Exotic Zimbabwe: Canoe Safari in Mana Pools National Park

leadexoticzimbabweThe sun had reached its zenith, and it was siesta time. My friend, Mia, and I saw elephants a little distance upriver. Against the advice of our guide, Englibert, we walked toward them to get a closer look. At a spot with a good view, I climbed a small tree and stood in a fork five feet above the ground.

Farther off, a second group of elephants ambled near the river. Some 200 baboons napped, suckled infants, or wrestled, screaming, in the dust. Several, like me, stood watch in trees. A large herd of gazelles and a half-dozen warthogs grazed placidly.

Then a bull elephant in the closest group of pachyderms moved toward us. Mia slipped back toward camp while I stayed and watched. The bull ate shrubbery on a trail leading alongside my tree, then it was too late to move. As he passed downwind six feet (2 m) away, he stopped eating and sniffed.

I could smell him, too. He had an odor as big as his body; a spicy, rich scent like a teenage boy’s bedroom. He paused. I kept quiet (except for my heart) and he moved along.

The other elephants came down the same path and, like the bull, seemed anxious when they passed by me, but they didn’t do anything rash, and neither did I.

Then all the animals started to move off. Antelopes went all at once. Warthogs trotted, long, tasseled tails sticking straight up. Baboons straggled out with the lookouts bringing up the rear. I heard Englibert yell, “You can come down now.”

He had been worried that I might panic and try to run, or that the elephant would attack. He had gotten out his gun just in case, and watched from a distance.

I was on a canoe safari in Mana Pools National Park, a spectacular World Heritage site in the north of Zimbabwe. The Zambezi River, which divides Zimbabwe from its neighbor, Zambia, forms its northern boundary. The river draws many wild animals, especially in September and October, the end of the dry season. One of the best ways to experience the river and its wildlife is in a canoe.

I’d met two women in Harare, Amy and Mia, and we had signed on with Kasambabezi Safaris, which provided transport, a guide and all our equipment and provisions for about US$ 100 per day. Our guide, Englibert, and a driver met us in Makuti, three hours from Harare.

When we reached the river, we unloaded the truck and packed the canoes, then Englibert gave his safety and paddling spiel: hippos, those great vegetarians, pose the main danger to canoeists. They submerge when threatened, then surface suddenly, potentially capsizing the canoe.

A panicked or angry hippo might attack a canoe. We must watch for them, give them time to move to the deep water, and pass them along the bank, in the shallows.

Crocodiles are only a problem to people in the water or on the banks. No swimming! Likewise, the shore animals are only dangerous when people are ashore.

We paddled off in two canoes. The river was broad, perhaps a half-mile (500 m) wide or wider, and as steady and smooth as a highway. The banks and many islands were luxuriant with a thick carpet of grass studded with immense fig and wild mango trees.

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