Stories and Traveltips

ID #4777

Lions at Mana Pools, Lower Zambezi Valley, Zimbabwe, Southern Africa.

In the early 90’s Chris Murray, John Doidge and I decided to go on safari to Zimbabwe. We planned to join up with Chris’ brother, Les and a colleague, Pete Woods. Pete is very experienced in the bush so we relied on him for expert advice.   They had more than enough equipment so we travelled light. Practically all that we took along were some two-man tents, one for each of us. I only realised afterwards that my tent did not have mosquito netting so I would either have to sleep with the tent closed, or run the risk of being attacked while sleeping by leaving it open. 

We decided to spend a few days at Mana Pools National Park on the banks of the Zambezi downstream from Lake Kariba. It is the wildest, most spectacular reserve I have ever seen. The Zambezi River has been slowly moving north from the escarpment towards Zambia. This has resulted in a flat plain about 100-km wide between the escarpment and the river. There is no water on the floodplain other than a few isolated pools close to the river – hence the name.

In the rainy season, when water is plentiful, the animals scatter towards the escarpment. By September, most of the surface water has dried up and the animals move back down to the river. There are enormous wild fig trees next to the river, the canopies of which must be 30-50m in diameter. Because of the high numbers of animals, there is not a blade of grass underneath the trees. Moreover, the elephants get up on their hind legs, stripping the trees of foliage. It looks as though the trees have been pruned from below.

Mana Pools is like a giant zoo. Herds of buffalo, impala, eland and zebra wander in the dappled shade of the plain. Being flat one can see for hundreds of yards. Animals walk through one’s camp to get to the water.  You do not have to go looking for them – they come to you. Several large elephant bulls graze on islands in the river. Occasionally they cross the river, entering the camps to feed on acacia pods. They bump the trees with their heads, causing the pods to fall to the ground. Then they daintily pick them up, curl their trunks up to their mouths and savour them, one by one, like jelly-beans.   Small groups of “dagha boys” -- mature buffalo bulls that no longer depend on the herds for protection – also graze on the islands. They are singularly lacking in a sense of humour, viewing one with a “jaundiced eye.” Hippo grunt and snort in the river.  Huge crocodiles slither silently into the water. Purple-grey goliath heron, startled by ones arrival, glide gracefully away. Baboon shriek in the trees until, just before dark, the alpha male puts a stop to the cacophony by barking an instruction to be quiet. Hyena (hyaena) and honeybadger (ratel) frequent the camps at night searching for scraps. Dr Doolittle would feel at home in Mana Pools.

Unlike most other parks, there are few rules and regulations. One is allowed to walk rather than drive about in one’s car.  The rationale is quite pragmatic – the park is for animals and if you happen to be gobbled up – so be it. Moreover, it seems to happen quite frequently I am told. Visitors are however warned not to take citrus into the park. The elephants, desperate for food, simply put their tusks through one’s vehicle to reach such delicacies.

We were assigned a private camp upstream of the main camp. Facilities were rudimentary and included a circular building with an asbestos roof enclosing a toilet and cold shower and a fireplace under an enormous wild fig. It was early October – before the rains and the hottest month of the year. Daytime temperatures were 45oC or more. Nights were no better.

We arrived late in the afternoon and set up camp. Les and Pete made a fire and cooked a delicious meal. Meanwhile we got stuck into the ice cold Zambezi beer in Les’ cool box, an enormous contraption on wheels that could keep several hundred beers cold. We watched the sun set over the river – pure magic. Eventually we stumbled into our tents and attempted to get some sleep.  Having to keep my tent closed, it was like a furnace inside and I slept in fits and starts.

At about 03h00 I heard Pete Woods say: “Don’t anybody move”.  A lion was in the camp, next to the tents. I could smell his breath and could hear him padding softly nearby. My heart started pounding, the adrenaline rush causing sweat to burst out all over. In the pitch dark, my mind started playing tricks on me. Suddenly he roared; the loudest, most spine-chilling sound I have ever heard. Pete, who was able to see out of his tent, maintained a running commentary on what was happening.

It turned out that there were five lions, two males and three females. The males were trying to intimidate us into running towards the females lying in ambush behind the tents -- classical hunting tactics. We lay, scared stiff, until the sun came up and the lions disappeared. Sleep being out of the question, we shakily emerged from out tents. John Doidge related how he had been kneeling in his tent, Swiss Army knife at the ready. He had decided that if a lion were to enter his tent, he would slit the material on the other side to escape. Pete somewhat belatedly notified us that several people had been taken out of tents and sleeping bags in the area in the past few months – news that was not very well received I am afraid, him being our “great white hunter”.

To cut a long story short, the lions had not disappeared, and the above was repeated the following night. However, we were better prepared and tried chasing them off with motor cars, throwing burning branches at them, etc. Nothing seemed to dissuade them from their objective – i.e. to eat one of us. A Danish couple who were staying in a chalet nearby heard the commotion and drove up in their car at about 2 o’clock in the morning to rescue us. We clambered in and spent the rest of the night sleeping on the floor of their lodge.

Several lessons were learnt during this episode:

•    The image of a pride of lions sleeping contentedly on their backs with their legs up the air during the heat of the day is misleading. Do not underestimate them. They undergo a personality change when hunting in the early morning.
•    Do not run if confronted by lions. Face them and do not move, or move very slowly. If you run, you are dead.
•    Do not sleep on the ground in wildlife reserves where lions are present. Frankly, it is irresponsible.
•    Pay attention in the bush. A seemingly tranquil scene can transform into the most hair-raising experience of your life within seconds.
•    When camping in the bush, hang your food in a tree. More specifically, do not store it inside your tent. A couple of backpackers learned this lesson the hard way – while fast asleep a honeybadger  clawed its way through the side of their tent to get at their food. 

However, it was a thrilling adventure and the memory will live with me forever. There are few places in the world where such an adventure is possible. We need to preserve it for posterity. Please support campaigns to have Mana Pools declared a World Heritage Site. Alan McIver AXLions

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Last update: 2014-03-28 08:09
Author: Alan McIver
Revision: 1.1

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