A walking safari among Africa's big game? Craig Tansley finds out why his guides need big helpings of courage.
We're at dinner on a long table under a million stars. Meat is dished out in gargantuan proportions.
Zimbabweans are amongst the biggest meat-eaters on Earth. And Zimbabwean walking safari guides demand the fattest steaks of all. It gives them courage, and strength, they say. And these are the most courageous, and the strongest, of all Africa's safari guides. These men walk among wild beasts.
So feed them meat, I say, I need all their courage. But when I tell them I was vegetarian for years, it's the darnedest thing they've ever heard.
"So what did you eat?"
"Vegetables," I tell them.
They stare at me: "For every meal?!"
Who would've thought that here in Africa it would be me telling the most incredulous story? Forget the close-call tales of lions poised to attack and angry elephants ready to charge.
The coffee here's plain and strong, too. Guides drink it thick enough for a spoon to stand upright. The caffeine sharpens the senses. And no-one relies on their senses more to survive anywhere in Africa.
I'm in Mana Pools, northern Zimbabwe on the Zambian border. There is no other wildlife park like Mana Pools. What sets this game park apart is that anyone is permitted to walk round on foot - nowhere else on the planet offers that. And because wildlife in other parks of Africa will move away as we approach, here big game is so used to humans approaching by foot we can get closer to wildlife out of 4WDs than at any other park in Africa.
And so a tour here will put you a long way out of your comfort zone. I'd flown into a tiny dirt airstrip from the capital, Harare. Guides picked me up in a 4WD, then told me not to get used to it. We drove past four lions. From the safety of the vehicle, I stare in wonder, till the guide whispers: "We'll get closer when we're on foot."
Camps in Mana Pools are all of the safari tent variety, which in itself can be confronting. I throw my bag into a tent overlooking the Zambezi River, then return to the main mess tent for lunch. As I eat a four-course meal of salads and steak, washed down with South African red wine, an elephant and her calf walk just metres away. "Don't worry, they won't come in," the waiter tells me when I step back as the mother smells me with her trunk.
At another camp, a guide shows me a drum. "When you hear this drum, stay in your tent," he tells me. "It means there's lions in camp, they'll soon pass by." Though last night, I'm told, lions turned the camp into a love shack. No-one got sleep (a lion can mate every 15 minutes for eight hours). From the camp, I look out across the lush green banks of the river, populated by four members of the Big Five.
Each afternoon - when the sun's lost some of its midday sting - we'll take a walking safari from camp. Instructions are given... carefully: "Stand behind the guide always, we have the gun," says my guide. "And whatever you do, never, ever run. You cannot out-run any animal here."
There's a herd of elephants 100 metres to our left. Our guide is watching them very closely as he tells us: "It's okay, her ears are flapping; if her body gets rigid, we're in trouble." He says no animal poses the risk that an elephant does - it's the most unpredictable of all the animals here.
But it's lions which fascinate me most. We find the same pride of four we'd seen before from the vehicle. It's still hot - 37 degrees at least - and so they're sleeping in the shade. Then the big male shakes his head and stares at me.
I'm shocked, but my guide tells me in this heat, they're docile. And so we walk closer, and he calls to it in Zulu. The lion mock-roars, but our presence here doesn't threaten him.
In the evenings, we return to camp for drinks looking across the river plains as the sun sets. When night falls, walking safaris would be suicide... for lions hunt by night.
If Mana Pools was in any other country in Africa, it would be a household name. But Zimbabwe's political issues have stopped the flow of international tourists. I feel like I have this park almost entirely for myself.
I'm staying at a variety of bush camps. At one - Kanga Camp - animals come to me as I'm set up in a luxury tented camp on the edge of the only watering hole for kilometres. There I can embark on an armchair safari where I sit on the deck of a bar built just above the water. Then we drive an hour north-west to the banks of the Zambezi River, where the landscape changes to floodplains and we have to find the animals on foot.
There are 4WD safaris too - so older, less mobile guests are also catered for - but it's the adrenaline that goes with walking safaris in Mana Pools that sets this place apart; nothing focuses your mind quite like the realisation you're no longer number one on the food chain.
I'm here not only to walk amongst wild animals on a walking safari. I'm also here for guided canoe rides - this is one of the best places in Africa to paddle a river full of Nile crocodiles (similar in size and aggression to our own saltwater variety) and hippos. As I paddle down the river, hippos thrust their way out of their watery beds at the sound of my approach. But guides tell me it's the crocs who'll be more likely to eat me.
There's an old-world charm to tours here which feels borrowed from the pages of the Wilbur Smith novels I read as a kid. Gin and tonics are served on deckchairs at sunset at every camp; and no-one skimps on meals. Here they're of the gourmet variety, in proportions you'd call American-sized, plus some. Just don't go telling anyone you're vegetarian.
Three animals you'll encounter
Though they're regarded as the laziest of the African big cats (they can sleep up to 20 hours a day), lions kill 250 people on average per year. So while they're regarded as nocturnal (their eyesight is better under low light and they use darkness to approach prey closer), they can run at 80 kilometres per hour even during the day. One of the world's most revered creatures, their population has declined 50 per cent in 25 years to about 20,000. But there's still plenty to see in Mana Pools, especially around thorn thickets where they rest by day.
They may be often portrayed as gentle giants, but never underestimate an elephant. Most guides will tell you they are the hardest animals to gauge, they often have unexpected bouts of rage and they're even known to be vindictive. But these enormous creatures are always the stars of any safari. Apart from apes, they're the most intelligent of all land animals. In Mana Pools some elephants have even learnt to stand on two feet to feed from trees. There's 85,000 left in Zimbabwe, so you're guaranteed to see them every day.
Apart from our own saltwater crocs, Nile crocodiles are among the most feared animal anywhere on Earth. They're also one of the deadliest animals in Africa - responsible for hundreds of deaths a year (they can grow to six-metres long). You'll find them all through the Zambezi River which flows through Mana Pools. The national park is famous for its numerous Nile crocodiles. You can view them throughout the park and visitors occasionally see them feasting on zebras, or even smaller hippos, by the river's edge.
Fly: From $1600 return on South African Airways from Perth to Harare via Johannesburg.
Tours: The Classic Safari Company organises tours, including camps, meals and charter flights from Harare.
Before you book: Check on the situation in Zimbabwe as it does suffer droughts and floods. This year was one of the worst droughts, but rains have now started and the bush is recovering. Mana Pools will not reopen until the end of March, while Nyamatusi Camp remains open in December, but will close in January-February.