Thursday, December 28, 2006

African Images #4 Pack your mosquito repellant and anti-malaria tablets, we're going on safari!

Tribute to a relic of the past......a canoe safari on the Zambezi River in Zimbabwe

Sadly, I heard the news last week that Ian Nysschens died recently. He was in his late seventies, and the author of two books about his life as an elephant poacher. (Yes I know, totally not PC and all that, but he was a fascinating character, larger than life, and his stories kept us rivetted with fascination as he described an Africa that no longer exists.) We got to know him through Jane and Dave (my sister and brother-in-law) who helped him to get his first book published. (In fact some of the photos you will see here found their way into the book too!) It was a great privilege to be given a chance to read his original proofs of the autobiography before it was published.
He lived the sort of solitary life in the bush that one would associate with the pioneers of the wild west, they were independant, with strong codes of honour, which were very different to the codes we hold dear today.
In his later years, when the game department realised they were never going to catch him as a poacher, they offered him a job in conservation, and he used all his skills and insider knowledge to protect animals. He moved to Harare and bred horses, but never really settled down to city life. Every year he spent time in the Zambezi Valley, which was the only place he ever really felt at home.
He would take small groups of people on canoe safaris on the Zambezi, and about 10 years ago, we were privileged to go on one of them, at Mana Pools Game Reserve.
Mana pools, which is downstream from the Kariba dam, is a unique game reserve. It is in the Zambezi valley, on the Zimbabwean side, and has several types of vegetation, which make it a suitable home for many types of animals. The pools are formed in flood planes of the lower Zambezi, and because of difficult accessibility during the rains the Reserve is closed from November through April. (The baking summer months, even in winter, when it is open, the days are warm.)
In this part of Africa, there are very pronounced dry seasons and rainy seasons. In winter, there is no rain for several months, and the bush is incredibly dry. This is a view looking across the river to the Zambian side, which is in a perpetual haze of smoke at this time of the year, due to all the bushfires.
Only the major rivers, such as the Zambezi, continue to flow, most of the smaller rivers dry up, and the elephants are forced to dig for water. As we entered the park, we came across these two youngsters,
....and this is me photographing them from the bridge above the dry river bed.
A fascinating feature of the lowveld areas of central Africa is the Baobab tree, Which can grow to enormous sizes and can grow despite severe damage. In the dry season, elephants searching for moisture eat through their trunks. Here is an example, and Max photographing it while Ian explains it to us.
The variety of game and vegetation is wonderful.....
There are the pools, with hippos,
the famous acacia woodlands, much loved by buck, such as these magnificent kudu,
the areas close to the river, which remain moist, which are home to wetland animals such as the waterbuck (how do you like the target on her behind?)
the lowveld areas with baobab trees, and mopani woodlands
and the jesse bush which Ian Nysschens described in detail in his book "Months of the Sun" as the most dangerous place to come across a herd of elephant, because they will sense you long before you see them, and the Zambezi Elephants are famous for being particularly bad tempered around humans.
The camp sites are not fenced off at all so you wake up to elephants browsing in the trees above your tent, hippos strolling through the campsite at sunrise, on their way back to the river, after a night of browsing on land.
And you run the gauntlet of the hyenas, which have learned that campsites are a great source of food, and have become quite aggressive in their pursuit of it.On the Zambezi river, the most dangerous animal to come across are the hippos, which are responsible for more deaths in Africa than any other wild animal. We had a few hairy moments on our trip down the river, but were too busy rowing for our lives to take photos!

It is a wonderful experience, gliding along the river, in completely wild and unspoilt surroundings, and coming across these magnificent creatures. There are also some enormous crocodiles, so leaving the canoes at the end of the day is an interesting experience, where we landed there was a 3 metre long beauty on the bank, hoping we hadn't noticed him!
One of the other unique things about Mana is that you are allowed to walk around in the reserve, most African reserves do not allow you to leave your vehicle, because the animals are very dangerous.
We went for a stroll one afternoon, and came across these guys, which was a tad nerve-wracking! (OK, more than a tad!). Bear in mind that when we went on this trip, we did not have a camera with a large zoom lens! The African Buffalo has a well deserved reputation as one of the meanest animals around, he is not very bright, and has a very short fuse, he will charge and trample an intruder at the drop of a hat! Luckily his eyesight is poor, and Ian made sure that we were downwind of them!
As I was at the edge of the main pool.....

photographing this guy.... we picked up the unmistakable smell of cat urine, Ian confirmed that a lion was very close by and that it would be a good idea to walk back to the camp pronto!

I don't have the slightest understanding of what prompts guys to go and kill beautiful animals for the thrill of the hunt, but Ian was not one of those trophy hunter types. He did his hunting at a time when the species he hunted were plentiful, and he was just another predator living in the bush, not an ego driven tourist wanting to impress his buddies with a stuffed animal head on his wall. I don't condone what he did, but he was a fascinating individual. It was a real privilege to have known him, and to have been given a glimpse into his world.

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