The new Super Sensory Safari in Mana Pools National Park demonstrates how innovative ideas and specialist guiding are enriching the experience of the modern-day safari. Words and photographs by Mike Unwin
“How would nature build a city?”
The question comes from our guide, Rob Janisch. And the answer, it seems, lies in the towering termite mound around which our small group is gathered. We pause, cogs whirring. Three warthogs stare from the back of the clearing, as though aghast at our ignorance.
Day two of our Super Sensory Safari ― a new adventure from African Bush Camps ― and already it’s clear that this is not your average game-viewing experience. “How would nature make a chair?” Rob asked earlier, as we searched the thorny ground for somewhere to sit. Or, as I struggled to clear dust from my lens: “How would nature clean something?”
There are no right or wrong answers. Rob just wants us to look a little differently at nature. And out here in the bush, inspiration is everywhere. Take this termite mound: he explains how not only is it a miracle of engineering, complete with intricate air-conditioning systems, but the process of its construction also enriches the soil for everything else. Musing on this, he invites us to imagine how our own urban edifices could enhance rather than deplete their surroundings. “Cities could function like rainforests,” he suggests. “We could be turning all that CO2 into oxygen.”
Such thinking is central to the exciting new concept of biomimicry. For the uninitiated ― me, for example ― this means designing more sustainable products and systems for our world by emulating those found in nature. “We need to tap into nature’s genius,” says Rob. “It’s probably our last resort for solving the planet’s problems.”
It’s a steep learning curve. But classrooms don’t come better equipped than Mana Pools National Park. In peak dry season, this wild slice of Zimbabwe’s Zambezi Valley is renowned for its wall-to-wall game viewing. But now, with the rains having dispersed the herds, it’s the perfect time to step back from the Big Five and look a little deeper. With expert help, we are engaging both senses and brains as we peek and poke our way through the wilderness.
Kanga is our base for the first three nights. Located inland from the river, this remote camp is smuggled into thick bush around a permanent lagoon. During the dry season, it sees nightly waterhole drama. But now, with the herds yet to arrive, the safari pressure is off. Thus we can enjoy a broader spectrum of life, from exquisite Peters’ twinspots foraging beside the walkways to foam-nesting frogs perched on our bar stools. And, what’s more, we can explore ideas.
Back in camp, Rob fires up the laptop to tell us more about biomimicry. We nibble on biltong and banana cake, while he describes how humpback whale fins have inspired Danish wind turbines and how the bacteria-repellent properties of sharkskin could revolutionise hospital hygiene. “Nature has already done three and a half billion years of R&D,” he explains. A bull elephant emerges at the far shore of the lagoon and ― as though to prove a point ― begins to slake his thirst using his nose as a siphon.
It’s out wandering the bush, however, that the ideas really come to life. “This morning we’re looking through a child’s lens,” says Rob, encouraging us to abandon our safari checklists and just appreciate the simple wonder of form. “Names are silly. Names are only good for guide’s exams.”
Form, patterns, systems: these are the things that interest Rob. “So where else in nature do you find a spiral?” he asks, holding up a snail shell. Somebody mentions a kudu’s horns; I suggest the rings of the millipede trundling past our feet. And Rob – drawing stick diagrams in the sand ― explains how a spiral offers the most efficient form of transport in nature, from blood flowing through a heart to nutrients through a tree.
The ideas come thick and fast. Picking up a glossy starling feather, Rob explains how its iridescent blue is a ‘structural colour’ ― the effect of refracted light ― rather than pigmentation, and invites us to imagine using structural colours in the built environment instead of relying on oil-based paints. “Let’s go biomimic that!” comes the rallying cry from one designer in our party.
Rob isn’t the only expert on hand. Also accompanying our excursions is sound recordist Derek Solomon. “We need to get our ears back,” says Derek, and sets out to help us achieve just this. Thus, on one morning drive, we pull over simply to listen to the silence. And the more we listen, the more we fill the silence with sound ― first with individual bird calls, then with the whistled string section of painted reed frogs further back and, behind that, the ceaseless, pulsing insect chorus. Ears straining, we even pick up the low-frequency throat rumble of a nearby elephant, more vibration than noise.
Derek explains what sounds are for: the difference between a bird’s territorial song and its alarm call. He explains how sounds are made: the way a lion draws its larynx into its chest cavity to produce that thunderous resonance. And he reveals sounds that we never even knew existed: the ground-level hissing of matabele ants. “Sound tells us about a landscape’s energy,” he says. “Whether it’s rich or poor.”
This being a super sensory safari, there are also other senses to work on. Cue guide Lewis Mangaba, who has so far been carrying the rifle, spotting the game and watching our backs. Lewis grew up in the Zambezi Valley and is a walking encyclopedia of medicinal and nutritional wild plants. Now he takes over the reins on an ethnobotany walk, inviting us to sniff the fragrance of wild basil and nibble on sweet, nectar-bearing blooms. Under his direction, every second thicket offers some practical application: wild jute for natural soaps, devil’s whip as a salt substitute and the feverberry croton tree as an alternative treatment for malaria. “Lazy people also use it for fishing,” he explains of the last of these, revealing how you can poison pools with its toxins.
Gripped by Lewis’s stories, it is easy to forget where we are. But scattered buffalo droppings at our feet provide a salutary reminder, while a maze of tracks in one riverbed reveals that leopard, hyena and lion have all passed our way over the past 24 hours. Lewis never switches off. Though our stops may be chatty, the walking remains vigilant. Each time we alight from the vehicle we receive the same safety talk. It takes only one glimpse of a large, grey backside through the acacia scrub to remind us why.
It’s still a surprise, however, when we walk into a pack of 18 wild dogs. Aware of our presence, but clearly too busy sorting out pack politics, they pay us little heed. With Lewis and Rob leading us quietly from bush to log to termite mound, we approach a fallen tree just 100m away. Crouched here, we enjoy a magical half hour with these enthralling animals as they bicker, chase and play-fight.
After three days, we say goodbye to Derek and Rob, and head out for Kanga’s sister camp, Zambezi Expeditions. Perched beside the river, this tented retreat is set in more open terrain on the Zambezi floodplain. Here, the high browse line of the winterthorns opens up long under-tree vistas towards the river and escarpment, creating that signature smoky light for which Mana Pools is famed. Browsing elephant and buffalo are visible for miles.
The camp itself ― as though in deference to the panorama ― is a simple affair. Hippo doze in the broad channel in front of our safari tents while elephant wander through the acacia grove behind. After dark, the wild feels even wilder. The whistle of water thick-knees and whoop of hyena punctuate the darkness, while lion roar through the small hours. Awoken one night by a steady munching, I watch a hippo grazing just 5m from my tent flaps.
With our safari senses still buzzing from Kanga, we now have three days in which to explore. Richard Yohane is our new guide, joining Lewis to drive us around the rutted loop roads of the riverfront. We follow up the early morning calls of a leopard (exciting, but it stays hidden), skirt pools where crocodiles line the banks, and pause in the shade of a huge sycamore fig where baboons, elephant and impala each sift the leaf litter for fallen fruit in their own way.
But after our on-foot meanderings around Kanga, we are itching to ditch the vehicle. This is fine with Richard and Lewis, for whom wheels are really only a means of ferrying us more quickly to somewhere we can stop and get out. Walking protocol is now second nature. We head out on full alert, ears attuned to baboon barks, impala alarm snorts and oxpecker rattles ― anything to indicate something more pulse-quickening nearby. Each morning, lion spoor from the night before provides our route map, Alex and Richard assessing those signature paw prints and plotting our course accordingly. While searching for the cats, we sneak up on waterbuck, spot elusive crowned eagles in a leadwood tree and lie flat to snap a trundling leopard tortoise. Richard uses a dry riverbed to guide us close to a breeding herd of elephant feeding in the open. We clamber up the bank, shuffle behind a sausage tree and watch as the jumbos slowly advance ― until they are so close that we scramble back down and scuttle away.
And those lions? Driving back to camp on our final morning, we round a bend to find six of the tawny felines padding purposefully across the road. “Strategising for a kill,” Alex whispers, as they disappear into a riverine thicket. Before we know it, impala are exploding in all directions. He beckons us down from the vehicle and, after a whispered briefing, steers us cautiously forward. A crunch of bone soon tells us all we need to know. And a long low growl tells us to go no further.
That afternoon we take to the water. What’s Mana Pools, after all, without a spot of paddling? Launching canoes upstream, we drift back downstream in the sinking light. All is blissful serenity ― a goliath heron flaps from the reeds; pied kingfishers hover over side channels ― until the next hippo pod, when suddenly it isn’t. Richard’s barked instructions brook no dispute: stay together; stick to the bank; keep paddling. As the beasts snort, harrumph and submerge, we do our best to obey.
Returning to camp in near darkness we find the path to our tents lit by lanterns. After dinner, Lewis produces his mbira thumb piano and sings a lilting Shona lament. Soon his tunes become more upbeat, the kitchen staff add harmonies, drums are produced and ― joining Hope, our camp manager ― we find ourselves dancing around the flames. Afterwards, to the sporadic ‘prrrp’ of a scops owl calling behind the kitchen, Lewis tells me about his childhood. Now an award-winning safari guide, it all began for him here in this valley. He recalls walking 16km to and from school every day; and tells me how he and his uncle speared the crocodile that had attacked his mother. I sit in silence, feeling smaller than ever beneath the canopy of stars.
My mind is still teeming with ideas the next morning, as our tiny plane lurches airborne, Harare-bound. A safari on which we’ve been encouraged to think has been a revelation and our group is still buzzing. The last week has shown me that there is always room for something new; that chasing the Big Five is not the only way to engage with the African bush. But it has also shown me that some things in nature ― not least, the roar of a lion on a moonlit riverbank in the world’s most beautiful valley ― are timeless. I won’t try to biomimic that.
• Getting there Mike Unwin flew from London to Harare with Kenya Airways, via Nairobi. Safari Logistics offers private charter flights from Harare to Mana Pools, which are included in African Bush Camps’ Super Sensory Safari package. Mana Pools is also accessible by 4WD vehicle, though self-drive can be difficult during the rainy season.
• How to book Booking through a tour operator is a good idea, particularly if you are planning to visit several destinations in Zimbabwe. Wildfoot Travel offers the six-night Super Sensory Safari, including all accommodation, transfers, meals and activities. (Departures November 2017; April and June 2018.)
• Where to stay African Bush Camps has two excellent properties in Mana Pools: Kanga Camp, in a private concession inland, and Zambezi Expeditions, on the river. Zimbabwe Parks & Wildlife Management Authority offers a communal campsite at Nyamepi (the park headquarters) and a number of small, private campsites along the river. Visit zimparks.org for further details.
• What to do
Game drives: routes concentrate around the floodplain, between the river and the four large pools from which the park gets its name.
Walking: Mana Pools is one of Africa’s top parks for walking safaris, integral to any safari package. Independent travellers may hire National Parks guides for day walks.
Fishing: the Zambezi is renowned among anglers for its fine tiger-fishing. Canoeing: most operators offer guided canoe tours; longer journeys may set off from Kariba or Chirundu, while some continue east to Kanyemba.
Chilling: there is no finer place in Africa than Mana Pools to kick back and just watch the world go by. The wildlife will come to you ― often alarmingly close.
• When to go Peak safari time is the June-October dry season, when game gathers on the floodplain in ever-increasing numbers. October and November are spectacular but extremely hot (sometimes reaching 50ºC). The rains (December-April) disperse the herds but bring rich migratory birdlife and an avalanche of babies. Waterlogged conditions make access tricky from January to March and many camps close at this time. But the park is accessible by river all year.
• Health Mana Pools is a malarial area. Buy your antimalarials well in advance and check with your GP or local travel clinic which other vaccinations you may need.
• Further reading The Bradt Guide to Zimbabwe (3rd edition) by Paul Murray; Southern African Wildlife: A Visitor’s Guide (2nd edition) by Mike Unwin.