Old "Slit-Ear" stood motionless in the deep shade of the mahogony tree with his trunk resting on the ground. He dozed. A deep, resonant snore arose from his massive bulk, mingled with that pungent, warm, bull elephant musk. After about five minutes he stirred, raised his trunk lazily upwards to rub an itchy patch above his ear, slid it down over his eyes and turned to face us.
He came to within a metre and stopped. There was no time to move. We sat motionless and dumbfounded, marvelling that at such close range you could see all the deep folds and creases in his heavily wrinkled skin, the stiff bristles all over his trunk, the delicate curves of his thick eyelashes, and the deep pool of his russet-brown eyes as he gazed at us, face-to-face. What would he do? Did he know we were friends not foes? Did he care? Would he reach out his trunk and, with a deft flick, whack the camera aside and crush us? Or would he simply show sublime disinterest, toss his head irritably and amble off in seach of another acacia pod......just some more of those stupid Mana tourists...
The seconds ticked by like an eternity. Not a muscle on his massive bulk moved. His beautiful eyes stared deeply into our souls. We could have touched him, if we had dared to reach out...could have felt the stiff bristles of his trunk tickle the skin on our fingers. But we dared not even breathe. Dared not break the perfect magic of the moment.
More seconds passed - another eternity. My husband, a wildlife photographer of irrepressible dedication, chose this moment to gently raise the camera and press the shutter with a thunderous "ka-chunck". Old "Slit-Ear" didn't even blink. He gazed at us seemingly transfixed. A disconcertingly long eternity.
Then slowly, he lifted his trunk to that scratchy place above his ear, rubbed it pensively...lowered it to his eye to rub the remnants of sleep from his lashes and let it fall. He shifted his weight, turned and ambled gracefully off, leaving us frozen, speechless, stunned with wonder, with the adrenalin pounding in our ears and our hearts on fire.
What was he thinking inside that great, grey elephant head of his? What made him so unconcerned as to choose to come so extraordinarily close to us for such an extraordinarily long time? Was he daring us? Was he just curious? We wish we knew.
I don't want to sound over-dramatic about our encouter with Slit-Ear in Mana Pools, but for me, that was a wildlife experience of a lifetime. I will live with the close-up memory of that elephant's ponderously expressive and gentle face forever.
A unique Park
The Mana Pools National Park is a World Heritage Site and one of the wildest places in Southern Africa accessible to adventurous visitors. Situated in the extreme north of Zimbabwe with the Zambezi River dividing it from Zambia's Lower Zambezi National Park, the park derives its name from a series of large pools created in old alluvial channels left by the shifting course of the Zambezi River over many years.
Mana Pools is unique among African parks in that it has no fences separating people from wildlife and its rules allow visitors to walk anywhere at their own risk - two factors which, for many, greatly enhance the Park's wilderness value and the quality of its wildlife experience. Apart from the black rhinoceros, which was exterminated from the park by poachers two decades ago, most of Africa's large and dangerous animals are represented in Mana Pools, including elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard, hyaena, hippo and crocodile. Furthermore, Mana Pools' status as a strictly no-hunting, photography-only park surrounded by hunting areas ensures that as a refuge for wild animals, it is doubly significant. And the animals somehow seem to know this. In Mana, where, for many years they have been relatively "safe" from hunting, they appear to be a lot more tolerant of human presence than in the surrounding safari areas, a fact which goes part way to explain Slit Ear's extraordinary behaviour.
While tour operators provide an armed safari guide for the safety of their clients (and to minimise the risk of litigation) and a Parks Ranger can be hired for walks by independent visitors to Mana Pools if they so wish, many people who wander freely in this wild Park do so in full knowledge of the risks and challenges involved.
The chance of a close wildlife encounter in Mana Pools is always high - even in the public campsite or at the National Parks lodges.
A unique privilege
But this unique privilege must not be taken lightly by visitors. Some people have been less fortunate than ourselves. There have been several fatal and tragic incidents in Mana Pools over the years - mostly involving elephants and crocodiles, some involving tour operators and some involving visitors without an armed escort.
While not denying the horrific reality of these, I think it is true to say that the rewards of being able to walk freely (with or without the protection of a weapon) in a place like Mana Pools with associated close encounters with wildlife, WAY outweigh the dangers. After all, it is partly the risk factor that makes Mana Pools such a special wilderness.
But there are responsibilities attached. Wild animals are dangerous and can be unpredictable, however much they appear to "trust" humans. Following a few simple common-sense guidelines (see Walking with Wild Sense) will help avoid a fatal incident and ensure that the Parks Authorities continue to allow visitors to experience Mana's wildness at their own risk.
I believe that my life has been hugely enriched by encounters like the one we had with Slit Ear in Mana Pools. I learned a lot in those few terrifyingly precious moments of close elephantine scrutiny. But I could only do that because the circumstances in Mana Pools allowed me the freedom of choice.
Elsewhere, in an increasingly litigious world, where life's experiences are watered down to accommodate the small print in the insurance policies, do other people find such enrichment in their lives? I wonder.
Come to Mana Pools and walk in the wild. It really is a privilege.