Journeying on the Wild Side

A walking and canoeing safari offers adventure beyond one traveler’s imagination 

Photos by Michael Mundt

A canoe trip in Mana Pools offered up-close elephant encounters.

     Call me a coward if you will. But when a native Zimbabwean safari guide commands me to run from a charging rhino, I follow orders.

     In our quest to experience a safari beyond the traditional game drives, my husband and I ended up in Matusadona National Park, situated in northern Zimbabwe on Lake Kariba’s southern shore, to track game with a professional guide. The Park boasts one of the continent’s densest lion populations and is considered among the best places in Africa to track the endangered black rhinoceros on foot. Only I hadn’t expected to get that close to one. 

     The gravity (read: stupidity) of what we were doing in the middle of the African bush didn’t hit me until the day before, when guide Nick Murray instructed us what to do should we encounter one of the 3,000-pound prehistoric beasts, known for their poor eyesight, dim intelligence and unpredictable disposition. A rhino doesn’t always charge, Nick said, but they’re prone to aggression; he prepared us for the worst.

     “You can get close and take pictures,” said Nick, whose tough-as-nails exterior and sun-battered leather hat earned him the moniker “Nick Dundee” among our group. “But if he charges, run and find a tree.”

     I looked at him with alarm as I scanned the horizon: a vast stretch of parched earth and vegetation—a sign of the late dry season in October—the only “tall” trees more like saplings that would snap like toothpicks under the weight of a fleeing human.

     “How fast are rhinos?” asked my husband, Michael.

     “Fast.”

     “Faster than Carl Lewis?”

     “Yes,” he laughed. “Just find a tree.”

     The next day, after two hours of negotiating through thorny, gray thickets—sweat pouring from beneath my hat, the dry, yellow grasses scratching at my ankles and parchment-paper mopane leaves (pronounced mo-PA-nee) crunching beneath my feet—we spotted the elusive creatures: a cow and a bull, feeding about 20 yards away amid a tangle of desiccated branches.

     The six of us followed Nick’s signal to squat quietly, waiting as the bull apprised us through beady, black eyes. (The cow was unperturbed.) With caution and wide berth, we tiptoed toward a ravine, allowing us a better view and greater safety.

     We silently descended the ravine toward the riverbed, anxious not to aggravate the hoary beast, when Nick whispered, “Get back!” Retreating farther down the ravine, the bull barely visible above us as he peered over the edge, we awaited our next cue. Then he charged.

     “Run!” Nick yelled.

      I followed Michael in what he later described as a “steeple chase,” sprinting toward a hearty tree and oblivious to the cracking twigs and thorns that gnawed mercilessly at my legs. And the fact that Nick had already yelled, “Stop!”

     “Stop! Stop!” yelled fellow travel mate F.B. Mack, a gregarious Southerner from Atlanta, now laughing behind me. Our group had startled the rhino with our scattering, and he fled immediately. But Michael and I continued to run long after his departure, earning us continual ribbing from the group.

    “Man, girl, you can run!” Mack teased. “You were all elbows and knees, just like Flo Jo!”

     Like I said, I was just following orders.

     Charging rhinos aside, our safari was everything we’d hoped for: an authentic and active experience that just isn’t possible from sitting day after day in the safe confines of a Land Rover.

     Certainly game drives are a fundamental aspect of appreciating the immensity of Africa and all her animal wonders. In fact, the few drives we experienced in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe’s largest game reserve, allowed us some of the most magical wildlife viewing of our trip: three lionesses walking languidly through the bush during their morning hunt; a leopard, an elusive member of the Big Five, coveting his freshly killed mongoose after a nighttime hunt; and a herd of elephants at a watering hole during their sunset bath as we sipped beer from a nearby hide.

     But to me, the sheer pleasure of a safari wasn’t just in spotting the animals, but in the joy and challenge of getting close enough to observe their behavior in their natural habitat. The real satisfaction came from stepping over the endless mounds of dry elephant dung, feeling the Kalahari sand trickling into my sandals, and hearing the persistent complaints of the go-away bird—GWAAY! GWAAY!—as we tracked animals.
     “Not that other safaris aren’t real, but this involves your participation,” said Mark McAdam, Nick’s friend and fellow guide who joined us for a night on our trip. The word “safari” is Swahili for “journey,” he noted, and for some that journey entails staying in upscale lodges and enjoying game drives.    

     His fulfillment, however, comes from getting dirty and scratched up, occasionally becoming scared and often being disappointed when there aren’t any wildlife sightings.

     “The journey, for me, is about being on equal footing with the animal,” McAdam said. “It’s not for everybody, but in my opinion, it’s the real thing.”

     And nothing fit the description of “the real thing” better than the last leg of our safari itinerary: a three-day canoeing trip along the lower Zambezi River in the remote Mana Pools National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s home to thousands of hippos and crocodiles, and is considered one of the best walking-safari destinations in Southern Africa.

     During the dry season, the animals flock to the Park’s 850-square-mile Zambezi flood plain on the river’s southern banks, offering visitors prime viewing of buffalo, impala, kudu, eland and lion, to name a few. But an even greater distinction of this animal-kingdom haven is that few places on Earth allow travelers such close encounters with the prodigious African elephant.

     Our initial encounter with one got off to a rocky start the first afternoon we put in our canoes to begin the 40-mile paddle along the length of the Park. After several minutes of marital bickering—due not only to the frustration of trying to maneuver a boat with my spouse, but also the very real fear of running our canoe into a hungry crocodile or an edgy hippo—Michael took up steering duties while I shot photos up front. (“The Zambezi has claimed many a wedding ring,” Nick assured us.)

     Fortunately that first stretch along the Zambezi was peaceful, the occasional foghorn-like warning cry of the hippos interrupting the serenity. We paddled slowly through the fabled waters, the cobalt peaks of the Zambian escarpment asserting the Zambian border to the north, the dry banks of the flood plain to the south, and flat, grassy islands strewn throughout the river in between.

     As we approached an island where several male elephants grazed, Nick signaled us to gather our group’s three canoes around his. Side by side, we held on to one another’s boats, four canoes docking cautiously in hopes that one of the magnificent bulls would come near.

     We watched slackjawed as one approached, poking his trunk so closely around our boats that he splashed mud onto Mack’s friend and canoe partner, Simon Gluckman. I was by turns absolutely transfixed by the elephant’s grace and calm, and utterly terrified by his enormity. I couldn’t help thinking to myself: “This animal could trample me if he wanted to.”

     The reason he didn’t is simple.

     “We didn’t go into his space; he came into ours,” Nick said.

     We tested that theory further on the following day during a paddling break, opting for a mid-morning walk through the flood plain. One of the biggest draws here for the animals are the protein-rich apple-ring pods—peach-colored pods that resemble an apple peel and drop from the area’s predominant Apple-ring Acacia trees—which we used to attract more grazing elephants.

     “Gather them like this,” Nick whispered, collecting the pods in his hat.

     Like children on an Easter egg hunt, we filled our safari hats with the nutritious treasures. Then we waited silently at the base of an acacia tree as Nick flung our offerings to the ground, mimicking the sound of pods dropping from a tree. Although the elephants are wild, Nick said, they are somewhat accustomed to seeing humans in the area. So he was confident our ploy would attract some curious bulls. (The cows are too wary with offspring to protect.)

     “Crack! Crack!” We waited. “Crack! Crack!”

     Finally one male followed the sound of food, lumbering his way toward us and picking discerningly around our pod collection a mere 10 feet away. That he would approach us was amazing enough. But that he moved so quietly—maneuvering his approximately 5-ton frame so silently, only the sound of him picking up and swallowing the pods to disrupt the quietude—was truly miraculous.

    It was the antithesis of the adrenaline-charged encounter with the rhino and a fitting end to our unscripted nine-day immersion in the African bush. But it was neither the wildlife sightings nor the jaw-dropping scenery that surprised me most about the journey.

     If anything, it was experiencing the spell that Africa casts on visitors, seducing them with her infinite treasures and mystical charms, seeping into the blood like a malarial disease. It was the realization that once Africa gets into your system, she is forever there to stay.

For information on planning a customized African safari, contact Intrepid Expeditions.