The sleepout deck at Ruckomechi Camp in Mana Pools is tucked up in a tree.

Sleeping above a waterhole at Mana Pools

Ruckomechi Camp, a Zimbabwe safari lodge on the edge of Mana Pools National Park, offers the experience of sleeping under the stars on a deck overlooking Parachute Pan, a magnet for wildlife. All you have to do is snuggle into your covers, stay quiet, and watch for animals coming to quench their thirst in the night.

Overlooking the mighty Zambezi River on a private concession in Mana Pools National Park, our lodge was nestled beneath the shade of acacia and mahogany trees. It was a lush, comfortable oasis in the midst of untrammelled wilderness and we’d explored it to the fullest – on game drives, walking safaris, motorised pontoon boats and even exhilarating canoe rides.

However, it was the promise of a night sleeping in the wild that got our hearts racing: a whole evening on a sleepout deck overlooking the wildlife-rich Parachute Pan. Rather than going out searching for often-elusive game, we’d let it come to us.

After a lazy day at Ruckomechi’s pool and a leisurely lunch, Honest, our guide, came to fetch us and we set off on foot for our outdoor adventure. I won’t lie, I felt some trepidation at the thought of sleeping out in the open with big cats and other predators around, but knowing that Honest would be nearby helped set my mind at rest. His air of quiet confidence was reassuring, as was the rifle slung across his back!

We arrived at the sleepout deck in no time (it was just 400m away from the main camp after all) and found that it was much more than the simple platform we’d imagined. Not only did it feature a romantic four-poster bed, artfully-draped in mosquito nets, but it had its own sitting area!

After settling us in, and giving us a quick safety briefing, Honest left us to our own devices, telling us he’d be back to serve us dinner. Left completely alone, every sound seemed magnified. With some help from our field guide, we soon made a game of trying to identify the chirps and tweets of the birds that flitted in and around the pan … and then the distant sandpaper sound of what we decided was an elephant scratching its back against a mahogany tree.

Of course, the pan was a visual feast too, and I watched everything around me with childlike wonder, captivated by the magic of being here, now too part of this ecosystem.

‘Oh wow,’ my partner mouthed as a herd of impala came tentatively to the waterhole’s edge, managing a few sips of water before bounding off in fright at the sound of a hyena bark. The skittish visit of a young jackal was next, and then we saw the proud bearing of an eland against the setting sun, captured for eternity in a single, beautifully-timed photograph.

Enraptured by the scene, we’d barely noticed Honest lighting lanterns and setting our dining table with white linen. After an impossibly romantic meal, we stayed up chatting under the star-swept sky before moving to our comfortable bed. There we lay whispering to each other for some time, as all around us wildlife roamed freely.

Just as we were relaxing into sleep, a primal smell preceded the clump of many hooves at the waterhole and we jumped up and shone a light out to discover a herd of buffalo merging with the darkness. As we nestled back into the covers and found ourselves drifting once more, we heard the sound of a lion loudly roaring his territorial rights.

After that excitement I was certain sleep would be an impossibility, but I must have drifted off, as the next thing I knew I was being kissed awake by the dawn light. Again, I felt a thrill when I realised where we were. After pulling our net back we lay on our stomachs, peering over the deck as the morning light revealed some animals at the waterhole. ‘Jackals?’ my partner asked, uncertainly.

Like in a cartoon I rubbed my eyes in disbelief, and looked again. It was in fact a pack of wild dog, resting at the waterhole’s edge. As the sun rose over the pan, my partner snapped away as if photographing catwalk models. Within a few minutes they were up and running though, most likely on the hunt for food – Honest had told us that they have the highest kill rate of any predator.

We observed countless birds as we dressed, including the three-banded courser, Arnot’s chat, Lilian’s lovebird and Meve’s starling that Mana Pools is known for. We continued the birdwatching over breakfast on the deck, fighting our excitement to keep our voices low as we discussed our up-close-and-personal wilderness experience under the stars of the Zambezi Valley. Though we were mere spectators, we felt like we had been part of nature at its rawest (while fortunately not being food for any animals!).

Sleeping on a star bed was certainly one of our favourite experiences so far, and we wondered how we could top it. Microlighting over Victoria Falls, perhaps? We’d have to do it to find out.

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