We come face to face with the Big Five on a walking safari tour in Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools.
Leafing through a Lonely Planet African guidebook, I encountered the epitome of the ‘first world’ problem. “Beware of safari fatigue,” it read. It warned that endless days of driving in 4WDs chasing Africa’s Big Five (leopards, lions, buffalo, rhino, elephant) might induce this condition. I scoffed at the suggestion – till I went on safari. And till I met Paul. On endless 4WD drives last year across Kenya’s Masai Mara, Paul ordered our driver about like a servant – all for his perfect photo. I logged so many hours in a 4WD I could have circumnavigated Africa. I was officially fatigued.
That’s why, with my mouth dry and my heart pounding like a piston in my chest, this right now feels like the first African safari I’ve ever done. I’m walking across the flat valley floor of the Zambezi Valley. I have a guide in front of me with a gun. There’s a herd of elephants 100 metres to our left. Our guide watches them very closely: “It’s okay, her ears are flapping, if her body gets rigid, we’re in trouble, then it’s back in the 4WD,” he says.
There is no other wildlife park like Mana Pools on Earth. What sets this game park apart is that anyone is permitted to walk around on foot – nowhere else on the planet offers that. And because wildlife in other parks in Africa will move away as we approach, here big game is so used to humans approaching by foot we can get closer to wildlife out of 4WDs than at any other park in Africa.
I’d flown into a red dirt airstrip from Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, and even before we’d reached camp, things round here sure seemed to run differently. The guide sees two lions relaxing in the shade of a tree. We observe them from the vehicle, then the guide tells me to get out.
“It’s okay,” he whispers. “They’re docile in this sort of heat; they’re predictable. Get here at night and it’s a different story.” I reach within 40 metres of two enormous male lions – who roar. They settle back down to sleep as we don’t pose a threat.
If Mana Pools were in any other African country, it would be a household name. But Zimbabwe’s well-documented political issues have stopped the flow of international bucket-listers. It’s a shame, for this stunning World-Heritage site is bordered by the mighty Zambezi River; and shadowed by the mountains of Zambia. But then, is it a shame? I feel like I have this park almost entirely for myself.
I’m staying at a variety of bush camps. At one – Kanga Camp – animals come to me, as I’m set up in a luxury tented camp on the edge of the only watering hole for miles. And so, on my first day in the region, I embark on an armchair safari – where I sit on the deck of a restaurant/bar built just above the water. Leopards come right beside me at night; by day, elephants come close.
It’s a great way to settle into safari. But when we drive an hour north-west to the banks of the Zambezi River, the landscape changes to floodplains greener than I’d ever imagined this part of Africa to be; and here we have to find the animals on foot.
There are 4WD safaris too – so older, less mobile guests shouldn’t feel ostracised – but it’s the adrenalin on offer here in Mana Pools that sets this place apart; for nothing focuses your mind quite like the idea that you’re the hunted, not the hunter. Guides here are expertly trained – and while there’s risk, of course (these are wild animals) there’s been very few attacks here since visitors first started arriving in the 1960s.
I’m sleeping on the banks of the river where a tent’s set up just metres from the water (at Zambezi Expeditions). Here, I have to walk with a guard at dusk and dawn (and night time) because hippos walk through camp, and during lunch when I eat inside a decorated safari tent, an elephant and her calf graze metres away. Zambezi Expeditions offers canoe rides – and this is one of the best places in Africa to paddle a river with Nile crocodiles and hippos. There’s an old-world charm here, with gin and tonics served on deck chairs at dusk.
For my last three days, I stay within one of Zimbabwe’s most iconic tented camps, John’s Camp. It’s more rustic but I love just how close I feel to the wildlife around me. The owner, John Stevens, is the country’s most famous wildlife guide. Here, lions walk right through camp, and I spend an evening under a mosquito net on a mattress in a treehouse wondering if leopards ever like to climb up here. I take 4WD safaris in the mornings, and in the late afternoons take to the floodplains on foot tracking wildlife.
I leave along a lonely airstrip, and as I circle above I notice the entire savannah is full of wild animals, and yet I can’t see a single 4WD.
South African Airways fly to Harare via Johannesburg and Perth. flysaa.com
Organise a specially designed Mana Pools itinerary, including all accommodation, meals, drinks, activities, park fees, safari guides and charter flights from Harare with bespoke African safari specialists, The Classic Safari Company.
This story first appeared in Vacations & Travel magazine, spring 2019, issue 112