This must be my 9th visit to Mana and I never tire of it. Growing up in Tanganyika (yes, that’s what it was called when I was little!), one of my happiest memories is going to Mikumi game park with my Dad, and camping in ancient tents on rickety old canvas beds, with a long drop, canvas basin and no shower! Dad and I would drive around the park, getting up at the crack of dawn and he would make a fire and cook eggs, bacon and fried bread. Heaven.
Camping in Mana brings back these memories of my life before it got complicated and when I was innocently happy. Goliath camp bears no resemblance to Mikumi! Last time we were there, Stretch Ferreira, legendary elephant whisperer, supreme tracker, our guide and friend was – and I’m sure he would admit it – going through a rough patch. Now four years later, recently remarried to Adrienne, the camp is transformed – a new deck, delicious menus, bigger tents, luxuriously-furnished with super-soft mattresses and even an occasional chair!
We still have breakfast in the bush – egg and bacon toasties which arrive at the designated tearoom; here is a selection of our tearooms (and bars)!
This time our companions are old hands Fi and Richard, Rick and his friend expert birder Simon. The learner guide is Liam, a passionate and knowledgeable birdman at only 23 who leads the twitching vehicle most days. There are lively discussions about the new etymology and whether it should be a lilac-breasted or lilac-chested roller – yes wokery has arrived in birding too. Is nothing safe? Our objective is a Pels fishing owl, never seen by us and extremely rare; Rick is set on ticking this one off…
Sticking with birds, the level of the river, caused by the Zambians releasing far too much water from Kariba, is causing erosion and mayhem to the nesting sites of the carmine bee-eaters (we find them in new nests above Nyamepi) and skimmers, who normally nest on the island sandbanks – now largely underwater. We are lucky to see a pair on our early morning canoe trip, right out mid-river. We also see another rare species – a naked man coming out of his shower, all pink bum and he flashes us to our applause!
Mana is many things to me, but it is special because we came here shortly after Louise died and, although she had never been here, the Zambezi seemed like a fine place for her ashes to return to mother nature. Each time we come we canoe out to an island and scatter flowers in her memory. This year Stretch captures some extraordinary photographs in the early morning light – a silver shaft illuminating the river just where the flowers meet the water. The words of Little London Lou – ‘She was sunshine’ – fly into my mind: she is with us.
Mana is also about stalking lions and wild dogs and meeting up with Stretch’s favourite bulls, though we are relieved not to see JD, my old enemy who pinned me up against an anthill when he was a very Juvenile Delinquent.
The dogs are a local obsession and every time we meet a car they ask Stretch where the dogs are – only he can find them if they are in deep bush as he demonstrates to us by successfully tracking them one morning to a secluded spot. We are lucky enough to be able to sit with them all morning and then return in the evening as they start their evening hunting ritual. Very special to be completely on our own.
We also track a male lion with his three ladies – this poor fellow is collared and it is too tight. I am, like Stretch, totally against collaring animals for ‘scientific’ purposes. In Zimbabwe these collars are intrusive and mostly not used properly. This lion looked thin. The only possible exception is to protect the big elephant bulls as this alerts hunters and poachers to potential trouble should they dare to execute one of these fine gentlemen.
Another special thing about Mana is the walking and we set off several mornings at 5.30 to enjoy the cooler air, sometimes with an objective (like the 3 hour unsuccessful hunt for an elusive pride of 12 lions); other times just to enjoy the magical scenery, the ‘blue forest’ caused by the smoke from the Zambian fires, the eland, waterbuck and elephants in the distance – the cows and calves in particular who won’t hesitate to charge if you get too close.
But we do have a lively moment when The Donald (named after the irascible Trump) lives up to his name and charges us. However, with Stretch I never feel overly nervous so long as I’m behind him!
Stretch is as lovably eccentric as ever, posing in his pink wig for a young visitor, referring to himself and ‘the bloodhound’ Alistair, as the two old muppets, but all this bonhomie camouflages his deep and enduring passion for the bush, its animals and the environment. Climate change is gradually killing the mopane forests and the albida, new camps are springing up in areas of great natural beauty, pans where we used to sit and watch the animals drinking, and in the wilderness area, a world heritage site, which is illegal. As a result the lions and dogs are being disturbed and their behaviour is changing. No dog pups survived this year at all; the hyenas are taking over as the most successful predator on the plains; the lion prides are changing their members with increasing frequency – again no cubs have been seen this year.
So six days pass all too quickly, every moment is savoured – the sundowners on the river, and what sunsets – but no leopard, plus ca change! However, one magical evening sitting on the new deck watching the river swirling by, my eye is caught by a large blob catapulting past us and settling on a bare branch a few feet away. Quick – binos! No ears! Huge bird! It is a Pels Fishing Owl. Our holiday is complete!
Thanks to Ross for the better photographs of dogs etc