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Survival Skills

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Teah and me in front of Byron's Land Rover.
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Wow, am I happy to be back in Harare with the rest of the team, I'm even happy to be back doing work on the computer and walking through these polluted streets! After the crazy adventure I just went through, coming face to face with death in the wilds of Africa, I'm just happy to be alive!

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Rhinos are especially dangerous when they think their young are threatened
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It all started harmlessly enough. I met up with five friends in Harare and we decided to take a trip to Mana Pools National Park in northern Zimbabwe. Mana Pools has the reputation for being the WILDEST national park in southern Africa. Not only do lions, leopards, cheetahs, wild elephants, buffalo, hippos, hyenas, and crocodiles call the park home, but unlike any other park in Zimbabwe, crazy and daring thrill-seekers are allowed to walk around unrestricted in Mana Pools. In other national parks with dangerous wildlife, visitors are restricted to vehicles on specific roads, and the only way to walk around through the 'bush' (where the animals roam) is to go with a park ranger or specialized guide, who usually carries firearms in case of dangerous situations. In Mana Pools, you can walk where the lion roams, canoe past the hippos' homes and sleep under the leopard's trees. Other travelers we had met had told us incredible stories about Mana Pools:

  • One friend had an enormous elephant charge through his camp while he was sleeping at night... luckily his tent wasn't in its path!

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  • I met a guide who used to lead canoeing safaris through Mana Pools and had lost six canoes there in just four months! Hippos hiding under the cover of the river would suddenly take a huge CHOMP out of the boat, sending sleeping bags, coolers, backpacks, and people floating downstream in the crocodile-infested waters.

  • One of my friends that I went with, Byron, had visited the park many years ago and told us all about the angry buffalo that chased him through the camp. He had to climb up a tree to get away!

After hearing such stories about Mana Pools, we must have all been crazy to go, especially Byron, since he actually lived through it before. But you know how it goes -- adventure knows no boundaries!

So six of us set off in Byron's old Land Rover, north out of Harare and into the lush, low Zambezi Escarpment, the large valley surrounding the Zambezi River, which separates Zimbabwe and Zambia. After arriving at the border of the park, we still had to drive over 2 hours down dirt roads to finally get to our campsite on the riverside. We rushed to unpack and set up our tents before the sun went down, then relaxed by the fire to cook dinner. The park rangers had warned us to stay within our camp after 6 p.m., as the animals can be more dangerous after dark. As we sat around the fire the sounds of the wild excited us and filled us with curiosity about what treasures this park would hold for us during the daylight. It was exciting at first, but when we saw the glowing eyes of the hyena a mere 10 feet away, and realized the sounds in the distance weren't actually that far at all, the excitement turned to fear. That night I lay awake in my tent, unable to sleep and I thought to myself, "What was that noise? Was that a hippo's growl or a lion's roar? Were those the thunderous footsteps of an elephant or of something else? How close was it to my tent?" I didn't dare stir from my tent until the sun had risen and I could hear the familiar human sounds of my friends unzipping their tents.

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Here a zebra, there a zebra, everywhere a zebra zebra
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In the morning we went on a game drive to get a better view of the entire park. During the drive, we also got a closer look at some of our wild neighbors like; the graceful impalas (a close relative of Bambi's); the sleek, striped zebras; the naughty, clever baboons; the mighty, thunderous elephants; the stubborn, big-horned buffaloes; the lazy, enormous hippos; the sneaky, slithery crocodiles; and the hovering, hungry vultures. We didn't see any lions, but we were definitely not bored! We decided to rent canoes to take a trip down the river and get a closer look at some of the wildlife as they come to drink from the river and cool off from the brutal sun. We got two three-seat canoes, each equipped with a pair of oars, and set off upstream. At first, we were only thinking about the fun of canoeing and the thrill of seeing the animals up close. We were all trying to see the king of the jungle, concentrating on the land animals that come up to the river to quench their thirst. We were completely unmindful of the fact that as soon as we set off into the flow of the mighty Zambezi River, we became defenseless prey, just waiting for the hidden creatures that live in the water to find us.

Enter the Hungry Hippo and the Creepy Crocodile...

Now I understand why hippos are so dangerous!
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It wasn't long before the creatures of the water let us know it was their turf we were on. Within minutes of leaving, the huge face of a hippo emerged from underwater right in front of our canoe and let out an enormous roar! My heart stood still. I screamed, "Stop the canoe! Go left! Get out of its way!" Unfortunately none of us have ever had much experience with canoes before (a slight oversight on our parts) and we couldn't quite make the canoe do what we wanted it to. The force of the Zambezi seemed to be carrying us directly towards this gigantic animal -- the most dangerous of all the wild animals in Africa, responsible for more human deaths than the lion, elephant, and buffalo combined!

Somehow, we managed to escape the close call and pass the hippo, continuing up stream. We were lucky that time. At least the hippos rose and let us know he was there. Often, hippos stay submerged underwater, and can't be seen as you canoe up the river. Problems start when canoeists surprise hippos and the hippos get angry and start working their jaws. We continued up river a bit longer. I started to get scared. The waters seemed too still. There must be some hippos nearby. We started to bang on the canoe and make noise so the hippos would know we were coming. Sure enough, within minutes we heard the grunt of a hippo as he emerged from below. This time, he wasn't alone, as the eyes and noses of at least 3 or 4 hippos could be seen ahead. Unfortunately, this time the hippos were to our left, close to the shore, so we had to paddle right towards the island in the middle of the river. As we struggled to get the canoe moving right, we all started to panic a bit. The canoe wouldn't stop when we wanted it to and wouldn't go where we needed it to. We seemed completely helpless. We paddled frantically and finally we got it moving to the right.

Doesn't look too friendly... When we made it to the banks of the island, we decided to pull up close to it to rest a bit and catch our breath. As we sat in our canoes, relieved once again at escaping that close call, the shore on which we were resting our oars started to move. As it turns out, what we thought was mere sand and rocks was nothing but a well camouflaged crocodile! We screamed and pushed off the shore and almost tipped the canoe over as we tried to lean away from the crocodile while he slithered in to the river.

That was enough. I can take a little adventure, but this was plain stupidity! "Please, the next time we get close to shore, please just let me off!" I begged my friends. I knew they would have a much better time canoeing without my screaming and worrying. So, after we safely cleared the group of hippos that were close to the shore, we started pulling up to land. I was so happy to see my friend Teah, already standing on shore ahead of us. She couldn't take it anymore either, and so she decided to get out of her canoe too. "Let the boys have their fun canoeing on without us. It would be one thing if we knew how to control the canoes, but I'm not going on like this!" she exclaimed as I got out of my canoe and joined her.

The boys paddled away reluctantly while Teah and I walked away relieved. "I never thought I'd be so happy to be walking on land!" I exclaimed.

"Yeah, but we're not at the camp yet, who knows, it could be safer to be in a canoe," said Teah cautiously.

I reassured her that nothing could be as dangerous as canoeing out of control in water filled with hippos and crocodile. "At least on land we know how to escape!" But maybe I spoke too soon...

Enter the Sinister Swamp... We started walking in the direction of the camp, and upon walking up the slight hill we realized our new predicament. What we thought was safe, solid land was really an island! On one side was the mighty Zambezi and on the other, a big, stagnant swamp. The swamp was covered with plant life...perfect for hiding any number of crocodiles who love to rest in such places. In addition to the probable crocodiles in the swamp, we also remembered all the warnings we had heard about the bugs and germs you could catch from being exposed to still waters in Africa. Neither Teah nor I wanted to risk having thousands of worms laying eggs in our veins and under our skin, so we figured our only option would be to go back to the shore of the river and wait for the boys to return back down river. Accepting defeat, we turned to go back to the river...

Enter the Belligerent Buffalo...

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Big herd of buffalos
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Immediately upon turning to head back to the river, we found ourselves face to face with an enormous and angry buffalo. He snorted and stared through the core of our beings as we stood there in fear and gawked at his large, sharp horns. Okay... here's where we really panic!

The buffalo started walking slowly towards us, as he obviously wanted us off his island. We couldn't go back to the shore to get picked up by the boys because the buffalo was blocking our path. We had no choice but to cross the dreadful swamp.

We were terrified. There wasn't a stick on the island that we could use to poke ahead of us to see how deep the swamp got. I tried dipping my leg in while holding on to Teah, and jerked back in fear when I never touched the bottom. How deep was this sinister swamp? How many crocodiles, deadly diseases, or parasites lay hidden in its murky waters? There was no time to ponder as the buffalo was getting closer and more impatient.

"You go first," I told Teah.

"No, you should, you're older!" she exclaimed. "And you've been all over the world!"

"What does that have to do with anything? I haven't swam through life-threatening swamps all over the world!"

One of the biggest concerns with coming in contact with swamp or lake water in Africa is bilharzia, which is very common in Zimbabwe and caused by minute worms that live in the veins of the bladder and large intestine. They are attracted to warmth and will hone in on an unsuspecting warm human body almost instantly after entering the water. They can enter the skin within 30 seconds, and once in your body they reproduce thousands of eggs in your intestine and bladder. It is a painful and dangerous disease. Teah and I might have escaped Mana Pools alive, but we're still not completely in the clear. We could be carrying this extremely dangerous and harmful worm. Luckily there is treatment for bilharzia, so if a doctor's test proves positive, I'll be able to treat it!

Holding hands, we took a step forward together. By the second step, we were already in past our knees and sinking fast into the mushy, stinky, slimy swamp bottom. I realized that if we walked fast, the green vegetation that grew on top of the swamp could support us, but if we hesitated, we would sink. So with all the courage I could muster up, I jumped ahead, trying to quickly stay above the green growth. I was making good progress, when all of a sudden my foot slipped through the overgrowth and the vines wrapped around my legs and pulled me under.

At that moment, I resigned myself to the idea of dying in that stinky swamp. Teah looked on from behind in fear, unable to help me in my sorry state. I tried one last time to free my legs from the tangled vines, and finally it worked. I ripped free from their grip and shot forward in the final stretch between me and land.

Teah followed my lead and within minutes we were on land...solid, stable, land! We were out of breath from the panic and the struggle, overwhelmed in that fine line between laughter and tears, and even though we were covered in filthy, smelly swamp muck we hugged, thankful to still be alive!

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We went back to our camp and bathed and relaxed under the warm sunlight. When the boys came back we recounted our traumatic island experience and they told us about their subsequent close calls with hippos and crocodiles. We were all ready to spend the rest of the day relaxing and being lazy. Mana Pools had definitely given us enough adventure for the day.

But tomorrow brings a new day, and with a new day comes new adventures, right? I'll have to tell you about our next day in the wild Mana Pools National Park sometime: Enter the King of the Jungle...

Kavitha
 

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