Zimbabwe: Mana Pools–Dispatch 1

As our plane’s toothpick-sized land gear was about to touch tire to dirt strip our young pilot gave it some gas (so to speak) and we took off again. Why? Because the resident jackal pack was unwilling to cede the runway. Looking down we could see our greeters dashing down the hardpacked strip flapping their hands and waving their arms. By the time we’d made a wide circle and returned for another attempt the jackals had made a desultory exit to a nearby shade tree.

All of this was more commotion than I needed, what with the mighty Zambezi and three days canoeing through Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools National Park awaiting. We would be paddling down Africa’s fourth longest river, past riverine islands, sandbanks, canals and pools flanked by forests of mahogany, wild figs, ebonies and baobabs. I am neither a canoe-ist nor a kayaker and while I can swim to save my life, that statement about says it in a nutshell. I will deal with water when I have to, but you will not find me throwing myself into the surf to ride a wave on a boogy-board.

Much of the Mana Pools territory is only accessible from the water, so if we wanted to see it, canoeing was the way to go. It’s also renown for its dense population of hippos and Nile crocodiles; of the two, they say the former kill more people than any other animal in Africa. In our canoes we would appear to a hippo like a fly in one’s soup: an annoyance to be flicked away. I’d been told hippos show no compunction in doing so, especially bulls in the water, or females with calves, which seemed to cover just about every hippo around. Still, since we’d be camping, I was relieved to imagine that, in the evenings at least, I’d be in the safe haven of terra firma. Then I learned that should you interrupt a hippo on land, where they graze at night, they’ll easily charge you down at 30mph without so much as a by-your-leave. Which is why I didn’t need the extra stress of our plane nearly crashing.

As things played out, the canoeing was so simple and the current so obliging that we hardly needed to paddle at all. Along with that, our guide and scout were masters at the art of looking at flat water and predicting hippo presence. At their command, which was issued with frequency, we would paddle steadily to the opposite side of whatever channel the hippo was believed to be submerged in, the better to allow him access to land should he wish to retreat, or to make it absolutely clear that we were submissive canoes, with no wish to tangle with him.

It was marvelous being on the water. Days were spent observing birds at beak level, elephants at trunk level and Cape buffalo at hoof level. All of them seemed to think we were simply odd-shaped crocodiles and ignored us completely. Occasionally we’d pull our canoes up a hippo slide and have a cup of tea and some biscuits on shore, followed by a desultory wander around the bush. Evenings would find us in a sandy camp, nursing a gin and tonic. The hooting, whistling cries of the bush would breach the silence around the campfire, serenading me as I slowly let myself be hypnotized by the crackling coals, watching sparks competing with the brilliant canopy of stars overhead, our quiet conversation punctuated by the hippos’ characteristic chuffing snuffles and crawking groans. The first night I found it hard to fall asleep, what with the constant hippo discussions going on around me. By the last night, I felt I wouldn’t be able to sleep without it.

If you’d like to know more details about this journey, or have questions about what skill level would enjoy such an experience, post to me below.

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