The smell was overpowering. It was the sweet, rotten smell of old death. It coated the back of our throats and clung to our clothes.
The crocodile was 5 meters of cold, reptilian instinct, grown powerful and fat from the unwary animals and humans that came to the Zambezi to drink and fish. The twin cockscomb of the thick, scaled tail was above our heads. Green algae grew on the scales, adding to the already formidable camouflage. It followed us with cold, yellow eyes.
The croc was sunning on the embankment and we were on eye level with the predatory dinosaur, nervously and slowly paddling a rented canoe only 3 meters away - and us in the water, his primary domain. If one of us splashed or fell into the water, our adventure would end in tragedy.
We were on our 7th annual adventure, 12 men looking for their wild hearts in the last wild places of Africa. Our group consisted 3 Doctors (we were playing it safe), a chartered accountant to keep a tab on the expenses, a city management executive to manage the camp and other businessmen.
We went prepared: Bug suits from Cabelas, spears for toothed nighttime visitors, extreme cold weather (in the African sense) clothing, knives, high-power flashlights, tents, sleeping rolls and beanies and biltong. We had highlift jacks, tyre repair sets, spare fan belts. We had 12V pumps to pump water from the Zambezi to minimize our visit to the river to get water because of the crocs.
We heard that tsetse flies (which cause sleeping sickness) were a problem, (seehttp://www.cdc.gov/parasites/sleepingsickness/gen_info/faqs-east.html) so one of the doctors imported RID from Australia. http://www.rid.com.au/. It was supposedly the only product that kept the tsetse flies away.
We found the tsetses - or rather, they found us. Their bites are like a wasp sting. Tsetse flies are extremely tough and difficult to kill. They close in on movement and prefer blue for some reason.
See the article on African trypanosomiasis in this issue by one of the doctors who accompanied us on the trip.
The budget for our whole trip was about R3,000 (US$ 450) per person for 10 days, everything included. Not bad at all - R300 per day in a pristine wilderness area.
The Zimbabwe Government Gazette states that no person shall drive a vehicle in Zimbabwe unless:
Breakdown Triangles: Two reflective breakdown triangles per vehicle and with serial numbers, name of manufacturer and year of manufacture and conforming to Standards Association of Zimbabwe (SAZ) standards will be mandatory.
A pair is also required for each trailer. These must be placed one in front and one at the rear of a vehicle (30 to 50m) when it is stationery on any road at a place not designated for stopping.
Fire Extinguishers: All vehicles to carry an appropriate and SAZ approved fire extinguisher in the CAB of the vehicle – Light vehicles (750g) and heavy vehicles (1,5kg). Every fire extinguisher shall be of a type and make approved by the Standards Association of Zimbabwe, which approval shall be visibly marked on the fire extinguisher, and secured at an easily accessible and visible position within the cab of such vehicle."
Reflectors: White reflectors in front, red reflectors at the rear.
T-Stickers: If you are using a trailer, there seems to also be a requirement for T-stickers: a white T on black background for the front and a red T on black a background for the front.
Our three 4x4 vehicles met at Gateway (S25 27.252 E30 56.178) near Nelspruit in Mpumalanga in the chilly pre-dawn and started out for Beit Bridge500 kilometers away. We got there at about 12:00 and spent 2 hours trying to get through on the Zimbabwean side. Not fun.
We reached our stopover at a Masvingo camping site (S20 04.014 E30 50.339) at about 8:00. Facilities were basic. We left just after 5 in the next morning.
After getting lost in Harare and a $15 speed fine we were on our way at 9:48. We were stopped near Chinhoyi because of an army route march on the public road. All traffic was brought to a complete standstill and we waited until the surly recruits passed. The look in their eyes did not give me much hope for Zimbabwe.
We booked in at Morongara (S16 13.370 E29 09.685) at 2:06 and were welcomed by friendly staff. At the turnoff to Mana Pools (S16 11.448 E29 09.724) we were warned about the bad roads, let our tires down to 1 bar and took the road to the second gate (S16 03.360 E29 24.550) which we reached at 4:14.
Once through, we were in. We reached Mana Pools reception (S15 43.415 E29 21.657) at 5:28.
We were one day early and pitched our temporary camp near the basic ablutions. Some of us even had warm water for a shower.
It was not long before we saw the first hyena.
The four pools
We moved early the next day to BBC camp only to discover that the old BBC camp had been separated from the park by a new channel. We were directed to the new BBC camp 356 m above sea level at S15 43.667 E29 21.235. Both entries to new BBC camp had No Entry signs up and we were constantly reminded by officials that we were using an unauthorized road. Africa – you’ve got to love her.
The reports we had before we went was that Mana Pools was a game viewer’s paradise. It turned out to be true – to a certain extent. Chobe and Moremi have larger varieties of species and numbers - and of course Hwange is the king of elephant parks.
Some of the exceptional sightings were an 80+ herd of eland and a cheetah catching a small warthog.
Walking along the waters’ edge is allowed, and an afternoon stroll on the banks of the Zambezi is quite pleasant.
I could never get it. You put something on the line, chuck it into the water and wait and wait. The fish never seem to bite in fresh water with me. At Mana, the secret obsessions of our friends were revealed. It was tiger fever, and the avid fishermen got a fishing license each at $20 from reception. What followed was an embarrassing tale of unfounded optimism, reckless commitment and fruitless expense.
While live earthworms were on sale next to the road as we approached Kariba and the river, it seemed to not be enough. Obscure references were made to various types of Rapalas and live bait - which us non-fishermen took to be Impala. It turned out to be a live small fish with a hook through the back and left to attract bigger predators.
At every opportunity these incorrigible optimists had their hooks in the water – all to very little avail. The only sizable tiger was caught by Wynand, the youngest member of our party.
They began competing who could catch the smallest fish and records were broken daily.
Which brings us to our standoff with the crocodile.
The fishermen wanted to improve their chances and fish on the islands in the river, for which purpose we rented canoes.
Although doctors are normally reasonably intelligent people, they cannot grasp the fact that a vague understanding of the function of the human digestive system does not necessarily translate to knowledge of African animal behavior.
So it was that we were in flimsy canoes right on top of hippos – who are the most prolific killer of humans in Africa – and next to man-eating crocodiles. It was dangerous and unwise.
We decided to come back to South Africa in one shot – a 24-hour drive broken into 2-hour shifts for each driver.
The only incident on the way back was near Masvingo while it was my turn to drive. We were in convoy with my vehicle in front. I spotted a laden yellow pickup coming towards me when the sparks started to fly – literally. I saw the rear wheel and sideshaft separate from the axle.
In a split second the 1.5 meter solid steel sideshaft, still attached to the wheel sped toward us at 200 kilometers per hour. I braced my hands on the steering wheel as it hit us.
Had the sideshaft bounced more, it could have decapitated me or impaled one of us. If we went over it, the possibility of losing control of the vehicle and a head-on collision with oncoming traffic was possible.
Instead, the tire hit and demolished the bumper while at the same time the shaft hit the right front magnesium rim and crushed it. The impact threw the wheel and shaft high into the air and safely into the bush. You had better believe it that this is how you are protected when you pray.
In conclusion, it was a great trip. Even with the poor facilities, Mana Pools is one of the last great wilderness areas in Southern Africa and worth visiting.
History and overview
The Mana Pools lie in the wide floodplain of the Zambezi river under high escarpment cliffs. They are former channels of the Zambezi which lie in a broad sandy valley 110 km downstream from the Kariba Dam little modified by man.
There are four main pools: Main, Chine, Long and Chisambuk. The Safari Areas lie along the lower Zambezi nearer the Mozambique border (except for Dande and Doma which are inland).
Their hinterlands include large areas of the rugged Zambezi escarpment, which rises 1,000m from the valley floor. The geology of the region ranges from the ancient gneiss and paragneiss overlain by the lithosols of the basement complex of the escarpment to the Karoo sandstones and recent river alluvium of the valley.
Much of Chewore is heavily dissected, with the 30 km long Mupata Gorge along its northern boundary. The soils are sandy except for the river bottom alluvium.
The mean annual rainfall is 700mm, falling mainly in summer. The mean annual temperature is 25°C.
Some 463 species have been recorded, including 106 grasses (DNPWM, 2000). Well-grassed Brachystegia communities dominate the mountainous escarpment and higher Chewore areas. The valley floor is dominated by mopane Colophospermum mopane woodlands or dry deciduous thickets known as jesse bush of a mixed species layered dry forest.
Seasonal tributaries crossing the valley floor support extensive riparian communities differing in character from the floodplain vegetation. On the younger sandier alluvial deposits along the Zambezi are well-developed though dwindling tracts of winterthorn Faidherbia albida, a useful source of fodder with more diverse woodlands containing sausage tree Kigelia africana and Natal mahogany Trichilia emetica on the higher levee deposits or old islands.
Iron Age sites have been investigated in the area and J. White (1971) has written on the history and customs of the Urungwe district. ‘Mana’ means four pools.
There is virtually no permanent human habitation because of the presence of an array of tropical diseases including sleeping sickness, bilharzia, and malaria, but the main road between Harare and Lusaka with its associated settlements passes near the area.
Visitors and Facilities
Between 1995 and 2000 tourist numbers averaged 10,000 a year (DNPWM, 2000). but current conditions in the country have reduced tourism. Visitor movements are strictly confined and they are allowed to walk only in the Park’s riparian woodlands.
During the wet season the area is virtually closed and the only effective way to see it is by canoe, and several canoe safaris are available.
During the dry season visitors here experience some of the highest concentrations of game in Africa and the greatest of all seasonal aggregations of wild mammals along the Zambezi river. There is high quality recreational hunting, game fishing and exceptional wildlife viewing which are all managed so as not to impair these resources or the wilderness. Mana Pools is only partially developed as a tourist centre, but is so popular that the available facilities can become overcrowded.
The number of cars allowed into the National Park at one time is limited. There are tourist lodges at Rukumeche in the west and at Chikwenya at the confluence of the Sapi and Zambezi Rivers and tourist and hunting camps, but no tarred roads. The nearest airport is at Kariba, 150 km southwest.
Escarpment cliffs overhanging an almost pristine riverine flood-plain and sandbanks harbour a remarkable density of wild animals including elephants, hippotamus, leopards, cheetahs, buffaloes and large numbers of Nile crocodiles and birds. The Parks lie within a WWF Global 200 Eco-region.
Fully protected, but strictly controlled recreational hunting is permitted in the safari areas by the draft management plan. Chewore and Sapi are eventually to become National Parks.
The five areas are zoned into: one Special Conservation Area with no development and entry only for scientific purposes; two Wilderness Areas of sufficient size to contain the complete biota of the locality and with few signs of human occupation; four Wild Areas serviced by roads and tracks, but where the fauna and flora are paramount; and Development Areas for visitor, management and administrative facilities.
Hunting rights in Sapi, Chewore and part of Urungwe Safari Areas are divided into lots which are sold by auction on an annual basis. In the rest of Urungwe they are sold to a local hunting association, and in Dande they are leased to a safari company. The Zambezi water level, fisheries, animal populations, birdlife, dwindling winterthorn forest and tourist numbers are monitored annually by the research staff of the DNPWM.
Natural seasonal flooding of low-lying areas was seriously curtailed by the completion of Kariba Dam in 1958. In 1989, oil exploration was proposed in the reserves using trace line roads which would result in erosion, industrial littering and improved access for poachers. International publicity temporarily averted this threat. The ecological heart of the area, the rich floodplain, has been further threatened by a hydroelectric scheme proposed for Mapata Gorge which would create an 85,000 hectare lake, obliterating much of the Zambezi valley and halving the carrying capacity of Mana Pools. An environmental assessment has been completed.
When the property was listed in 1984, it contained about 500 black rhinoceros, the largest endemic population of these animals in Africa. But this was almost destroyed by well organised foreign poachers, chiefly from across the river in Zambia who killed many rangers. To help control the problem it was suggested in 1987 that the site be listed in danger and that Lower Zambezi National Park in Zambia be added to the World Heritage site. But at the end of 1994 the last ten rhino were captured and translocated to an intensive protection zone in another part of Zimbabwe.
Habitat destruction by elephants, poaching of elephants and fish are also problems, and conditions in the country have led to much destruction of wildlife during the past two years (David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, 2003)
The main road (gated) between Harare and Lusaka with associated settlements passes through the area and there is a private estate on the Zambezi near Chirundu. The land is sandy, of limited agricultural potential and has never been used extensively for livestock owing to tsetse fly infestation; Mana Pools have until recently been remote enough to be relatively unaffected except for the increasing numbers of tourists which create the need for more facilities, especially for litter control.
However, a group of farmers, businessmen and companies recently publicised the Chirundu Project, a 100,000 ha agricultural development approximately 100 km long x 10 km wide, proposed for the World Heritage area in 2005. The area under immediate consideration totalled 67,660 sq,km, including the construction of 600 low-cost houses.
According to the Zimbabwe Conservation Development Foundation, this would result in serious degradation and the loss of potential tourism revenue; and farming subject to malaria, sleeping sickness and bilharzia would prove unprofitable (ZCDF, 2005). A temporary stop was placed on the proposal in mid 2005 (Zimbabwe Watch, 2005).
In 2008 prospecting for copper, gold and uranium on land in Zambia adjoining tributaries to the Zambezi became known, including a reported ‘world class’ open-pit copper mine. Eight national and international mining companies, among them Rio Tinto, are interested in developing the prospects.
The resulting pollution by uranium and other mineral wastes could potentially contaminate the almost pristine valley, threatening its value as a World Heritage site. A proposal for hotel development on the same bank was made at the time but withdrawn (UNESCO,2010).