I had spent 18 months straight in eastern and southern Africa as a tour leader. I’d seen the mountain gorillas of Rwanda three times, grimaced through a half dozen ear-shattering renditions of Toto’s “Africa” in the Serengeti, and piloted a sand-board down the oldest dunes in the world with a group of giggling ten-year-olds. I needed a new passport, a sleeping bag with a working zipper, and a haircut. Most of all, I needed a bit of quiet to reset before starting the journey all over again.
That goal in mind, my husband and I set about planning a mini vacation. We share a passion for wildlife, and though we’d been lucky enough to visit dozens of parks with our tours, we relished the idea of doing so at our own pace. We envisioned afternoons of watching elephants at waterholes, uninterrupted by the demands of leading group travel, and evenings with a bottle of pinotage and a nice steak. I had one more goal. During our months in Africa, I’d seen incredible wildlife. We’d watched lions mating, chimpanzees building nests, and cheetahs making a kill. Alas, I still hadn’t seen my most favorite animal of all: wild dogs. I’d become fascinated with them since I had seen a litter of puppies at the Brookfield Zoo outside of Chicago. Their calico coats and Mikey Mouse ears were undeniably adorable, and the more I learned about their behaviors and social structure, the more I became obsessed with seeing them in the wild.
Finding dogs isn’t easy. They are an endangered species with an estimated population of only 5,000. They face the constant threats of habitat destruction coupled with susceptibility to diseases like rabies, parvo, and distemper. Despite this, there remain a few parks in Africa that yield reliable dog sightings. Kruger National Park in South Africa, the Okavango region of Botswana, and Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania all have established packs of dogs. So does Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe, and we just happened to be nearby.
Mana Pools is the stuff of legend. Located on the banks of the Zambezi River, it is famous for its massive herds of elephants and its resident lions. It has endured years of tragically low tourism numbers due to the mismanagement and corruption of its political leaders. That, coupled with the park’s remote location, has kept it unspoiled and untamed. It’s the kind of park South African safari guides visit when they go on vacation. It is the kind of park where carelessness, a mistake, or just bad luck, can result in tragedy. The month before, I’d read that a tourist in the park had been eaten by lions as he took a bush-camp shower.
Mana Pools is also famous for its rather unrestrictive approach to park regulations, attracting a certain type of safari-goer. While there are a handful of upscale lodges in the park whose guests arrive by charter plane and watch wildlife via guided tours, a large percent of the park’s visitors drive themselves. They use their personal vehicles to watch animals and spend evenings in one of the park’s government-run campgrounds. I was floored to find out that not only are walking safaris extremely popular in the park but that it is perfectly legal to go on a walk on your own, unescorted. It’s possible to hire an armed ranger to guide you, but there is no rule against wandering around the bush without one, provided you purchase a $15 permit at reception. In Mana Pools, one is free to choose one’s own adventure, wise or not.
The park does have one strict rule in place to protect the safety of its visitors: citrus fruit are strictly banned from the park. Elephants are citrus-mad and have been known to raid vehicles and tear apart camps lured by the smell of an orange from miles away. Even the accidental feeding of animals in the park can earn you a swift ban for life.
We’d driven to Mana Pools from the capital city of Harare, stopping for a few nights along the shores of beautiful Lake Kariba. There we had chartered a fishing boat and spent the day spinning for tiger fish, a flashy predator known for their gnashing teeth and ‘tiger’ stripes. Even before reaching the park gate, we’d started seeing wildlife. Herds of impala tip-toed through bushes topped by colorful lilac-breasted rollers. Warthogs fled before us, tails pointed skyward like little flags. We signed in at reception while a baboon strutted by, showing his leopard-size teeth, clearly letting us know to whom the park belonged.
On our way to our campsite, we found our first elephant. There are some animals that do the same thing every time you see them. Zebras graze, eland run away, and buffalo stare back at you, chewing the cud. Elephants are different. Their intelligence and deep emotional bonds mean they’re always doing something different, interacting with each other, or exploring their world. We watched the massive bull rock forward and back until he bounced himself upright, balancing on hind legs. Stretching his muscular truck skyward, feeling around the top of the canopy, he plucked himself a ripe wild mango.
Our campground was on the banks of the Zambezi. We could look across the river, past yawning hippos and wading egrets, to Zambia. We set about erecting our tent, watching a hammerkop collect twigs for his ever-expanding nest. A shriek pierced the silence. We dropped our tent poles and turned towards the toilet block as a young woman burst around its corner at a full sprint. In her footsteps loped a hulking Cape Buffalo. Notorious for their lousy eyesight and ill-temper, African buffalo share little besides appearance with their docile Asian cousins. The woman skittered around the block a second time, buffalo in pursuit. Her family, finally alerted to the gravity of the situation, had now sprung into action, revving the engine of their Toyota Hilux, shouting, and clapping at the beast. By the third lap, the buffalo began to bore and slowed to a trot, and the woman took the opportunity to duck behind a mahogany tree. The buffalo stopped, sniffed the air, and looked down its nose in her direction. At last, it snorted and loped away. It hit me that there were no fences around our campsite.
We retired for the night, frequently waking to the calls of hyena whoops. A hippo pulled herself from the river to enjoy the fresh grass that grew next to our diminutive canvas tent, munching her way through the night.
The next day we drove to headquarters to pick up a ranger for a walking safari. As much as I’d felt the past year and a half of leading tourists through Africa had been an excellent education in how to view wildlife responsibly and safely, I didn’t trust myself not to stumble into a pride of lions. Our friend Andy is a professional guide in Zimbabwe. Guides in Zim must pass what is widely considered the most rigorous certification program in Africa. The process takes 4–7 years and involves extensive knowledge of biology, ecology, safety, and firearms. Andy takes people on multi-day hikes through Hwange National Park for a living. He knows walking safaris, and he knows wildlife. A man not to mince words, he told us it would be ‘simply stupid’ to walk in Mana Pools without an armed guide.
Our guide was a young Shona man who walked silently through thick brush with his rifle slung casually over one shoulder. He spoke little but alerted us to the presence of birds and antelope with a simple nod. A magnificent male kudu emerged from behind a tree, then slid back into the shadows without a sound, living up to its nickname of Africa’s Grey Ghost.
I felt one with nature, but it only took one elephant to remind me of my naivety. Across a small clearing, a bull was tearing branches the size of fence posts from a tree. Our guide pointed to his cheek, signaling that he was in musth, a period of surging hormones in bulls that causes the ducts on the sides of their heads to seep temporin, a thick goo of proteins, lipids, and phenol. I leaned forward, aiming my camera and clicking the shutter. Could we go closer? Should we go closer? Our guide frowned and held out his hand in front of me. He clearly considered that a bad idea. Evidently, I needed to be kept in check.
That evening we set about to make good on the plans to enjoy a luxurious camp dinner. We sat close around the fire, my husband flipping pork chops on the grill and poking at the coals. We were quiet, basking in the joy of the day and taking in the sounds of the African bush. Crickets chirped, frogs croaked, and hippos laughed their deep, sinister bellow. Faintly I heard the crunching of dry leaves under the feet of something large. It was moving closer. I reached for my flashlight, clicked the switch, and spun the beam in the direction of the sound. I lit up the form of a massive spotted hyena, frozen in mid-stalk, eyes still fixed on my pork chop.
“Hey!” said my husband, suddenly aware that his favorite dinner was in jeopardy. “I’m still cooking that!”
The hyena dipped her head. “Oh, sorry,” she seemed to say, slinking back into the night.
We ate quickly and built the fire back up, ears straining for movement in the bushes. My husband walked to the side of camp to wash the dishes as I hovered near the flames, warming my hands. I thought I could hear faint rustling in the trees, and I felt something’s presence with the kind of intuition that has been mostly dulled by generations of modern living. It sounded small, probably a bird, but perhaps something exciting, like a genet. Maybe it was a pangolin, the elusive scaled mammal I’d herd could sometimes be found in the park.
“I think there’s something behind you,” I whispered to my husband, fumbling for the flashlight.
I aimed the beam at the ground just beyond his feet. My brain was slow to register what it was seeing. Four great grey tree trunks began to shift. The elephant was only a few feet behind my husband, who hadn’t heard a sound. Thanks to their shock-absorbing foot design, elephants can tip-toe through the bush with a quietness that betrays their size. My husband put his fingers to his lips and slowly backed into camp. With an ear-flapping head shake, the elephant let us know she saw us and went back to casually stripping the bark from a tree.
Thinking the excitement was over for the evening, we tucked ourselves into our tent and fell asleep to the now anticipated chorus of cackles and rumbles. Sometime in the night, I swore I heard a dinosaur. An earth-shattering roar, unlike anything I’d heard outside of Jurassic Park. Following each outburst was a great crash and a splash, and eventually, human voices. What on earth was going on? I lay cocooned in my sleeping bag, wondering if I should wake my husband.
When the light inside the tent turned from inky black to a dull grey, we emerged from our tent, desperate for coffee. The roaring had stopped, but I could still hear excited voices from just beyond the campground, where a few of the park rangers lived in a tiny village. In the distance, I could see people standing around something in ground, jumping back in unison as a hulking grey shape emerged from the earth and crashed back down, disappearing below.
Wondering if we should be concerned, we decided to swing by the ranger station. Inside was buzzing with excitement. Everyone was talking about what had happened during the night. It seemed that one unlucky hippopotamus had made its way into the ranger’s village to graze. Things got interesting when it fell through the ground and into a septic tank. The roaring I’d heard was the panic of the animal sloshing around in a vat of human poo. It remained there this morning, throwing its head up in protest, as the rangers decided what to do. Could they dig it out? Insert some sort of ramp? No one wanted to be near an angry hippo, and any attempt to free it seemed dangerous. I turned the situation over in my head, trying to think of a solution that could somehow save the hippo and keep the village safe. What would Steve Irwin have done?
The rangers assured me help was on the way, and there was nothing to be done other than to enjoy the day. As much as the situation weighed on my mind, we had just enough time for one last game drive before making our way back towards Kariba and civilization.
It was a beautiful morning, sunny and crisp. The early morning light bathed the trees in shades of gold and rose. We bumped along the dusty dirt roads of the park, pausing to watch a herd of eland, listening for the characteristic click they make as they jogged back into the trees. We drove for as long as we could without pushing our arrival to Kariba past sunset. As we flipped a u-turn, I found myself fighting back a few tears.
“What’s wrong?” My husband asked, puzzled by my sudden shift in mood.
I tried to explain. Everything had been wonderful, the park was beautiful, and the camp food had been delicious. I treasured the quiet moments we had spent watching animals and the deep Zambezi River. The only thing missing was the reason I’d chosen this destination. We hadn’t seen dogs. I immediately felt silly for my disappointment; after all, I’d just spent a year and a half explaining to clients that you always have to manage your expectations when it comes to wildlife. You need to appreciate what gifts nature gives you. Wild dogs are one of the most endangered large animals in Africa. By getting my hopes up, I had only set myself up for heartbreak.
Even so, I couldn’t help but slump in the seat of the Land Rover as we crossed the final miles of park road. My eyes were nearly shut when my husband stomped the brake pedal and jolted me awake.
“Dogs,” he deadpanned.
I shot him the look that said I wasn’t in the mood for one of his jokes. He nodded towards the road where a giant tree had cast a shadow over the ruts. I could see a baboon striding out from the shadows, her infant riding jockey. I squinted and lifted my binoculars. Under the tree, a pair of round ears twitched, and then another, and another.
One by one, 19 African wild dogs stood up and stretched their spindly legs, white floofy tails waving. I stifled a squeal. Most magical of all, we were the only humans for miles around. The dogs, utterly unfazed by our presence, scratched and yawned. At some undetectable signal, they peeled out from the road, alpha in the lead. The most successful big predator on the continent, when dogs move out to hunt they mean business. Not wanting to interfere with their chance of success, we hung back, watching mesmerized as they strode into the bush.
Fencing surrounds many of Africa’s most famous parks. Paved or well-maintained gravel roads criss-cross their interiors, forming a spider’s web that connects air-conditioned lodges with sparkling swimming pools. Ensuring the safety and comfort of tourists in order to keep admission numbers high is vital to these parks. Their very existence, and the existence of Africa’s wildlife, depend on tourism dollars. As habitat destruction and human-wildlife conflict increases the pressure on the continent’s wildlife, I am grateful for every park and for every tourist that funds them. I am thankful for their protection of the last wild places in Africa, but I will always hold a special place in my heart for the wildness of Mana Pools, an area like no other that reminds us of our smallness when faced with the enormity of nature.