Good Friday, 18 April
Departed Ulverston by train at 09h07 to Manchester Airport. Checked in (with luggage tagged to HRE via LHR and JNB) at Terminal 3 for Virgin ‘Little Red’ VS7650 to London Heathrow departing 14h40, arrived 15h45. Smooth flight on Airbus 320, seat configuration 3/3 = 30 rows = 180 pax. Arrived Terminal 1, LHR, and made our way by flight connection route to International Departures to await our South African Airways flight to Johannesburg (SA237 departing 21h00)
Called to the gate at 19h30 and boarded in due course. The flight was very quiet and our allocated space 65AC was surrounded by empty seats so once the door were closed, I moved quickly to 66C and enjoyed two seat space all the way to Joburg.
Comfortable flight with complimentary amenity pack (which included toothpaste/brush, socks, eye shades etc), tasty meal and good choice of inflight entertainment.
Saturday, 19 April
09h20 arrived Johannesburg O.R. Tambo International Airport, followed signs for International Connections, queued for passport and onward flight ticket check, followed by security check of hand luggage/liquids etc. Finally channelled into International Departures Lounge and the fabulous Joburg Duty Free area/shops etc.
Mentally ‘marked’ items for purchase in the ‘Out of Africa’, Cape Union Mart and Indaba shops for when we came back thru JNB on 4th May.
11h30- flew South African Airways SA22 (comfortable 3/3 Airbus) to Harare arriving 13h10. Given Zimbabwe immigration forms on plane for completion then queued at immigration ‘visa required’ channel on arrival, called forward, paid USD$55, passport stamped. All in all, a very straight forward process.
General impression of Harare airport so far was that everything functioning normally although not as many airport shops as in Heathrow.Clean but a little bare (noticeable in contrast to all our Western clutter!)
Met by pleasant fellow from Hilton Transfer services in the Arrivals Hall and driven towards Harare skyline. As last year, limited cars on road and not as many people around as in e.g. Nairobi between JKIA and town.
Arrived in the Borrowdale suburb of Harare after approximately 25 minutes and drew up outside the Armadale Boutique Lodge. Warmly welcomed by Alyona, the duty manager, who, although Russian, has been living in Zimbabwe for over 25 years.
Set among landscaped gardens, the Lodge was originally built as a farmhouse in 1904. Nine en suite bedrooms with elegant decor, satellite TV, and WIFI. Dining room and two communal lounges, swimming pool. Enjoyed afternoon tea on the verandah with the best carrot cake I have ever tasted! Tasty supper in the evening with butternut soup and fresh croutons, tilapia fish with trimmings, and another ‘best’ in the form of milk tart (a very traditional African pudding). Amongst the antiques and memorabilia, Alyona had lit a cosy fire in the open hearth to guard against the evening chill – after all, it is autumn/winter in Zimbabwe!
Wifi was very hit and miss but managed to get an email sent to Paul to pass on our safe arrival to the families back in UK.
See below map of Zimbabwe which will be useful when locating different areas visited, i.e. Harare, Mana Pools NP, Lake Kariba, Matusadona NP, Hwange NP and Victoria Falls Airport.
We had a good chat with the owner, Nikki, who gave us some insight into how shopping for instance has changed – now many more local people grow fruit/vegetables for sale in the local markets. In typical Zimbabwean ‘make a plan’ style, she said it’s possible to get most things in order to run a lodge/guesthouse, but sometimes one has to search around.
Not like the west where everything is on display in the hypermarkets/superstores.
Sunday, 20 April, (Harare to Mana Pools)
0630 wake up call followed by very good breakfast i.e. fruit, muesli, yoghurt followed by full ‘Zimbabwean’ of eggs, bacon, tomatoes, mushrooms, hash browns, toast and pancakes… washed down with fresh coffee!
Good to see a blue sky, sunny with coolish breeze. Weather hardly ever discussed by the locals as they take it for granted when the sun shines! Interesting to note that when the weather is in early 70’s, its termed ‘winter weather’.
April/May is Autumn and in my opinion an excellent time to travel with sunny days in 70’s and cooler nights.
Our transfer by Hilton Transfer Services was waiting to drive us back to the airport and Domestic Terminal for our light aircraft flight to Mana Pools with Alt Air.
Views en route showed the populace getting on with their daily business including the open air stone mason workshop crafting the local sort after soapstone statues including birds (akka the Great Zimbabwe falcons -more later) and the Big Five. Vehicles and bicycles only heavy at traffic lights.
Arrived at the Domestic Terminal (08h45) to find our pilot, Giles Raydor, waiting on the steps for us. He collected our $15 per person departure tax and paid it to the necessary government office in the airport, put fuel in the tank of our little Cessna 206, loaded his two passengers on board and took off.
We were the first flight out of the day at 09h20, flying low at first over the outskirts of Harare. I was expecting to see shanty towns but instead there below were neat, orderly housing areas. Flew over other areas where previous agriculture could be seen but not tended recently and then further, flew over well tended fields.
We flew north towards Mana Pools National Park passing over farmland in full use with untended fields gone to scrub to the side.
From cultivated areas we flew over forested hills, again with bare patches where the trees had been cut down, in many cases for firewood but as Giles explained, no replanting had been done. Flew over the Zambezi escarpment towards the Lower Zambezi Valley. Very scenic area, thickly wooded with rivers (e.g. Chipori), pans (natural depression forming waterhole), occasionally saw elephant as we looked down from a height of about 3,000 feet.
After approximately one hour flight, we landed at Mana Main airstrip where Humphrey Gumpo from Tailor Made Safaris was waiting for us in the camp Land Rover.
ABOUT MANA POOLS AREA and the NATIONAL PARK
The Lower Zambezi Valley begins after the water from the dammed lake (Kariba) becomes a river again, running along the base of the Zambezi Escarpment immediately to its south. Further downstream, the river emerges from a deep gorge to spread across a flat, fertile floodplain that is being reshaped by nature to form pools and oxbow lakes.
The Mana (Shona word meaning ‘four’) Pools area consists of four main pools- depressions filled with water in abandoned river channels and several smaller ones scattered along the river course with cliffs overhanging the river and the floodplains providing sustenance to a large and varied wildlife population. In this area, the Zambezi River meanders through a wide valley, repeatedly splaying out into islands, channels and sandbanks, with escarpments rising dramatically on either side.
Chine and Long Pool hold water throughout the year and attract large animal concentrations in the dry season.
Mana Pools is part of the 10,500 square kilometre Parks Wildlife Estate that runs from the Kariba Dam to the Mozambican border in the east. This large area has no physical boundaries and, without fences, the wildlife is free to move wherever it wants, even northwards across the Zambezi river into Zambia.
The Park occupies 2,196 square kilometres of prime Zambezi waterfront vegetation, much of it inaccessible except on foot and as a result completely unspoilt. The landscape includes islands and sandbanks fringed by dense vforests of baobabs and indigenous trees, as well as the rugged Zambezi Escarpment.
Big old trees, mainly Faedherbia albida (known as Acacia Albida but unlike a true acacia it sheds its leaves in summer) provide a shady canopy with sparse undergrowth, which makes for easy walking and this is one reason it is perfect for walking safaris. Elephants love the Albida trees’ hard, flat ‘apple ring’ pods (pictured) and can often be seen shaking them out of the branches before hovering them up with the enthusiasm of a child with a bag of sweets! Jesse bush, a member of the combretum family, also known as trailing bush willow is widespread.
The National Park is famous for its magnificent elephants that return year after year to the same places. Some guides have developed extraordinary, trusting relationships with particular animals and offer their clients close-up interactions they will never forget.
Buffalo are always about and predators such as leopard, lion and cheetah are regularly seen. The Pools are also a haven for Nile crocodiles and large hippo pods as well as black rhino.
The area is perfect for birds as it offers a wide range of habitats, both from woodland to scrub and escarpment cliffs to open plains, with both arid and wet conditions. Amongst the 380 recorded species are the Nyasa lovebird, Livingstone’s flycatcher, white collared pratincole, banded snake eagle and yellow-spotted nicator.
Fish eagles and many species of stork, heron and other waterfowl are common. White throated bee-eaters seen nesting in the river banks and the rarer Carmine bee-eaters visit in the dry months to nest in colonies in the river banks and rare treats include the elusive Pels fishing owl and the African skimmer which nests in sandbanks mid river.
Chitake Springs in the southern part of the park, 50 kilometres from the Zambezi is an isolated area of vital importance to wildlife. In the rainy season, the Chitake River floods into the Rukomechi River and in turn into the Zambezi, but from April- when these systems dry up and the waterholes empty – the springs form a crucial source of water and a focus for a great variety of wildlife. As the dry season progresses, more and more animals descend on the springs creating perfect conditions for predators such as lion, leopard, hyena and wild dog to grow fat!!
Tailor Made Camp, Mana Pools National Park Unesco World Heritage Site
We watched Giles fly off towards Kariba and we commenced our journey to Tailor Made Camp with Humphrey. Little did we know at this stage that we were in the company of one of Zimbabwe’s top guides but we soon became enlightened to the fact by his astounding knowledge of the flora and fauna of Mana Pools. Stopped by track as we saw a small group of elephants browsing through the woodland… after a couple of minutes, H suggested we get off the vehicle and stand by a large tree as the eles seemed to be heading our way. Slightly apprehensive about this but thought he seemed to know what he was doing and he had a gun! Out came the JVC and I started filming as the small group of pachyderms came nearer and nearer. It was amazing how they held their trunks up, sniffing the air (and us!). And they were grunting (talking/communicating) between each other saying ‘these humans are no threat so let’s ignore them and get on with our business, i.e. eating’. Humphrey quietly said ‘blend with the tree’ and I kept on filming as the eles were only a few yards away … at this point I think my eyes were closed!!
Totally incredible experience… everyone very relaxed including ourselves (eventually!!) following Humphrey’s example. Probably the best and most intimate wildlife experience I have ever had in Africa.
Continued on along the river bank and stopped at the BBC site (so called because the BBC had been here many years ago making a film). See photo of buffalo skull with Zambezi in background.
Watched troop of chacma baboons jumping a stream… back and forth with young riding jockey style on their mothers.
Great stands of Acacia Albida trees and Natal Mahogany to name but a few of the many species found here.
Arrived at Tailormade Camp set on the banks of the Zambezi to a warm welcome by the staff of eight…. cold flannels and drinks followed by lunch (stir fry pasta) set out under a shady tree.
Tent with twin beds and basic facilities including separate zipped area to rear of tent (open to sky) with long drop lavatory, bucket shower and wash basin. Lighting by solar power.
As Humphrey explained to us over a cup of tea/cake at 1630…
Activities in Mana Pools are diverse and range from game drives, exciting walking safaris, canoeing safaris and interactions with relatively relaxed wildlife in Mana Pools are unique. The combination of these interactions with such concentrations of wildlife and the scenery dominated by the escarpment and river that characterise the rich alluvial floodplains create an unmistakable image.
Cup of tea at 1630 then away on game drive with Humphrey…followed by walk back to camp with Humphrey fully armed. Came close to family group of eles but because of young calves in the group we watched sitting atop an ant hill about 200 yards away.
They were browsing around an Acacia Albida and quite unconcerned at our presence.
We walked towards the river at times in long (adrenaline) grass with Humphrey giving us the lowdown on the ground vegetation, trees and any mammals we came across such as impala, waterbuck and chacma baboons.
The sun went down over the Zambezi but the temperature remained warm. We arrived back in camp in the fading light then sat round the fire sipping gin and tonics looking out onto the darkened river and over towards Zambia on the opposite bank. Lights glowing from various riverside camps/lodges in the Lower Zambezi National Park in Zambia such as Royal Zambezi Lodge.
The sky was so black and the stars so bright including the Southern Cross… Humphrey pointed out various aspects of the constellations and heavens.
Freshened up with hot bucket shower in the dimly lit tent (better to have dim lights=minimum insect attention!).
Supper under the trees and stars… delicious steak, salad and potato wedges. Bed by 2230, very comfortable mattress and pillow. Lion and hyena calling in the night as well as the honking of hippo who were mooching around camp, grazing in the moonlight.
Monday, 21 April, (Tailor Made Camp to Vundu Camp)
Up 0515, hot coffee and muffins by the camp fire. Walked with the ‘team’ along the river bank to the canoe launch site. Safety talk by Humphrey, very concise. Kitted out with life jackets and waterproof bags for cameras etc and I climbed into the canoe with Edmo who is the canoe expert regularly taking clients on the river for the past 17 years and running the canoe trails. I was in the front of the canoe and Edmo doing the paddling behind… I occasionally paddled but it was very relaxing to know that Edmo was in charge and I could sit there and enjoy the scenery (taking photos and scrutinising the banking with binos) as we glided past islands, along wide channels and sandbanks. It is interesting how one sees the river differently when in a canoe at ‘river level’ … felt very much part of the river and its life especially when skirting pods of hippo! Bird life magnificent and remember seeing large flock of woolly necked storks on distant sandbank.
There were six of us in three canoes i.e. Humphrey/Jean (canoe 1), Camp Manager Justin and Rose (canoe 2) and Edmo and I (canoe 3)…. in that order on the river.
After about 40 minutes paddling, we pulled the canoes out of the water and clambered up a bank for a ‘look around’, Humphrey armed in case of need. Walked amongst the magnificent trees then very carefully and quietly crouched low made for a high river bank where we sat and observed a pod of hippos in the water below us – it was a case of both parties keeping careful watch on each other!
From there we walked into inland again with Humphrey pointing out various tracks, some of which were very fresh inc. lion (4 toes round one pad) and hyena (3 toes) from the night. Spotted a Gymnogene (African Harrier Hawk), searching around the ground for lizards – colour light mottled brown with yellow face. Back to the canoes and continued on our way upriver towards Goliath Camp where we pulled out of water again, I had arranged to have a site visit here (and ideally would have liked to stay but camp didn’t officially open until 2nd May).
Goliath Camp is owned and run by a renowned professional guide called Stretch Ferreira and offers one of the best bush experiences in Africa. Stretch has been operating in Mana Pools for over 30 years and his Goliath camp is nestled in a grove of trees on the banks of the river. Six East African comfortable safari tents with en suite facilities, a step up from Tailormade Camp in terms of luxury. Covered lounge and bar with open air dining area. Book early to avoid disappointment! Junior guide Reuben showed me round, even in the kitchen, workshop and staff quarters. Flo, who is Stretch’s partner, had instructed Reuben to ask me if there were any criticisms of the camp which would be helpful to know but in truth, I couldn’t think of anything… Goliath was more comfortable than I expected (even with flushing loo!) and the location was a dream. One day I will return and stay at the camp and take a walk with Stretch! He and Humphrey are great friends so was able to glean more background about this incredible man.
Loaded up canoes in separate vehicle and headed back to Tailormade camp, gamedriving en route. Quickly packed and sad farewells to Humphrey and his team.
TAILORMADE CAMP EXPERIENCE IS AMAZING IN TERMS OF LOCATION, CAMP AMBIENCE, GAME VIEWING stunning… not for first time safari-goers but for clients very keen on genuine bush experience with plenty of variety – combinations of game drives/walks then game drives/walks and canoe trails.
Collected from Tailormade camp by Michelle, Howard and their 14 year old daughter, Caley, who are friends of the owners of Vundu Camp (and live in Harare), our next camp along the river. They’d volunteered to come and collect us … Howard has a hunting concession in Mozambique so very au fait with the bush.. and its flora and fauna as was demonstrated on our 1.5 hour drive to Vundu. Wow! Great knowledge of birds, beasts et al.
Arrived 1330 at Vundu Camp nestled amongst a grove of beautiful rivirine forest, including trees such as huge old zambezi figs, ebonys, raintrees, wild mangoes and tamarinds.
Had a warm family greeting by the owners, Desiree and Nick Murray, their 7 year old daughter, Tayt and Desiree’s father, Peter.
Delicious lunch served on long dining table in the main lodge area which is set in a canopy of riverine trees on the bank of the Zambezi River. Raised 10 feet off the ground, it is the ideal place to enjoy a cocktail and watch the elephants feed on the bushes below, or observe the monkeys climbing nearby trees. The thatched roof provides shade from the mid-day sun.
There is an excellent pan behind the camp with a tree stand for sitting , relaxing and watching the game come down to drink. All the rooms and the main lodge have a view of the Zambezi River, being on average about fifteen meters from the bank . Narrower channel here than at Tailormade Camp so Zambia seemed much closer, but still plenty of river inbetween.
There are 8 large tents with openair shower/ensuite area all with views of the river. Electricity in the tents (yippee for charging nearly flat camera batteries etc, but no wifi) which we found very novel! after 24 hours of limited lighting at Tailormade Camp.
Both Nick and Desiree are Zim Pro guides and Nick does most of guiding and Desiree manages the day to day functions of the camp.
Quick unpack then back to lounge area for afternoon tea inc delicious lemon cake. We set off on walk (tracking lion) with Nick and two other guests, one of which was walking with two sticks after a recent knee replacement operation. This showed how confident Nick was in dealing with any unexpected events on the walk. Richard and his sticks completed the four kilometre walk successfully – I spend some time walking with him and he told me how he’d been involoved in Operation Noah (with Rupert Fothergill) during flooding of the Batonga Valley to form Lake Kariba in 1960. Walked in a big loop back to the river… standing by an Acacia Albida tree, we could see the sun going down behind the Zambezi Escarpment and looking inland, we could see a small group of elephants browsing the trees in the evening sunshine.
From there we walked along the river bank and joined all the others from camp including Desiree, Michelle, Nick’s mother (Sue), Desiree’s father (Peter), their kids Jed (10) and his sister, Tayt, plus Michelle’s three daughters ranging from 14, 10 and 4 years (Caley, Chelsea and Savannah). All the kids were fishing as well as Howard and Richard. Fishing is a great activity by the Zambezi and offered in every camp. Big shout when Jed caught a large catfish almost as big as himself. .. other important fish of the river include tiger fish and bream. We sat along the river bank (on safari chairs), drinking sundowners watching the sky turn a most amazing pink/red/purple, nibbling canapés, enjoying the ambience of this wonderful scene.
Loaded up into respective Land Rovers when darkness fell and drove back to Vundu Camp with the spotlight on (operated by Jed sitting on Land Rover bonnet).
Quick freshen up then back to main lodge area under the big roof! – drinks at the ‘bar’ then supper at long table in candle light.
Delicious supper and great atmosphere round the table.
Sound nights sleep in comfortable bed.
Tuesday, 22 April – (Vundu Camp to Ruckomechi Camp)
Lie in until 0700 followed by tasty ‘FULL ZIMBABWEAN breakfast’ then short site inspection with Desiree who showed me the newly renovated tents with smart tile flooring. All ideally placed overlooking the river.
I was sorry to leave Vundu Camp as I would have liked longer to explore this very special camp and environment… another camp to return to – so far this has applied to each camp we have visited in Mana Pools!
The atmosphere at Vundu, especially during our visit which included the Easter holiday break, was very family orientated which gave us an insight into Zimbabwean life and upbringing of children. Very down to earth and unpampered were the children and the favourite past time seemed to be playing TSORO, a board game rather like BAO.
At 09h30, loaded into Land Rover, driven by Desiree with father Peter as escort and set off on the 1.5 hour game drive transfer to Mana West airstrip (run by Wilderness Safaris to service their Ruckomechi Camp on the western side of Mana Pools National Park).
Stands of tall mopane tree woodland interspersed with dead mopane trees – affected by mineral rich soil.
Arrived at 1100 and there was Henry and Paul from Ruckomechi waiting for us. Climbed aboard and off we drove back towards the mighty Zambezi arriving at Ruckomechi Classic Wilderness Camp at 13h00, in time for lunch. The camp is set on its own private concession in a shady grove of Albida and Mahogany trees. Cold towels and cold drink welcome from friendly front of house staff (Thys, Aimee, Elizabeth) followed by prompt camp rules and indemnity signature (standard Wilderness pattern of doing things). Walked along low level wooden walkway (lowering the environmental impact) to our fabulous ‘tent’ with everything one could ever need including a copper sink! Both indoor and outdoor showers …AND a secluded ‘bath with a view’ in a quiet spot on the other side of the main camp area where guests can enjoy this experience at night complete with candles, bubbles and the stars overhead in the night sky.
All tents (10) have solar power and overlook the river and we had a patio which came in very handy for drying some washing draped over chairs etc… not really the Wilderness way but very useful. Very hot so clothes dried quickly.
Delicious brunch of lamb lasagne, salad in the dining area… joined by Elizabeth who was very happy to talk to us about Wilderness and Mana Pools area. . There is a separate deck with an infinity pool for swimming and sunbathing, and an inviting, cushion-strewn star gazing deck.
Charging facilities for batteries etc but no wifi. I found it heartening that no camps we stayed at in Mana Pools offered wifi (even the great Wilderness!!) as it shows how confident they are in this magnificent wildlife area being strong enough to overcome guests’ often blinkered view that life is not life without the internet!
Duly assembled at 15h30 for cup of tea then met our guide, drove to the river and boarded the motor cruiser for afternoon game viewing in the Zambezi. Sailed out into the river passing islands … wonderful close viewing of elephants browsing on the reeds in the shallows. Cattle egrets sitting atop eles backs… eles mock charging each other, tustling with tusks! Shaking their heads at us if our distance was to near for comfort.
Stopped near open floodplain area for sundowners and nibbles.
Watched sun go down once more with the Zambezi Escarpment in the background.
Back to the river bank and stepped onto the jetty, up the banking to the vehicle and drove to camp – could have done a night drive but we all felt the cruise was the highlight of the day… and a shower was beckoning before supper. At times, it is a treat to have time at leisure to before evening drinks round campfire, meal etc.
Delicious meal at long table chatting with other guests then early night. Awakened during the night from time to time by the munching/crunching/rumbling tummies of hippos and elephants in camp interspersed by resounding roar of nearby lions…
Wednesday, 23 April – Ruckomechi to Lake Kariba and Matusadona National Park
Breakfast at 07h30 then away from camp (heading back to the Mana West airstrip) with our guide, Honest, who was very informative about the wildlife and trees as we drove along. Scenery was stunning… Mana Pools has such a winning combination of scenery: Zambezi Escarpment; river, river banks and channels; variety of floodplain; thick forest and open savannah areas ringed by ilala palms, jesse bush/woodland, mopane trees, ana trees (winterthorn acacia), acacia albida (already mentioned often), croton (very invasive species), nyala berries and combretum. I could go on and on but am sure you get the picture!
Honest described an area where two different types of woodland meet as ECOTONE woodland e.g. miombo woodland mixing with mopane woodland provide good habitat for elephants and rhino.
Asked Honest about wildlife migration patterns and he said in April (end of rains), the large land mammals move away from the river towards the Zimbabwe escarpment. Although we felt we’d seen plenty of elephants, the numbers increase dramatically in the dry season… June to October.
Where are the wild dogs, we asked? Ah, ha! They are denning at the moment and won’t be seen for a while. Four zebra seen but Honest said most of the zebra are up on the Escarpment at the moment.
Arrived at the airstrip and Surprise! Surprise! There was even a ‘Loo with a View’- Wilderness don’t half spoil their guests… none of the usual frantic ‘crouching behind a bush’ hoping a lion won’t suddenly appear!!
Our ‘chariot’ Cessna (ZNW) Zulu November Whiskey duly appeared out of the clear blue empty sky and I recognised the plane ID and thought to myself…’Giles Raydor is the pilot’ … and sure enough the plane landed and Giles stepped out to greet us. You may remember Giles flew us from Harare to Mana Main airstrip four days ago. Good to see him again and quickly loaded up and said ‘goodbye’ to Honest, boarded the plane and took off. Honest waving to us as we rose into the sky – sad to leave Mana Pools but I’ll be back. The same procedure is always followed when flying from an airstrip in Africa – the vehicle will wait and make sure the plane takes off safely before driving away.
Ruckomechi Camp is a Classic Wilderness Safari camp -a beautiful place in every way with well trained staff operating absolutely to the company policy. I understand why the procedures for everything have to be strictly followed when operating a big company but it is very noticeable how ‘set’ the experience is after staying previous at the likes of Tailormade and Vundu Camps.
Coming in Part 2 – Lake Kariba and Matusadona National Park…