October / November 2016
Mana Pools was to be the last stop on our Zimbabwe wildlife trip. The moment we arrived I realised we did the right thing by saving Mana for last, as it really is just one of the best places on the Planet!
It was to be our fourth visit in five years and due to its uniqueness we simply could not stay away.
I have written a lot about Mana Pools in the past, so forgive me for repeating myself, but among the many reasons for visiting Mana Pools it’s the wild dog and elephant interactions that pull us back year after year.
And it’s not just that… the habitat is such that the numerous Acacia, Natal Mahogany’s, Giant Figs and Trichilia trees come together to form a spectacular canopy-like woodland forests. Amazing light conditions are created as the light filters through the trees at different times of the day, making
Mana Pools quite simply a paradise for photographers and wildlife fanatics.
All this and one is able to walk on foot in the bush, taking your experience to a level that’s difficult to get anywhere else!
However, I don’t know why I broke my golden rule which is never to have any expectations on any trip we do. I had become so used to the intimacy of Mana so of course it came as a considerable shock on arrival to find a very large film crew spending 24 hours a day with the wild dogs. There were many times in the past where we had found the dogs on our own and thus had many special sightings either just the two of us or with just a few other people.
The film crew had at its disposal 4 vehicles, a drone and a helicopter. As such anyone that wanted to see the wild dogs need only look for the huge entourage, and that is exactly what most of the visitors in the park were doing every day.
The Enchanted Forests
Chris & I were very disappointed but it was actually a good thing as we could finally focus on looking for wildlife in the woodlands and make use of the spectacular lighting conditions that present canvasses for beautiful images. In the past the wild dogs were always a distraction and we had never dedicated proper time to this.
Each morning we would wake up and immediately access the climatic conditions.
Were there any clouds?
How much dust was there in the air?
And finally we would drive around desperately looking for an elephant in the woods.
It had become oddly exciting looking for a stationary elephant rather than a pack of wild dogs on the hunt!
When we would spot an elephant we would jump out of the car and walk to try find the best position that put the elephant in a clear corridor, and use the light to its most dramatic effects.
The light was different every morning. Sometimes we got an intense orange that created an illuminated halo effect. Other times the air was clearer and yellow was the dominant hue. Later in the morning, and if the air was somewhat hazy, the forest took on a blue light, creating an enchanted forest and almost smokey-avatar effect.
We found ourselves mentally willing an elephant to move into a certain area and into the best gaps in the tree-line. Most of the times they didn’t oblige but that made it only more special when on occasion they did.
Timing was critical and most mornings there were only a few minutes to make the most of the optimal light conditions. We were well and truly hooked and the wild dogs were soon forgotten… well; at least for the time being!
The Famous Boswell
As I mentioned earlier Mana Pools is one of very few National Parks in Southern Africa (Mahango in Namibia also comes to mind) where one can walk in the bush unguided if you so wish.
The perfect light conditions were normally over by 6am so for the rest of the morning Chris & I normally did a long walk in the bush.
At this peak time of the dry season there is hardly any grassy vegetation and this makes it comfortable to walk and see far in the distance as to what wildlife is around. Despite this we are always very vigilant and respectful of any wildlife that we come into close contact with.
I have also written about the famous bull elephant, Boswell, in blogs from our previous trips. Boswell has a unique ability to stand up on his hind legs thus giving him a great advantage of having the extra reach to pull down those delicious branches that other elephants cannot get to.
If you are lucky enough to see his “circus trick” it will leave you staring in wonderment as this rather large elephant easily hoists himself up into a complete standing position.
Boswell always has a group of “hangers on”. These elephants follow him continuously in the hopes of being able to share in the spoils. We have noticed that Boswell definitely favours some elephants over others. A few chosen ones are sometimes allowed to steal a branch or two whereas others are also told in a very clear but subtle elephant language to keep well away.
We have also noticed that Boswell is very warm towards a number of small female herds and their youngsters and often lets them feed with him quite contently.
Over a five day period there was one particular mom and calf that stayed with him and we were able to watch on a number of occasions the small calf laying on the ground sleeping at Boswell’s feet. It was one of the most endearing wildlife moments I have ever seen.
Mrs Stumpy Tail
When we first visited Mana Pools back in 2012 we booked one of the park’s chalets on the banks of the Zambezi River. Every day, and at almost the exact same time each day, a small elephant family would come walking through our camp, picking up the apple ring acacia seed pods to snack on before crossing the river to graze on the other side.
The herd was made up of an old “mum”, her young adult daughter and 2 juveniles. The young female was easily recognised by her “stumpy tail” that has almost two thirds of her tail missing, most likely having been lost to a crocodile when she was younger. Without too much imagination we began calling her Mrs Stumpy Tail!
Due to their gentleness around us, and the predictability of their visits, we made sure we were back in camp by 11am each to day so that we could enjoy the pleasure of their walk through.
We felt we had gotten to know this little herd of elephants so well that the following year, and all the years after that, we booked the same chalet just in the hopes of seeing them all again.
We saw them daily again in 2014 but missed them completely in 2015.
This year we booked again but weren’t too sure that Mrs Stumpy Tail would still be around.
Sure enough, on our first day, at exactly 11am we looked up river and here came four elephant shapes slowly moving towards our camp. I can’t tell you how happy and how excited the two of us were when we confirmed that it was indeed Mrs Stumpy Tail and her gang!
Now at this point I must add that Mrs Stumpy Tail is probably the most unimpressive elephant you will ever come across. She is short and squat with very small tusks but I can honestly say that I just love her and her little family. A bit obnoxious I know, but Chris & I really feel like they are “our” elephants.
At dawn one morning whilst we were looking for elephants in the woodland we came across our mob. The light was spectacular with yellow highlights streaming through the canopy and rays of light falling in focused areas. It was breath taking and a great photographic opportunity.
But our little elephant proceeded to stand absolutely motionless. She didn’t move a muscle, and she wouldn’t even flap her ears…she was just a small, frumpy grey blob of a thing giving us no scope at all to photograph! Initially Chris & I were very frustrated but eventually we began to laugh at the situation which had made her all the more endearing to us.
Eventually after a painful five minutes she began to move into the beautiful light and we now have a very special memory of our most favourite and very much loved elephant, Mrs Stumpy Tail.
A Lesson in Complacancy
When you walk in the bush every day with no problems I have to admit it is fairly easy to let your guard down. Even so we always try to avoid the elephant cow and calves but find the bulls a lot more affable and good natured; we don’t ever feel overly concerned when coming across them.
There is also a term called a “camp elephant”. There are certain elephants that walk through camps all the time. They will at times approach you extremely close and I am not hesitant to say these wild elephants are used to and comfortable with people. As such we don’t normally expect too many problems from a camp elephant.
Late one morning we spotted Boswell drinking down on the floodplain and wanted to spend some time watching him.
We had to take a big detour around a camp in order to get down there and whilst approaching we spotted an elephant standing right next to one of the camp tents lazily munching on a branch. It seemed obvious to us that this was a camp elephant and that we didn’t need to be too concerned about it. Despite this, and perhaps more to respect the camp privacy, we walked a wide berth around the camp and the elephant in order to get down to where Boswell was.
The moment we crossed this elephant’s line of vision we realised we had a situation on our hands as without a moment’s hesitation she turned and ran straight for us.
Chris is very aware in the bush and is always thinking ahead of situations. This means that he probably without thinking about it is always looking ahead for objects to hide around if we ever needed to. Fortunately about 50 meters from us laying on the ground was a huge branch from a dead fig tree that could provide good protection from the charging elephant.
Elephants are not good with obstacles such as this as they cannot easily or quickly climb over things. So, as a general rule, they don’t normally try.
Using the fig tree as a block we stood stock still behind it as we watched the elephant running at us.
She was incensed.
If I hadn’t felt quite so afraid I could have almost admired the incredible posturing that was taking place. Her head was held high, shoulders arched up, ears flapping wildly and tail flicking constantly. She came to a crashing stop in front of the fig tree and stood and glared at us. If looks could kill we would have been goners!
She then turned away and took five steps back only to turn on her heal and come charging right back at us. This time she added full blooded trumpeting to her armament. She braked again in front of the fig, dust swirling around her and kept trumpeting at us with full gusto.
The sound was immense and I could feel it shuddering through the ground we were standing on.
We had no option than to keep rooted to our spot and wait for her to calm down. She was about 10 meters away from us and as we stood facing her fury I am not ashamed to say I was absolutely quaking in my boots!
After a good few minutes of her glaring at us she about turned and stormed off back to the camp. Even though she had left us we could still see her watching us out the corner of her eye and I didn’t relish the thought of having to move out from the safety of the fig tree.
The situation was quickly becoming more problematic as more and more elephants drifted down to the floodplain for their daily drink. We had to move soon.
The moment she turned Chris tested her out and made a quick dash to another set of trees. He was the Guinee pig…
He had no problems but when I realised I now had to make my own move alone, I was not a happy camper. Eventually I had no choice and made my move to safety.
We have no idea why this elephant behaved the way she did as we certainly did nothing obvious to antagonise her. One can only think that perhaps she had a bad encounter with other people that has caused an inherent distrust of anyone she comes across.
Part 2…Wild Dog Encounters