This is a tale of three diverse experiences during a single safari to one of Zimbabwe's iconic National Parks, Mana Pools.
Whilst Mana Pools is synonymous with fairytale like Faidherbia forest and open floodplains, there is a whole other side to this place. In fact, the iconic scenes that we are all so familiar with and immediately identify as Mana Pools make up only the smallest of areas close to the Zambezi River which forms the northern boundary of the park. Almost 50km to the south of this lies a whole other world which, apart from being wild and remote, offers spectacular experiences of its own.
Chapter 1: Chitake Springs
This is the Chitake Spring.
Activities here are, like on the floodplain, all on foot and our group of guests spent 3 nights exploring this little known part of Mana Pools. A typical day in Chitake Springs is unlike any other day of safari I've ever experienced.
A short morning walk, followed by breakfast, a midday river-based stake out session, afternoon walk followed by sundowners in the riverbed, dinner and campfire stories pretty much sums it up.
Theres no need to do much else as everything is concentrated along the Chitake Spring which provides the only permanent water in this region.
Morning walks were spent "reading the newspaper" and identifying track and sign left by a diverse array of wildlife which had visited the spring to quench their thirst under the cover of darkness. The headlines were dominated by lions (who inspected the camp shower and dining area on one of the nights), Buffalo, Leopard, African Civet , Impala and Elephant.
Unlike the wildlife of the Mana Pools floodplain, game here can be pretty skittish. The fact that this region is so far off of the beaten track and not a well known and popular destination (there are just 3 campsites here) means that wildlife here are not that accustomed to the presence of people. Fireside chats with the group on this topic brought us to a resounding conclusion that this was part of the appeal of the safari experience in general. Being able to be on foot and walk amongst truly wild animals is a thrilling experience.
Being on foot also allows you to explore areas which are not accessible by vehicle which inevitably means they are pristine. From this perspective there were two highlights for me personally on this portion of the safari. The first was on a morning where our group explored the inside of an ancient Baobab Tree which a Leopard had used as place to retreat with its Impala kills many years ago.
We may not have been the first people to climb inside this tree but it certainly felt like we were and we made sure that should anyone else find this tree that they too would get that same feeling of excitement associated with the prospect that they had discovered something new. We took the time to ensure that we didn't step on or disturb the remains of the Impala carcass and even went as far as removing our bootprints left on the soil inside the tree.
The second highlight is one which is a bit more secretive in nature and only those who were with me on this expedition will understand why but, suffice to say, there are still so many secrets of nature waiting to be revealed.
If your curiosity has the better of you I guess you'll just have to join me on safari here next year! ;-)
Photographic highlights from this portion of the Mana Pools Adventure Trail included photographing an array of wildlife and scenes from the comfort of the riverbed in front of our rustic campsite.
On one afternoon we managed to sneak up on a small herd of elephants drinking at the source of the spring. Deep blue cloudy skies set against a rich orange sandbank and anchored by an ancient Baobab made this a scene which made me think about what Africa was like so many years ago.
We encountered elephants at the spring regularly during our stay in Chitake and had small herds move past the camp almost every night.
On a separate afternoon we spent some time observing two young bulls drinking, feeding and consuming minerals from the banks of the river. They were completely oblivious to our position on the cliffs above them until a slight change in the wind direction carried our scent across the river.
With the sheer volume of buffalo tracks seen around the spring each morning it was only a matter of time before we encountered the herd which was hanging around the region. Our first afternoon and morning walks had suggested that the resident lion pride were following the herd and that they had been to drink under the cover of dark during our first night in camp.
On our second night, the lions were calling incessantly not more than a couple of hundred meters from camp. As I lay in my tent listening to them I could pretty much place them on the bend of the river that was visible from camp. The morning newspaper showed that they had done a thorough inspection of our camp, moving through the dining area and shower, when they eventually did stop calling.
We set off on our morning walk and it wasn't long before the unmistakable grunt of a buffalo had our ears pricked.
It was the big herd we had seen tracks for and they were a couple of hundred metres away from the main access point to the spring.
We assessed the direction of the wind and found what we felt would be a suitable vantage point, crouched down and waited with anticipation.
Not more than 5 minutes passed before the herd began their approach.
From the cloud of dust and the bellowing sound of the herd we quickly realised that only a handful of the herd were visible from our position and, after banking a couple of low level images we made the call to move to an elevated position overlooking the spring.
It was only from here that the scale of the herd could be appreciated.
I think that the presence of the lions had kept the herd from entering the spring during the night and, knowing that the lions had moved off, they opted to drink at first light. I guess we will never know but this sighting of buffalo ranks as one of the best I have ever experienced. The sounds, the smell, and the rush of adrenalin that surged through my body as the herd came down the banks will remain with me forever.
I hope to be in a privileged position to share this experience with my son when he is older but fear that opportunities and areas like this may be all but gone by the time he reaches a suitable age.
Any time spent at Chitake Springs is a not so subtle reminder of what the African Continent was like a couple of hundred years ago.
An area where you are free to explore on foot (and we were fortunate enough to be the only people in the region during our stay here) and encounter wildlife which is truly wild.
An area where its not about how many photographs you take or spending time editing images on a laptop, but rather about taking the time to feel the sand beneath your feet and simply be present in the moment.
After enjoying sunrise from our vantage point in front of camp it was time to pack our bags and move on to the second stage of our Mana Pools Adventure Trail.
Chapter 2: The Nyamatusi Wilderness
Adventure is at the very heart of both the name of this safari as well as in its origins. The concept around being able to spend time walking through a region with big game and being able to spend time sleeping out beneath the stars made for the perfect way to bridge the move from Chitake Springs to the Mana Pools Floodplain.
So, after our drive back North towards the Zambezi River to begin our 2 night adventure into the wild, we enjoyed a bite to eat with many of the guests joking that this may be the last meal for a while as we prepared to head off into the Nyamatusi Wilderness concession of Mana Pools National Park.
We set off following a planned route only to find that traffic was not just confined to the big cities of the world.
Our traffic was far more interesting of course and came in the form of wildlife.
It wasn't long before the dense "Adrenalin Grass" lived up to its name providing us with a series of encounters with Elephant. The yellow section of the route below shows where our group slowed down in order to navigate our way through the Chiruwe River before making the call to head back North towards the more open floodplain.
After taking the adventurous route we eventually arrived at what can only be described as one of the most beautiful places to spend a night beneath the stars.
We set our gear down on the raised cliff which overlooked the Njiri Pan down below before taking a short walk down to the pan itself where we enjoyed a relaxing afternoon as we waited for the support vehicle which was bringing our overnight gear and supplies for the following day.
As the sun set below the horizon we began to prepare for the night which lay ahead by collecting firewood and setting up our mattresses and sleeping bags for the night.
There was just on problem. The support vehicle had not yet arrived...
The sun was now well below the horizon and the prospects of spending a night completely un-supported in the wild was without a doubt on everyones mind. Touching base with the support crew reassured us that the vehicle was on its way but I thought this was a good opportunity to break out a hip-flask with a bit of Single Malt Whisky to help calm any nerves of what I have to admit was a pretty unperturbed group!
It wasn't long before the vehicle headlights made its way through the dark to our "rescue". It turns out Njiri Pan is not the most well known place around - the perfect fit for an adventure trail!
Spirits were at an all time high as the group enjoyed cold drinks around the fire on the comfort of their mattresses as dinner was being prepped.
The reality of sleeping out in the bush like this is that one has to be extremely vigilant. Even more so that there was no moon over this period.
Each member of the team was allotted an hours watch starting at 21:00 running through to just before 06:00. Guests take complete responsibility for the safety of the entire group during this time, keeping watch for any wildlife which may be approaching the sleep-out site. On this particular night we were visited by several Hyaena, African Civet, an Elephant bull and were serenaded by Lions and Hippo.
We all survived the night and after sharing stories and various techniques used to keep watch over coffee we headed off on a short walk to a nearby pan before returning for breakfast.
I must just add that the Lighthouse Technique proved to be a very efficient but rather controversial method for keeping watch...
After breakfast we headed east towards our second sleep-out site near an Old Culling Camp used by wardens in the region many years ago. The Lions that we had heard throughout the night couldn't have been more than 2km east of our site and I had high hopes that we would catch a glimpse of them.
At just 1,8 km's into the walk, after stopping to examine fresh lion tracks we did indeed find them.
We saw 4 Lioness but had not seen the male lion which, based on the tracks, was also in the region. The Lions moved off and we proceeded, with caution, not knowing the whereabouts of the male Lion.
This section of the walk took us through a beautiful cathedral Mopane woodland before breaking out onto the floodplain of the Zambezi where we once again setup "camp" for the night.
Our night spent here was relatively quiet compared to the previous night with the exception for a Hippo bull which seemed to keep a close eye on our campfire for most of the night. The highlight here had to be the beautiful sunrise we enjoyed looking across the Zambezi into Zambia.
With our time sleeping out in the field drawing to an end it was great to sit around the fire in the morning with a cup of coffee listening to how much everyone had enjoyed the experience. Some of the guests who were understandably nervous about the prospect of sleeping out beneath a canopy of stars in the wild were asking if we could do an extra night out. For me this just goes to show how you should never let your fears hold you back from experiencing different areas and quite literally, changing the way you see the world.
We had connected with both mother nature and one-another in a very special way during the 2 nights out in the wilderness and I think I speak on behalf of the entire group when say that this will be a memory that they will cherish for a long time to come.
Chapter 3: The Mana Pools Floodplain
The third and final chapter in the Mana Pools Adventure Trail is spent on the floodplains of the mighty Zambezi, exploring the Faidherbia forests and searching for the iconic scenes and wildlife of the region.
Activities here are once again focussed on walking but with the aid of a vehicle to cover as much ground as possible in order to find sightings before approaching on foot. For me, there are 3 iconic "stages" or environments in which one needs to capture the cast of Mana Pools when trying to capture the diversity of this region.
The first is the Zambian Escarpment with its impressive scale and cerulean blue cast. Similar to Amboseli and the footslopes of mount Kilimanjaro, being able to use this feature as a background against which your subjects are set against makes for dynamic images.
Add to that the interesting and very photogenic behaviour which the Elephant bulls of the region exhibit and you have some very special photographic opportunities.
The other stage that is so easily recognisable as being Mana Pools is of course the Pools after which the region is named. There is always something to photograph in or around the Chisaseko, Long, Green and Chine pools and the surrounding pans which accompany these natural depressions.
By far the most iconic of the stages is the Faidherbia forests. These trees dominate the landscape and are a vital food source for the entire cast of Mana Pools as the pods provide valuable nutrition in the late dry season period.
These forests are quite literally a photographers dream - even without the spectacular light which seemed to elude us for so much of our time on the floodplain.
However, when that light does break, it is something quite special to behold.
The combination of rich, warm orange tones set against and deep shadows and towering trees is a photographers' dream.
Even in the last faint glow of light emanating from the western horizon there are opportunities for those that pay attention and can master their camera settings.
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