Dust, heat and camaraderie – Mana Pools game count – Baobabwe – Issue 5
At 4.30am I become aware of the ﬁrst sounds of movement. By 5.00 Nyamepi camp is a mass of torches and chatter as two hundred odd campers start getting ready for the day. People move in the faint light of dawn to the information desk, positioned under an ancient Natal Mahogany (Trichilia Emetica), to collect their recording sheets. Once GPS’, compass’, pencils, cameras and thermos ﬂasks are packed and other team members located, vehicles of all descriptions start leaving camp for the Mana Pools ﬂood plain and the start of the mornings game count.
There’s a tradition, amongst some of my friends and I, that when it’s full moon in September we all head off to the Zambezi valley. This year was no exception, our group of seven nationalities, joined 290 other people from all walks of life, who like us, had also volunteered to take part in the seventeenth annual Mana Pools-game count.
The Mana game count is organised by the Makonde Wildlife Society and all volunteers are members of the ‘Wildlife and Environment Zimbabwe’. It is possible to either do a static count, which are based at pre allocated waterholes or the walking count. This year’s 40 static counters were each allocated one of 10 different waterholes and as a team count the number of diurnal and nocturnal animal visitors over a 24 hour period from midnight on Friday to midnight on the Saturday. The static teams love the solitude of their locations and return to the same place year after year.
The larger percentage of volunteers however are the 240 to 260 walkers, who have the privilege of walking unaccompanied, for a worthy cause, through the alluvial ﬂood plains of what is one of Zimbabwe’s four World Heritage Sites. Normally there are 40 teams, consisting of three to six walkers but in 2010 we only had 35, including the team who lost their car keys for the whole duration of the count! Teams walk 500 meters apart on a due north compass bearing between longitude 40 degrees and 58.5 degrees. All the walks start from either the inland Sapi or Zebra Vlei roads and if the GPS / compass navigators of the teams know their stuff, they will walk onto the River Road check point before ﬁnishing on the stunning banks of the Zambezi river.
Teams start walking at different times so that they can all theoretically sweep the ﬂood plain in a line, which makes counting more efficient. Each team counts animals 250 meters to their left and right and it is the job of the poor team scribe to write down how many animals are seen, their sex, the direction they are travelling in and the time of day they are seen. Recording the time assists when collating data as it is easier to see if two teams have counted the same animals as they walk across the transects.
Animals can also end up getting counted twice as some teams walk faster than others and this year, the normal four permanent waterholes, from which Mana gets its name, (Mana means four in the local language) were joined by other stunning pools, which made for some interesting detours. This year’s excess surface water was due to the good late rains last rainy season. Over the years the ﬁgures show that there has been a stable to slight increase in the animals on the ﬂoodplain, which is very positive indeed.
On top of the organisers, admin staff and volunteers there are also sponsorts. Lewisham Family Butchery provides the meat and J Mann & Co provides the drinks for the compulsory Friday stop at the Keg and Baobab, an improvised bar under one of the Baobab trees that are in the middle of the road into Nyamepi Camp. A cold drink and a boerworse roll after the drive in from Harare are well received and it often appears that more beers are consumed by volunteers manning the bar than by the people driving in. All compulsory donations are passed onto the chosen wildlife charity for that year. J Watte Investments from Harare and the McDonald family from Durban are also annual investors.
After eight years of participation in the count I’ve seen some magniﬁcent areas of the floodpain that I would not ever see on a normal Mana visit. This year we were surrounded by elephant in the bush on the Saturday morning walk, had to wait for 200 plus buffalo to pass on the Saturday afternoon walk and walked into a startled leopard on Sunday morning. OK it wasn’t our team (not that I’m jealous at all) that saw the leopard but our friends that we were sharing our campsite with who were on the adjoining transect . It was quite a shock for both the National Parks guide, navigator and leopard.
Each walk is different and sometimes we don’t see much game, but it doesn’t matter as the trees, birds, smells and atmosphere of Mana are special enough in their own right, and even though the hyenas steal the cool boxes, Nyamepi’s resident elephant graze acacia pods inches from your tent and the four resident buffalo lie in the path to the toilets, I wouldn’t miss the dust, heat and camaraderie for anything.