The year is not complete without our annual pilgrimage to Goliath Luxury Tented Camp in Mana Pools,owned by our dear friends Stretch Ferreira and Flo Coughlan. It is here we repair to for spiritual renewal and to commemorate our darling Louise, whose ashes we scattered into the swirling Zambezi just over four years ago. Sadly Flo is not able to make it this year as her son is marrying Stretch’s daughter – gotta keep it in the family!
This September our team comprises son Tommy and his girlfriend Olivia; our veteran of several previous visits, Rick and his two boys, Joe and Johnny – latter being Tommy’s best friend; ‘good eyes’ Cindy, who introduced us to Mana and remains Queen of spotters but a Mana leopard virgin despite 7 visits; her friend Dan from the US and my dear friend ‘the Doc’ Fi and her husband Richard.
After a delightful one-nighter in York Lodge, where I catch up with my mum’s best friend Jane Soper and give her a copy of the book, we depart in the early hours on a mission to break the leopard jinx. Cindy is armed with a photobook for Stretch, which she has called Leopard spotting for Dummies, compete with photos of the 20 odd she has seen in India! The game is on!
Day 1 produces its normal excitements – some low-hanging lions, three adults and older cubs by the side of the road as we arrive, and by the second day we have been rewarded with at least 9 lionesses and two tiny cubs, feasting off an elephant carcase, with a growling mating male telling us clearly to keep our distance (all this on foot of course!). A hippo surprises us by emerging like a giant apparition from the pan to graze; we know this is trouble when Stretch says, ‘Guys, quickly now, as quick as you can, get out of the way’ and we dash – yes, we run – for safety, breaking every rule of the bush book as he canters past. Plus a huge tribe of 26 wild dogs with 5 pups. But no leopard.
Every day we sally forth tracking Mr Spot, alerted by early morning alarm calls. On Day 2 the not-so-serious party including yours truly is rewarded by the glimpse of the spotted one far away stalking along the ridge in the early morning light. Two flicks of a tail and he’s gone, but we did see him. Cindy of course was in the other vehicle with Stretch, while we were with Sean Hind, the other guide, and Reuben whose sharp eyes pick him out in the breaking light.
By day 4 Stretch is a man on a mission and, again, alerted by baboon alarm calls, Ross, Tommy, Olivia and I set off. He knows the elusive one is right there as the spoor is mint fresh. Round and round we go in thick bush – a crashing nearby as we startle a honey badger (exciting), followed by a charge from a young bull who thinks we are after his acacia pods “Don’t bully me, I’m a pensioner!’ yells Stretch as he trumpets towards us, ears flapping. ‘Just because I’m menopausal don’t think you can behave like that, my boy!’ But, ‘Dammit’ – no leopard. ‘He’s hiding there laughing at us.’
So the week passes with a series of expeditions and walks – and close encounters. Creeping up on three sleeping lionesses is not so smart, especially when they wake up and snarl menacingly (watch nine people jump out of their skins) while their little cubs look on; and that naughty JD (Juvenile Delinquent) lays waste to the camp kitchen one evening, with us just a few feet away. ‘You old bugger, that’s no way to behave,’ admonishes Stretch – to no avail. He’ll go when he’s finished the juicy branches…
The greatest joy of the holiday is introducing Tommy and Olivia to one of our favourite places on earth; but ranking high are celebrating Fi’s birthday in fancy dress (theme is leopard, it goes without saying); dancing to music made by Johnny and the Gentile (or was it Genitals?) Watch the film:
and to a band made up of the camp staff, Reuben doing a Stretch impersonation by stuffing a pillow up his shirt.
Memories to treasure include the glorious picnic on Vundu point, first-time fisherwoman Olivia beating the boys hands down in numbers of fish caught;
discovering the new Wilderness area that Stretch has been pioneering, where the views over the Zambezi are golden and the sunsets to die for – the reddening sky dissolving in the dust generated by the thundering hooves of 200 buffalo, startled by our arrival.
drinks by the river, watching the sun go down;
fireside chats – Dr Fi with Dr Johnny; barrister Richard with lawyer Joe; old chums reunited Cindy and Dan; Rick and the oldies, me and Ross…
my ‘sharp eyes’ finding TWO, yes TWO different prides of lions, plus a gang of 6 hyenas. Did you know by the way that the collective noun for mongoose is a business! Thank you Sean;
Stretch’s infectious laughter at the boys’ jokes and guitar playing; impromptu bush cricket improvised by Cindy…
beating my bird count with an all time high of 114 species – camp record 123, so next time, next time…and there will be a next time.
But in Zimbabwe you are never far from a reality check. Our park fees of just under $4000 disappear into the Warden’s locked safe – but there is not even a functioning vehicle to stop the marauding South African ‘picnickers’ whose wilful running around after animals led to a walking ban last year, let alone poachers and hunters who are preying on the wildlife. The elephants in the wilderness area – indeed in the whole park – are noticeably skittish and jumpy this year. ‘They’ve been shot at, can you blame them?’ Two young bulls have died mysteriously, one carcase is untouched by predators – suspicious in itself. Stretch is worried about the future of this UNESCO World Heritage site, and rightly so.
And there’s a tragic PS to the Cecil story: a young guide, walking with a group, was charged and killed by a lion as he was too afraid to pull the trigger in case he was accused of the wanton destruction of a trophy animal. Social Media stinks sometimes.
Leaving is always hard, and Cindy returns to India convinced that Mana is a leopard-free zone…the jinx remains. But Fi and I spin it out a bit and head off for three days girl time at Vic Falls…see the next blog!
PS see Ross’s website for seriously good animal photos; these are taken with my Samsung edge, apart from the wildlife, which are Ross’s.