From ground level

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hr_david-fettes_f11001042Emma Gregg travels to Mana Pools, Zimbabwe’s northernmost national park, to experience this magnificent Natural World Heritage Site on foot

My bed for the night is 24 steps up in the crown of an ancient tree. Before I climb, I squeeze my eyes tight for a moment to imagine the view from the top. The prospect of camping out in a tree house is so exciting, it’s as if the decades have fallen away. Suddenly, I’m seven years old all over again. “I’ll be right here,” says Honest Siyawareva, my safari guide, indicating a small dome tent on the ground nearby. “You’ve nothing to worry about.” Perhaps he sensed my nerves when, on our drive here, a feisty young bull elephant blocked our way, tossing his ears. “He’s just testing us,” said Honest, standing his ground. The elephant, point made, strode on.

I’m in a concession on the edge of Zimbabwe’s northernmost national park, Mana Pools, a place where elephants rule. Big cats thrive here, too; campers routinely report paw prints near their tents and, sometimes, eyes shine in their torchlight after dark. I’m not afraid to be spending a night among these creatures. But at the same time, I’m glad my rain tree looks strong enough to be elephant-proof and there are no claw-marks on its dust-grey, flaking bark.

Mana Pools is one of those legendary African parks that send adventure-seekers misty-eyed. It’s partly because, unusually, the official regulations allow its visitors to go bushwalking without an armed professional guide, and partly because it’s so beautiful — dramatic, diverse and rich in life. Since 1984, Mana Pools, Sapi and Chewore, an area of 6766sq km watered by the Zambezi and bordered by protected landscapes, has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Thrillingly, Mana Pools offers the chance to stay right beside one of Africa’s greatest rivers. One option is the rustic comfort offered by Goliath Safaris, run by walking safari guide and elephant whisperer Stretch Ferreira. Alternatively, if you’re independent-minded, you can go it alone at Nyamepi, the park’s public campsite.

But what if you’re not quite ready for rustic, let alone roughing it? What if you want a taste of the wild, without the trouble of sourcing camping gear and striking out on your own? Then African Bush Camps’ recently refurbished Kanga Camp is a great place to stay. Alternatively, Wilderness Safaris also has a satisfying solution. They manage the Ruckomechi concession, which lies on the Zambezi at the park’s western tip. As a guest at their high-end camps, Ruckomechi and Little Ruckomechi, you can, if you wish, give up your plush tent for a night and sleep on the platform at Parachute Pan.

Wrapped in the rain tree’s leafy embrace, it is refreshingly minimal. With no ceiling or walls, just slender rails, there’s nothing but branches and foliage to impede the view from the sofa and the romantic four-poster bed. But while it’s utterly peaceful, it’s far from quiet. Once darkness falls around me, the sounds of the bush crescendo. Against a background rhythm of cicada and frog chirps, I hear hippos gurgling, hyenas whooping, elephants trumpeting and impala snorting. At one point, a lion calls. It sounds close. Startled, I hold my breath, straining for clues, before reminding myself it’s difficult for the uninitiated to judge distances by ear. Meanwhile, in the thickets, wakeful doves sing peacefully to the moon.

I, too, try to keep my eyes open, enjoying the scent of the cool night air, filtered by nothing but the threads of my mosquito net. Stars sparkle through the branches overhead. But the doves lull me to sleep, and before I know it the night-time noises are fading away, replaced by the pre-dawn boom of ground hornbills and the clatter of Egyptian geese. Honest drives me back to camp for breakfast. We pass a meadow of indigo reeds where buffalo stare calmly, their coats chocolate-coloured in the early morning sun. And then, suddenly, we spot two young lionesses, relaxing in the grass. Perhaps they were very close to my tree house last night after all.

Ruckomechi Camp stands on an idyllic stretch of riverbank, aflutter with bee-eaters. Mighty albida trees grace the site; one has a swing hanging in it and another shades a waterside bathing spot, complete with vintage bath. Albidas have been in decline in the Zambezi valley since 1959 when the completion of the Kariba Dam, around 120km upstream, radically altered their habitat. But here, they still flourish. Elephants find their pods so delicious and nutritious that, in September and October, barely a day goes by without them strolling into camp to feast. This keeps the staff on their toes: in 2015, American visitor Shane Wolf and his Northern Irish brother-in-law Stephen Montague had a narrow escape when a bull elephant knocked them out of their chairs while they were having lunch on the deck. “These animals are among my favourites, and I respect that I was in their home,” said Shane, later. “It was the most incredible and scary experience of my life.” Luckily, nobody was badly injured.

My fellow guests Linda and Emily from Atlanta, Georgia, seem unfazed that the camp is unfenced. “I’ve lived in cities all my life,” says Linda, “so the big things for me are the quacking and chirping in the morning, the hippos and eles walking right by. We were thinking about booking a wine tour, but then we said, no, let’s go to the bush! We can drink wine at home.”

Another guest, a tour operator, tells me how delighted she was by the reinvention of Ruckomechi. Not that it desperately needed it — its old tents, with gleaming copper fittings, had character and style — but the revamp sent a strong signal that, after years of decline as a destination, Mana Pools is back. For more than a decade, it’s faced fierce competition from Zambia’s Lower Zambezi National Park, just across the river, which has equally beautiful scenery and is home to Chongwe, Chiawa and Royal Zambezi, some of the best riverside safari camps in southern Africa.

While it’s perfectly possible to go boating, canoeing and bushwalking in Lower Zambezi, Mana Pools is where it all started. To test out the terrain, I arrange to set out on foot with expert guide Nyenge Kazingizi.

For many visitors to Mana Pools, the possibility that one might encounter a dangerous animal on foot is part of the appeal. Its reputation is such that in May 2015, briefly, the park authorities banned unguided bushwalking. Some felt it was only a matter of time before a tourist lost his or her life. In the dry season, when the vegetation is thin, there are few places for large creatures to hide, but even so, people sometimes take foolish risks — treating wild animals like photographic props, and simply getting too close. Even responsible individuals can run into difficulties in this wild region, where illegal hunting makes animals unpredictable and puts rangers on edge. In early 2016, two experienced professional hunters, Claudio and Max Chiarelli, were accidentally shot dead by national park rangers who mistook them for poachers. To add irony to the tragedy, the Chiarellis were volunteering for an anti-poaching operation at the time.

Those who felt unguided bushwalking left the door open for poachers supported the ban. Mana Pools’ rhinos were wiped out by poachers between 1984 to 1994 and elephants are in free fall; according to Paul G Allen’s recent Great Elephant Census, their numbers in the Middle Zambezi region, which includes Mana Pools, dropped 40 per cent between 2001 and 2014. Those that remain are formidable, and many have names; Boswell and Fred Astaire, who have learnt to balance on their hind legs to browse, have been photographed hundreds of times.

Local walkers lamented the unguided walking ban, however, and conservation organisation the Zambezi Society convinced the authorities to replace it with a new, obligatory walking permit and code of conduct. The rules spell out how to avoid harming the environment or intimidating wildlife — not doing anything, for example, that forces a resting animal to move — and stresses that guides are available to hire.

In the Ruckomechi concession, walking with an armed guide remains the norm. As we set out, I ask Nyenge whether we’re likely to come face to face with elephants. “Maybe,” he says, “but I’m not really looking for the big things. We can see those when we’re driving.”

True to his word, he shows us details that would be easy to miss without a guide — dragonflies with filigree wings, for example, and pottery fragments left by villagers who spent time here before the park was created. We don’t see elephants, but traces are all around — piles of dung as round as footballs and shady mounds where they have slept.

I ask Nyenge whether his young sons want to be safari guides when they’re older. “Not so far,” he says. “My 10-year-old wants to train to be a pilot, which will cost me a fortune, and my five-year-old wants to be a Lamborghini driver. But he’s on his own! He watches too much Top Gear on TV.”

Our walk ends in a majestic grove of trees. “We call this the Cathedral,” says Nyenge. Branches soar above us like gothic arches and light filters down like sunbeams through ancient windows. It’s a supremely special place — and as I tilt my head up towards the canopy, I close my eyes and breathe a silent prayer of thanks.

Walking tips

Stretch Ferreira, Goliath Safaris
“You must move in single file, keeping close to the guide. When approaching any animal, stick closely together so that you appear as one unit and not a threat. Look through the bush, not straight at it, and pan from right to left; you will observe more this way.”

Wouter Vergeer, SafariBookings
“Walking in Mana Pools is good for birders as there are almost 400 species recorded. Keep an eye out for the African skimmer, long-toed plover, Pel’s fishing owl and rufous-bellied heron. Nesting carmine bee-eaters are a feature along the riverbank. The wet season (November to April) is the best time to visit, when migratory birds are around.”

Honest Siyawareva, Wilderness Safaris
“Listen carefully to your guide’s safety briefing before you start. Guests may come across animals such as elephant and lion, and in these situations it is very important not to run, despite what your instinct might be telling you. Please remember to tell your guide if you have any health issues beforehand. There is a greater chance of seeing wildlife when communication is minimal or quiet.”

Tom Barber, Original Travel
“Mana Pools is an ideal walking safari destination because the vast majority of the park is floodplain — an open landscape of sparse woodland rather than thick bush, which means game is far easier to spot. Make sure you take time to relax by Mana’s four signature ox-bow lake pools (Mana means ‘four’ in Shona), which are a magnet for local wildlife.”

Bill Adams, Safari Consultants
“The clothes you decide to wear in the bush are very important: wearing white will disturb the wildlife and possibly scare animals away so stick to drab, darker colours such as muted browns and greens, which blend in. Don’t forget that this will apply to your shoes and hats as well. Carry a pair of binoculars, and if you have a good camera, a monopod is useful.”

Safari Planner
• Getting there  Emirates, South African Airways, Ethiopian Airlines, British Airways and Kenya Airways all fly to Harare. From there, it is possible to book a domestic flight to Kariba with Air Zimbabwe, and then fly on to Mana Pools by private charter. Alternatively, you can organise a private car or plane direct from Harare. The park is mostly off limits to vehicles between November and April.
• Where to stay  For a high-end option, book Ruckomechi Camp (doubles from US$1480). Alternatively, African Bush Camps’ remote six-tent Kanga Camp (from US$477 per person) is excellent; or you could go on a walking safari with Stretch Ferreira of Goliath Safaris and sleep in a tented camp (from US$450 per person). Also, Nyamepi Camp (pitches from US$75) provides a more rustic experience but you’ll need your own equipment.
• When to go  Mana Pools is seldom busy, even during the dry season, which is July to October. The worst weather occurs from October to February, as it becomes hot and humid once the rains have started. From January to March, several lodges are closed.
• Health  Protection against malaria is a must in this area. Check with your GP or local travel clinic which vaccinations you need.
• Visa requirements  A visa is needed to enter Zimbabwe and can be purchased on arrival. If travelling between Zambia and Zimbabwe, you should get a double-entry visa for both countries.
• Further reading  The Bradt Guide to Zimbabwe (3rd edition) by Paul Murray; Africa’s Top Wildlife Countries: Safari Planning Guide to Botswana, Kenya, Namibia, South Africa, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe (9th edition) by Mark W Nolting; you can also buy Mana Pools by Gregg Robinson, the only coffee-table book about the park, from travelafricamag.com.

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