Mana Pools

Showering “al fresco”

As days passed the temperature at Mana Pools continued to rise. The morning of the 19th of September it was already oven hot at 06.00hs so the decision on what to do was easy as the moving car seemed to be the coolest option available. We planned a longish route as we wanted to re-visit a rather remote dry river bed close to the Rukomechi area. When the hot wind started to blow dust on us we knew that it was time to leave the camp!

We skipped breakfast but took all necessities with us to stop and enjoy it on route near the Zambezi as the drive offered a few nice shady spots. We drove until a place known as Vundu[1] point and stopped there to break our fast after a couple of hours of slow driving and enjoying the wilderness.

A gaggle of Spur-wing geese (parents and five young adults) were at the riverbank and slowly walked away as soon as we left the car.

Some of the Spurwing geese.

Some of the Spur-wing geese.

One of the adults.

One of the adults.

The heat could be felt despite the thick shade provided by the gigantic sausage trees of the riverine forest but this did not seem to bother a lone and open-mouthed crocodile basking on one of the riverbanks nearby.

Breakfast over, we moved on reaching the dry Nyakasanga river an hour later. We crossed its sandy bed and drove a while thinking that we would get back to the Zambezi but, as it is often the case, we had misread the map and in fact we were moving away from it! So, after searching for cell signal up a tree (my wife) and taking a few pictures of a baobab tree, it was time to get back to camp for lunch at an oven-like Gwaya camp.

In search of that elusive cellphone signal!

In search of that elusive cellphone signal!

The baobab tree.

The baobab tree.

The heat and dust were still waiting for us when we made it back by 13.00hs as we got further delayed examining a rather large fungus we found on a tree trunk!

A large fungus.

Fungus close-up. The bluish circle above is Nature's.

Fungus close-up. The bluish circle above is Nature’s work.

After a very light lunch it was a question of surviving the heat and dust (mainly for my wife!). She decided to have a cold shower at the small toilet/shower cabin and to remain there, away from the heat and dust for the rest of the afternoon, until the temperature dropped. She did not mind sharing the place with its tree frogs occupants. There were at least three of them and one insisted in staying under the WC plastic seat. We removed it everyday for fear of crushing it and placed it on a tree outside but it was back the next day!

My wife's vantage point!

My wife’s vantage point!

As usual, it was siesta time for me, despite the heat and dust. It was quite a feat but I managed a few minutes! The siesta over and feeling heat-hit, I hanged my sun-heated shower (I do not like cold showers!) from a tree behind our tent, open the tap and started to enjoy the refreshing feeling of water being poured over you in the open air.

I had showered for a couple of minutes and I was busy soaping myself when I heard my wife calling me, pointing towards the back of the camp. An elephant was walking, apparently, in my direction! As elephants do that all the time at Gwaya, I continued with my shower as I still needed some cleaning to do!

The elephant coming (I forgot to leave my hat on...).

The elephant coming (I forgot to leave my hat on…).

After a minute I looked again and the pachyderm was much closer! It left me in no doubt that I was the object of its curiosity! “I cannot believe this” I thought and, thinking that the soap smell was the lure, I started removing the foam and placed the soap back in its box. “#$@&%*!” I thought, seeing no change in attitude, “the blipping elephant is coming for the shower water having the whole Zambezi behind me!” I closed the tap and remained immobile and soapy[2].

It came quite close...

The elephant came very close. Luckily it stopped a couple of metres away and it had a long look at me. As it was also naked, I did not feel any embarrassment, only moderate panic and an immense wish to survive in order to remove the soap from my body and continue living.

Although I am sure that “the look” it gave me was brief, it felt long. Eventually the elephant slowly moved off as it clearly decided that my “manhood” was -naturally- no challenge to his “elephanthood”! I even thought I heard a jeering noise coming from the curious pachyderm as it walked away! My relief at its withdrawal was short-lived. The water got finished and I had to remove the remaining lather with what I wanted to avoid: cold water!

Needless to say that my wife watched all this and forgot about the heat and dust. So did I!

Gwaya camp, Mana Pools, Zimbabwe, September 2015.

 

[1] A Vundu (Heterobranchus longifilis) is a catfish reaching up to 150 cm in length and 50 kg of weight.

[2] Although the elephant is shown naked, pictures of the bushsnob “al fresco” are omitted to keep this blog PG.

Elephant overhead (and it was not Dumbo…)

During one of our game drives we came across a couple of cars parked in the woods and we noticed two elephants nearby, a large bull and a younger companion, also known as an “askari”[1]. From close quarters we immediately recognized the large one as “Big V”, a well known and placid bull that a game ranger first pointed it out to us on another visit to the park. His name derives from a large notch shaped as an inverted “V” on the lower edge of its left ear.

The viewing and photographing.

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Big V coming.

We approached the animals, parked the car and got out to join the elephant-watching crowd (two people in one car!). Big V was busy chewing through an acacia branch the size of my forearm! “This is ridiculous”, I thought while I watched it in amazement as it crunched it loudly and started to swallow the splinters. While this was taking place, a game-viewing car with only one passenger came and Big V got somehow separated from the askari while we kept watching, trying to make the best of this photo opportunity.

Equipment comparison!

Equipment comparison!

The sole occupant of the newly arrived vehicle clearly thought that this was a good sight and proceeded to offload a humongous filming camera on a tripod. “This is not fair”, I thought as I tried to make do with my comparatively modest Nikon Coolpix! After spending quite a while assembling the equipment, he filmed for about one minute and they were off!

While we continued watching the elephants in awe, another two cars with South African plates arrived, full of people with spectacularly long lenses. They took hundreds of pictures at the elephants and, as soon as they arrived, they also left. I speculated for a while on a better game viewing opportunity and failed to understand where were they rushing! I still need to learn a lot about my fellow humans…

Finally we were alone. We waited as we knew that at this time of the year elephants in Mana Pools feed on the pods of the Apple ring acacia (Acacia albida) and we estimated that this was the intention of Big V as we were in acacia woodland. After a while, with calm restored, he obliged and started stretching to get at the pods, offering us some photo opportunities that are the heart of this post.

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DSCN6504 copyI have some difficulties taking pictures looking at the camera screen so I use its viewfinder, a hang up from my SLR’s days! On this occasion I was so engrossed taking pictures of Big V at full stretch nearby that when I heard “the other one is coming” from my wife, the askari was almost stepping on my toes!

I was caught “between a car and an elephant” and, although I made myself as thin as possible by contracting my stomach, I could feel its body heat while busy watching his feet to avoid being maimed for life! Luckily the elephant was so focused on feeding that did not even look at me!

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Before my pulse went back to normal I saw Big V coming the same way. I am not good at mathematics (in fact that is one of the reasons I became a vet!) but it was not too difficult to calculate that I have just had a near miss with a smallish bull in that spot and there was a much larger animal coming… I jumped in the car, relieved to be a coward!

The view through the mirror was a warning.

Watching events from the relative security of the car!

My wife meantime had cleverly placed herself on the other side of the car and was watching and taking pictures of my predicament while chuckling seeing me being squeezed…! Once inside the car I felt more secure and continued to shoot as the situation was amazing to miss even in fear!

Big V passed a metre from me and, once by my side its head moved towards me and I could see that he had dry skin as well as every detail of its tusks ivory quality.

My view suddenly got blocked...

My view suddenly got blocked by Big V’s dry skin!

“This is ridiculous” I thought, “what is it doing?” I thought in a kind of resigned panic as I was totally at its mercy! Before I could find an answer his head disappeared from my sight as it stretched over the car to get at a particularly attractive pod!

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I prepared for the bang (and how to explain the damage to the insurance company) thinking on the branch or branches that it was going to break and bring over the car! Luckily, it only got small twigs and I only had a “leaf-rain”.

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I am afraid that my fingers did not respond to my mental commands for a while so perhaps my pictures do not reflect proximity too well! It was fortunate that my wife managed to capture the moment, even if between chuckles.

(A brief video taken by my wife showing the situation)

The elephant munched the result of its effort fast and moved on leaving me with the incredible feeling of having been under its shadow and survived, showing how tolerant of people the elephants in Mana Pools are!

A more relaxed bushsnob, posing.

Survived! A more relaxed bushsnob, posing after the event with the askari in the background.

 

Gwaya camp, Mana Pools, Zimbabwe, September 2015.

 

[1] One or more younger males often accompany older bull elephants staying away from herds and these are referred to as “askari” a word from Arabic meaning “soldier”.

The three bills

Mana Pools has several oxbow lagoons that occupy the old course the Zambezi carved in the valley a very long time ago. There are four larger pools that give the name Mana (four) in the Shona language. Of the four I can name only name two: Long and Chini. I am still trying to name the others!

Long pool and hippos.

Long pool and hippos.

Long Pool is perhaps the better known of the four. It is a sizeable body of water where several animals are resident, including a large number of hippos and crocodiles, some of the latter really humongous, often spotted basking on its edge. With the exception of a grey heron that enjoys “hippo surfing”, most water birds are found in the shallows. The species and numbers present clearly depend on the season but Goliath and Grey herons, Hammerkop, and Stilts are normally present.

Obviously the bills of the birds are suited to different feeding strategies. On this occasion we found three different ones that actually give the names to the birds: the African Open-billed and Yellow-billed storks and the African spoonbill. They were sharing the same feeding ground at Long pool so we stopped and watched.

The three bills.

The three bills.

The Spoonbill, the less common of the three, waded through shallow water sweeping from side-to-side with bill open and inside the water. Occasionally it dashed around, chasing fish(?) like an egret does. When something edible was found, the bill snapped shut and the victim was swallowed.

A rare pause in the wadding.

A rare pause in the wadding.

The Yellow-billed stork fed walking slowly with half-submerged and slightly open bill. As the later is very sensitive to contact with potential prey, it also snapped closed when that happened.

Typical African yellow billed stork feeding pose.

Typical African yellow billed stork feeding pose.

While the two bills from the birds above are odd, they make sense from the feeding technique point of view.

It caught something small and muddy!

It caught something small and muddy!

Feeding with your bill open and shut it when catching prey is one thing, feeding with your bill open and keep it open when shutting it is another! “A priori” it seems to be pushing nature’s ingenuity to extremes! However, the African open-bill stork was also wading and catching prey, though a bit muddy!

Further reading indicated that its bill is a highly specialized tool to perform an almost surgical intervention on its main prey: snails. It has several uses, depending on the size and type of snail: it either cracks it (large ones), removes its body by shaking its head or it cuts the snail’s columellar muscle[1] with its sharp tip.

Feeding together.

Feeding together.

Although the three birds feeding paths often crisscrossed, they were respectful of each other as if benefiting from each other’s presence. The say “when the river is dirty the fisherman benefits” is likely to apply here!

Mana Pools, Zimbabwe, September 2015.

[1] The columellar (shell) muscles of gastropods join the foot and other parts of the body with the shell. (Basically, keeping the animal together!)

Upset jumbo

After finding buffalo and lions close to camp, that night we heard lots of loud nocturnal noises, including lions roaring but also other unidentified nocturnal sounds that we allocated to hippo and/or elephants. In the early hours of the morning hyenas also called so our hopes were up and an early morning exploration of the surrounds was in order.

We followed the Zambezi down river, past the buffalo that were now moving towards the river, but we found no trace of predators. After a while we decided to try to contact the world again and went for the cellphone signal spot following our GPS (we had entered the coordinates on a previous visit). We searched fruitlessly for a while until we decided that probably the hot wind was blowing it away! We decided to get back to camp before the heat became more intense.

As usual we got delayed. First it was a pool where a very photogenic saddle-bill stork was wadding and then we watched the antics of a slender mongoose looking rather cunning!

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We got back to Gwaya camp by lunchtime and it was already quite hot. As usual our elephant bull askari[1] was in attendance, waiting for us while browsing and picking up elephantine delicacies: the acacia pods from the Apple-ring acacias![2] Aware of our noisy arrival it gently moved off while we spent time putting together the mess the baboons make when you leave your camp alone.

The elephant decided to cross the river in search of fresh grass, its usual move. It decided to cross from our camp so I left the baboon-recovery exercise for a while to take a few pictures of the jumbo crossing.

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Unfortunately the shots were not what I thought so I only took a couple and then filmed its arrival to the opposite bank. For some reason it chose the steepest place. It showered and beat the water to get some mud before it climbed on the bank with some degree of difficulty. I stopped filming and went back to set right the baboon damage.

After crossing the narrow channel the elephants, usually, spend the afternoon on a wide grassy plain that exists between the canal and the main body of the river, perhaps 500 m away. I forgot about the elephant as it would only return later at night and be there tomorrow again. However, after about ten minutes from the crossing I herd it trumpeting and running back towards our camp, trunk up and shaking its head rather violently. It crushed back into the canal and started re-crossing it!

The jumbo returning.

The jumbo returning.

I saw it coming so grabbed the camera and placed myself at a good spot to film it coming back across the water. I videoed it while coming but, in my enthusiasm, I forgot that I was quite close from its exit and unexpectedly; he climbed the bank and charged me!

As you can imagine -at my age- I am not too keen to find out if an elephant is charging or mock-charging! Therefore my finger pressed the stop recording button and I withdrew.

The fact that I am writing these lines comfortably seated at home means that it was –luckily- a mock-charge and he stopped after a couple of more steps!

The reasons for its return and bad temper will remain a mystery and a matter of speculation. It could have been an encounter with a bee swarm, common at this time of the year, as elephants do not like them. There was also a bull buffalo nearby that could have irritated the pachyderm? We will never know but I did got my adrenalin rush!

After our interaction the cheeky elephant did not wander off but remain at camp, clearly as a demonstration of his unquestionable dominance over me! During that time we kept an eye on each other and I was careful to avoid having my siesta under his favored acacia, just in case!

A while later -after re-gaining its compusure- I saw it crossing back towards the Zambezi. This time he chose another spot about fifty metres up river and, this time, it did not come back until the following morning.

Gwaya camp, Mana Pools, Zimbabwe, September 2015.

 

[1] Guard in KiSwahili.

[2] Acacia albida

Talking ants

Our first stop during our afternoon game drive from Gwaya after setting up camp came quite soon. In fact, we stopped while we were still in the campsite grounds. I did a kind of emergency stop to the surprise of my companions that were still settling down for the drive. Startled, they looked around but could not see nothing so, I am sure, they waited for one of my jokes as I do have a reputation! After a while I heard “This is one of your jokes right?” coming from Tom, but I was (quite) serious.

The only picture of the ants, taken by my wife.

The only picture of the ants, taken by my wife.

I had spotted a column of Matabele ants[1] crossing the track. We had seen these ants in action earlier in Zimbabwe while entering termite nests and, after a while, emerging with bundles of termites in their jaws, both workers and soldiers! These are specialized ants as they feed exclusively on termites, leaving their colony “en masse” to search for termite nests where they will all enter and attack the nest carrying their victims back to their colony. They normally raid at dawn and dusk so we were probably seeing an evening raid returning home empty-jawed.

When disturbed these ants emit a high pitch squeaking sound that we have not heard from others such as the safari ants or siafu (Dorylus sp.) of East Africa or the leaf cutting ants we have in South America. For this reason, when the ex President of Uruguay Pepe Mujica mentioned that ants whispered in his ear while spending two years at the bottom of a well during his prison sentence, I had no difficulty in believing his words!

The ones we found were carrying their eggs and young and there were not more than three hundred individuals, organized in a thick column. They were moving like an army and entering a hollow dead tree trunk, probably their nest. At the time of the observation I was reading Conn Iggulden’s Genghis Khan series and their behaviour reminded me to the Mongol raiding tactics!

When we were about to leave them to spend the night in their nest we noticed about twenty ants bringing the rear. At first we thought that these were the old and injured, struggling to keep up. But their behaviour seemed odd! They were not moving slowly or lacked any legs! They were performing an activity that was part of their moving strategy. They were clearly following the trail of the group but they were picking up sticks, leaves and other debris and moving them slightly as if trying to “restore” the path they group had trodden to its original condition!

As this seems far-fetched, perhaps they were just either erasing their earlier pheromone trail or releasing new ones to indicate their presence to other creatures?

Once these “strugglers” reached the hollow trunk, they also got inside to join the others. They were in for a hungry night.

September 2015, Mana Pools, Zimbabwe

[1] Megaponera analis, one of the world’s largest ants are named after the fierce Matabele warriors.

Sand lovers[1]

As Tom and Chizuki were departing in mid-morning we left for an early drive to be able to return to camp in time for them to pack up. Lions had roared from the direction of Mana mouth so that was our destination.

The tracks in the area are reasonable with the occasional dry river crossing that normally do not offer any real challenge to a 4WD vehicle. The exception being some that actually have water, sometimes quite a lot of it making for fun driving (for me and daughter) and unnecessary risk-taking for my wife and son! Yes, the family is clearly split between wise and unwise (according to the wise) or boring and fun, according to us!

Because of his work, my father travelled daily to the rural areas of the Colonia Department in Uruguay from the 1940’s until his retirement in the 80’s. He did ford many watercourses during his time and he stated that “where there is water there is no mud underneath” so he would venture into the water without hesitation. He will drive forwards in his Willys Jeep when the water was reasonably low or plunged backwards when it was very deep. In this way he would open the water with the back of the car and the engine (petrol at the time!) would not get wet!

 

A river crossing with water at Mana Pools in July 2015.

Going back to our game drive towards Mana mouth, after a km or so of the river crossing we found a Land Cruiser pickup, probably the best bush vehicle there is. So good that in Mozambique they call them AKM in reference to the indestructible AK47 assault rifle (in Mozambique they know about this!). The pickup was not moving and there was someone standing next to it. We soon realized that they had just got stuck in the sand.

There is nothing wrong with getting stuck in the bush. However, they somehow had managed to do so in a patch of sand about two metres long! We waited for a few minutes, convinced that the car would move as soon as 4WD was engaged. Despite this, nothing happened and it only got deeper into trouble. Aware of the worsening situation we got out of our car and introduced ourselves to the lady standing and watching. She looked cool -with a Coke in hand- and clearly quite amused with what was taking place!

The driver was somewhere under the car frantically digging sand from under the wheels. “If you have a rope handy, I can pull you out”, I offered getting a smile from the lady and a grunted “no thanks” from somewhere below the car while sand continued flying out from under the car. After a couple of minutes we spotted him and realized that he was wearing the uniform of a tourist guide. His face was red showing an “I am upset and worried but do not want to show it” expression!

In view of the negative, we stood and watched the driver excavate more until he was satisfied and jumped on the car, clearly not enjoying being observed by some amateur tourists! He managed to get some action. The car jerked forward giving us some hope but it got lower into the sand. When this happened, the driver -wearing a very red face by now- jumped out again, still ignoring us, and proceeded to get under the car again to move more sand and enlarge the hole that, by now, had acquired an unnecessary large size!

We looked at the lady and she shrugged her shoulders so we quietly got back in our car and, aware that our time was short, drove around the “obstacle” and continued on our way. While passing by the pickup we said adios to the lady who shouted, “look, they are leaving”, and quickly added, “they are really going!” in the direction of a bottom wearing kaki shorts! The latter remained indifferent while the digging continued, probably for quite a while.

 

[1] Zimbabwe 2015, Mana Pools.

Zambezi sentinels

All baobabs are special but there are a number of “famous” ones. Clive Walker[1] highlights a number of them, some well known, some less but all interesting. I am sure most people keen in Africa and its nature have read or heard about Baines’, Green’s and Chapman’s baobabs in Botswana, the Pioneer’s baobab and the “Big tree” in Zimbabwe, the Sagole and Sunland giants in South Africa and the Toilet tree of Namibia to name some. We were lucky to visit Katima Mulilo in Namibia at a time that the toilet was still there and it was one of the unforgettable sights of our travelling life.

The "toilet baobab" at Katima Mulilo, Namibia.

The “toilet baobab” at Katima Mulilo, Namibia.

A close up of the "toilet baobab" at Katima Mulilo, Namibia.

A close up of the “toilet baobab” at Katima Mulilo, Namibia.

However, all baobabs that you see are special in their own way and have their own special features. I recall the sorrow felt by Carlo, an Italian friend that came for a safari to Gonarezhou, when he saw the damage elephants do to these wonderful trees. There was also a large baobab at Lochinvar National Park in Zambia that had its own cave!

The Lochinvar baobab and my daughter.

The Lochinvar baobab and my daughter.

The Lonchinvar baobab with a young bushsnob and Bruno in attendance.

The Lonchinvar baobab with a younger (and sillier) bushsnob and my friend Bruno.

Apart from the group of baobabs named after Baines, probably the better known, there are other groups such as the Prison trees in Botswana and the Baobab hill in South Africa. We discovered another one. Well, perhaps we just found it after many before us…

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A fine baobab.

A fine baobab.

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Signs of elephant damage are clear at the base of the trunk.

In my post “Chitake” I mentioned that on the morning of the second day we went for a drive and found a hill with baobabs. This was the location of Chitake 2 campsite[2] and -I believe- the place where Mr. Evergreen was killed by the lions. This windswept hill, apart from the trees, offers stunning views of the middle Zambezi valley, all the way to the escarpment.

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The trees stand like sentries to the valley below and I would be surprised if it did not have some religious connotation to the early inhabitants of the area. It may be that the pottery fragments we found among them may have something to do with this but it is difficult to say, as we were not able to estimate their age or origin. A least to be there at sunset was a wonderful moment.

Some of the broken pottery found.

Some of the broken pottery found.

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Searching the Internet I learnt that these baobabs, that are not in Walker’s book, are known as the “Twelve Apostles” but I was not able to find out more information about them. What I can say, though, it is that we counted thirteen! Was Mary Magdalene not counted?

Clearly this gives us an excellent excuse to revisit the place to do a proper baobab census!

 

 

[1] Walker, C. (2013). Baobab Trails. An artist’s journey of wilderness and wanderings. Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd. South Africa. 287p.

[2] The campsite is now at another place with more protection from the wind.

Chitake

Chitake Springs are located in the southern part of Mana Pools National Park, about 50 km from the Zambezi river. During the rain the Chitake river flows into the Rukomechi river and the latter feeds the Zambezi. From the end of the rains in April these rivers dry up leaving only the springs as the sole source of water for a large area around them. The springs flow intermittently and at least once every 24 hours for some geological reason deep inside the earth. This natural wonder, therefore, attracts many animals both, prey and predators, from many kilometres around.

As if this would not be a sufficient attraction, this general area has important deposits of dinosaur bones. In particular, fossils of Coelophysis rhodesiensis are present as well as mega-prints (90 cm in diametre!) of the herbivore Brachiosaurus aswell as Allosaurus‘s footprints. This is apparently important as it shows that the Chitake area was also an area of prey-predator interactions during the Jurassic period! As interesting as this may sound, we did not search for these but it may be the subject of another trip!

We first learnt of Chitake through sad news. In late 2010 Pete Evershead was killed by lions while having a shower in the evening. Other friends that visited a couple of ears ago talked of animals walking very close from their roof tent. This left a very strong impression in them and they were very excited when they told us that they survived Chitake!

We were fortunate to get a booking in Chitake 1 campsite, by the actual springs. As this is a wilderness area (not even the entry road to the springs is signposted!) to camp there means to be on your own as there are only two campsites for private users in addition to one for tour operators. You also need to be self-sufficient in all needs, including water.

There is only one track -the entry road- that extends to the baobab hill (where Chitake 2 campsite was before it was moved to a nearby place) so this is not a place for game drives but a true wild bush experience where you sit and wait for the animals to come to the water when it flows or you walk if you know what you do!

The place sounded In addition, being older has made us more cautious so, not having a roof tent, we decided that we could sleep inside the car. We rehersed the flattening of the seats to convert it, if not in a double bed, into a reasonable place for a couple to sleep. We organized our belongings so that they could be placed in a small tent, on the front seats and on the roofrack. We were satisfied with the arrangements and ready to go…

Almost at the last minute we invited another couple to join us. Tom and Chizuki had never visited Chitake despite having lived in Zimbabwe from the late 90s so they seized the opportunity. They agreed with our idea of sleeping inside their car and we arranged to meet a couple of days before our departure to finalize the details. At that meeting it transpired that they could not convert their car into a bed so we all agreed to camp in the normal way. I was relieved as we have always slept in tents, even in places where animals were in large numbers in Kenya, reserving the car for “in extremis” situations… I will cover these in future posts.

Our camp and occupants.

Our camp and occupants.

We arrived to Chitake in mid afternoon and set up camp early so we would be well prepared for the night, having the lions always in the back or our minds! After we were satisfied we explored our surroundings on foot and saw that the springs were about 100 metres from us and they were flowing.We sat in the dry river bed and waited. In one moment there was nothing at the water and then as if by a miracle, a group of elephants, buffalo or impala would be drinking! As night fell, the water was still flowing and the animals still coming down to drink.

The elephants suddenly appeared (and disappeared!).

The elephants suddenly appeared (and disappeared!).

After an early dinner we retired to our tents for a well deserved rest. Lions did roar as expected. They were far from us, probably following the buffalo some place else. We slept well, being careful when getting up for pit stops during the night. The morning after saw us all happy to see that the four of us survived our first night at Chitake and decided to celebrate this with a good -and healthy- breakfast!

The water had stopped flowing during the night so only baboons were walking in the dry river bed.

Sand and baboons.

Sand and baboons.

We decided that we would do a bit of exploring so we went to the actual springs where we could see a number of different footprints and a couple of carcasses (one buffalo and one elephant) that were responsible for the rotten smell that we could sometimes feel, depending on the wind direction. We then crossed the river and drove for a few km until reaching the baobab hill.

After spending some time with the baobabs we returned, crossed the river again and drove on towards the exit as we had seen an open area where we thought cheetah may be found. We saw the usual warthogs and the ubiquitous impala. Then our friend Tom amazed us by spotting a painted/wild dog lying down at about 100 metres from the car! An amazing sighting. In fact there were three of them.

Then he spotted a few more heads under another bush nearby! When the heads became full dogs, we realized that there were pups, six of them and half grown. At some point they all trotted towards the adults and the latter stood up for the usual greetings. We counted five adults and six pups. After their profuse greeting they all dashed off as if starting a hunt although we did not see any possible prey. We tried to follow them but lost them almost immediately. Giving up on the painted dogs we drove on to the junction with the main road and started going back to camp.

The dogs were again at the same spot! Surprised we stopped to watch and confirmed that there were the same! While watching, again, all pups dashed off as if on a hunt, followed by one or two adults and, after a while, got back to the starting point. This exercise was repeated three times. The observation was a topic of discussion for a while as some thought it was a kind of hunting rehearsal while others -including myself- thought that the pups were just being either hungry or hyperactive!

After that interesting encounter we got back to camp to face another night at Chitake, now more relaxed as we had survived the first!

A "Chitake special"! An Eastern Nicator looking for insects in the undergrowth.

A “Chitake special”! An Eastern Nicator looking for insects in the undergrowth.

A carmine bee-eater.

A carmine bee-eater.

Skin Disease

End of October is the height of the dry season in Mana Pools. The place really looks like a brown dust bowl the exception being those trees that, anticipating the arrival of the new rains, flower now to be ready to drop their seeds with the onset of the rains presenting the landscape with some colourful blotches.

Very few Apple Ring Acacia still had pods and the experienced elephants that knew the reward of a few strong shakes applied to the trunk, were using this technique and relishing the fruit of the “podfall” they produced!

The scarcity of the Acacia pods is now compensated by the abundance of sausages of the Sausage Trees, now quite grown although probably not so palatable. As a consequence of the general absence of food on the plains, the animals in general and the elephants in particular were seen mainly on the margins of the Zambezi River, feeding on aquatic plants. The Zambezi banks were dotted with elephants and many were feeding and bathing below the banks of the campsite.

Despite this, although harder to find, some elephants were still inland. We met one of them, a rather large animal with good ivory for Mana Pools. It happened to be using the same road as us and coming in the opposite direction! As we all know, elephants have the right of way! It was a rather large and beautiful bull with good tuskers for Mana Pools.

Mana tusker small

The Tusker coming…

It had a relaxed but sure gait, I imagine that this is the attitude of someone with no threats. He clearly saw us before we did and did not define us as a worthwhile threat so it continued walking as if we did not exist.

We parked politely in the bush by the side of the narrow road, stopped the engine and watched this magnificent animal. It passed very close to us and in so doing we could appreciate its size as well as take some photographs of it.

While on our side we observed, with some preoccupation, that it had a rather large area of its skin at the back and flanks covered with skin blotches that look like some kind of fungal infection. Elephant skin is thick and tough, reaching almost 3 cm on it s back. Additionally, the elephant uses mud and dust to further protect its skin, as it is a very sensitive organ.

Mana tusker skin disease

The suspected skin problem is seen as paler areas on its ears, back, sides and upper hind leg.

Although we had observed this condition before, this is the most extended that we had seen so far. Hopefully the mud baths will help this animal to control it.

Tree war

Fig tree and tusker.

I said earlier that I am not a botanist and I am interested in the animal rather than the plant world. However, a visit to Mana Pools National Park would not be complete without spending time “tree-watching” . Here I present some facts that I trust you will find of interest.

It’s difficult to describe the various Mana Pools’ habitats. They range from clumps of green Natal mahogany (Trichilia emetica), Sausage trees (Kigelia africana) and Zambezi fig trees (Ficus bussei) to the rather sparsely populated Apple ring acacia (Faidherbia albida) woodlands, not to mention the areas of dense bush (known in this region as “jesse”) found further inland in the hillier parts. The result is an amazing, if rather fragile, bio-diverse habitat that many animals share, including more than 300 bird species. The above pictures, hopefully give you a better idea of what I fail to describe!

Although the experts list many tree species, the uninitiated (like me) feel attracted by the most striking ones. The Apple ring acacia trees are the main species of the riverine Mana Pools’ woodlands scattered all over the flat plains. They are large trees that, with time, develop a characteristic knobby trunk and as mentioned in an earlier post, they produce pods rich in protein that constitute important food for the animals during the dry season. Regrettably, a friend told me that for some reason they have stopped multiplying. This is rather surprising as the seeds are found all over the place.

Apple rig Acacia woodlands.

Apple ring Acacia woodlands.

The large Sausage trees were beginning to produce their strings of strongly scented dark red flowers. Many animals, including monkeys, also consume them. I remember seeing buffalo sniffing the ground for long periods at dusk at the campsite in Mana Pools on an earlier visit and to wonder what they were doing. It was only after a while that I realized that they were feeding on the Sausage tree flowers that had dropped to the otherwise dusty ground. Its fruits -rather large sausages weighing up to several kg- develop later on during the year, and various animals such as baboons, elephants and hippos consume them, while people also use them in beer brewing.

The Natal mahogany are large, dark green trees whose crowns in Mana Pools show a characteristic bottom foliage with an evenly trimmed horizontal lower edge, which is an example of the wild art of the master topiarist-browsers that feed on them, among whom are impala and greater kudu.

Can a human achieve such perfection?

Can a human achieve such trim?

All trees complement each other to achieve this beautiful landscape. However, and perhaps surprisingly to the reader, there is a silent and long-term tree war being waged while we watch… I am not talking about Lord of the Rings’ Ents but rather a combination of several battles being fought by stationary trees since time immemorial. It all starts with a bird or monkey feeding on a fig and dropping its seeds in a suitable place up a tree, where a hollow filled with soil allows germination to take place.

One more tree...

One more tree…

Good eyes are needed to spot the "baby" Zambezi fig tree...

Good eyes are needed to spot the “enemy”…

The birth of a Zambezi fig tree.

A further close-up reveals the birth of a Zambezi fig tree.

Soon, an innocent-looking two-leaf seedling appears. After consolidating itself, it starts sending down aerial roots that surround the host tree and that will eventually reach the ground to bury themselves, becoming true roots. The fig tree uses the host to gain support and structure in its growth; the host is like a guiding stick similar to those used to support grapevines or tomato plants. In their quest for support and with their uncanny ability to survive in the most unlikely places, fig trees produce natural sculptural Masterpieces that occasionally damage ruins, which is an entirely different problem.

Fig tree growth can even crack rocks and buildings.

Fig tree growth can even crack rocks and buildings.

At some stage during the battle, it seems as if the two trees coexist naturally, adding great beauty to the forest. However, the process continues inexorably and the invader eventually strangles the host tree. This is purely mechanical as the pressure applied is such that it has the same effect as if the host tree would be ring-barked, interrupting the flow of water and nutrients between roots and the rest.

Watching a fig embrace. The branch on the left belongs to the host tree.

Watching a fig embrace. The host tree is still strong and visible on the left.

Luckily for some (in rare cases) animals may come to the rescue. The aerial roots are eaten by elephants and, in this way, these animals become an unwitting ally of the host tree, halting the growth of the fig and saving the host tree at least for a while.

A closer view of the fig tree being browsed and stopped from engulfing the host tree.

A closer view of the fig tree being browsed and stopped from engulfing the host tree.

However, this is an exception and the usual outcome is that the Zambezi fig tree becomes established, winning another battle.

A battle going on. The branch on the right, above my wife, belongs to the host tree being engulfed by the fig tree.

The branch on the right, above my wife, is what remains of the host tree.

A very large Zambezi fig tree.

Fig trees are beautiful shady trees with a great canopy that extends further than most trees, considering the size of their main trunk. This is often their weakness as, being soft, they often crack and fall which leads to the death of the tree.

A collapsing fig tree.

A collapsing fig tree.

Despite these battles that rage silently in plain sight, we should not worry as the outcome is by no means the doom of the striking Mana Pools woodlands!