© Pablo Rey. Published on Overland Journal Magazine, Spring 2013.
WALKING ON THE WILD SIDE OF MANA POOLS
Few travelers know of Mana Pools, one of the most spectacular national parks in all of Africa. At first glance, it appears to be just another patch of protected bush land, scarred by seasonal flooding, then sprinkled with every species of wildlife. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, but boasts no outstanding geological features. It’s not located inside a silent volcano like Ngorongoro; it doesn’t have facilities for wildlife observation found in Etosha; nor the endlessly seeping plains of Masai Mara or the Serengeti, where the epic migration draws tens of thousands of visitors each year. Nope: Mana Pools National Park, lying south of the Zambian border in economically-ravaged Zimbabwe, doesn’t have any of that. What Mana Pools does provide, and in copious quantities, is adrenaline.
Here, you can partake in an activity that is forbidden in the rest of the African national parks –stroll amongst lions, hyenas, and elephants without the escort of a park warden. Nobody will keep you from parking under the shadow of a baobab tree and straying unarmed in any direction, wherever your steps and common sense –or lack thereof –take you. It is a place where personal decisions dictate your freedom to roam, where your actions can reap great rewards… or cost you your life. Your most beautifully crazy deed of the day, walking with the lion, is possible.
You walk to the shore of the Zambezi River, imagining the steps of the first men here. Looking down, you find your foot rests in the fresh casting of what looks like a family-sized pizza. A group of 15 elephants lumbers slowly towards the river’s edge. There are two large males, a few females, some adolescents, and a couple of calves. To the left, a group of zebras hide amongst gnus and antelope, trying hopelessly to appear inconspicuous. Hippos, their eyes and massive nostrils barely above the water, clear their throats in chuckling grunts. You are there, amongst them, standing far from your vehicle, dead still. You are armed only with a Swiss penknife.
On the opposite shore, in Zambia, a soft carpet of trees covers the foot of the mountains. The view is broad, the landscape impressive. It is October; the rainy season is coming and the air remains warm. You then let yourself go again, following slowly behind the group of elephants and towards the wind. Scanning the tall grass that surrounds you for lions, you hope not to find any. Your eyes fixate on the river’s edge; you are well aware of the river’s healthy crocodile population. Occasionally, one pokes its little eyes out of the water. Adrenaline surge through your veins. Is this an ingenious suicide scheme? No. It’s an escape from the mundane, the return to a wilder life of real adventure. It’s pure excitement.
Camping sites are not of the incubator-type found in Kruger national Park, partitioned from wild Africa with a labyrinth of wire –to keep the humans in. At Mana Pools, it’s common to have elephants breaking branches near your tent, buffalos scratching their backs on a Land Cruiser, or lions and hyenas moving in close at nightfall, drawn by strange smells. White meat, raw, must be a delicious meal.
IT IS A PLACE WHERE PERSONAL DECISIONS DICTATE YOUR FREEDOM TO ROAM, WHERE YOUR ACTIONS CAN REAP GREAT REWARDS… OR COST YOU YOUR LIFE.
Vervet monkeys, which run and scream like mad children, climb on top of the ablution block, urinate from high branches in what seems like spontaneous rain on an otherwise dry day, and send their young to inspect the supply crates of travelers –in search for soggy bread, cake-flavored plastic, or a dented Coca Cola can. Watching them is always quite a show. They hop onto the roof of our van like a gang of deranged acrobats, and spy the interior through the windshield. Then they contemplate the situation while scratching under their arms, as if they had their brains in their armpits. One of them, standing on the rearview mirror, thrusts its arm inside the slightly opened window. Nothing is within its reach. The monkey scratches its armpit again… he’s thinking. In frustration, he hangs from the glass and starts shanking it violently.
In Mana Pools it’s easy to feel free. The fairness, the opportunity to walk amongst wild animals (who can kill and devour you if you make a mistake), make it a unique experience. In this environment you’ve got to trust your instincts. All of your senses must stay alert, even those that most humans put aside centuries ago due to our dull lives. Recalling a Frenchman who died a few weeks prior, the park ranger reminded us, after reciting the park rules several times, “ You must think to stay alive”. He continued, “He was walking absentmindedly to a public phone, there, near the toilet, and came across an elephant. The elephant got scared, held him in its trunk, threw him on the ground, and stamped on him with its front legs. Then it kneeled on him.”
Nothing can stop an upset elephant, and the best place to hide is always somewhere else.
“If you want to see a dead elephant, follow the tracks to Vundu. We found it yesterday, shot by poachers who crossed the river at night. But this time the elephant walked away, wounded, before going down. We already cut the tusks, feet, skin and tail and sent it to Harare. The park sells everything. We also cut out some meat and shared it amongst the park staff”
“Meat? Elephant meat? Would it be possible to get ourselves some? We have a braai, but no meat. An empty barbecue is always a sad sight. Maybe, could we buy some meat from you?”
“I can’t sell it,” answers the ranger before nodding his head towards another man in the office. “But he can.”
Thus, this carnivore (who is now writing of the wilds of Mana Pools), and his friends got hold of 3 kilos of elephant meat, already stripped for biltong. We bought some cold beers at the park ranger’s shop and off we went to have an elephant barbecue.
At the Carnivore restaurant in Nairobi, Kenya, we had dined on zebra and crocodile. Those were true T-bones an experienced butcher has carefully cut, removing tendons and fat, and taking into account the size of the plate it would be served on. That was nothing like our strips of elephant meat, salted, with a little water, and now on the fire.
“ELEPHANT’S READY!” I ANNOUNCED A BIT LATER.
“Elephant’s ready!” I announced a bit later. Anna and our Belgian friends, Jorick, Winnie, Ronald and Sophie, who were also crossing Africa en route to Cape Town, sat down at the table. Elephant meat is tough and has a strong gamey taste; this must have been an old elephant. A hundred meters from us, a group of water buffalo sipped silently from the river. A secretary bird ran down the shoreline, then took flight for the safety of the trees. The sun was setting and there was time to go to the toilet before dark, before we became supper for other carnivores.
It wasn’t hard to find the remains of our extraordinary dinner the next day. By the main trails, three fallen tree trunks framed a large bloodstain that marked the kill site. From there, a new track dodged a few trees, terminating at a vulture-covered corpse. I returned to the van for my camera and Swiss Army knife, then approach carefully, one step at a time. I scan my surroundings for shadows, for lions, shaking bushes, golden stains on the grass, but all is clear. I draw close; the vultures moan and fly away. Intestines as thick as the leg of a football player lie like a tangled anaconda on the dry soil. The skull bone appears brownish, the legs are missing, and the flesh has turned black. As I walk around the carcass and a toxic sour clud surrounds me, I hold my breath. I see an old green Land Rover pull up and park beside our van. The rangers approach us, rifles in hand.
“Are you mad? Don’t you know there’s lions around?” asks one of them.
“Yes. That is why we’re here. We want to see them, but it looks as if they’ve already left,” I answer.
“Nope, you don’t see them, but they’re there. Shouldn’t be doing this but… follow me.”
The rangers, wearing green shorts and knee-high socks, march in a single-file line in front of us. A short distance out, the leader points to a spot in the bushes. We were just 40 meters from the rotting elephant corpse, and there was the lion. To his right one could make out the outline of a female lying in front of two young ones. They just stared at us with curious bewilderment as they had been watching me while I’d strolled like a dumb tourist around their lunch.
Spectacular. Beautiful. Dangerous if one is not careful. Leaving the safety of my van to walk amongst Africa’s wild animals, to descend from my top rung on the proverbial food chain, was a primal impulse to take risks and find new personal limits. Since then, when I don’t dream of elephants lumbering around the Zambezi forests, I daydream of returning to this lost world. Pure adrenaline –this is Mana Pools.
On year 2000, Pablo Rey (Buenos Aires) and Anna Callau (Barcelona) quit their jobs and rented out their apartment in Spain to travel around the world during four years. Four somehow turned into fifteen. The couple, living out of their small 4WD van, a.k.a. La Cucaracha, has travelled more than 220,000 miles, passing through 60 countries, with no end in sight.
After leaving Southern Europe, these committed nomads have driven through the Middle East, Africa —from North to South, the entire American continent —from Tierra del Fuego (at the Southern tip of Patagonia) to the Arctic Ocean in Alaska, before settling in for a couple of years of discovery in North America. Getting here was no small feat. They crossed the Atlantic Ocean from South Africa to Argentina in a fishing vessel, survived elephant and Kalashnikov attacks in Africa and paddled down an Amazon river in a 6-log wooden raft. Their engine broke down in the middle of the Sudanese Sahara and froze at 15,000 feet during a very cold winter in the Bolivian Altiplano, and that’s just scratching the surface.
In 15 years they have met, shared food and stayed with some truly amazing and hospitable people. Whether in a house, hut, tent or under the stars, the take away is the same, in whatever culture, remove the dogma and indoctrination and you realize that we are all the same, one big human family living in a beautiful, albeit fragile, Earthly home.
Pablo has written three books in Spanish; one has been translated into English, Around the World in 10 Years: The Book of Independence, available at Kindle and Amazon.com. Follow the latest adventures of Pablo and Anna on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube @viajeros4x4x4