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Mana Pools National Park 40 Travel Zimbabwe December 2009 RIVEROFLIFE The silky waters of the Zambezi River caress the banks of Mana Pools National Park, gifting it wildlife less ordinary. The result is safari experiences that are simply extraordinary. here are four main things to watch for," briefed Tendayi Ketayi, my river guide. " Sun, stumps, hippos and crocs." Since I'd enjoyed wasabi- coated crocodile a few nights earlier, I fi gured vengeful reptiles were my biggest worry. If I bumped a stump and went into the water, they'd surely smell the evidence and be on me in an instant. Nevertheless, I was still excited at the prospect of canoeing the lower Zambezi River in Mana Pools National Park. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the park is renowned for canoeing and walking safaris, both of which offer some of Africa's greatest wildlife encounters. Mana, which means ' four' in Shona, refers to the number of the park's permanent waterholes. It's around these that sightings of some of the Zambezi Valley's 640 avian species are assured. The hinterland bordering the river is a mosaic of cracked mud pans, dry riverbeds and woodlands dotted with the albida trees whose fruit is a favourite of the many elephants. Tendayi and I cast off from Wilderness Safaris' tented camp at Ruckomechi, where pampered guests enjoy views stretching across the Zambezi toward mid- channel islands rustling with reeds. That said, one morning my vista was impeded by an elephant's derriere. The big boys aren't very courteous, simply moseying in and out of Ruckomechi at their leisure, cracking the boardwalks as they go. Once we got paddling, another big- bottomed mammal proved to be a serious impediment - the hippo. With great dexterity Tendayi guided our canoe past pods of these mammoth porkers, always anticipating their movements after they'd submerged nearby. It was at these moments when our fi breglass hull suddenly felt precariously fragile. He also made plenty of room for those leaving the land, as they'd usually create quite the swell when bellyfl opping into the river with all the fi nesse of a pub drunk. Adrenaline- inducing moments aside, we settled into the Zambezi's lazy current and enjoyed nature in full fl ow. Elephants swam across the river with trunks raised like snorkels; crocs submerged with intent as if auditioning for a Tarzan movie remake; and rainbow plumaged bee- eaters popped in and out of their nesting holes in the riverbank. As the setting sun burned the Zambezi, we drifted into the night's temporary bush camp at Vumbu. A campfi re sundowner was waiting for me, as was a comfortable tent and a loo with a serious view. Before dancing fi refl ies punctuated the dark night sky, I watched the lofty Zambezi escarpment smoulder in the day's last light. After dinner I lay on my camp bed, letting the sounds of the bush wash over me. But it was my newfound bellyfl opping friends who had the last laugh, barking, splashing and belching long into the night. ? Mark Stratton travelled in Mana Pools National Park with thanks to Wilderness Safaris ( www. wilderness- safaris. com). CHRISTOPHER SCOTT DICK PITMAN