snarled up in more roads works and delays.
Antelope Park was approx 20kms outside the town, along a westerly dirt track with us driving straight into the setting sun.
Arriving around 6pm, we were lucky to bag ourselves a river lodge & tent. The lodge was lovely with stables and paddocks as we drove in. A mix of tented & chalet accommodation spread out along a river set in beautiful lush gardens awaited us. After going through the check in formalities, we legged it for the showers. Man it was one of the best showers I’d had, hot with a decent shower head & good water pressure. Their crisp clean white towels were a murky brown before I even hit the shower. Nine days of living in the bush certainly leaves it’s mark, and although I scrubbed & scrubbed, those feet were not coming clean. But I felt reborn nonetheless stepping out that shower, ready for a good dinner & some wine.
Dinner was great with braaied chicken sosaties, salad, potato bake & yummy milk tart for dessert. It was a real spoil night for us.
Back in the tent, the heater was plugged in & tea on the go. It was freezing! After sitting in the bush in t-shirts & shorts each night, here we were in layers, socks, tackies etc. Huge difference in temperature after travelling approx 500kms south.
Day 16 – Antelope Park to Limpopo River Lodge
So much for winter being over. Waking up around 6am to wind gusting the tent, it was cold! Armed with a mug of steaming tea, we sat on the wooden veranda overlooking a large pond photographing brown hooded & pied kingfishers. Grabbing a cooked breakfast at the restaurant, we then packed up and hit the road to Bulawayo.
After Xen informed us that the entry fee to Matopos was $100, we deliberated the budget in the car and decided that for one or two nights stay, it was a bit excessive so change of plan. We would end the trip relaxing on the banks of the Limpopo river for 3 days instead.
It was a very long day of travelling, but eventually, after crossing smoothly back into Botswana at Plumtree, we took the dirt road from Zanzibar to Limpopo River Lodge with the sun setting. Suddenly we had wild dog running across the road in front of us, 5 or 6, possibly hunting the wildebeest we’d seen 30 seconds earlier. Two sightings of wild dog on one trip, pretty amazing! This time however, we couldn’t stop to enjoy as it was almost dark and we still needed to check in and set up camp.
We rolled into camp at 7pm, pretty buggered!
Day 17 & 18 – Limpopo River Lodge
Two days spent relaxing on the bank of the Limpopo was the perfect way to end what had been a truly epic trip. With the bird life keeping us entertained all day, dainty bushbuck coming down in the evening to drink & nightly visits from a spotted genet, there was always something to see. We were so fortunate to see the spotted genet come very close to us while braaiing on our 2nd evening… even catching him on the camera trap.
On our last evening, we sat round the fire reflecting on the highlights of the trip….
The elephant encounter on Hunters Rd, which now seemed a lifetime ago
The beauty of Tashinga campsite, a place we’ll definitely return to
The hippo’s and their territorial bantering right next to our tent in Nyamepi
The endless calling of fish eagles regardless of where we were
The peace & tranquility of Mana Pools
The beautiful colours of the forests in Mana in low sunlight…all those photo’s I’ve seen – they weren’t photoshopped after all.
The trusting Ellie’s that shared BBC camp with us, along with their babies
Watching the Ellie at BBC camp stretching up into the tree to graze, not quite standing on his back legs
The fires burning non stop in the Zambian mountains while in Mana
The bold hyena’s that mooched around us each night hoping for a scrap or two
The hippo who grazed happily with us each night at BBC
The lions that walked through camp our 2nd evening at Chitake
Checking the camera traps each morning to see what we’d captured, a feeling similar to opening a Xmas stocking
The incredibly friendly Zim police at the road blocks
The way the Zimbo’s kit up their bakkies, allowing kids to ride in the back while game viewing
And others, just too many to mention…..
Day 19 – Limpopo River Lodge to home
Early rise after a rather noisy night. Ellie’s breaking branches nearby & hyena calling in the distance. We were thrilled to see the camera trap had caught images of the spotted genet that had visited us the previous evening. After a quick pack up we were on the road and through Platjan into SA by 8.15.
This had been such an amazing trip. Travelling with the Ludicks had been an absolute pleasure, with them being just as easy-going and passionate about the bush as we are. The car as always was ever reliable with the only hassle being the button on the electric window of my passenger door packing in and a globe blowing on the rear drive light. No engine or battery hassles, no punctures either and having the 2nd solar panel and a 3rd battery made all the difference.
The people of Zimbabwe, what a pleasure…. Not a corrupt police official to be seen, just happy smiling faces and friendly banter. Not once were we asked for our TIP, nor any of our vehicle documentation whilst driving in Zim.
A round trip of 4300kms, I had finally got a tick on my bucket list. Mana Pools is just the most beautiful place and therefore, sorry to say, it’s back on my bucket list as it’s worth visiting again and again…..
Till next time……