If you think you have done just about everything in the African Bush you are mistaken if you have not yet had the privilege of spending time in Mana Pools. This Zimbabwean National Park is located in the Zambezi Valley along the mighty Zambezi River. It is like a Garden of Eden with the canopies of varyingly magnificent trees such as giant Figs, Natal Mahoganies and Apple Ring Acacias creating a maze of archways under which elephant, eland and impala are framed; with baboons scampering in the branches overhead and fish eagles calling above.
Not only is Mana Pools breathtakingly beautiful, it is one of the few Parks in Africa where you may walk on foot in the bush and this allows for a very real and intimate experience with the wildlife, and gives one a true sense of freedom.
The animals, particularly the wild dogs and elephant are virtually habituated to people on foot. Although we remain constantly vigilant and aware of the risks and dangers involved, it gives one some of the closest encounters you could ever wish for. There is no other wildlife experience like it!
It may not be quiet as much of an Eden to the animals who roam here, however. The temperatures are brutal, reaching high into the 40’s C (110 F) and towards the end of the dry season foraging for herbivores becomes a mammoth task with the grass blades down to virtually nil.
Chris & I had spent some time here two years ago and after having incredible wild dog and elephant encounters we couldn’t wait to return for more. The heat however, was so uncomfortable I vowed never to return during October again which is called suicide month for good reason!
We had of course left our booking too late and this October was our only option. I agreed on condition we obtain a battery operated fan, and various other tools with which to fight the heat… I was ready for war this time! Chris was not impressed at all having to carry a large fan around but I did find myself constantly fighting him for the best spot while it was in use!
It turned out to be one of our best trips ever with many beautiful scenes, great animal behaviour and adrenalin filled close encounters. It was difficult to choose which experiences to write about but I hope you will enjoy some of the experiences in the blogs below.
Elephants: Mrs Stumpy Tail and the Closest Encounter I Ever Wish to Have
There was a very good reason to be back in camp ready for the lunch time show between 11am and 1pm every day. I do write more extensively about Mrs Stumpy in "An Elephant Love Story" but in brief Mrs Stumpy Tail has a stump end of a tail making her very easy to identify and is part of a small matriarchal herd of four; herself, another adult female and two juveniles. Two years ago we came to know them well as they would pass through our camp every lunch time before crossing the river and into Zambia.
They were particularly gentle and showed a tolerance for close proximity as we would stand outside and watch them pass closely by.
They were such amazing encounters that we booked the same camp this time round with the sole purpose of hoping to see Mrs Stumpy Tail again. What were the odds two years later?
Well, we couldn’t believe it but as we were approaching our camp, in the road in front of us was Mrs Stumpy Tail and her three herd members, the juveniles having grown somewhat. We were so excited and so happy to see them, it was like seeing an old friend again.
Evidently their routine had not changed at all. We saw them ten out of twelve days we were there, and each time it was between 11am and 1pm. They would pass through camp, eating apple ring acacia seed pods (which Chris would put around our tent) and then cross the river to Zambia. They really were very special times standing just a few meters from them as they casually and gently moved through our area, or more likely they tolerated us in their path!
You can have very close encounters with elephant in Mana Pools and the big bull elephants are especially gentle and tolerant if you approach them in the correct way on foot.
After the excitement of wild dogs one morning we started a slow drive back to camp and came across two bulls feeding in the acacia trees. We stopped the car about 100 meters away from them and decided to just sit quietly and watch and enjoy them.
It was very hot so I climbed out the car for some fresh air and stood beside Chris’s window on the driver’s side of the car.
One of the Bull’s had a big “V” shaped tear out of his left ear, and we recognised him to be one of the well-known relaxed bulls. So, we weren’t too worried when he walked to a fresh tree just 20 meters on our right. I didn’t move back into the car because the distance felt comfortable but in no time at all after reaching the fresh tree the bull decided there was a much nicer pile of dry leaves next to our car.
He caught me off guard and by the time he had reached within 5 meters away it was too late for me to move. I didn’t want to give him a fright and create a difficult situation so I stayed put with the elephant extremely close to me.
Elephants are extremely aware of objects, animals/people and the space around things. You will never see them knock into anything, or walk on something; they always deftly manoeuvre their huge mass out of the way of things.
We also know from many years of experience with wild animals that they will almost always be calm if they have chosen to approach you. When he was 3 meters away from me I desperately tried to remember this but my heart was pounding like I can’t ever remember, I was a little unnerved and it was a very intense moment having a huge elephant standing right next to me.
I knew I had to get back into the car and my chance came when another car slowly passed to our left. As the elephant looked towards the car I walked in the opposite direction from him and got back in.
It was a very good thing I did that as moments later the bull moved onto the next pile of leaves which was located directly under our car!
He stopped centimetres (yes, centimetres) from Chris’s window and proceeded to feast on the roughage providing leaves. His trunk was so close Chris could have taken a pair of tweezers and plucked the course hairs from his trunk. We were able to admire every bump and bristle of his trunk on a microscopic level and at the same time feverishly wish that he wouldn’t need to overturn our car to get to more leaves!
His large tusks were suspended above the roof of our car and we were given a view looking straight up into his mouth as he would deftly deposit the leaves into his mouth with his trunk. We could hear him calmly breathing in and out, and also the soft munching and grinding of the tasty leaves.
There was absolutely no way we could start the engine and try to drive off in case he would become agitated and we would then find ourselves in a very bad situation.
We had to sit it out and what an unbelievable five minutes it was to be so close to such an incredible gentle sentient being.
Afterwards I was shaking with adrenalin and had rivers of sweat running off me after such an intense and exiting moment… I hope this is the closest I will ever get to an elephant!
And again I cannot stress enough how relaxed this animal was and we can only assume that he was this way as he had made the decision to be that close to us and this was fine by him.
Thank you to Cliff Rossenrode for the image.
Boswell: The Famous Bi Pedal Elephant
Elephants in Mana Pools have a somewhat unique browsing method that they employ to reach high into the trees in order to forage. This behaviour is only seen in Mana Pools and Damaraland, Namibia and is mostly due to the vegetation type ie trees. As the dry season extends, and the tree leaves have been browsed to increasingly high levels, the elephants are forced to reach as high as they possibly can. When they feed like this they deposit the fresh leaves directly into their open mouths, and then keep their mouths open as they reach for the next trunkful of foliage.
Some elephants have adapted better than others, or have the biological advantage of being taller and bigger. Most of them get into a very strange body position as they stretch themselves forward, trying to gain an extra inch of height. There is a “tree climber”, who we unfortunately did not see, that climbs up the base of tree trunks with his front legs for extra height, and then quite a number of elephants that are able to feed whilst lifting one front leg up for a few extra centimetres. Another bizarre sight we have seen in Mana Pools is of an elephant that climbed an anthill to get higher up, so they certainly seem to be very creative!
And then there is Boswell…
This is one of the biggest bull elephants you will ever see and at approximately 45 years his already impressive set of tusks will continue to broaden out and grow to the biggest in Mana Pools. Not only is he famous for his lovely nature and disposition, making him a firm favourite amongst the guides who work here, but he performs an amazing “party trick”.
Boswell has learnt that by standing on his hind quarters with his two front legs dangling in front of him, he is able to reach much higher up into the trees than any other elephant. He is therefore able to reach the freshest leaves and also food that no other elephants can get to. It’s a huge advantage and a spectacularly strange sight to witness.
We were lucky enough to see him two years ago (read blog here) and were very much hoping we would get to see him on this trip.
We were fortunate to come across him whilst on an early morning walk with John Stevens (read more of this experience here). As John knows Boswell so well he was able to take us very close to him and we had a wonderful three hour experience.
On this occasion he was accompanied by four askaris. Askari is the name given to younger bull elephants that often accompany older bulls. It is an interesting relationship to watch with many subtle interactions.
The advantage of the askaris is that they may have a chance to share in the rich spoils that Boswell brings down, and that they cannot reach. But Boswell does not necessarily agree and watching the interactions it looked like five bull elephants politely tip toeing around one another.
The askaris would stand in a loose group very close to Boswell watching as he stood up on his hind legs. When a big branch came down they would try sneak a few leaves but Boswell was very defensive of “his” food. He would always make sure the askaris were behind him and whenever one came closer he would just keep blocking him. It must have been incredibly frustrating for the other elephants to watch all this delicious food being consumed right in front of them and in the three hour period there was only one elephant that managed a few mouthfuls before being chased off.
From another point of view it was actually a very comical situation. The other elephants were so obviously wanting to join in the feeding but Boswell was determined that they would not get anything, almost like kids not wanting to share toys!
Boswell has now been fitted with a radio collar. In the month before we arrived a total of 19 elephants were poached in Mana Pools for their ivory. The anti-poaching unit was able to recovery all the ivory and we believe a number of poachers were shot dead. But, this is very bad news for the area and funds are desperately needed to step up anti-poaching patrols and for other measure that will help in the war against poaching.
It is still legal to hunt elephants in Zimbabwe and this is another reason Boswell was fitted with the collar. The researchers here are extremely worried that Boswell will be trophy hunted should he move out of the National Park and into a hunting concession. They are hoping that a professional hunter may choose not to shoot him if he has a collar, and also try other preventative measures should he stray into the area.
The collar will also assist in notifying authorities if he moves in an area that has a poaching problem. I find it very sad that measures like this have to be resorted to, and I can’t help but think that there are many other “Boswell’s” out there that are also in need to protection and help.
None the less we took in every moment of the three hours we spent with Boswell and his askaris and realised what a privilege it was to spend time with them.
Light Filtering Through the Canopies and the Unique Bush Noises
From a photographic point of view canopies of trees can create some spectacularly beautiful light conditions. The early morning and late afternoon rays of the sun filter through the canopy for tremendous back lighting situations, and visually spectacular scenes of rim lit animals.
With the end of October being at the very peak of the dry season the dust is at its most prolific and you can have situations where every footfall kicks up particles that are illuminated and turned into microscopic balls of fire. I love beautiful sunrises and sunsets and I will often remark that “the sky is on fire”… here it is a case of “the bush is on fire”.
Our most memorable scene was on our very first morning. A herd of impala had picked up on the presence of a pack of wild dogs and their defence was to run away until a comfortable distance was put between them. As excited as we were to come across the wild dogs we had to stop and absorb this amazing scene of the impala appearing to run through the fiery bush as their frantic paced run kicked up the dust that created the fiery scene.
Sometimes just the sounds of the bush can be special themselves and it’s not necessary to see the animals. There is a great experience to be had lying in your tent, engaging another one of your senses and just listening to the bush. Most nights we awoke to the sounds of lions roaring in the distance but the pre-dawn mornings were the best.
Waking up to the sound of the Ground Hornbills is truly a welcoming alarm clock at 4.30am! This is normally an hour to be deep asleep but here it is truly magical listening to their deep and low base-like beat as they belt out a melodious tune; hearing the first chirpings of the birds in the early dawn and the hippo chortle and chorus just down the river… What a way to wake up every morning!
All the action happens between 5am and 7am, and by action I mean the wild dogs, one of our main reasons for spending time in Mana Pools, so the gentle early morning noises are kind of like the calm before the storm…
Wild Dog Experiences
It is a very long, hard drive from Cape Town to Mana Pools, 2900km (1800 miles) and Chris remarked a number of times, “The wild dogs better be there!”
Well, our luck was in and in the twelve days we were there we saw three different packs on 13 different occasions. We walked many kilometres with them in the bush, watched them drink and play, watched them set off on hunts and watched them blaze through the bush in pursuit of impala. We sat with them while they fed, and also while they rested, always keeping a distance from them they were comfortable with, but never being threatened by them in any way. Although every encounter was amazing there were definitely two that were the highlights, funny enough on our last afternoon and our last morning…
Surrounded by the Pack
“The Vundu Pack” is a very large pack of just over 30 wild dogs. There are 18 pups, apparently from two different females which is unusual for a wild dog pack as normally it would only be the Alpha female who breeds.
This pack had been sighted in the morning so we set out to track them in the late afternoon from the point they were last seen. They normally rest under big shady tress during the heat of the day and like clockwork between 5.10pm and 5.20pm a routine plays out of pups begging from the adults, followed by some play time that precedes a dusk hunt. The key is to be able to find them whilst they are still resting and then move with them as they set off.
Chris and I were with another photographer who was just as obsessed as spending time with the dogs as we were. We decided to split up to cover more ground and the plan was to whistle if either of us found the pack.
About 1km into the bush Chris spotted the perfect resting tree and here we found the dogs resting quietly. After much dry mouth whistling (it was so hot) we couldn’t locate Nick and after returning to the cars to leave a note for him, the dogs had already left their resting spot.
A mad dash looking for tracks ensued through the bush and luckily after ten minutes we managed to find them again. In the meantime Nick had found them and it turns out his whistling wasn’t too great either!
Following behind the dogs they eventually popped out of the bush into the more open area just in front of the flood plain, and settled down near the road. The light had already gone so with the photographic opportunities mostly over we settled down about 50 meters from them to watch and enjoy their interactions within the pack. With 32 dogs three to four different groups of play would be going on at the same time and it was a great time spent watching them.
As the darkness encroached the pack began showing signs of getting on the move. The whole pack began moving in our direction when three pups became very interested in Chris’s big, white 200-400mm lens. With an adult dog watching closely on their flanks the three pups approached closer and closer. Eventually they were 1 meter from us, down on their front haunches, head down, curiously peering at us. Wow, wow wow! There was nothing threatening about their approach, they were just curious giving us an amazing few minutes in extremely close proximity with some very special animals that will be etched in our memories forever.
As the pack trotted off we thought to ourselves what a fantastic send-off that was. We were leaving early the next morning and were pretty sure that would be our last dog encounter.
But Mana Pools had one more left in the bag for us…
Eland Grove, Chasing Baboons and the Thundering Elephant
We had a long drive to Livingston so our plan was to have one last look for the pack of 17 dogs that we had spent most of our time with. We were just finishing our short drive and were doing one last check at The Green Pool when we noticed the impala were stressed and staring pointedly in one direction. This normally means only one thing and a few moments later I spotted a few dogs running along the tree line… They were on the hunt.
We raced ahead of them in the car and tried to estimate where in the bush we would be able to intercept them.
Trekking about 800 meters into the bush we came across the most idyllic scene. In a dry river bed covered in a blanket of green shoots and over hanging archways of apple ring acacia trees above was a herd of about 60 Eland, their soft brown and tan colours adding perfectly to the magical scene. Spread out around them were the 17 dogs lying lazily about. It was such a beautiful scene and I stopped for a moment to take it all in.
Just as quickly the tranquillity was shattered as a returning dog re-joined the pack. The excited dog began chasing the young eland and this in turn got the rest of the pack going. Dust and excited dog chirping dominated the scene as the adult eland protected the young in the middle and began moving off.
This signalled the departure of the dogs as well and they were swiftly on the move again in their pre hunt jog.
The moods change quickly and this time excitement radiated through the pack as they happened along a troupe of baboons. Wild dogs are known to hunt baboons in Mana Pools which seems to be unique as this does not appear to happen in other areas that we know of.
Some of the adult dogs had managed to tree a young baboon and it was now shrieking its lungs out in pure panic as three or four dogs nipped at its heels below. As the adult dogs moved off the large male baboon came to protect the young baboon that was still stuck in the tree. Four of the pups began chasing the adult baboon and we sat enthralled as the chasers became the chase-ees numerous times back and forth. We also found it very interesting to observe how aggressively the adult baboon was prepared to protect the young baboon from the pups, there clearly was no love lost between them.
All the adult dogs had pushed on and the four pups eventually had to give up the chase and follow the pack. By now the dogs had settled under a perfectly shaded fig tree, slightly elevated overlooking yet another Eden of Mana Pools. The scene before us was 17 wild dogs, baboons, and elephants scattered in the background.
We slowly crept up to the pack and settled down to watch them for the last time. Our peace was shortly to be disturbed when a large bull elephant happened along the way. The elephants don’t seem to like wild dogs and we have fairly often seen them annoyed or even grumpy with them.
As soon as this elephant came across the pack he trumpeted loudly, shook his head and charged them angrily. The dogs merely skirted out of the way but we were left standing close by.
By now the elephant was seriously angry. His posture was fully extended, ears were flapping and everything about his body language was screaming aggression.
The elephant spotted us standing about 15 meters away and I guess projected his mood onto us. With ears flapping wildly and loud trumpeting blaring I was sure he was going to charge us. Chris whispered to not move a muscle (elephants don’t have very good eye sight), and I didn’t as the elephant stood and contemplated what to do. I didn’t breathe either…
As soon as he turned his head away from us for a moment we quietly and quickly moved toward a pile of dead tree logs. Elephants don’t easily walk over high things so this was a very good option in this kind of situation.
After a few heart stopping moments the elephant stormed off and away from us.
This was yet another intense life moment that had our adrenalin pumping and left us feeling truly alive. It was also a good reminder of how constantly vigilant you need to be when walking exposed in the bush. Mana Pools, a unique place with experiences like no other…what a way to end our time here!