Think You Know Animals?

I like to think that I know African animals. I grew up in Zimbabwe and I often visited areas that were teeming with elephants, giraffe, zebra and more. I can tell you fifteen ways that leopards differ to cheetahs, apart from the fact that their spots are different. I know the sound impalas make during mating season. I know what a giraffe looks like when it sleeps.

Yet all the times I went to the bush (or “on Safari” as it’s now known), I had man-made comforts around me to make it seem like I was in control. I watched the animals from the safety of a vehicle. I stayed in lodges made of brick or wood. The animals could come close, but there was always something to demarcate my zone from theirs.

Camping with Elephants in Zimbabwe

Going Further

Then I went one step further. In north-east Zimbabwe, in Mana Pools National Park, there’s no fence around Nyamepi Campsite. There’s no guard to keep animals out. I didn’t sleep in a lodge or even on a raised platform, but on the ground, with just a flimsy tent between the wildlife and me. When I ate dinner, an animal could have decided that I was its dinner. When I watched the animals, it wasn’t always from a vehicle. In Mana Pools, visitors are allowed to walk around on foot, without a guide.

Total Immersion

I can count the number of times I’ve been camping on one hand. Although I love the African bush, I’ve usually had the luxury of sleeping on an actual bed rather than a stretcher. So I felt vulnerable when we arrived at the main campsite and two elephants were wading in the Zambezi River, a few paces away from us. They didn’t seem concerned that we were pitching tents in their stomping ground – they just carried on with their bath. When they were finished, they walked right past our tents, into the forest.

Although it sounds ludicrous to camp in an African wildlife reserve without a gun-toting guard, we knew the rules. Respect the animals. Don’t get too close. Don’t walk in front of their path. Don’t try make them “do” anything. No sudden movements. No bright clothing or strong perfume. Know which strategy to use for each animal that may charge. Most of all, respect that you’re in their territory.

Camping with Elephants in Zimbabwe

It was terrifying at times, but also exhilarating. As we cooked dinner over a fire, a pack of hyenas shuffled out of the darkness, sniffing loudly. Hyenas are nocturnal animals weighing around 150 lb, and can smell food from a great distance. Their jaws are so powerful that they can crush bones with ease. Although they are scavengers, they do also hunt. Our fire and our movement kept the hyenas at bay – they are wary of humans and wouldn’t attack a group of them. When we used the facilities at night, we didn’t go alone. We walked in groups to the brick ablution block, torches in hand, and took turns with the shower.

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The hyenas weren’t our only neighbors. As the moon rose, the deep, visceral sound of a lion’s roar boomed out through the darkness. My arms prickled with trepidation and excitement. It’s not every night that you hear a lion calling to its pride, as its ancestors have done for thousands of years. There’s something special about being in a place where that lion is free to live as a wild lion should. Although, I can’t pretend I wasn’t nervous. Hyenas are cowardly; lions aren’t. If a lion were to walk through our camp, it definitely wouldn’t be afraid of us. Thankfully, it had other places to be that night.

As I went to sleep, I saw the silhouette of a hyena against my tent. It was so close that I could have pushed against the canvas and felt the warmth of its body. Of course, I knew that to do so would be suicidal. Although humans know that tents are pliable, animals do not. They see the tent outline as impenetrable. But if you were to break that outline, the illusion would be broken.

Camping with Elephants in Zimbabwe

I woke up to monkeys wrestling in the trees above me. More elephants wandered around like benevolent giants. All around me were sounds of the wild: fish-eagles calling, hippos grunting from the river, cicadas screeching. I felt I’d been transported back to a time before humans had buildings and cars to cut themselves off from nature.

A Real-life Lesson

Some people may think that was crazy to camp in Mana Pools. But what better way to learn how to respect animals than by immersing yourself completely in their territory? All the knowledge I had wouldn’t have taught me the lessons I learnt in Mana Pools. When we strip ourselves of the safety nets we have around us, we feel completely vulnerable to the animals – perhaps as vulnerable as they feel around us. Yet despite their vulnerability, animals are so tolerant of us humans, as long as we just give them their space.

Camping with Elephants in Zimbabwe


This is a guest post by Beth Norton.

Beth Profile 001Beth writes an online travel guide about Zimbabwe, which is where she grew up. She lives in Oxford, UK, and tries to visit Zimbabwe as often as possible. In 2016 she’ll be seeing Zimbabwe with a toddler for the first time. You can read her stories at GreatZimbabweGuide.com.