Aurthor – Sylvia von Lindeiner-Wildau
Imagine a little piece of heaven so wild and untouched, so pure and marvellous that heavenly is the only way to describe it. It is here where the mighty Zambezi winds its way up north and the floodplains are home to a wide variety of wildlife. It is where the trees are lush and provide shade from the relentless African sun and the elephants balance on their hind legs to reach the highest fruit. If one is looking for the ultimate “off the beaten track” experience I suggest to a trip to Zimbabwe to visit Mana Pools National Park. Here the hyenas pays your campsite a visit every night and if you are lucky – even more amazing creatures of the animal kingdom. This is the perfect destination to experience nature in all its splendor. It lacks luxury and there are no creature comforts but, in exchange, it gives you the rare opportunity to experience peace in its true essence. Once you have visited this African Garden of Eden you will want to return again and again. The remoteness of the park and its huge expanses and overall magnificence provide a wildlife experience far superior to that of any other national park.
On the opposite side of the river, in Zambia, there are many luxurious upmarket lodges and five-star camps. Zambia’s tourism has experienced immense growth in the past decade. The decline in Zimbabwe’s economy and the resulting political crisis certainly helped to boost tourism in Zambia. Nevertheless, the natural resources, beauty, wildness and uniqueness of Zimbabwe have remained relatively untouched.
If you are feeling adventurous and want to take the road less travelled, this Zimbabwean experience is for you. It is the perfect destination for the explorer looking for the ultimate thrill. Before the collapse of the economy due to the Land Reform Program in 2001, when Zimbabwe was still the breadbasket of Africa – it was a key tourist destination, drawing millions of tourists every year. This country had a reputation for offering the finest rates in the safari industry and boasted the most renowned and knowledgeable guides in southern Africa. This destination was one of the most popular choices on the global tourist trail – offering millions of international tourists everything – from first-class safaris to exploration and adventure holidays and luxury wildlife breaks. But when most privately owned game reserves were violently disowned, international tour operators started to pull out of the country due to its bad reputation and because of security concerns. Tourist numbers dropped drastically and left the wildlife sector and conservationists in dire straits. International travellers gradually forgot about Zimbabwe and its fine natural resources, several World Heritage Sites and world wonders and focused their attention on other destinations. Zim became the hidden gem for the adventurous traveller- the perfect off-the-beaten-track destination. Nowadays very few South Africans and foreigners visit Mana Pools.
This is Africa in its essence. The campsites are unfenced, there are no queues through which to find your way in the park. There are no restaurants and no power supply. I personally recommend the Nyamepi campsite which is comparatively safe and also fairly close to the park office where one can buy firewood (and trust me – running out of firewood is no joke!). Although the more remote camps sound more enticing, you might appreciate a bit more hustle and bustle, safe in the knowledge that you are not entirely alone on a dark night when lions, hyenas, hippos and elephants roam free in the bush around you.
I do, however, advise visitors not to sleep alone in a tent as it can be quite frightening at times with the hyenas sniffing around the tents all night. After all, a tent is just canvas! I remember one such sleepless night, too scared to get out of the tent and to make too much noise – when I realized that a much bigger animal than a hyena was sniffing around the campsite. The next day an American couple told us excitedly how lucky we were to have a leopard in our camp. Although the hyenas at the Nyamepi campsite can be chased off easily, they are not shy at all. They love to pay an unexpected visit during braai time or when everyone is fast asleep, in search of some leftover food. Therefor – try not to act like a savage and rather discard your leftovers in the dustbins. Apart from the wildlife, the Mana pools are also remarkably beautiful as they are situated right next to the mighty Zambezi.
Walking safaris offer a special challenge to the very brave. The guides are very experienced and know exactly where to go and what to do to see the biggest variety of animals. I once was lucky enough to spot a pride of lions during one such a safari. It was a thrilling experience – but also quite scary despite the guide’s reassurance that it was safe. I still froze. Funny enough, my only response was that I would not be able to run as I was wearing slops.The guide’s prompt reply was that the worst thing one could do was to run. So, if I could do it you can too! Years of experience make it possible for the safari guides to get surprisingly close to the animals.
It is advisable to be responsible and practice caution during your stay in the park. The short walk to the ablution blocks can quickly turn into a very scary experience. Especially at night. I personally recommend campers to walk to the ablution blocks in groups and not to wait until the middle of the night when the entire campsite is pitch dark. Always keep in mind that this is the wild. It is strictly forbidden to take any fruit into the park. It is also very important to properly discard of all your garbage. Also, ensure you are back in camp at sunset – another rule that management made for your safety.
Keeping in mind that the journey is always very much part of the destination, remember to smell the flowers along the way – try to enjoy the drive through the country just as much as your stay. If you are heading to the park from Bulawayo, why not stop at places such as the Gweru Antelope Park, or stay over at a beautiful lodge such as Pamuzina Chengeta where you can enjoy exciting activities such as elephant rides, among others. Do not miss out on the Chinhoyi Caves on your way to Mana Pools. These caves have a very mysterious and peculiar ambience. The tranquil waters of the caves are sapphire blue. There are also various quaint shops to browse through which will quickly ease your frustration about the potholes and roadblocks on your journey.
It is regrettable though most people have a bad perception of Zimbabwe as a travel destination nowadays, as its friendly people and untouched nature and wildlife have remained very much the same. But maybe it is also a good thing that a visit to the country is not everyone’s cup of tea, as this makes it a tourism destination of quality rather than quantity. Quality which offers good value for money and a one-of-a-kind experience – off the beaten track and a road less travelled.
Mana Pools National Park Central Reservations Office in Harare