The True Music of Mana Pools

Elephant breeding herd going to water copy.jpg


Where the Zambezi river widens into a vast floodplain some distance after it has been held in check by the now crumbling dam at Kariba, it provides a parklike floor that flows between stands of tall acacias and jackal berries.

On these miles of open parkland, vast herds of African wildlife provide amongst the best game viewing in Africa.

From our campsite, looking into the wide open spaces stretching between the trees,we saw herds of buffalo, a distant pride of lions, a number of bull elephants, herds of impala, a few hippo, zebra herds, and a lot more.

This was at different times, and throughout the day, there were new sights, new animals.

Some were probably a kilometre or so away across the wide flatness, and some, notably the blasé bull elephants of the area, were as close as twenty metres.

Six of us had travelled together from Johannesburg, on a marathon journey through Kruger Park, Botswana and Zimbabwe, on a three week, never-to-be forgotten holiday.

Mana Pools was everything we expected it to be, and more. Truly a must see for any African wildlife aficionado.

Little did we know then that the main show was to happen that evening.

We had all unpacked our tents and settled in nicely, cooling down under the shade of a massive anaboom (Acacia albida).

We were camped about fifty metres from the steady and broad flow of the Zambezi, and with the sun going down, the trees and the floodplain were infused with an orange and apricot light. Through this light swam flocks of Lilian’s lovebirds, and a colourful assortment of various types of bee-eaters. It was easy to believe we had found paradise.

But the chores of camp pushed on, and I was assigned the task of taking our accumulated garbage to the bins provided.

I wandered off, and found the bins cleverly enclosed inside concrete housings, so that elephants and other animals couldn’t knock them over or raid them.

There was a lockable steel door behind each bin, and they were obviously removed from time to time when full by the Parks team.

One other refinement I noticed, was that the slot you had to put your garbage through was flat and narrow. Not quite as small as a postbox slot, but a little bigger than a pizza box.

The whole arrangement was well thought out, and kept the animals from getting at the rubbish and trashing the campsite. Or so I thought.

Happily daydreaming and feeding garbage through the slots, I heard a low growl, which I thought at first was my tummy, as it has been known to imitate animals before.

The growl rose to a snarl, however, which took the shape of a set of white sharp teeth and a shiny black nose. There was a ratel, a honey badger, in the garbage.

Those who know the African honey badger will know that it can flatten and distort its body to squeeze into all sorts of narrow gaps where honey and other delicacies may be waiting.

This one was about to remove some of my fingers, so I hastily withdrew them, and promptly apologized for disturbing his, or her meal.

I moved over to the next slot, to get rid of the last bundle of garbage, and was quickly met with a similar rebuttal.

I now had two irate honey badgers glaring at me from the recesses of their own private garbage diners. Not wishing to test their patience further, I gingerly tried the third slot, and was able to dispose of the rest of my consignment without further threats to my person.

Walking back to the tents, I could see hippos in the river blowing golden spray into the air, and there was a small breeding herd of elephants not half a kilometer away, at water.

We all loved the idea that we could walk around near large African animals, without fences between us, and that humans and animals could, at least here, live in harmony together.

With a small fire glowing into the night sky, and the fireside talk dwindling as drowsiness set in, many of us, including myself, decided to turn in early, and tune in to the sounds of the bush to lull us to sleep. We had travelled a long leg from GonareZhou National Park (more on this in my blog ‘The Horn of the Elephant’ )in the far south of Zimbabwe, to Mana Pools, in the north east.

I and my girlfriend must have been napping for an hour or two, when we were woken by a loud and truly unfathomable sound.

I like to think that I know most of the sounds of the African bush, and who they belong to. But this one had me. It varied, all in the same uttering, between a stretched out wailing shriek, and a deep and resonant groan. Nothing at all like a hyaena, I assure you.

The sound repeated itself again and again, just outside and behind our tent, loudly. Very loudly. By now, all six of us, huddled in our three tents, were awake and whispering urgently to each other about what it could be.

Whatever it was, it was very large, and no matter how much we wished otherwise, it was very close.

It became apparent after some furtive discussion amongst us, that no-one was going to leave their tent to investigate, or indeed remonstrate, with the nocturnal offender.

As the noise appeared to be closest to my tent, it began to fall upon me, as the nearest, for no logical reason, to investigate.

This was not something I was wont to do until the voices of encouragement started becoming voices of derision.

So this is what I decided to do. As the noise was directly behind our tent, and had not abated during the whole time of our whispered wonderings, I decided I would unzip the tent, dab a beam of my torch quickly behind the tent, with as little of my body leaving the actual tent as possible, rapidly zip the tent shut again, and then report on my findings.

I took a long while, staring at the tent zip, and listening to the tortured groaning and screaming outside, to actually unzip, and shine the torch back behind us.

This I did in one fluid and panicked motion, and was already withdrawing back into my tent when I registered what I had seen.

And then I started laughing. I laughed for some while, I think in the beginning this was genuine, and then later, as partly hysterical relief. All through this time, the other five campers wanted, of course, to know what the hell it was,

Eventually, I found enough breath to utter a sentence, and said ‘ It’s ok, really, you can take a look.’

And so it was that the other campers gingerly unzipped their tents and took a hasty look, and also started laughing.

Just behind our tents, literaly two or three feet from mine, stood a large bull elephant.

He was not particularly disturbed by my sudden and bright interruption of his activity, and continued. He was rubbing his backside on our nylon washing line, which was now stretched to breaking point between two trees. The nylon rope was stretching and resonating like a massive guitar string, and the soloist was our visiting maestro elephant.

This was the true music of Mana Pools, a sound the likes of which I have never heard again, but which I am pleased I heard even if it was just once in my life.

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