Test all limits in the Nissan Navara
Test all limits in the Nissan Navara

Group therapy at its best

Nervous about joining Simon and Des Steadman of Ultimate Adventures, and a group of strangers on a bucket-list wild camping trip to Mana Pools in Zimbabwe, David Cairncross soon realised that sharing such an exciting experience with likeminded outdoor enthusiasts makes it all the more special.

While doing our research and reading advertisements about wild camping tours to dream destinations like Mana Pools, my wife and I had a slightly negative mindset. Camping in the great unknown with a group of equally unknown people? Us? Never! Despite our initial trepidation we signed up and truth be told, it was one of the best decisions we ever made. We are all different and often we do not even realise what other people have to put up with as a result of our peculiarities and requirements. Hence, we decided to join this tour with a mindset to be both accommodating and our natural selves, taking into consideration the overarching need for everyone to have the best time possible. Fortunately our chosen tour company, with hosts Simon and Des Steadman of Ultimate Adventures, was just perfect for our needs. Simon has the ability to put everyone at ease, no matter how diverse the people in the group are. And diverse we certainly were! The group consisted of South Africans and visitors from Australia and the UK – both young and old. We soon realised that by joining this tour we would not only see the best nature had to offer but would also experience nature’s magical way of healing the soul. Several weeks have gone by since our return but wonderful memories keep popping up on a daily basis, prompting us into a yearning for the next exciting adventure.

Getting there

Enter Zimbabwe via Beitbridge or choose a different route? This was one of the questions we asked ourselves after hearing numerous reports about negative experiences at this particular border post. We opted to heed the warnings about Beitbridge and head to Zim via Botswana, through the Groblersbridge border post, instead. We met our fellow adventurers for the first time at Woodlands, just north of Francistown, where we camped for the first night before entering Zimbabwe at the Plumtree border post the next day. We enjoyed an easy journey to Gweru via Bulawayo and spent the night at the well-established, intimate and privately owned, Antelope Game Sanctuary on the outskirts of the town. The resident lions roared enthusiastically for much of the night, providing us all with that ever wonderful and uniquely special feeling of being in the wild. Historic, adverse publicity regarding road conditions and police roadblocks, had many of us feeling concerned about driving in Zimbabwe. Much to our surprise and delight, however, we experienced the complete opposite. The roads were of a generally high standard and although there were regular roadblocks, we were always waved through in a friendly and unthreatening manner, without any harassment whatsover. Onward to Lake Kariba and Mana Pools.

We joined the A1 heading north at Chinhoyi, It was busy, with a continuous flow of mostly heavy trucks in both directions. The road is narrow and has deteriorated in places, leaving dangerously jagged road edges and large potholes to contend with. To exacerbate this, many truck drivers seemed to have a complete disregard for the speed limit and blatantly flout the basic rules of the road, causing potentially serious and regular accident situations. All of this was soon forgotten, though, when we caught our first glimpse of Kariba, the largest man-made lake in the world. Eyes were filled with tears and skins turned to goose flesh at the incredible. What an awesome experience! Our two-day stopover at Lomagundi campsite allowed us the opportunity to experience some of what the area has to offer, and we will definitely be back. We were also able to do some last-minute shopping at the local Pick ‘n Pay in preparation for Mana Pools and were impressed with the quality and variety of supplies available. The excitement was almost palpable as we departed for Mana Pools. We rejoined the A1 at Makanda and after a short and easy drive we reached the turn-off that would take us to Camp Nyamepi.

Around 70km of dirt road followed and although it was rough in patches, deflating our tyres, engaging central diff-lock and maintaining safe speeds did the trick and we reached our destination with relative ease. Our campsite on the banks of the mighty Zambezi River could not have been better. We were welcomed by the loud snorting and grumbles of the local hippo population, something that became a constant part of our stay. Now, sitting back at home we miss the constant interruptions and sound effects made by these noisy animals.

Amazing animal encounters

Although we experienced relatively dry and warm conditions, we were never disappointed with the varied and plentiful animal life in the park. Game drives are permissible from 06:00 to 18:00 and is strictly monitored by the park authorities. We quickly realised the seriousness of not complying when one of our fellow campers was nearly expelled from the park for driving outside of these stipulated hours. In his defense, he was following a pride of lion that had strolled right through our camp at 05:00 in the morning.

We are regular visitors to South African National Parks, including the Kruger, but the game viewing at Mana Pools was better than anything we had experienced before. Even our visits to northern Botswana and Namibia, although unique and exceptional in their own way, could not compete with what we experienced at Mana Pools. It is one of the few game parks where it is permissible to exit your vehicle and walk around. It is advisable, however, to utilise the services of a suitably qualified local guide. The camps have no fences and interaction between animals and humans is a daily occurrence. As was often discussed in our group, one can actually sit in the comfort of your own camp chair and you are almost guaranteed to see at least three of the Big Five right on your doorstep. On a single day we had elephants, buffaloes, lions, leopards, and hyenas in the camp. The only disappointing aspect of the park is that there are no longer rhinos present.

One of the major highlights of the trip was our experience with the endangered African wild dogs. During our regular game drives, these so-called painted dogs were high on our wish list of animals to spot, and I cannot describe the excitement and adrenaline rush once they were found. This was somewhat enhanced when, abiding strictly by all the protocols and heeding the advice of our guide, we exited our vehicle and cautiously approached them while they rested peacefully in an open clearing. Spending almost an hour in close proximity to these magnificent animals, in their natural environment, is a memory my wife and I will cherish forever. We have seen and photographed wild dogs before but had never been privileged enough to experience the intimacy and uniqueness of this amazing opportunity.

We had incredible encounters and experiences with His creation on a daily basis. Buffaloes literally came within a metre from where were resting in our hammocks one afternoon. Elephants quietly passed by our camp site on their way to the river. We spotted and heard leopard in the camp after dark and lions strolled casually right through our camp. Hippos passed our tents during the night to find grazing. And let’s not forget regular visits from those who laugh in your face after scaring you… the hyenas.

Evenings under the stars

Sundowners on the banks of the Zambezi were nothing short of spectacular, with Simon and Des selecting the perfect spot each evening. The whole group gathered for these special occasions and interesting conversation enthusiastically ensued about the events and sightings of the day. Master P, the young an energetic Ultimate Adventures chef prepared exceptional dinners in his camp kitchen every evening. The menu was always well balanced, with a variety of tasty offerings prepared to perfection. Simplicity is his success … delicious spaghetti bolognaise, oxtail potjie to die for, perfectly prepared steaks and mutton dishes like no other were just some examples of his handiwork and innovation. Incredibly, meals concluded with freshly made dessert which encompassed a perfect milk tart, a mouth-watering peppermint tart made on the fire and other delectable choices. One small criticism was that, thanks to Master P, my new pair of pants shrunk whilst on this tour…

The group dynamics worked exceptionally well and conversations around the campfire in the evenings were always stimulating and fun filled. Often such tours can be spoiled by a grumpy assortment of participants. Our group proved to be a perfect mix of like-minded folk who simply wanted to have a great time and enjoy every moment. I firmly believe too that one’s own attitude to such tours plays a major role in determining its success. Des has a nightly tradition of asking each member of the group to chat briefly about their particular highlights of the day. This proved to be a lot of fun with fellow campers and new friends passionately expressing their views … often to much hilarity all around!

In the presence of a legend

One of the true legends of Mana Pools is Boswell the elephant. Simon had told the group about this wonderful animal whose name was derived from the renowned Boswell Wilkie Circus of years gone by. We were always on the lookout, hoping to spot him as his claim to fame is his uncanny ability to stand up on his hind legs to reach juicy branches in the trees above. Try though we did, Boswell, massive in stature, evaded us during all of our Mana Pools game drives.

Our wish was ultimately and timeously granted. Much to our delight Boswell, in all his magnificence, popped in at camp on our final morning. As if on cue to bid us a fond farewell, he suddenly appeared, standing fully erect on his hind legs. What an incredibly special ending to a remarkable six days.

Thanks for the memories

Hats off to Simon, Des and Master P. From beginning to end everything was exceptionally professional, well organised and completely reliable. For us it was a dream come true and we have already booked for two more of their exciting tours and cannot wait to be part of another Ultimate Adventure.

Choose your ultimate Adventure

Ultimate Adventures is run by Simon and Des Steadman. They offer top quality self-drive adventure tours throughout the African continent and beyond, always going the extra mile with top-notch catering, courtesy of a chef on each trip. Their trips are immensely popular and the 2023 calendar is filled with amazing bucket list adventures:

CONTACT: +27 84 447 4666 | simon@ultimateadventures.tv | www.ultimateadventures.tv

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