Zimbabwe in August 2010

"Zimbabwe? Is it safe to travel to that place?" - These were the first words I heard on the phone to our friends in Paris, when we asked them, whether they would join us on a special outing to Mana Pools National Park and later board a houseboat on Lake Kariba.

The legendary 100 Trillion Zimbabwe Dollar note, issued in 2008:

Feeling safe away from home, so I have learnt over the years, has much to do with personal perception. While some require the comforts of a first world country, others seem to be quite at ease, even with travelling close to the more troubled regions of our world. Jacorine and I have more than once been in countries for which foreing offices of western nations had previously issued travel warnings. Zimbabwe being one such place. At present though it is as safe to travel in Zimbabwe as it is in most other African countries.

We have visited Zim on several trips in the past few years. For this excursion we wanted to focus on Mana Pools National Park and on Matusadona National Park. Mana Pools is situated in the lower Zambezi valley. Matusadona lies on the south-eastern shores of Lake Kariba. Both parks provide fantastic opportunities to experience nearly untouched wilderness. They are accessible by road (SUV required) and by light aircraft. In addition to this, Matusadona offers a unique safari experience to visitors travelling there on houseboats, out of Kariba town.

Mana Pools

Mana Pools is spectacular in many ways. For one: There probably is no other place in Africa, where in the company of a professional private guide one can set out on foot for hours and get very close to wildlife. Another speciality are the Mana Pool camp sites. Of course there are luxury lodges and public camp sites available. But in addition to this Mana Pools offers a number of private camp sites. These are small sites that accommodate one party at a time only. The best way to experience this is to arrange a private mobile camp. This means that one will have a small bush camp set up just for the party of people travelling together. There will be no other guests for the time this camp is booked and it may be moved and set up in different areas of the park. As a result of this, your excursion can be fine-tuned to whatever your plans and interests are. Photographers and art painters can be in the field at any time of day and for as long as they like.

Approach to Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe:

 

In the my "Zimbabwe Wilderness" gallery, you will find quite a few images that have been taken while we were in the field on foot. This really is a spectacular way to experience wilderness, but at the same time we cannot stress enough that we would never do this without a professional private guide. In our case this is our dear friend, Humphrey Gumpo.

Close encounters:

In addition to the fantastic Elephant encounters, Mana Pools was full of exciting highlights and offered us great photo and painting opportunities on this visit. One very early morning we followed a pack of wild dogs on foot. Thanks to some four hours of unbelievable tracking by Humphrey we managed to catch up with the dogs at their den site. The following day we walked to within 15 metres of a pride of lions in the Chitake Springs section of the park. And there was a full day spent in the company of another pack of wild dogs with no less than 11 pups, underneath the big Baobab tree near Chikwenya lodge. (The place where we spotted a leopard walking through camp, and more lions right outside camp the next moring.) Chikwenya welcomed us with its riverine forests full of African hoopoes, calling to each other, with predator interaction and with fabulous bird life.

Chikwenya is a small private concession bordering Mana Pools National Park downstream. It can be accessed by light aircraft and by road from Mana Pools. If you do the transfer in an open vehicle, you should prepare to meet hugely excited Tsetse flies as you cross the Mopane forests a bit further away from the shores of the Zambezi. They have no problem trailing the car for miles and when you have to slow down for road obstacles, you will know all about their presence. Long sleves and pants, and lots of insect repellent protect you from the worst.

From Mana Pools to Kariba

From Chikwenya air strip it is a good 30 minute transfer by light aircraft to the little border town of Kariba, where the mighty Zamezi is forced through a few hydroelectric turbines of Lake Kariba Dam. This little town has for some time been the starting point for a very special wilderness experience: A house boat trip across the lake and to the shores of Matusadona National Park. We had attempted to get to Matusadona by road the previous year, but were forced to turn around about 5km from the parks gate, because of challenging road conditions. This time round, to cruise across the lake into the sunset, watching a few other house boats on their way and then slowly moving into a solitary bay to anchor in the park was quite a different story.

Matusadona National Park by house boat

Matusadona is one of Zimbabwe's parks that is still home to a black rhinoceros population. The rugged beauty of Matusadona's shore line, with its drowned trees and little islets, set against a spectacular backdrop makes the park a very special place for photography and art painting. This excursion provided excellent elephant interaction that we enjoyed on foot as well as from our small boat and directly from the house boat. Another absolute highlight was the concentration of Lilac-breasted roller, Malachite kingfisher, White-fronted bee-eater and African fish eagle. While some of the smaller birds are not as relaxed around boats as the ones in Botswana's Chobe National Park (where we had Malachite kingfishers actually land on our boat), the Matusadona landscape still provides excellent opportunities to spot and ovserve these birds.

Matusadona had been free from Tsetse fly for quite some time, but the flies are back now in many parts, especially near concentrations of Mopane trees. So just as in Mana Pools, visitors should prepare and take along insect repellent and never wear dark colours (i. e. black, dark grey, blue) during the day, as this will draw in more Tsetse flies.

From Matusadona National Park we didn't return to Kariba town, but rather landed on Fothergill Island from where we had chartered light aircraft to Victoria Falls. We were lucky to be granted a fly-over by Zimbabwe air traffic control, so we got a spectacular view of the falls from the air.

Travel information:

Getting there: Air travel via Johannesburg (South Africa) to either Harare or to Victoria Falls (both Zimbabwe).

Links:

Booking arrangements for domestic air charter, private mobile camp and house boat were made through Tailormade Safaris Ltd.

Professional guiding by Humphrey Gumpo.

 

Patrick Meier, September 2010