It is 3.30 am. I hear a low rumbling. Is it a hippo? Then I hear something shaking its head, ears flapping? Is it an elephant? No, the ears don’t sound big enough. Fully alert, I look out into the moonlight through the gauze in my tent. Silently, to my right, only just missing the floor canvas, slinks the lioness. She freezes and sniffs the air right in front of me then, a few seconds later, moves quietly on. Just another night in Mana Pools.
The trip does not start well. For weeks I have been worrying – anxiety transfer I’m sure – about the short connection time in Joburg and whether my bags will arrive if I miss my plane to Harare. I even thought about changing flights. ‘Don’t worry’ everyone says, ‘it’ll be fine’. As insurance I book a wheelchair so I can barge any queues at the airport…there are always queues in Joburg!
The plane is over one hour late in London, but only arrives 10 minutes late in Joburg. I am whizzed off by my burly minder and have 50 minutes in hand when I try to get my SAA boarding pass (which despite BA assuring me they could provide in London, I failed to get), only to be told that check-in has closed. I expostulate, claim ‘wheelchair immunity’ but to no avail. ‘These SA people, they don’t care, they are very rude’ says my assistant. I am given a boarding pass for the flight 3 hours later, and then spend the time trying to track my bags, which naturally enough they have no trace of. I am beginning to feel that I have wished this scenario on myself. Anyway as I board, the guy at the gate cheerily tells me they are indeed on board.
But in Harare, no bags. So with heavy heart, and a promise (ha! Heard that one before) that they will be on the 9.15 pm flight, I make my way to delightful York Lodge. Cindy arrives by 5.30 and after supper it’s back to the airport to see if the promise is to be fulfilled.
We are driven by Frederick, a jack-of-all-trades at the hotel, who is a failed MDC MP. ‘We still love Morgan, the ministers are all corrupt and are stealing from us’. He tells us how the people in his village were intimidated during the last election and how he had to give up his political ambitions though he would have won: ‘The people love me,’ he says modestly. Like many Africans, he is a born orator and irrepressible with it, so regales with stories of ‘my boss’ who seems variously to be the British or Swedish Ambassador – and sometimes his wife! He has entrepreneurial spirit, though, and has bought two vehicles to use as taxis. I am always impressed by the enterprise of Africa.
This time I am on the other side of the lost baggage counter, and I see the smiling girl,who all but ignores me as she is dealing with some disgruntled KLM passengers. The SA flight has arrived but no action. Suddenly she comes and says, ‘You can go through to departures and then to arrivals to pick your luggage’. In Africa you always ‘pick ‘ things, never pick up.
So off I trot, waving my lost luggage paper, through immigration (good thing I bought my passport), through security, who scan everything, into the deserted departure area. I follow a lady, who has lost her voice, into an equally empty arrivals hall and see my two bags forlornly riding the carousel. Relief.
It’s freezing in Harare and the early morning trip to the domestic airport is bracing. We are there by 6.20 and eventually depart at 6.50. The rising sun causes the cooling water surfaces to vaporise into wispy white cirrus-like condensation clouds, which hover over the dams and rivers. Bathed in golden light of early morning, with the waning super moon, it’s slightly surreal.
There is evidence as we fly over Zimbabwe of an increase in the amount of land under production; it is in the middle of the maize harvest and on the way to the airport local famers have spread their maize across the road for some free milling from the passing traffic. We fly over great piles of golden cobs in the fields. The pilot tells us that this year tobacco production will regain its former levels. The tobacco companies have achieved this by involving smallholders in growing schemes with a good deal of success.
‘Welcome home!’ Stretch greets us as we arrive in camp. And indeed it is wonderful to be back, watching the elephants frolicking in the water in front of us, driving through the bush ticking off the birds, while keeping an eye open for a leopard.
The week has flown by: the batteries are re-charged and I feel both refreshed and plumped up, like a shrivelled raisin that has been soaked in water. The camp has had a few upgrades – there is now a wall-to-wall carpet in every room, and solar-powered lanterns to light the path in the early morning and after dark when the generator goes off. At night it’s freezing, so I have four blankets and a hot water bottle, and go to bed with leggings, long-sleeved T, and socks on. When that drum goes at 6 am – or when you need that early hours’ loo visit – the cold is bone-chilling.
Poor old Stretch, probably the world’s foremost tracker and guide, failed for the seventh year in a row to find a leopard; although they teased us nightly with tracks out side the tent, and on the last day we saw tacks of at least 15 of the elusive cats…but , as with all animals, it is largely a matter of luck. Cindy nicknamed our trip ‘The Small Five Safari’, as we decided to concentrate on squirrels, impala, warthogs, bushbuck and birds to try and take our minds off our hearts’ desire.
Nevertheless Cindy ‘Sharp-eyes’ spotted a honey badger-don’t’-give-a-shit (this will make you laugh http://bit.ly/1u75QBb) and a pair of civets, hiding under a tree in the long grass. I surpassed my bird count with 98 species in 7 days – feel like the batsman who gets out just before his century, the last two ‘got away’.
So desperate is Stretch that he begins hallucinating: instead of leopard he is determined to find a cheetah. As we drive Cheetah Loop for the nth time, he sees some vultures: “Look, look maybe it’s a cheetah kill!’’ “Cheetah kill, my arse,” say I, and we all roll about laughing, especially Stretch, honking his hippo laugh at the absurdity of such a suggestion
Other highlights are my annual affair with Big Vic, these days surrounded by an entourage, as is the dancing Boswell, now collared by some smug filmmaker who claims that this will help keep him safe, while he makes a film of Africa’s last great tuskers. What tosh! Another guide tells me, back in Harare, that a hunter had shot a huge collared bull in Gonarezhou National Park only recently. Zim is the only country, apart from Tanzania and South Africa, which still licenses hunting. The tide is slowly turning.
One night we come across the local lioness, one of the Spice Girls, with her son Dim Jim, the only one of four young males to remain with her (too stupid to survive alone, Stretch thinks) and her two cubs from last year. She is staking out a big hole, and sporadically returns to dig away at it to the sound of furious hissing emanating from the void. It is dark so we have to leave: the next morning we find a mound of gut contents and a single bone, all that remains of Mr Warthog.
The Backstreet Boys are back in town after an absence: they have brought down a huge eland bull and are feasting on it with some other hangers on: three females, and Black-eyed Susan, another of the Spice Girls, who is recovering from a face infection. The big male is mating nonchalantly -much to the disdain of the long-suffering female who growls and spits at him, as if to say, For God’s sake get on with it (we all know that feeling, eh girls?). We walk close enough to raise the wrath of both males who charge us, the other one stalking us as we leave the kill.
We are joined in camp for the last two days by a young Zimbabwean farming couple; he is terrific birder and bush-man, but she is surprisingly nervous of the bush and, when we go and visit the Spice Girl and cubs, right by the National Parks office, and Stretch gives us the normal ‘experience’ of getting in spitting distance, and the lioness suddenly charges out of the aptly-named adrenalin grass, she gives a scream and clutches on so tightly to my arm I feel I’m going down with her! Used to these shenanigans by now, I no longer feel afraid of the lions, respectful, yes, but safe with Stretch. Elephants are a different matter when it comes to charging…especially the cows with calves. We always give them a wide berth.
The lioness is not unreasonably cross, as she has us on one side and, behind, she has the National Parks tractor driver, who has recently been spotted taking out guests on game walks, much to Stretch’s amusement (schadenfreude perhaps?), armed with an AK47 and, on this occasion, is accompanying three very bemused Chinese tourists on a canoe trip. As we walk dear old Pattson is gesticulating madly where the lions are hiding. He later said he was worried as he would be very sad if Stretch was killed by the lions!
On my last evening, having just showered, I hear Stretch whispering loudly outside my tent: Vicky, Come! Come! Come naked! Oo-er think I, is this an offer I should refuse? I hastily grab a towel and put on my sandals. There is the Spice Girl walking calmly behind my tent. ‘Give her a flash! Go on!‘ urge Flo, Stretch and Cindy. So I do. Please now call me Vicky the Lion Flasher.
So ends another week in Mana Pools with Stretch, Flo and Cindy. Thanks to them all: Flo and Stretch for being such wonderful hosts, and to Cindy for being a great companion, with the best eyes and for introducing me to Goliath Camp and Stretch all those years ago. Already planning next year.