Posted on Friday, 12 December 2014
Bush Walking with John Stevens
Once you have chosen the wildlife destination you wish to visit, the next most important decision of your trip will be selecting the eco-tourism company and the guide who will guiding you on this wildlife experience. During our time in Mana Pools we were very fortunate to spend a couple of days hosted by Mana Pools Safari Company and the opportunity of time spent with the legendary Zimbabwean guide, John Stevens.
Mana Pools Safari Company is a mobile camp but never the less it is as close to luxuriant comfort this kind of camping affords. The large airy tents are situated under the shade of numerous Natal Mahogany Trees on the bank of the Zambezi River. En suite and fully functional bathrooms are a pleasant surprise in the wilderness and the friendly staff make you feel at home as soon as you arrive.
John Stevens has 45 years of experience in Mana Pools. He was the head warden here for 15 years and has spent the last 30 years as a specialist walking guide. Despite his accolades and reputation he is completely unassuming and remains an absolute gentleman. He has built bridges and roads in the park and there is not a tree or a turn in the road that can be passed that doesn’t prompt a memory or experience he has had. There is no bravado from him. He just loves being in the bush, spending time with the wildlife and feeling the specialness of the surrounds. All his knowledge and passion is shared with those he guides as he passes on the true feeling about being in the bush… It’s not necessarily about the big animals that you see but also about the scenery, the scents and the sounds.
Lions in the Night
The camp at Mana Pools Safari Campany is completely open with no fences. Elephants come and go peacefully through the area and if you are very lucky you may even have the wild dogs blaze through camp.
Our first night at dinner would turn into a very exciting evening. It started with one of the cooks hearing a leopard cough and this alerted us to a female leopard walking on the out skirts of the outside dining area. She was very relaxed and we watched her in our torchlight as she went about her night patrol. As we were finishing our meal a friend who was with us timed his routine torchlight search perfectly. As he turned the torch on we were greeted with a lioness charging in our direction with a huge male lion right behind her.
The lioness was not coming at us. We presume she has come in oestrous and the male was now pursuing her against her wishes. For us it was an adrenalin filled moment seeing two huge lions appearing out of the darkness in close proximity. The lioness made a dash for the camp kitchen and managed to hide herself under the washing line here. In no time at all a total of three adult male lions were in camp searching for her and they were roaring to their heats content. The sound, being so close to them, ripped through the night and reverberated through the camp. It was deafening and the kind of noise that you can feel right into the core of your belly. Amazing, amazing, amazing!
It was definitely time to head for the tents and let the lions get on with what they needed to do.
Chris and I hid in our tent, our excitement building as we sat listening to the lions calling for the female in the still night. Ten minutes later the female made a dash from the kitchen in an attempt to evade the males. Her escape path took her right past our tent and she was shortly followed by the males who sensed her movement. The camp staff were spot lighting the males so we could easily make out their shapes are they ran towards our tent. I now have an image firmly imbedded in my mind of two male lions striding backlit towards us in the dark night, their huge manes illuminated as they called after the lioness. As they passed within a couple meters of our tent entrance they were silhouetted against the night sky and at this point we had to have absolute faith in the millimetre thin fly net that was between us and the lions!
The moment was so full of excitement and energy that it was difficult to fall asleep that night listening to the roaring now way off in the distance. What an experience!
A Walking Safari
Our first afternoon walk was into thick bush looking for John’s favourite female leopard.
Chris and I walk in the bush without a guide and although we feel confident, we walk in open areas so that we have good vision of what is around us. It was certainly a different feeling walking into thick bush but under John’s responsibility and experience it was a great opportunity for us.
We didn’t come across the leopard but we did come to an area home to a 400 year old Giant Fig Tree. The enormous tree spread its branches 60 meters across and was impressive to say the least. Whilst we stood beneath it in admiration my thoughts were towards how many elephants, baboons, eland and many different species its fruit and leaves have feed throughout its lifetime in the past 400 years.
The walk ended at dusk as we walked along the flood plain coming across hippos out of the water, elephants drinking and most spectacularly big flocks of red-billed quelea causing the dust to be illuminated around them as they fed. We also had a pride of lions in the distance and we were able to sit and listen to them calling as they tried to locate one another.
The following morning we asked John to walk us in the area of Mana that he loves most. His answer surprised us… He would be taking us to the wilderness area. Mana Pools is one of the wildest places you can visit and to hear that it has a wilder place we had not yet seen was comical.
In the early morning we came across the one of the most famous bull elephants in Mana Pools, Boswell and so did not want to pass up the opportunity of spending a few hours with him and his askaris (read more on this experience here). We loved the way in which John never pushed any of the animals and his modus oporandii is to keep a respectful distance and let the wildlife to do what they would naturally be doing.
By the time we got to the wilderness area the temperature was sweltering so we decided a rest in the shade of a sausage tree would serve us well. John is apparently notorious for his “death marches” through the bush and we were about to get a taste for it as we headed off in 39C. We did however assure him that we were up for the conditions!
The next 2.5 hours were to become a wonderful experience of just walking for the bush and discovering what is there. The difference of a walking safari is not so much a close encounter but just being part of the environment and being respectful of what is there. We came across a number of herds of elephant and each time John made sure we were up wind of them due to walking in thick bush. We even saw two spotted genet which is a first for me during the day, as well as all the general game of impala, waterbuck and hippo to name a few.
We also came across a lone female lioness as she sat tucked under a bush. Our tracker had picked her up and we were able to watch from about 100 meters away. She was aware of us but remained completely unfazed and relaxed in our company. And I think this was the highlight for me… The fact that all the game we encountered on foot was undisturbed and we could just watch them whilst they allowed us in their space, and this was thanks to the knowledge and experience that John has.
What a privilege it was to spend time with someone who knows every inch of Mana Pools and who still has such vibrant passion after so many years of being here. And what a beautiful and tranquil setting of a camp that is pure luxury in an extremely wild place. We have had the privileged of spending time in many of southern Africas prestigious lodges, game reserves and wild places but our time with John, Milo and Mana Pools Safari Company whilst on foot in the beautiful Mana Pools certainly ranks up there with the most special.
A very big thank you to John and Milo & Sarah of Mana Pools Safari Company for a fantastic nature experience. http://www.manapoolssafaricompany.com/