08 – 09th September: Chitake Springs, Mana Pools
08th September – Lusaka to Mana Pools via Chirundu
Today is the big day, our first overland border crossing with a car in tow! In the morning we realise that our car did not come with the promised reflective vests which are mandatory in Zimbabwe so we have to wait until the shops open to get them. We have to wait quite a while so we pop into the Mugg and Beans cafe in Manda hill for some breakfast and last use of wifi.
All this waiting around caused us to fall way behind our intended schedule, but we eventually get hold of the vests and start the journey south to Zimbabwe.
We have a dilemma now, should we use Chirundu or Kariba border posts to cross into Zimbabwe? Chirundu is closer but is a very busy trucker’s border post with notoriously difficult staff and chaos. Kariba is quieter but would force us into a considerable detour. Finally, since we are already behind schedule, and it is so tempting the shortest route wins and we take our chances with Chirundu – the more difficult border crossing. Part of this decision was because it was a Saturday and we figured it would be quieter, which it indeed was.
But we still encounter various problems. First we have some problems because of the new passport. The Zambia entry stamp and visa are in the old passport so the Zambian authorities only want to stamp the now invalidated old passport. The Zimbabweans will not have any of it as they want to see the Zambian exit stamp on the new passport. So we go to and fro from desk to desk until the Zambians give in an also stamp the new passport. Battle number 1 is won and we are one step closer to get into Zimbabwe. Now we just have to get our car through as well.
We are faced with two desks called Customs with no indication which country’s customs they are. And we make a great mistake – we just pick a random one which turns out to be the Zimbabwe side first, before exiting the Zambia side like we were supposed to do (although we didn’t know). We also had to visit a separate Interpol desk a few times. In the process with all the Interpol visits etc a paper with the TIP (Temporary Import Permit) goes missing. We recall that the Zimbabwe Customs has this (I cannot figure out why exactly!) and we really have to beg for the guys at the Zim Customs to give it back to us as the guy from Zam customs needs it. After a lot of begging, to and fros and insisting we won battle 2 as well. All in all if it weren’t for these two issues everything would have gone quite quickly and smoothly. In ended up spending 1.5 hours in Chirundu which was still a shorter time than crossing through Kariba so our gamble paid off and we are proud to have made it through a border post that is considered intimidating even for seasoned Africans.
It was getting late now, already 2pm so we speed off to Marongora to check in to Mana Pools National Park – the highlight of our trip. A coincidence of events secures us a night in Chitake 3 – and we are delighted. We arrive in Chitake 3 at around 4pm and immediately set about preparing dinner. We do not want to be out in the dark in this particular campsite – a couple of years back a lion killed and ate a man in this area.
A lioness is already staring at us from the other side of the riverbed, her tail swishing to and fro and her body flattened to the ground. It occurs to me it is just like a cat waiting to play. But I don’t really want to play with this particular kitty. After a while while walking to the braai I come face to face with a group of 5 elephants. I just cannot understand how one can just suddenly come face to face with these massive animals with no warning but they just seem to materialize out of thin air. They all look at me at flap their ears for a moment and then continue with their business – drinking water from the stream, just a few meters away from us. We are mesmerized to be cooking right next to these giants.
At this time of the year the stream finishes in front of Chitake 3. Chitake 1 has no water in front of it. I notice some leopard poo and tracks right in the campsite but I don’t think much of it. We wolf down our dinner consisting of burgers and as soon as it is dark we retreat to our tent.
Night is the time when Chitake really comes alive – and it’s magical and spooky. After all we are there alone in a flimsy tent with no fences or anything to protect us. We settle in with a powerful torch looking out of the tent. More elephants are now gathering in the riverbed and they dig furiously to find more water and enjoy their drinking. But the enjoyment is all short lived as the lions start to roar and this terrorizes the elephants… and us! The elephants trumpet, scream and scatter in utter panic and terror. This happens again and again throughout the night. There is no way of sleeping here – not that we wanted to, there is too much excitement and we are keen to witness it all! It seems that when these Chitake Lions roar they ALL roar, and very enthusiastically too. Being in a valley it also echoes, which really turns one’s blood to ice. Especially when the giant elephants scream and run scared like mice away from a cat.
Later in the night we hear some rustling – it is a porcupine going round and round our campsite, chomping loudly. After a while we hear something drinking at the stream and we are delighted to discover there is a leopard, right in our campsite! Leopard sighting from our comfy bed, how many 5 star lodges can offer that?!? It hangs around for a while but then disappears into the inky blackness of the moonless night. At some point we are surrounded by elephants in the campsite, trees swaying and branches breaking. We hold our breaths and really hope the lions would keep their mouths shut until the elephants have moved away. They say that elephants will tip toe around solid looking objects so you are safe in a tent but I am pretty sure elephants will not gently tip-toe around our car if in a panic.
9th September – Chitake, Mana Pools
We wake up early, utterly destroyed from lack of sleep but in awe at this raw, exciting place. We have never experienced anything like this – there is a palpable tension in the air, and piecing together the night’s stories just from noises and tracks is an exciting mystery. We set up our camp chairs in the riverbed and wait for some action while enjoying some breakfast. The baboons are the first ones to wake up. They are very wary of us which suits us just fine as we can eat in peace without fear of them stealing anything. All the elephants have disappeared. At 8am the impalas and buffalos make their entry onto the stage. Many buffalos. They stir up a cloud of dust and a distinct “cattle” smell.
At some point during the morning a car comes by from Chitake 2 and we swap stories with its occupants. Then they ask for a favour – would we mind swapping our booking for Chitake 2 to to their booking for Chitake 1? Of course we have no issue with that, we are more than delighted to spend another night in the riverbed – and it is touted to be one of the best campsites in Africa after all. So we move to Chitake 1 which is more shady than Chitake 3, but a bit further away from the action.
The day passes at a leisurely pace … we set up our chairs at the riverbed, eat and drink and relax in hammocks. The animals vanish and magically reappear at intervals.
At some point we pay a visit to the 12 Apostles which are a cluster of Baobab Trees on a hill with a great view near Chitake 2, a couple of kilometers away from Chitake 1. This is said to be a sacred site. As in many places around here, death is omnipresent – a number of animal bones are scattered around. Perhaps the lions here like to dine with a view.
We spend the hottest hours of the day relaxing in camp. As usual hammocks are indispensable for these sort of trips. They are easy to set up and provide means to lie down or keep stuff at easy reach (not if there are thieving baboons around though!)
At 3pm we start preparing dinner, so that we can eat early and ensure we do not miss anything that might happen at sunset. More animals come and go meanwhile, and at some point the riverbed fills with buffalos. Curiously a bit before sunset, the baboons come out for a leisurely stroll – they just slowly walk back and forth along the riverbed in a single file, socializing a bit when meeting one walking back in the opposite direction.
By nightfall we are back to our tent – in position with our flashlights to ensure we do not miss a thing. Again Chitake takes on that sinister character – the lions are roaring even louder and more frequently than the night before, and we notice that the elephants come to drink much later than the day before, waiting for pitch black darkness. They seem absolutely terrified. At some point we hear some vicious roars and then the most bone chilling scream from one of the elephants. I cannot describe that scream – it sounded tortured. All of a sudden the elephants run from one side to the other of the riverbed and lightning speed, very distressed. They do not return, and we hear them trumpeting in distress in the distance. The lions continue roaring throughout the night, teasing the elephants even though they are far away. Hyenas join into the bone-chilling chorus as well.
At some point we hear some rustling, and notice that the porcupine from the previous night has followed us to Chitake 1, happily going around the car. We also spot a civet on the other bank of the riverbed, and after a while we see a hyena doing its rounds too. Some time passes and we notice new shadows in the bushes close to our car. A spotted cat. The leopard? Two of them? Three of them, no wait … there are four!! Surely these are not leopards? They are taller, slinkier and have a different less confident walk. They are cheetahs!! We cannot believe our eyes, I didn’t even know there were any here! But yes there is no doubt they are cheetahs. We are so stunned we don’t even manage to take a picture – and anyway they bolt as soon as they hear us trying to quietly lift our cameras. So cheetahs and leopards seen from the comfort of our bed. We vow to return to this place as soon as we can, Chitake has us firmly under its spell and we realise it is going to be extremely hard to tear ourselves away from this magical place tomorrow and move to Mana Pools proper.