Exotic Zimbabwe: Canoe Safari in Mana Pools National Park


As it runs through a desert-like environment, the river was warm. And it was clean. I would happily have swum in it, except for the crocodiles. The sun was blazing, and we had three hours of hard paddling, then a fly-infested lunch stop, before we reached our camping spot, on a pleasingly breezy sandbar.

Englibert was a good cook. Dinner was a stir-fry of beef, onions, tomatoes and at least three different vegetables, with rice, accompanied by wine. After dinner, Englibert told stories of his life as a guide.

He told tales of hippo and crocodile attacks with great enthusiasm, but mostly he talked about everyday economics: living though a slow-motion economic collapse, working in an industry that has almost disappeared.

While we had tents with mosquito netting, I slept outside, where it was pleasantly cool. With no moon and no artificial light for miles, the stars were brilliant. I heard only the murmur of the river, the calls of night birds and animals, and the occasional whoosh of air on wings.

Every day we started out at sunrise, after tea and cereal. After paddling for four hours, we stopped for brunch and rested for a few hours under some shady trees, high on a bank, with a good breeze to keep away bugs.

We had tea and a snack before setting off again, paddling until nearly sunset to camp on a bare sandbar. Timing is critical: From sunrise to sunset, a sandbar is too hot. A bare sandbar lacks privacy, but there are no mosquitoes.

As we paddled, the Zambian escarpment — steep, rugged hills cloaked in dense, scrubby bush — rolled by on the north, and to the south, in Zimbabwe, a flat flood plain extended for miles. This stretch is national park land, with no human habitation.

On the Zambian side of the river bank, however, we saw occasional huts, some of brick, some of poles and clay. Near these huts, people fished, bathed or washed clothes in the river. Zambian fishermen poled their way across the river, standing upright and solitary in their dugout canoes, which were nearly as invisible and quiet as crocodiles in the water.

Baboons and vervet monkeys scampered along riverbanks and island shorelines, and herds of elephants, African buffalos, zebras, gazelles, water bucks and impalas grazed.

The antelopes and zebras moved away at our approach, but the buffalos and elephants stood and watched us glide by. A buffalo has a very withering glare.

The park is a magnet for birds, with more than 380 species found here. We saw storks, egrets, ibises and cranes fishing in the shallows or perched quietly. There were also numerous geese and ducks, and a great variety of shorebirds, as well as many different types of swallows and beecatchers; several types of kingfishers; and many eagles, including the Zimbabwean national bird, the fish eagle.

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