Expert Reviews – Mana Pools NP

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Mana Pools – watery wilderness at the back of beyond
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Ruckomechi Camp, on the edge of Mana Pools, has an outdoor bath on the banks of the Zambezi from where you can watch the sunset with a G&T while up to your neck in piping hot bubbles. My only problem was that a breeding herd of elephants chose just the wrong moment to wander into camp. As they have a habit of drinking from the bath, my bubbles and I had to make a hasty run for it…

Mana Pools is, quite simply, magnificent. Saved from joint threats of hydro-electric dams and uranium mining, it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along the southern bank of the Zambezi. The National Park proper covers 2,196 sq km (848 sq miles) but is part of a far larger 10,500 sq km conservation area that runs from Lake Kariba right to the Mozambique border. It is also mirrored on the north bank by Zambia’s Lower Zambezi National Park. It is extremely remote. You can drive in but the road is pretty dire. Most either fly in to one of the luxury lodges or canoe in from further upstream. The area is perfect for canoeing and walking safaris, both only really feasible in the dry season (May-Sept is ideal) when the game is clustered near the river, the river is running more slowly, the grass is short, game-viewing is far better and the mosquito count is less vicious.

The park gets its name from four large shallow pools created by the meanderings of the river (Mana means ‘four’ in Shona). These have attracted huge numbers of crocodiles and hippos to bask on the banks and wallow in the shallows while giant black buffalo and elephant patrol the forested shores above. Between colonies of carmine bee eaters flit into the river banks flashing crimson as they fly, some of the 380 species of bird to be seen in this extraordinarily rich corner of creation.

Wildlife viewing by canoe
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With the lazy, blue Zambezi along its border and some wonderful camps and lodges from bush to luxury this park is many people’s favourite in the country. Canoeing is a great way to see wildlife and especially the birds, with close up encounters with hippos and crocs – 4 days of my honeymoon were spent this way – magical experience and we’re still together! And Mana Pools definitely has the most laid back elephants – some of them are straight out of Jungle Book. This park also has the distinction of allowing you to walk in the bush without a guide – the vegetation is relatively sparse and they credit us with a bit of intelligence! It’s a different story further ‘inland’ at the famed Chitake Springs which is home to a resident lion pride. They’re here because of the abundance of prey species who come to drink at the year-round springs. Only come here with a local expert, and only if you are completely happy with camping within pouncing distance of Africa’s apex predator. Human fatalities have occurred recently! Unfortunately this park is justifiably very popular so it can get busy during the prime months August – October. Visitor numbers are restricted though so it’s nothing like Hwange or Chobe for instance. But book early to secure your entry.

River wild
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Mana Pools enjoys more than its fair share of hair-raising campfire stories and when I finally managed arrived at this remote park, after some years living in Zimbabwe with no means to get there, it didn’t disappoint. The scenery is breathtaking, with the sweeping meander loops of the Zambezi, the natural winterthorn parkland and the looming escarpment forming a perfect stage-set for wildlife. Elephant, buffalo and hippo wander through the lodges and camp sites en route to the river, and all major predators occur – including occasional cheetah and wild dog. Giraffe and wildebeest are notable by their absence, but Mana Pools is not a park for racing around on game drives and ticking off sightings: it is more about relaxing by the river and soaking up the wilderness. Visitors – uniquely – are permitted to wander unaccompanied around the river terraces. I have spent days beside the river, watching animals coming to drink, enjoying the ubiquitous elephants, hippos and crocs, and ticking off the prodigious birdlife. Nights can be noisy: I was once awoken by the din of a scavenging honey badger defending its catch from two hyenas, and – while sleeping on a sandbar during a canoe safari – by lions roaring from the bank just 50m away. Canoeing is a must, with excellent game viewing from the water’s edge and close encounters with hippos guaranteed. For the truly adventurous, the Salt Springs area below the escarpment offers reputedly some of the wildest walking trails in Africa. The park is largely closed during the rains.

The Holy Grail of Zimbabwean Wildlife Areas
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World-heritage listed Mana Pools occupies the southern section of the Lower Zambezi–Mana Pools Transfrontier Conservation Area. This is an iconic park with incredible concentrations of diverse wildlife. All the cats and wild dogs occur here in abundance. The sight of a cheetah tearing across the floodplain or a pride of lions splashing through a crocodile-infested channel to hunt buffalo and waterbuck on the park’s many islands is a sight that makes my heart pound every time. Africa’s fourth largest river, along with its massive surrounding floodplains and sprawling albida forests full of elephants during the dry season, dominates this game-rich area. The open nature of the terrain alongside the river and the high densities of wildlife during the dry season (July to October) make Mana an ideal area for experiencing a guided walking safari. If walking isn’t your cup of tea, then game drives, boat cruises and canoe safaris might whet your appetite instead.

Hungry hippos
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Canoeing down the Zambezi River through Mana Pools National Park would have to rate as one of my all-time favourite African wildlife experiences. Gliding along this magnificent stretch of one of the world’s wildest rivers in a small fiberglass canoe past writhing pods of grunting hippos makes you realise how insignificant you are in the world. Few other places in Africa feel as unspoilt as this section of the Zambezi River. Under the soaring purple-hazed Zambian escarpment the river languidly flows past small herds of elephants and buffalo as they graze on grassy floodplains and lush forests which line its banks. It really is a visual feast – you don’t know which way to look. It was here I spent a sleepless night as a plague of mice raided our food supplies and scurried around our tents as hippos bellowed and groaned in the distant, watched helplessly as an elephant lumbered through our campsite sideswiping a tent with its occupants still asleep inside and held my breath as territorial hippo lunged at my canoe from one direction while a pre-historic looking Nile crocodile slithered down off the bank on the other and disappeared into the murky waters beneath me. Was I terrified? Yes. Was it worth it? Absolutely!

A beautiful riverside environment in the tranquil Zambezi Valley
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Although not as popular as Hwange because of its proximity to Victoria Falls, I think Mana Pools definitely has the edge on jaw-dropping scenery. The lazy meanderings of the Zambezi provide a lovely river frontage flanked by forests of wild fig and ebony trees, and the mountainous Zambian escarpment is a beautiful backdrop. On our visit, the river couldn’t have been a better environment for game viewing. We saw large groups of herbivores congregating on the floodplains, while the only sounds that disturbed the peaceful setting was the splashing of a lone bull elephant in the shallows, and the thud of a crocodile as it slithered into the water. The park is also home to a number of predators including lion, cheetah and spotted hyena, but despite them being difficult to see, it’s not often that a visitor leaves Mana Pools without seeing at least one of the carnivores.

Perfect for vehicle-free wildlife-watching
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Mana Pools is the park which sends Zimbabwe’s faithful fans really misty-eyed. What makes it remarkable are its waterways. Separated from Zambia’s Lower Zambezi National Park by the Zambezi, it’s a superb place for a canoe adventure. And when I say adventure, I mean adventure – the type that could, for all you know, include all-too-close encounters with hippos, crocodiles or herds of wading buffalo.

On my own gentle paddle, there were no such mishaps. My guide had a knack for instilling confidence and my early worries that my canoe was a little too light and unstable soon faded as we got into the rhythm of things. We saw hippos aplenty as we cruised along; they would stare and grumble at us before disappearing beneath the glossy water.

To make a great wilderness experience even better, you can explore Mana Pools on foot on a guided bush walk, admiring the park’s superb, mature mahogany, leadwood and baobab trees and spotting elephants and the tracks of wild dogs.

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