Mana Pools was once one of those ‘best-kept secret’ parks, celebrated by locals and aficionados for its scenic grandeur, hair-raising safari yarns and general wilderness appeal, but relatively little known to the broader safari industry. In recent years, however, its profile has risen. Several new lodges have opened, both along the Zambezi waterfront and inland, and it has received an upsurge in interest in the media – notably in 2018, when an episode of the BBC’s Dynasties series saw David Attenborough tell the story of a pack of African wild dogs in the park.
Wild dogs have indeed been extensively researched at Mana Pools, which gets its name from four permanent pools trapped beside the river on the floodplain (‘Mana’ meaning four). On my last visit, in November 2019, I was lucky enough to spend several days following the movements of one particular habituated pack, much of the time doing so on foot. In the process, I was reassured to find that this remote park remains as wild as ever, with its breath-taking river frontage, alluring winter-thorn groves and looming escarpment views unspoilt by any recent developments.
Beside the wild dogs, the park is known for the great aggregation of game along the river during the dry season, with buffalo, hippo and alarmingly tame elephant wandering casually through the lodges and camp sites. Certain individual elephant bulls are celebrated for their trick of rearing up on hind legs to get at winter-thorn pods, and have been much photographed as a result. Several lion prides operate along the river front, and also around the Salt Springs area inland, where clashes with the local buffalo produce some dramatic confrontations. Spotted hyenas are numerous, and both leopard and cheetah also occur, though neither is easy to find. Notable herbivores include eland and nyala – though giraffe and wildebeest are conspicuous by their absence.
Mana Pools is not a park for racing around on game drives and ticking off sightings: it is more about relaxing by the river, soaking up the wilderness and eschewing the vehicle to head out on foot. Indeed, this is one of Africa’s very best parks for walking safaris, offering an excellent chance of encountering elephant, buffalo and even lion. Canoeing is also a must, where available, with great game viewing from the water’s edge and guaranteed close encounters with hippos and crocs. Birdlife is prolific throughout, with Lilian’s lovebird and Narina trogon among local specials, plus African skimmers and easily photographed carmine bee-eater colonies along the river. Nights can be noisy, with hippos grunting from the river while lions and spotted hyenas add their voice inland. The park is largely closed during the rains, when roads are flooded and access difficult.