Heading for the tiny border post 150km South of Plumtree we were prepared for the worst. Stories of police brutality, confiscations, disappearances, bribes, fines and even “war” (that last one was courtesy of the ever-present yank that you are glad isnt going in the same direction as you). Despite the confusion of having to visit 5 different officials, all of whom are not in the same building let alone the correct sequence, to gain the correct papers and stamps, or the slight hold up from getting our road tax as we were interrupted by some lovely gent offering around a cardboard box of unrefrigerated lamb necks as quasi bribes, we were soon on our way and through the border.
Now on the long, picturesque but very bumpy road to Matopos we arrived into the oddest little camp in complete darkness and if it weren’t for Vincent the lovely, super friendly caretaker of the ‘lodge’ i would have sworn this was the place that people go missing as we were now essentially in a field with a fence that seemed to have the purpose of keeping people in as opposed to animals out!
The next morning saw us take a drive into nearby Bulawayo before making the pilgrimage into Matopo itself, a lovely surprise full of thousands of huge balancing granite boulders interspersed by forest and grassland. In-spite of the insistence by the staff that they where indeed there, we were not lucky enough to catch a glimpse of any of the rhino or leopard in the park. We did however manage to scramble our way up to the top of one of the “gomos” to the most spectacular 360 degree view of the area.
From Matopos, the final resting place of Cecil John Rhodes (which we didn’t go and see thanks to the 30 dollar fee), we decided to make our way East to visit a very good family friend of the Heaths in Gweru. Only 5 police road blocks later, and no fines as yet, we arrived without major incident where we spent the next 4 days having the most amazing time, spending time with the lions, going on bush walks and chatting to a plethora of people from scientists and researches to game rangers and volunteers. Not to mention getting to sleep in a real bed that doesn’t drive off the next morning. Sleeping however was going to be difficult due to our levels of excitement for what we had lined up the next few days, that along with the 90+ lions deciding to have long-range chats from sundown to sun up, but all in all not a bad price to pay in my opinion.
After a lovely few days where we were spoilt and given far too much it was time to move off to Harare for a beautiful wedding and to spend time catching up with old friends, servicing the car and designing logos (with a little help).
We also had a few very unexpected pleasures such as driving a Toyota Corolla crammed with 3 dogs, one of whom doubles as a horse – not an ideal time to make a wrong turn through the centre of Harare in rush hour, and being dragged to a giant green-house in the middle of a race track that seemed to moonlight as a night club for 13-40 yr olds alike, classic Harare.
After 10 days of relaxing, drinking and eating far too much, it was time for the goodbyes where we were never going to be able to say thank you enough to everyone that helped us out (a big shout out to the Maggs clan, Andy and Saint Wendy, Emma and Justin, the Kennans and the Beares) and of course the degenerates that constantly lead us astray.
Before we knew it we had the bright lights of Harare in the rearview mirror and were on the road to Mana Pools, the pinnacle of Zimbabwean National Parks.
A long drive, made much longer by our little tortoise of a car we finally turned off the tar and onto 80km of pure, unadulterated corrugated hell. Thirty minutes in and tires down to 1.8 bar we started to doubt our decision thinking “surely nothing could be worth this torture”? We finally made a turn into an open vlei once through the dense forest. The late, setting sun cast an angelic golden haze through the trees and over the assortment of animals meandering around each other down towards the banks of the Zambezi river, the last 2 hours of torture melted away in seconds and all the excitement came hurtling back.
Once again the generosity of Zimbabweans shone though and we arrived at an absolutely stunning camp where we were shown to a wonderful permanent tent, pitched on the raised embankment overlooking the mighty Zambezi that was to be our home for the next 3 nights. We barely had time to express our excitement before being told to come and join everyone for a sundowner at the picturesque dinning table as the sun dipped below the hills framing the river on the Zambian side. There was a good chance we might never leave this place, much like the lucky few permanent and very relaxed residents in the area.
Our relaxation was short-lived as we went to unpack and found two burst beers that had managed to leak onto the carpet amongst other things, not a major train smash by any means but bad enough to warrant 40 minutes of pulling everything out the back, cleaning it and finding a place to dry off. The silver lining was that we didn’t have to sleep in the back tonight as we had a new home and one with a fantastic view, if not a little too close to the hippo at times. Our luck quickly changed when we found out we had Charl, a lovely and very capable professional guide, in camp, free range with Daves modified land cruiser along with the bountiful knowledge of Jan who is currently putting together his second field guide for the mana area. Bums landed firmly in the butter we went off for our first WALK in Mana which was absolutely stunning, not only did Charl manage to find “Boswell”, the resident tusker known for getting onto his hind legs in order to reach the pods from what we came to know as the elephant popcorn tree. We came across a stunning array of animals and started to learn about the fauna and flora in the area thanks to Jan. It truly is an amazing experience being on foot in a park renowned for lion, painted dog and very friendly elephant.
Over the course of the next few days we fished, much to little Thomas’ excitement, although he wasn’t too chuffed when mum insisted that he didn’t stand with his toes dangling into the crocodile infested Zambezi, spent time walking in the park with our new-found best mates, sat in camp watching the eles play in the mud only a few metres away, went on game drives where we came across lion, buffalo, painted dog and hundreds more elephant, and spent many hours sat at the wonderfully placed dining table sucking in all the knowledge floating around from the veterans of Mana, all the whilst being joined by the odd elephant who had decided that instead of working hard to collect the pods from the tress that they would just stroll into camp and take those lying in the middle of the table as a centre piece. Needless to say conversation quickly slowed its pace as the 4 tonne dinner guest breathed over your shoulder whist shuffling your stuff out of the way to get to his snacks.
Sadly after 3 wonderful days it was time for the Kennan / Ferguson clan to head off, but all was not lost as Jan and the girls had decided to stay on for another night. As the next afternoon wore on we bundled into the car and headed off in search of the painted dog. Elephant managed to sneak all of the attention as they have the ability to do but we were dying to find the dogs. We had seen the small pack the night prior we were keen to find the larger pack who had pups in tow. Finally after much driving around, and bumping into a few hyena we found them, as luck would have it a minute after we pulled in so did a professional guide, and so we were allowed to hop out of the car and get much closer to the dogs on foot. On drawing closer we realised the previous calls from the baboon were not just warning calls as the dogs had taken down a sizeable adult and were sharing parts of it around the pack. As one went trotting past with the head and shoulders we began to realise just how lucky we were, given that 2 years prior the BBC had spent an unsuccessful year in the park trying to catch on camera one of those very baboon kills.
As we said goodbye to Jan the following day Dave managed to twist our very rubber arms into staying one more night, after all we could just hotfoot it over Kariba to the falls in two days with ease. This turned out to be an even better decision than we had expected, as we had “Boswell” and his followers wander right through the camp for the day. As usual, the afternoon drew on and we moved out for a drive, this time jumping into the geriatric old defender that had everything from the windscreen up sawn off and anything that wasn’t instrumental to the car running ripped out. The next few hours sailed by as we watched a few tiny baby eles playing, we climbed inside, yes INSIDE, a giant, hollow baobab and had one or four sundowners and as darkness crept in we made our way back to camp, somewhat hair-raisingly for the last 3kms as the defender has no headlights!
As we sat around the now familiar table enjoying dinner in the darkness one of the staff approached the table asking to borrow a torch as the hyenas were in the camp again, something that we were now very used to. As he headed back to the clattering noise behind us we jokingly asked him if it was a lion, to which he responded “no, just the hyenas being naughty, they like to try steal the chairs” so we were rather surprised when 15 seconds later he shouts “Shumba, Shumba”, shona for Lion! As we raced down to where he was standing we saw two lionesses walking away into the darkness, occasionally glancing back at us. Dave at this point realised these are the lion that have been at the other camp for the last few days, and that they are a pride of 6, so there must be another 4 more somewhere in the darkness. As we start to walk back towards the tents we saw the other 4 slowly appear from in-between the tents, where we had been walking back and forth not 20 minutes before, Dave at this point suggests we should get a closer look at them, intrigued and riding on the back of Daves confidence we walked out, slightly hiding behind Dave at this point. As we drew closer my confidence faltered, but still we moved on, me quieter than ever before when suddenly without any warning at all the torch died, plunging us into darkness.
There we were, 3 of us now standing closer to 6 lion than to the camp in pitch black. As I willed my eyes to adjust at lightening speed, the sound of the grass underfoot became suddenly deafening and the fear was real. I now know the fear impala live through on a daily basis, only sadly I lack in their, speed or agility. Smaller and slower than Beani and far less knowledgable than Dave I felt I may be on the back foot and first pick for the pride, but thankfully we made our fast walk, not a run, a speed walk maybe, but defiantly not a run, back to the safety of the table, and once the adrenalin had worn off, we couldn’t believe our luck, an amazing experience.That night, the camp was a flurry of noise and activity, confirmed the next morning when we found the spoor of hyena, elephant, hippo and the lion all through the camp.
Begrudgingly we left the following morning, but it wasn’t all bad as Dave had to head out as well and had got authority from Parks for us to drive in convoy along the unused, seasonal ‘river road’. We hadn’t been driving for 10 minutes when Dave stops infront of us and slides out of the car, pointing at the river, there lay the 6 lion that had stumbled through the camp the night before. They were all lounging on the banks with the mountains in the background, just a perfect send off for a lovely week in this special place. We saw lion again a few minutes down the road along with a plethora of other animals and got to see parts of the park that vey few get the privilege of seeing, let alone driving through and avoiding hell road. We skirted the Zambezi all the way past Mongwe and eventually popped out down the road from Chirundu, a stunning and very interesting drive thanks to Dave.
Sadly it was time to say our final goodbyes to Dave, fill up and check what the border was looking like these days. The answer was not what we were hoping for, it was chaos, people and cars everywhere with “officials” “helping” at every junction, baboons hunting for scraps and the odd small child. We had seen enough and decided that Kariba was the best option for us. And so it was decided, we would wind our way through the hills down to Lake Kariba, cross the lovely little border post into Zambia, transit through its gleaming highways to Livingstone and swan into Victoria Falls for wedding number two. Africa didn’t agree and had made different plans for us…