Friday, November 16, 2012

The Highlight of Our Trip

Saturday 10 November 2012

With the awesome staff. Left to right: John, Maxwell, Mica, Costa

Zambezi Life Styles, Mana Pools, Zimbabwe

On Sunday, 2 September, we flew in a small bush plane into Mana Pools and were there for a week.  Mana Pools National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. During the dry season, animals are drawn to the area for its life giving water and the plant life it supports.

It was like one of those movies where you fly into a lost world.

Sunday 2 September

Check out of hotel and arrive at airport to board a small four passenger bush plane. It's the dry season and the land below is grey and brown. Hard to spot any animals from this height but can see round huts clustered together in small groups, some walled in with fences made of branches. No sign of agriculture. (Later learned this is because the farming here is all subsistence farming and the main crop, maize, doesn't grow in the dry season.) Fly over the Zambezi River - all the other small rivers and tributaries have dried up. About 90 minutes after takeoff, we land at the Lake Kariba airstrip, a long strip of sand covered in jagged rocks. As our pilot taxies slowly in, swerving to avoid the larger rocks, he points to hunks taken out of his propeller where it has hit the rocks.  Apparently, planes landing are a major entertainment value and there are many people, including women balancing loads on their heads. Our pilot explains that the day before, he got stuck in the sand, and everyone jumped in to help push him out.

Lake Kariba

Agnes and Jack from Belgium are joining us in the plane, with poor Agnes squished in the back with the luggage. We're off once Jack helps the pilot turn the plane around. (Poor Greg stands by uselessly, not sure which bit he's supposed to grab. I selfishly stay in my seat, guarding the best spot in the plane  - right in front by the pilot - with its great view and the most legroom in our cramped sardine can.) Jack and Agnes soon turn out to be the kind of people you feel as if you've known forever ... which is good since we will share a car and guide for the next three days. Half an hour later we're met at another runway which could have been a twin of the first, minus the crowd, by our guide and camp manager, Fisher. On the drive into the camp, we see an amazing number of baboon, impala, kudu, waterbuck, elephants, and zebras as well as a lone Cape Buffalo and Nylan. (Impala, Kudu, Waterbuck and Nylan are all species of antelope.) We are truly amazed at the quantity and variety of wildlife but soon learn this is just a foretaste.


Jack pushes while Greg supervises

Jack is obviously doubtful about how we're going to get all the luggage in. Not to worry, we did. Agnes kept it company.

The camp is fairly primitive compared to the luxury of our next camp but the four days we spend here prove to be the highlight of our trip, maybe because it is so primitive and gives the experience of a true bush camp. There are only three tents and a staff of four plus Fisher. There is no electricity. All cooking is done over a woodfire and turns out to be the best food we'll have on our whole trip. Our laundry is done by hand and delivered daily, neatly ironed ... something Greg never gets at home, I can assure you. Camera batteries  charge overnight off the Land Rover car battery. The camp is right by the Zambezi River and there is always a lovely breeze to keep us cool at night.

Ours is the first tent

the shower - hot water once a day.

Beds were canvas cots covered with a thick foam mattress - really comfortable!

To flush : lift lid. Add sand.

We start to get to know each other - Fisher, Jack, Agnes, Greg and I - over an al fresco lunch and then have some down time until our 3:30 tea followed by a game drive. Again, the number of animals and species is mind boggling. 

Awwww! What could be better than a nice mud pool soak followed by a dust bath?

On this first journey into the park, we are introduced to the harsh realities of this land. We see a lone elephant female that Fisher says is too young to be on her own. If she doesn't find her family soon or hooks up with another group, she will be easy prey for the predators. Later, Fisher tells us there are 4500 elephants in the park and about 500 will die before the rains start in late November or early December, more if the rains are delayed as they have been the last two years. Sad but good news for the predators who are stressed now but will have more luck in hunting once the herd animals start getting weak. Those of you who know me well know what an animal lover I am but, strangely, I am able to accept this. It is only when I see animal babies that are already suffering the results of the drought that I have a hard time accepting that statistics are one thing, seeing one of those statistics is another. I harbor secret thoughts of rescuing them all even though the rule in the park, just like our own Yellowstone, is total nonintervention.

We have our first sundowners - an African tradition - by the river, watching the sun, a red rubber ball, quickly disappearing behind the hills on the other side of the river, the Zambian side. 

Back in camp, we all trot off to our tents for a hot shower. Attached to each of our tents is a canvas enclosure with a big bag of water overhead. The camp crew fill the bags with hot water just before our return each day. Then Greg and I sit on a sofa on the river bank and watch hippos and crocs and baboons and elephants. A family of elephants swims across the river. First Mamma, then small baby holding her tail, then an older sibling. When the water gets deep, the baby uses its trunk like a snorkel tube.

After dinner, we sit around a campfire and share the day's experiences. We use our flashlights to make our way to our tents and will be confined there until one of the crew wakes us in the morning by standing outside our tent door and gently chanting "Wake. Wake." It's an "open camp" (no fences) and so you don't go wandering around in the dark lest you become someone else's supper.

The sound of hippos coughing and rumbling and grunting and burping lull Greg and I to sleep. It's been an awesome first day in paradise.

 Monday 3 September

Wake up call at the ungodly hour of 5:30 ... that's AM, folks. Greg and I stumble around in the dark to get dressed and decide that tonight we'll lay out our next day's clothes while it is still light.

We eat a light breakfast and then climb with Agnes and Jack into the Land Rover. Today's objective: track lions!

We see incredible herds of impala, skittish and always ready to spring off. They dance on air.

We see many other antelope contentedly grazing, large troops of baboons with babies clinging to their mother's bellies, elephant stretching to grab tender branches and warthogs kneeling to munch on the dry grass, all mixed together like a painting of the Peaceable Kingdom.

What we don't see are lions.

Fisher suggests we get out and walk and see if we can see any lion tracks. We all eagerly tumble out of the car and walk single file like little ducklings behind Fisher. Greg, who considers me - with good reason - to be the Poky Little Puppy, brings up the lead so he can poke me when I fall behind. He has to do a lot of poking. There's just so much to see!

We follow vultures to a fresh Kudu carcas. Died of disease. Hyena haven't been here yet or there would have been nothing left.

Huge hippo skull. Old guy kicked out of herd. Went off to pool where it died alone. Skull is 2 - 3 years old.
Dried, cracked earth. We hope the rains come early this year.

Fisher soon proves to be an awesome guide, knowledgeable about everything and eager to share that knowledge. Soon we are as engrossed in the fascinating lives of termite mounds as we are in the behavior of predators.

This is an Impala midden. The dominant male poops here and then everybody in the herd poops in the same spot. It's used to mark territories. When you go on a safari, you learn a whole bunch about poop.

Returning to the car, Fisher gets a call from another guide telling him that a pride of five lions - 2 male, 3 female - has been spotted. When we get there, it's just like Yellowstone Park - lots of cars and people. We watch the lions for a while. They're very well aware of the crowd but very relaxed and doing cat things like lolling on their backs with tails waving lazily like flags in a breeze.

When the crowd clears, another guide suggests we go together to track the rest of the pride- there are 13 lions total. It's very thrilling to be actually tracking lions ...even though we never did find the rest of the thirteen.

Fisher tells us there are five prides of lion in the park - ranging from three to thirteen.

On the way back to camp, we stop to photograph a huge herd of Cape Buffalo and an elephant bull standing on his hind legs to get at a high branch. Food is scarce and the elephants are reduced to eating leaves and branches and even the bark of trees. They scrape it off with their tusks which is why so many have a broken tusk.

Agnes spots a jackal.

We stop for a morning coffee break by Long Pole Pool, the largest of the four pools. Hippos and crocs are hanging out in the pool and behind them is a landscape filled with animals.

Back in camp, Greg and I carefully lay out the next day's clothes. Our morning drive has lasted from 6:30 until 1 - much longer than the 3 - 4 hours other camps offer. We find that we're a great match with Fisher and with Agnes and Jack - we all want to really experience what the area has to offer, not just check off species as we see them.

Unfortunately, just after tea a British couple named E--- and S--- arrive and they are definitely of the check the box species.

Fortunately, Fisher has brought in another guide to chauffer them around as they take pictures from the Land Rover and check boxes. They proudly tell us that they give all their friends and relatives a very special Christmas present each year ... placemats made from photos of the trip they've taken that year ... oh yes, and matching coasters. Well, you know what Katie and Heath are getting this year! Not.

After tea, we all set out in two separate Land Rovers. The five lions have moved and the crowd has moved with them. Fisher leads us on a walk that ends very close to them. For the last bit, we sit down and scoot forward on our butts. Apparently animals do not view cars - or the people in them - as a threat and the same thing holds true if you are low to the ground. Mind you, it is reassuring that Fisher carries a rifle and packs a pistol. Just in case one of the lions didn't get the memo. But these ones are so full from a recent kill that their bellies look ready to burst. They're not going anywhere.

Baked fish and couscous for dinner. Yum! Sitting around the campfire after dinner, Jack plays his flashlight over the river plain and we catch a brief glimpse of an African Civet hunting for frogs.

During the night we hear elephant in camp but I'm too lazy to get up and look. Later, I hear a large animal in our tent and it's urinating. Then the flap to the toilet area opens and out comes ... Greg. Good thing I was too scared to scream!

Tuesday 4 September

On our morning drive, we see lots of large numbers of animals we've seen before - zebra, antelope, elephant, baboons and hippos.

Two young impala bucks squaring off.

Not quite as gross as it looks. Elephants have a poor digestive system so this baboon is searching elephant dung for whole seeds that have passed through the elephant intact.

Fisher spots wild dog prints but although we follow them for some distance, we catch no sign of them. The area of the park we're in today seems even drier and dustier and browner than what we've seen so far.

All kinds of tracks ... but to tell the truth, I'm not sure if wild dog tracks are in this bunch.

We come across another group of cars and see three lions resting under a tree.  There is a really old female, a slightly younger one and a baby about one year old. Fisher explains that the young one is still too young to hunt and so will be hidden while the two females search for prey. Unfortunately, the older females have not been successful in their hunt lately and the guides are worriedly monitoring them. Another reality check.

Fisher knows the whereabouts of a large herd of about 40 - 60 Cape Buffalo. He leads Greg and I on foot (Agnes and Jack decide to keep a safe distance) and then we crawl to within 70 meters of the herd. They were lying down in the open when we came up but on our arrival most stand, facing us, and don't relax until we were sitting down. Fisher explains that adult females are in front, young males at the side, old guys at the back and calves in the middle. Cape Buffalo are dangerous because it is impossible to read their body language. One minute they're staring passively at you, the next they're charging. Fortunately, nobody decides to charge us today.

Look carefully at the nose of the guy on the ground. A bird is perched there, eating the flies around his nostrils.

We come across  a group of elephant - big male, two females and two babies. The male is pulling branches down from trees. Only one of the females is a mother. The babies are too close in age to both be hers: one is probably adopted, most likely from her sister. Fisher also tells us that old bachelor males  will sometimes adopt orphaned babies and raise them, guarding them fiercely.

We are totally amazed by how close we can come to all of these magnificent wild animals. No fences, no glass separating us. It's a humbling experience.

I wonder if this woman knows just how close she IS to the wildlife?

 After lunch, Jack and I watch an elephant come into camp and then wander down to a pool on the river plain. There is a troop of baboons who live just outside the perimeter of the camp. Today they're very cantankerous. There's a lot of screaming and charging going on. Greg is reading outside our tent while I sit at the table writing in my journal.

Greg wants to check out the kudu carcass we saw yesterday to see if we can see any hyenas. We search the area but find nothing at all - not so much as a jawbone. The hyenas have indeed come and gone.

 After dinner, Jack's flashlight picks out a hyena hunting on the river plain. Unfortunately, it's the only one we'll see in all of our time in southern Africa.

Wednesday, 5 September
Today is tinged with sadness. Agnes and Jack leave at noon for their next camp and for Greg and I, today is our last day in this wonderful place.
We decide to end with a bang: we're going to find those rare wild dogs!
Jack decides to go for one last shot at catching Tiger Fish as he had no luck at Lake Kariba and so it's just Agnes, Greg and I who set out with Fisher.
Today is a day for tracks. Just outside of camp, Fisher spots lion and hyena tracks.Three male lions. (How he can tell sex from a set of tracks, I don't know. Size?) Apparently they're not from the area - maybe snuck in for a drink of water. We get out and track them to a long watering hole and see they've turned back so it's back into the Land Rover for us.
The next set of tracks is what we are seeking: wild dog. We follow them in the vehicle for a long way before they veer off into bush.
We're passing through a very open area with a brown desolate look. We see several ground squirrels and some mongoose.



Today we see an elephant with a broken tusk and Fisher explains that elephants have "handedness" just like humans. So if the right tusk is broken, that means that is the one they've been primarily using to try to scrape the tough bark off of trees. Then we stop at an elephant skull where Fisher explains how they have six sets of teeth throughout their lifetime which are produced in the back of the jaw and move forward as needed.
While we are walking, Fisher points out a swarm of ants on the ground - soldier ants. As we pass them, they hiss at us. Cheeky!
We are en route to a huge herd of 600 Cape Buffalo when a passing guide gives us a head's up on where the wild dogs are hanging out. When we arrive, there is the usual tourist throng. There are eight of them lying in the shade of a tree, occasionally getting up to urinate and then flopping down again. A ninth one on the other side of the tree gets up and limps toward the others. Poor thing has his whole leg off the ground. Fisher explains that the others will watch out for him and make sure he shares in the meat from any hunt. Wild dogs hunt by running down their prey and they are incredibly fast. The fastest leads the pack. As he tires, he drops back and is replaced. As they reach their prey, they tear hunks out of it until it dies. Certainly not a way I'd like to leave this earth! They are very successful hunters with a success rate of about 98%. Unfortunately, this group has very full bellies and ignores not just the people watching but also a warthog that wanders close by so what we see looks like a pack of friendly, beautifully colored dogs.

Back in camp, we discover that not only has Jack missed the wild dogs, he has also caught no fish. Fisher assures him that he is almost certain to see wild dogs at their next camp which is fairly closeby. (Later that afternoon we pass Jack and Agnes in a jeep from the other camp and learn that they have seen 24 wild dogs, half of them pups!)

At lunch, we watch hippos on a spit of land in the river ... lots and lots and lots of hippos including the first babies we've seen.

On the afternoon drive, we spend some time watching the wild dogs again but still no action.
We enjoy our last Sundowner together.
 Thursday 6 September

It's our last game drive with Fisher and, as with all the others, it doesn't disappoint.

Fisher excitedly shares with us the return of the Cramine Bee Eaters as they flock in hundreds to nest in holes on the river bank. It's an incredible sight.

In the river is a large herd of hippos, including a rare pink guy.

The guy on the right seems to be wondering what the fuss is all about.

On the way to the nesting area, we hear a large CRACK! A large tree branch has fallen and an elephant family (mother, older daughter and younger daughter) are quick to pillage this unexpected repast. On our way back, there are a few more elephants feasting.

This guy opted for take-out!
We walk through a small ravine and get up close to a large herd of Cape Buffalo.

We walk around the area where we had seen the two old females and baby. No sign of them and Fisher learns from other guides that no one has seen them at a kill. Chances of survival aren't good for the little guy.

We still haven't seen any hyenas (except the brief glimpse of the one on the river plain) but Fisher shows us some hyena poop. It's white and very finely ground. Hyenas eat everything and their digestive system is very efficient.

Greg gets a good shot of two impalas butting heads.

I have just asked Fisher to tell Jack and Agnes hello today when he drops off S-- and E-- at their camp when a jeep pulls up beside us - in it are Jack and Agnes! We exchange happy hellos and hear about their sighting of the 24 wild dogs. Wish we'd been with them!

Almost back at camp, we see vultures circling and get out to go investigate. We find a freshly killed African Civet. Fisher is saddened by the discovery as they are quite rare and tells us it was killed just this morning, probably by a leopard although we can not find its tracks.

In camp, Sean from Ruckomechi Camp is waiting to take us to our new adventure. We know it's going to be great but it's hard to say goodbye to Fisher and his team.

I hope Zambezi Lifestyles is there in about ten years from now because I want to take our grandson there.

But just in case, I have Fisher's contact information. He's hoping to branch out on his own and if he does, then his is the camp we're going to. I can't recommend him highly enough and so have no hesitation in sharing his information with you:

+263 773473343 cell
+263 77215 3651

***Beginning next year, Fisher will be offering his services as a Private Guide.***

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