Captain’s Log-5 May 2011-Mana Pools-A Joy & a Privilege – Part 1

Elephant stretching for more Albida branches at Mana Pools

Being on the Zambezi at Mana Pools again was everything I remembered.   The mountains across the river turning majestically purple as the sun sings down behind their shade sculptured contours.  The sky and the river turning pink and orange together as black silhouettes of the Albida trees line the banks of the Zambezi and the warmth of the early evening air wraps it’s arms around you in the comforting glow.  Dr. Ken Jenkins, who I had flown around Mozambique for years, and Doug Lawrence, a learner professional hunter/guide crack open a cold beer as I start to put my fishing equipment away and all is right with the world.  We had driven down to Mana River mouth after setting up our tents in Nyamepi camp site.  The 6 hour trip from Harare was only a dim memory and we were now here in one of my favorite places on the planet.

Doug and Ken check out the river at Vundu Camp on the Zambezi

It was getting close to 6 p.m. and we headed back to fix supper over a nice Mopani wood fire.  The Easter weekend was coming to an end and the campground had been quickly emptying.  The hippos started there deep laughing guffaw as Ken heated up his wonderfully prepared meal and the hyenas moved ever closer to our position.  This is nothing unexpected and I swung my torch around at rustling waist high grass to see their glowing eyes only meters away time and again throughout the evening.  We talked around the fire as the stars rotated around the sky in their familiar course and it was everything that is good about being in the bush.  The lions roared in the distance as we cleaned up camp and went off to take our showers and go to bed.  I thought I was too excited to sleep but I drifted off in no time, happy in my loved surroundings.

I remember back to our first visit here almost 30 years earlier when we went to bed scared and thinking every sound we heard must surely be lions trying to get us.  The hippos sounded like lions, the elephants roared like lions, the lions even sounded like lions.  We knew nothing about the bush and that can be terrifying.  Not knowing if the elephant standing centimeters outside your tent door vacuuming up Acacia pods will stomp on you if you turn on your torch or make a sound.  Not knowing what the lump moving alongside the tent sniffing for food will do if you elbow it.  Now even the trees seem like old friends and the sounds of the African night delight us.

Doug enjoys a good English Breakfast cooked over a fire at Nyamepi Campgrounds.

I woke to the sounds of a variety of birds greeting the morning and the smell of coffee as Ken started his preparations for breakfast and I quickly jumped up and struggled in the low tent to get dressed to help.  There were still hot coals in the fine ash of last night’s fire and I only had to push the wood together to get the flames jumping quickly to life.

Mmmm. Great English Breakfast.

Ken had planned meals brilliantly and I put some toast over the coals and started the sausage and bacon as Doug cut up tomatoes and onions to go with the eggs for a full English breakfast.  It was going to be a wonderful day.

We cleaned up camp against hyena, monkey and baboon raiders in preparation to go off on a game drive, with the plan to return to the station for Dr. Ken’s bi-monthly clinic.  When he heard I was in town he kindly asked me along for the trip, an invitation I was more than happy to accept.

We jumped in the Toyota and headed out to see what we would see.  This is a wonderful part of being in the bush; you never know for sure what you will see.  Yes, there is beauty all around and a long list of wildlife that frequent the floodplain.  But it is not a zoo.  Nothing is for sure unless you are expectant and curious and watchful.  Then it is for sure you’ll see something that will amaze and fascinate.

One of the many pools that grace the floodplain behind the Zambezi river

The good rains upstream had filled the lake and the Kariba Dam had been opened months ago, raising water levels right back to the mopane and leaving every pool full with life- giving water.  The local rains had also got the grass growing away from the river and many of the animals had departed toward the escarpment to the south in search of new grazing sights and seasonal fruits and leaves.  But there are always animals that stick close to the river.  We hadn’t gone far on the floodplain before we saw elephants under the large Acacia Albidas, or “Apple-ring” acacia.  (Well, now they are called Faidherbia Albidas after 100 years as an acacia). These are one of the most common trees close to the river and have the wonderful property of leafing and putting out pods in the dry season, just when food is most needed, and then being leafless in the wet season.  Their pods are a favorite food of elephants and many of the animals at Mana.

Elephants reach into the Albida trees and pull down branches forming a high canopy

The elephant of the valley will reach high and pull down large quantities of branches to eat even when there are no pods.  I have watched elephants climb large termite mounds and stand on their back legs to reach higher in order to get hold of a choice branch.  It is a lovely sight.   They will also put their forehead and trunks up to the trunk of the thick trees and push, over and over, to knock the pods down, a delicacy they love.

We drove the dirt roads, stopping from time to time to walk back to some secluded pool or get a better picture of a the young elephant left alone under one of the giant Zambezi figs that were in fruit at the time and teeming with masses of monkeys and baboons.  One of the great things about Mana Pools is that you, as a tourist, are allowed to get out of your vehicle and walk.  It can be very dangerous when you don’t know what you are doing, but this is Africa and you just can!  It is a great privilege which I, for one, hope they never take away.
All too soon we found it time to return to camp to pick up the doctor’s medical kit and go to set up the clinic for the Parks staff.  We just had time for a quiet cup of tea before proceedings started.

Dr. Ken Jenkins at his Mana Pools station clinic

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