Zimbabwe, Mana Pools: A game park where guests can walk among the wildlife

Brain researchers say that when death is near your life may flash before your eyes. Your life history – all the precious little moments – will explode like tiny video grabs since the part of the brain which stores memories is last to be affected as other functions fail.

I'd counter that – when death seems not only possible, but probable, there's no time to think of anything at all. There's just brainlessness … complete and total imbecility.

Here, on this obscenely hot afternoon, my guide has gambled that a pride of lions has no energy to attack, so we're circling a dozy male. We're 25 metres away from his resting place in the shade when two lions charge from the undergrowth, cartwheeling in a mock wrestle. When they see us I'm not sure who's most startled. They stop their fight and stare, every sinew of muscle poised to attack.

Here – on foot as we are, and barely 15 metres away – we're exposed. In these milliseconds I don't even think to stand behind the guide and his rifle. And then, finally, the male relaxes his shoulders and turns his gaze away – we're safe.

"If they charged," the guide tells me. "We were dead. There's no way I could've got my gun to my shoulder, got the safety [catch] off and squeezed the trigger."

Death by big game attack is rare but still a risk and this game park sets itself apart from all others by allowing visitors to walk around on foot, even without a guide. Wildlife in other parks in southern Africa will typically move away if humans get out of a vehicle and try to approach on foot. Here, however, the animals have become more accustomed to it, which means visitors can get closer to big game than at any other park in Africa. Think of this, then, as the Galapagos Islands of game parks.

For those who thought they'd done safaris, walking here among big game will change the way you think about an African vacation. As author Dick Pitman writes in Wild Places of Zimbabwe: "Down here, the wilderness still rules and man must obey it to survive."

If Mana Pools were in any other southern African country, it would boast the world-wide kudos of Kenya's Masai Mara Reserve or Tanzania's Serengeti. A World Heritage site since 1984, it's spread across the flat floor of the Zambezi Valley flanked by the fast-flowing waters of the Zambezi River and the high escarpment ranges across the river in Zambia. Because of its relative obscurity, and probably because many travellers remain cautious about visiting Zimbabwe, I'm the only guest in camp when I arrive via Cessna from Harare.

John's Camp, where I've touched down, is run by one of southern Africa's best-known big game guides, Rhodesian War veteran John Stevens. It's here where Zambian-born best-selling author Wilbur Smith researched his novels, detailing dynasties of big game hunters and basing some of his most enduring characters on Stevens himself.


Stevens is away on business, so guide David Amyot shows me around camp. "You're lucky you weren't here last night, no-one got any sleep," he says by way of introduction. "Lions were having sex right outside my tent. Every 15 minutes for eight hours [lions can mate up to 100 times a day, for five days straight]."

My tent is set up to look across the flood plains of the Zambezi, where elephant and buffalo feed. "If you hear drums, stay in your tent," Amyot warns. "It means there are lions in camp."

After seeing out the hottest hours on a day-bed in a treehouse, Amyot gets me set for my first big game walk. He'll lead – holding his vintage Rigby rifle – with a local guide behind me.

"Stay right behind me and never run," he cautions. And I see that this is like no game drive I've done. We're not the ones doing the hunting; it's we who are being hunted. Every rustle in the bush is an elephant cow ready to gore me; every bird in a tree, a lion ready to pounce. Nothing focuses the mind quite like the realisation that you no longer stand on top of the food chain.

We walk by elephants and Amyot whispers that this herd aren't a threat but warns elephants are our biggest threat. "Look at their tails, completely limp," he says. "They go stiff, watch out." We pass by lions and buffalo, predators we have no right, surely, to walk among. As the sun loses its sting, offering a softness to the landscape, I start to feel comfortable, confident almost – like I'm one of the heroes of Smith's novels.

Next stop takes me to the banks of the Zambezi where a safari tent is set up metres from the river. This creates unique issues, such as Mitch. A resident hippo – Africa's deadliest animal – Mitch has taken to roaming freely through camp of late. "But he chases the lions away," I'm told.

While I can walk with animals here, I'm keen to try an activity difficult to access anywhere else. I'll be paddling a two-man kayak down a river infested with Nile crocodiles (the second-largest, and second-most-aggressive, crocodile behind our own salt-water variety) and hippos.

Because hippos can sleep under the water, it's important we strike our kayaks with our paddles as we journey downstream to wake them up. If a hippo is woken and gets a fright, they'll likely up-end us. Though I'm warned it's the crocs we should be more cautious of and that they'll be the ones to finish us off.

My guide, JK, shows me the .357 pistol he has in a holster, and tells me not to put my hands in the river.

It's as pretty as it is treacherous out here on the Zambezi and the mountains lining the horizon look closer now with the crispness of the evening light.

Each time a hippo is startled, it thrusts its body above the water with an almighty splash, then stays up, its eyes on us. As we get close to camp, JK looks nervous. He has seen a hippo go underwater, but hasn't seen it rise. "Come on, where are you big boy?" he shouts. But it doesn't attack us – and as it was with the startled lions, I know I could be dead, but I'm sure happy that I'm not.

In Mana Pools, you really need not go looking for trouble … trouble comes to you. An hour's drive away from the Zambezi, big game congregate at one of the only waterholes this far from the river, desperate to drink. Beside it is Kanga Camp, where guests can watch animals from a lounge area within a camp set on a platform. Armchair safari is what they call this, it's an eon away from the constant adrenalin of the walking safari, but at night leopards come right into camp, and by day you won't see too many more elephants this close anywhere in Africa.

I'm at the platform one evening watching leopards drink from the waterhole when a gigantic bull elephant barges through camp, and stops to drink from the plunge pool beside me. Our guide tells me to wade into the water slowly. The bull drops his trunk into the water beside me, and takes it back to his mouth. He could kill me with an almighty swing of that trunk … but he doesn't.

When I leave, I join a game drive in a more popular game park, outside Zimbabwe. I'm aboard a Land Cruiser, and my fellow passengers are comparing the size of their lenses – and which of the Big Five they've crossed off their bucket list. They're ordering the driver around like he's their personal chauffeur, desperate for the next great wildlife photo. As I hear them talk, I think about what the Lonely Planet calls safari fatigue, and I long to be back on foot: one of the hunted, not another over-pampered hunter.



Built on the shores of Lake Kariba, this park is famous for its black rhino, elephants and buffalo. It also offers some of the world's best tiger fishing.


Most famed for its white and black rhino breeding programs, its black eagles and for being the last resting place of Cecil Rhodes, who founded Rhodesia and set up the Rhodes scholarship.


You won't find crowds here, but the park has found fame for having one of the largest populations of elephants on earth. It's the largest park in the country.


Craig Tansley travelled courtesy of The Classic Safari Co and South African Airways.





South African Airways flies to Harare via Johannesburg and Perth from $1600 return. See flysaa.com


Stay four nights for $US3640 a person, including all accommodation, meals, drinks, activities, park fees, safari guides and flights from Harare. See classicsafaricompany.com.au