Walk freely in the African savannah? Yes. Without weapons? That too. Is it dangerous? It depends. Where? In a beautiful corner of Africa, on the banks of the Zambezi river.
That morning I hadn’t committed the insanity of walking alone for 40 minutes, unarmed. Along the shore of the mighty Zambezi River, I was accompanied only by my loyal tripod and my heightened senses while the first of the Sun God’s rays began to flood one of the most authentic wildlife areas in Africa: the Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe. This time, I walked with another traveler, greeting the first light of dawn along with our hired armed guide, walking, expectant, hoping that the African savannah would surprise us. Dawn and dusk are the best times to observe animals. Soon we spotted a small group of elephants made up of a female, an adolescent and a small calf. We maintained a cautious 650-foot distance, aware of their reputation as one of the most dangerous animals in Africa, especially mothers with their young.
After watching them for a while, we left them behind and began to cross the open plain, typical of the region, which is dotted with acacia groves. Barely five minutes later, we heard a sound that made us spin around. The three elephants that we had stalked were stampeding towards us, crazed, as if being pursued by the Devil himself. The initial 1,300 feet was quickly reduced to 650, then 300. Our legs began to move quickly, the armed guide and I in front; our companion, who was pushing 70, lagged behind. When there were just 500 feet separating us from the crazed animals, a small embankment that we climbed and our guide’s experience saved us. Our desperate shouts and gestures, along with us becoming more visible, made the elephants suddenly turn at a right angle and disappear amongst the acacias. They had seen us. In reality, they were probably not attacking us but were more likely fleeing from someone or something. These enormous animals have very poorly developed eyesight. They are scared of us, and they don’t attack us for no reason, but if they’d stumbled upon us on their wild path, if they had only noticed our presence at a distance inferior to the safe distance, the outcome could have been very different.
Like all herbivores, elephants have a safe distance. You can define it by the distance up to which the animal allows you to approach it before it flees. This is different for every animal. Problems arise when, for whatever reason, you end up within this safety circle without the animal realizing. This is when you find yourself in a dangerous situation. They can opt to flee, or to attack. And they are fast, very fast. And large. Enormous. But it didn’t happen.
These experiences are not common on walking safaris but if they do happen they give you a sense of the real Africa, as it was before, the Africa of ancient explorers, of times when the animals were not practically all confined to the parks, when Africa was one enormous national park.
Mana Pools National Park can be found in Zimbabwe and is a real jewel of nature. It is bathed in the waters of the Zambezi, one of the wildest rivers in Africa. A World Heritage Site, it is a natural monument of 550,000 acres. Surrounded by other protected areas of Zambia and Zimbabwe, it is a protected area of 3,000,000 acres, making it one of the best preserved and most important ecosystems on the continent. The word “mana” means “four” in Shona, the native language, and refers to the four ponds that can be found inland from the river. It is different, special, unique. Why? Because you are allowed to enter it at your own risk and go wherever you like without weapons and with complete freedom to explore any part of the national park, except for the areas with abundant undergrowth. There is no other reserve in Africa where you are able to experience this feeling. In a habitat where elephants, hippos, buffalo, lions and leopards (five of the most dangerous animals in the world) roam freely.
It might be madness, perhaps suicide. But everything has its appeal. The park managers allow it because it is an open space dotted with acacia groves (although not everywhere), and it is assumed that the animals, upon spotting any humans, will distance themselves. I would prefer to maintain a safe distance when encountering large herbivores rather than tempting fate in order to steer clear of potential predators. Which, incidentally, are always very scarce. Between 80 and 100 lions live in all of Mana Pools. I, for instance, didn’t see any, although I was fortunate enough to hear their roars – the undisputed voice of Africa – during the night while I was sleeping in my tent. Roaming the African savannah for a long period of time without the company of a guard or an armed guide can prove foolhardy. I decided to live this experience, partly because I was writing this book. It lasted for half an hour at dawn, along the banks of the Zambezi, only accompanied by my loyal tripod, during one of the most dangerous times to walk in the savannah: when the predators and hippos are still active. You have a strange feeling. On one hand, you want to see wildlife, get up close to it, and photograph it in a completely free environment; but on the other hand, your senses have gone into overdrive. You know what time it is and where you are, and you know all about those quirks of fate that can land you in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was probably not the wisest of choices, yet I wanted to experience this primal feeling that has accompanied human beings for tens of thousands of years as we traveled the great African plains.
This freedom that the Mana Pools National Park offers can also be harnessed in more everyday situations. For example, when you get around with your own vehicle. Getting out of the car, walking, and getting closer to the animals is marvelous. Of course, with the shelter of the car close by. But watch out for the elephants! They don’t respect even the largest of vehicles and it wouldn’t be the first time that a mother with her young has attacked humans for coming between her and her frightened offspring.
I have taken other safaris in Africa, accompanied by more travelers and with guides driving the vehicle, and where you are forbidden to take one step outside of the car. There is no comparison. This is another world.
Traveling to Mana Pools is a unique opportunity, a different opportunity to experience the African savannah. A savannah lost in modern times, the chance to go on safari by ourselves where the risk, if we decide to take it, is decided by us, but that allows us to be the protagonists of our own journey.
However, if you have decided to live out an African adventure to the fullest, be aware that it does not end in the acacia forests, or by the banks of the wild Zambezi river, but continues even when you are inside your accommodation. In Nyamepi, this incredible place, there are no fences, no wires; nature and mankind are face-to-face. One is part of the other. For almost six months of the year, there is not a single campsite, just open land, meaning that the animals don’t associate the areas with humans and move freely among them, including within Nyamepi. It is a unique and amazing opportunity. Eating breakfast and finding that an elephant is just a few feet away from the table is something that you will never forget. This happened to me once, when it was already nighttime and I was reading in the car: a mother and her calf appeared, calmly walking past, a scant twelve feet distance away. Or when I saw a pair of short-tempered buffalo who, having adopted the campsite as their own, were calmly wandering between the tents, no doubt to protect themselves from the prides of lions. And one midday I found them sitting with their near 1,750 pounds of weight at the entrance to my little tent. Or having to shout at a hungry hyena that came too close to the camp fire while searching for scraps. Even when you are inside your sleeping bag you can hear the lions roaring in the distance. At the same time you sense careful steps around your tent and you ask yourself, who is on the other side of the flaps? Sometimes they get so close that you can identify the small but brave honey badger, sniffing at the canvas a few centimeters from your head.
Keywords: Zimbabwe, Africa, adventure escapes. Adventure travel. Guide book