Mana Pools is my idea of heaven. Goliath camp is a collection of seven guest tents, bar, open-air dining room and braai/seating area overlooking the fast-flowing Zambezi. Simply furnished, each tent boasts a flush loo and wood-burning shower.
A far cry from my earliest memories of camping with my Dad in Tanganyika, where the showers were from buckets and the loo a hole in the ground, or better still, the open air. On one occasion I had just made my post-prandial visit when a pride of 12 lions calmly walked in front of us! In those days, my Dad would build a little fire in the park, and do a great fry up…such memories fuel my great love of the bush, and Mana, a world heritage site where you can walk, seems to approximate my recollection of a carefree childhood more than anywhere else.
This is the fourth time we have stayed in Goliath camp, with living legend tracker and guide Stretch Ferreira, a huge man with a laugh like a hippo and a mane like a lion, who is best known as an elephant whisperer. The Stretch ‘experience’ consists of ‘moments’, as he calls them, up close to elephants and lions, not without some risk and excitement. One such shared moment a couple of years, when we were charged out of nowhere by One Tusk, Stretch says is up there with one of scariest he’s had…I concurr!
The typical day starts with drums at 4.45, tea and porridge by the fire, then a scramble into the landrovers to see what tracks are fresh. Stretch and Reuben, the other guide, noses glued to the roadside, will say things like ‘fresh leopard/lion/wild dog here, only an hour ago,’ and we will disembark, don water bottles and set off for our early morning walk through the bush.
On the second morning we were lucky to find the local pride, the Spice Girls and their two litters of young cubs, plus their five adolescent males; the Back Street Boys are absent on a mission. We hear them roar during the night. You never approach a lion in a straight line, so we zig-zag from anthill to anthill until we get close enough to be able to sit and watch them quietly. The next day they kindly stopped by the road for us! ‘Cheap lions’, as Stretch says.
On another day, as we sat at Vundu point, a man appeared from nowhere, toting an MK47. ‘Do not be scared’, he said, ‘I am human.’ He was a ranger, part of the anti-poaching squad whose job it is to patrol the park and ‘shoot to kill’. He spoke excellent English and we learned a lot about the career path in National Parks!
Coffee and cake under a tree at about 9 am, beside the river, by a pan or in a shady spot. On the second day we had been tracking the wild dogs in the Wilderness area, and as we sat down a tray of bacon and avocado sandwiches arrived as if from a local take away!After brunch we might go for a swim in the Zambezi with a glass of wine; the Zambezi mud is an excellent exfoliator, and if you stay in the shallows the risk from crocs is minimal. Elephants and hippos splash in the distance, the carmine bee-eaters and fish eagles swoop and call to each other, the pied kingfisher hovers and dives.
In the late afternoons we set out again, often on foot: searching for buffalo; the elusive Boswell, the old bull who stands on his hind legs to reach the acacias, but who on this trip remained elusive; lions and elephant ‘moments’.
Our elephant moment proved to be devastating: we came upon the corpse of an elephant, perhaps only two hours old, being guarded by one of the Backstreet Boys and his girlfriend who were mating. Drawing near, despite the mock charges and snarls of fury from the angry male, we saw that the elephant had been shot clean through the skull. Stretch was incensed, he knew the young bull and could not imagine what had happened. He attributed it at first to one of the many visitors who were on an official game count, and who had been allowed to carry guns much against his better judgment.
We found out later that it had been shot by a guide, who claimed it had charged him. But the story did not hold water and the word was that the guide had panicked and made up – literally – a cock and bull story about the elephant chasing him from behind a tree. There was not a tree in sight of the carcass…
Canoeing and fishing are other afternoon activities. Rick and Diego caught two huge Vundu (catfish), the largest weighing up to 40kgs. They were returned, of course, being protected.
Each time I visit Mana I return to the spot, an island mid-stream, where we sent [our daughter] Louise’s ashes on a final journey to the Indian Ocean. This time Siraaj, one of the camp guides, had prepared a beautiful driftwood boat, loaded with flame-red combritum and fragrant white caparis blooms. As a small croc slithered into the water, I waded in to launch our bouquet, which bobbed merrily downstream. I thought of all my lost loved ones – Mum, Dad and LouLou – as it caught the current. As we paddled on down the mighty Zambezi, we could see it in the vermillion sunset, like an ancient Viking coracle going to its Valhalla.
One evening we went and sat by Mochumi pan, sipping chilled white wine while elephants and baboons frolicked in the murky water. Sometimes the cows and calves – the most dangerous of elephants as the mums are extremely aggressive – are a bit close for comfort .
Sundowners await us on return to camp, or by the river bank. Dinner is a delicious braai with Stretch doing the honours, or a civilized sit-down affair round the huge wild mango table. Flo, co–owner of the camp, and now a good friend, has trained the two camp chefs, Richard and Nicholas, well and the food is delicious. Sarah, a delightful Zimbabwean girl, is our hostess and looks after us beautifully
This visit we had taken over the whole camp and filled it with friends, many of whom were celebrating birthdays. Quite an undertaking planning a trip for 14 people, chartering planes from the hugely efficient Executive Air, booking hotels, pick-ups, restaurants, briefing the team on essentials…and trying to enjoy the holiday as well!
After our wonderful week in Mana, 11 stalwart souls continued on Unwin Tours to Lamu in Kenya, arriving in the day that the Westgate siege started. But that’s for the next blog….
Thanks husband Ross for supplying professional photos – one up from the normal iPhone adornments.
Sunset over the Zambezi…