I know I know, I really need to post more often. I promise to work on that..or at least try to. I would like to blame it (again) on Africa, but since I have been back in Germany for the last week or so, that excuse no longer applies. Anyways, I have so much to tell you! The end of my southern Africa road trip was amazing. I definitely saved the best for last. My return to Germany also came at a perfect time, for I was able to join my friends at the Cannstatter Volksfest (a smaller but equally debaucherous Oktoberfest in Stuttgart). I also just took a quick four-day trip to Barcelona this weekend and have many photos and stories to share. But before I gush about Spain, I have to divulge the well-kept secret of Zimbabwe: Mana Pools National Park.
After Lilongwe we traveled to Mana Pools National Park. We changed our itinerary a little bit and decided to stay in Mana Pools for four days.
This would be the longest amount of time we would spend at one location. When Gert recommended this change I was definitely skeptical. I love game drives, but I wasn’t convinced that I wouldn’t get a little bored after a couple of days. Let’s just say I couldn’t have been more mistaken.
I truly believe that Mana Pools is Africa’s Eden. It is situated in the lower Zambezi River in Zimbabwe where the flood plain turns in to a broad expanse of lakes after each rainy season. Mana means ‘four’ in Shona, in reference to the four large permanent pools. The park itself is massive and encompasses about 2,500 square kilometers of river frontage, islands, sandbanks and pools, flanked by forests of mahogany, wild figs, ebonies and baobabs. It is considered one of the least developed National Parks in Southern Africa. There are absolutely no fences, leaving nothing between you and the hundreds of buffaloes, elephants, hyenas, and hippos that roam around the entire park.
It took us about two hours to get to the main part of the park where the campsites are located. The entire drive was spent painfully and slowly making our way down very unpleasant dirt roads. Due to these conditions I really recommend taking an SUV to the park. I did not see any lodging available other than some private lodges located in other sections of the park. However, there are a lot of campsites and you do have the option to camp on the riverbank, however these locations are much more expensive. We opted to choose the more economical campsite, which was located only 100m from
the riverbank. We still had amazing views and as we came to find out, were out of the way of grazing hippos at night. So, in my opinion it is almost better (and safer) not to upgrade. The campsites are basic- bathrooms and shower houses are provided, but there are no lights in the bathrooms so make sure to bring a torch and shower shoes! Additionally, there aren’t any stores so make sure you arrive with everything you need, including food. Every morning a local woman would come buy and offer to wash our dishes and do laundry for only $3 a day! Definitely worth it!
As we were setting up our campsite on the first day we noticed an elephant leisurely stroll by. I couldn’t believe my eyes- this place was definitely the real deal. Little did I know at the time, but that elephant and I would share a very unexpected meeting a few days later…but more about that later on! We also were fortunate to set up camp next to a family of eight Zimbabweans. They were all former farmers and had been taking two-week vacations in Mana for years. Their campsite resembled a mini compound, equipped with an electric fence and solar energy panels. At first I thought it was a bit over the top, but later on I learned that all of it was necessary and honed from years of experience. They were wonderful people and shared many stories about their lives in Zimbabwe and the hardships they went through as their farms were literally stolen from them without any help or protection from their government. I have read countless books on Zimbabwe and was very familiar with the plight of the white Zimbabwe farmers a few years ago when the black community decided to take back what they thought was rightfully their land. Many farmers were killed and thousands of them kicked off of their farms without any sort of compensation. However, it is one of those situations that no matter how much you read about, the situation is not palpable until you visit the place and meet the people who actually experienced it. These farmers amazed me with their ability to survive, remain in Zimbabwe, and still have a positive outlook on life. If you are at all interested in learning about the history of Zimbabwe let me know and I will recommend some outstanding books.
We went on morning and evening game drives the first couple of days in Mana. The wildlife is truly incredible and abundant. I saw herds of elephants, hippos,
buffaloes, impala, and many many more animals. I also saw packs of wild dogs- something I was told was very rare. One of the greatest highlights of my trip was actually witnessing a pride of lions attack a herd of buffaloes. I watched as the head lioness began to stalk a group of buffaloes that had separated from the larger herd. Watching the tactics of the cats was suspenseful and intense. It reminded me of military squad tactics, where each lion has a role and a position to uphold.
As they attacked the buffaloes, we heard incredible bellowing begin. The buffaloes literally sounded the alarm of attack and began to form together in a large force that
began to counter-attack the cats. The whole scene was incredible. The cats, unsuccessful in their first attack, tried again. However, the herd unity was too impenetrable and the cats, again, were unable to claim a victim. I was constantly switching from video to taking photos- not sure which one would capture the most amount of action. I ended up with a mélange…but thought the photo below turned out well. I have seen scenes like this one take place on television and in movies, but nothing can describe the raw energy and intensity of an event like this in real life. Nature truly is captivating.
Another highlight of the trip was going on a lion-tracking trek. Unlike most National Parks in Africa, you can actually get out of your car and walk around in Mana. This makes all the difference in the world when it comes to what type of experience you can have, but also elevates the danger you are in. While I would definitely recommend walking around and seeing the sights, I would not venture into the bush alone without an experienced guide equipped with a rifle. We went on our trek with one of our Zimbabwean neighbors, who had years of lion trekking experience. He was also equipped with a rifle, pistol, and knife (the more the merrier I say!). Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) we did not spot any lions, but the walk was a lot of fun and there is so much to see between the riverbanks and the wide open plains- I could not put my camera down.
Every night we would sit in front of the campfire, drink tea, and share stories and laughter with those who stopped by to warm themselves by the fire. During these
nightly sessions, I would glance up at the beautiful night sky filled with millions of glittering stars and say a quiet ‘thank you’ under my breath. As I breathed in the chilly night air, I would think about all the incredible places I have journeyed to and the people I had met along the way. Africa is incredible and has captured my heart and my soul.
When our eyelids finally began to grow heavy, we would all retire to our tents and snuggle into our sleeping bags, exhausted from the days’ activities but grateful for all the experiences. I would hunker down in my bag and listen as the hippos and buffaloes would noisily graze by my tent. Every once and a while the quiet of the night would be broken by the crackle of a hyena or the roaring of the lions across the river. Mana Pools is a special place and I am grateful I spent four days experiencing all that it has to offer. It was the best way possible I could have finished my trip.
On the last day, as we packed up the truck, I saw my friend the elephant again. He strolled through the campsite, as he did on our first day, and posted himself at a nearby tree for an afternoon treat. Feeling rather brave, I decided to creep and stand behind a nearby tree in order to get some photos. After I had taken a few shots I quietly backed a way and made my way back to the campsite. However, as I was walking away the elephant suddenly caught sight of me and whipped around. I froze and we locked eyes. Within the next couple of seconds I racked my brain trying to figure out what advice had been given to me when it comes to elephants. I knew that when it came to lions, the best course of action was to stay perfectly still. However, I couldn’t remember if this was the best thing when it came to elephants. As I was pondering whether to run or stay still, the elephant flapped his ears, trumpeted, and began to charge me. Let’s just say he made up my mind for me and I began to sprint across the campsite, desperately trying to find a place to hide. I saw one lone tree and ran straight towards it, thinking that it would provide me with the necessary cover and concealment. In hind sight, this was a very dumb idea. But at the time, as this massive elephant was running extremely fast towards me, it was the best idea I could come up with. Lucky for me, it was only a mock charge and he finally stopped as I made my way behind the tree. Apparently he figured that he had scared me enough and that I wouldn’t be bothering him anymore. He got that right! I walked back to our truck and realized my entire body was shaking. I started laughing nervously as Gert began to chastise me for being an idiot. Yes, that was probably the worst decision I could have made and I completely underestimated how dangerous elephants really were. So, take it from me when I say stay away from them. Yes, they are amazing but a picture is not really worth your life! And with that, we loaded the truck and I got as far as I could from the elephant!
We spent the next few days traveling back to Johannesburg, via Harare. Gert had to return to lead another tour going from Cape Town to Nairobi (and I thought I traveled a lot!). If you are ever interested in taking tours through southern Africa definitely visit his site and send him an email. I certainly could not have made it through all the border posts without him!
The entire trip was filled with amazing moments- from watching the cultural dances in Swaziland, to swimming next to whale sharks, to experiencing the beauty of Bazaruto Island in Mozambique, to dealing with the challenges of real Africa, and finally being charged by an elephant in Mana Pools- all of it was incredible and taught me a lot about Africa and traveling. Thank you for sharing this trip with me- I am so glad I decided to start this blog. The next couple of days I will share some stories about Germany and my quick trip to Barcelona. However, I am on my way back to Africa and am looking forward to taking you along with me! So stay tuned and as always, travel well and travel often!!