The highlight of our time in Zimbabwe was a trip to Mana Pools, about two hundred miles north of Harare. Totally unknown prior to our arrival, we heard numerous stories from guests at the UZ Visitor’s Lodge about a wildlife viewing experience thoroughly unlike that of more well-known destinations such as the Serengeti or Masai Mara. Mana Pools is the only game park in Zimbabwe offering walking safaris that attempt to recreate the classic big-game hunts of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—before the advent of satellite phones, Land Rovers, GPS location systems, and trucks laden with luxury provisions and all the comforts of home. Back then the only game you saw was what your guides could locate on foot, and the only provisions available to you were those carried on the backs of porters. It sounded fascinating so Ruth and I purchased a four-day packaged tour to Mana Pools from a local travel agency.
We were met at the park’s front gate by our guide, Willie DeBeers, a grizzled sixty-something Afrikaner toting a massive elephant gun and missing two fingers on his right hand, courtesy of a close encounter with a spotted hyena. Each day our group of a dozen or so would walk for six to eight hours searching for game as Willie kept a watchful eye to the front for unfriendly beasts; the porters had our backs. Since we were on foot and without access to a locked vehicle for safety, we would stop when passing a tall stand of grass to let Willie make sure nothing unfriendly was lurking in the shadows. Our daily route was not preplanned but dictated by any signs of animal life spotted by the guide—footprints, spoor, recent kills—as well as the presence of irritable beasts that required a large cushion of space between themselves and human intruders.
One morning we happened across a massive bull elephant only a few hundred feet ahead, bellowing and scraping the ground with his right front leg. Willie informed us this behavior meant he was about to charge, and right on cue he did–all four tons of him, heading straight for the group at a full gallop. I froze in utter terror until he came to a dead stop not thirty feet away. Willie laughed and informed us he could tell from the animal’s demeanor this would be a “false charge,” and that the elephant would stop before reaching us. We were then told to move slowly backward from the angry beast—still standing in front of us—and everything would be just fine. He had let the elephant charge to give us some excitement and provide a great story for friends and family back home.
Three weeks later a story appeared on the front page of the Zimbabwe Herald about a University of Zimbabwe geography professor trampled to death by a rogue elephant at Mana Pools. I can only assume this animal was uninformed about Willie’s rule requiring all elephants to clearly indicate a false charge. This was a little too much for me in the way of recreating nineteenth-century realism, but Willie was right about one thing. I did end up telling this story to family and friends as soon as I got back home.