Mana Pools National Park

Spot the Beast 51

While staying at Mana Pools National Park we encountered this beast, easy to spot but interesting nonetheless.

IMG_8245 copy.jpg

I am sure that you can see the small tree frog on the top left of the picture. However, this was not all as we had also its relatives taking care of the time…

DSCN2474 copy

One frog o’clock

DSCN2515 copy

Two frog o’clock

Clearly humans and frogs do not share the same time!

There were a few frogs around the lodge and, as in earlier opportunities at Mana, a few inhabit the toilet and, somehow, they are attracted to the mouth hygiene tools! I am sure that my dentist from Salta would be quite surprised…

DSCN2564 copy

Advertisements

Spoiled siesta!

A loud “crack” woke me up from my after lunch nap, or at least I think that that was the reason for the interruption of my daily ritual (well, I must confess that sometimes I wake up myself up with my own snoring but that is another matter…).

In any case, when I regained my faculties after a while (a slower process as you grow up), I did not hearing it again but I became aware of some loud splashing noises nearby. My son helped me to focus and informed me that -apparently- a croc had caught something and that our campers next door had seen the action.

I had already made contact with our neighbours -coming from Zambia- as soon as they arrived earlier to warn them about the viciousness of the baboons at the campsite that forced us to get a guard as described earlier. In fact, despite my cautioning, they still suffered the consequences while they were away on their first game drive, although they had taken the normal precautions that are usually enough!

So, I went to see them to find out what they had seen. Luckily they had not only witnessed the event but also taken pictures of it! They had detected the commotion in the water and heard the noise. A crocodile had caught a rather large terrapin and, after kit was trying to devour it.

IMG_4653 copy

The crocodile eating the terrapin. Picture by Eloise Wells.

The event was a surprise to me as we usually see both terrapins and crocodiles sharing their water territories ignoring each other! Perhaps the terrapin was already dead when the saurian found it? We will never know.

The victim was rather large but eventually the croc had managed to break its carapace -the crack- and it was busy trying to swallow by the time I watched. Although I could not help feeling sorry for the unfortunate victim, it was an interesting event, worth mentioning.

The crocodile was busy for a few hours until it moved off and we lost it for a while. It reappeared later a few metres downriver with its mouth closed so we believe that it had already consumed its prey.

DSC_0348 copy

The crocodile after the event. Picture by Julio A de Castro.

Believing that only to write about this would not have been enough, I asked our neighbours to let me have some of the photographs of the event for this post and they kindly did so. Thanks to their generous contribution I am able to share them with you as the story that, without pictures, would not have been the same.

 

Check in…

Some “local customers’ heading for the Reception area at Mana Pools National Park.

IMG_2947 copy

Needless to say that we queued correctly while guessing what their business was!

Luckily, they seemed satisfied when they left a while after!

IMG_2952 copy

Only then we proceeded to check in!

This is the beauty of Mana Pools National Park: the unexpected is commonplace.

Nebbiolo wine

Our son visits us in Zimbabwe every year during his holidays and we usually include his favourite place, Mana Pools National Park, as part of the holiday. This year we managed to get a good spot at Nyamepi campsite, just a few metres from the mighty Zambezi river.

We had not yet set up camp and we knew that we were in for a bit of “camping fun” as one of the large elephant bulls found in the park was walking about the campsite making a clear statement of who are the owners of the place.

DSC_0156 copy 2

DSC_0424 copyWhen we saw it chasing one of the camp attendants we knew that it meant business! Luckily the charge was just a show of dislike and the man got away. The elephant walked after him into the park staff houses and nothing more was heard.

We had also been warned that monkeys and particularly baboons were worse than usual and fast becoming a real problem in the camp so we decided to ask the park for help and they allocated a guard to keep them off our tents as they have the habit of destroying them for no apparent reason! We were rather surprised when our guard came and we recognized him as the same man that was chased by the elephant earlier! Clearly they had some unfinished business among them. However, as his present terms of reference were to keep baboons and vervets away, we decided to give him a chance and we were not disappointed.

Although Mana Pools offers many attractions, we link it to elephants. I have already written in this blog about Big V and Boswell as two of the most notable of the pachyderms here. We did not spot them during our first afternoon drive but, when returning to camp in the evening, we noted that three large elephant bulls were there but we could not see them very well. However, this was nothing unusual as they are normally in camp!

DSC_0872 copy

We took some of our travel tiredness away through great bush showers and it was a refreshed team that tackle dinner preparation. Of course we always enjoy a good barbeque so our son took over as he is the expert while my wife’s territory is bush pasta dishes and mine, well, I keep them merry and busy… Eventually we sat at the table to enjoy some great T-bone steak (rare) and sausages. Our son had, as a special treat, brought a couple of wine bottles from Italy and we decided to go for the Nebbiolo the first night keeping the stronger Barbaresco for a later occasion.

Nebbiolo is the grape also used for the better known Barolo and Barbaresco varieties, all from the Piedmont region of Italy. Its name comes from “nebbia” which is fog in Italian, a frequent phenomenon in the region.

Elephants, despite their size, walk in almost total silence so when we noticed the three bulls, they were within ten metres from us, just at the edge of the circle of our camp light. We knew that they were feeding on the acacia pods from the apple-ring acacia (Faidherbia albida) on the ground so we ignored them and continued enjoying our food and drink. Suddenly we heard one of them head-butting one of the acacia trees closeby and we had a shower of pods around us on which the three colossi started to feed. So far, nothing new.

However, after a while we saw that one of them stopped feeding and came under our light. Now, to see an elephant at such close quarters is rather impressive and we stopped eating wondering what would happen next while reassuring ourselves that it was only interested in the pods. Just in case, we started coughing and knocking our glasses gently to let it know we were there!

The bull, clearly the boldest of the three, took a couple of more steps towards our table! We still -but just- kept our cool while continuing making various noises to make it change its mind but, eventually, the giant was so close that my wife and son stood up and moved a couple of metres behind the table. They were wise. We all know that elephants are large but, when you meet them at close quarters, seated and at night they are really humongous!

My attempt at holding the fort lasted for a few more seconds but my nerves left me when it took another step towards me despite my companions’ efforts at stopping him by banging pots and other noisy objects. I joined wife and son at a prudent distance: the other side of the table! As behind us was the river, we were really in a tight spot! All we could do now was to watch!

While the other two elephants remained a few metres back, our visitor took a final step and it literally leaned on our table. Its trunk delicately sniffed our dinner and I thought “End of table and dinner!” but it did not touch anything. However, at some stage its trunk went to my plastic wine glass, placed its trunk over it and spilled it, probably as a protest for the poor quality of the wine ware?

The spilling of the wine was the turning point of the visit and the elephant swiftly moved towards our tents. There it tried to walk between them. As the latter were separated by a one-metre gap the potential outcome was not good. “Gosh” my son said, “if it walks through there our tents are gone!” However, realizing the situation, the elephant luckily backtracked and moved off to join its two patient mates that were still watching the proceeds from a distance.

DSCN0751 copy

Our tents with one of the camp dwellers in the background.

Consulting the internet I learnt that the Nebbiolo wine has complex aromas, including roses, cherries, truffles, and mints and there can also be traces of tar, tobacco and leather. Clearly one or more of them were attractive to the jumbo.

Once the elephants moved away we resumed our dinner. Luckily the wine bottle was intact and I could refill my glass! During the next couple of days, the Nebbiolo, perceived as the new “elephant target”, was until its sad end, carefully corked and locked away in the deepest recesses of our car only to be opened after the “elephant all clear” announcement was made.

Big V

Boswell and Big V[1]  are the best-known elephant bulls in Mana Pools National Park. I recently reported about Boswell’s skills to feed on his hind legs[2], a rather unique trick. When we witnessed an elephant feeding on Acacia pods overhead and I reported in an earlier post[3] was Big V so I have already introduced both to you.

Mana Pools this August was extremely dry, as last year the rains were not good. For this reason the area looks more as it does towards the end of the dry season in November than it should be in August: a dust bowl! I believe that the animals are in for a tough two to three months until new rains arrive, if they do as these days weather patterns have changed.

Luckily for most of the animals in Mana the Zambezi River is there and, together with the pools that lend the name to the park, they provide water and fodder to keep the grazers going while the trees such as the apple-ring acacia (Faidherbia albida) will supply elephants with browsing. The animals that seemed hardest hit at the moment were the hippos that need to consume large amounts of grass so it was common to see them walking about during late afternoon already far from the water.

While checking in we learnt that lions had been spotted around an area known as Mana mouth. After recovering from the six-hour journey from Harare and, after unpacking and organizing our lodge, we decided to go there as it is close and the sunsets there are usually beautiful, even without lions! We never reach our destination as on our way we found Big V!

With him were, in addition to his usual young male retinue, a young female and its small calf, something unusual as large bulls tend to hang out on their own or with a few askaris[4]. He towered over the lot and he was clearly the undisputed leader of the group.

In an interesting contrast to his dominance over other elephants, Big V is an extremely relaxed elephant that allows the human observer to approach him either in the car or on foot. In contrast, the younger males can be more boisterous and occasionally perform threatening displays and mock charges that remind us that we are dealing with wild animals!

On this occasion it appeared that Big V was doing some “community” work by pulling down branches from an apple-ring acacia. Clearly, for the elephants this was the equivalent of eating at a Michelin-starred restaurant!

Although Big V was not standing on its hind legs “Boswell style” it stretched and reached high up the tree, to a height the others could not. As a result of its efforts large branches were brought down showing a great dexterity with his nose (it is easy to forget that he was breathing while doing this!) as well as the damage elephants can do to trees!

He will then fed on them, including the main branches, some of which were really thick! While Big V was eating, the other elephants were eager to collect any fallen pods or small branches but from a distance as Big V’s belly rumblings were sufficient to keep them all at bay! Well, not all…

The small female and her calf approached the feeding giant ignoring his rumblings. Expecting some rebuke we were surprised to see that they slowly got closer and closer  she started to steal bits of the branch to feed. The calf was also allowed into Big V’s inner circle and managed to pick some scraps. The large bull completely ignored them!

 

DSCN0022 8.49.54 PM copyAt one stage, the female even took bits of the branch from Big V’s mouth!

The reasons for this closeness I ignore but it was unexpected and we spent a few minutes watching how it developed. Spellbound with these interactions, we forgot about the lions and when the light was fading we returned to our lodge still talking about what amazing creatures elephants are!

 

[1] This elephant has a large v-shaped notch on its left ear.

[2] https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2016/08/17/boswell/

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

[4] From Arabic, an askari was a local soldier serving in the armies of the European colonial powers in Africa. It is also used for security guards and the young bulls that accompany large bull elephants.

Boswell

It is irrelevant here to argue against or in favour of naming wild animals. It happens often among the big five and others that are singled out for certain notable characteristics or behaviour and I am sure it helps researchers in their work. There is a tusker-naming project at the Letaba Elephant Hall in the Kruger National Park and many notable animals have been given names, not only in Africa but also throughout the world.

Boswell in Mana Pools is a bull elephant that is one of the legitimate owners of the place. It kindly let us enjoy its home without a grudge while it goes about its business. Boswell is well known by all that, like us, are frequent visitors of this beautiful wilderness area. It has a distinct feature: it can reach for the apple ring acacia pods higher than its colleagues.

Over the years it has developed a trick that few others can match: it does not only stretch but over-stretches by standing on its hind legs in perfect balance while it feeds at incredible heights. I do not know how it learnt to do it but perhaps it is an elephant tradition that is passed from generation to generation at Mana Pools.

Whatever the origin of its skill, many brilliant pictures have been taken in the past by great photographers and these can easily be found in the Internet. However, one thing is to watch professional pictures and/or documentaries and another, rather different one, is to see it performing live, just like any artist!

We have seen Boswell often once we learnt to recognize it but we have not seen its trick as it only takes place at a certain time of the year when the right conditions are present. Even at that time, you must find Boswell and it has to be willing to perform. This is not as easy as you may think.

During our last visit to Mana Pools last July game was not yet abundant in the riverine part of the park so I decided to cut short my participation in a family game drive and stay in camp to take things easy and to watch what was going on there as its proximity to the river is always rewarding. We had been, as usual, “attacked” by monkeys and the baboons were particularly vicious when they did not find anything, pulling down one tent an even biting our solar-powered lamps!

I spent some time tidying up and eventually sat down to have a cuppa and to write notes on the trip. Although it passed about five metres from me I only saw Boswell’s bottom and looked for the camera only to realize that it was with the rest of the family! Luckily I had my iPad with me!

Boswell crossed the river fast and soon reached a couple of acacias on the other side, about one hundred metres from me. There it started feeding and I watched for the first time his two-legged feeding trick.

As usually happens, my pictures are rather pathetic but I am, nevertheless, proud to be able to say that I saw Boswell performing for me alone at its home!

Pachyderm GO!

Apparently there is a new, rather hazardous, cell phone game going around in selected places of the world, mainly the “developed” part of it where “players” follow creatures called Pokémons that somehow materialize in their cameras. Amazing technology that I hope can eventually be used for the good of humanity. But this is just another of my idealistic hopes.

In Zimbabwe, away from it all, as usual we decided to go in search of real creatures and, having our two children with us (knowledgeable on Pokéscience), we went to the bush where they assured us Pokémons do not yet dwell. We chose Mana Pools National Park, a jewel among the Zimbabwe parks. We were in for a surprise!

At some stage during our game drive I saw some elephants and stopped the car to watch them with the naked eye, together with my children. My wife, however, looked at them through her tablet to catch the best images of them. At some point, one of the elephants started to walk straight for the car.

I was enjoying its closeness when my son decided that the beast was too close and asked me to move a little to feel safer. My wife in the meantime continued trying to catch the beast.

DSCN9919 copy

Seeing that my wife was still looking through her device totally oblivious to the animal’s proximity, I started wondering whether she was watching the same beast that we were or if she was actually trying to throw a Poke Ball at a Phanpy[1] or a Donphan?

After the incident my wife explained that she did not realize how close it was until I moved the car. The creature had come within a couple of metres from us before I drove off but she said that she had managed to capture it.

We are all looking forward to get home to see what she caught!

 

[1] Phanpy is a small, blue elephant-like Pokémon that evolves into Donphan, a gray, elephant-like Pokémon with a thick, black band of hide running down the length of its back and extending to the tip of its long trunk.

 

Follow up: The situation was clarified later and, luckily for Mana Pools, this is what she actually saw:

DSCN9950 copy

 

 

 

 

 

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.

DSCN9960 copy

Crowned eagle.

DSCN9944 copy

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/

Carnage at Long pool

In the morning, as expected, we failed to locate the lions again but, driving over a small bridge nearby we found about twenty marabou storks (Leptoptilos crumenifer) congregated by a pond of green stagnant water. That was all that remained from the stream that flows there during the rainy season. As soon as we stopped they slowly moved away to what they considered to be a safe distance from us, away from the water. We moved off to a bend in the dry riverbed to watch them undisturbed. As soon as we withdrew they returned to the pool and resumed their activity.

DSCN9918 copy

The first group of marabou storks we saw.

The storks were feeding on stranded fish, probably catfish judging by the frequent rises they made to breath on the surface, opportunity immediately taken up by the storks that would rush towards the water movement ready to snap one up. We left them undisturbed and continued with our drive. A couple of hours later when we returned they were gone but there were still fish there. The African sharptooth catfish (Clarias gariepinus) are special in that they can bury themselves in the mud when the water evaporates and they can also survive in muddy water as they have a special breathing system that they can use in addition to their normal gills.

However, I am sure that despite their toughness the catfish days were numbered as the next rains will only come in December if the rains are good, far too late for them. At that time the ground would be bone dry. It was surprising that the marabous had abandoned what looked like easy food but we are used to Nature’s ways!

We soon forgot about the storks as we continued with our quest for new sightings. Our hopes of finding the lions seemed to revive when we found their fresh footprints. Judging that they had been left there during the early morning we tracked them for a long while, trying to guess what their aim was, only to lose them when they moved away from the road. Following lions on foot through the bush and without an experienced ranger is not recommended so we decided to leave them alone. As it happened, they eluded us for the rest of the trip.

We normally do not see large elephant herds at Mana Pools. Some family groups come together at the height of the dry season while staying near the river. At the time of our visit, although the rains had not been abundant, there was still water inland and the elephant population was still spread out all over the park. The few elephants we saw were the usual resident bulls that seem to hang around the shores of the Zambezi. It was one of these that we found that morning and we derived entertainment watching it stretch for the apple-ring acacia branches and leaves. The pods, their favourite food later on in the dry season, were still small and immature so they were not the elephants’ target at the moment.

DSCN9962 copy

A bull elephant stretches to feed under the special Mana Pools light.

Returning to camp at about eleven, we saw a large number of yellow-billed storks (Mycteria ibis) in one of the smaller segments of Long pool that usually dries up during the dry season. There was clearly something special going on that attracted such large number of birds so we decided to go and have a look. Getting closer we saw that there were also African spoonbills (Platalea alba), a few herons and also a few marabou storks. “So here they are”, I thought while stopping the car to get closer on foot.

DSCN9928 copy

We saw a large number of storks congregated at Long pool.

The pool was full of birds and it appeared that mostly the yellow-billed storks were -again- catching other shoal of stranded fish.

They seemed to be alternatively “driving” the fish towards one of the narrow and shallow ends of the pond and, once there, they would pounce on their victims. Both the yellow-billed and the marabous seemed to be on the same wavelength and after fish. The few African spoonbills present, however, continued wading in their usual fashion as individuals and they did not seem to take any notice of the other birds.

DSCN0019 copy

The yellow-billed storks chasing the fish in a coordinated fashion.

DSCN0023 copy

Marabous waiting for the right time to join in.

DSCN0029 copy

African spoonbill.

At first we assumed that the prey were catfish as we had seen earlier at the small bridge and on other occasions in Kenya (Maasai Mara) and Mozambique (Gorongosa). We soon saw, however, that this time the victims were silvery fish of 5 to 15 cm that were being picked in large numbers by the birds. Whether they were immature Chessa (Distichodus schenga) or Nkupe (Distichodus mossambicus) both common inhabitants of the lower Zambezi, or perhaps some other small fish I could not be sure. It was interesting to note that, as the pool was dry last year, the fish must have come in during the wet season through a connection between the pool and the Zambezi.

The yellow-billed storks outnumbered the marabous about 10:1 and they strode in groups following what looked like a cooperative fishing strategy. They would wade together towards one end of the pool driving the fish in front of them and then they will pick them from the reduced area they had created. They fished in their usual fashion; by placing their half open bills inside the water and snapping them shut when feeling a touch through a very fast reflex. They frequently caught fish but if they missed they would do a short chase that soon ended with or without a fish being caught and back to their feeding posture.

While this would take place, the marabous watched like smartly dressed supervisors. The moment the fish were trapped they would lose their bogus formality and join in the feeding frenzy with gusto! They would jump or fly in spreading their wings to make room for themselves submerging their heads under water to catch the fish. Often their feeding enthusiasm would be such that they would plunge almost totally in pursuit of the fish. Many of them had their gular sacs[1] inflated and probably their pouches full of fish. Many of them were also flashing a bright red bubble-like sack at the back of their necks, probably a consequence of their excited condition!

Although we witnessed the occasional confrontation between the two stork species, these were minor incidents and we saw no physical contact.

DSCN9964 copy

A brief stand-off or “don’t step on my toes”

Conversely, there was a lot of interaction among the yellow-billed storks in the form of bill clattering, chasing and jumping facing each other. Occasionally the opponents would interlock their beaks as if involved in some kind of courtship. All these encounters were of short duration and the temporary “rivals” quickly got back to feeding. The grey immature yellow-billed storks congregated at the periphery of the pond, not taking part of the adults’ activities but trying their fishing technique as best they could where there were clearly less fish and I did not witnessed any catch.

While the collective fishing took place, a pair of fish eagles, perched on a tall dead tree, watched the storks attentively. They called regularly and, from time to time, they would swoop down among the alarmed storks and, at least once, one of them managed to snatch a fish although we could not see if it caught it itself or it robbed it from one of the fishing storks.

 

The following video gives a dynamic view of what we witnessed.

Note: I recommend that you watch it first as it is and then you use the cog wheel at the bottom right corner of the screen to slow it down and see things with more detail.

 

 

[1] Later, reading about marabous, I learnt that the large sacks that hang under their heads are not crops but gular sacs. The latter are cooling devices as well as used for displaying purposes.

Note added on 3 July 2016. One of the pictures above shows what I thought was a confrontation between a Marabou and a Yellow-billed stork. I saw that the Marabou was rather indifferent but I thought it was because of its size. However, looking at the picture again, I realized that the Yellow-billed stork was swallowing a fish! Additionally, the fish looks like a young Tilapia so the birds may have been feeding on these rather than on the other possible species I mentioned. Bushsnob

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.

DSCN9890 copy

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!

DSCN9899 copy

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!

DSCN9894 copy

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.