Wednesday, 27 August 2014




Our ten-day August 2014 safari, with the Mallon family - Andy, Josh, Jake, Ben, and friend Ross - took us into the Mid-Zambezi Biosphere reserve and the 6000sq km Mid-Zambezi World Heritage Site before reaching its climax at the world-famous Mana Pools National Park.

It began in cloudy - and rather cool  - weather, with the drive to the Mavuradonha Wilderness Area, 500sq km of rugged Zambezi escarpment terrain set aside by the Muzarabani District Council to generate income for surrounding communities. Here's the view from the road through the Zambezi Escarpment -
The bare hills of the Great Dyke form the skyline; between them and us lie unbroken wilderness, cut with steep gorges and valleys.

Mavuradonha means "hills of water"  and we took a walk through the escarpment woodlands to one of the many secret little waterfalls on the edge of the escarpment mountains. The view of the waterfall from the top - 

The luxuriant vegetation on the steep climb down - 

- the view from the bottom, looking back up - 
 - and back to the top for refreshments and a preview of the Zambezi Valley. We'll descend into the Valley on the following morning, after overnighting in the Mavuradonha itself - something we like to do, as part of the proceeds goes to the rural communities that have voluntarily set this lovely area aside for our enjoyment.

The next day takes us even further from the beaten tourist track, down into the Zambezi Valley and westward to the wild country of the Dande and Chewore. The weather clears, and becomes hot; and we finally reach our base for the next two days: Wingpod Camp, deep in the wilderness, beside a little riverbed pockmarked with elephant footprints and lion pugmarks. It lies on the edge of the 6000sq km Mid-Zambezi World Heritage Site; it's totally basic - we have to set up our own showers, and carry in the water for them; it's totally wild; and, thanks to generous friends, ZIM4x4 has privileged access. 

During the night we hear our first hyaena and a distant lion, and in the morning the fresh spoor in the riverbed tells us of the passage of an elephant family. Today, though, we're looking for evidence of the wildlife that roamed a very different Zambezi Valley in a long-gone era. We check into the Parks station at Mkanga Bridge, collect a ranger (mandatory in these hunting areas) and set out on an exciting day of exploration, centred on the world-class dinosaur trackways of the Eastern Chewore. Here's our first taste, beside the Ntumbe River, at the first trackway that was discovered in the area:

These prints were made 240 million years ago - yes, 240 million years - way back in the Triassic, by a dinosaur believed to belong to the Allosaurus genus. For 99.99% of that time the prints lay buried beneath hundreds of metres of sedimentary sandstones and mudstones, which have slowly eroded away to reveal these prints in our own fleeting eyeblink of geological time. Allosaurus was "bipedal" - it walked on its hind legs - was 3-4m tall, and was a predator; not at all the kind of animal you'd want to meet in the bush today! 

But that's just a taste. The really exciting trackways lie deeper in the bush. Even many of the local Parks Authority rangers don't know where they are, but we do. We hold a briefing with map, compass and GPS before setting off into the bush.

It's hot; it's rugged; it's dotted with tiny little springs and waterholes, like this one; above all, it's wild, with the ever-present chance of running into buffalo, elephant, or a pride of lions. 

Some excitement along the way - have we discovered some hitherto unknown dinosaur prints, or is it just our imagination running as wild as the terrain? 

Maybe, maybe not. But there's no mistaking it when we finally reach our destination, in the bed of a tiny little tributary stream. 
These are just a few of the 40-plus prints left behind along a short section of exposed riverbed, all those 240 million years ago, by a whole pack of Allosaurus that seems to have been hunting where lions and leopard hunt today: amazing evidence of the continuity of wildlife throughout the Zambezi Valley's evolutionary history. 

And here's the view from our brunch stop - all the way across the Chewore wilderness to Charamba Kadoma, the sacred flat-topped mountain on the skyline. Tomorrow we'll be driving into this panorama, through the World Heritage Site and past Charamba Kadoma... 

...over dongas and dry riverbeds...

...through wildlife-haunted woodlands... a beautiful camp beside the Zambezi, where we fish through the dusk...

...and wake to a magical sunrise.

We have another route briefing before driving to Mana Pools itself - where we are almost immediately greeted by this lioness, lying up near the Trichelia turnoff. We spend a little time with her before continuing on to our exclusive campsite.

And in Mana? Four glorious days in our own secluded little domain, just wandering and relaxing, against a permanent backdrop of impala, kudu, eland and elephants; four nights with the eles meandering through our camp and the lions calling in the woodlands. We've put up many pictures from Mana before, so this time we'll just focus on the wild dogs that came through our camp early one morning. We tracked them as they went hunting nearby and caught up with them moments after they'd taken down an impala. Fast-paced action in difficult lighting, and a lot of adrenalin flowing, but Sal and Josh captured the essence of it all: 
Hunting... (Sally Wynn-Pitman)
Impala down, dead, the carcase hidden within a scrum of hungry wild dogs, and mostly dismembered in the minute or two it took us to catch up with the group (Sally Wynn-Pitman). Though they are habitual food sharers, it was difficult to discern any particular order of precedence in the general melee. Our count: 11 individuals.
Later, mild squabbles broke out over the few remaining scraps (Josh Mallon)...
...and a bit of "every dog for himself" going on here? (Josh Mallon)
Finally - nothing left except a few scraps, some stomach contents, hooves, and bloodsoaked ground (Sally Wynn-Pitman). The wild dogs begin to amble away in ones and twos, and we return to our camp. 
After such excitement, a few hours's fishing is called for, and a totally different "adrenalin rush" - that of hooking a good-sized tigerfish. It's hot and calm - superb early-season tigerfishing weather...

...and finally, to round off our safari, Andy Mallon catches a lovely 3kg fish. We fill it with herbs and rub garlic into its skin; then wrap it in foil and bake it whole on the campfire. Fifteen minutes a side and - fingers crossed as we open the foil - it's done to a turn. Catch'n'release is our usual order of the day but just now and again, on the last evening of a great safari, it's great to celebrate with a bit of hook'n'cook!

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