nyati lodge

Ups and downs

 

The final day of our stay at Mana Pools we drove all morning and hardly saw any mammals. Our drive started towards the west, following the river frontage (from right to left in the map below), towards Vundu camp. Although the views of the river in that area are really beautiful, after a while we decided to take another road in a southerly direction, towards the Kanga pan area (outside the map). Although the sighting of  crowned eagle lifted our spirits for a while, our luck did not change.

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Crowned eagle.

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Map of the Mana Pools area adjacent to the Zambezi River.

Our last hope of finding some interesting action was to re-visit the “carnage” at Long pool of the day before but our bad luck continued! Professional-looking photographers had moved in and probably paid some good money to film the birds so we did not wish to interfere with their work and drove on and back to our lodge.

To recompense ourselves for our rather poor morning performance we decided to go for a late hearty English breakfast, also known as brunch. We enjoyed bacon, scrambled eggs and fried tomatoes. The siesta under the trees that followed recharged the “morale batteries” and, by 16:00 hours, we went out again. This time we headed towards the Nkupe campsite and the Zambezi shore near Mana mouth where earlier we had some interesting sightings.

When you start getting carried away by watching Matabele ants (Megaponera analis) and photographing armoured crickets and dragonflies you know that Mana is on one of the occasions that it hides its booty from you. Clearly the park had water “up country” and most animals were spread out beyond the area that we could cover by car.

To be fair, we actually enjoyed watching the ants[1] that reminded someone of the fierce Matabele warriors of the past, hence their name. It was a rather large colony moving over the ground as a coordinated force. The major workers of this group were carrying brown capsules that were not prey as we initially thought but their own cocoons as I later learnt. One of these major workers would have also carried their queen but we did not pay sufficient attention to spot that.

Eventually we managed to see some zebra and even three shy eland bulls that quickly moved off as soon as they spotted us. Because of their premature departure we did not hear the unique clicks that are normally loud enough to be heard from some distance away. A knee tendon slides over a bone and vibrates causing the clicks. The larger the animal and the thicker and longer the tendon, the graver the sound and the higher place the animal occupies in the pecking order. The clicks, therefore, prevent fighting.

Soon the shadows started to lengthen and it was time to return to our lodge. We decided to spend the last minutes of the day checking our mail so we drove via the park’s office to access their Wi-Fi. It was close to 17:30 hours and the sun had already dropped behind the escarpment on the Zambian shore of the Zambezi.

On arrival to the office our luck turned! At the parking area we met head on with a large bull elephant and we stopped mesmerized at such a great animal so relaxed yet so powerful and potentially dangerous. Ignoring us it kept feeding as we drove within a couple of metres from it to park the car. We have had the privilege of having been close to these bull elephants before[2] but the experience is always exhilarating.

I got out of the car to watch the animal and joined onlookers from the park’s office that were also there enjoying the moment. It was one of bulls that reside around the most popular area of the park and clearly used to humans. In pursuit of good food it was performing some really funny contortions.

Boswell is probably the best-known bull elephant at Mana Pools. It has developed the ability of standing only on its hind legs while stretching an amazing length to reach the highest of branches. Although the elephant we found was not Boswell, it was probably one of its disciples as I am sure that at some stage it was actually on its hind legs though hidden by bushes!

I got carried away taking pictures and, rather carelessly, I forgot that I was photographing an adult bull elephant a couple of metres away! At one point, after removing my eye from the camera’s viewfinder, the animal was actually towering over me and I thought that I was ridiculously close for comfort and hastily retreated concerned about my bush-future! Luckily, harming me was not in the pachyderm’s mind and it continued feeding and keeping the distance that it thought prudent for both!

Unfortunately, the light soon faltered and I was forced to stop taking pictures so we parted company and we returned to our lodge. Our experience confirmed yet again the nature of Mana Pools: you can go through a frustrating day and then, suddenly, you find yourself in a unique situation that not only makes you forget the tedious drive but that leaves an enduring memory!

 

 

[1] For more information, see https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/10/03/talking-ants/

[2] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/10/14/elephant-overhead-and-it-was-not-dumbo/

Lions first

Although we agreed that we were in no hurry to leave for Mana Pools National Park, somehow we found ourselves getting up early and soon enough we were on our way before what we had planned. Fortunately the road from Harare to Chirundu in the border with Zambia was rather quiet. We were able to travel fast and well until we found ourselves snaking our way up and down Marongora or the Zambezi escarpment.

This is the worse part of the journey as long lorry lines coming and going between Zambia and Zimbabwe are formed here and the pace can be very slow if not nil as frequently we find serious accidents that cause long delays. The road is littered with lorry remains to the point that we call it the “lorry cemetery”. This time, even this infamous place offered us no difficulties.

We turned into the Mana Pools turn off in good time. As usual, the first 30 km are as rough and corrugated as ever and we decided to break the journey over half way entering the track leading to the Rukomechi Research station where groundbreaking research on tsetse fly control was carried out in the 70s and 80s. The idea was to see the place and to find a place to have our lunch away from the main road.

The station was rather quiet and, after a quick drive through, we returned towards the main road, stopping at a dry river bed that we had identified early as a “lunch spot” to enjoy our sandwiches. The halt did not last long as the stingless Mopani bees (also known as Mopani flies) Plebeina hildebrandti kept getting into our eyes, a very uncivilized behaviour!

Worse still were the stinging honeybees that started coming the moment we opened our lunch boxes and kept landing on our food and drinks. Soon we were fed up with both bee types and decided to abandon our lunch break and continue our trip.

We were greatly relieved when we reached the gate into the park with the car apparently in one piece. A quick check confirmed that this was so, at least all the expected parts were there! The road corrugations were such that the usual trick of driving fast to “skim” over them did not really work and to drive slowly was even worse so we tried both hoping to get an improvement that we did not achieve! Satisfied with the toughness of our car, we continued for the final 40 km on a much smoother track.

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The first lioness.

We aimed for the park’s office to check in our lodge called Nyati[1]. As it happened, a couple of kilometres before, my wife spotted a tawny shape that turned out to be a resting lioness. We stopped and for sometime forgot our immediate plans. After scanning the area with our binoculars, another two females were found. We stayed with them for some time but, as they did not seem to move, we decided to go back to our plan and to sort out our lodge. The latter was very nice, on the Zambezi River shore, clean and ready for us.

After organizing our belongings and food supplies, we decided that it was time to get back to the lions. As these are our number one interest in the bush we were happy to go and try to find them again!

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A long distance shot.

Luckily they were still there. Other visitors had also found them and two cars were watching them but, as it often happens, they soon left. I always question myself about what could be better than staying with a pride of lions waiting for action! However, more often than not, most people have other ideas and, after a few minutes, they invariably move on. I find this conduct surprising but they probably have other bush tastes such as elephants or perhaps sundowners by the river? We, the wiser, stayed with the lions.

A few minutes of observation later and we had seven individuals: six females -in excellent condition- and one young cub. We found this a bit strange as we expected more youngsters but we did not see another one. Typically, for about an hour nothing much happened. As the afternoon became evening all of a sudden they were off. It happened very fast and they entered the tall grass towards our left, leaving the cub behind.

Trying to stay ahead of the game, we moved forward looking for the reason of their exploit while trying to position ourselves at a place from where we could see what would happen next. About one hundred metres ahead we found a clearing with some male impalas grazing and, apparently, oblivious to the lions.

“Could the lionesses be after the impalas?” we asked ourselves, as these antelope are not the number one choice in a lion’s diet. We had seen lions in past years at Mana feeding on buffalos and even elephants so these rather small antelope did not qualify even as a snack for such a group! However, in the absence of other possible candidates we stopped and waited.

I immediately switched on the camera and soon I was looking at the impalas through the camera’s viewfinder when first I heard the noise of animals running to my right and immediately caught a glimpse of the lionesses through the corner of my eye. Three of them came out of the bushes at full speed towards the impalas that reacted immediately and started running away. The lionesses picked one as their target and got closer and closer.

The impala, aware of the mortal danger it was in, quickly recovered from the surprise of the attack and ran for its life leaping and zigzagging with great skill as the terrain was uneven and bushy. Despite this, the lionesses were getting desperately close and, when all seemed lost for the antelope, it jumped and turned sharply to its right. This final feat of nimbleness put the lionesses off balance and the impala managed to escape snorting loudly as it realized that it was still alive! What I described took place over a few seconds and well before I could move my finger to take a picture!

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When I could press the shutter, the chase had ended…

The impala snorting was answered, to our surprise, from somewhere in the midst of the lionesses! At first we thought that the huntresses had got another impala and what we were hearing were its last throes. Soon, however, the truth revealed itself as another impala came running flat out from the “lionesses-hot area” and soon joined its colleagues at a prudent distance. We had clearly missed this impala that had turned towards the opposite side from the others and probably saved its life because of it!

The short chase over, the huntresses relaxed and one by one they broke their cover and we saw seven female lions. Realizing that the chase was over, they returned to the place where the cub was. After a while we saw another rather large head emerging from the tall grass: a large male lion could not be bothered to lose its royal status chasing impalas and wished to have a look around!

Soon the light started fading and we left them, convinced that they would hunt later on. We agreed to return and look for them the following morning but, as they can move long distances, we did not hope for another sighting.

Back at the camp the donkey boiler[2] supplied ample hot water for a good bush shower to wash off the thick dust from the already very dry Mana Pools roads. As for the various aches from the journey, I appealed to a few sips of a South African Cabernet Sauvignon, with therapeutic meticulousness! The latter also greatly helped with the writing of this post!

 

[1] Nyati in Shona language means buffalo.

[2] Known as Tanganyika boiler in East Africa. It is basically a metal drum over a wood fire.