Where The Wild Things Are

Text by Ailin Mao
Photography by Sonia Mao

In the distance, vultures were circling overhead. We took out our binoculars and watched carefully—if they were making their way upwards, they were riding on thermals to reach great heights from which to search for signs of carrion. In this instance, they appeared to be making their way down, and we watched as a few of them descended to settle in the trees. The Land Cruiser lurched forward as we hurried to get closer—this was something worth investigating.

We were on safari in Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools National Park, an incredible slice of pristine wilderness along the banks of the mighty Zambezi River. Spanning 2,100 square kilometres, roughly three times the size of Singapore, Mana Pools was envisioned to be a veritable sanctuary with as little human intervention as possible. The number of visitors is restricted, and entire sections of the park have been closed off to motorised vehicles and boats. The only way to get to these far-flung places is to arrive by canoe, after which exploration takes place on foot.

where the wild things are zimbabwe safari

Over the last four days, we paddled fibreglass canoes down the Zambezi, crossing the width of Mana Pools National Park. Safaris traditionally involve getting close to megafauna in heavily modified open vehicles, and guides are experts at tracking down the most exciting of sightings. In our case, our course was limited to the river’s trajectory, and the experience involved watching life unfold along the river’s banks. Elephants would come down for a drink on a scorching afternoon, or decide to languidly cross the river in front of our bewildered eyes. Antelope of all shapes and sizes would nervously twitch as we paddled past, often becoming sufficiently anxious to leap away in tremendous haste. Pods of hippos would regard us with utmost suspicion, flaring their nostrils and grunting in warning, but always respecting the wide berth that we left them.

While a handful of eco-friendly permanent lodges operate in the park, the best way to experience Mana Pools is to stay in temporary campsites with minimal impact on the environment. At the end of each day, we would disembark on islands or the mainland to check into our dome tents for the night. Showers were taken under the stars, stories of grumpy hippos were shared around the campfire, and dinner was often interrupted by visiting elephants passing through our camp to feed on branches and leaves.

where the wild things are zimbabwe safari

Unfortunately, our safari had been devoid of cats. Not the stealthiest group of canoeists, any cat predator taking a drink downstream would have heard us coming from kilometres away. We had left the lapping waters of the Zambezi earlier that morning and were now making our way inland for our final night in Mana Pools. We were nearing our last chance to encounter one of these magnificent animals. As we got closer to the trees with the perched vultures, our guide, Humphrey Gumpo, instructed us to ready our bags with our binoculars, cameras and water bottles. We would be making our approach on foot.

Read more in The X Press N˚1.