The afternoon breeze blowing across the Dandawa Airstrip runway feels like air blasting from an oven. The cockpit thermometer on the tiny Cessna I boarded in Harare is peaking at 42°C but it could be broken. It’s mid-October, the end of the dry season here in Mana Pools National Park, where temperatures can hit 50°C at this time of year. It’s only a short flight from Zimbabwe’s capital but so very far removed from city life.
Clint, my personal safari guide, meets me with ice cold drinks. I press a chilled can against my forehead as he drives the open-sided jeep along dusty roads, over dry, sandy river beds and past a long, twisty-horned kudu who’s lying resplendent in the shade of a tree. It’s not far to Kanga Camp where I’m greeted by smiling camp staff and a large elephant. Olivia, the housekeeper, offers me a damp flannel to wipe the dust away while the elephant carries on probing for precious green leaves with his trunk.
Kanga Camp is built around the Kanga Pan. It’s the only permanent inland waterhole in Mana Pools and a magnet for wildlife during the dry season. The rains will come soon but until then this sticky waterhole is a lifeline for creatures of all shapes and sizes, from tiny gem-colored birds to massive mud-encrusted elephant.
Kanga Camp’s main living and dining area is built around shady Jackalberry and Nyala trees with six guest tents spread out around the waterhole. I settle into an armchair while the general manager Wilfred explains the camp rhythms and rules and the elephant plucks the treetops over our heads. I’m distracted and whip out my iPhone to capture the scene but Wilfred isn’t fazed and I pay attention when he mentions that a guide must always escort me to my tent after dark. Apparently there are predators everywhere and I’m keen to stay out of the food chain.
My home for the next four nights is a permanent safari tent perched on a raised wooden platform with a small deck overlooking the waterhole. Inside there are two wooden beds, a dressing table, a bedside table and solar-powered lights. There’s a separate wardrobe and dressing room and an outdoor bathroom with a flushing toilet, shower and basin.
Every tent contains a whistle, a drum and a foghorn so guests can alert staff if there are any unwanted intruders in the night. I don’t like to think about what wildlife might infiltrate my bedroom but it’s good to know that there’s a plan of action just in case. Better still to hear from Wilfred that no guest has ever needed to call for help.
Ignoring the solar-powered hot water I take a cold shower and head back to the dining area for iced tea and cake. A cheeky Yellow-bellied Greenbul swoops down from a bush to see if she can pick up any crumbs and the waterhole is busy. There’s a resident crocodile and pair of fish eagles with drop in visits from quails, baboons, impalas and more thirsty elephants.
There’s no need to go anywhere to spot wildlife but Clint and I take a game drive anyway. The big African sun is setting and we’re just in time to watch it disappear behind the tree tops. We haven’t gone far when Clint slows down and points straight ahead:
“There’s a lion,” he says. “Two of them. No, three.”
Sure enough there are two young lions and a big lioness lying around a bush. We motor slowly forward, going as close as we dare without scaring them and turn off the engine. Bush silence blankets us. Then a fly buzzes by, baboons call from unseen treetops and there’s a strange crashing noise behind the bushes on our left. I shoot Clint a nervous look.
“Probably an elephant,” he says.
We turn our eyes back to the lions just in time to see another big cat saunter out from behind the bush, then another and another. Now six lions lie in front of the jeep, watching us, watching them. Darkness is falling fast but I keep taking photos. In the dim light the dried grass and lion fur seem almost monochrome, the scene sepia and silent like an old movie.
Soon the feline shapes are barely visible in the dark.
“The lions rule at night,” says Clint, “they have excellent night vision and make a kill every two days.”
The lions are motionless but a strange, throaty, repetitive noise comes from behind us. Clint says it’s probably just a bevy of quails but I glance over my shoulder to check. When I look back at the lions there’s nothing to see except blackness and six pairs of glowing red eyes.
“This is getting creepy,” I say.
“Mmm.” says Clint nodding. “Shall we go?”
We drive back to camp slowly, aiming a spotlight around, looking for more eye shine and stopping when we see it. Impalas run away. A Civet Cat watches them disappear into the bush. Through the binoculars he looks like a cross between a cheetah and a racoon. A hare scampers by and we hear a dry cough in the bush.
“There’s a leopard out here somewhere,” Clint says. But we can’t find any leopards so we head back to camp.
We join Wilfred, four European guests and two more safari guides around the dining table. As we eat our three course meal the guides take turns shining the spotlight around the waterhole. There are buffaloes now, helmeted and horned, a nervous bushbuck and more elephants, up to their ankles in sucking mud. Hyenas come to drink and warthogs too then someone whispers ‘leopard’.
We shine the infrared spotlight across the water and there she is, her watchful green eyes clearly visible through the binoculars. I sigh and all the stresses and strains of modern life rush out leaving an empty space that’s soon filled up with nature, with peace, with the untamed beauty of Zimbabwe.
By 10pm we’re all zipped safely in our tents. I’ve only been in Mana Pools for seven hours but I’ve already seen elephants, lions, buffaloes, a leopard and much much more.
The sheets feel crisp against my skin and I think about what a privilege it is to be here in one of Africa’s last true wilderness areas, surrounded by wildlife, yet staying in total comfort. I’m surprised by how much it’s cooled off too. There’s a scuffle outside by the waterhole, a splash and a groan. The wildlife will be active all night, but not me. This is the perfect temperature for sleeping.
I took hundreds of photos at Kanga Camp in Mana Pools. It’s heaven for budding photographers so I have heaps of photos to share over the coming weeks. Here are a few to get things started:
I was a guest of the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority and African Bush Camps during my stay in Zimbabwe and Mana Pools and this story was just the beginning of an amazing trip – my first seven hours at Kanga Camp. I stayed four blissful nights so I’ve got many more stories and wildlife photos to share with you.
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