I was part way through a 13 day, 12 night 4×4 cross-country convoy adventure, visiting some of the most iconic areas of Zimbabwe. We had already seen the wondrous granite domes of Matobo National Park and then moved on to marvel at the ancient and mysterious ruins of the abandoned rock walled city of Great Zimbabwe.
We had camped on lakesides and, and met friendly folk (and not so friendly traffic police), and we had seen that Zim is a welcoming place, full of amiable folk who smile easily despite the hardships they have had to endure thanks to their wholly corrupt and criminally inept government. But now our sights were set firmly on the crème de la crème of Zimbabwe’s wilderness areas: The world renown, and shockingly beautiful Mana Pools Game Reserve.
But first, we had to get through Harare…. Zimbabwe’s horribly congested capital. Harare turned out to be a bit of a nightmare if truth be told. The traffic was so chaotic and congested that getting through the city was akin to driving on a fairground bumper car. The numerous and ever so diligent police checkpoints didn’t help progress either.
But we got through and were soon making good time on Zimbabwe’s typically well-maintained roads. We broke our journey 130kms out of Harare at the mysterious and otherworldly Chinhoyi grotto; a subterranean limestone cave where you can see a pool of the most vivid cobalt blue. Pallid fish, colourless and blind, swim listlessly near the surface, surviving no doubt from falling fruit.
In days gone by, they would have feasted on human corpses; victims of despotic chiefs and Murderous outlaws who, it is said, threw their enemies through a hole in the roof of the cave.
“That is why even today, this place is known as ‘The Sleeping Hole,’” said Paul.
After that, we had a biltong-and-steak roll break at a place named the Lion’s Den, before passing through the little town of Karoi and into the Zambezi valley via a windy steep escarpment, affectionately called ‘the truckers graveyard.’
It’s a fitting name, and I soon lost count of the many piles of vehicular debris littering the verges of numerous hairpin bends. We did 435km in total that day, 75 of which were along well-maintained dirt roads to the Old Ndungu private camp on the banks of the Zambezi River.
Along the way, we passed some of the most magnificent baobab trees I have yet to see. Each one gnarled and bulbous and impossibly huge. There were also lots of elephants.
It was dark by the time we arrived at our camp, but Paul’s team and Dave McFarland (the camp proprietor) had already set up our tents and were busy preparing the evening meal. We gathered, as usual, around our nightly fire and listened as Dave welcomed us to Mana Pools with a few cautionary tales.
“As you are probably aware,” he said, addressing the group. “You are permitted to leave your vehicles and walk around unsupervised. Mana Pools is quite unique in that sense. But don’t take it for granted that you won’t get squashed or eaten if you do.”
He chuckled and explained that we should take extreme caution if leaving the tents at night. “Watch out for Lions and elephants. Don’t take food into your tent and don’t leave your shoes outside. A hyena will eat them.”
The jovial Dave entertained us for the rest of the evening with stories of maulings and impalings and people who had expired at the jaws of Mana Pool’s many predators. I downed an extra few glasses of wine that evening to help me sleep and then crawled off to my tent.
“That must have been a rough night?” said Paul on the following morning. I sat on a camp chair in front of my tent watching a dozen or so elephants crossing the Zambezi right in front of us.
“Slept like a log?” I replied. “Why?”
“You didn’t hear those two bulls?” he said, eyebrows raised incredulously. “They were almost on top of you for most of the night.”
We had pitched below the shade of an Anna Tree, the fruit of which had attracted these nocturnal visitors.
“They were pushing against the tent at one point,” added Paul. “And I thought you might get flattened.”
Honestly, I thought that had been my wife, bumping me with her elbow in an attempt to stop me snoring. She does that, you know. Thank heavens for the numbing effect of South African Red Wine. After breakfast, some of us piled into Dave McFarland’s very old and dilapidated lidless Landrover and spluttered off into the bush in search of wildlife.
We didn’t have far to go.
“At this time of year,” said Dave. “Most game congregates by the river.”
We dismounted from his claptrap and followed him on foot into the beautiful Mana Pool’s forests beside the great Zambezi. Impala, Zebra, and Kudu were encountered, and then, much to my amazement, Dave pointed out two huge bull elephants who were sauntering directly and purposefully towards us.
“Shouldn’t we leave?” I suggested as the behemoths got closer. But Dave just told me to remain calm and not to worry.
“Its V boy,” he said as we took up position next to a very large tree “He’s super nice as you’ll see.”
V boy, the top bull in Mana Pools, and his right-hand man (another equally huge elephant) pulled up to within meters of our location.
“Stay put,” Dave told me “Be polite to him. Make no sudden movements, and everything should be all right.”
And so, at Dave’s suggestion, I sat on the ground, shaking like a leaf, snapping away with my camera while talking quietly to the colossus who loomed over me like a mountain.
“Thank you so much for not stepping on me” I whispered, “I truly appreciate it.”
The two big boys stayed with us for a while, checking each one of us out with their trunks, before sauntering off to shake the fruit out of some nearby Anna Trees.
It was an amazing encounter made all the more electrifying by the fact that no one had a gun.
“A while back we had a lady in camp using our bucket shower,” said Dave later as we paused on the river bank to observe a flotilla of hippos. “And a cheeky elephant ran off with the shower curtain while she was in there lathering up. Oh, it was funny,” Dave chuckled. “The camp was full of people, and most of them got an eyeful.”
The next two full days were spent exploring ManaPools by vehicle, by foot and with Dave. One evening, he returned to camp in the Landrover with some of our group who were ecstatic to have seen a huge pride of lions devouring a buffalo.
But sadly, when Dave took me there at first light, all that remained were ribs, vultures and a great many big cat footprints.
“We can go in on foot and search for them if you would like,” said Dave encouragingly “I’m sure they’re somewhere nearby”, but the idea of wandering around through thick bush without an armed escort was just too much for me
“The vultures are very interesting,” I told him “I’m quite happy to stay and watch them for a while.”
Describing the atmosphere of Mana Pools is difficult. The animals all seem so calm and unafraid of people. The woodlands are beautiful. There is very little undergrowth, and visibility is generally good.
The presence of the Zambezi is an added bonus, and you can go kayaking upon it should you have a death wish. (Lots and lots of hippos and crocs.)
In Dave’s opinion, though, it’s more sensible to do a spot of fishing from the steep-sided banks or else park off at a viewpoint or simply sit in front of your tent watching animals as they come and go.
In the three days we spent at Mana Pools, I fell decidedly in love with the place and have vowed to return again as soon as I possibly can.
On the way out of the park, Dave leads our convoy along a private sand road through the seldom visited western regions of the Mana Pools. We crossed the bone-dry Ruckomechi River and then through various hunting concessions before stopping off at the Mongwe Fishing Camp for lunch.
The 65km dirt track back out to the tarred N1 was slow but enjoyable because it was the first real bit of 4×4 driving we had done on the trip.
Everyone had a good time.
Later that evening we pulled into the Mopani shaded Lomagundi campground on Kariba Dam and enjoy a meal of freshly caught bream.
“Just like in Mana Pools,” said Paul to the group. “You need to exercise caution if leaving your tent at night here.” Hippos emerge from the lake and graze the campground lawns.
I found myself in dire need of a pee at two in the morning but had to cross my legs due to the presence of a big fat mamma and her baby parked outside my tent door. Thank heavens for empty water bottles.
Exploring Lake Kariba
The Lake behind Kariba Dam (one of the largest dam walls in the world) is 280 kilometres long and has a storage capacity of 180km3. In other words, it’s big.
It’s also very impressive, and when we took a drive to see the wall itself, I was blown away by the sheer enormity of it. Sadly, the dam wall gates were not open that day, and we were denied the sight of gushing plumes of water, but the experience of walking across the wall was impressive nonetheless.
Chinese construction gangs were busy with hundreds of local labourers building an extension to their hydroelectric station, the results of which, when finished, will be an overall increase in electricity for Zimbabwe.
That evening we took a boat cruise out onto the dam lake and visited a huge fish farm and an island wildlife reserve where buffalo were seen munching on bales of hay provided by a charity organisation called ‘The Friends of Kariba.’
The sunset from the deck was beautiful, and we enjoyed a few bottles of ice cold beer as the light faded before heading back to camp for another fish dinner.
The following morning was an early one.
“We have around 350km to travel to Binga,” announced Paul. “Which may not sound like a lot, but we will be on a dusty dirt road which will slow us down. We might be driving for twelve hours or more.”
The road followed the entire length of the lake, and our convoy formation meant that we were forever driving in each other’s dust. It was very hard to see anything except a billowing cloud of red and orange.
“It would be great if we could stretch out the convoy,” said Paul over the Radios while we crawled our way through a red haze with barely a few meters visibility “But there are so many junctions and forks on this route that we must stick together for fear of losing someone.”
It was an exhausting day, with a top speed of just 40kmph, but eventually, we gratefully pulled onto tar and drove the final 20km to the Kulawizi Campground on the outskirts of town. Upon departing the next morning, we spotted the crushed up hulk of a Kia rental car we had passed on the dirt road the previous day.
Obviously, the poor visibility had got the better of the driver, and he had rolled his vehicle off the road.
190km of potholed tar through dry miombo landscapes later, we pulled into the Ivory Lodge camp in Hwange National Park. It was sweltering, and it was dry and the next day and a half of exploration in the park revealed very little in regards to wildlife sightings. There were elephants here and there, but lady luck was against us, and it was so hot and dry that we found it too uncomfortable to be out and about for long.
It was a bit of a low end to what had been an awesome tour. Or so I thought
But then, back at the camp, we decided to enjoy the services of a good bar and a few cold beers situated on the edge of a sizable waterhole.
That’s when the wonderful thing happened!
First, there were just a few elephants turning up to splash and drink on the water’s edge, then, from the surrounding bush, more and more began to saunter in. Before long there were not dozens, but literally, hundreds of playful pachyderms filling up the landscape. I have never seen so many elephants in one place at the same time in all my life.
Young bulls sparred. Babies played. Big bulls loped around in the depths, and countless cows kept watch over their younglings.
The noise was unbelievable. Trumpeting and growling and rumbling and splashing. Two-hundred-and-fifty plus elephants having a whale of a time.
It was definitely the highlight of the whole trip, and when, reluctantly we had to leave for our long journey back home, we took with us amazing memories and a keen desire to return to Zimbabwe’s magical places.
This journey was undertaken before Mr Mugabe was requested politely to step down. Hopefully, there is even more friendliness and hope among the Zimbabwe people than ever before. Maybe the police roadblocks have become less corrupt. Maybe there will be a stronger commitment to wildlife protection.
Maybe the potholes will be repaired.
It was a wonderful surprise visiting Zimbabwe. It’s a great place to visit.
Perhaps now, under new leadership, it will be even greater.