John Stevens likes nothing better than walking in the bush, but a close second comes talking in the bush! Guests are left enthralled as he regales them with stories of adventure, humour and sheer wonder. Taking our cue from these treasured moments around the campfire, you’ll hear a tale or two from him or one of us in the team – every now and then!
This time, it’s Laura’s turn – here’s her newsy update from a recent visit to John’s Camp in Mana Pools. We hope you enjoy.
All the magic of Mana just kept on rolling in…
The leopard can see me looking at her through my camera lens. She’s balanced on a branch about 20 feet up a mahogany tree along the riverine forest road. The wind slowly shifts the leaves that surround her, shaping a shroud around the unfortunate baboon in her grasp. Her stare is disarmingly intense; they say never look a leopard in the eye, particularly if on foot, as leopards rely so heavily on their camouflage that if they know they’ve been seen, they either “fight or flight”. You don’t want them to fight. But in this case, she stayed right where she was, clearly not happy about the human spectators below.
It was tracker and John’s Camp learner guide, Obert, who had first spotted the distinctive scrape and tracks across the dirt road, indicating where a leopard had dragged its kill.
These few, rare moments spent with her, this most magnificent but elusive creature, were just one of the many highlights of our most recent trip to Mana Pools and Robin Pope Safaris’ John’s Camp in early November. Accompanied by my partner, my recently returned-to-Africa daughter and her brand-new American husband, we spent long days just gasping, awed by the beauty of the Zambezi, one of Africa’s great rivers – its mirrored pools and channelled flood plain littered with flitting white egrets and spurting hippos… we were captivated by shimmering clouds of quelea rising and rolling in murmuring unison across the bluest skies. We thrilled at close encounters with elephant, buffalo, painted wolves and lion, the drama and intrigue of their wild lives unfolding in front of us, as if curated especially. We could have sat for hours, amused by the antics of baboons, their squatting silhouettes outlined in gold by the afternoon sun.
And for all these adventures, the lure of camp and its creature comforts, the wonderfully warm staff and delicious food, proved strong at the end of each carefree day. We could feel ourselves relaxing into the luxury of the perfect setting, with views across the shimmering plains, the river and the mountains beyond, their lilac-brown-blue rolls forming the Rift Valley’s tail.
“… come and find me and we’ll fish together.”
I spent some time chatting to Tawanda, newly appointed camp manager at John’s Camp, whose wide smile and generous warmth defines the personality of the camp.
You can feel that smile the moment you drive in to camp, after a short half hour transfer from the airstrip. It’s in the attentive welcome of the staff, who greet you like long-lost friends, the thoughtful arrival gift of a cool, fragrant towel and fresh lemon drink just the right revival in the midday heat.
The casually stylish setting of the main guest area allows you to take a moment under shade and look out at what will be your view for the next few days. And, as if on cue, an elephant, almost nonchalantly, wanders into frame, tugging at the leaves of a stunted tree just metres away.
Tawanda grew up in the wake of what you might call safari royalty; John Stevens, one of Africa’s renowned safari guides, would, in his off time, visit a friend’s dam just down the road in Harare. He’d arrive in his trusty Land Rover, go out on a canoe with dog, Tamarind, and, armed with a fishing rod, while away a lazy afternoon.
Young Tawanda, whose parents worked for the property owners, was often there, too, sitting on the edge of the dam with his simple reed rod and length of fishing line.
John chatted each time to the little boy and one day gave him a fancy rubber fishing lure.
Their friendship forged, they’d fish together often, bobbing about in the canoe… sometimes in companionable silence and sometimes, when the fishing was quiet, with John’s stories of faraway places and wild animals resonating across the water.
John would often go away on safari, sometimes for months on end, leaving his small friend, but he told him, “Whenever you see my Land Rover, come and find me and we’ll fish together.”
After Tawanda finished school, he was employed by the Stevens family for various odd jobs around the house and garden, and accompanied the family to the Zambezi Valley once, camping alongside the river.
It was here that Tawanda’s life-changing moment came. He caught the biggest tiger fish ever, but it was he who was well and truly hooked by Mana.
When the Stevens’ daughter, Sarah, and her husband, Milo, decided to resurrect John and Nicci’s old, tented camp and set up their own operation in Mana Pools, Tawanda was a natural choice to join the team as Milo’s right hand man.
Milo and Sarah Harrup with their children, Imogen and Max, Mana Pools 2022
Milo’s energy, charm and clever innovations alongside Sarah’s unassuming creativity and tasteful influences combined to create a camp that is now a firm favourite amongst aficionados for its genuine safari offering. Classic comfort, really good food, thoughtful touches, a great team – with an emphasis on excellent guiding, John’s Camp is today unique in Mana’s safari offering for having found just the right balance.
Part-owned, in recent years, by Robin Pope Safaris, the smooth efficiency and experience of these seasoned safari operators only enhances Milo and Sarah’s warm family values and personal touch.
Shown to our respective tents, we lingered there awhile, taking in not just the lovely settings amongst trees and the glorious spans of nature out front, but the simple style of our bedrooms en suite, complete with everything we could possibly need, from patio chairs, comfy beds, neat campaign-style wardrobes, a basin with running water, flushing toilet, and bucket shower (a small and appealing nod to classic camping life!), filled each evening with warm water or cool for daytime bursts of refreshment.
To describe our days of wildlife interactions from John’s Camp is to risk arousing in you great envy and lamentation. In all my visits to Mana, this time takes the cake in spectacular sightings and experiences. Our first day saw us walking inland from the floodplain with our guide, and into a scene that’s on top of everyone’s bucket list when they come to Mana – there was “Boswell” and his band of brothers walking through the bush, from one Faidherbia albida tree to the next in search of tasty pods and juicy leaves.
Boswell is one of Mana’s iconic bull elephants who pushes up on his hind legs, arches his back and lifts his enormous front half off the ground to stretch up into the seemingly unreachable heights of the tree, his trunk finding and pulling on the tender leafy branches there. Boswell has learnt this specialised feeding technique, only seen in two areas of Africa, (here in Mana and in an area in Namibia known as the Kaokoveld), from his elders before him. Wrapping his trunk around the branch and letting gravity do the rest, Boswell comes back to earth with an impressive amount of juicy foliage. The younger bulls follow him around, hoping for easy pickings, but perhaps also picking up a few tips for their own future forages…
We walked with him for a while from a respectful distance, this old gentleman of Mana aware of our presence but allowing us to enjoy his company.
From here, driving back into camp, we were fortunate to see lions up close under a shady tree, panting and lethargic, but also in camp later that night, when four males infiltrated the large buffalo herd on the floodplain in front of our dinner table. Great excitement ensued and from our safe vantage point, we watched and listened to the drama unfold.
And it just kept on keeping on… a wildlife spectacular like nothing I’ve ever personally experienced at Mana Pools before… the next day, our morning drive took us almost directly into the path of a fleeing impala, closely followed by a pack of excited painted wolves. They ran on and we found them soon after in a forested area, where they had succeeded in their hunt, and were feasting hungrily, yipping and growling over the kill.
A couple of peaceful hours followed, as we relaxed by Long Pool with the hippos, watching the incredible variety of birdlife, (our arms tiring from constantly holding up binoculars!), and eyeing out cunning crocodiles sneaking up on unsuspecting egrets and lapwings. Then a flurry of startled shrieks and feathers as they escaped for another day, phew.
Sundowners at the end of each day were serenaded by grunting hippos and the splashy footsteps of elephants wading through the shallows. Above us and along the brooding escarpment, the season’s rain clouds were slowly gathering, promising relief to the parched landscape and there, across the floodplain, the glittering lights of camp beckoned us to yet another delicious dinner.
Our reluctant return to reality on our last day rewarded us with a rare sighting – our first honey badger, who took one look at us before retreating indignantly into the bush!
Thank you, John’s Camp, thank you, Mana Pools.
The pleasure was all ours!
As you’d expect, we have many more stories, and we hope this has inspired you to travel and experience moments just like this! If you’d like to chat to John or the team about your dream safari trip, please let us know.
Image credits: Dana Allan, Deborah Primrose, John Stevens, Laura Taylor
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TRAVEL WITH DISTINCTION
Our unique itineraries allow us to look after our guests from the moment they land to their departure. But they also showcase the best of Africa and a personally selected range of destinations, guides, safari properties and activities ensures that you can travel consciously and help make a positive impact on communities, wildlife and the environment.