There was something very comforting about this nightly encounter. I would hear a rustling of leaves on the ground, then something heavy snuggled up against our tent, right next to my sleeping spot.
In fact, we sometimes rubbed backs. We never found out what paid this nightly visit, but the fact that it had hooves meant I didn’t have to worry about a lion’s claw suddenly raking the tent.
Four of us were staying at Nyamepi camp in Mana Pools National Park, which is regarded by many as the showpiece of Zimbabwe’s game reserves; a place where the interaction between wildlife and humans is quite extraordinary.
Hippos grunted contentedly in the Zambezi River, a stone’s throw away. Occasionally, after dark, one wandered up the bank to stroll nonchalantly on its way to an unseen grazing patch. In the morning en route to the showers, visitors might come across this portly being about to return home to its watery domain, but just gave it a respectful right of way.
Nyamepi is scenic. Set under iconic spreading trees, it looks across the wide river to its Zambian side, where a park on that bank boasts jagged hills. Fishermen in their canoes were also active on that distant shore, especially at night.
Sadly, Mana was in the grips of a devastating drought. Grass was almost non-existent, though the trees were flourishing. The buffalo were taking great strain, and we sometimes saw the carcass of a hapless bovine, which provided the vultures with a veritable feast to squabble over. Fortunately, Animal Welfare Zimbabwe was sending in truckloads of feed, and buffalo filed past in their hundreds, heads hanging, clearly weary, as they plodded towards this lifeline.
An occasional verdant peninsula on the shores of the Zambezi River attracted a kaleidoscope of antelope, buffalo, elephant, hippo, and a plethora of birds. Hyenas whooped all night, elephants strolled through our camp, while cheeky vervets kept us on our toes to prevent pilfering - somehow the monkeys always won.
The wild dog, or painted dogs as they are more commonly referred to in Zim, provided visitors with some excitement. However, the pack we encountered was ever so indolent. All they seemed to do was lie around. No excited chittering or interactions, and certainly no hunting seemed the order of the day. Mind you, daily temperatures of over 40ºC were enough to make even the most energetic creature lethargic.
That dozy scene changed, though, with the arrival of some elephants.
I had recently watched an SABC wildlife documentary which showed precocious elephants incessantly driving hapless wild dogs away from a waterhole.
Now we were treated to a similar display, as some roving pachyderms took offence to this pack. Suddenly, all was a hive of activity as the dogs scattered.
Come the rainy season, Mana closes down. At that time the pools, after which the reserve is named, fill up and the roads become impassable.
But, the newly opened Mahogany Lodge, a private venture, is trying a new experiment. It plans to literally “test the waters” to see whether it can stay open during the wet months between December and March. It will be interesting to see whether this groundbreaking venture succeeds, as apparently Mana’s transformation is a sight to behold.
While our newspapers often feature articles on the tough time Zimbabweans face on a daily basis, it was interesting to learn more about life on the ground. We saw no signs of people starving.
The supermarkets were well stocked - mostly with South African goods. Prices seemed to be almost on a par with ours and the shops appeared to be well supported. That’s not to say that in the rural areas people are not struggling, and I do not pretend to have special insight into the lives of residents. But most were warm, friendly and helpful. A smile was never far off.
While there were queues at petrol stations, which seemed to take turns to run dry, fuel always seemed to be available. We used US dollars to buy ours... after a hunt to find one that had supplies. However, we found that dollars were otherwise not accepted outside regular tourist haunts and, contrary to advice given to us, we had to pay in local currency or swipe a card. When it came to paying road tolls, we had a modus operandi: we approached the nearest driver and offered them $1 in exchange for 10 Zim notes (the normal road tax). They always obliged, either with currency or by swiping their own cards.
There were very few police roadblocks. Before leaving home, we were warned of countless stops where a bribe was requested, but we did not encounter any such behaviour.
A Dutch couple who travel regularly in Zimbabwe said while this had happened about two years ago, it was currently not the case.
Though xenophobia at times is alive and well in South Africa, we never found the Zimbabweans turning the tables on us. Without fail, they helped us out.
Sometimes in towns people went out of their way to travel in our vehicle to show us how to reach our destination for the night. It was all very humbling.